Harris seems to presuppose the old Cartesian framework, with consciousness being that which is indubitable and which can in no way be reduced to matter. I wonder, though, what concept of matter Harris is working with here? That “matter” is a concept should go without saying, since on his Cartesian view of consciousness, we are locked in a mental prison with no way of perceiving anything outside our own minds. We can have knowledge of matter, but only as a mathematical abstraction (see my review of Latour’s Modes of Existence, where he deconstructs the modern “idea of matter”).

Harris admits that, from within the materialist ontological paradigm, consciousness may always appear to be a miracle, its origins a mystery. Rather than rest content with this sort of quasi-dualist materialist obscurantism, I’d rather follow the heretical panpsychist (broadly construed) stream dating back to Spinoza, Leibniz, and Schelling, later emerging in the organic realism of Whitehead. For a fuller treatment of why an evolutionary panpsychism provides a more coherent account of the place of consciousness in nature, see my article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020).

Last summer, I traveled to the Gran Sasso Institute in L’Aquila, Italy to participate in a conference bringing physicists and philosophers together to rehash the famous debate in 1922 between Einstein and Bergson. My paper (which should be published soon) brought quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli and Whitehead into the mix.

Yesterday I came across this recent lecture by Rovelli offering some thoughts about the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness (a framing Rovelli dismisses).

I shared some initial thoughts in response on Twitter:

Then shared more in a series of YouTube videos:

In short, I applaud Rovelli’s brilliant analysis of the ways in which biological and psychological phenomena are perfectly compatible with physical processes. But there is some ambiguity in his account, as it is unclear whether he believes he is offering some sort of causal explanation of consciousness in physical terms, or just a correlation between, e.g., conscious information-processing or decision-making and free energy/negentropy in the brain. When he speaks as a physicist, he seems to think he is explaining consciousness in physical/efficient causal terms. But when he praises Spinoza the pantheist philosopher, he would seem to be acknowledging a mere correlation or parallelism between material and mental phenomena.

I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:

The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.

During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.

The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.

This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)

2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)

The following is an essay originally submitted for publication in a book on philosophy and psychedelics. After some feedback from the editors, I realized it is too long and includes too many (I hope interesting!) digressions. I’ll be thoroughly revising my submission for the book, so I figured I’d share this earlier version here. Feedback welcome!

Abstract: The study of consciousness is today’s most exciting philosophical frontier. Such an inquiry provides an obvious example of the relevance of psychedelic experience: what better way could there be for coming to terms with the intimate mystery our own consciousness than through the ingestion of psychedelic—literally, “mind-manifesting”—chemicals? In the chapter to follow, I offer a creative reading of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, reinterpreting his famous Gedankenerfahrung (“thought-experiment”) as a sort of psychedelic trip through hell and heaven and back again. I next turn to Whitehead’s process-relational reimagining of modern Cartesian philosophy, detailing how his approach more adequately incorporates the psychedelic ground of consciousness. I argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism opens up the possibility of a psychedelic realism that would allow us to take the ontologically revelatory nature of these experiences seriously. My hope is that this comparative reading of Descartes and Whitehead opens up a road not taken by modern natural science and philosophy, one leading away from the self-alienation and cosmic disenchantment that have so plagued contemporary science and society. Self-integration and world re-enchantment are possible. Ingested responsibly and in service of philosophical inquiry, psychedelics may act as alchemical catalysts providing an especially powerful medicinal aid in service of this Great Work.

This following is copied from a Facebook post Julian Walker made in response to Bruce Alderman’s defense of panpsychism (in the “Integral 2.0” group). I wanted to weigh in (my comments are below): 

“PANPSYCHISM is not more PARSIMONIOUS than EMERGENTISM (Reply to Bruce on his thoughts about the David/Matthew debate)

In a way I hear you very eloquently restating Matthews stance.Which to me reifies the concept of consciousness and then makes it seem like this impossible emergent property.

But if what we mean by “consciousness” is rather a collection of evolved adaptive responses that gradually become not only more complex, but more self reflective? then it is not so unreasonable to see reactions to acid/alkali or light or other stimuli leading to moving one way or another etc eventually leading to more complex sensorimotor dynamics.

Biology is physical, and consciousness emerges as an expression of how physical organisms interact with their environment. It’s embodied, not ethereal.

