“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

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.







23 responses to “Whitehead’s Experiential Universe (a response to Archive Fire)”

  1. goldenagebeyond Avatar

    What pre-biological world if I may ask? We, any one of us, know only the biological world as “externality” from the very first instant of “being in the world”. We only later come to know of a world that is (apparently) void of biological content and seemingly so it is posited as “pre” biological but it may very well be “post” biological for all we know (other than the truth which is the simultaneous expression thereof).

    As for eternal objects there are no such – time is a construct limited by and within being only. Within being there is time as a sense of continuity. Within time there are variable objects in a relative sense. The primal expression of being is biological as “the world” and the “infrastructure” of matter is elaborated in support thereof.

    As I believe I have said before: Whitehead wants to have his cake and eat it too. The interiority expresses exteriority simply by choice and the first tangible emission there-from is, you guessed it, the biological construct and all else follows……..The “origin” of the interior/exterior nexus lies “beyond” both and does not partake thereof…

  2. John Anngeister Avatar

    I keep coming up ‘sceptical’ on this view. Impossible for me to accept that anything like mind is inherent in anything like matter.

    Matter cannot and therefore does not experience anything. Whitehead the mathematician is simply taking appearances for things in themselves and on that basis going through the motions of being a metaphysician by messing with the definition of experience. You cannot go back to Locke as he does and get anywhere (after Kant).

    The lump of uranium which slowy transforms into lead as it loses neutrons has no experience of this change whatsoever. The realm of material substance (as a whole) loses no neutron. Only the onlooking mind has an experience of this transformation which can be classified and explained in terms of ‘lost neutrons’

  3. Andras Magagna Avatar
    Andras Magagna

    I think of datum as that impressed on a perceiver by another event. I think of datum vector as magnitude and latitude of datum. I think of datum intensity as measurement of saturation and duration of datum vector.

  4. Michael- Avatar

    Thanks Matt, but I cannot except WH’s “substitutions” above just because he says so. I still have not seen a real argument for why we should just call base material interactions ‘experience’ as opposed or in addition to using chemical or atomic or molecular oriented language to describe such things. There is no value added to such a move and I have yet to see any justification provided. Every quote you have provided have been assertions only.

    You write:

    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.

    This particular binary is not something I can support. Interiority is for me a issue of material-energetic complexity and the functional capacities of some assemblages with such complexities. The reason animals are sentience is because they are higher order emergent systems with the biophysical capacity for recursion and memory. This depth of capacity is no less special because it is wholly flesh. In fact the evolution of sentient from primordial potency is astonishing, and a testament to the intrinsic powers of the cosmos. So, for me, interiority is a matter of depth and capacity. Experience is a higher order achievement, like bird song and human speech, that must be explained in its own terms and in reference to specific layers of complexity, irreducible to capacities inherent in atoms. By conflating rudimentary – but never simply “dead” – physical process with higher order capacities we lose the ability to ponder, explain or even describe the onto-specfic (irreducible) features of a particular system.

    That said, do I think that there is some basic properties of quarks, particles and atoms that eventually leads to experientiality and sentience? Of course I do. If matter was impotent and dead consciousness could have never evolved. What is that primordial property? I call it potency: the intrinsic activity of all existences, all act-tualities. However, we could just as easily call it ‘irritability’ or even Spanda (see Kashmiri Shaivism), I don’t particularly care. But it is not identical to cognition, experience or ‘mind’ as most people understand those terms because those are emergent capacities of biological entities (not just humans) – irreducible to material potency but definitely of it.

