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

Conclusion: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead239

 “The religious insight is the grasp of this truth: That the order of the world, the depth of reality of the world, the value of the world in its whole and in its parts, the beauty of the world, the zest of life, the peace of life, and the mastery of evil, are all bound together–not accidentally, but by reason of this truth: that the universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but that this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God.” -Whitehead240

“This, then, in keeping with our likely account, is how we must say divine providence generated the actual world as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence.” -Plato241

Whitehead suggests that Newton’s Scholium and Plato’s Timaeus “are the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought.”242 Although the Scholium provides “an immensely able statement of details” applicable to the deduction of truths within a specific domain of physical activity, its deductive prowess “conveys no hint of the limits of its own application.”243 Newton’s abstract conceptions of space, time, and matter as ready-made, and of eternal laws imposed by a transcendent designer, were undeniably useful, in that they provided the paradigmatic basis for two centuries of scientific progress. But the tremendous instrumental success of the Newtonian scheme had the practical effect of leading many to fall into the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by overgeneralizing its simplified abstractions as if they could explain the full complexity of concrete reality. “The Scholium betrays its abstractness,” writes Whitehead,

by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of generation, of φύσις, of natura naturans, which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely, and completely, there, externally designed and obedient.244

As was discussed in the prior section, Whitehead’s generalization of evolutionary theory requires that both potentiality and actuality be ingredient in any concrete depiction of nature. Nature as already produced, as natura naturata, as simply there and entirely actualized, provides only half the picture. Unlike the static cosmos of Newton, who Whitehead believes would have been confused by the modern doctrine of evolution, Plato articulated a cosmological scheme involving the emergence of order out of an original chaos, an account which already implicitly suggests an evolutionary process.245 There are aspects of Plato’s Timaeus that may seem foolish today, but “what it lacks in superficial detail,” according to Whitehead, “it makes up for by its philosophic depth.”246 This depth has allowed Plato’s speculative cosmology to outlast Newton’s more arbitrary construction. The theory of cosmogenesis offered by the latter, involving “a wholly transcendent God creating out of nothing an accidental universe,” has been abandoned by contemporary physicists and process theologians alike as gratuitous.

Plato’s account of cosmogenesis, in contrast, avoids the Newtonian theory of creatio ex nihilo. Instead, the cosmos is said to emerge from the interplay of divine intelligence (νοῦς) and physical necessity (ἀνάγκη), such that the divine cannot violently command but must erotically persuade the cosmos to take shape out of chaos.247 The Greek word ἀνάγκη means not only “necessity,” but also connotes “need” or “urge”: apropos Whitehead’s creative retrieval of Plato’s scheme, this suggests that God, whose primordial conceptual pole is itself deficient in actuality, necessarily experiences a yearning after concrete fact.248 This yearning is productive of the consequent physical pole of God, which lovingly receives the freely actualized decisions of every finite occasion, no matter how discordant, into the harmony of its completed nature.249 “The action of God is its relation,” writes process theologian Catherine Keller,

–by feeling and so being felt, the divine invites the becoming of the other; by feeling the becoming of the other, the divine itself becomes…[affirming] an oscillation between divine attraction and divine reception, invitation and sabbath.250

Their are many other parallels to Whitehead’s cosmotheogony in Timaeus. The usual translation of one particularly relevant passage is as follows:

The god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as was possible, and so he took over (παραλαμβάνω) all that was visible–not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion–and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order…251

The phrase “took over” (παραλαμβάνω) is misleading if interpreted only actively and not also passively: in this case, as both taking over responsibility for forming, and at the same time receiving the givenness of chaos.252 This double sense of παραλαμβάνω mirrors Whitehead’s dipolar conception of divinity as both conceptually active in envisaging the abstractive hierarchy of eternal objects and physically passive in receiving the multiplicity of finite concrescent occasions into its everlasting concrescence. The divine, for both Whitehead and Plato, is not an all-powerful creator, but an all-preserving co-creator:

He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.253

Although Plato attempts in Timaeus, and Whitehead in Process and Reality, to articulate the most rational account possible of the genesis of the universe, in the end they found it necessary, due to the obscurity of their topic, to speak mythically by telling a “likely story” (εικώς μύθος). The Greek word εικώς is sometimes translated as “probable,” meaning likely but not entirely certain (“it goes something like this…”). As with the translations above, this choice can be misleading. The translation of εικώς as “likely” conveys the superficial meaning of “probable,” but this rendering should not obscure the subtler meaning of “likeness,” closely associated with the Greek word for “icon” or “image” (εἰκών). In Plato’s cosmogenic myth, the universe is said to be the most beautiful image that it was possible for the divine to co-create. The beauty of a thing being a result of the noetic order and harmony it radiates, it follows that the divine had to find some way to imbue the cosmic image with intelligence. Because “νοῦς [intelligence] cannot be present in anything without soul [ψυχή],” the God made the universe as a living creature or animal (ζῷον), a being endowed with soul.254

It is at this point that a tension emerges in Plato’s story. Although not all-powerful, the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus is described as a maker, or artisan. It is strange that the Cosmic Animal, or World-Soul, is said to have been made by the Demiurge, since normally living creatures are not fabricated by an artisan, they are born. This raises questions about how Plato conceives of divinity. “To find the maker and father of this universe is hard enough,” writes Plato, “and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.”255 There has been much commentary over the ages concerning the meaning of this double designation of the Platonic God as both “maker” and “father.” Plutarch’s interpretation is helpful, if not entirely elucidatory:

[In] the case of a maker, his work, when done, is separated from him, whereas the origination and force emanating from the parent is blended in the offspring…which is a…part of the procreator…[The] cosmos is not like products that have been molded and fitted together but has in it a large portion of vitality and divinity, which god sowed from himself in the matter and mixed with it.256

The Demiurge, then, is a maker, but a fatherly maker whose life force is wedded with that which has been brought to birth. Still, it seems awkward, to say the least, that the cosmos is said to have been born from a single male parent. Plato resolves this tension by introducing another cast member into his cosmogonic drama: the Receptacle (ὑποδοχή), or “wetnurse of all becoming.”257 Whereas the fatherly Demiurge is said to beget the beautiful form of the cosmos, the motherly Receptacle is said to bear it.258 Plato’s account of the Receptacle is meant to be an accessible image for a closely related, but far more obscure concept, that of the Khora (Χώρα). The Khora is described as the “third kind” mediating between the eternal being of the Ideas and the becoming of the cosmic image. “Its nature,” writes Plato,

is to be available for anything to make its impression upon, and it is modified, shaped and reshaped by the things that enter it…The things that enter and leave it are images of those things that always are [Ideas/ειδών], imprinted after their likeness in a marvelous way that is hard to describe…It is in fact appropriate to compare the receiving thing to a mother, the source to a father, and the nature [physis/φύσις] between them to their offspring.259

The Cosmic Animal or World-Soul, then, is the offspring of the khoric mother and eidetic father. While standard readings of Plato’s written corpus tend to fall into a two-world interpretation, where physical becoming is said to poorly imitate perfect metaphysical being, ambiguities in Plato’s account make it difficult to determine whether, in generating an ensouled cosmos, the separation between the eternal Ideas and the becoming of the physical cosmos is canceled.260 From Whitehead’s perspective, this ambiguity can be hermeneutically massaged to save Plato from the incoherence of dualism. After all, Plato himself explicitly disclaimed “the possibility of an adequate philosophical system” that might permit the “variousness of the Universe…to be fathomed by our intellects.”261 Whitehead’s reformed Platonism insists upon the worldly immanence of the divine, thereby erasing any ultimate separation between the Demiurge and the Receptacle. Instead, their supposed offspring, the World-Soul, is said to supply the universe’s harmonious tendencies through the dipolarity of its own nature. Conceiving of the World-Soul as an emanation issuing from a transcendent deity, as some Platonic interpreters have done, “obscures the ultimate question of the relation of reality as permanent with reality as fluent”; the coherence of Whitehead’s scheme requires, in contrast, that the Cosmic Animal be understood as a mediator, sharing in the natures of eternity and time alike.262 The Cosmic Animal is not a free creation of an acosmic divine architect, but a creature of Creativity.

Whitehead reads Timaeus as offering an account of a World-Soul

whose active grasp of ideas conditions impartially the whole process of the Universe…[and] on whom depends that degree of orderliness which the world exhibits.263

Without this active grasp by the living intelligence of the mediating World-Soul, the ideas would remain frozen and lifeless and would have no way of characterizing actuality or partaking in the creative process of cosmogenesis. Plato further describes the way the Cosmic Animal “contains within itself all the living things whose nature it is to share its kind.”264 As Whitehead puts it, the organic process of each actual occasion “repeats in microcosm what the universe is in macrocosm.”265 It is this correspondence between the World-Soul and the varying grades of finite souls, including humans, that affirms the co-creative role of every organism, no matter how seemingly insignificant: “all [play] their part in conditioning nature by the inherent persuasiveness of ideas.”266 An erotic ferment inwardly permeates every creature, persuading all ever onward toward novel intensities of harmonic experience. In this sense, Eros, the divine element in the world, functions less to preserve stability than to evoke intensity.267 For example, even stars, our sidereal ancestors, are not everlasting: only by way of their sacrificial death could the heavier elemental creatures required for biological life have been brought forth. Similarly, the upward trend of biological evolution towards more complex species depends upon a selective process whereby the inability of an individual organism to adapt its way of life to changing circumstances “[entails] the death penalty for impertinence.”268 The cosmic desire for the intensification of experience is more powerful than the private fear of death. “It is in this way,” writes Whitehead,

that the immediacy of sorrow and pain is transformed into an element of triumph. This is the notion of redemption through suffering which haunts the world.269

Whitehead calls the process of erotic evocation of intensities by the World-Soul, whereby egoistic aims are sublimated by their inclusion in a greater whole, a “Supreme Adventure.”270 He describes the Adventure as an inverted renovation of Plato’s Receptacle, a “medium of intercommunication” necessary for the unity of all things.271 While the Receptacle is “void,” “bare of all forms,” “and abstract from all individual occasions,” the Adventure includes “the living urge towards all possibilities…[realizable by] the [actual] occasions of the advancing world each claiming its due share of attention.”272 The divine dimension of the cosmos, the World-Soul, is the “Great Fact” explicatory of our Supreme Adventure. As discussed above, the divine nature is dipolar, including a primordial and a consequent aspect, or as Whitehead also describes them, an “initial Eros” and a “final Beauty.” Whitehead’s poetic genius reaches its highest pitch when he reflects upon this Great Fact in the concluding lines of Adventures of Ideas:

