[Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism

“The metrical properties associated with space-time should not be defined a priori, but should characterize the pattern of the environment that is inseparable from [the endurance of organisms].” -Stengers141

 

Whitehead’s amendments to the general theory of evolution follow from his desire to re-construct the theory on the basis of the demands of post-Newtonian physics, as he understands them. As a result of relativity theory, the pre-existent geometrical structure of the spatio-temporal environment can no longer be taken for granted; a further result of relativity is the displacement of static material substances by dynamic energetic processes as fundamental to nature. As a result of quantum theory, the activity of this energy must be understood in terms of the definite values achieved by the momentary synergy of rhythmic vibrations, where the emergence of a complete pulse of energy, or organic bud of experience, requires a stretch of time for its unfolding.142 The abstract point-instants of mechanistic materialism, be they Newtonian or Einsteinian, become concrete actual occasions in Whitehead’s reading of the new physics. The discoveries of the 20th century regarding the nature of space, time, and energy are a warning against the misplaced concreteness that would “abstract from change [in an attempt] to conceive the full reality of nature at an instant.”143

By 1920, Whitehead had already published two books exploring the implications of relativity theory for the philosophy of science.144 In June 1921, Whitehead met and had several in depth conversations with Einstein during the latter’s stay with the philosopher and statesman Richard Haldane in London. Accounts offered by those present suggest that Whitehead made several gentle attempts over the course of two days to convince Einstein “to give up his identification of the [curved] geometry of space-time and the physics of gravitation.”145 Einstein admitted he had difficulty grasping Whitehead’s radically novel metaphysical scheme. It was a little more than a year later, in September of 1922, that Whitehead published The Principle of Relativity in an attempt not only to more fully work out the proper philosophical rendering of Einstein’s scientific discovery, but to provide an alternative set of gravitational field equations no longer based on the notion of curved space-time. The book follows on the heals of the famous debate between Einstein and Henri Bergson, which took place in April of 1922 at the Société Française de Philosophie in Paris. At stake in this debate was not only “the status of philosophy vis à vis physics”–that is, it was not only “a controversy about who could speak for nature and about which of these two disciplines would have the last word.”146 It was also a political debate about the proper roles of science and philosophy in society, especially in regard to international relations. Bergson had recently been appointed president of the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation, a precursor to UNESCO. Einstein, originally a member of the Commission and a vocal supporter of its internationalist mission, would eventually resign, largely as a result of his disagreement with Bergson concerning relativity.147

Bergson’s tremendous popularity prior to confronting Einstein began to wane, probably due to the perception that he was willing to ignore scientific facts if they contradicted his irrational intuitions. This orthodox narrative, retold most recently by the anti-philosophical physicist Alan Sokal,148 has it that Bergson lost the debate because he did not understand the mathematical physics behind relativity. Following the recent revival of interest in Bergsonism,149 the orthodox narrative is increasingly being called into question.150 The specifics of Bergson’s alleged “mistake” regarding the details of Einstein’s twin paradox are beyond the scope of this discussion, but suffice it to say that, contra Sokal and other scientific critics, Bergson was well aware of the observational facts concerning the comparison of different time-systems.151 His critical approach to relativity theory was based on metaphysical, not physical grounds. Like Whitehead, Bergson was not contesting the general physical validity of Einstein’s theory. Rather, Bergson simply wanted to establish, despite Einstein’s protests, that the scientific confirmation of relativity theory was not the end of the matter regarding the philosophical understanding of time.152

Regardless of whether or not Sokal’s criticisms of Bergson’s alleged misunderstandings are justified, he would have a far more difficult case trying to dismiss Whitehead, whose grasp of the mathematical and physical principles at stake arguably surpassed even Einstein’s.153 “The essence of [the structure formed by space-time],” wrote Whitehead in 1922,

is that it is stratified in many different ways by different time-systems. This is a very peculiar idea which is the product of the speculations of the last 15 years or so. We owe the whole conception notably to Einstein… no one can study the evidence in its detail without becoming convinced that we are in the presence of one of the most profound reorganizations of scientific and philosophic thought. But so many considerations are raised, so diverse in character, that we are not justified in accepting blindfolded the formulation of principles which guided Einstein to his forumlae.154

Whitehead set out in his book on relativity to “[carefully scrutinize] the fundamental ideas of physical science in general and of mathematical physics in particular.”155 As discussed earlier, his reaction to the disorienting discoveries of the new physics lead him to re-assess the philosophical foundations of scientific materialism, which had been assumed with great (instrumental) success since the time of Newton. Though Einstein was initially suspicious of philosophy’s role in physics, as is evidenced both by his debate with Bergson and by his signature of a 1913 anti-metaphysical positivist manifesto,156 he came late in life to respect the importance of philosophical reflection upon the conceptual background of science. In his foreword to physicist and philosopher Max Jammer’s historical study of the concept of space, written in 1953, Einstein admits that

…the scientist makes use of a whole arsenal of concepts which he imbibed practically with his mother’s milk; and seldom is he ever aware of the eternally problematic character of his concepts…He uses these conceptual tools of thought as something…immutably given…which is hardly ever…to be doubted. How could he do otherwise? How would the ascent of a mountain be possible, if the use of hands, legs, and tools had to be sanctioned step by step on the basis of the science of mechanics?157

Here, even though Einstein affirms science’s practical need to take its conceptual tools for granted, he he also seems to approach Whitehead’s characterization of philosophy as “the criticism of abstractions which govern special modes of thought.”158 Further, in 1950, Einstein remarked that every genuine physicist “is a kind of tamed metaphysician,” no matter how much lip service he or she may pay to positivism.159 This taming is achieved, according to Whitehead, by holdings one’s “flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization” accountable, upon landing, to “renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.”160 Unfortunately, Einstein’s more mature views on the proper disciplinary relationship between philosophy and physics have still not been fully digested by contemporary materialistic scientists.

In his debate with Bergson, Einstein insisted that no such thing as “philosophical time,” or what Bergson called “duration,” existed; rather, there was the real “physical time” revealed by natural science, and the illusory “psychological time” experienced by human consciousness.161 Whitehead’s unflinching commitment to an organic philosophy of nature prevented him from accepting Einstein’s blatant bifurcation:

It follows from my refusal to bifurcate nature into individual experience and external cause that we must reject the distinction between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature.162

Whitehead differs from Bergson in that he sought to re-construct science itself on an organic basis, whereas Bergson was content to leave science to its mechanical models and instrumental methods. He conceived of science as the result of “intelligence,” rather than “intuition,” meaning that its approach to nature is necessarily mediated by artificial instruments and laboratory techniques; therefore, science can offer no insight into the immediate life of things.163 “For [natural science’s] object,” writes Bergson, “is not to show us the essence of things, but to furnish us with the best means of acting on them.”164 Though Whitehead does not share Bergson’s dualism between the activity of living organisms and the passivity of material mechanisms (since for Whitehead, all sciences are the study of dipolar organismic occasions), he does share his sense that Einstein’s abstract account of relativity in terms of mechanical clock-time obscures the true import of the theory as regards our experience of concrete temporality (i.e., duration). The time of the physicist, as measured by a clock, “merely exhibits some aspects of the more fundamental fact of the passage of nature,” according to Whitehead. “In this doctrine,” he continues, “I am in full accord with Bergson.”165

The agreement between Whitehead and Bergson concerns the way in which concrete temporality is inevitably spatialized in the process of being translated into the abstractions of physics. Mechanical clocks quite literally flatten the passage of time into discrete units of distance meant to represent seconds, minutes, and hours. So far as it goes, such spatialization is necessary for the coordination of civilized life. But it is important not to forget what this translation obscures when we endeavor to understand the creative advance of the actual universe: the clock itself–like everything else in the universe, from carbon atoms to stars to the person who consults it–is aging. To be aging is to be always in process. In a process ontology like Whitehead’s, an actual entity doesn’t “have” an age, as though it were an accidental property of an underlying substance; rather, the very essence of an entity is to age, to emerge out of a definite past and pass into an indefinite future. In Whitehead’s words:

[To discuss]…present fact apart from reference to past, to concurrent present, and to future, and from reference to the preservation or destruction of forms of creation is to rob the universe of essential importance.166

Even a physicist who has mastered all the mathematical formulas and techniques of measurement cannot avoid the philosophical quandaries which arise from a moment’s reflection upon the fact that his or her conscious presence is necessary in order for the clock, or any measuring instrument, to get itself read.167 Our direct experience of concrete existence–whether we are artists, clergymen, homemakers, or astrophysicists–reveals nature to be an irreversible process of becoming, a creative advance. This fact stands in sharp contrast to Einstein’s incredible remark:

For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one.168

The philosopher Niels Viggo Hansen boils down what is at stake in the debate between Einstein, Bergson, and Whitehead by asking about the meaning of “fact,” both as it is assumed in our concrete (temporal) experience of a specious present, and as it is assumed in the abstract (spatialized) notations of physics:

If there is any such thing as a fact…then either there are temporal facts (e.g., that you have already read the previous sentence) or there are atemporal facts (e.g., that your reading of it is later than my writing of it)…Bergson was right that…we cannot seriously hold at the same time both that there are concrete facts involving distant simultaneity, and also that such facts cannot exist in the physical universe. Surely one could claim that such immediate facts are eliminated in the production of physical descriptions…but if concrete facts of co-presence are there before clocks…are used, they will still be there in the background when [clocks] are employed.169

Where Bergson goes wrong, according to Hansen, is in claiming that our concrete experience of co-presence, or durational simultaneity, is somehow universal. It is as if he claims to have some special intuitive access to what is happening right now on the surface of Mars, even though all the theoretical and experimental evidence of relativistic physics suggests that distant happenings are not instantaneously communicated to our concrete experience.170 Whitehead’s novel solution to this paradox regarding the irreconcilable notions of “fact” is to construe the concrete simultaneity of an actual occasion’s specious present as a local, rather than a global, fact. Such a construal entails rejecting the often implicit ontologization of the Einsteinian notion of a ready-made 4-dimensional fabric of space-time “out there” within which actual occasions would unfold, or through which the plane of the present would slide as an indication of global simultaneity (as Bergson seems to have believed171). Actual occasions are not to be pictured as if they were bits of matter located in a pre-given spatiotemporal “loaf”; rather, the abstract geometry of space-time described by the Lorentz transformations, or by Whitehead’s alternative tensor equations,172 is derivative from the most general pattern of experience realizable by the actual occasions constitutive of our cosmic epoch. In other words, the geometry of curved space-time itself emerges from the character, taken collectively, of individual drops of experience. These self-creating and other-prehending drops of experience are the final real things of which reality is composed. These processes are what is concrete, while space-time is an abstraction from the concrete. “Whitehead is explicit about the idea,” writes Hansen,

that the concrete dynamism of processes can be understood as the ground of extension rather than the reverse. This is the first element of the Whiteheadian solution to the tension between extension and becoming: the modalities are not really situated in space and time at all, but in the concrete processes whose web of relations gives rise to space and time.173

