Below is a draft of a review of Tim Eastman’s new book. I’ll be submitting this to a journal for publication soon, but wanted to share it here for those interested in this important contribution to understanding the nature of reality in light of quantum process.
TIMOTHY E. EASTMAN, Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2020: 344 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <email@example.com>.]
It was nearly a century ago, in the midst of the quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics, that Whitehead realized scientific progress had reached a turning point:
“The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. …What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? If science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations.”
Despite Whitehead’s warning, the 1920s also saw the rise of a positivist prohibition on speculative metaphysics, handicapping progress into the foundations of post-classical science and producing precisely the fragmented medley that he feared. Fortunately, a growing chorus of interdisciplinary scientists is taking up the philosophical work left unfinished by the early twentieth century founders of quantum theory. In Untying the Gordian Knot (UGK), plasma physicist-cum-philosopher Timothy E. Eastman adds his voice to the ensemble, offering the “Logoi framework” as a meta-theory that aims not only to make ontological sense of quantum mechanics, but to integrate it with several other emerging twenty-first century frameworks, including complex systems science, Peircean triadic semiotics, and category theory. This alone would make Eastman’s book worthy of careful study; but he goes even further, sketching the plan for a bridge between science (or “the way of numbers”) and the human ethical and spiritual spheres (“the way of context”). Despite the grand scope of his inquiry, Eastman remains humble and conciliatory: the Logoi framework “is not post-anything but a proto-worldview” (11) that seeks to balance both theory and story, both systematic rigor and open-ended adventure (14). Eastman’s masterful synthesis of dozens of cutting edge researchers across numerous disciplines is impossible to summarize in this short review. Thus, in what follows, I focus on a few of UGK‘s important contributions to the birth of a process-relational science.
Eastman decided to study physics and philosophy not only because he wanted to understand the physical world, but because from a young age he intuited that this “wondrous whole” contained layers of meaning deeper than the merely measurable (1). Natural science has allowed human beings to reach beyond the mundane proportions of their sense organs and species-specific umwelt toward extreme magnitudes of space and time. Telescopes extend our eyesight across vast distances of intergalactic space; microscopes into the nuclei of cells and even atoms; inferences from radioactive decay rates of certain isotopes allow us to infer the age of fossils millions or billions of years into the past. Such techniques have dramatically expanded our understanding of the universe, and our place within it. But in extending our senses to scales they were not evolved to perceive, often while using empirical concepts derived from human-scale perception, we run the risk of succumbing to the sort of model-centric literalism that imagines we possess an outside God’s eye-view of an already finished universe. Eastman seeks to re-embed the scientific perspective within the evolving universe that gave rise to it, such that “the most fundamental notions [of natural science] can be inferred from normal human experience” (5). This follows from Eastman’s commitment to the Whiteheadian ideal that “concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice versa” (as articulated by Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein [2017, 2]).
Eastman carefully deconstructs the conceptual impediments to philosophical integration of post-classical science, such as “actualism,” “nominalism,” and “determinism” (89), arguing that potentials (or potentiae in his terms) have a creative role to play that both upsets notions of (efficient) causal closure and reintroduces formal causes into our accounts of natural processes. While quantum physics has forced the issue, Eastman points out that it is misleading to construe even the formalisms of classical Newtonian physics as though they entail strict determinism, since all such modeling frameworks make assumptions about initial and boundary conditions, relevant scales, and domains for meaningful solution (94). Granting potentiae real participation in the physical world not only allows science to consider the anticipatory capacities and creative agency of biological organisms in a non-reductive way. It also resolves longstanding quantum puzzles, which resulted from trying to force-fit a classical mechanistic ontology to results that should indicate the need for a new, process-relational ontology (54). Building on the Relational Reality model of Epperson and Zafiris (2013), Eastman describes the evolution of quantum events from pure potential to probabilities to actualization when measured (a process involving both logical conditioning and causal re-iteration) (38). Integrating Ruth Kastner‘s Transactional Interpretation of quantum mechanics (2013), Eastman argues that acts of measurement are not passive observations of already existing facts, but rather themselves establish new facts. There can be no ultimate causal closure, either for finite systems or for the universe as a whole, since the ontological unrest of newly emerging facts break any such closure. The universe thus becomes a cumulative succession of “actual occasions of experience,” wherein potentiae grow together with actualities by linking local causal interactions with global logical constraints in the ongoing process of realization. This process is asymmetric and includes both a standard (Boolean) dyadic logic of actualizations (res extensae) and a triadic logic of potentialities (res potentiae) (23). Eastman argues that “dyadic relations do not, in fact, exist in the real world, [only in] the world of abstract modeling” (27). This is because context is inevitably involved, and because the relationship between potentiality and actuality is inherently asymmetrical, from whence comes the arrow of time.