Those sensorimotor dynamics emerge out of necessity and have survival value; eventually differentiating and complexifying into visual, auditory, sensate, olfactory organs with their own inputs and processing, and their own implications in terms of what they “mean” and how we should behave in response.

There did not have to be a ghost in that machine or some nascent form of “consciousness” already there waiting to perceive and reflect on these stimuli —it all co-emerges.

(Professor VS Ramachnadrans incredible 9 minute answer to the question of Self, Qualia, and Consciousness from the TSN interview with Roger Bingham up on YouTube, is for me the best exploration of this process. https://youtu.be/jTWmTJALe1w )

In a way I think this is why I and others intuit some kind of initial dualist underpinnings in panpsychism, or maybe why idealists and those with religious metaphysical affinities can migrate over to panpsychism.

Likewise I think “interiority” is again being reified as a literal space or dimension, instead of as increasing self reflective awareness, along with a deepening capacity to learn via memory, and plan via imagination etcAwareness doesn’t really happen “inside” in some literal way… it just seems like it because of how the brain evolved.

It is a perhaps as quixotic task to go in search of an ultimate explanation or origin of this interior space or entirely new ontological dimension as it is to try assert that music existed at the Big Bang, or else how could it just arise out of nowhere as this incredible phenomenon with rhythm, tempo, melody and harmony.

Similarly, meaning, emotions, language, and abstraction all ride on these adaptations and become elaborated into what we now see and experience in terms of human consciousness and culture.

On this view postulating something called “consciousness” in places where it has not been evolved via adaptation seems incoherent and unnecessary.

The argument that panpsychism is more parsimonious because otherwise how can we explain the “sudden appearance of interiority “ etc is to me just an argument from incredulity, combined of course with these reification/semantic mistakes.

It’s also a kind of question begging, because you’re left having to explain:

1) why we only see evidence for consciousness in living organisms.

2) why else that consciousness becomes more complex as brains do the same.

3) why brains that are damaged or intoxicated are reduced or distorted in their processes.

4) how exactly consciousness could be present in the early universe, but unexpressed.

Does water have to be present in hydrogen and oxygen prior to the conditions being right for it to emerge? What about all the elements that only became possible as the universe cooled and got larger, were they already there before they emerged? Protons and electrons were not interacting in ways that gave rise to the entirely new chemical reactions elements make possible once they did, and the intuition that therefore those elements were either already there or are part of some intelligent design with an inevitable teleology that implies pre existing sentience can’t help but seem like creationism. We can have an incomplete answer (emergentism) whilst being grounded in what all the evidence, and I do mean all the evidence, we have so far suggests.

My response:

To begin with, the charge that emergentism is more parsimonious assumes that we have a theoretical mechanism for how emergence occurs that is simple/economical. No such theory exists that I am aware of. So how do we know it is more parsimonious? It seems at least as probable to me that interiority and exteriority are equiprimordial, and on this assumption, no theoretical gymnastics are required later on down the evolutionary road to explain how surfaces could become persons. In fact, as William James was among the first to point out, evolution starts to make a lot more sense and require fewer leaps if interiority goes all the way down. So which ontology is really more parsimonious?? Julian might admit the lack of a theoretical mechanism for emergence is an IOU, and claim that lots of smart neuroscientists are working on it as we speak. But to my mind, this is not just another “easy” problem for the scientific method to resolve. If we accept Chalmers’ “hard problem” framing, then the question of whether there can be a theoretical mechanism that explains the emergence of interior wholeness/a psychological point of view out of exterior parts/the point-instants of materialistic physics is in fact an ontological or metaphysical one, rather than a strictly scientific one. Julian probably doesn’t accept Chalmers’ framing, though I’d like to see him argue against the rather elaborate and analytically tight case the Chalmers has published. Of course, the hard problem framing assumes we accept a standard materialist ontology of simply located material particles floating in empty space and directionless time. This ontology is highly suspect, not because woo woo philosophers challenged it, but because reductionistic physicists brought about the quantum and relativistic revolutions in the early 20th century. Physicists no longer hold to the old 19th century form of materialism, but unfortunately many in biology and cognitive science are still presupposing such an ontology. Why? Because 100 years of positivist anti-philosophy have created a situation wherein very few philosophers were willing to risk their reputations doing metaphysics at precisely the time when natural science needed a new metaphysics. Whitehead was among the exceptions. In any event, once we let go of the old materialistic ontology that not even physics still holds, new avenues are opened up for resolving the now softer hard problem of consciousness.