Metaphysically speaking, that space-time is abstract doesn’t mean it isn’t real, only that it isn’t actual. Space-time is a system of modalities, a configuration of forms, or, in Whitehead’s terms, a definite patterning of eternal objects that has ingressed into the prehensive unifications of actual occasions. Eternal objects, as discussed earlier, have a relational function: their ingression allows for the solidarity, or extensive continuity, of the universe by providing actual occasions with the definite adverbial “how?” characterizing their prehensions of other occasions. This “two-way function” shapes both the private experience, or “subjective form,” of an occasion, and grants this form publicity, so as to offer it as an objective datum for the larger society of occasions within which the occasion becomes and perishes.174 Among the most fundamental set of adverbs characterizing the “how?” of the mutual prehensions of our cosmic epoch is the system of geometrical modalities known to physics as space-time. Also among the most fundamental set of adverbs are the mathematical fields of force known to physics as gravity and electromagnetism.175

These mathematical relations belong to the systematic order of extensiveness which characterizes the cosmic epoch in which we live. The societies of [organisms]–electrons, protons, molecules, material bodies–at once sustain that order and arise out of it. The mathematical relations involved…thus belong equally to the world perceived and to the nature of the percipient. They are, at the same time, public fact and private experience.176

Whitehead’s reference to our “cosmic epoch” is important, since it is a reminder that the 4-dimensional character of space-time as we experience and measure it today is contingent and could change as the creative advance of the universe continues to unfold. The “laws” of nature, and the structure of space-time, are not eternal, nor necessarily universal.177 They are the result of widespread, habitual forms of organization achieved by the mutual prehensions of the most encompassing society of actual occasions which communicate with our experience.178 “How do we know,” asks Whitehead, “that only one geometry is relevant to the complex happenings of nature?” He continues:

…this planet, or this nebula in which our sun is placed, may be gradually advancing towards a change in the general character of its spatial relations. Perhaps in the dim future mankind, if it then exists, will look back to the queer, contracted three-dimensional universe from which the nobler, wider existence has emerged.179

The cosmic habits called “laws of nature” by contemporary physicists are extremely stable relative to the individual novelty achievable by high-grade, conscious occasions (like multicellular animals) because they are derived from the decisions of very simple, low-grade actual occasions (like electrons). The “mental pole” of these occasions is negligible: they are statistically dominated by the habitual “physical feelings” of their environment, and so almost always reproduce the systematic order of the eternal objects characterizing that environment with little in the way of autonomous flashes of creativity.180

To sum up, Whitehead’s reformed principle of relativity is based on the metaphysical priority of actual facts, or occasions of experience, from which the geometrical order of spatiotemporal extension is derived.181 Through an abstractive process of logical construction rooted in the coordination of the somewhat fragmentary nature of individual occasions of experience, the general character of space-time holding true for our cosmic epoch can be produced.182 While Einstein’s proposal of a universal and a priori space-time implies a taut, already fully woven fabric whose spatial curvature is modified by the material bodies situated within it, Whitehead’s alternative theory of a coordinated plurality of space-times implies a fraying fabric always in the process of being repaired by the dipolar physical-mental concrescences of organismic occasions of experience. In this sense, Whitehead translates many of the properties that Einstein’s general relativity defines a priori into empirical, or a posteriori facts.183 Instead of privileging the misplaced concreteness of an abstract space-time that would “[separate] an organism from its environment” such that “the endurance of the former and the patience of the latter [is defined] in terms of right [or “law”], not of fact,” Whitehead emphasizes the contingency of the evolved habits currently holding sway over the ecology of organisms shaping our cosmic epoch, no matter how general or universal they may appear at this time.184

Whitehead terms the general character of space-time “the uniformity of the texture of experience.”185 “The physical world [i.e., the extensive continuum of space-time],” he goes on, is,

in some general sense of the term, a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world.186

Here, Whitehead directly contradicts Einstein’s famous statement that our immediate experience of temporality, while perhaps necessary for civilized life, is in reality nothing but a persistent illusion no longer to be believed in by professional physicists. Whitehead’s reconstruction of relativity theory so as to avoid the social and ecological perils of the bifurcation of nature is not based on a denial of Einstein’s physical formulations, but a denial of the unconscious imaginative background shaping Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of these formulations. Following Stengers, it can be said that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism aims not to belittle or deny the abstractions of the scientific intellect, as Bergson seems to, but rather to articulate an

ecology of abstraction…that creates the possibility of a mutual aesthetic appreciation between specialists of precision and adventurers of generalization.187

Footnotes

141 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168-169.

142 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 122.

143 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 145.

144 An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (New York: Dover Publications, 1919/1982) and The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920/1964).

145 Ronald Desmet, “Did Whitehead and Einstein Actually Meet?” in Researching With Whitehead: System and Adventure, eds. Franz Riffert and Hans-Joachim Sander (Freiburg: Verlag Karl Alber, 2008), 154.

146 Jimena Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed: Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 120 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 1169; http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/bios/docs/canales-Einstein,%20Bergson%20and%20the%20Experiment%20that%20Failed.pdf (accessed 11/18/2012).

147 Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1175.

148 See Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science (London: Profile Books, 1998).

149 Largely a result of the influence of Gilles Deleuze (see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bergson/#7 [accessed 11/18/2012]).

150 See Canales (2005) and Val Dusek’s review of Sokal’s Intellectual Impostures in the journal Metascience, Vol. 9, Issue 3 (2000); http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/dusek.html (accessed 11/18/2012).

151 See Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1170-1171.

152 Bergson, “Discussion avec Einstein,” in Mélanges (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972), 1345.

153 “Professor Whitehead seems to me to have brought out the character of space and time in his treatment of relativity more thoroughly than Einstein or even Minkowski himself has done” -Richard Haldane, The Reign of Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921), 110. See also letters exchanged between Einstein and his first wife Mileva Einstein-Maric, herself an accomplished mathematician, which suggest that Einstein required her help with some of the more difficult aspects of his equations (“Did Einstein’s Wife Contribute to His Theories?”, in New York Times [March 27, 1990]; http://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/27/science/did-einstein-s-wife-contribute-to-his-theories.html [accessed 11/18/2012]).

154 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 59, 67.

155 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 40.

156 Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1978), 182.

157 Einstein, Foreward to Max Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (Mineola: Dover, 1993), xiii-xiv.

158 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

159 Einstein, “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation,” in Scientific American, Vol. 182, Issue 4, April 1950.

160 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 5.

161 Bergson, “Discussion avec Einstein,” 1346

162 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 66.

163 C. F. Delaney, “Bergson on Science and Philosophy, in Process Studies, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (1972), 29-43.

164 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911), 93.

165 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 54.

166 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 84.

167 See Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1176-1177.

168 Einstein to Vero and Mrs. Bice, March 21, 1955. Einstein Archive, reel 7-245; reprinted in Albert Einstein-Michele Besso Correspondence 1903-1955 (Paris: Harmann, 1972), 537-538.

169 N. V. Hansen, “Spacetime and Becoming: Overcoming the Contradiction Between Special Relativity and the Passage of Time,” in Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience, ed. Timothy Eastman and Hank Keeton (New York: State University of New York, 2003), 150.

170 It takes anywhere between 4 and 20 minutes for light to travel from Mars to Earth, depending on our relative orbital locations. It is important to note here that the non-local effects of quantum physics makes the issue of instantaneous communicability more complicated. I explore this issue below, but suffice it to say for now that Whitehead’s account of the ingression of eternal objects into actual occasions allows for a coherent integration of the relativistic limits placed on efficient causality with the non-local formal causality of quantum physics.

171 See Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, transl. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 82.

172 See Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 139cf.

173 Hansen, “Spacetime and Becoming,” 154.

174 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

175 Unlike Einstein, whose conception of a ready-made “fabric” of space-time allowed him to explain gravity as a pseudo-force which really results from the warping of the fabric due to presence of massive objects, Whitehead described gravity as a genuine physical force, like electromagnetism (Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 91cf).

176 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 326.

177 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168.

178 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 98.

179 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 57.

180 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 245.

181 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 5.

182 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” in The Aims of Education (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1957), 162-163.

183 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168.

184 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 169.

185 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 163.

186 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 165.

187 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 141.

[Whitehead's Ontology of Organism] The Relevanceof Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Whitehead’s Ontology of Organism

“Lo! keen-eyed towering science, As from tall peaks the modern overlooking, Successive absolute fiats issuing. Yet again, lo!, the soul, above all science,…For it the entire star-myriads roll through the sky…For it the partial to the permanent flowing, For it the real to the ideal tends. For it the mystic evolution…” -Walt Whitman60

“Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.” – Jorge Luis Borges61

From Whitehead’s perspective, a successful cosmological scheme should aim to exhibit itself “as adequate for the interpretation of…the complex texture of civilized thought.”62 To this end, the cosmologist’s central motivation must be

to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral, and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science.63

Already an important difference can be marked between contemporary scientific cosmology and Whitehead’s more philosophical (and cosmotheandric) approach to cosmologizing. Following his metaphysical turn in the late 1920s, Whitehead sought nothing less than the integration of our artistic, religious, and scientific intuitions into one general scheme of thought. The typical aim of the modern scientific cosmologist, even when they claim to be pursuing a “grand unifying theory,” or “theory of everything,” is obviously far less integral in scope: only the empirico-mathematical features of the physical world are given systematic treatment, while everything else, no matter its importance to civilized human life, is, at best, bracketed as irrelevant, and at worst, explained away as illusory. The specialized operational/instrumental methods of contemporary scientific cosmology have allowed it to precisely measure and carefully dissect much of the known world, but the materialistic ontology providing its imaginative background has lead it to “exclude itself from relevance to the ordinary stubborn facts of daily life.”64 For example, average law-abiding citizens must go about their day under the assumption that they bear some responsibility for their actions, despite the fact that materialistic interpretations of neuroscience leave no room in the brain for anything remotely resembling consciousness, much less free will. Scientific materialism leaves us in the impossible position of having to deny in theory what we are unable but to affirm in practice.

Whitehead had little doubt that the technological applications of modern science would continue to transform civilization. Technologically speaking, science is only becoming more intensely relevant to daily life. Indeed, the technological applications of science have come to dominate not only human life, but the entire earth community. It cannot be denied that the increase in physical power which has resulted from rapid technoscientific advance has afforded civilization the opportunity for social betterment; but it has also brought us perilously close to destroying ourselves.65

“It may be,” says Whitehead,

that civilization will never recover from the bad climate which enveloped the introduction of machinery…The world is now faced with a self-evolving system, which it cannot stop.66

As was discussed earlier, modern technoscience has excelled at transforming and controlling what it has not adequately understood and cannot morally or aesthetically appreciate. The scientistic presupposition that “matter in motion is the one concrete reality in nature,” such that “aesthetic values form an…irrelevant addition,” has proven itself to be an error of disastrous proportions.67 It is precisely this materialistic ontology and its accompanying instrumentalist epistemology that Whitehead’s cosmological scheme endeavors to re-imagine. Instead of pursuing science in abstraction from the values of earthly life, Whitehead’s cosmology seeks to replace the traditional scientific conception of mechanism, along with the traditional religious conception of deism, with a novel conception of organism. With mechanistic substance as its foundational concept, modern science’s bifurcation of nature into objective natural facts and subjective human values is inevitable. With a conception of organic process as his starting point, Whitehead is able to articulate a cosmology whose details elucidate, rather than eliminate, the common sense values of civilized life, such as moral responsibility, aesthetic appetition, and veritable knowledge (or goodness, beauty, and truth, respectively).