Eastman’s Logoi framework (again, following Epperson and Zafiris) thus carries forward Whitehead’s crucial distinction in Process & Reality (1978) between the logical order of concrete events (“genetic division”) and the causal order of metrical spacetime (“coordinate division”) (43-44). The former, rooted in fundamental quantum processes, is given primacy, while the latter, rather than being conceived of as a pre-existing continuum serving as a container for processes, is secondarily emergent from such processes (68). In Eastman’s words:
“Quantum physics exemplifies the fact that physical extensiveness (standard spacetime description) is fundamentally topological rather than metrical, with its proper logico-mathematical framework being category-theoretic (relations of relations) rather than set-theoretic (sets of things)” (71).
Grasping the significance of Eastman’s Logoi framework may be aided by contrasting it with popular actualist accounts. Eastman critiques the physical “theory of everything” articulated by Sean Carroll in his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Carroll takes up the God’s eye perspective by offering a single “core theory,” an equation combining quantum mechanics, spacetime, gravity, matter, the Higgs field, and other forces, which he claims leaves no room for new aspects of the universe that are not already well understood. Eastman points out that, while the components of this core equation represent great achievements, in practice no one has ever succeeded in combining them into a practical model or simulation. Carroll’s core theory thus amounts to no more than a mashup and is not anywhere close to being a working equation (126). On Eastman’s reading, Carroll makes several unstated metaphysical assumptions including actualism, physicalism, and causal closure, leading him to mistake an amalgam of dyadic input-output models as though they could serve as an ultimate explanation for the universe (127). Rather than accepting Carroll’s actualist rendering of the Feynman path-integral formulation of quantum physics (where electrons are assumed to take every path, with the largest probability being given to that path which approaches classical physics), Eastman argues that “physical relations emerge from [the] multiple sampling of potentiae pre-space, which is operationally handled by the principle of least action, reflecting optimization of relations of relations in this pre-space” (138). Rather than prematurely limiting our creative cosmos to the idealized deductivist models of current physics, or suggesting untestable “scientific exotica”(82) like the vast ontological overflow of actualized possible worlds as in the “many-worlds” interpretation, Eastman leaves open the possibility of genuinely novel emergence within the only universe we could ever know anything about.
Whitehead’s cosmology, along with Peirce’s and contemporary physicist Lee Smolin’s ideas, are often interpreted as implying that physical “law” is more a matter of empirical probability, rather than being metaphysically grounded. Since deism is no longer a live option for scientists (as it was in Descartes’ and Newton’s day), very few have attempted to ground “law” metaphysically (130). The closest thing contemporary physics has to such a metaphysical ground for physical laws are “symmetry principles.” But from Eastman’s perspective, these principles remain groundlessly circular descriptions without an accompanying process-relational ontology. Peirce attempted to reformulate laws as habits, but Eastman worries this may be a category error that, despite Peirce’s realist intentions, falls prey to nominalism. For Eastman, genuine habits can only be said to emerge at the biological level. Without wanting to affirm deductivism, he nonetheless thinks necessity must have some purchase in Nature for many of the findings of modern physics to make any sense. He thus argues that Nature’s laws derive, not from any deductive necessity, but rather from the conditional contingency of trajectory optimizing histories (e.g., the Principle of Least Action) (131). He compares these trajectories to Leibniz’ “striving possibles” (133).
In addition to its paradigm remaking implications for physics, the Logoi framework’s fundamental distinction between the Boolean domain of actualized measurements and the non-Boolean domain of pre-space potentiae also has important implications for the study of human consciousness. Rather than reducing our concrete experience of mental processing to abstract correlations among measurable brain states, the Logoi framework allows us to take seriously our sense of being conscious agents capable of some degree of decisive influence over the ongoing flux of reality. With the inclusion of the realm of potentiae into physical ontology, human consciousness need no longer be thought of as an anomalous intruder into an otherwise well-behaved mechanical universe. Instead, our conscious experience offers us an intimate window into the function of potentiae in the broader course of Nature, as our everyday mental capacities involving tapping into and expressing “ontologically genuine remainder[s] of real possibility” (84). It follows that popular claims on behalf of artificial intelligence systems said to be on the verge of realizing effectively human levels of consciousness and cognition are rooted in faulty metaphysical presuppositions. AI systems are entailment devices limited to input-output (Boolean) logic alone, and so cannot tap into the realm of potentiae in the way biologically evolved, historically emergent minds can (98).
Eastman synthesizes important insights from a variety of researchers to contribute much needed clarity to the scientific understanding the role of emergence in Nature. Emergent physical entities are so described because as novel wholes they are not derivable either from the stuff of which they are made nor from the laws of physics (111). Eastman distinguishes emergence as a synchronic hierarchical process that builds on diachronic causation. Many basic causal and emergent processes are rooted in multi-scale quantum field processes (Eastman gives the example of space plasmas, whose emergent processes range from planetary to galactic scales) (112). Emergence is thus not merely a matter of epistemic limits to reductive explanations, but rather a consequence of the influence of quantum process across all physical scales. In the Logoi framework, causation is interpreted more broadly than just the dyadic correlation of facts typical of actualist frameworks. From within an actualist framework, any novelty or emergence can only be regarded as an epiphenomenon arising from random error or chance. Understanding emergent entities and processes requires symbolic bridges, as knowledge presupposes a distinction between knower and known, and thus the need for mediation (113). Eastman proposes Whiteheadian “prehension” as one such symbolic-conceptual bridge. Eastman shares Charles Hartshorne’s sense that prehension is the most powerful metaphysical generalization ever accomplished (159n18), as it allows all sorts of relations (e.g., memory, perception, causality, spatial, temporal, subject-object, God-world, etc.) to be accounted for in terms of one generic type. Further, the metaphysics of prehension imply that all physical relations are fundamentally asymmetrical in structure. Prehension can be variously understood as a philosophical embodiment of field theory; as the ontologization of the mathematical function; and as an account of quantum process (113-114). In light of Whitehead’s prehensional account of causation and emergence and Epperson and Zafiris’ applications (2013), Eastman argues that a strong case can be made for the idea that all macro-systems (including relativistic spacetime) are ontologically emergent from fundamental quantum processes.
