I’ve just finished drafting this article, which will hopefully be featured in a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences focused on panpsychism. It still needs plenty of editing, but I’m sharing it here for those who want a sneak peak. Criticisms and suggestions definitely welcome.
Title: “Physicalism and Its Discontents: A Study in Whitehead’s Panexperientialist Alternative”
Abstract (150-200 words): This paper brings Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism into conversation with the recent panpsychist turn in analytic philosophy of mind. Whitehead’s unabashedly metaphysical project broadly aligns with recent critiques of reductive physicalism and the turn toward a conception of experience as basic to Nature. This paper thus examines physicalism’s dominant strategies for explaining consciousness, including eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism, and concludes that the panpsychist alternative is superior. However, Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism diverges in crucial respects from the dominant substance-property variants of panpsychism. I argue that Whitehead’s version avoids many of the conceptual difficulties plaguing the latter and that it thus represents a more formidable alternative to standard physicalism.
Key words: panpsychism, panexperientialism, physicalism, emergence, experience, consciousness, process philosophy
The skull-crackingly hard problem concerning the place of consciousness in the physical universe has led an increasing number of analytic philosophers of mind to take seriously the panpsychist alternative to standard physicalism. Nonetheless, Brüntrup and Jaskolla note in their editors’ introduction to Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives that the usual response to the doctrine remains “an incredulous stare” (2017, 2). Perhaps the most forceful dismissal to date comes from Colin McGinn, who in a reply to Galen Strawson rejects panpsychism as “a comforting piece of utter balderdash” that only stoned hippies could believe (McGinn 2006, 93).
But an explanation for the emergence of consciousness in the universe known to physics has thus far proven elusive. Fundamental philosophical questions remain to be answered before the criteria for such a scientific explanation can even be established. For example, is consciousness essentially ‘real’ or ‘illusory’? That is, does it “have truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality,” as Alfred North Whitehead suspected (1929, 15), or is it a peripheral accident, a mere epiphenomenon emergent from blindly churning physiochemical processes that are otherwise well understood by natural science? Does consciousness evolve, and if so, does it intelligently influence the behavior of the organisms instantiating it? These questions are not merely theoretical or academic. They cut to the very core who and what we are, shaping our sense of what it means to be human.
Despite the initial incredulity it provokes, this paper argues that panpsychism—specifically Whitehead’s process-relational, panexperiential version—provides a viable alternative to scientific materialism while also avoiding the philosophical excesses of dualism and idealism. Strange as it may sound to modern ears, panpsychism has a long and rich history stretching back to the origins of Western philosophy. Heraclitus opposed Parmenides’ vision of unchanging Being with the doctrine that ‘everything flows’ (panta rhea). Heraclitus understood the universe to be “an ever-living fire” (pyr aeizoon), making him not only the first recorded process philosopher but the first panpsychist, as well (Skrbina 2005, 29). Even in the early modern period, thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Gottfried Leibniz, often lauded for their important contributions to the emergence of the scientific worldview, continued to uphold some version of the doctrine. “Lucretius tells us what an atom looks like to others,” writes Whitehead, “and Leibniz tells us how an atom is feeling about itself” ( 1967, 132). Skeptics may be tempted to excuse Bruno and Leibniz’s panpsychist eccentricity as an unthought residue of pre-modern animism. Once enlightened by the findings of contemporary physics and biology, surely these luminaries would happily have dispensed with the ‘primitive’ notion that atoms can feel? Perhaps not. What, after all, are we to make of Whitehead, another mathematical and philosophical genius who critiqued scientific materialism and arrived at his own variety of panpsychism not despite but because of the findings of contemporary physics and biology?
“There persists…[a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter…spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being…[This] is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived” (Whitehead  1967, 17).
This paper brings Whitehead’s “Philosophy of Organism” ( 1978) into conversation with the recent panpsychist turn in analytic philosophy of mind. Whitehead’s unabashedly metaphysical project broadly aligns with recent critiques of reductive physicalism and the turn toward a conception of experience as basic to Nature. However, Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism diverges in crucial respects from the dominant substance-property variants of panpsychism. I argue that Whitehead’s version avoids many of the conceptual difficulties plaguing the latter and that it thus represents a more formidable alternative to standard physicalism.
1. Why not Whitehead?: A Brief Historical Excursus
“Urge & urge & urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance & increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.”
—Whitman (“Song of Myself”)
Understanding Whitehead’s process-relational approach to panpsychism (or panexperientialism, as David Ray Griffin has renamed it [Griffin 2008, 78]) first requires a bit of historical contextualization. While Whitehead’s early work with Bertrand Russell on the logical foundations of mathematics is widely acknowledged by analytic philosophers as seminal to the emergence of their school of thought, Whitehead’s later metaphysical speculations are for the most part either ignored or ridiculed. For example, W. V. Quine traveled to Harvard in the mid-1920s to study with the coauthor of the Principia Mathematica. After attending the lectures that became Science and the Modern World (1925), Quine acknowledged “a vivid sense of being in the presence of the great” but went on to admit that the notes he took were mostly full of doodles. “What [Whitehead] said,” Quine reports, “had little evident bearing on the problems that I recognized” (Quine 1985, 83). Another student of Whitehead’s at Harvard, Donald Davidson, was initially transfixed by his ideas, but later reflected that his encounter with Whitehead “set [him] back philosophically for years” by confirming his youthful “inclination to think that doing philosophy was like writing poetry” (Davidson 1999, 14). Not everyone was quite as sour on Whitehead’s speculations at Harvard. Ernest Nagel credited Whitehead with being one of the first to realize and attempt to address the metaphysical problems that were becoming “acutely pressing in the special sciences,” praising him for his “[sensitivity] to the advances of recent science as well to the ancient tradition that philosophy is the systematic study of being” (E. Nagel 1954, 154). But Nagel also noted “the severe abuse of language to which Whitehead is partial” (ibid.), a familiar (if not entirely fair) refrain among those who attempt to read him for the first time.
To round out this historical excursus, let us return to Nagel’s point about the special sciences. By the mid-1920s, the new quantum and relativity theories had already succeeded in demolishing the old mechanical philosophy of Nature by transforming matter into energy and merging space and time together with gravity. The classical explanations of Nature offered by a once confident scientific materialism no longer made any sense. A second scientific revolution was afoot. At the same time, Ludwig Wittgenstein led the logical positivists in a revolt against the excesses of British idealism by blowing up the bridge purporting to connect the metaphysical speculations of philosophers with the ultimate nature of things: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Wittgenstein 1922, 189). The physicists struggling to come to terms with the strange ontological implications of their discoveries could henceforth expect no help from philosophers. Whitehead’s own pathbreaking work on the application of mathematics to physics made him especially sensitive to Einstein’s relativistic revolution; he was also well aware of the concurrently unfolding quantum revolution. His sensitivity to the metaphysical earthquake underway in the physical sciences awakened Whitehead from the dogmatic slumber of the mechanistic paradigm. “What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation,” Whitehead asked, “when you do not know what you mean by mechanics?” (1925, 16). His Philosophy of Organism is a protest against the lifeless Nature imagined by Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, and a rejection of the narrow linguistic analysis and sterile logical positivism of his philosophical contemporaries. His is an attempt to make natural science philosophical again by asking whether physical causes and motions need be so violently segregated from the conscious reasons and emotions by which we apprehend them.
In Process & Reality: An Essay in Cosmology ( 1978), Whitehead aims for nothing less than the construction of an organic system of the universe that not only brings quantum and relativity theories into coherence, but gathers up scientific truths, aesthetic feelings, and religious values into an integral vision of reality. It is true that Whitehead found it necessary to invent many new turns of phrase to accomplish this feat. He thus contrasts his speculative philosophical method with that of the “critical school” (Whitehead  1968, 173), which for my purposes can easily be identified with the then just emerging analytic school of thought. This school assumes that humanity “has consciously entertained all the fundamental ideas which are applicable to its experience” and that “human language, in single words or in phrases, explicitly expresses these ideas” (ibid.). The critical or analytic school, Whitehead continues, “confines itself to verbal analysis within the limits of the dictionary” (ibid.). In contrast, Whitehead’s speculative method “appeals to direct insight, and endeavors to indicate its meanings by further appeal to situations which promote such specific insights. It then enlarges the dictionary” (ibid.). Whitehead credits analytic philosophy for its “delicate accuracy of expression,” but marks the main “divergence between the schools [as] the quarrel between safety and adventure” (ibid.).
Davidson worried about the adventurous Whitehead’s attempted alliance between speculative philosophy and mystical poetry. Both, according to Whitehead, make “reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words.” He continues: “If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken” (ibid., 174). Davidson’s complaint may be short-sighted, however, especially once one has acknowledged the profound metaphysical problems that after nearly a century of careful analysis continue to plague not only the physical sciences but the philosophy of mind, as well. Hamlet was right: “There are more things in heaven and earth…”
While getting to the bottom of Whitehead’s chilly reception among analytic philosophers is not the aim of this paper, a few conjectures can be offered. After a celebrated first career as a mathematician, Whitehead’s untimely entry into philosophy in the mid-1920s can be read as heralding the more recent return to metaphysics both in the analytic and Continental traditions. Philosophers are finally catching up to the problems Whitehead was pointing out nearly a century ago. Perhaps it is just because his cosmological ideas initially emerged in the wrong season that they have remained buried in the snow. In addition to the unfortunate timing, Whitehead’s lack of easy classification is probably another reason for his neglect. Neither an analytic philosopher, nor a phenomenologist, Whitehead’s approach generally confounds partisans of both schools. That said, his process-relational philosophy has been creatively taken up by a number of friendly thinkers on the Continent (initially Henri Bergson (1999, 47), later Gilles Deleuze ( 1994, 284-285;  1993, 76ff), and most recently Isabelle Stengers (2011) and Bruno Latour (2005). Whitehead’s thought also featured prominently in the Speculative Realism movement that swept through Continental philosophy beginning in late 2010 (Bryant et al. 2011; Harman 2018). He is perhaps best situated within the American pragmatist tradition stemming from Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, though even here the shoe pinches. Dewey is the only one who lived long enough to respond to Whitehead’s philosophy, which he praises for its organicism and experiential point of departure but criticizes for its mathematical residues (Schilpp 1941). In the end it must be admitted that Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy is singular in its aims and conclusions. Any attempt to pigeonhole his thought into a school inevitably trivializes it. Of course, Whitehead himself generated a school, but there exist plenty of wild Whiteheadians who avoid any established orthodoxies, like Deleuze, Stengers, and Latour, or Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein (2017).
Finally, there is the issue of Whitehead’s inclusion of reformed conceptions of teleology and God in his cosmological scheme. For many philosophers and natural scientists, this rules out in advance any serious engagement with his ideas. Daniel J. Nicholson and John Dupré, for example, claim that the theological baggage of Whitehead’s process philosophy is a “liability” for thinkers with a naturalistic aim (2018, 7). But a closer look at Whitehead’s process-relational reformulations of purpose and divinity may reveal to those who rushed to dismiss them that Whitehead shares many of their criticisms of traditional natural theology. By the time God and teleology return from Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology, the former is no longer an omnipotent Creator but a creature of Creativity suffering with the rest of us, and the latter is no longer an eternal design imposed from beyond the world but an aesthetic lure immanent in the experience of each and every actual occasion in the world, whether that experience belongs to Shakespeare or “to the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Whitehead  1978, 28).
My hope is that this paper brings Whitehead out of cold storage and at least thaws his ideas enough to get those unfamiliar with his Philosophy of Organism to consider the alternative it represents, not only to physicalism, but to dualism and idealism, as well. Despite Quine’s first impression, it may turn out that Whitehead has much to say about the problems faced by contemporary analytic philosophers, especially those who, against all odds, now find themselves affirming the panpsychist heresy.
2. The Place of Consciousness in a Physical Universe
Serious conceptual difficulties await any philosopher attempting to understand the place of consciousness in the physical universe. David Chalmers’ well-known “hard problem of consciousness” (1995) is perhaps the most oft cited formulation of the impasse, but the basic problem goes back to Rene Descartes’ argument that a real distinction exists between a thinking or mental substance and an extended or material substance ( 1982, 21]. While many contemporary physicists would be quick to dismiss Descartes’ idea of an immaterial soul as unscientific, his correlate idea of extended matter continues to shape the scientific imaginary of Nature as something explainable without remainder in purely mathematical terms. While Descartes faced the difficult problem of accounting for the relationship between two entirely autonomous substances, contemporary physicalists face what is arguably an even harder problem: how can extended matter in motion ever give rise to the seemingly interior experience of conscious thought and emotion? As Galen Strawson has pointed out, even if this “seeming” experience ends up being some sort of illusion, the seeming itself still demands an explanation: “any such illusion is already and necessarily an actual instance of the thing said to be an illusion” (Strawson 2018).
Let us run through the various metaphysical options at play for those affirming standard physicalism, by which I mean any variation on the ontology that posits that the final real things (whether particles, fields, or some other mode of existence yet to be discovered by science) are passively enduring objects entirely devoid of subjective enjoyment and aim. When addressing the place of consciousness in Nature, physicalists generally draw upon three basic explanatory strategies: eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism. Many physicalists, in order to side-step patent absurdities, end up tacitly sliding back and forth between two or more of these positions in the course of their explanations of consciousness. Unfortunately, there is little consistency in how these terms are defined in existing literature, hence the need to offer accounts of each position as they are considered for the purposes of this paper.
Eliminativism tries to deny the reality of consciousness outright, arguing that our folk psychological intuitions and self-reports about it are hopelessly misguided and need to be replaced by more mature neurophysiological or computational accounts. While Paul and Patricia Churchland are perhaps the most prominent contemporary defenders of this position (P. S. Churchland 1986; P. M. Churchland 1988), its origins can be traced back to Wilfred Sellars (1956) and Quine (1960). Quine’s reflections on the matter are especially relevant. He raises the question of whether eliminativism truly “repudiates” conscious experiences as factually mistaken, or whether it is meant as a theory identifying such experiences with physiological facts (Quine 1960, 265). He decides that there is no real distinction to be made in this case between explanation and identification. If the elimination of consciousness in favor of physiological processes is the same as the identification of consciousness with correlated physiological processes, all the sudden eliminativism starts to sound a lot like panpsychism, with the crucial qualification that the panpsychist refuses to grant brain matter any special ontological status, as though it instantiated experiential capacities not found to some degree in all physical processes. In Whitehead’s terms: “There’s nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling: it promotes feeling; and it is felt” (Whitehead  1978, 310). In other words, if Quine’s reading is right, Whitehead is also an eliminativist about that sort of consciousness that is imagined to be something extra in addition to physical processes.
More recently, a quasi-transcendental version of eliminativism has been defended under the label of “illusionism” (Frankish 2016). The idea is that we suffer inextricably from what Daniel Dennett calls a “user-illusion” (Dennett 2017, 222). There is really no one home inside, but because we are constitutively blind to the neural basis of our user-illusion, we cannot help but keep knocking on the door. The answer to all our knocking comes only as a bunch of mouth-squeaks signifying nothing (other than more squeaks). We are just a bunch of neurons and chemistry playing out an evolutionary algorithm. “We’re all zombies” (Dennett 2004, 67). Despite his critics, Dennett denies that his version of physicalism is eliminativist (Dennett 2017, 224). His philosophy is a good example of the way the most inventive physicalists end up combining aspects of multiple positions, sliding from eliminativism for questions of ontology to emergentism when it’s a question of the practical functionality of conscious will (Dennett 2003).
Hard core eliminativists like the Churchlands, or like the speculative realist philosopher Ray Brassier (2007), can at least be credited with bitting the materialist bullet by accepting that any physicalism worthy of the name leaves absolutely no room in the universe for anything like what most people mean by consciousness. For Brassier, eliminativism is not just a promising neuroscientific theory of consciousness but a tremendous opportunity for speculative philosophy. Philosophers, rather than acting as “a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem” by continuing to seek the restoration of a meaningful connection between human consciousness and the cosmic processes that generate it, should instead follow the logic of eliminativism to its admittedly nihilistic conclusions (Brassier 2007, xi). Even if attempts to restore meaning succeed in increasing our quality of life, Brassier still calls upon self-respecting philosophers to reject them, since “thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living” (ibid.). The eliminativist position can be criticized as self-refuting, since it denies in theory what, short of suicide, one cannot deny in practice (though even the act suicide implies a conscious decision to kill oneself). How can one claim to hold to the view of eliminative materialism if the capacity for holding meaningful views of anything is precisely what the position purports to be eliminating? Brassier responds to the performative contradiction criticism by pointing out that the eliminativist project entails a rejection and replacement of the folk psychological view of ‘views’ or ‘beliefs’ assumed by its critics. Following Paul Churchland, Brassier reduces the propositional meanings and sentential beliefs of folk psychology to the “dynamics and kinematics” of neural activation patterns in the brain (Brassier 2007, 12, 15-17). What it is to hold a particular view (e.g., “Eliminativism is true”) is just for the relevant neural pathways to fire.
