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.