It is the immanence of the Great Fact including this initial Eros and this final Beauty which constitutes the zest of self-forgetful transcendence belonging to Civilization at its height. At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps tragic Beauty. This is the secret of the union of Zest with Peace:–That the suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies…In this way the World receives its persuasion towards such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions.273

While the World-Soul’s primordial valuation of the multiplicity of eternal objects is unchanging “by reason of its final completeness,” its consequent feeling of the evolving multiplicity of actual occasions remains always incomplete.274 In this sense, although the community of finite organic occasions makes up the unity of the Cosmic Animal, the latter “is not a static organism”; rather, “[it] is an incompletion in process of production.”275 Process theologian Roland Faber has described Whitehead’s theology of becoming as an “eschatological ad-vent” wherein the divine is caught up in the always ongoing adventure of all that was, is, and will be.276 The ensouled universe is therefore best described not simply as Whole, or as One, but as an

open movement of wholeness that cannot be united by any rational account [because it] harbors the Eros of unpredictable novelty and incommensurable diversity.277

Whitehead’s emphasis on openness and diversity makes comparisons with neo-Platonist schemes of the emanation of the Cosmic Animal from the “One beyond being and non-being,” as Plotinus and Proclus often described it,278 rather troublesome. Nonetheless, physicist Simon Malin argues that Whitehead’s approach is in some ways complemented by such schemes, wherein a process of divine effulgence or “overflowing” leads to the ordered involution of a series of stages:

Thus the One produces Nous, Nous produces Soul, Soul produces nature, and nature produces the sensible world…In the case of the World Soul…it is the contemplation of the perfect intelligence and order of the Nous that gives rise, as a kind of unintentional overflow, to the order of nature.279

While some analogy can be drawn between the Nous and Whitehead’s conception of the primordial nature of God, in the emanationist scheme, the many actual occasions of the physical world are given no agency or co-creative role whatsoever, nor is God attributed with a consequent nature allowing it to become-with the many occasions of the world as our fellow-sufferer. Whitehead dismissed such overly rationalized schemes because they lack the experiential adequacy demanded by our religious intuitions of a God who feels and can be felt, and our aesthetic intuitions of a continually creative cosmos. “God is in the world, or nowhere,” writes Whitehead,

creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts…In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death…to…irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.280

The rationality of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme remains provisional, experimental, imaginative, and always pluralistic. It is an “adventure of hope,” not a search for the certainty of a final systematic theory that would “explain away” mystery.281 For Whitehead, not only does philosophy begin in wonder, “at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”282 Whiteheadian rationality is guided by a unwavering commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself.”283 To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of relationality. Instead of anxiously running from the abyssal chaos at the root of all things in search of the secure Ground offered by traditional accounts of a One beyond being, or an omnipotent Creator, Whitehead celebrates the “within-beyond” of a groundless “creative drive undermining any static dichotomy between cosmos and chaos.”284 God, a creature of Creativity like each of us, suffers and enjoys the unpredictable adventures of a chaosmos in which “everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.”285


239 Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 164.

240 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 106.

241 Plato, Timaeus, 30b-c.

242 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

243 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

244 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

245 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93, 95.

246 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

247 John Sallis, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 91.

248 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 33.

249 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 349.

250 Keller, Face of the Deep, 198.

251 Plato, Timaeus, 30a.

252 Sallis, Chorology, 57.

253 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

254 Sallis, Chorology, 57-58.

255 Plato, Timaeus, 28c.

256 Plutarch, Platonic Questions, II, 1; quoted in Sallis, Chorology, 52n7.

257 Plato, Timaeus, 49a.

258 Sallis, Chorology, 58n14.

259 Plato, Timaeus, 50c-d.

260 Sallis, Chorology, 69-70.

261 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 52. Whitehead is here referring to Plato’s discussion in his Seventh Letter written to Dion’s followers.

262 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 130.

263 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 147.

264 Plato, Timaeus, 31a.

265 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 215.

266 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 148.

267 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 105.

268 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 112.

269 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 350.

270 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 294-295.

271 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 134.

272 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 295.

273 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 296.

274 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 345.

275 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 214-215.

276 Roland Faber, “De-ontologizing God: Levinas, Deleuze, and Whitehead,” in Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms, eds. Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 222-223.

277 Roland Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos: For a More Deleuzian Whitehead,” in Secrets of Becoming: Negotiating Whitehead, Deleuze, and Butler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 158, 163.

278 Following Plato, Republic 509b and Parmenides 137cf.

279 Simon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012), 201-202.

280 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 297.

281 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42; Adventures of Ideas, 174.

282 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168.

283 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

284 Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos,” 165.

285 Borges, “Happiness,” 441.

[Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature

“[Creativity] prevents us from considering the temporal world as a definite actual creature. For the temporal world is an essential incompleteness.” -Whitehead188


Epperson argues that Whitehead’s account of the process of concrescence, the centerpiece of his metaphysical scheme, provides “an extremely precise, phase-by-phase exemplification” of contemporary “decoherence-based interpretations” of quantum mechanics.189 Unlike the instrumentalist interpretations that have spun off Niels Bohr’s account of quantum effects in terms of epistemological “complementarity,” quantum decoherence offers a fully fledged ontological description of quantum reality.190 Further, unlike Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation, the decoherence-based approach provides a more ontologically parsimonious, not to mention less empirically question begging, account of the unfolding of the physical universe. And finally, unlike the quantum cosmogonies offered by Hawking and Krauss, which purport to explain the random emergence of the actual universe ex nihilo from the sheer potentiality of the “quantum void,” decoherence-based interpretations avoid the logical incoherence of having to posit a realm of pure potentiality utterly independent of, and somehow responsible for generating, concrete actuality.191 Whitehead, as discussed earlier, also describes something akin to the “quantum void,” or “vacuum,” from which all potency is ceaselessly born: Creativity. But, in order to maintain the coherence of the fundamental categories of his metaphysical scheme (such that all ideas require one another for their meaning), the sheer potentiality of Creativity is said always to be conditioned by at least one actual creature.192 The primordial creature of Creativity is God. Subsequently to God, Creativity also comes to be conditioned by the passage into objective immortality of finite actual occasions.193 Potentiality, in other words, has never been untouched by actuality.

The decoherence interpretation of quantum mechanics, like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, presupposes the givenness of facts, rather than trying to offer some arbitrary ex nihilo explanation of their spontaneous appearance. According to Epperson,

…actuality is necessarily presupposed by…potentiality, such that the latter cannot be abstracted from the former. This is both a logical requirement and a requirement of quantum mechanics, which describes the evolution of actual facts and their associated potentia–not the evolution of vacuous potentia into actuality.194

In other words, quantum mechanical descriptions presuppose actuality, and so cannot explain its emergence by reference only to potentiality. Nonetheless, potentiality does have a significant role to play in both decoherence-based and Whiteheadian accounts of the evolution of the universe. In 1958, probably independently of Whitehead’s earlier re-incorporation, Werner Heisenberg argued that quantum effects demanded that something like Aristotle’s concept of “potentia” be brought back into the philosophy of nature.195 The decoherence interpretation describes the way a quantum event, or wave-function, first arises from the actualized facts of the past, evaluates the potentia relevant to its situation, and finally selects among those potentia to bring about the collapse of its wave-function, thereby realizing some novel actual fact.196 It is a process of “evolutions from actuality to potentiality to actuality.”197 In Whitehead’s terms, the concrescence of an actual occasion passes through several phases: 1) the occasion prehends the initial data provided to it by the multiplicity of objectively immortal occasions making up its past actual world, negatively prehending those elements which are irrelevant to its situation, 2) the occasion, through a process of integration of simpler feelings into more complex feelings, unifies its many prehensions of its actual world into one, objective datum, 3) the objective datum is felt by the subjective form of the occasion, which is the complex qualitative pattern of eternal objects characterizing how this occasion experiences its world, 4) the occasion, having satisfied its subjective form, perishes into objective immortality to become the data prehended by further occasions.198 The end result of this process is the emergence of a novel actuality.

Earlier, in a discussion of the inherent limits to our experience of simultaneity based upon the finite (but invariant) speed of light, I mentioned a further complexity based upon quantum non-locality and the difference between efficient and formal causality. Efficient causes are those influences involving the direct transmission of feeling from one actual occasion or society of occasions to another, as when a flashlight shines in my eyes or a baseball breaks through a window. They are physical causes. Formal causes, from both a Whiteheadian perspective on reality more generally and a decoherence-based perspective on quantum physics more specifically, can involve instantaneous, non-local affection of the potenia of distant actual occasions. These are conceptual causes. To illustrate the difference, Epperson uses the example of an asteroid that has just been knocked by a comet into a collision course with Earth.199 Although in terms of physical influence, we will not know about the incoming astroid until the photons reflecting off its surface reach Earth, in conceptual, or potential, terms, the astroid’s change of course has instantaneously affected the potenia describing Earth’s ongoing evolution. Further clarifying the difference between efficient and formal causality, Epperson writes:

“Causal influence,” in the Whiteheadian scheme, is operative in the physical pole or primary stage (the conformal phase, or phase of causal efficacy), and is bound by the speed of light according to the theory of special relativity; “causal affection” is operative in the mental pole or supplementary stage, and is not limited by special relativity.200

If the local relativisitic relationships of causal influence among actual occasions were not supplemented by the non-local quantum relationships of logically ordered potenia, the reality of an asymmetrical passage of time from closed past to open future would be impossible to account for. On the purely relativistic reading, time is symmetrical: causality works just the same whether you run it forward or backward. But from the perspectives of quantum decoherence, thermodynamics, Whitehead’s process philosophy, and our own direct experience, time is intrinsically irreversible.201

The physical account of the decoherence of a wave-function and the metaphysical account of the concrescence of an actual occasion both imply a panexperientialist ontology of constructive becomings, rather than a materialist ontology of ready-made beings. In a materialist ontology, reality is identified with actuality.202 This implies that nothing new ever really emerges, since all that can be has already been actualized. Change is merely apparent, the re-shuffling of static parts that are externally related. In an ensouled process ontology like Whitehead’s, actuality and potentiality are organically integrated so as to allow for a genuinely creative cosmos where, though the past is settled, the future remains wildly open. New forms of fact are always emerging, though none ever exists in isolation from its environment. “In sharp contrast [to mechanistic materialism],” writes Epperson,