While panpsychism may initially affront the common sense of modern Western adults, eliminativism is an even bigger stretch. Of course, the common sense folk psychology of a particular era cannot be given the privileged position of determining metaphysical reality. Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism entails a radical revisioning of our common sense understandings of consciousness and propositional meaning. But it does not deny conscious experience outright. Philosophy can reform common sense without eliminating the very possibility of a meaningful life. According to Whitehead, “As we think, we live” (Whitehead,  1968, 63). Thinking is, after all, as natural to the life of a conscious organism as eating or breathing. If our philosophy cannot in the end be squared with the “overpowering deliverances” (Whitehead  1978, 50) of experience and the “concrete affairs of life” (Whitehead  1967, 80), it is a good sign that we have made a wrong turn somewhere in our abstract reasoning. This, at least, is how a pragmatic radical empiricist like Whitehead addresses the matter: “Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice” (Whitehead  1978, 13).
Epiphenomenalism claims there is room enough for consciousness to be somehow excreted by the brain, but only as a semi-transparent ghost or “inert spectator” (James 1890, 129) with no causal influence over the goings-on of the body or its proximal environment. As formulated most famously by Thomas Huxley, epiphenomenalism is the view that consciousness is “completely without any power…as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery” (Huxley 1875, 62). Epiphenomenalists at least acknowledge the irreducibility of our direct intuition of conscious experience. But assuming a broadly naturalistic and thus evolutionary framework (as Huxley and most contemporary defenders of the doctrine claim to) rules out accounts of epiphenomenal consciousness as sealed off from but nonetheless perfectly correlated with physical processes via a “pre-established harmony” (e.g., Leibniz). Any naturalistic account must explain the causal nexus between mental and physical processes, even if the causal relationships are said to move in only one direction, i.e., physical causes determining an epiphenomenal steam-whistle. Given the requirements of naturalism, the problem with epiphenomenalism is that it is incomprehensible how such a complex ghost-like consciousness could ever have evolved if it serves no function at all for the organism it haunts. If consciousness plays no active role in shaping an organism’s behavior, it cannot be selected for and thus has no role in biological adaptation (T. Nagel 2012, 44ff). As James argued more than a century ago, it is an absurd abuse of scientistic reasoning to assert in the same breath that, while consciousness exists, “all those manners of existence which make it seem relevant to our outward life are mere meaningless coincidences, inexplicable parts of the general and intimate irrationality of this disjointed world” (James 1879, 21). Not only is the view epiphenomenalist view incoherent, the opposed view, that consciousness to varying degrees depending on cerebral complexity “[exerts] a constant pressure in the direction of survival,” grants further plausibility to the Darwinian evolutionary story: “It is, in fact, hard to see how without an effective superintending ideal the evolution of so unstable an organ as the mammalian cerebrum can have proceeded at all” (ibid., 16).
The neuroscientist Michael Graziano attempts to avoid this problem with epiphenomenalism by redefining conscious awareness in neuroscientific terms as “attention” (Graziano 2019). While focusing on the ‘phenomenal properties’ of conscious awareness gives philosophers the impression that subjective experience is some sort of extra ethereal or nonphysical essence (e.g., private ‘qualia’), what Graziano calls an “attention schema” has been scientifically measured in brain-based computational terms (ibid.). The attention schema is the brain’s way of internally modeling certain aspects of its own activity, and our reports and claims about our own consciousness appear to correlate with it (ibid., 101). Graziano thus slides away from the hard problem of consciousness to ask a different question: what sort of neural computations allow us to make claims about supposedly conscious experiences? “In this theory,” writes Graziano, “the ghost in the machine, the consciousness inside us, is a topic of discussion among us only because our intuitions are informed by an attention schema, with its incomplete account of attention” (ibid., 103). While a supposedly ethereal essence would have no way of altering the behavior of an organism, the attention schema serves an adaptive function by monitoring, predicting, and controlling the brain’s attentional resources (ibid., 101). It performs this function in a purely physical way without the influence of any extra-physical consciousness.
While a Whiteheadian approach has its own reasons for being critical of the search for ethereal ‘phenomenal properties’ or private ‘qualia’ (see sections 3 and 4 below), Graziano’s neuroscientific slight of hand gets us no closer to understanding the place of consciousness in the physical world. To start with, consciousness is not merely “a topic of discussion” and cannot be reduced to the sentential claims we make about ourselves and our experience. Whatever else it is, conscious experience of oneself in a world is an immediately intuited concrete fact, not just a linguistic report about or computational model of a fact. Graziano admits he isn’t offering a philosophical answer for how consciousness arises in the brain, but he also implies that his properly scientific approach forces us to accept that “there is no meaningful answer to the question” (ibid., 97). We are just “a biological machine that claims to have a hard problem” (ibid., 96). We are brain networks running a linguistic program whose only power is that it can make claims about itself, statements about what it believes is going on and what its own and other people’s intentions are. These beliefs, claims, and intentions have no bearing on what is actually going on inside the skull or beyond it, since their meanings are epiphenomenal to computations in the brain and the motion of matter through spacetime.
A broader assumption baked into Graziano’s approach is that “the brain is an information processing device” (ibid., 95). This is stated as though it were a truth that neuroscience has discovered, but it is hardly that. It is a theoretical paradigm and a research program, that is, a framework for studying the brain as if it were a computer, not a fact about what the brain is. Other neuroscientists and philosophers of mind reject the computational approach and instead study brain activity from an enactive and embodied perspective (Varela et al.  2016, 44ff; Thompson 2007, 51ff). From an enactive perspective, speaking in terms of decontextualized and disembodied ‘information processing’ going on inside the skull neglects the extent to which meaningful information presupposes an experiential horizon within which it can be interpreted. Evan Thompson extends Gregory Bateson’s claim that “information is a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson  2000, p. 315), adding that information “is the making of a difference that makes a difference to somebody somewhere” (Thompson 2007, 57). Informational meaning is thus embedded not only in the complex dynamics of an experience-imbued brain, but in the sensorimotor networks of the body, and even extends out into the surrounding environment with which the organism is structurally coupled and has co-evolved.
Emergentism claims that consciousness suddenly appears in the universe whenever matter manages to arrange itself into the appropriate dynamical shapes. Some say a simple form of consciousness emerged with the first living cells (‘biopsychism’), while others claim these cells had to blindly organize themselves into large packs of neurons called brains before the light of consciousness could flicker on (‘cerebropsychism’). Still others insist that it was necessary for these brains to become sufficiently entangled in the symbolic network of a language before full-blown consciousness could explode onto the scene (‘anthropopsychism’).
There are weak and strong versions of emergence (Brogaard 2016, 131ff). The higher level capacities of a weakly emergent consciousness are at least in principle deducible from and thus in fact causally reducible to its lower level constituents. Once cognitive neuroscience discovers the relevant underlying brain mechanisms, complicated as they may be, the mystery of consciousness will be understood to have been only an artifact of our limited knowledge. Weak emergence thus presents an epistemological puzzle for physicalism to solve, rather than an ontological impasse forcing it to re-examine its premises. Of course, if weak emergentists do solve the engineering problem of how the brain makes the mind, it is difficult to see how they will avoid sliding back into epiphenomenalism.
Strongly emergent conceptions, in contrast, affirm the ontological novelty of consciousness above and beyond its physical components, even granting it downward causal influence upon the body and surrounding environment. Such a view at least refuses to explain away the evident facts and overpowering deliverances of conscious thought and intention, facts that law, politics, morality, religion, and practical life in general require; facts that even the endeavor to produce scientific knowledge itself necessarily presupposes, for what else is knowledge but a mode of consciousness? As Whitehead quipped, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study” (Whitehead  1958, 16). But unless it can explain how meaning and purpose arise out of mass and energy, strong emergentism lands us right back where Descartes left us nearly four centuries ago, with irreducible mind on one side, brute matter on the other, and no rational account of how they might relate to one another. Focusing on the gradual development of mental capacities from bacterial chemotaxis to Shakespearean poetry over the course of billions of years of biological evolution is an obvious strategy for narrowing this gap. But merely saying ‘evolution did it’ doesn’t cut it, since it wasn’t Darwinian evolution that gave rise to cellular life. Darwin’s theory of speciation by natural selection presupposes self-producing and reproducing organisms, it does not explain them. In Thompson’s terms, “natural selection is an emergent consequence of autopoiesis, not its cause”(2007, 212).
On the other hand, there is a wider definition of evolution than that assigned by Darwin. Whitehead was convinced that evolution had relevance for not just biology but all the sciences, including physics and cosmology. He imaginatively generalized Darwin’s theory such that evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations checked by environmental pressure became evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historical routes, whereby a particular occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the inheritance of efficient causes) are integrated with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the formal causes of variation) into some emergent enduring pattern of experiential value. Whitehead argued that materialism could not survive its encounter with evolutionary theory., since the former implies merely the “purposeless and unprogressive” rearrangement of externally related substances and their accidental properties, while “the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms” (Whitehead  1967, 101). “The doctrine,” Whitehead continues, “cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature” (ibid.).
Information theoretic accounts of the gap between matter and life provide some hope for a pathway forward, but without incarnating information into the meaningful horizon of experience enacted by living organisms, research programs seeking to analogize brain activity to computation end up having to conceive of information processing as some sort of quasi-conscious homunculus hovering above the neurochemistry of the brain and steering it around. For example, neuroscientists regularly describe information processing in the brain as “goal relevant,” “selective,” and “sensitive” (Sy et al. 2015, 122), all terms implying intentionality and purposefulness, even though the presuppositions of mechanistic biology upon which computational neuroscience rests says such powers are impossible. Luckily, taking information seriously does not require “assuming that abstract properties have physical potency,” as Terrence Deacon put it (Deacon 2012, 192).
Deacon is a strong emergentist who tries to dispel the homunculus and de-etherealize information by describing it not as an extra essence added to the physical but in terms of the “absential” features of an incomplete Nature:
“A counterintuitive figure/background reversal, focusing on what is absent rather than present, offers a means to repair some of the serious inadequacies in our conceptions of matter, order, life, work, information, representation, and even consciousness and conceptions of value” (Deacon 2011, 44).
Information is just what is absent from physically present matter. It is not involved in the push and pull of causal efficacy, but instead ‘constrains’ these physical interactions, acting as a formal and final cause that ratchets physics (thermodynamics) up a contragrade organizational gradient into chemistry (morphodynamics), biology (teleodynamics), and eventually full-blown conscious thought (intentionality). Like the enactivists, Deacon limits information processing to the living world, denying ententionality to the physical and chemical realms. He grants morphodynamic systems the ability to ‘fall up’ negentropic gradients of complexity toward the telic informational processes of living semiosis, but rejects the idea of any aim or value or elán implanted in matter prior to the emergence of life. Telos is added later and not baked in. Not the creative evolution of organisms, but vacuous bits of matter with no internal values…hurrying through space” (Whitehead  1968, 158) are fundamental for Nature.
It is here that the panpsychist integration of physics and experience goes further toward the naturalization of information by making sign interpretation, or in Whitehead’s terms, ‘prehension,’ an intrinsic part of cosmogenesis from the get go. Deacon criticizes Whitehead for projecting “micro humunculi” down to the level of quantum events, arguing that his panexperientialism obfuscates the need for an explanation of “why the [characteristics] of physical processes associated with life and mind [differ] so radically from those associated with the rest of physics and chemistry” (Deacon 2012, 79). Deacon admits that Whitehead in fact does offer an explanation for these differences in terms of the organizational complexity of enduring ‘societies’ of actual occasions of experience that emerge in the course of evolution. “Yet, if specific organizational complexity is what matters, then little explanatory significance is added by the assumption that some level of micro intentionality was suffused throughout all the component processes” (Deacon 2012, 78). While Deacon’s approach succeeds in narrowing the distance between physical causality and conscious intentionality, an explanatory gap still remains. Whitehead’s wager is that this gap is extreme enough to require fully undoing modern science’s “bifurcation of Nature” (Whitehead 1920, 30) by affirming that feeling or prehension is as intrinsic to natural processes as causality. Indeed, Whitehead’s experiential concept of prehension is meant to account for the very possibility of causal relation as such (Whitehead  1968, 164-165): prehension is what allows the real potentiality of the objectified past to pass back into the subjective immediacy of a new actual occasion of experience. Prehension is akin to the ‘information processing’ of computationalists, only it avoids the vagaries of their epiphenomenalism by rendering the detection of form as a process of feeling, thus embodying information in an experiential horizon. While his Philosophy of Organism does grant some degree of mentality to even the simplest of actual occasions, Whitehead’s panexperientialism doesn’t add anything extra to the natural world we find ourselves within: “the operation of mentality is primarily to be conceived as a diversion of the flow of energy” (Whitehead  1968, 168). In other words, mentality is an absential constraint upon energy’s otherwise entropic tendency. Were this entropic tendency the final word in Nature’s becoming, we would not be here to regret the fact. Whitehead is thus attempting to render the true nature of the physical universe transparent to us as the ongoing aesthetic achievement of a vast nexus of experiential occasions: “these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which in their collective unity compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into the creative advance” (Whitehead  1968, 151). Quarks, photons, protons, electrons, neutrons and the like appear to be our most ancient ancestors, close to the “primate organisms” (Whitehead  1967, 132) of our cosmic ecology. Out of their co-evolution emerged atoms, stars, and galaxies, all examples of the complex social achievements of actual occasions.. The evolution of these physical organisms proves that Nature’s capacity for emergent value and organizational complexity long predates the arrival of biological cells. These particle and astronomical organisms may be minimally or maximally conscious. The point is that at whatever scale it occurs, information processing is an experiential process, with the intensity of experience depending on the degree of integration of prehended data achieved by any given society of occasions.
3. The Physics of Experience: Avoiding Inflationary and Deflationary Accounts of Consciousness
“The doctrine I am maintaining is that neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”
—Whitehead ( 1968, 150)
If physicalists are willing to take seriously the idea that human beings might not really be conscious, perhaps they can grant that it is no more absurd to entertain the possibility that stars and galaxies have minds. If Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative turns out to have philosophical advantages over scientific materialism, perhaps we can learn to live with its mind expanding implications. After all, if materialism is true, we aren’t really alive, anyway. Another advantage of panexperientialism is that it can help philosophy avoid the excesses of Absolute idealism by not expanding mind too much.
Whitehead’s panexperientialism is an attempt to take consciousness at face value without unduly inflating or deflating its significance in the universe. The most inflationary accounts tend toward Absolute idealism, while the most deflationary tend toward eliminative materialism. The Kantian transcendental or critical approach views consciousness (with its categories of understanding and forms of intuition) as an a priori condition for knowledge of anything, including the physical world. It is thus an important compromise position, holding materialism at bay by preventing us from ever knowing anything about a mind-independent reality, while also checking the mind’s tendency to declare itself the ground of being. Kant admitted that via introspection we can only ever access an ‘empirical me,’ but he nonetheless posited a ‘transcendental I’ or Ego as the necessary correlate of everything thought or experienced, whether in myself (temporal intuition) or outside (spatial intuition). Kant’s transcendental Ego is no longer a clear and distinct substantial reality, as Descartes had imagined when he declared “I am a thing that thinks” (Descartes  1996, 24). So what is it? From James’ radically empirical perspective, the Kantian Ego “is simply nothing: as ineffectual and windy an abortion as Philosophy can show,” for if it be granted any other status, given Kant’s transcendental premises, there is little to prevent the Fichtean and Hegelian move to “call it the First Principle of Philosophy, to spell its name in capitals and pronounce it with adoration, to act, in short, as if [we are] going up in a balloon whenever the notion of it [crosses our] mind” (James 1890, 365). The Kantian compromise is thus an inherently unstable position. It saves mind from ever being reduced to matter, but at the cost of leaving us in total ignorance regarding the transcendental ground of our own consciousness and the substantial reality of Nature. Philosophers are left poised in a vulnerable state of metaphysical indecision, only a moderate dose of nitrous oxide away from floating into the mania of Absolute idealism, and only a mildly depressive mood away from succumbing to eliminative materialism. Might Whitehead’s “organic realism” (Whitehead  1978, 309) put philosophy on more solid experiential ground?
Presented with the general panpsychist hypothesis of a “pervasive perhaps ubiquitous” (Seager 2016, 229) subjectivity inherent in Nature, the first thing the incredulous tend to ask is whether the view entails that stones are conscious, or that tables and chairs stand at attention before us contemplating existence, or that spoons enjoy the flavor of the tea they stir. Few panpsychist philosophers actually uphold such views about stones and human artifacts, at least not without all the necessary qualifications (alchemists and astrologers notwithstanding). The proper panpsychist response to the skepticism of physicalists about the extent of mind’s reach into Nature is to ask whether it is really possible for them to conceive of their own consciousness as an illusion. For if the computational model of mind is true and experience contributes nothing to the functioning of the brain, if our consciousness is really just a complex set of what William Seager calls “bare recognitional capacities” evolutionarily elaborated “into a rich but delusive system of beliefs,” then when it comes down to it we human beings “are actually no more conscious than rocks” (Seager 2016, 231).
