“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Space and Time in an Ontology of Organism


I’m thoroughly enjoying Jimena Canales social, scientific, and philosophical history of the Einstein-Bergson debate in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time. There are quite a few pages on Whitehead’s alternative rendering of relativity theory. There is one place (198-99) where Canales, while commenting on George Herbert Mead’s criticism of Whitehead, offers what to me reads like a distortion of Whitehead’s concept of eternal objects. It could be that Whitehead only worked out a more coherent understanding of eternal objects in Process and Reality as a result of his early exchange with Mead at Harvard in September of 1926.

IMG_6365I’ve often wondered if it makes more sense to replace Whitehead’s phrase “eternal object” with the poet Charles Olson’s suggestion of “eternal event.” The poet’s phrase may actually convey Whitehead’s concept better than Whitehead’s way of wording it. Perhaps Whitehead’s original intent was to put eternal objects in irrevocable tension with occasional subjects, such that experience always presupposed participation in both. Every event or occasion is eternally temporal, a differential repetition or concrescence of Creative Process into creaturely product.

Earlier today, Justin commented under my essay on Whitehead’s cosmological scheme titled Physics of the World-Soul. He took issue with Whiteheadian jargon and with what he thought was the “straw man” version of Einstein I spent several paragraphs critiquing. These are both valid concerns. I’d argue that the former concern is true of every significant thinker. Personally, if I don’t find a philosopher’s prose difficult to understand at first pass, I quickly become bored with the ideas. Sure, Burt Russell is often clearer and more straightforward than the “muddleheaded” Whitehead. But Russell’s demand that the depths of the world reveal themselves to him in clear and distinct ideas may in fact do violence to the chaotic heteronomy of those depths. New ideas cannot always be expressed in old words. The latter concern is something I hope to respond to more fully after I finish Canales’ book. The wider question of the relationship between space, time, and experience in an ontology of organism is one I hope to expand upon in my dissertation.




26 responses to “Space and Time in an Ontology of Organism”

  1. Justin Avatar

    Just to be fair, it’s not that I’m averse to difficult prose; and there were other specific things about my first impressions of Whitehead that I mentioned besides just the flowing concrescences of jargon. I am not intending on demeaning him in any way. And I never mentioned Russell, although I have mentioned Panikkar who I think is a good example of someone with new concepts, word coinages, challenging prose style, etc, but who seems, to me at least, to be much more eloquent and fleshes out his concepts and coinages carefully and coherently rather than in a chaotic muddle. I don’t see how anything could ‘do violence’ to the chaotic depths. I think it is usually the chaotic depths that do violence to us! But I also conceded that I have not really read Whitehead and that this was only a first impression…

    1. jj256144 Avatar

      In looking at this post again, the term you used “chaotic heteronomy” stood out. What do you mean by this? My understanding of the term ‘heteronomy’ denotes not chaos but rather a overly rigid hierarchically ordered structure tending towards sclerosis, whereas chaos seems to be more aptly described by a tendency towards absolute ‘autonomy’ amongst all constituents within a given field. Interestingly, Panikkar’s concept of ‘ontonomy’ (which I have brought up in a previous message) strikes a remarkable balance between these two…

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Re: “chaotic heteronomy” — By this I mean that the depths of reality do not necessarily obey the clear and distinct laws that mathematicians use to describe them. That is, these chaotic depths have norms other than those of the highly trained mathematical mind.

      2. jj256144 Avatar

        I see, thank you for clarifying. Indeed, chaos as such does not obey any norms whatsoever. Isn’t that so? However, the depths of reality are not completely chaotic. Mathematical ‘objects’ are reflections of the ordered aspect of the depths of reality. Again, we reach the limits of thought. Dualities (like chaos/order) are not absolute and cannot exist apart from each other, but since the nature of the intellectual function is inherently differential thought cannot in itself absolutely resolve the dualities through its descriptions. The Reality is a complex interplay in resolved immediacy that cannot be absolutely described by thought, although it includes thought and thought’s descriptions as a component to its totality. Thought in itself however can only describe the differential aspects of reality.

      3. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        We are not that far apart now… I suppose I’d just want to say that thinking (active thought) does not “describe” the differentiation of reality, it participates in bringing it about. Thinking cannot capture the world (=the creative advance of nature in Whitehead’s jargon) in words, but it can express its essence, since language (when poetically transparent) is not other than the logos of things themselves.

