[The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science

“The sun rose on the flawless brimming sea into a sky all brazen–all one brightening for gods immortal and for mortal men on plow lands kind with grain.” -Homer25

“God invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding.” -Plato26

“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset.” -Whitehead27

For ancient poets like Homer, the sun was a being of tremendous spiritual significance. The immense beauty of its rising and setting brought forth a dramatic display of the abiding moral harmony underlying the cosmos. For ancient philosophers like Plato, the sun was similarly a sign of the highest Good, but its visible light was thought to be only partially responsible for the shower of colors drenching earth and sky. Participating in the sunlit phenomena of the outer world was an inner noumenal light emanating from the eyes. Plato suggested that this inner light flows gently outward through the eyes from a psychic fire kindred to that animating the sun. It meets and coalesces with the light of the sun (or at night, the moon and stars) to bring forth the beauty and splendor of the universe.28 Plato’s was a participatory account of our knowledge of nature, such that soul and world were understood to synergetically intermingle in each act of perception. He considered the eyes the noblest of the senses, “source of supreme benefit to us,”

in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun, or heaven. As it is, however, our ability to see the periods of [the heavens] has lead to the invention of number, and has given us the idea of time and opened the path to inquiry into the nature of the universe.29

Not only was Plato’s cosmology inclusive of perceptual experiences in its definition of nature, it felt divine eros and saw eternal eidos at work throughout the cosmos. The circling stars, sun, and moon were considered to be living gods, humanity’s wisest teachers. In his survey of European history, Whitehead places Plato at the center of the first great period of intellectual development, a period with deep influences on all subsequent thought.30 In the main, Plato’s cosmological scheme and account of visual perception, as articulated most profoundly in the dialogue Timaeus, reigned among Europe’s intelligentsia for more than 1,500 years.31 It was not until the height of the scientific revolution in the 17th century that his participatory premises were rejected by the next wave of great geniuses.

“In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”32 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”33 The new analytic methods of Descartes, Galileo, and Newton succeeded in breaking the bond between the numinosity of the soul and the phenomenality of the world, bifurcating nature into two distinct substances, the material and the mental. Humanity’s understanding of its relationship with the universe underwent a fundamental transformation.

Three hundred years later, despite the evidences of modern physical science, the average 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” argued Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”34 The warmth and hue of a sunset, continues Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”35 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names of consciousness. Plato’s insight into the erotic coupling of inner/spiritual light with outer/physical light has been degraded into the dualistic modern theory of “two natures…one the conjecture and the other the dream.”36 Scientific materialism, in other words, has come to oppose our personal experience of nature (the dream) to an abstract model of nature theorized to be the impersonal cause of that experience (the conjecture).

Following upon Galileo’s initial bifurcation of nature, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern scientific materialism. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical elegance of Copernicus’ heliocentric model (as improved upon by Kepler) made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanisms of the extended things (res extensa) of nature, a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion. Religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the unearthly substance of the soul, providing moral guidance for existentially troubled thinking things (res cogitans) like us. Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal dimensions of reality.37

In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. By 1850, the values of industrial capitalism, justified by the mechanistic cosmology of scientific materialism, had infected much of the Western world, forever altering traditional forms of agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, communication, and religious practice. “[All] thought concerned with social organization,” writes Whitehead,

expressed itself in terms of material things and of capital. Ultimate values were excluded. They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved…entirely devoid of consideration for the value of…life. The workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labor. To God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain– “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and they incurred Cain’s guilt.38

Today, at the peak (if not the beginning of the decline) of humanity’s technoscientific mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology capable of guiding the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium is just beginning to take root. Still, our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing–constructed on the metaphysical assumption of the bifurcation of subject and object, fact and value, meaning and matter–threatens the continued existence of the community of life on earth.

Beginning in the early 1920s, Whitehead interrogated modern science and industrialism, not to dismiss them,39 but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to Stengers, this question is not an attempt to condemn scientific materialism for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather

a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.40

Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of natural philosophy is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science to be that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature otherwise: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”41 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”42 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”43 it implies, waiting eagerly to see in what way it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to the values of actual life. Materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability44 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain secrete consciousness?”, or “what sort of thing is curved space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology and philosophy of science require the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, causality, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the relevance of both quantitative patterns and qualitative perceptions in the passage of nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to replace concrete experience with abstract explanation. In this sense, Whitehead’s scientific method can be compared with Goethe’s “gentle empiricism,” which similarly rejected mechanical explanations, instead pursuing nature’s reasons by learning to participate more fully in the archetypal patterns interwoven with experience itself.45 “The divergence of [scientific] formulae about nature from the appearance of nature,” argues Whitehead, “has robbed the formulae of any explanatory character.”46

Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into shadow. In what way does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that

the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.47

Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the so-called “hard problem” of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”48 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the speculative wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead’s philosophy of science is trying to spell out. For now, says Whitehead, “we leave to metaphysics the synthesis of the knower and the known.”49 Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: a coherent foundation for our scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s re-imagined point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”50 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.

Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.51

If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of scientific explanation cannot itself be scientifically explained. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-aesthetic) qualities. Instead of turning science against commonsense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”52 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.53 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,

that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.54

The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The photon is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his or her perception of light as a result of certain replicable experiments, laboratory technologies, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The photon, as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the creative advance of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.55 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.56 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s aesthetic encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to provide such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.57 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged instrumentally, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature, rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature.

Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and commonsense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.58 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a participatory mode of attending to nature–a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally manipulated by an alienated technoscientific mode of knowing. Instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms cannot be characterized merely by mass, extension, and velocity; they are creatures enjoying the value of their own experience, which itself is initially inherited from the feelings of others. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are individual living organisms, each dependent on their relationships to others for their continued existence as themselves.

By the late 1920s, Whitehead had given up on the problems that framed his earlier inquiry into the philosophy of science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. “Riskier” because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”59 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” The imaginative enjoyment of the poet and the intellectual reflection of the theoretician resulting from the beauty of the setting sun must themselves be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Mind must find its foothold in the midst of things themselves, an inhabitant of nature and not its transcendental knower. In the next section, I further unpack Whitehead’s venture beyond the philosophy of science into the formidable project of constructing a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.

Footnotes

25 Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, New York: Double Day, 1961), bk. 3, lines 1-4.

26 Plato, Timaeus, 47b-c.

27 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 178.

28 Plato, Timaeus, 45a-d.

29 Plato, Timaeus, 47a

30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 38.

31 Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21. Plato’s cosmology’s only serious challenger was Aristotle.

32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 13.

33 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 13.

34 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer, transl. Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday, 1623/1957), 274.

35 Galileo, The Assayer, 274.

36 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920/1964), 31.

37 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious function as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm (see Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20). Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (see ibid., 45).

38 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 181.

39 “I assume as an axiom that science is not a fairy tale” (Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 40).

40 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.

41 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28.

42 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

43 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

44 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”

45 Zajonc, Catching the Light, 203.

46 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 154.

47 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 154.

48 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.

49 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28.

50 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.

51 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.

52 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

53 Or in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.

54 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

55 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.

56 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.

57 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.

58 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.

59 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

[Introduction] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Introduction: From Physics to Philosophy

“…how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” -Whitehead1

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.” -Whitehead2

This essay is written in preparation for my dissertation, tentatively titled Imagination Between Science and Religion: Towards a Cosmotheandric Process Philosophy. In this forthcoming dissertation, Alfred North Whitehead’s and Friedrich Joseph Schelling’s voices will play starring roles in my own attempt to re-construct the philosophical basis for a viable planetary civilization. Special attention will be paid to the methodological role of imagination in both scientific theorization and religious mythopoeia. Raimon Panikkar’s “cosmotheandric experience,” wherein Universe, God, and Human are the truine ultimates in terms of which experiential reality is to be interpreted, will provide the imaginative background guiding my philosophical speculations.3

In this essay, I will focus on Whitehead’s organic cosmology, but Schelling’s and Panikkar’s conceptions of reality will never be far from my mind. The title of this essay is itself a nod toward Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, which seeks to integrate humanity’s ancient spiritual longing for wisdom and compassionate consciousness with its modern scientific knowledge of an evolutionary cosmos.

The important place of philosophy, from Whitehead’s similarly anthropocosmic perspective, is that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences. It follows that:

Philosophy is not one among the sciences with its own little scheme of abstractions which it works away at perfecting and improving.4

Rather, the philosopher is always at work attempting to harmonize the abstract sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology), both internally among themselves, and more generally with our deep moral intuitions and aesthetic feelings regarding the archetypal values inherent to the universe. In this sense, Whitehead sees philosophy’s principle import to be “the fusion of religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.”5