Which is more believable? That you and I are no more ‘alive’ than a pile of stones? That we and the stones are merely finite appearances in the eternal substance of the Absolute? Or that stones are more ‘alive’ than we think? From the perspective of Whitehead’s panexperiential organic realism, deflationary materialism and inflationary idealism are equally out of line. What, after all, does contemporary physics tell us about the materiality of a stone?: “[Vanished] from the field of ultimate scientific conceptions is the notion of vacuous material existence with passive endurance, with primary individual attributes, and with accidental adventures”; in short, physics has “[displaced] the notion of static stuff by the notion of fluent energy” (Whitehead  1978, 309). Stones, understood scientifically, are thus more like attenuated energy events whose relative stability is the effect of reiterated vibratory patterns of activity. For Whitehead, “the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life” (Whitehead  1968, 168), though of course the emotional intensity realized in a stone is quite negligible due to the lack of any evolved organization for channeling and amplifying its scattered feelings into the more or less unified consciousness evident in animals. The physicist may retort that these patterns are merely mathematical equations and that we have no scientific basis for attributing experience or anything else concrete to the activity they describe. Indeed, many panpsychists are happy to admit that physics tells us only about the abstract aspects of matter and thus “can’t characterize the intrinsic nonstructural nature of concrete reality in any respect at all” (Strawson 2016, 85). In that case, it turns out ‘matter’ is among the most abstract ideas ever imagined by human minds. But in Whitehead’s way of thinking, this “divergence of the formulae about nature from the appearance of nature has robbed the formulae of any explanatory character” (Whitehead  1968, 154). Energetic activity is not just a mathematical abstraction but an abstract description of something real: “Nature is full-blooded. Real facts are happening” (Whitehead  1968, 144). Further, unlike some panpsychist readings of Russell’s neutral monism (Russell 1927), Whitehead’s process-relational rendering doesn’t claim experience is a ‘primary attribute’ or ‘intrinsic property’ of matter. This is because in Whitehead’s view, physics has moved beyond the substantialist view of matter, and talk of essential or accidental properties only made sense given such an ontology. The twentieth-century quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics dispensed with the ideas of “simple location” (Whitehead  1967, 51) and “nature at an instant” (Whitehead  1968, 145). There are no simply located, instantaneously present material particles or configurations of material particles, just as there are no simply located, instantaneous experiential states or properties. Both energy and experience are activities with fuzzy boundaries, and our panpsychist ontology should reflect this fact. Yet the substance-property ontology is difficult to shake, even for the physicists who know very well that it no longer captures what their equations are describing. The substance-property mode of thought is pervasive in Western philosophy. Descartes, so critical of Aristotle for other reasons, is fully infected by it, and many contemporary analytic philosophers who similarly consider their thinking to be free of any unexamined tradition nonetheless continue to construe reality in its terms. This mode of thought comes naturally since it is woven into the subject-predicate grammar of most of our languages. It is no surprise that Whitehead’s process-relational alternative is at first difficult to grasp.
While there was an “essential distinction between [substantial] matter at an instant and the agitations of experience,” with this conception of matter having been swept away, a door is opened to analogies between energetic activity and concrete experience (Whitehead  1968, 115). Experiences, like energy vectors, are intrinsically process-relational in that they always involve transition beyond themselves: they manifest in a “specious present” (Whitehead  1967, 104) as a tension between the actualized facts of an inherited past and the potential forms of an anticipated future. Whitehead turns to our own lived bodies for a more concrete characterization of physical process, since it is the human body that “provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature” (Whitehead  1968, 115). In addition to the grammar of our language, our visual experience of the immediately presented world reinforces the scientifically mistaken idea that reality is composed of substances with qualities. The grey stone is one of Whitehead’s favorite examples: ancient Greek philosophers perceived “the grey stone” and from that simple observation “evolved the generalization that the actual world can be conceived as a collection of primary substances qualified by universal qualities” (Whitehead  1978, 158). Modern natural philosophers beginning with Galileo elaborated this ontology into a conveniently bifurcated system of primary objective quantities (mass, velocity, dimensionality, etc.) and secondary subjective qualities (color, taste, value, etc.). Descartes’ mind/body dualism finished the job. Thenceforward it is not the stone that is grey, but the private quale of the perceiving subject that is grey. The stone itself is just an extensional lump obeying the fixed laws of gravity and chemical decay. Scrubbing Nature clean of all qualitative residues and tucking them safely away within conscious subjects allowed modern science to make truly remarkable progress explaining those aspects of Nature amenable to precise measurement and mathematical description (Goff 2017b, 12-14). But after a few hundred years of world-transforming progress, this powerful methodology still finds itself embarrassed by the hard problem. Consciousness appears to be “a strange intrusion into an otherwise well-behaved world” (Seager 2016, 234), though of course, it can hardly be said to have intruded if it was the methodology of modern science itself that initially excluded it from the physical world. Limited to the precise measurements afforded by strict sense-perception and to mathematical modeling, science finds no enjoyment, aim, or creativity in Nature, “it finds mere rules of succession” (Whitehead  1968, 154). But this is because, by design, science deals with only half the evidence of human experience.
In addition to the relatively superficial affordances of sense-perception granted us by the five outward facing senses, what Whitehead calls “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy” (Whitehead  1978, 121), he also describes a more primordial form of bodily experience or “sense-reception” (ibid., 113-114) referred to as “perception in the mode of causal efficacy” (ibid., 120). It is this latter form of human experience that modern science has all but ignored. When our eyes are functioning normally, they are transparent to the world. Nonetheless, it is evidently true that we see with our eyes. Causal efficacy is the feeling of our eyes blinking when we pull back the curtains and the sunlight floods onto our face. Presentational immediacy is the view of the meadow out the window after our eyes adjust. While presentational immediacy grants us perception of the grey stone as a geometrically projected patch of color, causal efficacy grants us perception of the grey stone’s weight when we pick it up in our hand, of the way this weight influences the muscle fibers and nerve endings in our arm as, “by channels of transmission and of enhancement” (ibid., 119), its ‘weightiness’ is delivered to the presiding occasions of the brain wherein we consciously feel it. “It is the accepted doctrine in physical science,” Whitehead tells us,
“that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound doctrine, but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the physical universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (ibid.).
Modern physics tells us that “the quiet extensive stone” is more complex than it at first appears to be. Were we able to apprehend the stone in a more direct way than that afforded by visual perception, it would reveal itself as a “society of separate molecules in violent agitation” (Whitehead  1978, 78). Picking up the stone grants us no more insight into its inner life, but the feeling of its weight in our hand grants us a clue with profound metaphysical implications. Our consciousness is not separate from but “intimately entwined in bodily life” (Whitehead  1968, 21). We consciously feel the stone because the human body, acting as an experiential amplifier, transmits the stone’s energetic activity along coordinated routes of actual occasions, accruing interpretive enhancements along the way, until the activity achieves final integration in a central occasion of experience. “The human body is thus achieving on a scale of concentrated efficiency a type of social organization, which with every gradation of efficiency constitutes the orderliness” found in the wider universe (Whitehead  1978, 119). Transmission of feelings within the body can thus be understood as analogous to the transmission of energy occurring in the rest of Nature. The body, after all, is part of and continuous with the rest of the external world, “just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud” (Whitehead  1968, 21).
Those seeking a truly naturalistic account of consciousness needn’t rush to deflationary explanations, whether eliminativist, epiphenomenalist, or emergentist. Such deflationary accounts would be understandable if the only alternatives available were dualism or idealism. Panpsychism, especially Whitehead’s panexperiential version, provides another option. It avoids the metaphysical travesty of dualism, the inflationary conjecture of idealism that “nature is mere appearance and mind is the sole reality,” and the deflationary conjecture of materialism that “physical nature is the sole reality and mind is an epiphenomenon” (Whitehead  1968, 150). It begins its explanation of consciousness modestly by examining our intimate feelings of bodily inheritance, and it concludes that these feelings provide a clue as to the functioning of energy in the rest of Nature. The conclusion may seem strange at first, but the philosophical payoff might just be worth it.
4. The Combination and Decomposition Problems for Panpsychism and Cosmopsychism: Bugs, or Features for Whitehead?
The philosophical payoff of panpsychism is that it dissolves the hard problem of consciousness, giving experience its proper place in Nature without undermining the scientific image of the universe. Indeed, panpsychism may have important advantages over materialism for interpreting contemporary physical cosmology (Segall 2018). But substance-property panpsychists have their own problem to deal with: the combination problem. Does Whitehead’s process-relational approach help solve it?
The solution to James’ original statement of the combination problem is already in James’ own statement: there is a 101st feeling, a “totally new fact,” and “the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together” (James 1890, 160). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, in particular his genetic account of mutually sensitive prehensions (Whitehead  1978, 235ff), is an attempt to make good on James’ psychological insight by building it out into a coherent cosmological scheme.
Whitehead is neither a micropsychist nor a cosmopsychist exclusively. He tries to have it both ways. There is a universal soul, a psyche of the cosmos, a God of this world, and there are countless creatures creating in concert with it. Creativity transcends both, it is the source of all evolving parts, wholes, bodies, and souls. For Whitehead the combination problem becomes a logic of concrescence, a way of thinking change as more than just the rearrangement of pre-existing parts or the fragmentation of a pre-existing whole but as a genuine becoming, as an “emergent evolution” or “creative advance” (Whitehead  1978, 21, 30, 229) where neither wholes nor parts pre-exist their relations. Whitehead’s account of process is an account of combination and decomposition, of conjunction and disjunction. Process means the growing together of many objects into one subject, and the perishing of that subject back into many as a superject: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (ibid., 21). Concrescence is a cumulative process and not merely an additive one.
5. The Wonder Remains
“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophy has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”
—Whitehead ( 1968, 168-169)
Whitehead is thus clearly an emergentist rather than constitutive panpsychist (Goff 2017a, 114). But it’s not that human consciousness is breaking the laws of physics, it’s that Nature’s ‘laws’ are queerer than our mechanical models let on. Like Deacon (2012) with his absential constraints in an incomplete Nature, Whitehead’s knowledge of mathematical physics led him to reject the causal closure of physics. Laws are habits emergent from the social activity of actual occasions of experience, not divine decrees from heaven imposed upon dead matter. But unlike Deacon, Whitehead goes further by granting life and mind some subtle congress with things from the beginning of time. Indeed, without life and mind Nature would have no time to evolve. The laws of physics are indifferent to life, mind, and time, so the show would be over before it even began.
Human consciousness is the achievement of the human body. The human body is the organizational achievement of a nexus of experiential occasions stretching back billions of years through the evolution of life on Earth, the birth of our Sun and planetary system, and the fusion of quarks into baryons, back even to the birth of God (Whitehead  1978, 348). Consciousness is human physics. Our philosophical conceptions, moral decisions, aesthetic creations, and religious concerns are not violations of the laws of physics (which are really statistical habits, anyway), no more so than the emergence of stars and galaxies was a violation of particle physics, or the emergence of cellular life was a violation of geology. “[Nature] is never complete. It is always passing beyond itself” (Whitehead  1978, 289).
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“Scientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.”
-Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason
I’m a frequent reader of the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder‘s blog Backreaction. She has helped me better understand many difficult concepts in contemporary theoretical physics. I’ve benefited in particular from the times she has weighed in on intra-disciplinary feuds with other physicists about, for example, the proper role of mathematical speculation in the formation of physical theory.
Every so often, she swerves out of the physics lane and into philosophy. Her recent post “How to live without free will” is a good example. I wanted to share a few critical reflections in response.
My usual response to these sorts of arguments from scientific materialists is to remind them that their denials of freedom are blatant performative self-contradictions. I am not finally a Kantian transcendentalist, but nonetheless, I find that Kant’s critical epistemology is the best place to begin a reply to naive materialism. In short, physics is in the business of building and testing mathematical models of natural processes. Currently there are two very successful models in physics, relativity theory and quantum theory. Unfortunately, these models describe two very different universes. Many physicists are working on a grand unifying theory that would bring these models together, but so far, we only have some interesting but untestable conjectures. The relevant point here is that these models always presuppose a mind capable of empirically observing data and theoretically reflecting upon possible explanations of that data. In other words, by dismissing free will and by proxy consciousness, Hossenfelder is forgetting about the transcendental conditions that make physical science and knowledge of nature possible in the first place.
That’s my short critical response. Now I’ll reply more fully to specific points raised in her blog post. She writes:
“Physics deals with the most fundamental laws of nature, those from which everything else derives.”
There’s certainly nothing out of the ordinary about a physicist claiming all of nature can be derived from the fundamental laws of physics. This is standard reductionism. Unfortunately, there is nothing in these laws that entails the emergence of biology, much less psychology or the conscious self-reflection necessary for something like physical science to be possible. So at best the claim that everything else derives from the laws of physics as currently understood is an IOU. At worst, it is an example of scientistic hubris dramatically overstepping the bounds of actual scientific knowledge. The theoretical biologist Robert Rosen argues rather convincingly that the non-entailment of biology by the laws of physics is a very strong indication that current physics is woefully incomplete. In his terms, mechanistic physics is too specific to account for the more generic processes of self-organization intrinsic to the biological world (I’ve written more about Rosen’s perspective here).
I agree with Hossenfelder that quantum indeterminacy is not evidence for conscious free will. The only evidence we would ever have for conscious free will would come from our consciousness of it. For most scientific materialists, this “self-evidence” of free will is easily dismissed as a subjective illusion. Objective physical laws just don’t leave any room for it. From a Kantian transcendental point of view, however, this puts the cart before the horse. Kant asks: What are the epistemological pre-conditions of something like “objective physical laws”? His answer: a rational mind capable of organizing experience in terms of categories like causation and forms of intuition like space and time. Physicists know nature in rational, mathematical, and empirical terms. Rationality, including mathematical reasoning, pre-supposes that a mind exists to do the reasoning. Or is Hossenfelder suggesting that mathematical reasoning just happens in a mechanical way, that physicists play no conscious role in devising and testing their favored theories? Now, I’m perfectly well aware that 20th century discoveries like Einstein’s theory of relativity have forced us to reconsider some of Kant’s a priori framework, but even so, the transcendental challenge to naive materialism remains just as strong as ever.
I don’t know of any philosophers who argue that human beings have total freedom. Even in our thoughts we are restricted by factors beyond our control (unconscious influences, environmental distractions, exhaustion, mind-altering chemicals, etc.). All “free will” means is that we are among a class of intelligent and creative organisms capable of exercising our desires in an effort to help shape the unfolding of future events in some limited way. Denying this plainly evident fact leads us into all sorts of performative self-contradictions.
The most common form of denial that I encounter is to insist that reductionism must be wrong. But we have countless experiments that document humans are made of particles, and that these particles obey our equations. This means that also humans, as collections of those particles, obey these equations. If you try to make room for free will by claiming humans obey other equations (or maybe no equation at all), you are implicitly claiming that particle physics is wrong. And in this case, sorry, I cannot take you seriously.
I’ve written a lot about Alfred North Whitehead on this blog. Anyone familiar with his process-relational ontology will know that it is possible to accept the standard model of particle physics and the obvious facts of human life at the same time. The trick is to free ourselves of the muddled thinking inherited from classical physics (especially the fallacy of simple location and the idea of nature-at-an-instant). Yes, humans are collections of particles (or societies of actual occasions, in Whitehead’s terms). But neither particles nor humans “obey” equations, as though abstract mathematical objects are like chariot drivers whipping us to conform to their eternal will. Natural processes display certain regular mathematical patterns. For Whiteheadians like me, these patterns are more like habits than laws. Some are more regular than others. For example, physics can predict with a very high degree of accuracy how physical particles will behave under certain controlled conditions (even here, there are always anomalies, but in general the laws hold). But physicists cannot predict even in principle how a paramecium will navigate through its environment (there are some regularities, e.g., it will swim toward food and away from toxins or predators, but exact movements cannot be mapped out in advance). This is because as we move up the scale of nature’s complexity, physical processes self-organize so as to be capable of ingressing a greater degree (and a richer quality) of novelty. Contrary to reductionist dogma, biological processes are not reducible to physical processes. Biology remains fully compatible with physics, but nothing in physics suggests anything like biology (or like consciousness!) should be possible.
After marshaling a number of arguments against free will, Hossenfelder draws her post to a close by saying we still make decisions and we should be smart about them:
You are here to gather information, process it, and come to decisions that may, or may not result in actions. Your actions, and the information you share, will then affect the decisions and actions of others. These decisions are determined by the structure of your brain and the information you obtain. Rather than despairing over the impossibility of changing either, decide to be more careful which information you seek out, analyze, and pass on. Instead of thinking about influencing the future, ask yourself what you have learned, eg, from reading this. You may not have free will, but you still make decisions. You cannot not make decisions. You may as well be smart about it.
Am I just confused or are there not numerous performative self-contradictions on display here? We are asked not to despair over the fact that we are determined, as if we had any choice in whether to despair or not. We are told to be “smart” about our paradoxically non-free decisions. Huh? At least she ends her post by admitting that consciousness remains a mystery to natural science. Given this admission, I am left wondering why she felt so confident in her dismissals of freedom.
This is the sort of muddle-headedness that scientific materialism gets us into. Whitehead called these attempts “heroic feats of explaining away.” The implied moral stance of the scientific materialist is that they are mature adults who are strong enough to accept the bleak truth of our purposelessness, while the rest of us are stuck in the past clutching at childish illusions that make us feel safe. I would counter by pointing out that the true nature of our human freedom is far from safe. We do not have freedom, freedom has us. Freedom is far more of an ego-crucifying burden than modern secular liberal political theory would have us believe.