“If nature really is bifurcated,” argues another of Whitehead’s contemporary interpreters, Bruno Latour,

no living organism would be possible, since being an organism means being the sort of thing whose primary [physical] and secondary [psychical] qualities–if they exist–are endlessly blurred.68

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism rejects the bifurcation of such qualities, as well as any type of arbitrary ontological dualism. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that the widespread acceptance of dualism during the modern period implies that, as an abstract scheme, it can prove elucidatory of the texture of experience in some instances. Whitehead criticizes Descartes’ mind/matter dualism for its incoherence due to excessive abstraction, but adds that “[his] system obviously says something that is true.”69 Whitehead appropriates much from the modern natural philosophical tradition, all the while keeping in mind that “the chief error in philosophy is overstatement.”70 By way of his method of imaginative generalization, Whitehead is lead to experimentally construct71 an alternative cosmological scheme that is ultimately rooted in creative process, rather than static substance, and whose fundamental categories are actual occasions, prehensions, and eternal objects, rather than minds, representations, and matter. The dualistic Cartesian problematic is not thereby eliminated or explained away; rather, it is transformed.72 The relationship between actual occasions and eternal objects is no longer one of duality, where neither kind of entity requires the other in order to exist, but of polarity, such that the being of eternal objects cannot be grasped in abstraction from the becoming of actual occasions, or vice versa. Whitehead avoids the modern bifurcation of nature (which restricts experiential value only to the human sphere and relegates everything non-human to the status of “vacuous actuality”73) by recognizing that every organic occasion or ecosystem of occasions–whether it be an electron, a bacterial colony, a sequoia, a bottle-nosed dolphin, a human civilization, a star, or stellar society (a galaxy)–is constituted by both a physical pole inheriting the feelings of realized actual facts and a mental pole anticipatory of realizable eternal possibilities.

As for the special significance of the human sphere, the conscious mental pole of “high grade” organisms like Homo sapiens is said to be so advanced in degree that it appears also to become different in kind. Whitehead is able to preserve what is elucidatory in the binary theocosmic or cosmoanthropic formulations of reality while at the same time jettisoning the substantialist ontology that would draw them back into the modern bifurcation dissecting the living body of the cosmos straight down the middle.74 The philosophy of organism avoids having to invoke incoherent accounts of the emergence of mind from matter, or value from vacuity, by recognizing that conscious human experience is only a special case of a more general, or cosmic, mode of experience. For Whitehead, to exist at all is already to experience, and to experience is to value:

Realization is…in itself the attainment of value…Aesthetic attainment is interwoven [with] the texture of realization.75

While the orthodox materialistic natural philosophy begins by assuming the two independently existing substances, mind and matter–where material objects are modified by external relations of locomotion, and mental subjects are modified by internal (or private) cogitations representative of external (or public) objects–Whitehead’s philosophy of organism begins with “the analysis of process as the realization of events disposed in an interlocked community.”76 Actual occasions, as the final realities of which the universe is composed, are self-creating buds of experience, each one uniquely itself even while it remains internally related to every other occasion in the creative community of the universe. Occasions are interrelated by way of the pattern of eternal objects characterizing for each of them the qualitative aspects of the other occasions in their community. Eternal objects “interpret [occasions], each to the other,”77 such that they come to find themselves related to one another in an extended space-time continuum according to certain invariant geometric principles,78 principles which are explored in a subsequent section in the context of a discussion of Whitehead’s philosophical critique of Einstein’s relativity theory.

“The solidarity of the universe,” writes Whitehead, “is based on the relational functioning of eternal objects.”79 As relational entities, eternal objects cannot themselves cause actual occasions, they can only characterize the how of prehension. “[Eternal objects] are adverbial, rather than substantive,” according to Whiteheadian interpreter Steven Shaviro, in that “they determine and express how actual [occasions] relate to one another, take one another up, and ‘enter into each others’ consitutions.’”80 Each actual occasion is, in this sense, nothing but the multiplicity of prehensions of other occasions (as characterized adverbially by eternal objects) which it unifies. But in another sense, as a self-unifying creature, an occasion not only prehends and reiterates the realized spatiotemporal pattern of the settled past, it adds a new value (itself) to the ongoing evolution of the universe. Whitehead coined the term concrescence to refer to the “production of novel togetherness” resulting from the completed satisfaction of each occasion of experience.81 By way of concrescence, a particular actual occasion’s many prehensions of other occasions becomes one, thereby adding one more realized unity of experience to the ongoing creative advance of the cosmic community: “The many become one, and are increased by one.”82

It is important not to think of prehension resulting in an actual occasion “having” experience of other occasions, as though an occasion were “the unchanging subject of change.”83 This would inevitably lead back to the classical, bifurcated conception of mental subjects qualified by their private representations of supposedly public material objects. “If this be granted,” argues Whitehead, “there is no escape from solipsism.”84 It was only by arbitrary recourse to the goodness of an omnipotent God that Descartes was able to re-establish any meaningful epistemic connection between ideas in the soul and matters of fact in nature. For the philosophy of organism, an actual occasion is not a pre-existent subject qualified by its representations of ready-made objects; rather, an occasion is better characterized as a dipolar “subject-superject.”85 The “subject” phase of a concrescing occasion emerges from the prehensions of antecedent occasions which it unifies, while in the “superject” phase the occasion, having attained satisfaction as a unified drop of distinctly patterned experience, immediately perishes into “objective immortality,” such that it can be prehended by subsequently concrescing actual occasions. Whitehead expresses the perpetual perishing of subjectivity into objective immortality in terms of his “principle of relativity,” such that “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming.’”86

Actual occasions, then, are describable in two ways, as “being” and as “becoming.” These ontological designations are not independent, since, according to Whitehead’s correlative “principle of process,” an occasion’s “being” arises from its “becoming”: “how an actual [occasion] becomes constitutes what that actual [occasion] is.”87 The description of an occasion according to its genetic “becoming” provides an account of the occasion’s own subjective aim (=its final cause), while the description according to its extensive “being” provides an account of its superjective effect as prehended by other occasions beyond itself (=its efficient cause).

By conceiving of the basic constituents of the world as unified prehensive processes of causal inheritance and conceptual anticipation, rather than static, isolated substances qualified by accidental predicates, Whitehead is able to preserve the unique identity of each individual organism without at the same time so exaggerating their separateness that continuity with the larger ecosystem of other organisms is broken.

Thus far, my account of the fundamentals of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has been rather abstract, which is to say purely metaphysical; but before moving on to further explicate its implications in the context of contemporary physical theory, it may be helpful to examine exactly what role abstraction itself plays in Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.

“In any occasion of cognition,” says Whitehead,

that which is known is an actual occasion of experience, as diversified by reference to a realm of entities which transcend that immediate occasion in that they have analogous or different connections with other occasions of experience.88

Whitehead here makes reference to the realm of “eternal objects,” or “pure potentials,” which contribute to the definiteness of actual occasions without themselves being reducible to the experience of any particular occasion, since “eternal objects are the same for all actual [occasions].”89 Many contemporary thinkers, laden with the nominalistic presuppositions of the modern age, come to Whitehead’s metaphysics expecting everything to be explained according to immanent process alone. They are surprised by his introduction of the hierarchy of eternal objects, not to mention the divinity envisaging it, both of which can at first seem to be rather ad hoc additions to his cosmology. Whitehead introduces them, however, with the aim of maintaining the overall coherence of his scheme. He writes:

It is the foundation of the metaphysical position which I am maintaining that the understanding of actuality requires a reference to ideality. The two realms are intrinsically inherent in the total metaphysical situation.90

Once again displaying his allegiances both to mathematical physics and to poetry, Whitehead recognizes that “the interfusion of events” constituting cosmogenesis participates in eternity as much as time, being infected as much by the values of actual nature as by the ghostly traces of “colors, sounds, scents, [and] geometrical characters…required for nature and…not emergent from it.”91 Only actuality has value, but in order for “actual value” to find its metaphysical definition, some reference to the adjacent possibilities provided by ideality is necessary. Each actual occasion of experience realizes itself as a complex unity of valued patterning; this patterning displays itself as a subjective harmonization of the prehended superjective values achieved in the occasion in question’s causal past. The experiential achievement of some more or less complex unity of patterning is only felt as valuable to the occasion which realizes it because this occasion simultaneously feels, via the divinely envisaged gradation of the infinite set of eternal objects as they are relevant to its unique situation, those definite possibilities which remain abstract because unrealized in its concrescence. In other words, a drop of experience

is decisive in proportion to the importance (for it) of its untrue propositions: their relevance to the [occasion] cannot be dissociated from what the [occasion] is in itself by way of achievement.92

Each occasion becomes what it is by not being what it isn’t. Whitehead is able to avoid a dualism between actuality and ideality by showing how the realization of definite concrete values requires the ingression of what “is not” alongside the prehension of “what is.” In this sense, the prehension of actuality and the ingression of possibility cannot be defined in isolation.93 Each must require the other if a coherent account of both the solidarity and the separability of the universe is to be articulated. Eternal objects have a “twofold role,” in that they both relate occasions to each other (allowing the creative many to become the one created universe) and unify occasions for themselves (allowing the one universe to become many again). The open-ended creative advance of the actual universe in this way depends on both conjunction and disjunction, both unification and differentiation.94

Having crowned creativity “the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact,” Whitehead needed to account for the unique character of more mundane matters of fact (i.e., finite actual occasions). How is the infinite creativity conditioning the universe to be canalized into the decisive prehensions and relevant evaluations characterizing the concrescence of each of its unique, finite creatures? To answer this question, Whitehead was lead to bring forth a novel concept of divinity. The only difference between God and every other actual occasion is that divine experience appears to occur in the reverse direction to that of finite experiences, such that God’s mental pole is primary while God’s physical pole is consequent.95 God’s mental pole is described as the primordial creature of creativity, the first act of unfettered conceptual valuation responsible for ordering the realm of eternal objects. God is thus simultaneously a creature of Creativity and, by its persuasive influence on the decisions of finite actual occasions, a condition limiting the otherwise chaotic potency of Creativity.

By reason of this complete valuation, the objectification of God in each derivate actual [occasion] results in a graduation of the relevance of eternal objects to the concrescent occasion in question…Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question.96

God, as the “primordial superject of creativity,” is the first fact giving any definite face to the otherwise impersonal creative advance. God’s primordial nature assures that every finite occasion of experience subsequent to God’s initial act of envisagement includes in its physical prehension of the actual world a conceptual prehension of the realm of possibilities as relevant to it. In this way, those abstract potentials remaining as yet unrealized in a particular occasion’s actual world nonetheless find their definite relation to that occasion and its world without having to float into their situation from nowhere.97 According to Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” “the general potentiality of the universe must be somewhere…this ‘somewhere’ is the non-temporal actual entity”: God.98

As was already mentioned, God is a dipolar actual occasion like every other, “finding [itself] in the double role of [agent] and [patient] in a common world.”99 God’s primordial envisagement of eternal objects occurs in abstraction from finite actual occasions; it is accomplished by God alone. As such, the primordial aspect of God’s nature remains deficient in actuality. While the abstract order of creation depends upon God’s agential “adjustment of the togetherness of eternal objects,” the concrete values of creation depend upon the “infinite patience” of God’s consequent pole, God’s “tender care that nothing be lost.”100 God experienced in full concreteness (i.e., as a living, cosmic personality) is not the distant unmoved mover or all-powerful creator of traditional religious metaphysics, but the poet and lover of the world, “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”101 Whitehead’s imaginative description of God has more in common with the intermediary World-Soul of Plato’s Timaeus than it does with the “wholly transcendent” Jehovah of Newton’s Scholium, “creating out of nothing [by fiat] an accidental universe.”102 I continue the comparison between Whitehead’s God and Plato’s World-Soul in the final section of this essay. The next section concerns the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to evolution, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories, each in turn.