    So if Whitehead is simply using the term ‘experience’ to signify the most basic activities of actual occasions generally then I think his choice is regrettable but of lesser consequence. However, if WH wants to hitch mentalistic properties to pre-cognitive assemblages without empirical support then I must vehemently reject that move. Because, contra what Shaviro has recently said, that is a decidedly biocentric (if not anthropocentric) move that conflates and obscures the (onto)specific characteristics of entities that exist at various other scales. Such a move is actually anti-realist because it does not allow certain entities to be what they are (i.e., non-sentient) but instead demands that they be like us. Experience (Logos?) is not the original face of reality: potency or power (Eros?) is.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      From Whitehead’s perspective, power is the ability to relate, or to be related to, and relation is always and everywhere experiential. He writes also of “value” being basic to nature at every level, sentient or not.

      As for the lack of arguments and tendency to assertion, that is both a result of the brevity of this post, and Whitehead’s poetic style of philosophy. He says in Adventures of Ideas that philosophy, like poetry, aims for “sheer disclosure” and “self-evidence” rather than deductive proof. I’ve developed this side of his thought more fully, including the influence of the Romantic poets, in the essay posted today.

    2. John Anngeister Avatar

      Michael writes: “If matter was impotent and dead, consciousness could have never evolved.”

      The unspoken premise is that consciousness must have evolved from matter. But this dogmatic materialism is exposed by applying the same reasoning to developments prior to consciousness.

      It is impossible to keep a straight face and say “If quarks were impotent or dead, particles could not have evolved.” Here it is easier to see that we are begging the question whether particles must necessarily be the result of ‘evolution’ from quarks (via potency).

      “If particles were impotent or dead, atoms could not have evolved” Seriously?

      “If Hydrogen was impotent or dead, Helium could not have evolved.” etc., etc.

      Prior to the appearance of life itself there is no necessity that matter must not be impotent or dead; What warrant do we have for positing a finite pre-cognitive ‘potency’ that is actually not needed to explain the first 12 aeons of finite universe reality?

      Maybe Michael’s word ‘potency’ does not name or explain any actual thing that functions prior to organic life, but only serves as a place-holder for an imagined built-in causal capacity without which he could not believe his unphilosophical theory about the evolution of consciousness from matter.

      And it is the same with Whitehead’s word ‘power’ which comes riding into matter on the back of imagined intrinsic relations between material objects. Kant warned that we cannot imagine such things with dogmatic certainty. So when we wander among the Antinomies of Reason, it is all poetry, and not all good poetry.

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


        Given what you’ve said here, the problem still remains, how are we to account for the emergence of living organization from non-living mechanism?

        I would disagree that we cannot imagine the universe as itself “a living thing” “without dogmatic certainty.” Imagination is not certainty. It is based on a precursive trust (James) in the synechism (Peirce) of mind and nature. We risk propositions regarding the realities of the universe, knowing full well that we could be wrong. The test of a proposition is the degree to which it discloses novel perceptions and unforeseen relations.

      2. John Anngeister Avatar

        Matt, Kant’s attack on dogmatism in metaphysics allows a philosopher the freedom to take a real philosophical position – one that can fully appreciate the truth of undogmatic religion and undogmatic science.

        Real philosophy should enable one and the same human being to believe in the ultimacy of spirit while he is capable of cutting-edge science in the realm of the sub-ultimate (matter).

        Philosophy must take the ‘risk’ of offending dogmatic science and materialism by bringing ample views of spirit back to the table in order to redress the imbalance that occured when dogmatic religion alienated the intellect of Western man.

        But a true view of spirit can never be simply an over-robust view of matter. Spirit is not an epiphenomenon of matter; nor is it the secret heart of matter.

        What’s wrong with risking propositions (as you say) that lead in the direction of spirit? What if spirit is the secret of life and consciousness, whereas matter is merely aligned with consciousness as conduit, vehicle, plaything?

        Objects are not subjects, and all the most real things in the world are under the control of subjectivity – moral power, truth, goodness, beauty, love, duty, justice.

      3. Michael- Avatar

        You want to speak of Spirit and “moral power” and you call me a dogmatist?

        But you are right, Spirit is not an epiphenomenon of matter – it is matter. A fully ecological and evolutionary perspective does not eliminate the “truth” of Spirit, it illuminates it.