A student in my course this semester asked a great question recently: “How is Whitehead’s cosmology related to his pedagogy?” Many commentators find it strange that Whitehead decided to include (and indeed to conclude) his book Aims of Education with a few chapters on relativistic space and time. What on earth does his alternative interpretation of Einstein’s relativity theory have to do with education?
Whitehead’s critique of modern education is that it tends to produce well-informed experts with atrophied feeling, deadened receptivity to beauty, and less capacity for animated and imaginative thought than was present when students first enter school as untutored children. In other words, our schools have been designed to fill the active minds of children with inert ideas, eventually leading to specialized knowledge in some narrow field in which they will eventually seek employment. Narrowness wins out over breadth and depth.
Of course, Whitehead does not argue that educational systems cease teaching important knowledge. He insists that these ideas, whether general or specialized, never be handed over to children in frozen, shrink-wrapped form, but rather in such a way that they can be immediately utilized, tested, and recombined in fresh ways. If the child does not, from the first, experience education as the joy of discovery, then mental dryrot sets in and the future vitality of human culture is endangered. Whitehead: “Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful” (AoE, 1-2).
How is Whitehead’s rather common critique of modern industrial/factory-style education related to cosmology? Whitehead’s critique of Einstein has to do with the way an a priori geometrical scheme, entirely disconnected from experience, is made the foundation of the physical world. Whitehead says that “the most extraordinary fact of human life is that all beings seem to form their judgements of spatial quantity according to the same metrical system” (AoE, 160-161). But, he adds, this is “only true within the limits of accuracy obtained by human observation.” Einstein’s contribution was to make science inescapably aware of the fact that “diverse spatio-temporal systems of measurement are relevant to the behavior of things” (161). But how do these diverse metrical systems hang together as part of a common external world? Einstein approached this problem via a mathematical conception of space and time as a single continuous manifold. But again, how is his “space-time continuum” related to human experience? Nobody lives in such a continuum. Rather, we live “in a set of fragmentary experiences” (AoE, 162). Whitehead articulated what he called the “method of extensive abstraction” so as to reconnect the fragmentary worlds of our experience to a common world of mathematical conceptions.
One of the purposes of education is to allow human beings, from unique backgrounds and with fragmentary perspectives and special talents, to join in the common project of culture-formation. Whitehead’s critique of standard renderings of relativity theory is that these renderings take the unity of a mathematical abstraction as fundamental and given while reducing away as illusory the concrete experiences from which all mathematical abstraction derives. This is akin to treating the conveyance of information as of primary importance in education, rather than the growth of human beings. Whitehead protests against the idea of an objective, pre-given space-time continuum for the same reason he protests again the idea of an objective, pre-given encyclopedia of knowledge. “Students are alive, and the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self-development” (AoE, v).
The aim of education, like the aim of Whitehead’s critique of Einsteinian relativity, is to find a way to lift “the broken limited experiences” of our individual lives, to inspire us each from where we stand to contribute in our unique ways to the sustenance of “that connected infinite world in which in our thoughts we live” (AoE, 164). Whitehead concludes Aims of Education with the lines “Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world” (165). In other words, whether in theories of space and time or in theories of education, we must guard against the deadly temptation to make idols out of our abstractions. The world is a community of experiences. It has, we hope, a uniform texture, a texture approached by the most advanced thinking activity a culture can produce. Abstractions are not the enemy, they are of vital importance to civilized life! But when we neglect the process by which we arrive at them by building up from concrete particular experiences, we make a terrible mess of the whole human endeavor, and indeed, of the world itself. We arrive at the abstract uniformity of the texture of experience not through violently explaining away the uniqueness of each of our points of view. Rather, we start where we are as living and aspiring organisms and, keeping our feet firmly placed on the ground, reach from there to the stars.
[Update 3/28/2019: Here is a PDF of the final draft prior to my conference presentation: “Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy: Whiteheadian Reflections on Bergson, Einstein, and Rovelli.” This will eventually be published in an anthology with the other conference papers and is likely to undergo further revisions at a later date.]
Below is a rough draft [updated 3/12/2019] of a paper I’ll be presenting at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April. The conference aims to revisit important philosophical issues related to the famous 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson. HERE is the conference site (it is in Italian, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).
Any feedback on what I’ve shared below would be greatly appreciated, as I’ll be working to improve the draft for the next couple months.
Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy
“What is Time?” Bergson-Einstein Conference in L’Aquila, Italy April 4-6, 2019
By Matthew T. Segall
“What is time?” Reflecting on this ageless question stretches my imagination in several directions: I first consider the time of my own most direct and intimate experience of being alive: I was born, I live and age, and I will die, necessarily in that biological order. Each year, I watch as winter frost melts to make way for spring flowers. My interest in fundamental physics then leads me to ponder the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory: I wonder what, if any, significance my personal biography has given the deterministic mechanism and time-reversibility of Nature’s fundamental laws. I reflect on whether my experience of seasonal rhythms is reducible without remainder to the mechanical effect of a slight tilt in the rotation of our dust mote planet as it revolves in warped space-time around a massive ball of radiating plasma. Finally, my incurable philosophical itch compels me to search for some more general metaphysical scheme or wider interpretive context within which the laws of physics might find a place alongside lived experience.
It is this quest to understand time that has brought us together for today’s conference. Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really all thoughtful human beings—have at one point or another been struck by this question and struggled to answer it in their own terms. Nearly a century ago, time was at the center of Einstein and Bergson’s debate in Paris. Centuries earlier, another influential intellect, Ben Franklin, had tried to settle accounts: “Time is money.” Centuries earlier still, Augustine had to confess that he did not know what time is (though he offered a few conjectures). And Plato, as he stared in wonder at the stars above him while inwardly contemplating the perfections of geometry, offered at least a likely story: time is a moving image of eternity.
The passage of time is both inescapably obvious and profoundly mysterious. Nothing gets to the heart of who and what we are more than time. Stars ignite, burn their atomic fuel, and go supernova, creating the heavier elements needed for conscious lifeforms like us to take shape. We are born, we age, we die. Civilizations rise and fall. None of these processes is intelligible in reverse. And yet, there has been a strong consensus among physicists for at least a century that the time of human experience, let us call it “phenomenal” or “lived time,” is, as Einstein once put, a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Everyday time is not at all what it appears to be. As Augustine admitted, time is plain as day until someone asks us to explain how it works: suddenly, we find ourselves having a hell of a time trying to make any sense of it. A recent New York Times article chronicled the growing controversy (and confusion) about seasonal changes in clock-time, so-called “daylight savings” time.1 Back in the 1920s, changes to local clock-times in US cities like Boston and Detroit led some residents to worry that an extra hour of sunlight in the evening would dry up their gardens and disturb their farm animals. The article quotes Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving’s Time (Counterpoint, 2005):
“The idea of losing or gaining an hour is itself such a fantastically bad philosophical proposition that nobody knows what they’re talking about…Most people don’t even understand whether moving the clocks forward gives them more sunlight or less sunlight in the morning. They just can’t remember what it does, because it so defies logic.”
As if the time of everyday experience wasn’t strange enough already, in the equations of physics— whether classical, relativistic, or quantum—it doesn’t even matter which direction time flows, if it can even be said to “flow” at all. The one exception, perhaps, is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, to which I return later.
I cannot promise that the paper to follow won’t make an even bigger mess out of time. I can only offer a few potential pathways through the thicket in the hopes of finding some new perspectives on a very old question. I first revisit the crucial bifurcation between natural science and human experience that has informed not only our views of time but so much of modern thought and culture. Alfred North Whitehead will be my principal guide in this endeavor. Along the way I distinguish Whitehead’s process philosophy from Henri Bergson’s understanding of temporality. Though Whitehead affirmed much of Bergson’s critique of scientific materialism, he departs in crucial respects from the Frenchman’s vitalism. Finally, I draw Whitehead into conversation with the work of loop quantum gravity theorist and popular science author Carlo Rovelli. While the convergence is by no means complete, I believe there are some hopeful signs in Rovelli’s professed natural philosophy that align him with Whitehead and thus bring us closer to a philosophical reconciliation between human experience and the Nature known to science.
Einstein and Bergson: The Clash between Physics and Philosophy
The canonical interpretation of the 1922 debate that our conference is meant to revisit is that Einstein the mathematical physicist won out over Bergson the philosopher by dismissing any role for the latter’s special faculty of intuition in cosmological investigations. This view of what happened has had lasting consequences for how the general public understands the relationship between scientific knowledge and human experience. While at the time, Bergson’s position seems to have been strong enough for the Nobel Prize committee to deny Einstein the award for his relativity theory (officially granting him the prize in 1922 for the photoelectric effect2), by 1945, the standard view was cemented by Bertrand Russell’s widely read A History of Western Philosophy, wherein Russell challenged Bergson’s understanding of mathematics and dismissed his philosophy as “anti- intellectual.”3 This triumphalist interpretation continued to echo in the “Science Wars” of the mid-1990s, when Sokal and Bricmont published their book Intellectual Impostures (1997), which devoted an entire chapter to the debate between Bergson and Einstein (at least in the French edition).As more sympathetic interpreters have recently made clear (e.g., Val Dusek4, Milic Capek5, Bruno Latour, Jimena Cannales, Melanie White6), contrary to the canonical interpretation it must remembered that Bergson had no qualms with Einstein’s mathematical logic or with the empirical data supporting it. Bergson accepted the epistemological importance of Einstein’s relativity physics and conceived of his own intuitive philosophy not as a competitor but as a metaphysical supplement. Einstein, on the other hand, rejected the metaphysical importance of Bergson’s philosophy, dismissing it as a subjective psychological illusion. Bergson’s main point of contention with Einstein concerned whether relativity theory tells us more about the behavior of clocks than it does about concrete or lived time. For Bergson, the vital energy and creative metamorphosis of lived time will always remain invisible to the spatializing methods of scientific measurement and mathematical representation. For Einstein and his inheritors, the invisibility to their methods of Bergson’s so- called “lived time” signals only its nonexistence. “The philosopher’s time does not exist,” Einstein insists.
Bergson’s refusal to accept Einstein’s dismissal as the final word on real time does not mean he denies the practical utility of relativity theory’s spatialization of time. Clearly the measurements and models of 20th century physics have produced untold technological miracles that have transformed human life and society. Einstein came of age just as newly erected steam engine trains began to criss-cross the European landscape, forever warping the time-consciousness of pre-industrial peoples. Trains linked cities and towns across the continent at faster speeds than ever before. The newly linked stations needed to invent evermore ingenious ways of synchronizing their clocks in order to remain on schedule and avoid collisions. As is well known, prior to becoming the world’s most famous scientist, Einstein worked as a patent clerk reviewing the latest signaling technologies to assist in establishing the (at least approximate) simultaneity of clocks across long distances. In today’s globally interconnected and increasingly digitized world, this convenient way of measuring time has become nearly all-encompassing. We have all of us been swallowed alive by mechanical clock-time. The daily and seasonal rhythms of Sun, Moon, and stars have faded away into the background of our electrified routines. It is, in Dickens’ words, “as if the sun itself had given in” to the ordering power of clocks and the network of machines they coordinate.7 A convenient tool has thus become our master.
Bergson believed that an intuition of lived time is necessarily presupposed in all the physicist’s intellectual operations, including his mathematical reflections and empirical measurements. Einstein regarded Bergsonian intuition as an illusory artifact of our human perception and thus as irrelevant to the objective truths revealed by physics. For Einstein and the physicists who inherit his way of thinking, there simply is no such thing as a “philosopher’s time,” that is, the living duration through which evolution continually generates novel forms, as Bergson might say. Instead, Einstein distinguished two kinds of time: psychological time, which is a subjective illusion generated by relative motion, and physical time, which is an objective quantity measured by clocks (that ultimately reduces to a four-dimensional block universe wherein all time exists eternally because no scientifically relevant distinctions can be made between past, present, and future). Einstein’s is a deterministic universe that leaves no room for divine dice rolls, creative evolution, or real becoming, since in the 4th dimension, everything has always already occurred. Nothing is held in reserve or in potentia. It is as though the whole life of the universe were already captured on a cosmic movie reel that may as well be collecting dust in some eternal film archive.
Like all modern scientists since Galileo, rather than situating scientific theory and practice within human experience as one of the latter’s possible modes of relation to cosmic reality, Einstein opposed his theoretical model of space-time to our experience of being alive. The existence of humans or any lifeform is thus deemed irrelevant to our understanding of the universe. Though Bergson said the following of Kant’s transcendental philosophy, it could just as easily have been said of Einstein’s gravitational epistemology:
“Knowledge is presented to us in it as an ever-open roll, experience as a push of facts that is for ever going on. But…those facts are spread out on one plane as fast as they arise; they are external to each other and external to the mind. Of a knowledge from within, that could grasp them in their springing forth instead of taking them already sprung, that would dig beneath space and spatialized time, there is never any question. Yet it is indeed beneath this plane that our consciousness places us; there flows true duration.”8
Bergson and Whitehead: Confluence and Divergence
Bergson was not the only early 20th century philosopher to protest against this sort of greedy reductionism. In Germany, through a sort of re-charged Kantian transcendentalism, Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenological inquiries undermined the epistemic and existential ground of scientific materialism. But the anti-naturalistic attitude of especially Heidegger left us with a rather intensely anthropocentric understanding of reality, where all non-humans are “poor” or entirely lacking in “world.” In England, Whitehead articulated an alternative philosophy of Nature, which was neither transcendental nor naively realist. He attempted to avoid the false decision between transcendental idealism and reductionistic materialism by diagnosing and healing the metaphysical incoherence he called the “bifurcation of Nature.” While he would eventually leave his home country and travel to Harvard to take up the philosophical task of constructing a fully-fledged metaphysical cosmology, it was Einstein’s relativity theory that first drew Whitehead out of his early work on the foundations of mathematics and into the philosophy of Nature. While Whitehead praised Einstein for the relativistic paradigm shift he initiated, he did not accept Einstein’s identification of a particular geometrical scheme with the physics of gravitation. Further, like Bergson, he did not accept the implicitly metaphysical interpretation that Einstein attached to his theory.
In his 1919 book An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, Whitehead begins to re- imagine the scientific conception of Nature in process-relational rather than materialistic terms. He argues that we must give up the attempt to “conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material.” Instead, we must come to see that “Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events.” “On the old theory of relativity,” he continues, “Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events.”9
In his 1922 book The Principle of Relativity, Whitehead sided with Bergson by explicitly rejecting Einstein’s bifurcation of nature “between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature” (66). He also claimed to have uncovered a significant contradiction in Einstein’s philosophical account of relativity that, if left unaddressed, threatens to undermine the possibility of spatial measurement. In short, if Einstein’s hypostatization of 4-D geometrical manifold is to be believed and space-time really is a “fabric” warped by the presence of massive objects, then the accurate measurement of distances would require precise and complete knowledge of the distribution of all masses in the universe. The problem is that this knowledge cannot be gained in advance of measurement, so we are left having to know everything before we can know anything. Einstein briefly mentions issues of spatial measurement raised by general relativity in a 1921 paper “Geometry and Experience,” but he does not appear to believe they represent a problem worth dwelling on, much less a fundamental contradiction in his interpretation of relativity.10 In a 1923 paper on the cosmological implications of his theory, he admits that a consequence of allowing the metrical character or curvature of space-time to be determined at every point by the matter at that point is that this space-time must be “extremely complicated.” But he claims that the possibility of accurate cosmological measurement is saved so long as we believe that matter remains “uniformly distributed over enormous spaces.”11 Whitehead was not convinced. “I cannot understand,” he wrote in book Relativity:
“what meaning can be assigned to the distance of the sun from Sirius if the very nature of space depends upon casual intervening objects which we know nothing about. Unless we start with some knowledge of a systematically related structure of space-time we are dependent upon the contingent relations of bodies which we have not examined and cannot prejudge.”12
To avoid what he believed was a serious problem, Whitehead built on his new event ontology to develop a set of empirically equivalent tensor equations that did not rely upon the idea of a contingently curved space-time geometry to explain gravitational effects. Instead, he elaborated a scheme wherein space retained a uniform metrical structure. In place of Einstein’s flexible space- time fabric, Whitehead offered his own theory of the propagation of gravitational potential in terms similar to electromagnetic waves, only now gravitational and electromagnetic activity was vibrating in an “ether of events” rather than either the old material ether. In this way, Whitehead was actually able to move physics closer to the unified field theory that Einstein spent the second half of his life searching for, but only by shifting from material points to creative events as fundamental to physical ontology.13 The radical implications of this shift to an event ontology prevented the physics community from accepting Whitehead’s approach until quite recently.14 For one thing, accepting the fundamental nature of creative events means letting go of the quest for certainty that has plagued modern science since its inception. Unlike simply located particles that can be conceived of as fully present at a given instant, events are overlapping, have fuzzy spatial and temporal boundaries, and thus only submit to approximate measurement.15 An event ontology is also crucial for Whitehead’s attempt to heal the bifurcation of Nature, as the gap between the durational unfolding of an electromagnetic event and a moment of conscious experience is far easier to leap than is that between experience and dead matter. The former gap is a difference in degree or intensity, while the latter is a difference in kind.