One of the major premises of this essay is that contemporary scientific cosmology has passed into an epicyclic phase of theoretical development.6 The present disorganized assemblage of scientific hypotheses regarding the fundamental laws and material components of the universe has left contemporary cosmology on the verge of a paradigmatic shift whose existential significance may surpass even that of heliocentrism or evolutionism (though it will need to include rather than contradict these paradigms). Whitehead was among the first initiates into this new cosmological story, but grasping the novelty of his vision also requires remembering the insights of the ancients, even if in a modern context. This essay therefore situates Whitehead’s animate cosmology in the context of the larger historical arc of Western natural philosophy dating back to Plato. It also bring’s Whitehead’s philosophy of organism into conversation with several components of contemporary scientific cosmology–including relativistic, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories–in order to both exemplify the inadequacy of traditional materialistic-mechanistic metaphysics, and to display the relevance of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme to the transdisciplinary project of integrating these theories and their data with the presuppositions of civilized society. This data is nearly crying aloud for a cosmologically ensouled interpretation, one in which, for example, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological.7

Almost a century ago, Whitehead warned that if physicists did not begin to reassess the outdated imaginative background of mechanistic materialism in light of their own most recent cosmological discoveries, the scientific enterprise would as a result “degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses.”8 Despite the conceptual revolutions of the 19th and 20th century (e.g., evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories), scientific materialism remains the de facto natural philosophy of Western civilization. It imagines the universe as

irreducible brute matter…spread throughout space in a flux of configurations…in itself…senseless, valueless, purposeless…following a fixed routine imposed by external relations.9

Such a picture of ultimate reality leaves no room for life or consciousness. It seems likely that this metaphysical oversight is among the reasons for (post)modern civilization’s ecological and socio-economic crises. A coherent philosophy of nature has yet to take root among civilization’s intelligentsia. Several centuries from now, if historians still exist, and if a new image of reality and with it a new civilization are in the process of flowering, the 20th century will stand out not only for its world wars and widespread environmental devastation, but for its disorienting scientific discoveries (like relativity and quantum theories) and the earthshaking technological inventions which resulted (like the atom bomb and the microchip). For a century, the greater part of the thinking heads of our civilization have been distracted by the electronic gadgetry and wartime glory afforded by technoscience.10 This distraction has allowed them to overlook the philosophical incoherence of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead, one of the handful of historically sensitive scientists to grasp what was happening, wrote in 1925 that “The progress of science has now reached a turning point”:

The stable foundations of physics have broken up…The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. Time, space, matter, material, ether, electricity, mechanism, organism, configuration, structure, pattern, function, all require reinterpretation. What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? …[Science] must become philosophical.11

The incoherence of mechanistic materialism stems from its neglect of the importance of harmonizing our theoretical knowledge of nature with the presuppositions of our ethical values, artistic projects, and spiritual aspirations. Unlike any of humanity’s premodern cosmologies, modern scientific materialism has been predicated upon a metaphysical bifurcation separating human consciousness from the surrounding cosmos. This dualism between consciousness and cosmos is the fatal flaw at the core of modern scientific cosmology. Whitehead’s philosophy of science is characterized by the attempt to correct for the widespread deployment of the fundamental fallacy of bifurcation, along with its daughter fallacy, that of misplaced concreteness. In effect, modern science has sacrificed intuitive understanding of the concrete passage and organic unity of the actual universe for the abstract knowledge of its mathematical formulae and mechanical models. No other fallacy occupied Whitehead’s critical attention more than the bifurcation of nature: as we will see, he initially wandered out of mathematical physics and into the arena of full-fledged metaphysical cosmology precisely in order to integrate what had become dissociated. “Coherence,” writes Whitehead, “is the great preservative of rationalistic sanity”12; without it, neither cosmology nor civilization would be possible.

Despite the need for greater philosophical coherence in contemporary scientific cosmology, many leading physicists are growing increasingly impatient with philosophers. “For most of the twenty-five centuries since written history began,” writes Freeman Dyson, “philosophers were important…”

They had a deep influence in the practical worlds of politics and morality as well as in the intellectual worlds of science and scholarship…Compared with the giants of the past, [twentieth and twenty-first century philosophers] are a sorry bunch of dwarfs…So far as the general public [is] concerned, philosophers [have become] invisible.”13

Dyson at least has hope for the future importance of philosophy, if only it becomes willing to ask the big questions once again. Other physicists have become outright dismissive of the entire enterprise of philosophy. “Philosophy is dead,” writes Stephen Hawking, because it “has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”14 Lawrence Krauss similarly argues that much of contemporary philosophy suffers from “intellectual bankruptcy”15:

