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:

“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.