[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.


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.


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