Introduction to Process Philosophy

Below is a lecture recorded for the online course PARP 6060 02 – Introduction to Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at CIIS.edu.

I first discuss the meaning of philosophy from a Whiteheadian perspective, then run through a brief history of philosophy as relevant to process thought (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Kant and his immediate successors), and finish by offering a few key perspectives from Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.

Many streams of thought flow into and give shape to PCC’s perspective on the Universe and our human place within it. One of these streams is the process-relational tradition. This tradition is most often associated with the 20th century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), but many of Whitehead’s core insights can be traced back to the beginnings of Western philosophy in ancient Greece, and were carried forward and brilliantly developed by the German Idealists in the early 19th century. 

I hope my lecture helped give you some sense for the philosophical lineage that Whitehead drew upon and entered into dialogue with when he articulated his post-relativistic, post-quantum cosmological scheme in the 1920s and 30s. I have a feeling you agree, after reading the chapters I assigned from his book Modes of Thought (1938), that Whitehead is not an easy thinker to understand. But as someone who has been studying his work for almost a decade now, I can assure you it is well worth the effort to get to know the intimacies of his metaphysical scheme. Almost always it takes multiple readings to grok what he’s on about. All scientists employ instruments to aid them in their study. Philosophy’s instrument of inquiry, according to Whitehead, is language itself. Just like telescopes and microscopes, it takes a bit of practice to learn how to see with them. I encourage you to take Whitehead’s experiments in language seriously, even if they at first seem confusing. 

Whitehead boldly re-affirmed the grand tradition of speculative cosmology at a time when most academic philosophers were retreating from metaphysics into reductionistic materialism and logical positivism. Whitehead summed up the situation of his contemporaries: “…the science of nature stands opposed to the presuppositions of humanism. Where some conciliation is attempted, it often assumes some sort of mysticism. But in general there is no conciliation” (MoT 136). Modern science tells us we are matter in motion, while modern humanism insists we are free agents enjoying profound emotions. While the positivists busied themselves analyzing linguistic puzzles, pretending not to be metaphysical by ignoring the mind/matter dualism implicit in all their reasonings, Whitehead sought insight into creative depths as yet unspoken. Logical positivism attempted to reduce philosophy to the safety of settled science; Whitehead sought instead to engage philosophy as a poetic adventure in world-making. 

“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” (Aims of Education 164).

Whitehead’s cosmological vision is bold, but he may also deserve the title of humblest philosopher in history. “Philosophy begins in wonder,” he tells us. “And, at the end, when philosophy has done its best, the wonder remains” (MoT 168). “How shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things,” he tells us elsewhere. “In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (PR xiv). For Whitehead, philosophy’s aim is to purify emotion by eliciting some increase of understanding, to correct the initial excess of subjectivity in our consciousness so as to grant us a more cosmic perspective on reality. “Purifying” emotion doesn’t mean eliminating it by replacing it with logic; even knowledge, for Whitehead, is a complex form of feeling. The goal of “knowing” is not to explain the All once and for all (impossible in the open-ended, creative cosmos Whitehead imagines), but to elucidate our experience so as to bring more of the Great Mystery’s beauty into our awareness. 

Philosophy is akin to imaginative art, Whitehead tells us. It is the endeavor to creatively reframe naive experience so as to intensify our enjoyment of the meaning and potential of our existence. None of this is to say that Whitehead ignores the importance of science: “I assume as an axiom that science is not a fairy tale” (The Concept of Nature 40). Whitehead turned to philosophical cosmology late in his life (after a illustrious 30 year career as a Royal Society elected mathematician) precisely in order to save 20th century natural science from incoherence. He wanted to provide physics with a new and more adequate metaphysical foundation after quantum and relativity theories spelled the end of the Newtonian paradigm.

“In the present-day reconstruction of physics fragments of the Newtonian concepts are stubbornly retained. The result is to reduce modern physics to a sort of mystic chant over an unintelligible Universe. This chant has the exact merits of the old magic ceremonies which flourished in ancient Mesopotamia and later in Europe. One of the earliest fragments of writing which has survived is a report from a Babylonian astrologer to the King, stating the favorable days to turn cattle into the fields, as deduced by his observations of the stars. This mystic relation of observation, theory, and practice, is exactly the present position of science in modern life, according to the prevalent scientific philosophy. The notion of empty space, the mere vehicle of spatial interconnections, has been eliminated from recent science. The whole spatial universe is a field of force, or in other words, a field of incessant activity. The mathematical formulae of physics express the mathematical relations realized in this activity. The unexpected result has been the elimination of bits of matter, as the self-identical supports for physical properties. At first, throughout the nineteenth century, the notion of matter was extended. The empty space was conceived as filled with ether…The more recent revolution which has culminated in the physics of the present day has only carried one step further this trend of nineteenth century science…Matter has been identified with energy, and energy is sheer activity; the passive substratum composed of self-identical enduring bits of matter has been abandoned, so far as concerns any fundamental description…The modern point of view is expressed in terms of energy, activity, and the vibratory differentiations of space-time. Any local agitation shakes the whole universe. The distant effects are minute, but they are there. The concept of matter presupposed simple location. Each bit of matter was self-contained, localized in a region with a passive, static network of spatial relations, entwined in a uniform relational system from infinity to infinity and from eternity to eternity. But in the modern concept the group of agitations which we term matter is fused into its environment. There is no possibility of a detached, self-contained local existence. The environment enters into the nature of each thing” (MoT 138).

Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy is an attempt to integrate the latest scientific evidence with our moral, aesthetic, and spiritual intuitions regarding the ultimate nature of the Universe. Whitehead envisions the Universe as a creative becoming, a cosmogenesis. The creatures who inhabit his world are bound up together in an infinite web of evolving relations. Reason has often functioned to alienate humanity from its relations, but Whitehead offers another possibility. Whiteheadian rationality is guided by its commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself” (PR 4). To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of cosmic relationality. Any truth philosophy may seek can only ever be found here among us. 

One Reply to “Introduction to Process Philosophy”

  1. Hi Matt … I truly appreciate your eloquent expression of these various versions of idealism, and your contribution to possibly formulating a contemporary consensual ontological model founded on the primacy of consciousness, upon which to base an ethos, to hopefully supplant the current prevailing, spiritually deprived, materialist model. In that regard, I’m curious to know if you have come across the works and ideas of Bernardo Kastrup, and his vision of idealism … https://www.youtube.com/user/bernardokastrup … and if so, what do you make of it?

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