Footnotes

60 Whitman, “Song of the Universal,” in Leaves of Grass (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1892/2004), 380.

61 “Happiness,” transl. by Stephen Kessler, in Borges: Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1999), 441.

62 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xi.

63 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xii.

64 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xiii.

65 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 182-183.

66 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 181, 183.

67 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 182.

68 Bruno Latour, Foreword to Thinking With Whitehead, xiii.

69 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 6.

70 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7.

71 His method is experimental in that it redesigns the philosophical instrument of language “in the same way that, in physical science, pre-existing appliances are redesigned” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 11).

72 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 108.

73 The bifurcation may be thus anthropocentric, or it may, when pressed, become biocentric, such that it restricts value to the biological sphere, thereby denying it to the physical or cosmic as such.

74 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 132.

75 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89-90.

76 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 138.

77 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

78 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 145.

79 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

80 Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009), 37; quoting Whitehead, Process and Reality, 148-149.

81 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

82 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

83 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

84 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

85 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

86 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 22.

87 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

88 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 142-143.

89 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

90 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 143.

91 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

92 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 143.

93 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 189.

94 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

95 Or perhaps it is finite experience that appears backwards?

96 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

97 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32.

98 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 46.

99 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 315.

100 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

101 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346, 351.

102 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 95.

The Poetry of Philosophy: Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision of Nature in Light of Whitehead’s Cosmological Scheme

The aim of this essay is to read the nature poetry of William Wordsworth in light of the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, such that the epistemological and cosmological implications of the former are brought more fully into philosophical view. According to Victor Lowe, it is probable that no other man, save Plato, shaped the imaginative background of Whitehead’s outlook quite as profoundly as Wordsworth.1 This influence makes the task of this short essay far easier, since so much of what Whitehead labored to give clear conceptual expression to in his own work was originally awakened in him by the feeling for the universe that vibrates off the pages of Wordsworth’s poetry. In this sense, the task of this essay is the opposite of Whitehead’s: to translate the basic outlines of his philosophical scheme back into the cosmic visions and archetypal visitations expressed in Wordsworth’s verse.

One of the defining characteristics of Romantic literature is its exaltation of the figure of the philosopher-poet, the one who unveils the way in which, as Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”2 The famous friendship and intimate artistic collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth provides an example of two minds who, while considered alone are great in their own right, considered together as a single mutually formed and imaginatively alloyed soul surely surpass the genius of any claimant of the title philosopher-poet to come before or after. According to Owen Barfield, the friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth both “exemplified the contrast” and “deepened the affinity” between the poles of imagination, namely, self )–( world, or again, spirit )–( nature.3 Reconciling these two imaginative forces in one person is all but impossible, since “the finite activity of poetry, like every other motion, still requires a predominance, however slight, of the one pole over the other.”4 Coleridge had a more philosophical bent, tending toward reverential reflection upon the high station of spirit, while Wordsworth was easily charmed by the every day and more sensitive to the living depths of the natural world. Though Coleridge proved himself on occasion capable of penning the sublimest poetry, it could be said that, as a result of his philosophical tutelage, Wordsworth became the greatest of his poetic achievements. Indeed, Whitehead writes of Coleridge that, despite being influential in his own day, when considering “those elements of the thought of the past which stand for all time…[he] is only important by his influence on Wordsworth.”5

Wordsworth is perhaps the most esteemed nature poet in the history of the English language. For Whitehead, he is the chief exemplar of the Romantic reaction against the abstract mechanistic picture of nature fostered by the scientific materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. He cites the famous line, “We murder to dissect” with qualified approval, agreeing with Wordsworth that “the important facts of nature elude the scientific method” even while he, a mathematical physicist as well as a philosopher, believes the specialized abstractions of natural science need not necessarily leave nature lifeless.6 Science can and should be reformed. Mechanistic science of the sort championed by the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Laplace commits the fatal sin of bifurcating nature, isolating its objective mathematizable aspects by pealing away its sensual and moral layers, layers which found their home in a soul now entirely sealed off from the outside world. Concerning the ethereal hues of a sunset, the sweet fragrance of a primrose, or the melodies of a thrush the poets are all mistaken: from the point of view of scientific materialism, nature is “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”7 Contrary to the general thrust of natural science since its birth in the 17th century, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme is an attempt to systematize Wordsworth’s emphatic witness to the fact that “nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values, and that these values arise from the culmination…of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.”8 In the jargon of his metaphysics, Whitehead saw in Wordsworth’s poetry “a feeling for nature as exhibiting entwined prehensive unities, each suffused with modal presences of others.”9 Hidden within this one short cryptic sentence are the major categories animating Whitehead’s entire cosmological system, including “actual occasions,” “eternal objects,” “internal relations,” and “concrescence.”

Before moving on to unpack Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, it is important to note that his allegiance to Wordsworth and the Romantic reaction is not at all to say that he has sided with subjectivism or idealism over the objectivity of science. The danger in aligning oneself against the mathematical abstractions of mechanistic science is that one rushes too quickly to adopt the opposite extreme, elevating personal emotion and individual will to such unwarranted heights that the entirety of the visible universe is made to seem a private projection, a mere appearance dependent upon the constructive activity of my mind. Wordsworth’s absorption in living nature–“an inmate of this active universe,”10 as he put it–all but inoculated him against this subjectivist over-reaction; but there are a few occasions when Wordsworth seems almost to become infected by other strains of the Romantic bloodstream, especially those emerging in the orbit of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Whitehead strongly positioned himself in opposition to Kantian, Fichtean, and Hegelian forms of idealism which can be read as attempting to derive the concrete and contingent existence of the universe from the abstract universal categories of thought.11 Not incidentally (considering the influence of Schelling on Wordsworth through the intermediary of Coleridge), the relationship of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is far more congenial, since unlike for Kant and Hegel, for Schelling “Nature is a priori.”12 Whitehead pithily suggests that his approach “aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”13 In Kant’s first critique, experience is either translatable into conscious rational knowledge (Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas/representations” of geometrical space and time), or it is no experience at all. The vague but overriding feelings of nature’s creative rhythms and physical purposes always scintillating along the fractal horizons of consciousness are ignored in order to secure the certain knowledge of the rational, waking ego.14 The abyssal complexities of our aesthetic encounter with the sublime are left for the 3rd critique, the Critique of Judgment, but even here, where Kant’s powers reach their highest pitch, he pulls up short of the erotic receptivity that may have reconnected him with the animate intelligence of the cosmos. In book XI of The Prelude, as if speaking directly to Kant, Wordsworth pays homage to the “animation and…deeper sway” of nature’s soul while warning against the “narrow estimates of things” resulting from rational critique: “suffice it here/To hint that danger cannot but attend/Upon a Function rather proud to be/The enemy of falsehood, than the friend/Of truth, to sit in judgment than to feel.”15

While for Kant, “the world emerges from the subject,” for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.”16 Whitehead’s conception of subjectivity is such that the order and meaning of our experience is originally given to us by the order and meaning of the surrounding actual universe. “[The subject] is not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it.”17 Whitehead’s object-to-subject account of the formation of experience may seem too strict a rule for Wordsworth’s imaginative epistemology to obey, since for the latter the senses must be free to half-create and half perceive the world, as he suggests in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This reversal of the vector of experience may at times prove to be a true tension in the two men’s outlooks, a tension worth untangling if only to discover a deeper commonality.

It would be an unfair reading of Whitehead, based on his reaction to much of German idealism, to neglect the extent to which his epistemology is fully awake to the creative and participatory role of the imagination in evaluating and synthesizing the facts of the actually existing world. His criticisms of idealistic accounts of perception result primarily from the mistaken prioritization of a derivative mode of perception, “presentational immediacy” over the truly primitive mode, “causal efficacy.” Presentational immediacy is a highly advanced form of experience available to conscious human beings. Dominated by the eyes (“The most despotic of our senses”18), it gives us a certain degree of reflective distance from the causal flow of cosmic vectors of inter-bodily emotion. These vectors, felt through the more original mode of perception, causal efficacy, generate the “mysterious presence of surrounding things”19: for example, the “voluntary power instinct” of the brooding Cliff that made the young Wordsworth’s hands tremble while rowing back to shore in his stolen skiff.20 Without the enlivening passion of causal efficacy, presentational immediacy becomes a fallen mode of perception, detached and cut off from intimacy with nature, her inner life reduced to the external relations of dead objects floating in outer space. Without the reflective disinterest of presentational immediacy, causal efficacy would swallow up our consciousness into the “dim and undetermin’d sense/Of unknown modes of being” that haunted Wordsworth for days after he returned the skiff to its mooring-place.21 Whitehead describes a third, hybrid mode of perception called “symbolic reference,” which plays a role akin to the synthesizing imagination, able to skillfully interweave physical prehensions with mental conceptions in order to produce heightened forms of aesthetic enjoyment and moral appetition. In Whitehead’s jargon, mental conceptions are also prehensions, or feelings, but instead of feeling concrete matters of fact, they feel eternal objects, or abstract forms of possibility. Whereas causal efficacy is “the hand of the settled past in the formation of the present,” presentational immediacy is the “[projection which] exhibits the contemporary world in its spatial relations.”22 Through the mixed perceptual mode of symbolic reference, habits of imagination are gradually acquired which bring forth the taken for granted world of every day experience.23 It is the synthesizing activity of this mode that Wordsworth refers to when he writes of how “The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath/And harmony of music. There is a dark/Invisible workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, and makes them move/In one society.”24 A skillful poet is able to consciously moderate the synthetic activity of symbolic reference, “to keep/In wholesome separation the two natures,/The one that feels [causal efficacy], the other that observes [presentational immediacy].”25

It would be a superficial reading of Wordsworth to ignore the degree to which he wavers in his assigning of precedence to either the mental or physical poles of experiential reality. Just a line below his statement in Tintern Abbey about the creative element in perception, he writes of being “well pleased to recognize/In nature and the language of the sense,/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” He finds that his mind is not only necessarily tied to his sensual encounters with nature (as it is for Kant), but that the language of sense has birthed and raised to maturity even the purest of his ideas from out of the womb of nature herself. Elsewhere, Wordsworth writes of the way a mountain range “By influence habitual to the mind/…shapes/The measure and the prospect of the soul.”26 Further conforming to Whitehead’s object-to-subject reading of the vector of experience, he writes: “From nature doth emotion come, and moods/…are nature’s gift.”27 But it could still be asked: is Wordsworth speaking here in a psychological or in an ontological register?

Whitehead’s characterization of Wordsworth’s poetry as exhibiting a sensitivity to the interpenetrating “prehensive unities” of nature, “each suffused with modal presences of others,” is meant to classify him as an ontologically committed panpsychist. His poetry is overflowing with hymns to the Anima Mundi, with references to the “the Life/ of the great whole,” and to the way “every natural form, rock, fruit or flower/…Lay bedded in a quickening soul.”28 Even here, however, just as Wordsworth appears to fully confirm his cosmological orientation, the tension of the poles of spirit and nature begin vibrating, as if hovering in superposition. Does Wordsworth mean that all these natural forms lay bedded in his quickening soul? In the same lines from The Prelude cited above, he could be read as congratulating himself for rousing nature from her sleep: “To every natural form…/I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,/Or linked them to some feeling…/…all/That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”29 But just a few lines later, Wordsworth again reverses the vector of his experience back from the idealistic to the cosmological pole, finding his mind “as wakeful” to the changing face of nature “as waters are/To the sky’s motion,” becoming to her activity as “obedient as a lute/That waits upon the touches of the wind.”30 Perhaps Wordsworth’s tendency to waver on this issue betrays one of the key differences between a visionary poet, focused on capturing the vividness of each fading moment, and a systematic philosopher, focused on characterizing the ultimate generalities characterizing all experience.