      4. John Anngeister Avatar

        Michael, you cannot have any idea what I am proposing if you are content to imply that there is truth in equations like “moral power = dogmatism” and “Spirit = matter”

        Where do materialists get the idea that it is valid to presume the function of ecological and evolutionary processes outside of the biological level?

        Natural selection – a basic principle of speciation – is meaningless without the function of DNA. Are you assuming also a pre-life ordering principle at the sub-atomic level that controls the eventuation of material differences? But that function in itself could never account for the kind of pre-sentience you are seeking to validate for matter on the sub-atomic level by the word ‘potency’. So this is where you hide behind the concept of ‘complexity’?

      5. Michael- Avatar

        Now that’s more like it. I never once presumed “the function of ecological and evolutionary processes outside of the biological level”. However, now that you bring it up, it what sense can you possible assert that atomic, molecular and chemical processes are anything but ecological? Is water ecological? Does plutonium have ecological import? Neither of those compounds have DNA and yet they play a role in evolution of systems. And I would never argue that natural selection occurs at a subatomic scale.

        Moreover, material difference is based on intensive forces and extensive organization (which includes cumulative relations). Complexity is just the measure of depth in a particular assembly. If anything, I “hide” behind the notion of emergence. Sentience, Sapience and language all emerged as expressions of accumulated and eventually evolving complex material assemblages. But the question remains? What is the impetus or driving force that alwys such associations to occur in the first place? Philosophers from ancient times to Spinoza, Whitehead, Bergson and others have posited a creativity at the heart of actuality itself, and the term “potency” meant in a similar matter. Matter, or actuality is intrinsically active. Outside of that claim we would have to track the specific organization and functional capacities of particular entities to determine what they can do or express.

        On the flip side, do you have anything to offer in terms of a positive description of how sentience came into being, or what “Spirit” is??

      6. John Anngeister Avatar

        Michael, my interpretation of sentience can hardly be ‘positive’ since it has been impossible for me to conceive of sentience as a force or mere thing.

        I think you feel this impossibility from your standpoint also – which is why you have settled on less distinct words like ‘potency’ and ‘assemblages’ to help you describe the mystery of how the sheer activity of matter ‘eventually’ brings sentience into being.

        But my perspective has the additional disadvantage of being unable to find a material ground for sentience in the idea of what you call complex interactions.

        I say this because I see no forces in a primordial setting besides the four fundamental interactions of physics (electromagnetic, strong, weak, gravitational). These forces define mathematical and extrinsic and not intrinsic relations between points of matter. And none of them requires the hint of sentience as a part of their explanations.

        But if there is arguably a lack of physical ground for a theory that derives consciousness from automatic natural material activity, its origin might just as well be postulated in free creative spiritual activity – a simultaneous endowment of DNA, life, and sentience together in the initial phyla of organic life.

      7. Michael- Avatar

        LOL. Kant? Really?

        Don’t confuse yourself John. I never said anything about particles from atoms, etc. What I said was that a) because consciousness is an emergent feature of matter b) there must be some property of matter (namely primordial activity) that contributes to such an emergence. This “basic property” is activity, or better yet affectivity. Matter-energy is inherently active or potent. That is basic empirical science my friend. And causality generally requires such a principle.

        That said, that matter is potent or vibrant (see Jane Bennett’s work) or intrinsically active explains nothing about how sentience came into existence. How consciousness or imagination has come into being is an issue of emergent complexity and a specific evolutionary trajectory.

        However, Matt’s question to you still stands: how can something living come from something dead? My answer is that death – in the sense of complete inertia – is impossible. Decomposition as the “death” of a particular assemblage is possible, but that death is simply a reorganization.

        And I would echo Matt’s appeal to pragmatism as well. I have no purchase of certainty. I want to generate linguistic intimacies not Eternal Truths. And in the grand scheme of things, I’m just swapping stories with a friend.