When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.16

Like Hawking and Krauss, Stephen Weinberg is also of the opinion that scientists need not take the complaints of philosophers seriously:

To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is to tell a tiger in search of its prey that all flesh is grass […] with or without [philosophers], we will continue to [search for scientific explanations of natural phenomena].17

In response to such criticisms, it must first be said that Whitehead was well aware of the danger of supposing that our present definitions, whether they be in the language of mathematical physics or of metaphysical ontology, somehow already contain all the words, phrases, or formulae applicable to the analysis of experiential reality: he called this supposition “The Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary.”18

We experience more than we can analyze. For we experience the universe, and we analyze in our consciousness a minute selection of its details.19

For Whitehead, the role of philosophy is akin to that of poetry: to introduce novel fundamental ideas and verbal expressions as an aid to the ongoing adventure of civilization.20 This obviously makes philosophy’s goals a great deal broader than those of physics; but as I hope to spell out in the course of this essay, it is essential to the health of civilization that lines of communication between philosophy and science remain open and mutually informative. Whitehead, a mathematical physicist by training, had just as much criticism for the habits of his own discipline as for philosophy. He placed the blame for the sorry state of both disciplines primarily on the process of professionalization, which pushes society’s brightest minds to become narrow-minded specialists and technicians with little interest or respect for anything but the operational abstractions of their own field. The fragmentary proliferation of technoscientific disciplines during the 19th and 20th centuries mostly discouraged grand attempts at integration akin to those of philosophers past. “Sometimes it happens,” writes Whitehead,

that the service rendered by philosophy is entirely obscured by the astonishing success of a scheme of abstractions in expressing the dominant interests of an epoch.21

Whitehead’s approaches to philosophy and to science are not typical of his age. A natural born integralist, he came to them from several angles at once: as a mathematician seeking truth in harmonious pattern, as a physicist attempting to describe the fundamental forces of nature, as a pragmatic educator searching for a viable pedagogy, and as an ally of the Romantic poets in their protest against abstraction on behalf of the concrete values inherent to the universe. According to contemporary interpreter Isabelle Stengers, Whitehead’s central concern is precisely modern science’s

lack of resistance to the intolerant rule of abstractions that declare everything that escapes them frivolous, insignificant, or sentimental.22

Much of the hostility directed at philosophers by the physicists mentioned above would seem to be a result, not only of their lack of resistance, but of their outright celebration of the power of abstractions to explain away the depths of mystery inherent to lived experience. In contrast to the triumphant attitude fostered by scientific materialism, Whitehead does not look to natural science, or to philosophy, for reductive explanations. Rather, his philosophizing seeks “direct insight into depths as yet unspoken.”23 The purpose of philosophy is not to explain away mystery, but to add to it “some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”24

As an aid to understanding the radical novelty of Whitehead’s mature cosmological scheme, it is important to first grasp the essential features of his early reflections on the history and philosophy of science. It is to these reflections that the next section turns.

Footnotes

1 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), xiv.

2 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 168.

3 Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being (New York: Orbis Books, 2010), 34.

4 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 83.

5 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 15.

6 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 124.

7 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

8 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23.

9 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23.

10 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011], 11).

11 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23 (italics mine). By way of comparison, Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was similarly an attempt “to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically” (Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1797/1988], 5).

12 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 6.

13 Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books (November 8, 2012), 20.

14 Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Random House, 2010), 5.

15 Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: The Free Press, 2012), xiv. Krauss claims to bring “nothing”–traditionally a topic for metaphysical speculation–into the purview of natural science such that it can be used to explain the creation of the universe materialistically (i.e., as the result of blind chance and causal necessity without meaning or purpose). I return to his ideas in a later section in connection with Terrence Deacon’s less reductionistic scientific characterization of “nothing” in Incomplete Nature (2012).

16 Krauss, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” in Scientific American (April 27, 2012), http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-consolation-of-philos&page=2 (accessed 11/15/2012).

17 Stephen Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Vintage Books, 1993), 21-22.

18 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 173.

19 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 89.

20 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

21 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 136.

23 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

24 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168-169.

PDF of “Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology” [and Table of Contents]

Here’s a hyperlinked outline of a long essay on Whitehead and scientific cosmology that I’ll post in sections. Here is a link to a PDF of the complete essay: Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of A. N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Table of Contents

I. Introduction: From Physics to Philosophy

II. The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science

III. Whitehead’s Ontology of Organism

IV. Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory

_a. The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory

_b. Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism

_c. Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature

V. Conclusion: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul
Wordle: Whitehead and Cosmology