Though it is beyond the scope of the present essay, many parallels could also be drawn between Whitehead’s conception of a dipolar divinity and Wordsworth’s visions of the World Soul, “the Imagination of the whole.” Briefly, like all other actual occasions, Whitehead’s God has two poles, an intellectual/mental and an emotional/physical. Unlike all other actual occasions, God’s primordial pole is intellectual rather than physical, consisting in an evaluative ordering of all eternal objects. This ordering serves to condition the unfolding of the universe by making relevant novelties available to the concrescence of each finite occasion of experience. These finite occasions are free to make their own decisions and evaluations, but these decisions are made amidst the set of possibilities provided by the wisdom of God. Through God’s consequent pole, the creative becoming of the physical world is taken back up into divine experience as through a loving embrace to be harmonized with God’s primordial nature. To quote Whitehead at length: “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it; or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”31 The everlasting pulsations of divine concrescence are the macrocosmic analogy of Wordsworth’s autobiographical journey from childhood paradise, through the impairment and on to the final restoration of Imagination. “From love, for here/Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,/All truth and beauty, from pervading love,/That gone, we are as dust.”32

Footnotes

1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.

2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).

3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.

4 WCT, 90.

5 Science and the Modern World (1925), 79.

6 SMW, 79-80.

7 SMW, 55.

8 SMW, 84.

9 SMW, 80.

10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.

11 Process and Reality (1929/1979), 89.

12 First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799/2004), 198. Nature here is natura naturans, the generative abyss from which all finite form arises and into which it dies; this is akin to Whitehead’s category of ultimate generality at the base of all actuality, Creativity.

13 PR, 172.

14 Modes of Thought (1938/1966), p. 74-75.

15 The Prelude, 209.

16 PR, 172.

17 PR, 113.

18 The Prelude, 210.

19 SMW, 80.

20 The Prelude, 12.

21 The Prelude, 12.

22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.

23 UW, 184.

24 The Prelude, 10.

25 The Prelude, 238.

26 The Prelude, 125.

27 The Prelude, 218.

28 The Prelude, 37.

29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.

30 The Prelude, 37-38.

31 PR, 525.

32 The Prelude, 233.

Whitehead’s Endo-Theology

Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has laid down a clear and clarifying plumb-line definition for a contentious word that finds itself being thrown around the OOO blogosphere from time to time:  Correlationism. It has a fascinating biography. Harman recently offered his version of its history and conceptual origin.

Bryant’s was a very helpful post for me. His shift in emphasis from internal/endo-relations to external/exo-relations is definitely the sort of provocation contemporary thought needs to stir it from its humanist dreams and awaken it to the painful light of climate change and mass extinction. I wonder, though, if he means to include Whitehead among those internalists who fail to offer an adequate account of how ruptures in reality (sudden separations or novel connections) are possible…

I’d argue the fundamentally atomistic nature of actual occasions, as well as their capacity for negative prehension and conceptual reversion, makes room for the kind of creative/destructive relations among relata that Bryant wants to preserve. Whitehead’s remains an internally related universe, there’s no doubt about that. But its a universe just as clearly perpetually dividing from itself (Creativity=many become one, and increase by one).

In further agreement with Bryant, for Whitehead, no society is finally safe from disintegration. Enduring relations are fragile in the extreme. But when societies do manage to endure, they are not just bundles of qualities projected on the screen of bare sense-perception; rather, they become self-creating subject-superjects, real individual actors in the world in possession of their own unique and definite characteristics.

Where Bryant and Whitehead probably begin to differ rather starkly is on the issue of how to account for the qualitative character distinguishing each complex society of occasions as the individual that it is (in Circus Philosophicus, Harman calls this an object’s “style”). Whitehead has recourse both to the unique telos of each occasion’s subjective aim, and to the ingression of some relevant set of eternal objects. The initial relevancy of eternal objects to any finite occasion’s situation is a result of the harmonizing attunement sung by divinity at the origins of time.

Whitehead’s God is not the creator or designer of the world, however, but the fellow sufferer of its ongoing re-creation by Creativity. The song and the singer who tunes our universe is an accident of Creativity.

Time is a moving image of eternity originating in the tension between the poles of beginning and ending, what Whitehead calls the primordial and consequent natures of God (two adjectives, one noun). If the beginning is God’s act of finite decision amidst infinite creative potential, the ending is the fact of God’s recollection of the diversity of actualities as a whole.

While any given society will surely some day pass away, each and every occasion of experience composing it achieves objective immortality in the eternally resurrecting body of divine memory.

Whiteheadian thoughts on the thingliness of ideas (responses to Archive Fire and Knowledge Ecology)

Michael/Archive Fire and Adam/Knowledge Ecology are at it again, working to sort through the material, semiotic, and ideational strands of the cosmic mesh to figure out what is real and what isn’t. In both positions, I detect a desire for ecological realism, the sort of realism where Santa Claus, mountain pine beetles, global capitalism, black holes, and strawberries are each considered to be real causal actors, each in its own unique way. But only Michael explicitly argues that a certain set of these actors–ideas–should ultimately be understood as secondary effects of causes operating at a more basic level–that is, (vibrant, dynamic) physicality. I agree with Michael that ideas are embodied and enacted, that they cannot play a causal role in the creative advance of nature without being ingredient in some definite occasion of socially organized experience. But I do not think it follows that this obvious co-relationality between ideas and living bodies implies that ideas, or indeed minds (in some non-Cartesian/post-Whiteheadian sense of the word mind) are epiphenomenal to technologically mediated physiological activity. As Whitehead says, the things which are temporal arise by their participation in the things which are eternal, just as the things which are eternal arise by their participation in the things which are temporal. There is a relation of co-emergence, of dependent origination, between timeless potentials and actual occasions. … Ideas and Minds do not operate independently of material signs and living bodies. They do not exist without leaving symbolic traces and a heat signature. But it does not follow that they are not real things. If anything is a “thing,” ideas are things. I need to take a detour into Whitehead’s account of perception before returning to the thingliness of ideas… (a thing here would be an object in Harman’s lingo). In Whitehead’s lingo, we would say that a given thing (actual entity) withdraws from its prehensions by other things precisely because if it were not in some way withdrawn from these prehensions, there would not be anything definite to distinguish it from other entities to make it “just this entity here-now.” Ideas, in Whitehead’s lingo, are conceptual prehensions. We could also call them abstract feelings of future possibilities. For most occasions of experience, physical feelings of past actualities predominate over conceptual feelings of future possibilities. Still, all occasions include a mix of physical with conceptual feelings: nowhere in the universe are there events unfolding in a purely repetitive way, without any appetitive adjustment. Granted, in the inorganic societies studied by physicists, novelty is negligible enough to ignore in equations describing the behavior of the universe is timespans relevant to human existence. In longer timescales (i.e., more than 13.7 billion years ago), it seems the “laws” of physics can no longer account for visible nature without making room for the possibility of radical novelty/extreme negentropy “before” the “beginning” of time. Even at the level of quantum events, the appetition for novelty is present. If it were not, the universe never would have transformed from superheated plasma into living protoplasm or human minds. The formation of the first atoms, and certainly the first stars, already provides evidence of the universe’s desire to out run the past by incarnating ever new forms of organization. Human consciousness is only a more extreme expression of this same desire. Implanting experience and ideality into the most fundamental features of reality is an attempt to account, in one general metaphysical scheme, for the evolution of the organizational complexity of nature from plasma to person. It is an attempt to avoid the traditional metaphysical bifurcation between appearance and reality that has plagued Western philosophy the formalization of Aristotle’s substance-predicate logic. Bifurcated metaphysics either reduce the person to the plasma (materialism), or the plasma to the person (idealism); either way, half of nature has been lost. For those more complex social canalizations of experiential occasions associated with we thoroughly mediated human souls and our technological societies, prehension is predominantly conceptual, with physical prehension fading into irrelevance. The great danger of unchecked intelligence is that it forgets its bodily roots in the rhythms of the brain, heart, and lungs and its cosmic source in the rhythms of the Milky Way galaxy, the Sun, and the Moon. By forgetting its source in the soil between earth and sky, intelligence dismembers itself and the ecology to which it belongs. Becoming deaf and blind to the material-semiotic flows tenuously tying it to the network of others living within and amongst it, it loses contact with the erotic and aesthetic lifeblood its life depends on. Intelligence is driving our species into extinction, and taking a lot of others with us. I think I can understand why Michael has such a distaste for the notion that ideas are just as real as bodies. He writes:

Giving up on ‘ideas’ as objects helps us understand what Wittgenstein and Derrida and Rorty (and the Buddha and Lao Tsu among others) wanted to teach us, in the sense that conceptuality – and by extension all knowledge – is intrinsically undecidable, unstable and ephemeral. And this insight has some very serious political, existential and philosophical implications.

I agree completely that conceptuality is often undecidable. Reality usually always out runs our everyday descriptions. But on some rare occasions, like those concocted in the laboratory by experimental physicists, the conceptual structure of reality becomes decidable to an uncanny degree of accuracy as formal mathematical descriptions are found to correlate with natural processes. These descriptions remain approximations, of course, since they are never purely conceptual. It needs to be said, to balance Michael’s denial of conceptuality, that sensuality is no less unstable and ephemeral. Prehension, since it always carries a mix of physical and conceptual factors, is necessarily abstraction. If it were not abstraction, each actual entity would contain every other actual entity within itself in such a direct way that there would be no way to tell any two actual occasions apart. Without eternal objects/ideas to mediate between the mutual prehensions of particular actual occasions, their particularity would become meaningless: all time and space would collapse into an instantaneous null-point. Pure conceptual knowledge is as undecidable as pure sensation. It is only when creatively contrasted that something actual can emerge.

Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology)

Adam/Knowledge Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go that Whitehead himself acknowledged that he didn’t sufficiently work out the relationship between God and the World in Process and Reality. I approach Whitehead’s scheme, then, as a hacker might go to work on a buggy program, casting aside what doesn’t work and building on what seems most promising. I think there is something profound about his underlying intuition concerning the divine’s power as that of a persuader, rather than a coercer, even if his explicit formulations seem to fall short of a coherent description of how exactly this would play out metaphysically.

Whitehead’s dipolar deity is intended to be a derivative notion of his conceptual categories. He had far more to say about God’s primordial pole than God’s consequent pole; he mentions the latter only a handful of times, always obscurely, while the former, the primordial pole, fits relatively clearly into his conceptual apparatus as that which values a definite set of eternal objects to provide the aesthetic lures that are the condition for the possibility of a cosmos. God’s primordial nature is eternal and so conditions Creativity, translating its immensity into something that finite actual occasions can decide upon and enjoy as distinct qualitative moments of experience. God’s consequent nature, in turn, is conditioned by Creativity: despite God’s attempt to restrain its relentlessly blind rush toward novelty, Creativity nonetheless breaks through to disturb the ordered universe as the freedom of each finite actual entity to decide upon its own subjective form. Creativity is the constant disruption of the constancy that would otherwise reign over things from eternity. God isn’t just eternal, but also has a consequent pole, which is God’s passive reception of Creativity in the form of the free decisions of all actualities. In God’s consequent pole, God becomes a fellow sufferer with all other creatures in the trammels of physical time.