Julian complains that panpsychists “reify the notion of consciousness,” when as many neuroscientists will point out, it is actually a collection of a whole bunch of different capacities. “Consciousness” is certainly a suitcase term that allows those who use it to carry around all sorts of baggage. For the purposes of philosophy of mind, however, we can and must extract the essence of these various capacities: some call it “phenomenal awareness,” others call it “qualitative experience,” and still others “something it is like to be.” The point is that, for the purposes of understanding the ontology of mind, all the various modes of consciousness can be boiled down to some sort of “feeling” that provides their condition of possibility. Of course, we can take a behaviorist approach and try to explain how all the capacities that supposedly imply “consciousness” can actually be explained mechanically as just sophisticated input/output computations. But this amounts to a form of epiphenomenalism where the conscious “something it is like to be” plays no role whatsoever in the behavior of the organism. We are then left having to admit that consciousness is just an illusion and cannot evolve, since in order to be selected for it would have to confer some advantage to the organism in question. We are thus left with a ghost in the machine that should not exist. Julian wants to say consciousness evolved, so clearly the behaviorist approach to explaining it in terms of blind neural computations is not going to work. If consciousness exists, if it is part of the actual world and influences the behavior of our organism, then we will need to pursue other explanations for it than neural computation. Even if such mechanistic approaches were exhaustive in their explanations of organismic behavior (they aren’t, but let’s go with it for a second), that would still leave some sort of illusory consciousness to explain. Saying consciousness is an illusion doesn’t help us, because as Descartes was already well aware, the fact that consciousness “seems to be” is essential to its very nature. Consciousness could be defined as “seemingness.” So the question I’d have for the computational neural reductionist is “why do we seem to be conscious?” I’m left wondering who is really guilty of reification here…

Julian claims panpsychism is dualist. There are forms of panpsychism, particularly those growing in popularity among analytic philosophers of mind at the moment, that are indeed dualistic. These are the approaches that say consciousness or its proto- forms are a kind of “intrinsic property” of matter. These analytic panpsychists claim that physics tells us only about the relational or structural aspects of matter, and that the intrinsic nature of matter is, in fact, some sort of proto-consciousness. This is one way to avoid the hard problem of consciousness, but unfortunately it leads to another problem: the combination problem (also first pointed out by William James, who we should all really be reading more of, as so many of the problems endlessly debated to this day were brilliantly dealt with more than a century ago). James offered a possible solution to this problem, and Whitehead followed through on its development in his process-relational ontology. Whitehead’s process-relational panpsychism is unlike the dualistic substance-property panpsychism of the analytic school (e.g., Philip Goff and Galen Strawson). Whitehead avoids dualism by pointing out the way interiority and exteriority are dialectically entangled. You literally cannot understand what you mean when you posit one as existing without implicitly assuming the reality of the other. As Alan Watts put it, the simple but profound fact of the matter (and the mind!) is that “every outside has an inside, and every inside has an outside.” Whitehead’s metaphysical rendering of “experience” is not simply an account of the “inside,” but an account of how interiority and exteriority oscillate in a wave-like way through phases of potentiality and actuality. Each experient begins by inheriting a public past, then enjoying it in a private present, and finally perishing as a public intention for the future. So experience has an object-to-subject-to-object (or “superject”) pattern to it. It is not simply interior but rather an attempt to account for the ontologically basic dialectical entanglement of interior and exterior.

Julian claims we only see evidence of consciousness in living organisms. What evidence is that, exactly? Certain kinds of behavior we commonly associate with mental capacities? Ok, but this is behavior, not consciousness. Certain kids of neural activity that self-reports suggest is associated with consciousness? Ok, but again, this is all behavior. My point is that if we get stuck in the “only exteriors are really real” paradigm, to be consistent we are forced to say that, actually, there’s no evidence for consciousness ANYWHERE in the physical universe. It simply doesn’t add anything to physical reality to posit its existence. Of course, as human beings, this sounds absurd. But I don’t know how to avoid this theoretical conclusion given the premise that a reified understanding of exterior physical reality is in fact *all* of reality.

Julian’s claim that the emergence of consciousness is just like the emergence of water from H and O atoms is the result of a common confusion of the ontic and the ontological. Interiority is not just a new state of matter like liquidity. If matter is imagined in the Cartesian way as extended bits of stuff in mechanical motion, then experience or interiority is a new domain of Being and not just another being among beings.