[in] Whitehead’s cosmology as exemplified by the decoherence interpretations of quantum mechanics, the universe is…characterized as a fundamentally complex domain with an inherent aim toward an ideal balance of reproduction and reversion–a balance formative of a nurturing home for a seemingly infinitely large family of complex adaptive systems such as ourselves.203

Epperson explicitly connects Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, along with the decoherence-based account of quantum mechanics, to efforts in the complexity sciences to account for the regularity and diversity achieved by the various examples of emergent order at all scales in nature.204 In Whitehead’s terms, emergence concerns the achievement by actual occasions of novel forms of “structured society,” be they physical (atoms, stars), biological (cells, plants), or psychological (animals, humans).205

For contemporary complexity scientist Terrence Deacon, mentioned earlier, coherent accounts of emergence also depend upon the ontologization of potentiality along side actuality. Deacon coins the term “absential” to refer to those features of nature that, while not physically present, nonetheless have an important role to play in the emergence of the higher order organizational levels of biology and psychology.206 These role of these absential features would suggest that nature is in some sense “incomplete.” The recognition of this incompleteness leads Deacon to flirt with something like Whitehead’s panexperientialist process ontology, where

no object, event, or interaction–down to the most fundamental physical interactions, such as between elementary particles–is complete in itself, [meaning that] all aspects of physical causality implicitly depend on something extrinsic that is not physically present “there.”207

But in the end, Deacon remains unsatisfied with Whitehead’s approach, since it seems to assume what he is setting out to explain, namely, how experience and value emerge later on up the scale of complexity from otherwise numb, purposeless matter. Deacon attempts to avoid what he calls “homuncular” accounts of the emergence of complexity from physical processes, which he says include information theoretic accounts as well as Whitehead’s. Information theory suggests that all physical processes can be interpreted as computation-performing operations.208 As a result, physical processes “can be treated as though [they have] mentalistic properties.”209 Although Deacon admits to being favorably influenced by Whitehead early in his career, especially in respect to his attempt to save realism as against nominalism in natural philosophy, he eventually became dissatisfied by Whitehead’s seeming need to “[sneak] in homunculi at a very, very low level…the level of subatomic quantum events.”210 From Deacon’s scientific perspective, building in anything like purpose or feeling at the basement level of actuality doesn’t explain anything; rather, only “if you can show how [these are] generated [will] you have an explanation for [them].”211

From Whitehead’s philosophical perspective, science cannot explain the emergence of experiential qualities like value, purpose, and feeling out of dumb physical activity. Whitehead’s understanding of what constitutes a proper explanation seems to be the reverse of Deacon’s, in that for Whitehead, natural philosophy cannot explain the emergence of what is concrete (i.e., value and experience), but only of what is abstract. New possibilities are always emerging into actuality (or in Whitehead’s terms, novel eternal objects are always ingressing); actuality itself, on the other hand, must be intrinsically evaluative for explanations of such emergence to remain rational instead of miraculous. The emergence of complex forms of organization like galaxies and stars, for example, already requires an explanation in terms of some aim intrinsic to physical activity. “The element of value,” writes Whitehead,

of being valuable, of having value, of being an end in itself, of being something which is for its own sake, must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event.212

In other words, no value, no reality. Akin to Deacon’s scientific desire to avoid humuncular explanations is Whitehead’s philosophical desire to avoid employing the dubious concept of “vacuous actuality.” This concept “haunts realistic philosophy,”213 according to Whitehead, which is born out by the example of Deacon’s realism, where experience is purported to emerge from dumb matter. “Apart from the experience of [actual occasions],” writes Whitehead, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”214

This fundamental divergence of metaphysical first principles may at first seem like a matter impossible to settle other than by subjective preference. As mentioned earlier, aside from their metaphysical differences, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biological and psychological forms of organization can be read as adding much needed specificity to Whitehead’s more general account. In this sense, their approaches are complimentary. But there are other criteria from which to judge the overall coherence of each of their approaches.

Deacon claims to prefer a perspective of radical emergence, wherein infinitely many novel forms of organization are possible, while he regards Whitehead’s cosmological scheme as somehow restricting the open-endedness of emergent evolution.215 On the other hand, Deacon admits that there are limits on the evolution of this novelty, offering a rather sophisticated account of these limits based upon the notion of hierarchically nested constraints.216 The question is, what constrains the emergence of novelty at the cosmic, rather than specifically biological or psychological scale? According to Deacon’s scientific account, cosmic constraint is afforded by the interplay between the biased probability of entropic orthograde processes and the emergent contragrade processes supported by thermodynamic work.217 Once constraints at the thermodynamic level are established, higher-order constraints can emerge to secure what Deacon calls “morphodynamic”, and then “teleodynamic,” modes of organization.

Whitehead also offers an account of limitation, but his rests on a far more general, and therefore metaphysical, basis. As discussed in a preceding section, the unfathomable potency of Creativity being the ultimate category of his scheme, Whitehead needed a principle of limitation, or concretion, to account for how anything of definite value could come to exist. Whitehead calls his principle of limitation, or concretion, “God.” Instead of basing limitation on some particular tendency in the physical world, as Deacon does, Whitehead asks what must be the case, metaphysically speaking, for physical “tendencies” to be possible at all: “What is the status of the enduring stability of the order of nature?”218 Whitehead’s answer to this question depends, again, on what is to count as a valid means of explanation. From his perspective, the aim of any genuine philosophical explanation is to produce “self-evidence,” or “sheer disclosure.”219 This aim can never be finally realized due to the fact that “language halts behind intuition.”220 In this sense, “all explanation must end in an ultimate arbitrariness.”221 Nevertheless, although total disclosure cannot finally be achieved, the penetration of our understanding can be increased.222

Many contemporary scientists, Deacon included, would seem to have little patience for traditional theology. Whitehead generally shares their distaste for those philosophers and theologians who, “anxious to establish the religious significance of God,” succumbed to the unfortunate habit of paying him “metaphysical compliments.”223 The God of Western religion has tended to be fashioned in the image of an imperial ruler.224 Rather than making God an exception to the principles holding true of every other actual occasion, Whitehead’s God is “their chief exemplification.”225 Why then does Whitehead risk the scorn of atheistic or agnostic scientists and philosophers by calling his principle of concretion “God”? “Because,” writes Whitehead,

the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that “subjective form” of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim.226

God’s primordial act of concretion cannot be rationally explained, since this divine act provides the foundation for rationality.227 That the universe has some definite character, some order, realized along certain limits despite the onrush of Creativity possessing no intrinsic reasons of its own, requires explanation. But in attempting to explain how this definite order could be possible, we come to the very limits of reason. As a panexperientialist, Whitehead’s allegiance is ultimately to empiricism. “The general principle of empiricism,” he writes,

depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason. What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis.228

It follows from Whitehead’s allegiance to empiricism that the progress of the general science of metaphysics and the special sciences alike depends upon a certain faith, or “ultimate moral intuition into the nature of intellectual action.”229 Whitehead’s approach also has rationalist aspects, but he always checks the impulse for theoretical explanation with the requirement that “there be ‘given’ elements so as to form the material for theorizing.”230 God is such an element, the primordial reason conditioning the creative flux, though not itself rationally explainable.

As discussed earlier, God is that actual entity responsible for grading the relevance of the infinite multiplicity of eternal objects. “Apart from God,” writes Whitehead, “there could be no relevant novelty.”231 In other words, it is God’s primordial role to provide each concrescing actual occasion with possibilities graded as relevant to the givenness of its unique situation. Without this provision, eternal objects yet to be realized in the actual world would be all but non-existent for the occasion in question.232 It follows from Whitehead’s ontological principle that as of yet unactualized possibilities, or eternal objects, cannot float into actuality from nowhere.233 Eternal objects yet to be actualized by any finite actual occasion have already been conceptually prehended by the divine non-temporal actual occasion. God is that non-temporal actual occasion which conceptually prehends, and thereby evaluates, the infinite set of eternal objects, thereby adjusting, or conditioning, creativity so as to allow a definite order to emerge in the ongoing course of cosmogenesis. “The adjustment is the reason for the world,” writes Whitehead; he continues:

It is not the case that there is an actual world which accidentally happens to exhibit an order of nature. There is an actual world because there is an order in nature. If there were no order, there would be no world. Also since there is a world, we know that there is an order. The ordering entity [God] is a necessary element in the metaphysical situation presented by the actual world.234

In respect to Deacon’s desire both to “save Plato, or to save realism,”235 and to describe a cosmos with open-ended possibilities of emergent order, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved without some cosmic principle of concretion to provide the basis for the emergence of forms of order relevant to the actual occasions, or societies of occasions, in question. That biological and psychological forms of order have emerged in the course of time would be nothing short of a miracle unless the tendency to harmony was basic to creation itself, already there “in the beginning.” Epperson likens this harmonious tendency, or “subjective aim” provided by God “by which nature regulates herself without determining herself,” to the concept of “effective complexity” employed in complexity theory.236 It could be said that this tendency is “built in” to the universe, but this phrase is likely to foster an image of a transcendent divine craftsman who programmed every detail of the universe, “building in” its properties before the moment of creation even occurred. In his famous cosmological dialogue Timaeus, Plato uses a similar image to tell his “likely story” about the genesis of the cosmos. Timaeus also employs other images to account for cosmogenesis, including that of an indwelling World-Soul, and that of a formless mediatrix for form called the Receptacle. Were Plato alive today, he may have emphasized these latter images as the more appropriate rhetorical choices for mythologizing his cosmology. Whitehead not only attempts to “save Plato” from the myth of a transcendent demiurge, but also to save modern theology from the jealous tyrant imagined by Job, and modern science from the deistic mechanical engineer imagined by Newton. To do so, he re-imagines God as immanent to every finite actual occasion, the cause of their feeling an “urge towards the future based upon an appetite in the present.”237 God does not determine the specific decision each finite occasion will make regarding this “initial aim.” God only supplies each occasion with the complex feeling of the graded relevance of all the possibilities available to it in any given moment. Which of these possibilities it chooses to realize is a free decision on its part, a freedom conditioned also by the objective immortality of the past decisions of all the other historical routes of concrescence populating its cosmic community. God’s valuation is persuasive enough that a cosmos with not only stars and galaxies, but living planets and intelligent civilizations has emerged. In the final section, the implications of Whitehead’s reformed Platonism will be explored, with special attention paid to the need to mythologize his metaphysics so as to excite the aesthetic, emotional, and moral appetites in a way that purely rational discourse cannot.