Perhaps “God”–a term weighed down by thousands of years of ontotheological baggge–is no longer appropriate as a descriptor. Whitehead suggests that his divinity is more like ancient conceptions of a World-Soul, or anima mundi, in that it is involved in and not external to the universe. Indeed, it is in some sense nothing other than the universe itself as a social actuality, or organismic togetherness. The divine is the cosmic animal, the universal organism.

Part of the reason Whitehead was lead to posit a divine function was that he saw no other way to coherently speak cosmologically. If there is no superordinate principle of valuation to bring all finite occasions into harmony, there is no cosmos. There is only the multitude of finite entities. Granted, the harmonious ordering of the universe so miraculously uncovered by the last several centuries of scientific investigation may be entirely contingent. Whitehead’s God is, after all, an accident of Creativity. There is nothing necessary about harmony. What, then, is responsible for an admittedly contingent harmony? Divinity cannot be marshaled as an explanation here, a move that is often and rightly criticized. There is a principle of irreducibility at work in Whitehead similar to that at work in object-oriented ontology described by Adam. For one entity or set of entities to explain another is akin to reducing the explained entity away. Whitehead’s philosophical method has nothing to do with explanation. He describes the task of philosophy as “sheer disclosure,” making it akin to poetry in the sense that its propositional expressions succeed only when they increase, rather than erase, our wonder at the astonishing fact(s) of existence.

To return to the question, then: what is responsible for the contingent order of the universe? Whitehead, like OOO, re-constructed causality in terms of aesthetics. Entities relate to one another erotically, not simply mechanically. All physical motion, active or passive, is emotion. Mechanical interaction is secondary to organic transaction, which is to say that internal relations supersede external relations. Every entity is quite literally inside of every other entity. A tension is generated within this mutual interiorization due to the desire of each entity to exist in and for itself apart from others, which is where the explosion of qualities described so beautifully by Harman (as a “sensual ether”) comes in. So, wherefrom harmony and order? From the erotic lure of beauty calling to each actuality non-coercively compelling it to dance in rhythm with its local nexus. Of course, notes of dissonance are often sounded amidst the song of the spheres, but at least (so far) on the macro scale, these dissonances have been gathered back up into a cosmic chord. For 14 billion years, cosmogenesis has remained harmonious enough to utilize disruption and chaos as an engine for the generation of higher forms of organization again and again. The dissonances erupting within the microcosm of human society are somewhat more troubling… Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil is celebrated by many process theologians, but as I continue to study Schelling (who seems to have taken the difficulty of theodicy more seriously), its becoming apparent that perhaps more needs to be said about the proclivity of humanity to swerve away so drastically from cosmic harmony.  A problem for another post, perhaps… The ontological dimension of evil is admittedly an embarrassing issue to approach in a modern age as self-consciously philanthropic as ours.

Returning to Whitehead…

After finishing my first comprehensive exam on Schelling, its now time to dive back into Whitehead. For starters, Adam over at the new minimalist Knowledge Ecology has recently been posting brilliant snippets of what I believe is a longer tract he is writing about the ecology of ideas. Here is one titled “The Alien Light“:

On an earth without humans the elephants are mourning their dead and the stars are burning with an alien light. Bees and wasps are swarming from flower to flower, targeting pollinated landing pads rich with colors of a unique visible spectrum; their buzzing messengers return with good news for the rest of the hive. Bacteria move along chemical gradients, seeking out the sugary sweetness of glucose; plankton float in the water before being consumed by baleen whales. Ancient trees cast long shadows, forcing young saplings to sprout leaves in new directions; the shadows themselves are real. The universe does not beget qualities through the emergence of the human alone; the tangled bank of the ecosystem is already filled with the rustling of leaves, croaking of frogs, and thrashing of salmon. Red, gold, and turquoise are carvings of things made by human eyes and minds, but they represent only a small diorama of the available spectrum of aesthetic experiences, an aesthetic dimension unfolding for billions of years before the arrival of the human.

A commenter asked Adam what exactly the meaning of “available” is in the context of the aesthetic experiences of the cosmos. Adam responds by saying “available” may be the wrong word, since he doesn’t think

there are something like “available qualities” just floating around, pre-existing their experience by some organism that enacts them. The problem would be that this would imply that there is something like a standing reserve of pre-existing qualities just waiting to be discovered.

I responded as follows:

I wonder where Whitehead’s eternal objects fit in to this question concerning the “availability” of qualities. These qualities are not actual until experienced by an organism, but they are nonetheless at least potentially real without these organisms. These potencies are the aesthetic lures of Whitehead’s creative cosmos. They are mediated by the divine organism, or anima mundi, who envisages an ordered totality of possibile qualities capable of shaping a given cosmic epoch. Without this divine mediation, the potential for qualitative valuation and so cosmic ordering would be infinite, which means there would be no value or cosmos at all, just a flood of pure relentless chaotic creativity.

So eternal objects aren’t exactly a “standing reserve” of pre-existing qualities, though they seem to be something like this at first. They aren’t exactly this, though, since they in no way pre-existper Whitehead’s ontological principle. Eternal objects are potentials for experience, not actualities. They are only somewhat like a standing reserve in that some finite set of eternal objects is prehended by God in order to get a cosmos to emerge out of chaotic creativity. But it doesn’t seem quite right to conceive of God as a mere store house of ideas. God is an organism, which is to say God is concerned about the ideas he/she/it envisions.

The Power of Adjectives: Two Poems on Imagination by Patrick Lane and P. K. Page

“Albino Pheasants” (1977) by Patrick Lane 

At the bottom of the field
where thistles throw their seeds
and poplars grow from cotton into trees
in a single season I stand among the weeds.
Fenceposts hold each other up with sagging wire.
Here no man walks except in wasted time.
Men circle me with cattle, cars and wheat.
Machines rot on my margins.
They say the land is wasted when it’s wild
and offer plows and apple trees to tame
but in the fall when I have driven them away
with their guns and dogs and dreams
I walk alone. While those who’d kill
lie sleeping in soft beds
huddled against the bodies of their wives
I go with speargrass and hooked burrs
and wait upon the ice alone.

Delicate across the mesh of snow
I watch the pale birds come
with beaks the colour of discarded flesh.
White, their feathers are white,
as if they had been born in caves
and only now have risen to the earth
to watch with pink and darting eyes
the slowly moving shadows of the moon.
There is no way to tell men what to do…
the dance they make in sleep
withholds its meaning from their dreams.
That which has been nursed in bone
rests easy upon frozen stone
and what is wild is lost behind closed eyes:
albino birds, pale sisters, succubi.

Sestina for Pat Lane After Reading ‘Albino Pheasants’  (1978) by  P. K. Page 

Pale beak…pale eye…the dark imagination
flares like magnesium. And but, pale flesh
and I am lifted to a weightless world:
watered cerulean, chrome-yellow, light
and green, veronese – if I remember – a soft wash
recalls a summer evening sky.

At Barro de Navidad we watched the sky
fade softly like a bruise. Was it imagination
that showed us Venus phosphorescent in a wash
of air and ozone? – a phosphorescence flesh
wears like a mantle in bright moonlight,
a natural skin-tone in that other world.

Why do I wish to escape this world?
Why do three phrases alter the color of the sky
the clarity, texture even, of light?
What is there about the irrepressible imagination
that the adjective pale modifying beak, eye and flesh,
can set my sensibilities awash?

If with my thickest brush I were to lay a wash
of thinnest water-color I could make a world
as unlike my own dense flesh
as the high-noon midsummer sky;
but it would not catch at my imagintion
or change the waves or particles of light

yet pale can tip the scales, make light
this heavy planet. If I were to wash
everything I own in mercury, would imagination
run rampant in that suddenly silver world –
free me from gravity, set me floating sky-
ward – thistledown – permanently disburdened of my flesh?

Like cygnets hatched by ducks, our minds and flesh
are imprinted early – what to me is light
may be dark to one born under a sunny sky.
And however cool the water my truth won’t wash
without shrinking except in my own world
which is one part matter, nine parts imagination.

I fear flesh which blocks imagination,
the light of reason which contracts the world.
Pale beak…pale eye…pale flesh…My sky’s awash.

———————————————————————————————————

I’m particularly fascinated by the role of adjectives in these poems, a role explicitly thematized by Page (“what is it about the irrepressible imagination that the adjective…can set my sensibilities awash?”). J. R. R. Tolkein, a philologist as well as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, discusses the liberating power of adjectives in his short essay, “On Fairy Stories,” from which I will quote at length. Speaking of mythology, after declaring that “Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret,” since truly it is “modern European languages [that] are a disease of mythology”, Tolkein writes:

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

As Page and Tolkein both attempt to articulate, the human imagination makes us potential sub-creators – participants in the ongoing poetry of creation. The magic of our incarnate minds is borne principally through language, which skillfully crafted, can shift not only our thoughts about the world, but our very perception of the world. An imaginative phrase can “change the waves or particles of light” not of some other fantasized world, but of this world.

I’m reminded again, in connection with the creative power of adjectives, of Alfred North Whitehead‘s eternal objects. In human beings, whose mental capacities “rise to the peak of free imagination” (Process and Reality, 161), adjectives like green or pale allow us to bring forth novel perceptual worlds not determined by past actualities. See HERE, HERE, and HERE for some of my other recent reflections on eternal objects.

Asking Terrence Deacon about Whitehead’s Reformed Platonism

A few weeks back, Jason/Immanent Transcendence asked me if I’d like to start a reading group with him this summer for Terrence Deacon‘s new book. A few days later, I found out he’d be lecturing in San Francisco… I was impressed and hope to encourage more of you to join our reading/discussion group!

I’ve transcribed the gist of my short exchange with Deacon below. I would have liked to continue the discussion, but other people in attendance had questions for him. I’ll follow up with what I would have said to him in response below.

Me: “Terry you mentioned formal causality just now… I was hoping to draw you into a discussion about the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I know you engage with him a little bit in your book–

Terrence Deacon: “…negatively, actually, but I have great respect for Whitehead. But in terms of the concepts that I’m after, I’m troubled by him…”

Me: “…you use the notion of thermodynamic ‘constraint’ to try to figure out how what Aristotle called formal causality is possible.”

TD: “Yes.”

Me: “Whitehead writes about ‘eternal objects,’ or ‘forms,’ but tries to reform Plato so that the forms aren’t entering into this world from another world, but that the forms represent what he calls ‘determinate possibilities’ that haven’t yet been actualized. So forms are not physical…

TD: “…and their not in another world…”

Me: “Right.”

TD: “That’s not too far from the notion of emergent constraint that I’m after. Not too far from it.”

Me: “What’s the difference?”