Although Eastman creatively expands upon Whitehead’s process philosophy, he does so without remaining unduly tied to the latter’s categoreal scheme. He emphasizes Leemon McHenry’s (2017) interpretation of Whiteheadian prehensions as “concrete functions” rather than “abstract relations” (40), thus contrasting Whitehead’s “third approach” to his former collaborator Bertrand Russell’s nominalistic logical atomism. Prehension is defined in its physical mode as “the present occasion’s absorption of past actual occasions in its process of self-creation” (McHenry, 325). This leaves out the role of conceptual prehensions in Whitehead’s scheme, that is, the present occasion’s ingression of potentials or eternal objects in its process of self-creation. McHenry (2015) appears to question the need for Whitehead’s eternal objects (at least if they are given a “Platonic emphasis” (47). Eastman claims his account of a diachronic process in terms of pre-space potentiae plays a role similar to that of Whitehead’s “prehensive unification” first introduced in Science and the Modern World (1925). Despite approving of Whitehead’s perspectival account of the relation between universals and particulars (103), Eastman sometimes indicates a desire to distance himself from Whitehead’s eternal objects, thus implying that there may be important differences between his landscapes of potentiae and the realm of eternal objects. This is a fertile area for further philosophical exploration beyond the scope of this brief review. Nonetheless, a few suggestions can be offered.
One way of beginning such an exploration stems from asking whether the choice of realism over nominalism as regards the status of form in Nature entails Platonism. Eastman thinks not (92), but given that Plato wrote dialogues and not doctrines, it all depends what is meant by “Platonism.” Regardless of the nature of his divergence from Whitehead’s category of eternal objects, they clearly share a rejection of nominalism. Eastman puts forward an argument against nominalist actualism that is rooted in quantum potentiae that integrate local-global interactions without themselves having any specific spacetime location. They are generals, in C. S. Peirce’s sense, serving as logical constraints on physical process. From Eastman’s point of view, admitting potentiae back into Nature is far more parsimonious than the actualist/nominalist interpretations of quantum theory (e.g., the many-worlds and multiverse hypotheses) (94).
Eastman concludes his book with an attempt to link human and cosmic logoi in search of some sense of the deeper meaning of our existence. Careful to avoid any monological fixations, he builds on George Ellis’ “Kenotic morality” (2020, 13), wherein human values like truth, goodness, and beauty “reflect the forces or intentions that created the universe…as part of the deep structure of the cosmos,” in Ellis’ terms. Eastman also amplifies Robert Neville’s (2013, 53) worry about the “enormous damage to human civilization [resulting from] the loss of value-reference and realistic valuation in modern Western science” (245). With characteristic caution and modesty, Eastman seeks to contrast his own Logoi framework, which aims at “evidence-based methodology,” with the “advocacy-based thinking” that is more appropriate in cultural and political spheres (247).
In the final pages, Eastman honors the Dakota peoples, upon whose land he first had the spiritual experience that initiated his inquiry into the nature of reality:
“In confronting the psychological challenges of nihilism, denialism, and assorted despairs of contemporary life, in facing up to the physical threats of war, pandemics, human suffering, and in newly realizing the deteriorating of earth’s climate, ecology, and habitability, can we somehow embrace what we have learned through science and philosophy and what we may yet draw on from indigenous and other spiritualities so as to bring into being a world in which we humans can live and flourish over the long term?” (274).
Eastman has succeeded in making a major contribution toward such an integral embrace.
Auxier, Randall and Herstein, Gary. (2017). The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism. New York: Routledge.
Carroll, Sean. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York: Dutton.
Ellis, George F. R. (2020). “A Mathematical Cosmologist Reflects on Deep Ethics: Reflections on Values, Ethics, and Morality.” Theology and Science: 1-15.
Epperson, Michael and Zafiris, Elias. (2013). Foundations of Relational Realism: A Topological Approach to Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Nature. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Kastner, Ruth. (2013). The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: The Reality of Possibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McHenry, Leemon. (2017). “Whitehead and Russell on the Analysis of Matter.” The Review of Metaphysics 71: 321-342.
Neville, Robert. (2013). Ultimates: Philosophical Theology, Volume One. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.