    2. jj256144 Avatar

      Yes, that is well put. I agree that thought is an integral participatory component to the total living and creative reality. And you are right that thought does not only describe the differentiation of reality but rather ’embodies’ something of the differentiated aspect of reality by its own existence.

      I suppose what I meant by ‘ thought’s descriptions’ falls more along the theoretical concentrations of thought rather than the poetic logos (not that I see any absolute distinction between these either)– especially in reference to ontology and identification of polarities. And my point there is that there is a limit to what can be achieved with theory that consists, at least in part, of the inherently differential nature of the intellectual function — that the polarities identified by thought (descriptive in nature) are not an absolute feature in the total living reality but rather are circumscribed within the limits of thought.

  2. louis brassard Avatar
    louis brassard

    Einstein is a great contributor in the physical road to the end of time, the creation of of timeless description of the world. Julian Barbour continued on that road. Bergson began his philosophical journey with the realization that the time of physics is timeless. He was in the tradition of Heraclitus and nowadays Lee Smolin is one of the proponent of a physics that is not platonic and tried to eliminate time but that make everything changing.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I find the debate between Einstein and Bergson (and Einstein and Whitehead–which is a somewhat different sort of debate) among the most pregnant sites for philosophical inquiry that the last century has provided us with.

      1. nicholastdahlheim Avatar

        Well, what’s really interesting any debate involving Einstein was how much relativity theory advanced science beyond Cartesian-Newtonianism while at the same time Einstein himself was actually fairly rigid in holding onto some of the very philosophical concepts that relativity itself through into question.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Yes, as I remarked elsewhere, according to Bergson we need to “be more Einsteinian than Einstein himself.” I’m diving head first into the literature on Einstein, Bergson, Whitehead and the ether so I can finish my dissertation by the fall. It is tough going, heady stuff, but really fascinating. I hope I can make sense of it!

  3. PeterJ Avatar

    Interesting topic. I would want to mention Hermann Weil in regard to time since he had a handle on it. Crucially he points out the difference between time as it is experienced and time as a mathematician or physicist sees it. Einstein’s favourite mathematician Tobias Danzig characterises this as the legato vs. the staccato view. Weil is really good on this topic.

    1. jj256144 Avatar

      “This world was not built with random bricks of Chance,
      A blind god is not destiny’s architect;
      A conscious power has drawn the plan of life,
      There is a meaning in each curve and line.”
      ~from _Savitri_ from Book VI, Canto II

      1. jj256144 Avatar

        Om Namo Bhagavate

  4. PeterJ Avatar

    PS. Is the quote from Whitehead on the masthead accurate? I seem to remember he qualifies the phrase ‘philosophical tradition’ so that it referred to a specific tradition and not the whole of philosophy. Maybe I misremembered.

  5. Joe Avatar

    Things can be difficult to read for different reasons. Some (many) texts are unnecessarily obscure — I don’t see how this could be construed as a virtue (not pointing any fingers). Some are difficult because the ideas themselves take a long time to digest/work through. Robert Rosen is a case like this, in my opinion. He says things as clearly as he possibly can, without relying on jargon, but the ideas and formalisms encapsulating them are often challenging nonetheless. Finally, it takes a very special kind of mind, to take something that is difficult to express, and express it in a way that is easy to grasp for a reader — this should not be overlooked or underappreciated.

    Can you say a word on eternal objects/events? I’m wondering if they have some connection to ‘universality classes’ in complex systems science.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Just did a bit of googling re: “universality classes.” Seems like this concept is related to laws that hold true across a variety of systems regardless of scale? Eternal objects, along with actual occasions, are the two most important categories in Whitehead’s system. They certainly have some connection to universality classes. If these classes are something like scale-invariant laws, then the process physicist could describe the quantitative relations associated with theses laws as ingressing eternal objects. Eternal objects are the quantitative or qualitative aspects of actuality that transcend any particular instantiation. So the eternal object of the number 2, for ex., ingresses in an infinite variety of actual things: 2 lollipops, 2 paper clips, 2 koalas, etc. Similarly, the eternal object for a specific shade of red ingressed in yesterday evening’s sunset, in a particular stop sign, in a blood-stained sheet, etc. In each case, the number 2 and the specific shade of red are required for but not reducible to the particular events in which they appear.

      1. Joe Avatar

        Hmmm.. I’m not sure how that is different than Plato’s eternal forms, is it in your opinion?