TD: “My point is that in the quasi-Platonic realm, there is maybe a finite set of forms. In an emergent world, there is an infinite set. Its continually constructing constraints producing constraints producing constraints… complication forever. I have my own perspective, which is radically emergent. Its a perspective in which the “ideal forms” are not finite and yet there are limitations on what can happen. We run up against limitations all the time. That aspect of Whitehead–his attempt to save Plato, or to save realism as I would put it in more general philosophical terms–is a noble effort and an effort I am making here as well. I think saving realism is important, rather than abandoning science to a sort of nominalism where there is only stuff, only atoms, or only particles, only isolated events. I think that is a noble task and that he and I are exactly in the same boat. I was influenced by him early on in my career, but became very dissatisfied because I began to think he was sneaking in homunculi at a very, very low level, at the level of subatomic quantum events, that there is some kind of essence of wanting, or of needing… its hard to put my finger on it, but that has always troubled me. Because for me that sneaks the name of the game in at the start. From my perspective, I wanted to build the game from a point of view that there is no sentience and now there is. Theres a reason for that, because the other way doesn’t explain anything. There’s no clear explanation if you sneak feeling in at the start. If you can show how it is generated, then you have an explanation for it. I prefer a radical emergence perspective, which suggests that new value is possible, that new consciousness, new forms, and new ideal types are possible. So Whitehead’s process thinking is agreeable to me, but I see emergence as an open-ended process, while he does not. Now its questionable, I can’t say that I’m a Whitehead expert anymore…”

I’ve yet to read Deacon’s new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter, but based on the lecture I heard him give about it this week, and a quick read of the first chapter, I’m convinced it is important, and even relevant to my dissertation research on Whitehead. Deacon praises Whitehead for defiantly pursuing a realist philosophy despite the tide of nominalism rising all about him during the first half of the 20th century. He nonetheless is “troubled” by at least two aspects of Whitehead’s scheme: 1) his sense that Whitehead’s is a “closed universe” where the number of potential forms available for emergent actualization is finite, and 2) his sense that Whitehead sneaks feeling and sentience in at the beginning without explaining how it is generated.

He admits that his Whitehead isn’t as fresh anymore, and it is difficult to give this issue the treatment I think Deacon knew it probably deserves in a 3 minute answer. I can’t be sure, but I assume that Deacon’s argument against Whitehead’s supposedly closed universe is related to his distaste of Whitehead’s theology. On the face of it, it seems a rather simple mistake by Deacon about the details of Whitehead’s system, since the most general category  is, after all, Creativity. Creativity is that which assures that the universe is never the same twice (p. 31, Process and Reality). Whitehead’s is an open-ended universe in that everything actual–even God–participates in the creative advance. Eternal objects (which are potentials for actuality and cannot themselves act) are an exception, since they are eternal: “There are no novel eternal objects” (p. 22, Process and Reality). However, since there are an infinite set of eternal objects, there can be no definite limit to the number of forms available for actualization. There is a further complication with regard to the relationship between Creativity and Eternity: God. Whitehead’s divine function is a mathematician’s God, not the God of Abraham. Whitehead’s God is a creature of Creativity, but also functions to condition Creativity: “The non-temporal act of all-inclusive unfettered valuation is at once a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity” (p. 31, Process and Reality). God conditions creativity through God’s primordial valuation of the infinite set of eternal objects, thereby grading them according to their relevance. God’s highest value is aesthetic satisfaction; God loves beauty.

Deacon doesn’t seem to have much patience for theology. The idea that God conditions Creativity, shaping it according to some primordial valuation is obviously not attractive to him. He would rather seek an explanation for value that finds it emerging later on in the creative advance, perhaps about the time life emerges. He quotes Nietzsche approvingly, and perhaps there is some Nietzschean sense in which he finds the will to live is the ultimate source of value.

Whitehead wasn’t satisfied with the emergence of value later on up the evolutionary chain as a result of the motion of emotionless dead particles in empty space. For him, value is a cosmological category, not simply a biological category. Or perhaps his “philosophy of organism” makes biology the more general science, with physics becoming a special case of biology. That there is an ordered universe with stars and galaxies already requires an explanation in terms of value, for Whitehead. That life and mind have also emerged in time would be nothing short of a miracle unless the tendency to harmony was basic to creation itself, already there “in the beginning.” I almost said that this tendency must be “built in” to the universe, but this leads most people to picture a divine craftsman who programmed every detail of the universe, “building in” its properties before the moment of creation even occurred. Though I don’t think it helps his case with modern readers, Plato had Timaeus use this image to tell his “likely story” about the genesis of the cosmos. Were Plato alive today, he may have made a more appropriate rhetorical choice in mythologizing his cosmology. Whitehead, in trying to “save Plato” from this myth for a modern, scientific audience, re-imagines God as immanent to every finite actual occasion, the cause of their feeling an “urge towards the future based upon an appetite in the present” (p. 32, Process and Reality). God does not determine the specific decision each finite occasion will make regarding this “initial aim.” God only supplies each occasion with the complex feeling of the graded relevance of all the possibilities available to it in any given moment. Which of these possibilities it chooses to realize is a free decision on its part, a freedom conditioned of course by the “objective immortality” of its past decisions, and of the past decisions of all the other occasions the occasion in question is currently prehending. God’s valuation is persuasive enough that a cosmos with not only stars and galaxies, but living planets and intelligent civilizations has emerged.

Deacon wants to know how this kind of a universe could be, and believes that Whitehead has broken the rules of the scientific game by simply asserting “feeling” or “value” as fundamental aspects of the universe, rather than explaining them. For Whitehead, however, an “explanation” for “how” value is generated is to be sought no where but in concrete experience itself, in the experience of “feelings derived from the timeless source of all order…which slowly and in quietness operate by love…[which] neither rules, nor is it unmoved” (pgs. 31, 343, Process and Reality). In other words, philosophy is not meant to explain the emergence of what is concrete, but of what is abstract (p. 20, Process and Reality). Value is not an abstraction, but a fact in the world. Its “how” is not to be explained, but to be experienced.

Responses to Archive Fire and Immanent Transcendence: Egos, Ideas, and Eternal Events

Jason/Immanent Transcendence and Michael/Archive Fire have been continuing the discussion that began almost two weeks ago HERE and HERE. In his latest response to me, Michael writes:

Matt wants to think the Absolute (unity), with an eye towards cultivating the existential implications which flow from an acquaintance therein, while I want to think the Possible (multiplicity), with a wonky fish eye towards negation and the positive mutations that come from reigning in our animal speculations.

Michael goes on to defend “speculative pragmatism” and “creaturely thinking.” He wants us to remain attentive to the raw contingencies unraveling the seams of the seemingly unified perceptual horizon of conscious awareness. This all sounds right-minded to me. I am all for relativizing the rational ego’s claims to mastery of an “external” world. [See, for example, my recent essay on the metaphysical implications of psychedelics.] Whatever “mind” we may be said to possess–or perhaps to be possessed by–it must be fundamentally continuous with its physical, biological, cultural, and cosmological habitats. “Inner” experience, soul, is not something given to us at birth, not a spiritual substance, but something we are tasked with making. Soul-making means not only learning to share flesh with others, but learning to share a language.

Whitehead, somewhere in Adventures of Ideas, writes:

“The mentality of mankind and the language of mankind created each other. If we like to assume the rise of language as a given fact, then it is not going too far to say that the souls of men are the gift from language to mankind. The account of the sixth day should be written: He gave them speech, and they became souls.”

The ego is not as free as it tends to think, nor “external” nature as determined. Both “ego” and “external nature” are artifacts of a particular species of Cartesian-Kantian language game. But I would distinguish all particular languages from Logos. Logos is the language of the universe.

If we are haunted by a spirit, it is the spirit of the universe itself. Logos is the potency of energy that thinks in me, the pregnancy of matter that makes my world. Whatever else the human imagination is, it is also fully animal, fully incarnated. Ideas arise and travel with the warm, damp breath of speaking animals and not apart from it.

In his latest contribution to the conversation, Jason writes:

Matt is using most of that “eternal form” talk.  He takes a religious-spiritual perspective on the ontological, whereas I’m willing to be a quietist.  I also accept a Jamesian “will to believe” on this point, and Matt could argue from that as well.

Jason is right, I could and in fact have argued from a Jamesian perspective before. He goes on to say that, while forms do not exist in their own right, they effect reality as tendencies and future possibilities for actualization. To ask “where” forms are is to falsely spatialize time, as though the future threw itself ahead and is now waiting “out there” for us “in here” to catch up with it. The definite possibilities of the future do not ex-ist, and yet they have perfectly real effects on present actualities. That this is so may be testable by experimentation at the quantum level, and is even easier to prove at the level of conscious animality (“It will be spring soon, I better sow these seeds”). The future doesn’t exist yet. This not yet should not, Jason reminds us, be reified into a divine designer’s giant mould that descends from the sky to shape earthly occasions from beyond. Forms cannot be so simply located “outside” or “inside” actual occasions. They happen only where they are not, since they are eternal events and not finite occasions.

Whitehead and the Role of Ideas in the Universe: A Psychedelic Experiment

“[In the philosophy of organism], the actualities constituting the process of the world are conceived as exemplifying the ingression (or ‘participation’) of other things which constitute the potentialities of definiteness for any actual existence. The things which are temporal arise by their participation in the things which are eternal. The two sets are mediated by a thing which combines the actuality of what is temporal with the timelessness of what is potential. This final entity is the divine element in the world, by which the barren inefficient disjunction of abstract potentialities obtains primordially the efficient conjunction of ideal realization. This ideal realization of potentialities in a primordial actual entity [God] constitutes the metaphysical stability whereby the actual process exemplifies general principles of metaphysics, and attains the ends proper to specific types of emergent order. By reason of the actuality of this primordial valuation of pure potentials, each eternal object has a definite, effective relevance to each concrescent process. Apart from such orderings, there would be a complete disjunction of eternal objects unrealized in the temporal world. Novelty would be meaningless, and inconceivable.” -p. 40, Process and Reality

I should be working on my term paper on psychedelics and religious experience for a course on contemporary transpersonal theory, but all I can think about is the conversation that Jason, Adam, and Michael have been in for the past several days (over on Michael’s blog Archive Fire) about the role of ideas in the universe. While thinking about the philosophical significance of chemically altered (alchemical) consciousness for the paper, I may have accidentally stumbled upon a very helpful example of what Whitehead means when he refers to eternal objects. [BTW, Whitehead was well aware of the difficulty of selecting a proper turn of phrase for what he came to call eternal objects (see p. 44 of Process and Reality). I'm open to a better turn of phrase--maybe Charles Olson's "eternal event" is better?]. There is no way to understand what Whitehead means by eternal objects without understanding what he means by God. In the excerpt from Process and Reality above, Whitehead envisions a God who becomes with the world by that world’s participation in divine Eros. Without such participation in a divine function, there could be no world at all, no habit and no novelty, since infinite possibility (what physicists call “randomness”) without determinate valuation can lead only to disjunction and chaos. The emergent forms of order on display throughout our universe (especially on earth) imply not only the participation of eternal objects, but a divine actuality who realizes these definite characteristics out of the background flux of pure potentiality. Don’t mistake my meaning here: God’s function is to value a certain set of eternal objects, not to determine how this set will be temporally realized in the actual world of concrescent processes. Each occasion prehends the full set of eternal objects (i.e., participates in the primordial nature of God), but the occasion’s experience of this set is graded according to the relevance of its finite, temporal situation. In ordinary experience (i.e., when we aren’t on a few hundred micrograms of LSD), most of what is possible, most of the set of eternal objects, is negatively prehended (i.e., ignored, pushed into vague unconsciousness). But we can turn to the phenomenology of the psychedelic experience for an example of what a human being’s prehension of the primordial nature of God might feel like… Let’s see what happened to the artist Henri Michaux when he ingested mescaline in the 1950s… He writes:

