[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.


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.


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