188 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 80.

189 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 129.

190 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 33.

191 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 18; Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, xiv.

192 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 3.

193 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

194 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 7

195 Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 185.

196 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 8-9.

197 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.

198 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 221.

199 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii-xiii.

200 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 228.

201 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 234.

202 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.

203 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 17.

204 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 198.

205 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 100.

206 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 3.

207 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 78.

208 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 75.

209 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 374.

210 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

211 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

212 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89.

213 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

214 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 167.

215 “I see emergence as an open-ended process, while [Whitehead] does not,” Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

216 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 423cf.

217 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 230, 247.

218 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.

219 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

220 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

221 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.

222 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 51.

223 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

224 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 342.

225 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.

226 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31-32.

227 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

228 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

229 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.

230 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.

231 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

232 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

233 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.

234 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 91.

235 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

236 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 236.

237 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32.

[Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism

“The metrical properties associated with space-time should not be defined a priori, but should characterize the pattern of the environment that is inseparable from [the endurance of organisms].” -Stengers141


Whitehead’s amendments to the general theory of evolution follow from his desire to re-construct the theory on the basis of the demands of post-Newtonian physics, as he understands them. As a result of relativity theory, the pre-existent geometrical structure of the spatio-temporal environment can no longer be taken for granted; a further result of relativity is the displacement of static material substances by dynamic energetic processes as fundamental to nature. As a result of quantum theory, the activity of this energy must be understood in terms of the definite values achieved by the momentary synergy of rhythmic vibrations, where the emergence of a complete pulse of energy, or organic bud of experience, requires a stretch of time for its unfolding.142 The abstract point-instants of mechanistic materialism, be they Newtonian or Einsteinian, become concrete actual occasions in Whitehead’s reading of the new physics. The discoveries of the 20th century regarding the nature of space, time, and energy are a warning against the misplaced concreteness that would “abstract from change [in an attempt] to conceive the full reality of nature at an instant.”143

By 1920, Whitehead had already published two books exploring the implications of relativity theory for the philosophy of science.144 In June 1921, Whitehead met and had several in depth conversations with Einstein during the latter’s stay with the philosopher and statesman Richard Haldane in London. Accounts offered by those present suggest that Whitehead made several gentle attempts over the course of two days to convince Einstein “to give up his identification of the [curved] geometry of space-time and the physics of gravitation.”145 Einstein admitted he had difficulty grasping Whitehead’s radically novel metaphysical scheme. It was a little more than a year later, in September of 1922, that Whitehead published The Principle of Relativity in an attempt not only to more fully work out the proper philosophical rendering of Einstein’s scientific discovery, but to provide an alternative set of gravitational field equations no longer based on the notion of curved space-time. The book follows on the heals of the famous debate between Einstein and Henri Bergson, which took place in April of 1922 at the Société Française de Philosophie in Paris. At stake in this debate was not only “the status of philosophy vis à vis physics”–that is, it was not only “a controversy about who could speak for nature and about which of these two disciplines would have the last word.”146 It was also a political debate about the proper roles of science and philosophy in society, especially in regard to international relations. Bergson had recently been appointed president of the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation, a precursor to UNESCO. Einstein, originally a member of the Commission and a vocal supporter of its internationalist mission, would eventually resign, largely as a result of his disagreement with Bergson concerning relativity.147

Bergson’s tremendous popularity prior to confronting Einstein began to wane, probably due to the perception that he was willing to ignore scientific facts if they contradicted his irrational intuitions. This orthodox narrative, retold most recently by the anti-philosophical physicist Alan Sokal,148 has it that Bergson lost the debate because he did not understand the mathematical physics behind relativity. Following the recent revival of interest in Bergsonism,149 the orthodox narrative is increasingly being called into question.150 The specifics of Bergson’s alleged “mistake” regarding the details of Einstein’s twin paradox are beyond the scope of this discussion, but suffice it to say that, contra Sokal and other scientific critics, Bergson was well aware of the observational facts concerning the comparison of different time-systems.151 His critical approach to relativity theory was based on metaphysical, not physical grounds. Like Whitehead, Bergson was not contesting the general physical validity of Einstein’s theory. Rather, Bergson simply wanted to establish, despite Einstein’s protests, that the scientific confirmation of relativity theory was not the end of the matter regarding the philosophical understanding of time.152

Regardless of whether or not Sokal’s criticisms of Bergson’s alleged misunderstandings are justified, he would have a far more difficult case trying to dismiss Whitehead, whose grasp of the mathematical and physical principles at stake arguably surpassed even Einstein’s.153 “The essence of [the structure formed by space-time],” wrote Whitehead in 1922,

is that it is stratified in many different ways by different time-systems. This is a very peculiar idea which is the product of the speculations of the last 15 years or so. We owe the whole conception notably to Einstein… no one can study the evidence in its detail without becoming convinced that we are in the presence of one of the most profound reorganizations of scientific and philosophic thought. But so many considerations are raised, so diverse in character, that we are not justified in accepting blindfolded the formulation of principles which guided Einstein to his forumlae.154

Whitehead set out in his book on relativity to “[carefully scrutinize] the fundamental ideas of physical science in general and of mathematical physics in particular.”155 As discussed earlier, his reaction to the disorienting discoveries of the new physics lead him to re-assess the philosophical foundations of scientific materialism, which had been assumed with great (instrumental) success since the time of Newton. Though Einstein was initially suspicious of philosophy’s role in physics, as is evidenced both by his debate with Bergson and by his signature of a 1913 anti-metaphysical positivist manifesto,156 he came late in life to respect the importance of philosophical reflection upon the conceptual background of science. In his foreword to physicist and philosopher Max Jammer’s historical study of the concept of space, written in 1953, Einstein admits that

…the scientist makes use of a whole arsenal of concepts which he imbibed practically with his mother’s milk; and seldom is he ever aware of the eternally problematic character of his concepts…He uses these conceptual tools of thought as something…immutably given…which is hardly ever…to be doubted. How could he do otherwise? How would the ascent of a mountain be possible, if the use of hands, legs, and tools had to be sanctioned step by step on the basis of the science of mechanics?157

Here, even though Einstein affirms science’s practical need to take its conceptual tools for granted, he he also seems to approach Whitehead’s characterization of philosophy as “the criticism of abstractions which govern special modes of thought.”158 Further, in 1950, Einstein remarked that every genuine physicist “is a kind of tamed metaphysician,” no matter how much lip service he or she may pay to positivism.159 This taming is achieved, according to Whitehead, by holdings one’s “flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization” accountable, upon landing, to “renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.”160 Unfortunately, Einstein’s more mature views on the proper disciplinary relationship between philosophy and physics have still not been fully digested by contemporary materialistic scientists.

In his debate with Bergson, Einstein insisted that no such thing as “philosophical time,” or what Bergson called “duration,” existed; rather, there was the real “physical time” revealed by natural science, and the illusory “psychological time” experienced by human consciousness.161 Whitehead’s unflinching commitment to an organic philosophy of nature prevented him from accepting Einstein’s blatant bifurcation:

It follows from my refusal to bifurcate nature into individual experience and external cause that we must reject the distinction between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature.162

Whitehead differs from Bergson in that he sought to re-construct science itself on an organic basis, whereas Bergson was content to leave science to its mechanical models and instrumental methods. He conceived of science as the result of “intelligence,” rather than “intuition,” meaning that its approach to nature is necessarily mediated by artificial instruments and laboratory techniques; therefore, science can offer no insight into the immediate life of things.163 “For [natural science’s] object,” writes Bergson, “is not to show us the essence of things, but to furnish us with the best means of acting on them.”164 Though Whitehead does not share Bergson’s dualism between the activity of living organisms and the passivity of material mechanisms (since for Whitehead, all sciences are the study of dipolar organismic occasions), he does share his sense that Einstein’s abstract account of relativity in terms of mechanical clock-time obscures the true import of the theory as regards our experience of concrete temporality (i.e., duration). The time of the physicist, as measured by a clock, “merely exhibits some aspects of the more fundamental fact of the passage of nature,” according to Whitehead. “In this doctrine,” he continues, “I am in full accord with Bergson.”165

The agreement between Whitehead and Bergson concerns the way in which concrete temporality is inevitably spatialized in the process of being translated into the abstractions of physics. Mechanical clocks quite literally flatten the passage of time into discrete units of distance meant to represent seconds, minutes, and hours. So far as it goes, such spatialization is necessary for the coordination of civilized life. But it is important not to forget what this translation obscures when we endeavor to understand the creative advance of the actual universe: the clock itself–like everything else in the universe, from carbon atoms to stars to the person who consults it–is aging. To be aging is to be always in process. In a process ontology like Whitehead’s, an actual entity doesn’t “have” an age, as though it were an accidental property of an underlying substance; rather, the very essence of an entity is to age, to emerge out of a definite past and pass into an indefinite future. In Whitehead’s words:

[To discuss]…present fact apart from reference to past, to concurrent present, and to future, and from reference to the preservation or destruction of forms of creation is to rob the universe of essential importance.166

Even a physicist who has mastered all the mathematical formulas and techniques of measurement cannot avoid the philosophical quandaries which arise from a moment’s reflection upon the fact that his or her conscious presence is necessary in order for the clock, or any measuring instrument, to get itself read.167 Our direct experience of concrete existence–whether we are artists, clergymen, homemakers, or astrophysicists–reveals nature to be an irreversible process of becoming, a creative advance. This fact stands in sharp contrast to Einstein’s incredible remark:

For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one.168

The philosopher Niels Viggo Hansen boils down what is at stake in the debate between Einstein, Bergson, and Whitehead by asking about the meaning of “fact,” both as it is assumed in our concrete (temporal) experience of a specious present, and as it is assumed in the abstract (spatialized) notations of physics:

If there is any such thing as a fact…then either there are temporal facts (e.g., that you have already read the previous sentence) or there are atemporal facts (e.g., that your reading of it is later than my writing of it)…Bergson was right that…we cannot seriously hold at the same time both that there are concrete facts involving distant simultaneity, and also that such facts cannot exist in the physical universe. Surely one could claim that such immediate facts are eliminated in the production of physical descriptions…but if concrete facts of co-presence are there before clocks…are used, they will still be there in the background when [clocks] are employed.169