Drawing by Michaux

“As if there were an opening, an opening which would be an assembling, which would be a world, which would be that something might happen, that many things might happen, that there is a crowd, a swarming of what is possible, that all the possibilities are seized with pricklings, that the person I vaguely hear walking outside might ring the bell, might enter, might set the place on fire, might climb up to the roof, might throw himself howling onto the pavement of the courtyard. Might everything, anything, without  choosing, without any one of these actions having precedence over another. I am not particularly disturbed by it either. ‘Might’ is what counts, this prodigious urgency of possibilities, which have become incalculable and continue to multiply.” -p. 9-10, Miserable Miracle

As Richard Doyle remarked after reading the same passage (see p. 54, Darwin’s Pharmacy), Michaux doesn’t so much report upon his psychedelic experience as he does transmit it. As I read it, I thought immediately of Whitehead’s description of the “feeling of negation” so essential to high grade occasions of experience like conscious human beings:

“Thus the negative perception is the triumph of consciousness. It finally rises to the peak of free imagination, in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified.” -p. 161, Process and Reality

In moments of heightened intensity of experience, as may occur with the ingestion of a psychedelic chemical, human consciousness seems to “open” to a more complete vision of the total set of eternal objects, that is, to participate more fully in the primordial nature of God while withdrawing increasingly from actual matters of fact. As the psychedelic takes effect, conscious experience can become detached from the causal efficacy of past occasions to focus almost entirely upon the presentational immediacy of normally irrelevant possibilities (“the person I vaguely hear walking outside might ring the bell, might enter, might set the place on fire, might climb up to the roof, might throw himself howling onto the pavement of the courtyard”). With the doors of habitual perception cleansed, consciousness opens to an experience of the timeless possibilities of becoming. One begins to feel like Hume, seriously wondering if the Sun will rise tomorrow or not. We discover in these moments a taste of what it feels like to be a God, not of absolute power, but of absolute might. The primordial nature of God can be described as the complex feeling of what might be (the “prodigious urgency of possibilities”) before any actual decision has been made. But alas, such experiences cannot last for finite occasions, nor even for Whitehead’s dipolar God. The chemical is metabolized and consciousness returns to its normal habits. The Universe, an ever-cresting wave, continues to decide to become what it is from actual occasion to actual occasion; God feels each of these finite decisions, yet still remains in awe of the possibilities which remain.

Formal Causality and Materialism

There have been a flurry of responses recently to an exchange between Michael/Archive Fire and I regarding formal causality (also, be sure to read Adam/Knowledge Ecology‘s comments over on Archive Fire for a nice defense of Whitehead). Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted some of his reflections, relating the issue to the old debate between realists and nominalists. Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects also chimed in, arguing that my Whiteheadian articulation of formal causation is just hylomorphism in drag. In my exchange with Michael, however, I explicitly rejected the notion that forms are imposed by a transcendent God upon passive matter. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an attempt to preserve formal (and final) causality while jettisoning the unhelpful notion of a transcendent designer. His ontological principle prevents us from conceiving of eternal objects/forms as the causes of anything. Forms are said to “ingress” into actual occasions, though not as a potter’s design is imposed on formless clay, but as a poet’s verse might invite new possibilities into manifestation. The decision to actualize any such possibility remains always in the hands of the actual occasion in question.

Here is my second response to Michael:

Occasions decide which forms will ultimately come to characterize the actual world of their experience. Forms are not ‘imposed’ upon actual occasions from outside. Much of the character of experience, especially for lower grade occasions like electrons and photons, is decided unconsciously through conformal prehension of past decisions. Physical science concerns itself with the general habits of such low grade occasions. But higher grade occasions like ravens, coyotes, and primates, are not so determined by physical prehensions of past actualities, since they have a heightened experience, through conceptual prehension, of future possibilities. In human occasions of experience, this futural perception reaches its near apogee. In Process and Reality, Whitehead discusses our conceptual prehension of eternal objects in terms of consciousness’ capacity for negation–to see the facticity of not only of that grey rock there and to know it could have been otherwise, but to see the whole of the visible universe and know the same. The contingency of nature is not mere chance, but the result of will–will which leans toward more degrees of freedom as moves through the series of natural kingdoms, at first an unconscious flow of emotion, only later rising to the level of the symbolic and intellectual articulation of emotion.

You argue that ‘pure difference’ is at the base of materiality, but I am uncertain what you mean. Wouldn’t its supposed ‘purity’ already be a sign of contamination by identity? Its the old (“archaic”?) problem of the one and the many, of cosmos and chaos. Plato, you’ll remember, did not conceive of form in abstraction from matter, but sought to understand how eternity and time, permanence and process, come to be mixed up into the Living Thing that is the Universe. Eros and metaxy, and not ideal purity, are at the core of the Platonic philosophy, at least as I understand it. The challenge Plato left for philosophy is how to think the in between. Contemporary physics, so far as I understand it, no longer studies nature as substance, but as interlocking processes of formation. This is not all that different from the Schellingian interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus, as unpacked by Iain Hamilton Grant.

You write: ‘Sunsets are not “eternal possibilities” but immanent actualities generated through the emergent activities and collaboration of photons, electrons, hydrogen, helium, oxygen, earth, etc., etc., as they are “stacked” into particular living ecologies. World-flesh is self-sufficient complexity.’

In my prior post, I wasn’t referring to sunsets as eternal possibilities, but to a particular shade of red realized in the sunset. “Red” certainly cannot be explained by reference to the physical bodies you’ve listed, though I would agree about its ecological origins. “Red” is what Whitehead called a subjective eternal object, capable of realization in any number of actual occasions though not reducible to any one in particular or to all in summation. Qualities like redness, and quantities like the number 17, cannot be explained by reference to materiality, since materiality itself would be meaningless without reference to quality and to quantity (which for Whitehead, unlike Kant, are not categories of the human mind, but forms of definiteness characterizing prehension in general).

Whitehead, Eternal Objects, and God

Those who take the time to familiarize themselves with Whitehead’s philosophy are almost always lead to praise him for the originality of his thought. He dissolves many longstanding problems by rooting abstract disembodied reason in concrete feelings of inheritance. The subject-to-object vector of the Kantian school of philosophy is reversed, such that the structure of the thinking subject is understood to emerge from the past activity of the universe (i.e., object-to-subject); it is important to remember that the converse is also true, that the past activity of the objective universe is nothing other than an achievement of the purposive decisions of subjects. Past decisions achieve objective immortality as data for all future subjectivities. Such purposive decisions (and in Whitehead’s anthrodecentric cosmology, we are talking about the purposive decisions of every of subjectivity, from photons to persons) are made possible by the ingression of eternal objects in the experience of actual occasions. These eternal objects are given concrete actuality through the envisagement of an actual God. The initial aim of each subjective decision is a divine feeling, made possible by Whitehead’s dipolar deity. Whitehead’s God is the everlasting world-soul whose values erotically lure each moment of finite experience toward the ideal of beauty (which is nothing other than the true and the good). This is not an omnipotent Creator deity. If anything is omnipotent, it is Creativity; God is a creature of Creativity like every other. God is the poet of the world, “with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (346, Process and Reality). Whitehead certainly dissolves old problems, but by introducing the novel concepts of “God” and “eternal objects,” he also creates new problems for philosophy. God may be alike in kind to the finite creatures of the World, but clearly there is so much more that is ingredient in the experience of God that this difference in degree approaches a difference in kind.

Here is Victor Lowe (Understanding Whitehead, 1962), first on God:

Whitehead seems never to have considered atheism as a serious alternative in metaphysics. An atheist would naturally suggest that all the potentialities for any occasion are derived from its historical environment. A “society,” in Whitehead’s cosmology, is built on this sort of derivation. Why then need the occasion also draw upon a God? The answer is that if the past provided everything for the present, nothing new could appear. Novelty and adventure were too real to Whitehead to permit him to say, like the materialists, that the apparently new is a reconfiguration of the old. Yet his thorough going rationalism did not permit him to say that novelty just happens. His religious humility told him whence it came.

Throughout his philosophy, Whitehead contrasts the compulsion of what is with the persuasive lure of what might be. God’s action on the world is primarily persuasive: he offers to each occasion its possibilities of value. The theory that each occasion creates itself by realizing an aim internal to it, however, requires that the germ of this aim be initially established at that spot in the temporal world by God; otherwise the occasion’s self-creation could never commence, since nothing can come from nowhere. Whitehead’s position is that the initial aim partially defines the goal which is best in the given situation, and that the temporal occasion itself does the rest (47).

God is necessary, for Whitehead, not only to explain novelty, but to explain memory. The Universe as Whitehead experienced it was clearly creative, having emerged from the fertile soil of some ultimately chaotic process; but just as clearly, it evidenced the endurance of ideals like order and progress. Past accomplishments are plainly preserved, just as possibilities are envisaged in the future for decisive action in the present. How are the many finite occasions of the Universe capable of holding together as a whole so as to produce a Cosmos? There must be a primordial Occasion who values the order of this World over an infinite range of other possible worlds, and an Occasion who feels as a whole the cumulative consequence of the universal society’s decision regarding this Occasion’s cosmic values. This is Whitehead’s dipolar deity.

Consciousness, for Whitehead, is a rare form of high grade experience, closer in degree to God’s primordial valuation of eternal objects than plant sensitivity or electronic prehensivity. Most experience is not conscious, but is ruled by the emotional currents of causal efficacy. Consciousness, we are told, is most generally “the feeling of negation” (161, PR). When we perceive “this stone as grey,” the feeling of conscious negation is “in barest germ,” while when we perceive the contingency of this coloration, that it could have not been grey, “such feeling is in full development” (ibid.).

Whitehead continues:

Thus the negative perception is the triumph of consciousness. It finally rises to the peak of free imagination, in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified (ibid.).

In its conceptual prehensions of the possibilities of the World, consciousness most nearly approaches an experience of God’s primordial nature. Consciousness begins to see what it is like to swim in the mind of God. In most cases, the abstraction inherent to such negative perception pushes God’s heart–the feeling of the warmth of God, not just the sight of God’s light–into unconsciousness. Here, Whitehead’s philosophy of religion complements his philosophy of science. Both the clear and distinct skeptical consciousness of rationalism and the vague feeling of divinity at the base of any radical empiricism are important (see Ch. 1 of Modes of Thought) in Whitehead’s scheme.

Here is Lowe, again, on eternal objects:

For Whitehead, as for Aristotle, process is the realizing of selected antecedent potentialities, or it is unexplainable. “Pure potentials for the specific determinations of fact”–that is what eternal objects are. And that is all they are. The ideal is nothing more than a possibility (good or bad) for the actual. Whitehead so emphatically repudiates the Platonic tendency to think of the realm of forms as constituting a superior, self-sufficient type of existence, that he interprets even the propositions of mathematics as statements about certain possible forms of process (43).

Whitehead did not conceive of eternal objects in abstraction from concreate occasions. These two categories are not to be conceived separately, as Cartesian substances like mind and matter; their coherence depends upon their explanatory coincidence. There can be no occasions of experience of a definite character unless there are eternal objects to so characterize them; and there can be no external objects with actual effects unless there are real creatures to value them.