        Wrt universality classes, it is not just scale, but specific mechanisms that can vary and realize the same macro-behavior. For instance, given a large set of ‘things’ behaving ‘randomly and independently’, the normal distribution (bell-curve) is universel, regardless of what those things are or what their behavior is. This is the essence if the central limit theorem. Now, it turns out that many (many many many… most?) systems do not meet those assumptions, and therefore do not belong to that universality class (a typical mistake in science).

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Whitehead’s eternal objects are similar to Plato’s eternal forms, with one important difference: for Plato, the forms were more real than the actualities of the experienced world, while for Whitehead, eternal objects are “deficient in actuality” and have no causal impact on what happens independently of their ingression into actual occasions of experience. For Whitehead, eternal forms are reconfigured into “potentials for definiteness” rather than, as Plato saw them, the eminently real universals to which all particulars are degraded copies. So instead of this world being a poor imitation of the eternal world (as in some readings of Plato), *this world* is the only world where the forms find their importance.

      3. Joe Avatar

        So, besides the way you describe ingression, which to me feels more like the typical platonic reading, I think there actually may be a deep connection to universality classes. (I’ll have to read source material to see how Whitehead describes.) Universality classes don’t require anything ‘extra’ from the outside, or from the ‘ether’ to gain their reality — they are enacted by many different systems that share some structural invariant(s).

      4. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        (I edited my last comment a bit just before you responded).

        I’m intrigued by the possibility of a deep connection. I’m not surprised, though, since Whitehead constructed the concept especially to make sense of the way science discovers regularities in nature.

        As for the ether, I don’t see it as something extra or outside of the physical world. Invisible and difficult or perhaps impossible to detect, maybe, but not “extra.” Whitehead (from The Principle of Relativity, 1922): “In the classical doctrine the ether is the shy agent behind the veil: in the account given here the ether is exactly the apparent world, neither more nor less.”

      5. Joe Avatar

        I just don’t understand the invocation of something like an ‘ether’ if it is not something ‘other’. To me, it sounds like he was grappling with emergence.

  6. PeterJ Avatar

    If Whitehead’s ether is the phenomenal world of consciousness and space-time, as I gather from what has been said here, then it seems to be something like Bernardo Kastrup’s ‘mind-at-large’, If this is the veil, the extended world of opposites and appearances, then Reality would be unity and non-appearance. But this need not be ‘something other’, A Buddhist or Absolute Idealist would say that the absolute includes rather than opposes the relative and also that ‘it’ is not a thing. There would seem to be something other, but by reduction the two worlds would be one. So we can have our cake and eat it.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hmm, well, not so fast. If you click the link to the google books version of Whitehead’s The Principle of Relativity, I think you’ll see from the context of the quote that he is up to something different than Kastrup’s idealism. Whitehead is rejecting the idea of an ether or Mind “behind the veil.” He wants to affirm the irreducible reality of the world’s many appearances. His is an “ether of events,” and as such, inherently pluralistic.

      1. PeterJ Avatar

        Fair enough, Mathew. I was exploring around what has been said here since I don’t know Whitehead.

        But if he was examining emergence then this ether would have to be seen as emergent, not fundamental. That it is pluralistic is enough to render it relative. If we say that Kastrup’s ‘mind-at-large’ (or just Mind) is emergent then it would line up fairly precisely with W’s ether.

        I don’t like either idea as it happens, but they do seem quite closely connected.

  7. Lenny Gibson Avatar

    Your question mark on p. 198 is very appropriate, Matt. The statement, “Whitehead conceived of ‘events’ as ‘eternal objects’.” is completely wrong. The statement focuses acutely my estimation that Canales has not mastered Whitehead. Understanding him would also make it easier for her to grasp Bergson. Bergson’s distinction between scientific time and duration very closely reflects Newton’s distinction between”true, absolute, and mathematical time” and “common time” in the Scholia to the Principia.
    Better than opposing Einstein to Bergson is to attend Goedel, who maintained that Einstein destroyed (mathematical) time, not just redefined it. Yourgrau’s “A World Without Time” is a much more profound take on Einstein than Canales’s.
    On another tack, I disagree with the received opinion that Plato thought the ideas more real than the experienced world. Socrates, for instance, was Plato’s preeminent actuality. And in Letter VII, Plato explicitly says that understanding his doctrines requires long study and close companionship’ “when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the souland at once becomes self-sustaining.” (341d) Sounds like satori to me. It’s also the key to understanding Plato’s characterization of time as the “moving image of eternity.” (37d)

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