Where Bergson goes wrong, according to Hansen, is in claiming that our concrete experience of co-presence, or durational simultaneity, is somehow universal. It is as if he claims to have some special intuitive access to what is happening right now on the surface of Mars, even though all the theoretical and experimental evidence of relativistic physics suggests that distant happenings are not instantaneously communicated to our concrete experience.170 Whitehead’s novel solution to this paradox regarding the irreconcilable notions of “fact” is to construe the concrete simultaneity of an actual occasion’s specious present as a local, rather than a global, fact. Such a construal entails rejecting the often implicit ontologization of the Einsteinian notion of a ready-made 4-dimensional fabric of space-time “out there” within which actual occasions would unfold, or through which the plane of the present would slide as an indication of global simultaneity (as Bergson seems to have believed171). Actual occasions are not to be pictured as if they were bits of matter located in a pre-given spatiotemporal “loaf”; rather, the abstract geometry of space-time described by the Lorentz transformations, or by Whitehead’s alternative tensor equations,172 is derivative from the most general pattern of experience realizable by the actual occasions constitutive of our cosmic epoch. In other words, the geometry of curved space-time itself emerges from the character, taken collectively, of individual drops of experience. These self-creating and other-prehending drops of experience are the final real things of which reality is composed. These processes are what is concrete, while space-time is an abstraction from the concrete. “Whitehead is explicit about the idea,” writes Hansen,

that the concrete dynamism of processes can be understood as the ground of extension rather than the reverse. This is the first element of the Whiteheadian solution to the tension between extension and becoming: the modalities are not really situated in space and time at all, but in the concrete processes whose web of relations gives rise to space and time.173

Metaphysically speaking, that space-time is abstract doesn’t mean it isn’t real, only that it isn’t actual. Space-time is a system of modalities, a configuration of forms, or, in Whitehead’s terms, a definite patterning of eternal objects that has ingressed into the prehensive unifications of actual occasions. Eternal objects, as discussed earlier, have a relational function: their ingression allows for the solidarity, or extensive continuity, of the universe by providing actual occasions with the definite adverbial “how?” characterizing their prehensions of other occasions. This “two-way function” shapes both the private experience, or “subjective form,” of an occasion, and grants this form publicity, so as to offer it as an objective datum for the larger society of occasions within which the occasion becomes and perishes.174 Among the most fundamental set of adverbs characterizing the “how?” of the mutual prehensions of our cosmic epoch is the system of geometrical modalities known to physics as space-time. Also among the most fundamental set of adverbs are the mathematical fields of force known to physics as gravity and electromagnetism.175

These mathematical relations belong to the systematic order of extensiveness which characterizes the cosmic epoch in which we live. The societies of [organisms]–electrons, protons, molecules, material bodies–at once sustain that order and arise out of it. The mathematical relations involved…thus belong equally to the world perceived and to the nature of the percipient. They are, at the same time, public fact and private experience.176

Whitehead’s reference to our “cosmic epoch” is important, since it is a reminder that the 4-dimensional character of space-time as we experience and measure it today is contingent and could change as the creative advance of the universe continues to unfold. The “laws” of nature, and the structure of space-time, are not eternal, nor necessarily universal.177 They are the result of widespread, habitual forms of organization achieved by the mutual prehensions of the most encompassing society of actual occasions which communicate with our experience.178 “How do we know,” asks Whitehead, “that only one geometry is relevant to the complex happenings of nature?” He continues:

…this planet, or this nebula in which our sun is placed, may be gradually advancing towards a change in the general character of its spatial relations. Perhaps in the dim future mankind, if it then exists, will look back to the queer, contracted three-dimensional universe from which the nobler, wider existence has emerged.179

The cosmic habits called “laws of nature” by contemporary physicists are extremely stable relative to the individual novelty achievable by high-grade, conscious occasions (like multicellular animals) because they are derived from the decisions of very simple, low-grade actual occasions (like electrons). The “mental pole” of these occasions is negligible: they are statistically dominated by the habitual “physical feelings” of their environment, and so almost always reproduce the systematic order of the eternal objects characterizing that environment with little in the way of autonomous flashes of creativity.180

To sum up, Whitehead’s reformed principle of relativity is based on the metaphysical priority of actual facts, or occasions of experience, from which the geometrical order of spatiotemporal extension is derived.181 Through an abstractive process of logical construction rooted in the coordination of the somewhat fragmentary nature of individual occasions of experience, the general character of space-time holding true for our cosmic epoch can be produced.182 While Einstein’s proposal of a universal and a priori space-time implies a taut, already fully woven fabric whose spatial curvature is modified by the material bodies situated within it, Whitehead’s alternative theory of a coordinated plurality of space-times implies a fraying fabric always in the process of being repaired by the dipolar physical-mental concrescences of organismic occasions of experience. In this sense, Whitehead translates many of the properties that Einstein’s general relativity defines a priori into empirical, or a posteriori facts.183 Instead of privileging the misplaced concreteness of an abstract space-time that would “[separate] an organism from its environment” such that “the endurance of the former and the patience of the latter [is defined] in terms of right [or “law”], not of fact,” Whitehead emphasizes the contingency of the evolved habits currently holding sway over the ecology of organisms shaping our cosmic epoch, no matter how general or universal they may appear at this time.184

Whitehead terms the general character of space-time “the uniformity of the texture of experience.”185 “The physical world [i.e., the extensive continuum of space-time],” he goes on, is,

in some general sense of the term, a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world.186

Here, Whitehead directly contradicts Einstein’s famous statement that our immediate experience of temporality, while perhaps necessary for civilized life, is in reality nothing but a persistent illusion no longer to be believed in by professional physicists. Whitehead’s reconstruction of relativity theory so as to avoid the social and ecological perils of the bifurcation of nature is not based on a denial of Einstein’s physical formulations, but a denial of the unconscious imaginative background shaping Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of these formulations. Following Stengers, it can be said that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism aims not to belittle or deny the abstractions of the scientific intellect, as Bergson seems to, but rather to articulate an

ecology of abstraction…that creates the possibility of a mutual aesthetic appreciation between specialists of precision and adventurers of generalization.187


141 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168-169.

142 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 122.

143 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 145.

144 An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (New York: Dover Publications, 1919/1982) and The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920/1964).

145 Ronald Desmet, “Did Whitehead and Einstein Actually Meet?” in Researching With Whitehead: System and Adventure, eds. Franz Riffert and Hans-Joachim Sander (Freiburg: Verlag Karl Alber, 2008), 154.

146 Jimena Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed: Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 120 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 1169; http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/bios/docs/canales-Einstein,%20Bergson%20and%20the%20Experiment%20that%20Failed.pdf (accessed 11/18/2012).

147 Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1175.

148 See Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science (London: Profile Books, 1998).

149 Largely a result of the influence of Gilles Deleuze (see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bergson/#7 [accessed 11/18/2012]).

150 See Canales (2005) and Val Dusek’s review of Sokal’s Intellectual Impostures in the journal Metascience, Vol. 9, Issue 3 (2000); http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/dusek.html (accessed 11/18/2012).

151 See Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1170-1171.

152 Bergson, “Discussion avec Einstein,” in Mélanges (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972), 1345.

153 “Professor Whitehead seems to me to have brought out the character of space and time in his treatment of relativity more thoroughly than Einstein or even Minkowski himself has done” -Richard Haldane, The Reign of Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921), 110. See also letters exchanged between Einstein and his first wife Mileva Einstein-Maric, herself an accomplished mathematician, which suggest that Einstein required her help with some of the more difficult aspects of his equations (“Did Einstein’s Wife Contribute to His Theories?”, in New York Times [March 27, 1990]; http://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/27/science/did-einstein-s-wife-contribute-to-his-theories.html [accessed 11/18/2012]).

154 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 59, 67.

155 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 40.

156 Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1978), 182.

157 Einstein, Foreward to Max Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (Mineola: Dover, 1993), xiii-xiv.

158 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

159 Einstein, “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation,” in Scientific American, Vol. 182, Issue 4, April 1950.

160 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 5.

161 Bergson, “Discussion avec Einstein,” 1346

162 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 66.

163 C. F. Delaney, “Bergson on Science and Philosophy, in Process Studies, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (1972), 29-43.

164 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911), 93.

165 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 54.

166 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 84.

167 See Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1176-1177.

168 Einstein to Vero and Mrs. Bice, March 21, 1955. Einstein Archive, reel 7-245; reprinted in Albert Einstein-Michele Besso Correspondence 1903-1955 (Paris: Harmann, 1972), 537-538.

169 N. V. Hansen, “Spacetime and Becoming: Overcoming the Contradiction Between Special Relativity and the Passage of Time,” in Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience, ed. Timothy Eastman and Hank Keeton (New York: State University of New York, 2003), 150.

170 It takes anywhere between 4 and 20 minutes for light to travel from Mars to Earth, depending on our relative orbital locations. It is important to note here that the non-local effects of quantum physics makes the issue of instantaneous communicability more complicated. I explore this issue below, but suffice it to say for now that Whitehead’s account of the ingression of eternal objects into actual occasions allows for a coherent integration of the relativistic limits placed on efficient causality with the non-local formal causality of quantum physics.

171 See Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, transl. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 82.

172 See Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 139cf.

173 Hansen, “Spacetime and Becoming,” 154.

174 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

175 Unlike Einstein, whose conception of a ready-made “fabric” of space-time allowed him to explain gravity as a pseudo-force which really results from the warping of the fabric due to presence of massive objects, Whitehead described gravity as a genuine physical force, like electromagnetism (Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 91cf).

176 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 326.

177 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168.

178 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 98.

179 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 57.

180 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 245.

181 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 5.

182 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” in The Aims of Education (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1957), 162-163.

183 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168.

184 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 169.

185 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 163.

186 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 165.

187 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 141.