There is a rich literature trying to sort out the extent and nature of Bergson’s influence upon Whitehead. Whitehead’s biographer Victor Lowe downplayed the significance of the influence, while more recent scholarship by Randall Auxier, Pete Gunter, and Carl Hausman has amplified the relation to the level of a fundamental confluence of ideas.16
According to Whitehead, the measured clock-time of the physicist and of conventional civilized life “merely exhibits some aspects of the more fundamental fact of the passage of nature.” On this point Whitehead claims he is in “full accord with Bergson.”17 Bergson took notice, writing that Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature (1920) “is certainly one of the most profound [works] ever written on the philosophy of nature.”18 Almost a decade later, Whitehead affirmed in Process & Reality that “the history of philosophy supports Bergson’s charge that the human intellect ‘spatializes the universe’; that is to say, that it tends to ignore the fluency, and to analyze the world in terms of static categories.” But, continues Whitehead, “Bergson went further and conceived this tendency as an inherent necessity of the intellect. I do not believe this accusation.”19 In the preface to the same book, Whitehead says he was lured into his adventure in cosmology in part to save Bergson’s “type of thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly has been associated with it.”20
According to Gunter, Whitehead is not reacting to Bergson’s true view in these excerpts. Bergson is not anti-intellectual and does not believe the scientific intellect is inevitably mechanistic and bound to falsely spatialize the universe in all its attempted explanations. In Creative Evolution (1907), Bergson himself attempted to initiate an organic reformation of the abstractions of science. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism can be understood to have brought this project closer to fruition. Whitehead and Bergson’s views diverge in places, but this may be more a divergence of emphasis than of substance.
Whitehead attempted to re-imagine science so that it would no longer be forced to resort to “heroic feats of explaining away.”21 His response to Einstein’s reductionistic metaphysical interpretation of the physics of gravitation was really aimed at a philosophical postulate that long preceded Einstein: the so-called “bifurcation of nature” first articulated by Galileo in the 17th century. In Galileo’s terms, this bifurcation was a division between primary quantitative or material characteristics and secondary qualitative or mental characteristics of reality. This bifurcation is the founding metaphysical gesture of modern scientific materialism. For centuries, it proved to be a tremendous boon to natural scientific investigation, freeing researchers from Scholastic metaphysics by encouraging parsimonious explanations based in mathematical calculation and empirical measurement. But as with all abstract models meant to capture some aspect of concrete reality, its limits will eventually be reached and must be understood and accepted. While immensely useful for describing the widespread regularities and settled facts of physical nature, the bifurcation between primary and secondary characteristics severely handicapped inquires into not only fundamental ontology but the biological and psychological sciences, where the role of perceptual evaluation and conscious decision-making can no longer be ignored. Disturbed by Einstein’s dismissal of the place of consciousness in the cosmos (“For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one”22), Whitehead realized he needed to challenge this founding metaphysical gesture and search for a more adequate scientific world view.
In Whitehead’s new organic philosophy of Nature, human perception and agency come to be understood as especially intense expressions of rather than miraculous exceptions to the more habit- bound vibratory rhythms of the physical universe. Replacing the old gesture of bifurcation, Whitehead offers the following founding proposition for a new kind of natural philosophy to undergird physics:
“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.”
I quote Whitehead at length on this issue, as it is central to his criticism of scientific materialism’s attempt to explain away time:
“In making this demand [that everything perceived is in nature], I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known….What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.”23
Healing the bifurcation of Nature allows natural philosophy to avoid committing what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” which is what Einstein falls prey to when he dismisses lived experience as a dream and falsely concretizes a conjectured geometrical model as though it were identical to real Nature. Of course, as the history of modern science has made evident, appearances are often deceiving. Taking lived experience seriously doesn’t mean accepting reality as it first appears to us. The Earth is not flat and is not orbited by the Sun. As Whitehead says in the excerpt above, we instinctively search for deeper realities and are not satisfied with superficial appearances. There is always more than what at first meets the eye. But the dismissal of our lived experience of temporal becoming in favor of an atemporal theoretical model asks us to accept that Nature is less than our experience tells us it is. To dismiss lived time would be to lose the thread of experience that makes scientific reflection and experimentation possible in the first place. Even the mind-bending paradoxes of contemporary theoretical physics are, according to Latour, “child’s play in comparison with the multiplicity and complexity of the dimensions that are simultaneously accessible to the most minimal experience of common sense.”24 Inheriting the protests of Bergson and Whitehead, Latour invites us to return from outer space to re-inhabit the solid ground of our common sense experience. The interlacing ecological complexity of our everyday experience of standing on earth beneath the sky, enveloped within an atmosphere alongside many millions of unique species of plants, animals, and other human beings, makes the even the mathematizable quantum and relativistic realms of theoretical physics look like toy models in comparison. The world of common sense experience is even more difficult to fathom than the abstract micro- and macroscopic worlds modeled by physicists, since, as Latour reminds us, the former “has been infinitely less explored than the other!” We have as much to learn from artists and philosophers as from scientists about the textures of this world, our world.
One of Whitehead’s apparent divergences from Bergson concerns the latter’s emphasis upon the continuity of becoming. In contrast, by the mid-1920s, Whitehead came to affirm an atomic or epochal theory of the “becoming of continuity.”25 Lowe26 argues this is an irreconcilable difference, but Gunter27 and Capek28 insist that the divergence is only a difference in emphasis. The latter two thinkers point out that Bergson’s duration was no simple continuity, but a multiplicity of overlapping rhythms. As Bergson describes his view in Duration and Simultaneity (1922), duration is “multiplicity without divisibility and succession without separation.”29 This account resonates with Whitehead’s epochal theory, which rejects both the metaphysical fairy tale of “Nature at an instant” (which is still residual even in Einstein’s notion of the relativity of simultaneity) and the idea that time is simply a homogeneous flow. Instead, Whitehead inherits William James’ notion of a concrete time that grows “dropwise, by discrete pulses of perception.”30 In Whitehead’s mature philosophy, our experience of apparently continuous becoming is thought to be composed of historical routes of “actual occasions of experience” that each arise from the settled past to achieve their subjective aim in the present before superjectively perishing into the future to be resurrected by subsequently concrescing occasions. Concrescence is a phasic process but it does not occur “in” an already actualized and mathematically continuous space-time fabric. Rather, Whitehead describes a universe wherein vast societies of electromagnetic and gravitational occasions are actively weaving and re-weaving the fraying fabric of space-time as a field of potential relationship.
Still, some Bergsonians may be tempted to view Whitehead’s epochal theory of space-time as another intellectual falsification of living duration. But Whitehead’s understanding of space-time as epochal is not another “cinematographic” model of reality, where juxtaposed instants are translated into a cartoon-like illusion of the creative flow and musical rhythm of our inner life. Whitehead affirms the reality of continuous transition, but because his speculative scheme is an effort to reform the scientific intellect so that it acknowledges the evidences of intuition, he asks us to imagine another fundamental form of process alongside that of transition: namely, the process of “concrescence” described earlier. Space-time can be conceived of as continuous in the social coordination achieved by transitions between actual occasions of experience, which though they each atomize the continuum nonetheless remain linked together in an abstract field of definite potentiality. Space-time can also be conceived of as epochal, as the real potentiality established by past actual occasions is taken up into each newborn drop of experience, there achieving some concrete actualization of value before perishing to gift its novel value-potency back to the cosmic
community. There is continuity and there is individuality. Concrescence is thus a process whereby “the many become one and are increased by one.”31 There is established, through the synthesis of inherited public feeling and private anticipatory expression, a cumulative movement or creative evolution from past to future. There is a becoming of continuity rather than a continuity of becoming in this iterative growth process, which is achieved occasion by occasion through individuating acts of valuation. The space-time continuum, like living organisms, grows in a cellular way.
As Whitehead puts it:
“Time and space express the universe as including the essence of transition and the success of achievement. The transition is real, and the achievement is real. The difficulty is for language to express one of them without explaining away the other.”32
By rejecting the bifurcation of Nature, Whitehead is also rejecting the idea that time is merely “inner,” whether transcendental or psychological, leaving the physicist to reduce the objective external universe to a timeless block. While in his response to Einstein’s relativity theory in Duration and Simultaneity (1922), Bergson confusedly presents his theory of duration as a phenomenological defense of “direct and immediate experience,” the Bergson of earlier works like Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907) affirms that duration reaches beyond the subject and is also intrinsic to the evolution of all life on Earth and indeed to the unfolding of the physical universe itself.33 As Bergson put it in Matter and Memory, there is another pathway open to philosophers after the transcendental critique of experiential time as merely a form of “inner” intuition: they must “seek experience at its source, or rather above the decisive turn where, taking a bias in the direction of utility, it becomes properly human experience” (184).34 Like the Bergson of these earlier works, Whitehead’s process philosophy attempts precisely such a return to the source to uncover a more primordial form of temporal experience that can no longer be anthropocentrically claimed as the unique province of human or even living beings but which must be understood to infect the universe to some degree at every scale of its actualization, from its earliest to its latest evolutionary expressions. Whitehead tells us that “the primordial element” of the universe itself is “a vibratory ebb and flow…an…energy, or activity” that is “nothing at any instant” and that “requires its whole period…to manifest itself.”35
This vibratory activity unfolds through its concrescent phases of sensitive reception and creative expression. Crucially, Whitehead unambiguously rejects the dualism Bergson sometimes slips into by affirming that “ultimate concrete fact is an extended process.” “If you have lost process or lost extension,” he continues, “you know you are dealing with abstraction.”36 Extension is essentially processual, and process is essentially extensional. This is Whitehead’s metaphysical reformulation of a now even more general theory of relativity.
Whitehead and Rovelli: Reconciling Physics and Philosophy
The final part of this paper marks some preliminary connections and divergences between Whitehead’s cosmological scheme and the quantum gravity theory of Carlo Rovelli. Aside from a few comments here and there scattered across the philosophy blogosphere37, I have found exactly two mentions of a possible Whitehead-Rovelli nexus in academic publications. The first is a frustratingly brief footnote in Epperson and Zafiris’ Whitehead-inspired Foundations of Relational Realism, wherein they suggest that Rovelli’s “relational quantum mechanics” is “sufficiently compatible for fruitful conversation” even if the underlying philosophical frameworks turn out to be very different.38 The second is in Ronny Desmet’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Whitehead, where he writes that Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics is “strikingly Whiteheadian.”39 I agree with Epperson, Safiris, and Desmet that many passages in Rovelli’s popular works align with the process-relational perspective; but it is not yet clear whether Rovelli has fully overcome the modern bifurcation of Nature.
Unlike many popular physicists who regularly disparage philosophy (e.g., Neil deGrasse Tyson, Laurence Krauss, Steven Weinberg, Steven Hawking), Rovelli laments the “narrow-mindedness” displayed by his scientific colleagues when it comes to considering the importance of philosophy for their discipline.40 To be fair, he is equally critical of philosophers who don’t want to learn about science. Rovelli, like Whitehead, is one of the rare thinkers who is capable of making meaningful connections linking mathematics, theoretical physics, philosophy, and human life more generally.
In his most recent book, The Order of Time, Rovelli not only lucidly summarizes the latest findings of contemporary physics, including his own loop quantum gravity theory, he also skillfully weaves these theories together with the philosophical insights of Augustine, Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger (who each thought time had more to do with human nature than with physical nature). Rovelli criticizes some philosophers, like Parmenides, Plato, and Hegel, for allegedly fleeing to eternity in an effort to escape the anxiety time causes us.41 Heraclitus and Bergson, on the other hand, are criticized for allowing an overly emotional veneration of time to cloud their vision.42
In Rovelli’s view, contemporary physics has revealed the time of our conscious experience to be, at best, an “approximation” resulting from our thermodynamically improbable perspective on the universe. Aside from the study of thermodynamics, several centuries of modern scientific investigation have left us with “an empty, windswept landscape almost devoid of all trace of temporality.”43 Rovelli rejects Newton’s conception of absolute time as well as the “block universe” idea often associated with Einstein: “The absence of time does not mean that everything is frozen and unmoving…[forming] a four-dimensional geometry”; rather, Rovelli claims, the world is an “incessant happening … a boundless and disorderly network of quantum events.”44 After recounting the “epic and magical” distortions of time created by the ingestion of cannabis or LSD, Rovelli reminds his readers that “it was certainly not our direct experience of time that gave us the idea” of a purely continuous time passing “at the same rate, always and everywhere.”45 This an abstract and relatively recent idea of time reflecting our immersion in a modern civilization ruled over by mechanical clocks, rather than an intuition of either psychological or physical reality. So far there would appear to be plenty of overlap between Rovelli’s quantum network of events and Whitehead’s nexūs of actual occasions.
Rovelli briefly discusses the heretical view of another philosophically open physicist, Lee Smolin, whose recent book with Roberto Unger, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (2014), argues forcefully against the scientific consensus and for the fundamental reality of time. Smolin and Unger approvingly cite Whitehead in their introduction as an exponent of the ancient but dissident tradition of becoming in Western philosophy (others mentioned are Heraclitus, Hegel, Peirce, and Bergson).46 Whitehead shares with Unger and Smolin the conviction that the so-called “laws” and “constants” of physics, far from being eternal and necessary, are in fact contingently evolved habits. Rovelli and Smolin were collaborators on loop quantum gravity for a time and remain close friends, but they diverge sharply on the question of time’s place in physics. Like Whitehead, Rovelli views the “gelatinous” space-time continuum as a second-order emergent property of quantum events.47 Space-time, he says,
“has loosened into a network of relations that no longer holds together as a coherent canvas. The picture of spacetimes (in the plural) fluctuating, super-imposed one above the other, materializing at certain times with respect to particular objects, provides us with a very vague vision. But it is the best that we have for the fine granularity of the world.”48
Rovelli’s projective topological account of the quantum network underlying space and time sounds a lot like Whitehead’s notion of the relational complex he calls the “extensive continuum.”49 But unlike Whitehead, Rovelli reduces his relational quantum events to mere transitions of “physical quantities from one to another,”50 thus robbing them of any experiential quality or explanatory value. Whitehead’s actual occasions, in their atomization of the extensive continuum, are not timeless “quanta” mutely crunching an algorithmic program. What sense is there in rejecting Newton and Einstein’s clock-work universe only to then computerize the cosmos, instead? Whitehead lamented the way “The divergence of the formulae about nature from the appearance of nature has robbed the formulae of any explanatory power.”51 Whitehead’s cosmos is composed not of blind algorithms but of social relations among creaturely occasions seeking to intensify their value-experience. These occasions do exemplify certain measurable and mathematical patterns, but it is the experiential activity that explains the equations, not the equations that explain the experience. If Rovelli’s theory is not just a convenient model and there is really a network of quantum spin foams at the base of Nature, Whitehead’s philosophy of organism requires that there be something it feels like to spin foam, to endure the topological looping, fraying, and folding of these creative quantum events.
Is the lived time of human consciousness in any sense an expression of some more primordial value- experience in Nature? Or is our existence just a peripheral accident? Rovelli appears to take the latter view, giving physical models precedence over lived experience as regards ontology. He rejects views like Smolin’s because he believes they lean too heavily on an emotionally charged intuition about time’s role in physics. “The choice,” Rovelli tells us, “is between forcing the description of the world so that it adapts to our intuition, or learning instead to adapt our intuition to what we have discovered about the world.”52
Certainly, as we saw earlier, Whitehead affirms the need to “look again” at the world, and to experiment with our perceptions, in order to assure that our ideas or abstract accounts of its operations remain in accord with the concrete happenings of actual Nature. But how are we to access concrete reality except through experience or intuition? Rovelli is careful elsewhere to clearly reject the classical idea of a “view from nowhere”: “A point of view is an ingredient in every description of the observable world that we make”53 and “The world is…a collection of interrelated points of view…there is no ‘outside’ to the world.”54 So while Rovelli’s earlier rejection of intuition seems like a re-entrenchment into the bifurcation of Nature between objective science and subjective dream that Whitehead so forcefully protested against, it is also out of step with his own broader commitment to a relational reality. Such a splitting of our embodied experience from the “scientific discovery” of a toy model of the physical world would neglect the relational essence of reality by succumbing to what Auxier and Herstein call “model-centric thinking”:
“For what are we left with to test our models, other than the formal and recondite cleverness of those models? What standards might we apply to test our models when our model-centric approach demands that we measure experience by those models, rather than those models by experience?”55
Whitehead once wrote that “The physical world 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.”56 This statement may seem a bit strange coming from a professed realist. But we must not misunderstand Whitehead’s meaning. He is, as Auxier and Herstein make clear, a radical empiricist in William James’ sense. The universe is relational and esemplastic: it grows from the inside out, each part containing the whole in potentia. Whatever this universe is, it is happing not just “out there” but right here, right now within and between us. We do not and cannot experience the universe in is integrity as a child observes a snow globe at arms length. But the “Big Bang” model of inflationary cosmology is often discussed at least in popular science books and by science journalists precisely in this way, as though we were turning the world around in our hand to have a good look at it. Where are we as observers in these acts of cosmological imagination? Precisely nowhere.
