I’ve been struggling through Isabelle Stengers‘ newly translated book Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The first quarter of the book focuses primarily on Whitehead’s first explicitly philosophical text, The Concept of Nature (1920), in which he sets for himself the task of avoiding an account of nature based in a bifurcation between objective and subjective, or primary and secondary characteristics. On the one hand, there is the real world of atoms and molecules studied by physicists, while on the other hand, there is the apparent world of beautiful rainbows and delicious strawberries experienced by creatures lucky enough to be in the possession of something called a “mind.” This bifurcation is easily spotted in the abstractions mobilized by a number of contemporary scientific thinkers, especially Richard Dawkins. Listen to what he had to say earlier this year at a panel discussion on the essence of life (I’m particularly interested in what he says about “purpose” between the 4th and 5th minutes of the talk):
Dawkins’ on the essence of life
Purpose, from Dawkins’ point of view, is not a natural phenomenon, but an illusion produced by nervous systems, which themselves are the result of the differential selection of randomly mutating genetic molecules. Until brains evolved, nature was entirely without purpose or value, “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly…” (Science and the Modern World, 1925). According to this story, only once neural tissue came to be arranged in just the right way could the meaningful world celebrated by poets suddenly spring into existence (however illusory, or secondary it is). In what seems a miraculous flash, mind emerges out of nature: the sky becomes blue and the wind is no longer mute.
An evolutionary geneticist, Dawkins is trained to view the world through the abstractions of his particular discipline. As a result, his reasoning concerning the more general phenomenon of life succumbs to what Whitehead would later come to call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Living organisms, with all their spontaneity and experiential valence, become swarms of genetic algorithms blindly vying for passage into the next generation. The human world of aesthetic and ethical ideals becomes irrecoverably divided off from the physical world of mere mechanical motion. Whitehead laments the radical inconsistency underlying such an impoverished perspective on the nature of nature. For him, this inconsistency is characteristic of much modern thought, serving to distract and enfeeble it from the task of attaining a harmony of understanding.
We have “become content with superficial orderings from diverse arbitrary starting points…”
…the enterprises produced by the individualistic energy of the European peoples presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved. It is the fact, however you gloze it over with phrases (SMW).
In the final chapter of what is perhaps his best known book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins hammers home his bifurcated view of nature: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Only human beings, that is, are capable of rising above the purposeless mechanism to which all other entities are chained.
Dawkins was, until very recently, the professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford, and most non-academicians come to understand evolution and the relation between science and religion by reading his books. The challenge for Whiteheadians, I think, is to make his “wild” ideas digestible by a wider audience. Our civilization is in desperate need of a less muddled and self-contradictory cosmology, one that can offer a robust alternative to the consumerism that neo-Darwinism implicitly legitimates.
Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story with the late Thomas Berry, has done a tremendous job domesticating Whitehead’s metaphysical approach, and I think his understanding of the role of science and the place of the human in the universe offers a sorely needed alternative to still reigning perspectives like that of Dawkins’.