[The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory

“In the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas…[The universe is] passing with a slowness, inconceivable in our measures of time, to new creative conditions, amid which the physical world, as we at present know it, will be represented by a ripple barely to be distinguished from non-entity.” -Whitehead114


The main outlines of the doctrine of evolution, on Whitehead’s reading, must be “[absorbed]…as the guiding methodology of all branches of science.”115 Grasping the transdisciplinary significance of evolution requires the “negative capability” mentioned earlier, a willingness to consign oneself to the speculative risks Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has proposed for thinking. Because all our knowledge depends upon abstraction, the point is not to avoid it but to do it gently, such that our knowing leaves the concrete life of the world unharmed and intact. Whitehead’s contribution to the philosophical integration of the special sciences and their abstract domains of relevance is derived from what he calls his method of “imaginative generalization.” Metaphysics is the imaginative attempt to express in language the most general features of experience, and therefore, of nature. Every special science devises its own instruments: the instrument of metaphysics, the science of sciences, is language.116 Like physics, metaphysics should be undertaken as an experimental practice, only the experiments are to be performed on language itself. “The success of the imaginative experiment,” according to Whitehead, “is always to be tested by the applicability of its results beyond the restricted locus from which it originated.”117

In the case of the connection between evolutionary theory and the new physics, Whitehead’s experiment is to imaginatively generalize Darwin’s specialized concepts of variability, reproduction, and inheritance, such that evolution comes to describe the activity of self-organizing entities at every scale of nature, no longer just the biological. In this sense, as was mentioned earlier, biology becomes the study of the evolution of the larger organisms, while physics becomes the study of the evolution of the smaller organisms.118 “I am…a thoroughgoing evolutionist,” says Whitehead,

…Millions of years ago our earth began to cool off and forms of life began in their simplest aspects. Where did they come from? They must have existed in potentiality in the most minute particles, first of this fiery, and later of this watery and earthy planet.119

Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 demonstrates that “mass [is] the name for a quantity of energy considered in relation to some of its dynamic effects”; this leads, according to Whitehead, to the displacement of matter by energy as the most fundamental concept in physics. But what is energy other than

the name for the quantitative aspect of a structure of happenings…[a structure] that depends on the notion of the functioning of an organism?120

That is, if energetic activity is to be understood in its full concreteness, and not just as mathematical functions in an abstract equation, then some reference must also be made to the mental functions of the self-realizing but prehensively interrelated creatures of the actual world (i.e., to purposeful organisms in an ecology). Whitehead explains:

Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter…There is nothing to evolve…There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive…[and] there is material [or energy]…which endures. On the organic theory, the only endurances are structures of activity, and the structures are evolved [units of emergent value].121

After Whitehead’s imaginative generalization, evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations under selective pressure becomes evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historically organized routes, whereby a specific occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the cause of structural inheritance) become synthesized with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the source of structural variation) into some enduring pattern of experiential value. In other words,

There is a rhythm of process whereby creation produces natural pulsation, each pulsation forming a natural unit of historic fact.122

These processes of evolutive concrescence “repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature.”123 Whereas in the Darwinian version of the theory, a pre-existent environment of inert material in empty space is considered to be the sole source of selective pressure, in the Whiteheadian version, organisms are understood to be co-creators of their own environments.124 Also, whereas in the Darwinian theory the competitive struggle for existence is considered the primary engine of evolution, in the Whiteheadian version, cooperative interaction becomes the essential factor for long-term survival. Wherever resilient ecosystems are found, whether at the atomic, biotic, or anthropic level, it is evident that their success is a result of an association of organisms “providing for each other a favorable environment.”125 Whitehead offers a descriptive example of the evolution of atomic ecologies:

Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.126

In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history. Just as Copernicus’ heliocentric theory threw Earth into motion, thereby turning the medieval world upside-down, under the new requirements of the evolutionary theory, the sturdy mechanistic cosmos of modernity has been turned inside-out, revealing an organic cosmogenesis creatively advancing through emergent stages of organization. Cosmogenesis, resting on the infinite potential of literally nothing (i.e., the quantum vacuum), has since its eruption been rushing toward more and more complex forms of realization over the course of billions of years.

Cosmic evolution began with the “primordial Flaring Forth,” after which the earliest generation of primate organisms emerged out of the “cosmic fecundity” of the quantum vacuum.127 In Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, this fecundity finds its place as the ultimate principle of his metaphysical scheme: Creativity. Creativity is “universal throughout actuality,” such that it eternally pervades creation to infect each and every one of its creatures with sparks of potentiality.128 As the geologian Thomas Berry and the physicist Brian Swimme suggest,

Though the originating power gave birth to the universe fifteen billion years ago, this realm of power is not simply located there at that point in time, but is rather a condition of every moment of the universe, past, present, and future.129

In Whitehead’s scheme, even God is creaturely, and therefore conditioned by the power Creativity. As discussed in the last section, Creativity is also conditioned or concretized in turn by God’s all-embracing valuation of the multiplicity of potentialities, thereby providing each finite organism with erotic lures encouraging the sort of harmonious functioning that has lead to the stages of enduring societal organization characteristic of the universe.130

Whitehead’s organic primates–or, speaking metaphysically, actual occasions–cannot be understood in isolation; like all biological creatures on Earth, with both their ecological relations in the present and their evolutionary relations in the past, primate organisms are bound together as co-creators in a multiform cosmogenetic community, all of which emerged from one original unfathomably powerful energy-event. “At the base of the serene tropical rainforest,” write Berry and Swimme,

sits this cosmic hurricane. At the base of the seaweed’s column of time is the trillion-degree blast that begins everything. All that exists in the universe traces back to this exotic, ungraspable seed event, a microcosmic grain, a reality layered with the power to fling a hundred billion galaxies through vast chasms in a flight that has lasted fifteen billion years. The nature of the universe today and of every being in existence is integrally related to the nature of this primordial Flaring Forth.131

The primitive beings which first emerged from the Flaring Forth have come since Whitehead’s day to be known by the standard model of particle physics as the muon and tau leptons, along with the charm, strange, top, and bottom quarks, collectively called the fermions.132 These fundamental organisms have mostly evolved, or decayed, since the Big Bang into the more familiar electrons, protons, and neutrons which make up (as organelles, so to speak) the larger atomic organisms of the periodic table of elements. Left out of this picture are the bosons, or force carriers, like gluons, photons, and the as yet undetected graviton. In Whitehead’s organic terms, bosons and fermions can be described according to the two types of vibration, “vibratory locomotion” and “vibratory organic deformation.”133 Organic deformation describes the wave-like aspect of primate organisms (i.e., their continuous transition, or duration, of realized pattern, as felt from within), while locomotion describes the particle-like aspect (i.e., their discontinuous epochal realizations, as felt from without).

The entire genus of atoms did not appear all at once. Prior to the assistance of the higher-level activity of stars (i.e., the process of stellar nucleosynthesis), no elemental organisms heavier than hydrogen and helium were able to stabilize out of lower-level energetic activities. But before stars could emerge, hydrogen and helium had to collect into huge swirling clouds, which became galaxies.134 At the center of these early galaxies there emerged black holes (whose gravity was so intense not even light could escape), further securing the next stage of evolutionary complexity. According to astrophysicist Caleb Scharf, the influence of “energy feedback” from these early black holes played a crucial role in forming the stars and planets making up the universe we know today.135 Star formation was first catalyzed as a result of the rapid revolution of the black holes at the center of galaxies, which generated gravitational density waves that “shocked clouds of hydrogen and helium to condense rapidly into thousands of stars at a time.”136 Had this rapid process of star formation continued unabated, the raw hydrogen and helium gas of most of the galaxies in the universe would long ago have become far too hot to form any new stars.137 Fortunately, the energy feedback effects of supermassive black holes has kept star formation in check. In effect, the eating habits of black holes allow them to act as cosmic thermostats, “making sure the porridge of intergalactic matter is not to hot and not too cold.”138 Black holes have played a fundamental role in the evolutionary adventure that gave rise to our present cosmic ecology.139 According to Scharf,

The fact that there are any galaxies like the Milky Way in the universe at this cosmic time is intimately linked with the opposing processes of gravitational agglomeration of matter and the disruptive energy blasting from matter-swallowing black holes. Too much black hole activity and there would be little new star formation, and the production of heavy elements would cease. Too little black hole activity, and environments might be overly full of young and exploding stars–or too little stirred up to produce anything.140

Galaxies and black holes can be understood as analogous to massive cellular systems, where the regulative role of the black hole is akin to that of the central nucleus of a cell. Like all other organisms, galaxies appear to have a finite life-span, beyond which they can no longer produce new stars. The nested feedback loops at work to secure the self-organizing dynamics of a biological cell are obviously far more complex and adaptive than the simpler feedback exhibited by black holes; but nonetheless, the general analogy seems to hold.


114 Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Edinburg: Cambridge University Press, 1926/2011), 100, 144.

115 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.

116 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 11.

117 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 5.

118 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

119 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 277.

120 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 96.

121 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.

122 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 88.

123 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.

124 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 105.

125 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104.

126 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104-105.

127 Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: Harper, 1992/1994), 21.

128 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

129 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 17.

130 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.

131 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 21.

132 Lederman, The God Particle, 62.

133 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 121-125.

134 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.

135 Caleb Scharf, Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos (New York: Scientific American, 2012), 210.

136 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.

137 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 202.

138 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 143.

139 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 164.

140 Schwarf, Gravity’s Engines, 204.

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

Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory

“The general principles of physics are exactly what we should expect as a specific exemplification of the metaphysics required by the philosophy of organism.” -Whitehead103


Since its eruption in the 17th century, modern science has instigated profound re-orientations in the outlook and self-conception of European civilization. More recently, in the last century and a half, various discoveries have forced upon science the need for no less fundamental a transformation of its own presupposed materialistic-mechanistic ontology. This transformation, understood in the light of Whitehead’s organic ontology, is the focus of this section. To begin, let us take stock of what has happened: In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, wherein he described, according to the special abstractions proper to biology, a process which would later come to be known more generally as the theory of evolution:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.104

In the early 1880s, while Whitehead was still a student of mathematics at Cambridge, “physics was supposed to be nearly a closed subject,” with just a few minor details left to be explained in terms of Newton’s fundamental principles. “No one sensed what was coming,” according to Whitehead: “By 1900, the Newtonian physics were demolished, done for!”105 The whole notion of fixed laws of nature imposed upon the behavior of ready-made material particles in absolute time and space, which Darwin’s mechanistic biology took for granted as its foundation, had been called into question by relativity and quantum theories. “The appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology,” wrote Whitehead in 1925,

was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena. But at present there is no such system of concepts.106

Arguably, almost a century after Whitehead’s remark, physical science still lacks anything approaching such a systematic account of nature. While several candidate theories uniting relativistic and quantum effects have been proposed, due to lack of empirical confirmation or mathematical coherence, none of them has succeeded in garnering the widespread support of the physics community. Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is generally understood to have successfully unified quantum mechanics with at least special relativity, but because it leaves out gravitational effects, and because its approach remains largely instrumental, it does little in the way of providing a truly unifying theory of nature.107 According to physicist Leon Lederman,

Gravity is our number one problem as we attempt to combine particle physics with cosmology…Here we are like the ancient Greeks, waiting and watching for something to happen, not able to experiment…Without bringing the gravitational force into the family of quantum forces, we’ll never understand the details of the Big Bang or, in fact, the deep, deep structure of elementary particles.108