  5. Michael- Avatar

    So basically Whitehead was doing cosmological poetry? I can accept that. So then the only thing I should be asking myself at this point is whether his romantic narrative resonates with me. There is a lot to admire about his novelty, but I’m obviously not comfortable with certain aspects of his story. I think there is a place for that type of speculation, but in these critical times I also think we need something more Earthly rather than Heavenly.

    Thank you Matt for your efforts and patience in this conversation. I have learned a lot.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Earthly, yes; but earth is bathed in the light of heaven. I tend to think metaxically on these issues, to think the ‘in-between.’ I think Whitehead does, too.

      1. Michael- Avatar

        What is “metallically”?

      2. Michael- Avatar

        I mean what is “metaxically”? Sorry.

      3. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Metaxy is one way that Plato thinks about participation. It means “in-between”–in between time and eternity, reality and ideality, finitude and infinitude, etc.


  6. Michael- Avatar

    Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel Prize winning Japanese short story writer and novelist, once wrote: “Because you cannot see him, God is everywhere.” What I’m suggesting is the importance of looking a little closer to see the specificity of particular ‘Gods’.

  7. goldenagebeyond Avatar

    Michael says: [quote] “do I think that there is some basic properties of quarks, particles and atoms that eventually leads to experientiality and sentience? Of course I do. If matter was impotent and dead consciousness could have never evolved. What is that primordial property? I call it potency: the intrinsic activity of all existences,”[unquote] and in this he almost gets the point while none the less maintaining the materialist perspective. There is just one further step to take and really it cannot be buttressed by any real argument for why we should just call base material interactions ‘experience’ as opposed or in addition to using chemical or atomic or molecular oriented language to describe such things.

    To see the true connection without equivocation it is necessary to “shift consciousness” up one level only and this shift does not even involve the expression of “faith” It is (actually) identical to cognition, experience or ‘mind’ as most people understand those terms because those are NOT emergent capacities of biological entities (not just humans) – and they ARE irreducible to material potency and are definitely not of it but instead are PRIOR thereto.. The words bio-centric and anthropocentric are pejorative on the materialist’s tongue although that does not in any way make them ring with the authenticity of truth. Potency. is exactly the correct word to use and even as used in Michael’s quote (indicated above) it is PRIOR to matter. It only “appears” to be an emergent property of matter for lack of taking the “next step” in elevating consciousness within the realm of the enunciator. The sentence construction used is also correct. The thought should follow: “Just a minute, what am I saying? Is it not that potency is prior to matter? In other words: is this not God? What every-one else means by ‘potency’ is this not in reality what the term “God” means? Ah ha! Got it! Is it not also that the terms cognition, experience or ‘mind’ are also in some way synonyms of what I mean by potential? Could this be possible? Answer: YES. Oh no, how did that happen just as I was so happy to think that potential meant some quality of quarks?……..

  8. goldenagebeyond Avatar

    Matthew David Segall says: I think Whitehead does, too. He does indeed and he sees it both ways but he strays just a little bit off the main path by giving physical reality equal billing with the source thereof. In this respect he is a sort of equal opportunity employer for whatever is detected by science is a world characterized by a kind of consistency only. A consistency that is certainly concordant with appearances but those appearances are, at best, merely a systematic reflection of the source itself. But he does make a “go” of it and thus comes up with the twined construct of interiority and exteriority. But the exteriority is not the truth of the matter at all being just a mirage ultimately suited to the expectations of the viewer only. So what does that make the viewer (one might ask)? Aye, there is the rub, ultimately one can get nowhere at all through examination of the exterior by whatever method. None of the great questions can be answered via such an approach because we are not in the world – the world is entirely within us – it is a (real) mirage welded together by agreement only – even by “scientific” agreement.

  9. The Poetics of Cosmogenesis, or Cosmopoiesis | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] Whitehead’s Experiential Universe (a response to Archive Fire) (footnotes2plato.com) […]

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