Whitehead’s Experiential Universe (a response to Archive Fire)

Michael posted another fine response to me yesterday.

I have Process and Reality in hand, and will quote a bit in a minute. Alfred North Whitehead left us a cosmological scheme, not a complete system. His scheme aims for experiential coherence, not explanatory completion. “Explanation,” as modern (i.e., Cartesian) science came to understand it, is only possible of a certain kind of abstract object or system of objects, e.g., 3 dimensional elastic bodies isolated in external space with no interiority or sense of social experience. Contemporary science, hip to complex systems theory, allows for more dynamic geometries capable of modeling emergence, but still, it utilizes abstract geometrical models in an attempt to “explain” actual living presences. Is this possible? The universe of scientific materialism is as much invention, as it is discovery. There may be a universe somewhere that is explainable according to efficient causes alone, but it doesn’t seem to be ours. This actual universe sure feels like it is permeated through and through by internal (formal and final) and not just external (efficient) relations. For Whitehead, interiority goes all the way down and is as fundamental as exteriority, since exteriority has no meaning without a contrasting interior. Experience can no more be explained than Existence, since to exist is to be some definite actual occasion experiencing the universe.

Michael prefers to use the term “potency” to speak about the character of electrons, atoms, and molecules, rather than experience. Whitehead certainly agrees that the pre-biological world is lively and active, so much so that he just bites the bullet and makes biology the more general science (since self-organization [Kant’s definition of life] is found on every level, from proton to planet to galaxy). Physics then becomes a more specialized study of the statistical behavior of unorganized societies (like clouds of gas molecules). My hunch is that Michael’s difficulty with the place of experience in Whitehead’s scheme is largely semantic. There does seem to be an actual disagreement regarding eternal objects, but this is an issue that’s been explored elsewhere (HERE).

Here is Whitehead on the issue of experience in low grade actual occasions:

“…the experience of the simplest grade of actual entity is to be conceived as the unoriginative response to the datum with its simple content of sensa. The datum is simple, because it presents the objectified experiences of the past under the guise of simplicity…The experience has a vector character, a common measure of intensity, and specific forms of feelings conveying that intensity. If we substitute ‘energy’ for the concept of a quantitative emotional intensity, and the term ‘form of energy’ for the concept of ‘specific form of feeling,’ and remember that in physics ‘vector’ means definite transmission from elsewhere, we see that this metaphysical description of the simplest elements in the constitution of actual entities agrees absolutely with the general principles according to which the notions of modern physics are framed. The ‘datum’ in metaphysics is the basis of the vector-theory in physics; the quantitative satisfaction in metaphysics is the basis of the scalar localization of energy in physics; the ‘sensa’ in metaphysics are the basis of the diversity of specific forms under which energy clothes itself. Scientific descriptions are, of course, entwined with the specific details of geometry and physical laws, which arise from the special order of the cosmic epoch in which we find ourselves. But the general principles of physics are exactly what we should expect as a specific exemplification of the metaphysics required by the philosophy of organism. It has been a defect in the modern philosophies that they throw no light whatever on any scientific principles. Science should investigate particular species, and metaphysics should investigate the generic notions under which those specific principles should fall. Yet, modern realisms have had nothing to say about scientific principles; and modern idealisms have merely contributed the unhelpful suggestion that the phenomenal world is one of the inferior avocations of the Absolute…The direct perception whereby the datum in the immediate subject is inherited from the past can thus, under an abstraction be conceived as the transference of throbs of emotional energy, clothed in the specific forms provided by sensa…” (p. 115-116).

Physical science has certainly changed since the late 1920s, but relativity and quantum theories were already well in place by the time Whitehead made the above remarks. As far as I can tell, science has only moved further in the direction of Whitehead’s organismic philosophy since he made the above statement. A “datum” is my experience of another actual occasion’s experience. As an occasion of experience, I don’t infer the feelings of other occasions in my environment based on some “theory of mind”; rather, I inherit their feelings directly as a throb of emotional energy. A datum presents another occasion to me with the “guise of simplicity” since the other occasion is “really” (or also) a composite of many occasions, each prehending nearly the same local world from its own graded perspective.