Though it remains mechanistic in orientation, unlike 19th century physics QED can longer claim that its mechanical accounts reflect a reality independent of its experimental instruments. What was originally a mechanistic ontology meant to explain nature has become a mechanistic epistemology meant to operationally describe it; as a result, metaphysical realism in science has devolved into nominalism. This allows instrumentalist approaches to quantum mechanics to avoid the philosophical challenge of having to integrate the spooky paradoxes of wave/particle duality and non-locality into their hypothesized materialist ontology. Instead, as Whiteheadian physicist Michael Epperson suggests, instrumentalists can defer their philosophical failings by invoking the fact that “quantum mechanics is simply a tool used to predict the outcomes of measurements under specific conditions.”109 Even if its mechanistic models cannot be unambiguously proven to reflect the reality of nature in itself, “nature” (whatever it is) can be forced, at least under laboratory conditions, to agree with QED’s operational predictions to an extremely high degree of statistical accuracy. According to philosopher of science Karl Popper, this instrumentalist mindset among physicists is a result of a lack of respect for the importance of philosophy in framing the way problems are posed in physics: “It is a tradition which may easily lead to the end of science and its replacement by technology.”110

Supposing a properly physical (if not fully metaphysical) “grand unifying theory” is eventually discovered, there still remains the philosophical problem of unifying physics with biology, psychology, and spirituality. During the later half of the 20th century, a number of explanatory and descriptive strategies began to be developed in an attempt to tackle aspects of this problem, all of which could be said to fall under the general umbrella of complex systems theory. Many of these scientific approaches to theretofore intractable philosophical problems became possible, not because humanity suddenly developed a finer imagination, but rather because we developed finer technological instruments.111 Computer modeling now provides scientists with God-like powers of simulation; however, deep philosophical issues remain regarding how such simulations can be said to relate to reality.

Keeping the limits of modeling in mind, the key concept that has arisen out of work on complexity theory is undoubtedly that of emergence. Simply defined, emergence is that process by which the components of a system begin to interact in such a way that the behavior of the system as a system can no longer be understood by reduction to the sum of its components. Even more succinctly put, emergence is said to have occurred whenever a whole exhibits properties which are greater than the sum of its parts. The most recent attempt to unify the emergent stages of nature by applying the principles of complexity is that of biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). Regarding the history of the concept of emergence, Deacon writes that

it has been used to describe the way that living and mental processes depend upon chemical and physical processes, yet exhibit collective properties not exhibited by non-living and non-mental processes, and in many cases appear to violate the ubiquitous tendencies exhibited by these component interactions.112

Deacon’s path-breaking scientific work in this area provides an ideal comparison with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, in that both seek to articulate a processual account of the universe no longer restricted to the efficient causes of strict mechanism, or to the nominalist epistemology of instrumentalism, but open to the creative organic influence of formal and final causality. The two also provide an ideal contrast, in that they each set out to think nature on somewhat different metaphysical footing. Whitehead begins his path by balancing his thinking upon the speculative stance that experience pervades the natural world, which is to say that a universally communicated texture of experience links everything in the cosmos.113 Deacon begins his climb toward knowledge of nature from a somewhat off-kilter panmaterialist posture that assumes experience and value (in his terms, “ententionality”) emerge atop a basically purposeless material flux. Despite their differing philosophical presuppositions, it is nevertheless possible to re-interpret Deacon’s scientific contribution as a specific application of Whitehead’s more general cosmological scheme. In other words, despite Deacon’s dissatisfaction with panexperientialism, without something like Whitehead’s radical reconstruction of the metaphysical foundations of scientific materialism, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biotic and psychic phenomena from physics and chemistry remains literally incomplete. Deacon’s and Whitehead’s approaches are compared and contrasted in more detail in a later subsection. The philosophical commitments differentiating their approaches to the emergence of complexity should become clearer if I first unpack Whitehead’s startlingly novel interpretations of 20th century physics and his cosmological generalization of evolutionary theory.


103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 116.

104 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1859/2004), 384. Darwin added the words “by the Creator” in the second edition.

105 Lucien Price, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Mentor, 1954), 277.

106 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

107 Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 277cf.

108 Lederman, The God Particle, 99.

109 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004), 33.

110 Karl Popper, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1956), 100.

111 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 107.

112 Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 549.

113 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

[Whitehead’s Ontology of Organism] The Relevanceof Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Whitehead’s Ontology of Organism

“Lo! keen-eyed towering science, As from tall peaks the modern overlooking, Successive absolute fiats issuing. Yet again, lo!, the soul, above all science,…For it the entire star-myriads roll through the sky…For it the partial to the permanent flowing, For it the real to the ideal tends. For it the mystic evolution…” -Walt Whitman60

“Everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.” – Jorge Luis Borges61

From Whitehead’s perspective, a successful cosmological scheme should aim to exhibit itself “as adequate for the interpretation of…the complex texture of civilized thought.”62 To this end, the cosmologist’s central motivation must be

to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral, and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science.63

Already an important difference can be marked between contemporary scientific cosmology and Whitehead’s more philosophical (and cosmotheandric) approach to cosmologizing. Following his metaphysical turn in the late 1920s, Whitehead sought nothing less than the integration of our artistic, religious, and scientific intuitions into one general scheme of thought. The typical aim of the modern scientific cosmologist, even when they claim to be pursuing a “grand unifying theory,” or “theory of everything,” is obviously far less integral in scope: only the empirico-mathematical features of the physical world are given systematic treatment, while everything else, no matter its importance to civilized human life, is, at best, bracketed as irrelevant, and at worst, explained away as illusory. The specialized operational/instrumental methods of contemporary scientific cosmology have allowed it to precisely measure and carefully dissect much of the known world, but the materialistic ontology providing its imaginative background has lead it to “exclude itself from relevance to the ordinary stubborn facts of daily life.”64 For example, average law-abiding citizens must go about their day under the assumption that they bear some responsibility for their actions, despite the fact that materialistic interpretations of neuroscience leave no room in the brain for anything remotely resembling consciousness, much less free will. Scientific materialism leaves us in the impossible position of having to deny in theory what we are unable but to affirm in practice.

Whitehead had little doubt that the technological applications of modern science would continue to transform civilization. Technologically speaking, science is only becoming more intensely relevant to daily life. Indeed, the technological applications of science have come to dominate not only human life, but the entire earth community. It cannot be denied that the increase in physical power which has resulted from rapid technoscientific advance has afforded civilization the opportunity for social betterment; but it has also brought us perilously close to destroying ourselves.65

“It may be,” says Whitehead,

that civilization will never recover from the bad climate which enveloped the introduction of machinery…The world is now faced with a self-evolving system, which it cannot stop.66

As was discussed earlier, modern technoscience has excelled at transforming and controlling what it has not adequately understood and cannot morally or aesthetically appreciate. The scientistic presupposition that “matter in motion is the one concrete reality in nature,” such that “aesthetic values form an…irrelevant addition,” has proven itself to be an error of disastrous proportions.67 It is precisely this materialistic ontology and its accompanying instrumentalist epistemology that Whitehead’s cosmological scheme endeavors to re-imagine. Instead of pursuing science in abstraction from the values of earthly life, Whitehead’s cosmology seeks to replace the traditional scientific conception of mechanism, along with the traditional religious conception of deism, with a novel conception of organism. With mechanistic substance as its foundational concept, modern science’s bifurcation of nature into objective natural facts and subjective human values is inevitable. With a conception of organic process as his starting point, Whitehead is able to articulate a cosmology whose details elucidate, rather than eliminate, the common sense values of civilized life, such as moral responsibility, aesthetic appetition, and veritable knowledge (or goodness, beauty, and truth, respectively).

“If nature really is bifurcated,” argues another of Whitehead’s contemporary interpreters, Bruno Latour,

no living organism would be possible, since being an organism means being the sort of thing whose primary [physical] and secondary [psychical] qualities–if they exist–are endlessly blurred.68

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism rejects the bifurcation of such qualities, as well as any type of arbitrary ontological dualism. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that the widespread acceptance of dualism during the modern period implies that, as an abstract scheme, it can prove elucidatory of the texture of experience in some instances. Whitehead criticizes Descartes’ mind/matter dualism for its incoherence due to excessive abstraction, but adds that “[his] system obviously says something that is true.”69 Whitehead appropriates much from the modern natural philosophical tradition, all the while keeping in mind that “the chief error in philosophy is overstatement.”70 By way of his method of imaginative generalization, Whitehead is lead to experimentally construct71 an alternative cosmological scheme that is ultimately rooted in creative process, rather than static substance, and whose fundamental categories are actual occasions, prehensions, and eternal objects, rather than minds, representations, and matter. The dualistic Cartesian problematic is not thereby eliminated or explained away; rather, it is transformed.72 The relationship between actual occasions and eternal objects is no longer one of duality, where neither kind of entity requires the other in order to exist, but of polarity, such that the being of eternal objects cannot be grasped in abstraction from the becoming of actual occasions, or vice versa. Whitehead avoids the modern bifurcation of nature (which restricts experiential value only to the human sphere and relegates everything non-human to the status of “vacuous actuality”73) by recognizing that every organic occasion or ecosystem of occasions–whether it be an electron, a bacterial colony, a sequoia, a bottle-nosed dolphin, a human civilization, a star, or stellar society (a galaxy)–is constituted by both a physical pole inheriting the feelings of realized actual facts and a mental pole anticipatory of realizable eternal possibilities.

As for the special significance of the human sphere, the conscious mental pole of “high grade” organisms like Homo sapiens is said to be so advanced in degree that it appears also to become different in kind. Whitehead is able to preserve what is elucidatory in the binary theocosmic or cosmoanthropic formulations of reality while at the same time jettisoning the substantialist ontology that would draw them back into the modern bifurcation dissecting the living body of the cosmos straight down the middle.74 The philosophy of organism avoids having to invoke incoherent accounts of the emergence of mind from matter, or value from vacuity, by recognizing that conscious human experience is only a special case of a more general, or cosmic, mode of experience. For Whitehead, to exist at all is already to experience, and to experience is to value:

Realization is…in itself the attainment of value…Aesthetic attainment is interwoven [with] the texture of realization.75

While the orthodox materialistic natural philosophy begins by assuming the two independently existing substances, mind and matter–where material objects are modified by external relations of locomotion, and mental subjects are modified by internal (or private) cogitations representative of external (or public) objects–Whitehead’s philosophy of organism begins with “the analysis of process as the realization of events disposed in an interlocked community.”76 Actual occasions, as the final realities of which the universe is composed, are self-creating buds of experience, each one uniquely itself even while it remains internally related to every other occasion in the creative community of the universe. Occasions are interrelated by way of the pattern of eternal objects characterizing for each of them the qualitative aspects of the other occasions in their community. Eternal objects “interpret [occasions], each to the other,”77 such that they come to find themselves related to one another in an extended space-time continuum according to certain invariant geometric principles,78 principles which are explored in a subsequent section in the context of a discussion of Whitehead’s philosophical critique of Einstein’s relativity theory.