Rovelli suggests that our perception of a cosmic evolution through irreversible time results from our perspective at the far end of a thermodynamic heat sink. Inflationary models of the observable cosmos suggest that our world emerged from a very low entropy state at the beginning of the universe and is gradually running down toward heat death. Our vision of the cosmos as such is “blurred” by our special position in this entropic process. Rovelli writes:
“If a subset of the universe is special in this sense, then…memories exist, traces are left—and there can be evolution, life and thought…We observe the universe from within [this subset], interacting with a minuscule portion of the innumerable variables of the cosmos. What we see is a blurred image. This blurring suggests that the dynamic of the universe with which we interact is governed by entropy, which measures the amount of blurring. It measures something that relates to us more than to the cosmos.”57
It is not only our special cosmic position that creates this blurring, according to Rovelli. It is also our special form of biological organization powered by a web of negentropic chemical processes. Life is poised at the cresting wave of a thermodynamic gradient, feeding on light from the Sun and ultimately producing dramatically more entropy than would otherwise be possible on a dead Earth.
Whitehead describes the emergence of special “cosmic epochs” from out of the more general extensive continuum.58 While the “laws” and “constants” of physics, as well as the metrical properties of space-time, the particles described by the standard model, and all larger organized bodies like stars, galaxies, planets, plants, and animals, have emerged within our epoch, the extensive continuum’s generic topological properties hold across all such epochs. Whitehead thought the properties of this extensive continuum were truly metaphysical or fundamental in nature, much as Rovelli thinks his quantum network is fundamental. Whitehead’s notion of a “cosmic epoch” also bears some resemblance to Rovelli’s account of thermodynamically improbable subsets of the wider universe. However, Whitehead does not shy away from the sort of speculative ideas that would be necessary for such an account to count as a coherent explanation. While Rovelli is content to explain away basic features of our universe like memory, causation, and the irreversible flow of time as “nothing but names”59 that we give to describe our statistically improbable egress from a low entropy event in the past,Whitehead would agree with Smolin that the fact that such accounts pass as “explanation” is only a “measure of the depth of the current crisis” faced by scientific cosmology.60 Rather than dismiss the profoundly beautiful forms of complexity achieved by our self-organizing universe as nothing but accidental smudges in the flow of entropy, Whitehead grants reality to a “counter-agency” infusing the physical universe with a tendency toward order.61
At this point, many scientists are probably unable to follow Whitehead. Even he admits that this counter-agency “is too vast and diffusive for our direct observation.”62 But in the course of constructing his speculative cosmology, which seeks to offer a satisfying explanation for the astonishingly organized universe that we do directly observe, Whitehead found it necessary to make reference to what some contemporary physicists are beginning to call “extropy.”63 Which is more improbable, that our universe is erotically lured toward organizational complexity, with human consciousness being a natural outgrowth of evolution, as Whitehead wagers, or, as Rovelli supposes, that the directly observed facts of a time-developmental universe, including everything from physical causation to star and galaxy formation to mental capacities like memory and anticipation, are all just mirages arising from our blurred perspective on an exceedingly rare hot spot at the origin of our subset of the cosmos? Even if the irreversible temporality of cosmic evolution and human life is not metaphysically fundamental, as both Whitehead and Rovelli agree, this does not mean causality, memory, and purpose are merely nominal. These are real features of an exceedingly creative cosmos, as real as energy, entropy, and indeed, should loop quantum gravity turn out to be correct, as real as spin foams. According to Whitehead, “the extreme rejection of final causation from our categories of explanation has been fallacious.”64 A satisfactory cosmology, he insists, must explain the interweaving of entropy and extropy, of dissipation and organization, without attempting to reduce one to an epiphenomenon of the other.
“[The] antagonism between philosophy and natural science has produced unfortunate limitations of thought on both sides,” according to Whitehead. “Philosophy has ceased to claim its proper generality, and natural science is content with the narrow round of its methods.”65 While the original rejection of Scholastic metaphysics and formulation of the mechanical categories and empirical methods of physical science in the 17th century has proven tremendously successful, the advances of the last century and a half (including evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories) have brought us into a critical period of general reorganization of the categories of scientific thought. Not only our concept of time, but space, matter, life, and mind must all be rethought and brought into accord. The old mechanical definitions of these terms and their relations are simply no longer relevant. The needed reorganization of fundamental ideas is not a task that natural science can undertake on its own, as should be clear from the fact that after more than a century a coherent integration of relativity and quantum theories remains as elusive as ever (though there are several contenders, major obstacles stand in the way of their widespread acceptance). Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an effort to construct a new organic and process-relational metaphysics for natural science to replace the now defunct mechanistic ontology. Whether Whitehead has succeeded remains to be seen. There is already plenty of important work going on at the intersections of new paradigm natural science and Whiteheadian philosophy. While the true nature of time undoubtedly remains as mysterious as ever, I hope this brief essay at least contributes to clarifying what is at stake these efforts.
2 Arrhenius, S. “Presentation Speech,” 10 December 1922 in Nobel Lectures in Physics (1901-1921)World Scientific, Singapore (1998).
3 History of Western Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1996), 720.
5 Bergson and Modern Physics (1973)
7 Charles Dickens, “Dombey and Son”
8 Creative Evolution, 241.
9 Principles of Natural Knowledge, 25-26.
10 See also the discussion by F. S. C. Northrop in Science and First Principles (Cambridge, 1931), 113-114.
11 Einstein, “Cosmological Considerations on the General Theory of Relativity,” in The Principle of Relativity edited by Francis Davis (Courier, 2013), 183.
12 The Principle of Relativity, 49.
13 See Leemon B. McHenry’s book The Event Universe: The Revisionary Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (2015).
14 See The Event Universe, 139-140 and 413n6.
15 The Event Universe, 44.
16 See Process Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3/4, Fall-Winter 1999, “Special Focus: Bergson and Whitehead.”
17 The Concept of Nature, 54.
18 Duration and Simultaneity, note 10.
19 Process & Reality, 209.
20 PR, xii.
21 Process and Reality, 23.
22 Einstein to Vero and Mrs. Bice, March 21, 1955. Einstein Archive, reel 7-245; reprinted in Albert Einstein- Michele Besso Correspondence, 537-538.
23 The Concept of Nature, 29-30.
24 Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 120.
25 Process & Reality, 35.
26 Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 10, No. 2 [Apr., 1949], 283; https://www.jstor.org/stable/2707418
27 “Bergson, Mathematics, and Creativity” in Process Studies Vol 28; http://www.religion-online.org/article/bergson- mathematics-and-creativity/
28 Bergson and Modern Physics, 120.
29 Duration and Simultaneity (1922/1965), 45.
30 A Pluralistic Universe, 231. Quoted in Capek, Bergson and Modern Physics, 140.
31 Process & Reality, 21.
32 Modes of Thought, 102.
33 See “Introduction,” Henri Bergson: Key Writings, ed. by K. A. Pearson and J. Mullarkey (New York: Continuum, 2002); see also Capek, Bergson and Modern Physics, 154.
34 Matter and Memory, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
35 Science and the Modern World, 37.
36 Science and Philosophy, 252.
37 See especially this post by astrophysicist Geoffrey Edwards: https://www.infiniteconversations.com/t/rethinking-time/2014
38 Foundations of Relational Realism: A Topological Approach to Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Nature (2013, xxn3)
40 Carlo Rovelli, ‘Science Is Not About Certainty’, in The Universe, ed. John Brockman, New York: Harper Perennial, 2014, p.215, 227 & 228
41 The Order of Time, 173.
42 The Order of Time, 174.
43 The Order of Time, 3.
44 The Order of Time, 92.
45 The Order of Time, 53.
46 The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, xv.
47 The Order of Time, 168.
48 The Order of Time, 80.
49 Process & Reality, 66-67.
50 The Order of Time, 168.
51 Modes of Thought, 154.
52 The Order of Time, 190n14.
53 The Order of Time, 132.
54 The Order of Time, 108.
55 The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism (2017), 111.
56 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity” in Aims of Education, 166.
57 The Order of Time, 130, 134.
58 Process & Reality, 91.
59 The Order of Time, 147.
60 A Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, 355. 61 The Function of Reason, 25.
62 The Function of Reason, 25.
63 “Entropy, Extropy, and the Physical Driver of Irreversibility” by Attila Grandpierre (http://indecs.eu/2012/indecs2012-pp73-79.pdf)
64 The Function of Reason, 28. 65 The Function of Reason, 61.
Environmental lawyer, philosopher, and fellow Whitehead enthusiast Tam Hunt and I started an email exchange a few weeks ago after I stumbled upon his interview with the physicist Carol Rovelli. Our emails grew into a pretty extensive conversation on all things Whitehead, which I am sharing below. We discuss the importance of Whitehead’s ideas for a future ecological civilization, his philosophy of time (including critiques of Einstein), the role of God and eternal objects in his cosmology, and more.
Tam: Why is Whitehead relevant today, to both the layperson, and in physics and the philosophy of physics?
Matt: Whitehead was one of the first initiates into the new cosmological story that, with any luck, will help us build an ecological civilization in the coming decades. The advances in philosophy of nature and discoveries in natural science that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., Schelling, Humboldt, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, Bergson, Whitehead, et al.) were even more revolutionary than those made by Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton in the 16th and 17th centuries.
If we take a Whiteheadian lens on the contemporary natural sciences, it becomes clear that 21st century people are living in an entirely new world, a self-organizing cosmogenesis that is nothing like the mechanical clockwork universe imagined by 17th century scientists. The problem is, hardly anybody—laypeople or physicists—realizes that we are living in this new universe! We are so mesmerized by the old mechanical model of Nature and by the technological toys it has allowed us to invent and surround ourselves with that we’ve lost touch with the nonhuman world that is literally dying for us to remember it.
Tam: Would you describe yourself as a Whiteheadian traditionalist? Or are there any aspects of Whitehead’s system that you would change?
Matt: I think Whitehead understood metaphysics as an open-ended project, so I engage with his work in the spirit of a co-inquirer. I would describe myself as a Whiteheadian, but there are plenty of ways that I diverge from “traditional” readings of Whitehead. If something in his scheme of abstractions doesn’t fit with my own experience and understanding, I first interrogate his writing more deeply just to be sure I am not misinterpreting him. But once I’m satisfied that I am not misunderstanding, I am perfectly willing to adjust his scheme accordingly. For example, his concept of God’s function in the universe is, by Whitehead’s own admission, incomplete. In my dissertation, I took some liberties in re-interpreting the process God in more pluralistic terms, such that each cosmic epoch has its own divine occasion, with certain characteristics being inherited by subsequent epochs.
Tam: Who do you regard as the most helpful intellectual descendants/students of Whitehead, thinkers who can both help us understand what the heck Whitehead meant in his sometimes opaque prose, or thinkers who have helpfully extended Whitehead’s system?
Matt: John Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin should be mentioned first. They have and continue to contribute tremendously to Whitehead’s legacy, and to helping us make sense of his sometimes difficult ideas. I have not spent much time myself with Charles Hartshorne’s work, but he has also been very influential. More recently, thinkers as diverse as Catherine Keller, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and William Connolly have taken up Whitehead’s work and applied it in illuminating and important ways to, e.g., mystical theology, geopolitics, and the sociology of science. The philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H has also done some fascinating work on the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy to the interpretation of psychedelic experience.
Tam: Whitehead’s process philosophy is so named because it focuses on process, a succession of states, as the central feature of reality. Yet there are some aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy that are largely and perhaps wholly outside of time, such as “eternal objects” that are akin to Plato’s forms. How would you (succinctly) describe the nature of time in Whitehead’s philosophy in relation to the time of human experience?
Matt: I’ll be as succinct as I can be, but this is a complicated question! Whitehead was one of a number of early 20th century thinkers (including William James, Edmund Husserl, and Henri Bergson) who zeroed in on time, process, or becoming as a crucial nexus point that might help reconnect human experience with the natural world known to science. Whitehead was not influenced by Husserl so far as I know, but he was certainly an inheritor of James’ radical empiricism and Bergson’s vitalism. But he did not inherit from them uncritically. I hope it is not an unfair summary of his criticisms to simply say that he rejected James’ nominalism and Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. That said, he inherited enough from Bergson that he would likely be uncomfortable with your characterization of process as “a succession of states,” since such a characterization may fall prey to what Bergson called the “cinematographic” tendency of the intellect, whereby the continuous flow of time is broken into discrete states, instants, or still frames that are then supposed to generate a sort of cartoon illusion of movement in the flip book of our conscious experience.
Like Bergson, Whitehead entirely rejected the materialistic idea of “Nature at an instant.” This idea is as central to Newton’s absolutist view of space and time as it is to Einstein’s relativistic conception of space-time. Whitehead follows James and Bergson in denying that it has any reality whatsoever. It is a mere abstraction used for convenience in the measurements and equations of physical models. Concrete time cannot be captured by such models because it always has duration. All attempts to measure duration necessarily erase what is essential to it. Duration is pure succession, in Bergson’s terms, which is to say that it is a continuous transformation and not merely a series of translated spatial states.
The point here is not to give up measuring and calculating. Science can go on doing what science does. Following Bergson, Whitehead simply wanted to remind scientists that they should avoid committing his famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by never forgetting that the measurements made by clocks, though convenient for physical models and for the coordination of civilized life, falsely spatialize the flow of temporality.
All that said, Whitehead had more hope than Bergson that the scientific intellect could be reformed so as not to falsify the creative becoming of Nature in its abstract models. His notoriously complex metaphysical system, the so-called “philosophy of organism,” is the result of his effort. I can understand why you would characterize Whitehead’s view of process as “a succession of states,” since he does in fact articulate an “atomic” or “epochal” theory of time, whereby a historical route of atomic “actual occasions” or “drops of experience” constitutes the continuous flow or stream of our consciousness. These occasions “arise and perish” in Whitehead’s terms and are not simply identical to the unbroken flow of conscious time, nor are they static instants. Whitehead thus challenged Bergson’s idea, mentioned above, of duration as “pure succession,” since the duration of Whitehead’s actual occasions is not pure but a mixture of spatial and temporal (as well as eternal, as we will see) ingredients. Whitehead asks us to imagine two distinct types of process: the first is “transition” (roughly equivalent to Bergson’s “duration”), which is the continuous time of our conscious experience, and the second is “concrescence,” which is the epochal or punctuated becoming of actual occasions.
Concrescence is Whitehead’s neologism for what occurs within each drop or occasion of experience as it arises and perishes. Whereas transition provides an empirical account of what we experience in consciousness, concrescence is a speculative idea that is supposed to provide an explanation of the metaphysical conditions necessary for conscious experience. In other words, concrescence is Whitehead’s account of what is going on under the hood of consciousness.
It is in concrescence that Whitehead’s “eternal objects” come into play. They are the “forms of definiteness” or “pure potentials” that constitute the character of what each occasion experiences. Eternal objects can be mathematical or sensual in nature (e.g., circularity, twoness, a particular shade of redness, and saltiness are all examples of eternal objects). Whitehead tells us that they are required for our experience of Nature and not emergent from it. So far, they sound identical to Plato’s forms, but Whitehead actually inverts Plato’s theory of forms. While for Plato, eternal forms are the preeminent realities while physical creatures are derivative copies or pale imitations, for Whitehead, eternal objects are “deficient in actuality” and depend entirely on the decisions of actual occasions to make any difference in the world.
Tam: Can we achieve an improved version of Whitehead by eliminating eternal objects, as some thinkers have aspired to do? Or does the whole edifice fall apart if we remove this concept from Whitehead?
Matt: There have been several attempts to eliminate eternal objects from Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. In my opinion, the two most interesting recent examples are Ralph Pred’s Onflow (2005) and Mark Hansen’s Feed-Forward (2015). Along with eliminating eternal objects, they also try to eliminate Whitehead’s concept of God. Let me clearly state that these are both excellent philosophical works worthy of close study by all Whiteheadians and by anyone interested in the deepest questions we can ask about human consciousness and the technological environment we find ourselves increasingly embedded within.
And let me state just as clearly that Whitehead’s process-relational ontology falls into incoherence as soon as eternal objects and God are removed. Eternal objects and actual occasions are the magnetic poles powering the explanatory dynamo that is Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. I’ve argued at length elsewhere that those who attempt to do without eternal objects (perhaps because they believe they have no place in a supposedly “processual” ontology) while still deploying Whitehead’s other categories only end up re-inventing the wheel and calling it something else. It’s like trying to break a magnet to remove the negative pole: you just end up with a new negative pole at the broken end. I have no problem whatsoever with thinkers who want to develop their own process ontology, but if they want to build on Whitehead’s work, it just doesn’t make sense to talk about actual occasions without eternal objects.
Tam: You stated that actual occasions (Whitehead’s atoms of actuality) are “not states or static instants,” but isn’t it the case that the passage of time in Whitehead’s system is indeed a series of actual occasions, at every level of reality, which are states but not static instants (I didn’t invoke any static features in my question)? This is the shared character of Whitehead’s concrescence, “perpetual perishing,” the “creative advance” and more generally Whitehead’s strong emphasis on becoming [PR, xiv, 22]. As such, shouldn’t we characterize the passage of time in Whitehead’s system as a result of a series of instants or snapshots, at every locus of the universe, which are always changing, but still instantiating as “actual” in an eternal oscillation between actuality and potentiality?
Matt: I don’t think it is Whitehead’s intention to say that the passage of time is a series of instants or snapshots. Such instantaneity can be approached via mathematical abstraction, but actual passage or creative advance is a process that moves from occasion to occasion in a network of relations, not a series of point-instants on a graph. Actual occasions are just that: occasions, or in Bergson’s terms, durations. I don’t see how a static instant could be experiential. Whitehead’s actual occasions of experience each exist “stretched out” in a sort of sublime tension, what James called a “specious present,” wherein the already actualized past is inherited and subjectively synthesized with potential futures. An actual occasion’s final phase of becoming is called its “satisfaction,” which is the decisive moment wherein the occasion collapses the field of potentials into a unique form of actualization. This actualization is the achievement of a novel experience of value, “novel” in that with the becoming and perishing of each actual occasion a perspective on the universe is achieved that has never existed before. This perspective, once perished, becomes “objectively immortal” and is taken up by subsequently concrescing actual occasions. This arising and perishing of actual occasions forms what Whitehead calls a historic route or “society,” and it is at this level that what we consciously experience as the flow of time emerges. I do like your characterization of this process as an “eternal oscillation between actuality and potentiality,” but I don’t think the occasional beats composing the oscillation are instantaneous.
Tam: Building on our agreement that the passage of time may be characterized as an oscillation between actuality and potentiality, an instant in modern physics can have some minimum duration, such as the Planck time (5.4×10^-44 s), in the same way that energy or space can have a minimum quantity (this is the “quantum” in quantum mechanics). So is time for Whitehead not built as a nested hierarchy of these minimum instants, with each actual occasion constituting an instant or multiple thereof, and the universe built from the set of all actual occasions concrescing in each phase of the creative advance into novelty [PR 29 “The ancient doctrine that ‘no one crosses the same river twice’ is extended”]? Whitehead does posit non-temporal aspects of each concrescence, as you point out, but each concrescence itself is temporal through and through, right? So I think we’re generally saying the same thing?
Matt: There is a lot here to unpack. I would want to distinguish the physics of Planck time and Planck space from Whitehead’s metaphysics of actual occasions and their extensive connection. Whitehead would want us to tread very lightly in identifying his actual occasions with quantum events, since it may very well be the case that the latter are a special case of the former. Regarding the notion of the universe as a “set of all actual occasions,” we also need to be careful. In their brilliant text The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism (2017), Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein are careful to distinguish between two approaches to logically formalizing our thinking about such matters. While Whitehead did often use the term “set” in his writing about collections of occasions or of eternal objects, this should not mislead us into a “set theoretical” way of thinking about the relations among actual occasions and eternal objects. Instead, Auxier and Herstein point to what has come to be called “category theory” as an alternative, and more Whiteheadian, way of thinking about the extensive relations among occasions, particularly when we try to think the cosmic socius as a whole. In short, while set theory focuses on abstract collections of entities and membership in groups, category theory allows us to think in terms of functions and relations, and in terms of the topological transformation of wholes and parts (i.e., mereotopology). Auxier and Herstein argue that category theory, as a form of spatial or topological reasoning, has a more empirical or experiential character, thus granting it deeper relevance in questions of ontology. So instead of thinking of all actual occasions as though they existed side-by-side as members of the set called “universe” advancing along some universal timeline, we must think of the cosmic socius of occasions as a complex network of open-ended activities, all internally related but also differentiated along multiple timelines. It is difficult if not impossible for our 3-dimensional imagination to picture a topological network of activities wherein each node or occasion is both a whole in itself, prehending the whole universe in its concrescence, and a part within the concrescence of other occasions. This is the sort of situation that category theory can formalize mathematically.
Concrescence is neither wholly eternal nor wholly temporal. It is an amphibious concept meant to account for the way potentiality becomes actual. Concrescence is Whitehead’s explanation for how potentials achieve actualization through the portal of a sort of temporal eternity or eternal moment, the creative repetition or oscillation of which is responsible for generating the spatial and temporal world as we normally experience it. It is also important to remember that the universe as a whole is, in Whitehead’s terms, an “essential incompleteness,” as it is never finished or fully present but always advancing into novelty. To capture this, I sometimes expand and reform Einstein’s space-time “fabric” analogy by saying that space-time is always fraying and needs to be continually re-woven with each concrescence.
Tam: Isn’t Whitehead’s system in key ways in opposition to Einstein’s notion of spacetime? Isn’t this a key point of the “process” in process philosophy, that we need to accept the very real passage of time? Reconciling the experienced passage of time with the “block universe” and combined “space-time” of Einstein’s physics is, of course, a large outstanding problem with modern physics. One reason I find Whitehead’s approach appealing is that it presents a way out of this conundrum that Einsteinian physics has gotten us into.
Matt: Whitehead accepted Einstein’s extension of some of the formulae related to electromagnetism to the concept of gravity. As a scientific theory, he was not disputing the usefulness of Einstein’s space-time model. His dispute with Einstein concerned the latter’s metaphysical interpretation of said model. Whitehead was concerned not only about the reduced status of time in Einstein’s eternal vision of the cosmos, but with the possibility of measurement in a space that, according to Einstein, was heterogeneous as a result of being warped by contingently arrayed mass. Accurate measurement requires rigid rulers. Unless we know in advance where all the mass in the universe is, we cannot be sure how our ruler (or its equivalent, light rays) may be bending in any attempted measurement, particularly if we are talking about astronomical distances. Problem is, we cannot know in advance how mass is arrayed in the cosmos since that would require measurement. We are stuck, as Whitehead puts it, having to know everything before we can know anything. As part of his attempt to articulate precisely why he disagreed with Einstein, Whitehead produced his own tensor equations that did not rely on the idea of “curved” space but that nonetheless made equivalent empirical predictions as Einstein’s model (i.e., Whitehead’s formulae make the same predictions about Mercury’s perihelion, etc., and its variables could be easily modified to fit with any new observations resulting from more sensitive instruments).
As for time, Whitehead was in agreement with Bergson (who debated Einstein on this issue in 1922) that Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of relativity mistook the abstract units of mechanical clock-time for the ontology of temporality. But unlike Bergson, who sometimes seems to have imagined that some universal flow of time underlies everything, Whitehead was perfectly clear that relativity theory destroys the idea of global simultaneity or universal time. Contra Einstein, he argued that time was perfectly real and not an illusion, but it is real only in a local sense related to unique historical routes of actual occasions of experience. So the Whiteheadian universe includes many distinct (more or less overlapping) time-systems. For this reason, I sometimes refer to a Whiteheadian pluriverse instead of calling it a universe.
Tam: Can you elaborate on why you think that Whitehead’s system would become incoherent without the inclusion of eternal objects?
Matt: Without eternal objects, there would no longer be any potential ingredient in the passage of Nature. The past and the future would become ontologically indistinguishable. Everything would already be actualized and there’d be no room for genuine creativity. All process would become locked in habit and repetition. Further, eternal objects are part of what allows actual occasions to be individual creatures rather than being indiscriminately merged together with every other occasion. Whitehead does view actual occasions as “internally related” and thus in some sense each occasion is dependent on every other occasion to be what it is, but it is the mediating role played by eternal objects in characterizing the “how” of experience that allows actual occasions to decide on unique subjective interpretations of the world rather than just directly inheriting the world as it is objectively given. Occasions can consider possible alternatives by ingressing novel eternal objects, thus inviting new potentials into settled actuality. Finally, eternal objects are what allow us to recognize and identify stable entities in what is otherwise a world of flux. What is it that you recognize in a friend or loved one as their distinct personality or character, something that sticks with them through many years of life despite other changes to their appearance?
Tam: You suggest that without eternal objects the past and future could not be distinguished. But if we eliminate eternal objects and ingression from Whitehead’s ontology we are left with actual entities and Creativity (as a general principle of potentiality or novelty [PR 21 “’Creativity’ is the principle of novelty”]). Isn’t concresence of actual entities, the sum of which is the creative advance into novelty, in addition to Creativity as the principle of potentiality becoming actual in each actual occasion, enough to provide all of these aspects of our experienced reality: 1) the experienced passage of time; 2) a physical passage of time more generally; 3) novelty; 4) a clear arrow of time that distinguishes between past and present?
Matt: No, I don’t think so. To fully answer this question, I need to bring in Whitehead’s concept of God again. If we eliminate the notion of ingressing eternal objects and God from Whitehead’s ontology, preserving only prehending actual occasions and Creativity, I am no longer sure what we could possibly mean by “concrescence.” God’s function in Whitehead’s ontology is to provide relevance to each occasion as it concresces out of Creativity. Without this mediating or filtering role, each occasion would be overwhelmed by the sheer infinity of potentials available for actualization in any given moment. God is Whitehead’s principle of limitation or concretion, and the graded hierarchy of eternal objects is Whitehead’s way of describing how infinite possibility is made relevant to each finite occasion’s experience. Further, it is precisely through the contrast granted by contact with eternity in each concrescence that an experience of passage arises. Without the contrast, without the punctuation of process by eternality, time would be experientially undetectable.
Tam: Why can’t physical prehensions of surrounding actual entities, in each moment of the creative advance, be sufficient for limiting the “infinity of potentials available for actualization”? I’ve suggested this kind of notion in my work on the mind-body problem, inspired by Whitehead, and it is based on the uncontroversial notion that actual entities can only include in each instantiation information that they can receive within the duration of each concrescence, limiting the actual entities that form each set of data available to the new concrescing entity. Under this framework, each actual entity is still an ordering of Creativity, an actualization of pure potentiality, but there is no need to posit what seem like more religious notions of God or eternal objects beyond the pure potentiality of Creativity.
Matt: Whitehead did not include a concept of God in his metaphysical scheme for religious reasons. His God is a concept to be reflected upon and not a personal being to be worshipped (though of course God may become this secondarily for those who fully inhabit and live into his cosmology). Noting this up front is important, as it allows us (hopefully) to just focus on the philosophical issues at stake without dragging in all the emotional controversies associated with the battle between religious belief and secularity, etc. Whitehead specifically says in Process & Reality that he wants to “secularize the concept of God” and that this is one of the most important tasks for modern philosophy.
That said, it may be possible to account for the provision of relevance to each concrescing occasion of experience in the way that you suggest, via the physical prehension of past actualities in its environment. But then we are left with another problem, which is how to account for the novelty added by each occasion. If there is just physical prehension of the actualized past and no conceptual prehension of potentia (i.e., eternal objects), what prevents actual occasions from just repeating the experiences of the past ad infinitum? The question is not just about the relevance of each newly concrescing occasion to its inherited past, but the relevance of this past to potential futures. The provision of this relevance is necessary for a concrescence to decide how to actualize the potential value it is incubating. Even if we eliminate the role of God and eternal objects in determining the relevance of a concrescent occasion to its past, we still have to account for the determination of the relevant possibilities open to that occasion given its past. While the realm of actuality is finite, the realm of potential is infinite. So again, actual occasions would seem to need a little divine help here to avoid being overwhelmed by unlimited creative potential.
Tam: Various thinkers have tried to “naturalize” Whitehead by removing eternal objects, God or other aspects of his system that seem to some to be out of place or unnecessary. Donald Sherburne, one of the editors of the standard corrected edition of Process and Reality, and a serious Whitehead scholar, has proposed “Whitehead without God.” You are clear so far in rejecting attempts to eliminate eternal objects or God from Whitehead’s system, but what about substituting Creativity for more non-religious notions of God like Source/Brahman/akasha, as thinkers like Huston Smith have argued (see, e.g., the great debate between Griffin and Smith in the book-length dialogue Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology)? Under this amendment to Whitehead’s system, we retain Whitehead’s Creativity as the Ultimate and we can call it Source/Brahman, etc., as well as Creativity, since it is the ontological ground of being in Whitehead’s system. But we can eliminate God in its primordial nature (which is comprised of the set of all eternal objects), while retaining God in its consequent nature, as the high/highest level of a nested hierarchy of concrescing actual entities.
Matt: I am fine with folks coming up with whatever cosmological scheme they feel best captures the reality of their experience and understanding. But I don’t think we are talking about Whitehead’s scheme anymore if we remove God. Creativity is Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, while God is said to be the first creature of Creativity. God’s function here is to limit the unlimited. So strictly speaking, Creativity is not the ground of Whitehead’s ontology; rather, the primordial nature of God, as the principle of concretion or limitation, provides this ground. Creativity itself is a groundless abyss of pure potential, more a fountain than a foundation.
Tam: In terms of the discussion about mathematical discovery vs. invention, this is as you point out a longstanding debate. Many thinkers have taken the view that it is invention, which means that mathematical and similar truths are based on concepts that we create in our minds and manipulate to find new insights. So twoness, to use your example, is in this view an invented generality based on the observation that many things in our experienced world can be enumerated and compared, and in doing so given labels. A human 100,000 or more years ago probably realized that using her fingers to keep track of things in the real world was useful and then eventually gave labels to each numbered finger and by extension items in the real world labeled similarly. In this evolutionary approach to the development of language and mathematics there is no need to posit discovery of eternal objects in a realm only accessible to human reason. We also have good evidence that other animals have basic concepts of number; crows, for example, can count at least as high as three, with specialized cells in the brain, similar to how primates like us count. Are crows discovering transcendent mathematical truths or only using their evolved brains to create useful tools mapped on to their experienced worlds?
Matt: Whitehead’s eternal objects are not sequestered in a realm accessible only to human reason. They were ingredients in the creative advance of Nature long before humans showed up. Indeed, Whitehead tells us, “in the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas” (Religion in the Making, 100). In Whitehead’s view, human reason does not even begin to comprehend the full breadth of the realm of ideal possibilities from out of which it has emerged and toward which it is passing.
Whitehead does not deny that other humans and animals exist on a cognitive spectrum, with some animals possessing very basic conceptions of number. In Modes of Thought, he describes watching a mother squirrel remove her young ones from a nest that had grown too small. She becomes distressed when she sees her children outside the cramped setting of the nest for the first time, running back and forth to make sure she hadn’t left anyone behind. This is because, according to Whitehead, she had only an indefinite or vague sense of how many children she had. She had no definite sense of number, in other words. Perhaps crows, clever as they are, have the ability to count higher than squirrels. Granting the cognitive continuum here, Whitehead still points to the advance achieved by humans, likely due to language: “Mankind enjoys a vision of the function of form within fact, and of the issue of value from this interplay. That day in the history of mankind when the vague appreciation of multitude was transformed into the exact observation of number, human beings made a long stride in the comprehension of that interweaving of form necessary for the higher life which is the disclosure of the good” (Modes of Thought, 77). So while eternal objects were ingredients in the evolutionary process long before humans showed up on the scene, our linguistic capacities do indeed grant us more definite conceptions of their distinct forms and mathematical relations. But our symbolic languages do not invent mathematical relations, they discover and express them.
Tam: In terms of your suggestion that it is eternal objects that allow us to identify loved ones over time, I don’t understand what you mean so can you elaborate on this further? Isn’t the constancy of their person and your recognition of that person the same as any changing pattern in nature in terms of steady change over time but with a general commonality over time (in Buddhist thought, this notion is a “continuant” as described in the Milindapanha)? Or are you suggesting there is some eternal essence that each individual enjoys that is an eternal object?
Matt: Whitehead wanted to give some explanation for how it is that in a world of process we nonetheless are able to recognize and identify definite characters or entities. We are out at sea and glimpse a whale just before it dives under the surface. A moment later, it explodes into the air. “There it is again,” we say. A simple enough observation, but Whitehead finds it metaphysically perplexing. Why are we justified in saying it is the same whale? I am not certain of the exact physiological details here, but scientists tell us that after some number of years every single atom in our body is replaced. Despite this complete material renewal, we are still somehow justified in claiming a sense of stable identity. Our matter changes, but our form endures. Whitehead talks about societies of actual occasions with “personal order,” and here he does not just mean the persistent identities of human persons but the persistent “serially ordered” identity of everything from rocks and trees to whales and skyscrapers. The serial personal order of a human being or a whale is constituted by especially intimately related historical routes of actual occasions of experience that repeatedly and collectively ingress a complex constellation of eternal objects. This unique constellation of eternal objects grants an individual human or whale its definite character or personality, experienced from within and recognized by others as in some sense a consistent identity despite its continual passage. Whitehead does not accept substantial notions of identity (“no thinker thinks twice,” he reminds us in Process & Reality), so he is forced to invent a processual account of this continuity, and the ingression of definite possibilities through historical routes of socially ordered actual occasions is how he attempts to pull it off.
Tam: But can’t a society of actual entities, as you and Whitehead discuss, accomplish this continuity over time (but always changing in each moment) without eternal objects? More generally, isn’t this kind of continuity over time what Whitehead means by “enduring objects” (which are different from eternal objects and are societies with “personal order”) [PR p. 34, 109]?
Matt: Whitehead is pretty clear, it seems to me, that what defines a society of actual occasions as an enduring object with personal order (personally ordered societies are a special case of enduring objects) is the complex constellation of eternal objects that these occasions repeatedly ingress through a historical route of genetic inheritance. The common form of any society of occasions, including personally ordered societies, is provided by the inherited constellation of eternal objects that sustains its definite characteristics.
Tam: More specifically, what does it mean to you that “saltiness,” an example you provide of eternal objects, is an eternal something that exists in a different realm than our manifest world? Aren’t these features of reality far more likely to be biologically evolved features of our universe that arose out of the specific conditions found on our planet? I personally have a hard time with positing such features of human reality and of reality more generally as unchanging “eternal objects”?