“The solidarity of the universe,” writes Whitehead, “is based on the relational functioning of eternal objects.”79 As relational entities, eternal objects cannot themselves cause actual occasions, they can only characterize the how of prehension. “[Eternal objects] are adverbial, rather than substantive,” according to Whiteheadian interpreter Steven Shaviro, in that “they determine and express how actual [occasions] relate to one another, take one another up, and ‘enter into each others’ consitutions.’”80 Each actual occasion is, in this sense, nothing but the multiplicity of prehensions of other occasions (as characterized adverbially by eternal objects) which it unifies. But in another sense, as a self-unifying creature, an occasion not only prehends and reiterates the realized spatiotemporal pattern of the settled past, it adds a new value (itself) to the ongoing evolution of the universe. Whitehead coined the term concrescence to refer to the “production of novel togetherness” resulting from the completed satisfaction of each occasion of experience.81 By way of concrescence, a particular actual occasion’s many prehensions of other occasions becomes one, thereby adding one more realized unity of experience to the ongoing creative advance of the cosmic community: “The many become one, and are increased by one.”82

It is important not to think of prehension resulting in an actual occasion “having” experience of other occasions, as though an occasion were “the unchanging subject of change.”83 This would inevitably lead back to the classical, bifurcated conception of mental subjects qualified by their private representations of supposedly public material objects. “If this be granted,” argues Whitehead, “there is no escape from solipsism.”84 It was only by arbitrary recourse to the goodness of an omnipotent God that Descartes was able to re-establish any meaningful epistemic connection between ideas in the soul and matters of fact in nature. For the philosophy of organism, an actual occasion is not a pre-existent subject qualified by its representations of ready-made objects; rather, an occasion is better characterized as a dipolar “subject-superject.”85 The “subject” phase of a concrescing occasion emerges from the prehensions of antecedent occasions which it unifies, while in the “superject” phase the occasion, having attained satisfaction as a unified drop of distinctly patterned experience, immediately perishes into “objective immortality,” such that it can be prehended by subsequently concrescing actual occasions. Whitehead expresses the perpetual perishing of subjectivity into objective immortality in terms of his “principle of relativity,” such that “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming.’”86

Actual occasions, then, are describable in two ways, as “being” and as “becoming.” These ontological designations are not independent, since, according to Whitehead’s correlative “principle of process,” an occasion’s “being” arises from its “becoming”: “how an actual [occasion] becomes constitutes what that actual [occasion] is.”87 The description of an occasion according to its genetic “becoming” provides an account of the occasion’s own subjective aim (=its final cause), while the description according to its extensive “being” provides an account of its superjective effect as prehended by other occasions beyond itself (=its efficient cause).

By conceiving of the basic constituents of the world as unified prehensive processes of causal inheritance and conceptual anticipation, rather than static, isolated substances qualified by accidental predicates, Whitehead is able to preserve the unique identity of each individual organism without at the same time so exaggerating their separateness that continuity with the larger ecosystem of other organisms is broken.

Thus far, my account of the fundamentals of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has been rather abstract, which is to say purely metaphysical; but before moving on to further explicate its implications in the context of contemporary physical theory, it may be helpful to examine exactly what role abstraction itself plays in Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.

“In any occasion of cognition,” says Whitehead,

that which is known is an actual occasion of experience, as diversified by reference to a realm of entities which transcend that immediate occasion in that they have analogous or different connections with other occasions of experience.88

Whitehead here makes reference to the realm of “eternal objects,” or “pure potentials,” which contribute to the definiteness of actual occasions without themselves being reducible to the experience of any particular occasion, since “eternal objects are the same for all actual [occasions].”89 Many contemporary thinkers, laden with the nominalistic presuppositions of the modern age, come to Whitehead’s metaphysics expecting everything to be explained according to immanent process alone. They are surprised by his introduction of the hierarchy of eternal objects, not to mention the divinity envisaging it, both of which can at first seem to be rather ad hoc additions to his cosmology. Whitehead introduces them, however, with the aim of maintaining the overall coherence of his scheme. He writes:

It is the foundation of the metaphysical position which I am maintaining that the understanding of actuality requires a reference to ideality. The two realms are intrinsically inherent in the total metaphysical situation.90

Once again displaying his allegiances both to mathematical physics and to poetry, Whitehead recognizes that “the interfusion of events” constituting cosmogenesis participates in eternity as much as time, being infected as much by the values of actual nature as by the ghostly traces of “colors, sounds, scents, [and] geometrical characters…required for nature and…not emergent from it.”91 Only actuality has value, but in order for “actual value” to find its metaphysical definition, some reference to the adjacent possibilities provided by ideality is necessary. Each actual occasion of experience realizes itself as a complex unity of valued patterning; this patterning displays itself as a subjective harmonization of the prehended superjective values achieved in the occasion in question’s causal past. The experiential achievement of some more or less complex unity of patterning is only felt as valuable to the occasion which realizes it because this occasion simultaneously feels, via the divinely envisaged gradation of the infinite set of eternal objects as they are relevant to its unique situation, those definite possibilities which remain abstract because unrealized in its concrescence. In other words, a drop of experience

is decisive in proportion to the importance (for it) of its untrue propositions: their relevance to the [occasion] cannot be dissociated from what the [occasion] is in itself by way of achievement.92

Each occasion becomes what it is by not being what it isn’t. Whitehead is able to avoid a dualism between actuality and ideality by showing how the realization of definite concrete values requires the ingression of what “is not” alongside the prehension of “what is.” In this sense, the prehension of actuality and the ingression of possibility cannot be defined in isolation.93 Each must require the other if a coherent account of both the solidarity and the separability of the universe is to be articulated. Eternal objects have a “twofold role,” in that they both relate occasions to each other (allowing the creative many to become the one created universe) and unify occasions for themselves (allowing the one universe to become many again). The open-ended creative advance of the actual universe in this way depends on both conjunction and disjunction, both unification and differentiation.94

Having crowned creativity “the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact,” Whitehead needed to account for the unique character of more mundane matters of fact (i.e., finite actual occasions). How is the infinite creativity conditioning the universe to be canalized into the decisive prehensions and relevant evaluations characterizing the concrescence of each of its unique, finite creatures? To answer this question, Whitehead was lead to bring forth a novel concept of divinity. The only difference between God and every other actual occasion is that divine experience appears to occur in the reverse direction to that of finite experiences, such that God’s mental pole is primary while God’s physical pole is consequent.95 God’s mental pole is described as the primordial creature of creativity, the first act of unfettered conceptual valuation responsible for ordering the realm of eternal objects. God is thus simultaneously a creature of Creativity and, by its persuasive influence on the decisions of finite actual occasions, a condition limiting the otherwise chaotic potency of Creativity.

By reason of this complete valuation, the objectification of God in each derivate actual [occasion] results in a graduation of the relevance of eternal objects to the concrescent occasion in question…Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question.96

God, as the “primordial superject of creativity,” is the first fact giving any definite face to the otherwise impersonal creative advance. God’s primordial nature assures that every finite occasion of experience subsequent to God’s initial act of envisagement includes in its physical prehension of the actual world a conceptual prehension of the realm of possibilities as relevant to it. In this way, those abstract potentials remaining as yet unrealized in a particular occasion’s actual world nonetheless find their definite relation to that occasion and its world without having to float into their situation from nowhere.97 According to Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” “the general potentiality of the universe must be somewhere…this ‘somewhere’ is the non-temporal actual entity”: God.98

As was already mentioned, God is a dipolar actual occasion like every other, “finding [itself] in the double role of [agent] and [patient] in a common world.”99 God’s primordial envisagement of eternal objects occurs in abstraction from finite actual occasions; it is accomplished by God alone. As such, the primordial aspect of God’s nature remains deficient in actuality. While the abstract order of creation depends upon God’s agential “adjustment of the togetherness of eternal objects,” the concrete values of creation depend upon the “infinite patience” of God’s consequent pole, God’s “tender care that nothing be lost.”100 God experienced in full concreteness (i.e., as a living, cosmic personality) is not the distant unmoved mover or all-powerful creator of traditional religious metaphysics, but the poet and lover of the world, “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”101 Whitehead’s imaginative description of God has more in common with the intermediary World-Soul of Plato’s Timaeus than it does with the “wholly transcendent” Jehovah of Newton’s Scholium, “creating out of nothing [by fiat] an accidental universe.”102 I continue the comparison between Whitehead’s God and Plato’s World-Soul in the final section of this essay. The next section concerns the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to evolution, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories, each in turn.


60 Whitman, “Song of the Universal,” in Leaves of Grass (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1892/2004), 380.

61 “Happiness,” transl. by Stephen Kessler, in Borges: Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1999), 441.

62 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xi.

63 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xii.

64 Whitehead, Process and Reality, xiii.

65 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 182-183.

66 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 181, 183.

67 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 182.

68 Bruno Latour, Foreword to Thinking With Whitehead, xiii.

69 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 6.

70 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7.

71 His method is experimental in that it redesigns the philosophical instrument of language “in the same way that, in physical science, pre-existing appliances are redesigned” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 11).

72 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 108.

73 The bifurcation may be thus anthropocentric, or it may, when pressed, become biocentric, such that it restricts value to the biological sphere, thereby denying it to the physical or cosmic as such.

74 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 132.

75 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89-90.

76 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 138.

77 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

78 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 145.

79 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

80 Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009), 37; quoting Whitehead, Process and Reality, 148-149.

81 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

82 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

83 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

84 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 137.

85 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

86 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 22.

87 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

88 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 142-143.

89 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

90 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 143.

91 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

92 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 143.

93 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 189.

94 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

95 Or perhaps it is finite experience that appears backwards?

96 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

97 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32.

98 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 46.

99 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 315.

100 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

101 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346, 351.

102 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 95.