Matt: Saltiness is probably a complex eternal object, rather than a simple one that cannot be further decomposed. So it is not the best example to convince you of the metaphysical role of eternal objects. Mathematical objects almost certainly provide the strongest case for the necessity of something like Plato’s forms. You’ll never find “twoness” anywhere in the physical world. You’ll find endless examples of twoness participating in the physical world: two birds, two stones, two people, two fingers, two very different objects that you decide to group together for whatever reason, etc. But the idea of “twoness” itself is not captured by any of these specific instances. Where does it come from? Nominalists would say twoness, like other mathematical ideas, is just a name whose meaning derives from the conventional use of an arbitrarily invented symbol. But in my experience the majority of mathematicians, including Whitehead, would strongly contest this notion and claim that the history of mathematics is full of genuine discoveries that cannot be reduced to invented symbolisms. Yes, mathematicians need symbols to express their ideas, but there is more to the mathematical patterns and relations they discover than just these symbols.
A complex eternal object like saltiness is dependent upon the crystalization of sodium chloride molecules and the evolution of sensory organs and many other factors in order to ingress. Whitehead isn’t denying the importance and indeed the priority of these factors, but he was unable to conceive of a coherent metaphysical scheme that didn’t do justice to the realm of potentiality alongside that of actuality. “Coherence” for Whitehead means that neither potentiality nor actuality can be understood in isolation from the other.
Tam: How do we help spread a wider interest and understanding of Whitehead’s ideas? Are there any attempts to spread his ideas through, for example, primary school education (at a kid-friendly level)?
Matt: This is a really important question. I believe that the most developed effort on this front is coming from the Pando Populus organization, which emerged from the huge International Whitehead Conference held in Claremont, CA back in 2015 called “Toward an Ecological Civilization.” Most of their work is focused locally in Los Angeles at this point, but they also have plans aiming at a more global impact and already have a foothold in China (where there are something like 30 graduate programs devoted to Whitehead’s ideas).
I don’t know of any attempts to bring his ideas into primary school classrooms, but that sounds like a great idea! I would even be happy with just the story of philosophy and its most basic questions being taught in primary school. Whitehead’s panpsychist outlook is only a philosophically refined and attenuated form of animism, so it may already be common sense to most kids. That it is animate is an obvious fact about the world for childhood consciousness (and for most of our species’ 200,000+ year history: the disenchanted mechanistic view is only a few hundred years old). Kids have a much more intuitive grasp of basic metaphysical questions. Unfortunately, our innate curiosity about the hidden causes of everyday facts (“But why?”) is beaten out of us pretty early on by impatient adults. Bringing philosophy into primary school classrooms would really just be about encouraging the wonder and curiosity that is already everpresent in childhood. Sharing the best historical articulations of the Big Questions so that they take root in the imaginations of children might help shape them into more intellectually flexible adults who are capable of avoiding ideological fixation in the face of an overwhelmingly complex world.
The following is a comment I posted on the physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog Backreaction to a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.”
I discovered your blog last night after Googling “Carlo Rovelli and Alfred North Whitehead.” It brought me to Tam Hunt’s interview with Rovelli. I have been studying Rovelli’s popular works lately (I just finished The Order of Time) because I’d heard his loop quantum gravity might be a natural fit with Whitehead’s panexperiential process-relational ontology. I am a philosopher, not a physicist or a mathematician, so I struggle with many technical papers in physics journals (it is helpful when the author is kind enough to lay out the conceptual structure of the math). Luckily, I’ve noticed that popular books are the best place to look for a physicist’s natural philosophy and the best way to understand the metaphysical background of a physicist’s theories. I am looking forward to reading your book Lost in Math. It strikes me as another example of a larger trend in theoretical physics (also exemplified by Lee Smolin) that’s challenging the ascendency of mathematical speculation over experimental evidence and empiricism.
As for your post “Electrons Don’t Think”, I don’t know what panpsychist philosophy you read, but either it was badly written or you misunderstood it. There are, of course, many varieties of panpsychism, just as there are many varieties of materialism and idealism, etc. Perhaps the variety you read has misled you. The panpsychism of, for example, the mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was constructed precisely in order to provide a new metaphysical interpretation of the latest scientific evidence (including relativity, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories), since the old mechanistic materialism could no longer do the job in a coherent way. Panpsychism is metaphysics, not physics. A metaphysical scheme should aid in our philosophical interpretation of the physical evidence, not contradict it. Any philosopher whose metaphysics contradict the physical evidence is doing bad philosophy.
I like to distinguish between two main species of panpsychism:
1) substance-property panpsychism (Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and contemporary philosophers Philip Goff, Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers seem to me to fall into this category)
2) process-relational panpsychism (Friedrich Schelling, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, A. N. Whitehead)
I count myself among the later category, and following the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin, I prefer the term “panexperientialism” to panpsychism, since the idea is not that electrons have the full capacities of human psyches (reflective thinking, deliberate willing, artistic imagining, etc.) but that all self-organizing systems are possessed of at least some modicum of feeling, even if this feeling is faint and largely unconscious in the vast majority of systems. Human consciousness is an extremely rare and complex integration of the more primordial feelings of these self-organizing systems.
I unpack the differences between these species of panpsychism/panexperientialism at more length in this blog post. In short, the substance-property species of panpsychism has it that mind is an intrinsic property of all substance. This at least has the advantage over materialism that it avoids the hard problem of consciousness and provides a way out of the incoherence of dualism. But I think substance-property panpsychism is working with an overly abstract concept of consciousness. Consciousness is a relational process, not a quality inhering in a substance. Consciousness emerges between us, not in you or in me.
You write: panpsychism is “the idea that all matter – animate or inanimate – is conscious, we just happen to be somewhat more conscious than carrots. Panpsychism is the modern elan vital.”
I would say that panpsychism is the idea that all matter is animate. What is “matter,” anyway, other than activity, energy vectors, vibrations? Is there really such a thing as “inanimate” matter, that is, stuff that just sits there and doesn’t do anything? As for the “elan vital,” I suppose you are trying to compare panpsychism to vitalism? Vitalism is the idea that some spiritual agency exists separately from a merely mechanistic material and drives it around; it’s the idea that, for example, angels are pushing the planets around in their orbits. The panexperientialist cosmology I articulate in my book Physics of the World-Soul explicitly denies this sort of dualism between spirit and matter. Panexperientialism is the idea that spirit and matter are not two, that mechanism is merely an appearance, a part mistaken for a self-existing whole, and that ultimately Nature is organic and animate from top to bottom.
Metaphysics is serious play. Serious because (if done well) it demands a reckoning with death, with limit as such, with finitude and necessity. Play because (if done well) it frees us from our perceived finitude to partake in the process of realization itself.
Materialism and idealism, though mutuality exclusive as metaphysical positions, are nonetheless symbiotically dependent on one another at a psycho-social level: their opposition is a symptom of a deeper dis-ease, an archetypal knot that thousands of years of philosophical inquiry has failed to untangle. The ideological battle between materialism and idealism is a split in the species mind. Materialists define their own courageous adherence to facts in opposition to the inflated fantasies of idealism. Similarly, idealists define their own enlightened God’s eye view in opposition to the naive confusions of materialism. Neither captures the totality on its own. The totality is itself torn asunder by their very opposition, twisted into conflict with itself.
Metaphysics (if done well) calls us toward an integral realization: we are body and spirit. Death is a necessary phase in the process of Life. Life has no meaning without death. We are logos incarnate, not simply minds in bodies or bodies in minds.
Bernardo Kastrup is a rising figure in the online philosophy world. I first encountered his thought back in 2015 when someone shared his blog post “The Threat of Panpsychism: A Warning.” I posted a response, and we were off and running (Bernardo’s response to me, my response to his response). I won’t recount what we discussed back then, but it remains relevant to what I want to discuss below.
In response to a recent post of mine on Whitehead and relativistic cosmology, an adherent of Kastrup’s non-dual idealism (@MishaRogov) engaged me in an interesting exchange. I’ve pasted it below (the link I share in my first reply is to Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology):
On @MishaRogov’s suggestion, I read some of Kastrup’s more recent writings on space-time. In “The Linguistic Demon of Space-Time,” Kastrup characterizes the materialistic conception of an objective space-time as a culturally invented “demon.” He writes:
“We are—or so the demon screams—limited beings lost in the vastness of the cosmos, destined to oblivion at the moment of death. We’ve been eaten by the demon and completely lost touch with our own inherent transcendence. It is critical to realize this: it is the demon of objective space-time that robs us of our felt sense of transcendence and creates all suffering.”
Kastrup’s view of space-time is a helpful foil for me. It brings my own alternative understanding of the significance of the physical cosmos into greater relief. So much of my philosophical writing is guided by what begin as vague but insistent intuitions. I only gradually work out these intuitions into what (I hope!) are consistent, coherent, adequate, and applicable ideas. Interacting with deep thinkers on the blogosphere has played a crucial role in my own philosophical development and self-understanding. I’ve tried to work out my own version of process-relational panpsychism in conversation with materialists, idealists, realists, theists, skeptics, magicians, and more. I learn something from every encounter. I have been, in a non-exclusive sense, converted to each of these perspectives at some point. I try to hold to a plurality of truths, transmuting contradictions into contrasts wherever possible.
In contrast to Kastrup’s transcendent view of space-time as illusory, my own take on space-time (elaborated in the Chiasmus of my dissertation) is descendental or incarnational. I remain unsatisfied with both the objective materialist view of space-time as a mind-independent “thing” and the subjective idealist view of it as a mental projection. Space-time is real, bot not actual, which is to say its mode of existence is as potentiality, specifically, the potentiality to relate. All the percipient actualities in the universe are internally related. Space-time is the nexus of potentiality housing these relations. Space-time is not an illusion to be dispelled; it is the royal road to the realization of ultimate relationality. We encounter the Real not by attempting to escape space-time, but by diving more deeply into it. Space-time, concretely experienced, is not as finite as it at first appears. The descent into the spatiotemporal underworld may indeed crucify our ego. But dying into the apparent finitude of space-time may open a doorway into the sublime renewal of a more integrated Self.
“Our central idea is that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
-Auxier and Herstein
“So long as necessity is taken to be the guarantor of rationality, the conception of rationality advocated will be as useless to science as it is to practical life.”
-Auxier and Herstein
Auxier and Herstein’s book has been on my radar for several years. I first read small sections of the unpublished manuscript in late 2016 as I was finishing my dissertation. The book was published last year by Routledge, unfortunately in highly abridged form. I just finished reading the published text in its entirety. It is nothing short of marvelous.
Not since Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011) has there been such a significant contribution to Whitehead studies. Some might question the extent to which Stengers’ book contributes to understanding Whitehead in his own terms. She often (I think fruitfully) reads Whitehead through a Deleuzean lens, and, more importantly for the authors of Quantum, she leans heavily on Lewis Ford’s “compositional analysis” of Whitehead’s philosophical genesis. Auxier and Herstein make many contributions to understanding Whitehead in their book, but one of the most forceful is their attempt to rebut Ford’s influential reading of Whitehead’s supposed “temporal atomism.” While Ford makes use of his theological training by applying methods of New Testament analysis to Whitehead’s texts, there discovering (or inventing?) evidence of radical breaks in his thinking during the 1920s, Auxier and Herstein argue rather convincingly for an unbroken continuity in Whitehead’s thought from his early work at Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics and logic through his philosophy of science to his work at Harvard on metaphysics and cosmology. Unlike Ford, Auxier and Herstein believe that Whitehead, in keeping with his mathematical training, published the organized results of his thinking, not the scattered pieces of its development (QE 26).
Much of their book focuses on explicating Whitehead’s non-metrical theory of extension. This is originally what drew my attention to their unpublished manuscript: my dissertation also attempts to make sense of this notoriously difficult but central feature of Whitehead’s thought. I describe his “extensive continuum” in my dissertation as a new kind of ether theory, comparing it to the ether theories of Plato (i.e., the Receptacle), Kant, Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner (see chapter 4 of my dissertation). This may seem like a stretch, but Whitehead does refer to the extensive continuum as an “ether of events” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and in The Principle of Relativity (1922). He likely dropped the term in future books because of the way Einsteinian physicists ridiculed the old ether idea as akin to phlogiston, as it was made superfluous by Einstein’s special theory of relativity (despite the fact that Einstein himself claimed his general theory of relativity posited a “new ether”). But Whitehead’s novel ether theory is not the materialistic sort deployed by 19th century physicists, nor is it the relativistic sort deployed by Einstein.* Whitehead’s ether is not a physical “stuff” or space-time “fabric,” but a logical space or topological nexus allowing us to understand how self-creating actual occasions become coordinated participants in the same cosmic epoch.
“We shall term the traditional ether an ‘ether of material’ or a ‘material ether,’ and shall employ the term ‘ether of events’ to express the assumption of this enquiry, which may be loosely stated as being ‘that something is going on everywhere and always.’ It is our purpose to express accurately the relations between these events so far as they are disclosed by our perceptual experience, and in particular to consider those relations from which the essential concepts of Time, Space, and persistent material are derived. Thus primarily we must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material. Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events. On the old theory of relativity, Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events” -Whitehead (Principles of Natural Knowledge 26).
The search for a proper theory of extension or spatiality was the guiding thread in all of Whitehead’s philosophizing, culminating in the infamously impenetrable Part IV of Process and Reality, wherein Whitehead invents what has since come to be called mereotopology (current applications include programming the visual systems of robots). But his magnum opus is titled Process and Reality, not Extension and Reality. Why?
In a second edition of Principles of Natural Knowledge (202), Whitehead writes:
“this book is dominated by the idea that the relation of extension has a unique preeminence and that everything can be got out of it. During the development of this theme, it gradually became evident that this is not the case…[T]he true doctrine, that ‘process’ is the fundamental idea, was not in my mind with sufficient emphasis. Extension is derivative from process, and is required by it.”
Auxier and Herstein remind students of Whitehead not to neglect his pre-Harvard “triptych” on the philosophy of science (Principles of Natural Knowledge , The Principle of Relativity , and The Concept of Nature ) under the false assumption that he radically departs from these earlier texts in Process and Reality. All three of these books were written as a response to Einstein’s misguided identification of a preferred model of curved geometry with physical space-time (QE 30), but they carry forward physico-mathematical hypotheses that Whitehead had already been constructing for decades. Auxier and Herstein argue for the continuity of Whitehead’s thought by pointing out that already in A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1897) Whitehead was hard at work on the problem of spatiality (QE 63). I agree with them that Whitehead’s theory of extension is the golden thread linking his work in mathematics, physics, philosophy of science, cosmology, and metaphysics. There are no sharp breaks or revolutions in the story of his philosophical genesis, but there is evidence of a gradual shift in Whitehead’s thought toward an emphasis on the creative originality of process and its accretion of value over the pure possibility of extension. Yes: process requires extension to express itself. But extension, and the process of extensive abstraction by which we come to know anything about it, are functions of process. The primality of process or tension** as such over extension is part of what follows, I would think, from Auxier and Herstein’s stated radical empiricism, “that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
My dissertation treats Whitehead’s process philosophy as a 20th century re-emergence of Schellingian Naturphilosophie. I thus treat Whitehead as a post-Kantian thinker, which is to say I read his philosophy of organism as an attempt to correct Kant’s wrong turn. Though there is little direct influence, I argue that Whitehead in effect follows Schelling by inverting the Kantian method, replacing transcendentalism with what I refer to as “descendental” philosophy. I do not believe this is the only fruitful way to interpret Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, but given Auxier and Herstein’s criticisms of “habitual” readings of Whitehead as a post-Kantian (QE 35), I feel the need to defend my approach (see also pages 19-21 of my dissertation, which cites the earlier manuscript version of QE). While Whitehead does state in the first pages of Process and Reality that his philosophy of organism is a recursion to pre-Kantian modes of thought, I must disagree with Auxier and Herstein’s claim that Whitehead viewed his speculative philosophy as entirely unrelated to the Kantian project. On my reading, Whitehead explicitly and repeatedly engages with Kant’s transcendentalism throughout Process and Reality as well as other texts. I believe he did so because he recognized the significance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the pursuit of knowledge of Nature and the need to demonstrate the ways his own speculative thinking did not fall prey to transcendental illusions. It is true that “rationality” is entirely re-imagined by Whitehead in relational and radically empirical terms. His is a “critique of feeling” rather than pure Reason. Whitehead is a realist, but his realism does not ignore or recede from the challenge to knowledge of reality posed by Kant. Like Schelling, Whitehead wanted to respond to Kant, to point out and fix his errors, and to re-establish the possibility of rational cosmology, theology, and psychology on organic and aesthetic grounds.
In addition to shedding much needed light on Whitehead’s theory of extension, Auxier and Herstein dismantle “model-centric” approaches to physics (including the standard model of gravitational cosmology), redefine naturalism in radically empiricist terms, and contribute profoundly to carrying forward Whitehead’s urgent call to secularize the concept of God’s functions in the world (see Process and Reality 207). I hope to offer further blog reflections on each of these topics in the coming weeks.
* I unpack Whitehead’s processual and organic alternative to Einstein’s mechanistic relativity theory at length in Physics of the World-Soul (2018).
INTERSECT: Science & Spirituality
Join us for a 2-Day Conversational Conference (July 27-29th) for the purpose of Exploring Syngergies between the world of Science and the world of Spirituality.
Topics to include Cosmology, Ecology, Sustainability, and Consciousness.
Schumacher College has decided to make my week on Schelling and Whitehead a stand alone course called “Physics of the World-Soul.” It will take place June 18-22. More information available at the link above.