In short, the IOU theory of the emergence of consciousness from matter is not so much “incomplete” as it is incoherent.

Transcript:

I wanted to see if you guys might help me think through Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic phenomenology, because I’m writing about it, preparing a draft of what will become a chapter in an anthology on the philosophy of psychedelics. I’m also writing about Descartes’ famous Meditations on First Philosophy and interpreting his experience as a bad trip, turning instead to the psychedelic phenomenology of Huxley but also, of course, Alfred North Whitehead, and seeing if there are other ways of perceiving space and time, other ways of perceiving selfhood or thinking in its relation to the world, or matter, or nature.

Descartes was in the course of his meditations forced into a corner, which then split him in two, where there was the world of extended things and there was himself: the inner activity of thinking, his own cognition. Descartes could see no way that these two things could be substantially or causally related, but he knew at least that both were real enough.

The thing about this dualism–I mean everybody has a critique of Descartes, right? So it’s not really much help for me to offer yet another critique of Descartes’ dualism. That critique has been done. I really want to try to reconstruct an alternative in Whiteheadian terms, and indeed in Huxley’s terms. The way that Huxley relativizes Euclidean space and linear time in his Doors of Perception (his recounting of his masculine experience), the way that he relativizes space and time is much like Whitehead’s own philosophy of organism, wherein space and time become abstractions from something more concrete. What is more concrete for Whitehead is our actual experience, which he described in terms of concrescence, or the growing together of the of inherited actual occasions that are objectified, that, in an efficient causal way, their intensity is received to provide us with momentum. Mechanical causality is perfectly real even in Whitehead’s organic cosmos, it’s just that it’s only half the picture. Efficient causation is this inheritance from the past, and it’s growing together in to the present through a process of concrescence. And there’s also the ingression of eternal possibilities (the lure of the future is another way to describe this). So to put it in a crude spatial way, on the front we’re receiving this river of lures from the future, and from behind we’re inheriting these pushes from the past, and in between concrescence occurs where concreteness unfolds and endures.

There is a some sort of an alchemical amalgamation, a synthesis or integration of these of these vectors of past and future such that an eternal present is continually born. The process of concrescence for Whitehead is not just eternal life, it’s also perpetual perishing. There is just as much death as there is a life in the eternal present. And for Whitehead to be able to surf this wave of concrescence is, well, it’s just as Socrates originally said: it’s to prepare to die. And it’s as Goethe said, we must die and become to fully participate in cosmic reality. You must die and become.

So death is not something we could avoid as living beings. We are made of death and we live by dying. What I want to try to say in my chapter that begins with Descartes is that, yes, his dualism is problematic, but there’s this other side of Descartes where he’s describing God, the infinite substance, that subtends or transcends (or maybe and transcends) his own finite ego. Descartes is leading us through this experiential gauntlet, he’s taking us on a journey. I’m saying it’s a bad trip, but it’s bad in the sense that we end up being severed from the world, severed from our own bodies, severed from one another by a gap that can only be closed by divine fiat. This is the limited letter of theological credit (as Whitehead puts it in Process & Reality) that Descartes uses to somehow tentatively tie the thinking activity of the soul back to the emotions and feelings of the body and the causal flows of the natural world. It’s a very tenuous connection that Descartes leaves us with. This is the bad trip! But when Descartes talks about God, often his discussion about God or the infinite is dismissed as merely another rehashing of Anselm’s ontological proof for God’s existence, that God is necessary being, etc., and that this is an idea that is greater than any idea which can be thought.

But this is not exactly what Descartes is saying. I think what he’s saying is, look, we each know that our knowledge of anything sensory, anything that exists in space or in time as we experience them phenomenologically, that we we lack certainty about it. We know that we make mistakes and errors when we try to interpret our sensory, bodily experience and our emotional experience. But when Descartes retreats a little bit from this outer world and into the realm of inner abstraction, he says we’re a little bit more certain at least about our ideas, since we can participate in them intellectually. Mathematics, for example, geometry and arithmetic: these are sciences of the mind where certainty is possible, where we can intellectually intuit truth in a more direct way. And Descartes wonders whether even here his Christian God, his Biblical Being, has such great power that He could even deceive us in our own thinking, that if God wanted to He could make two plus two equal five. That God’s power is greater than even the power of ideas.

So the question becomes: is God so powerful that God creates ideas, or is God sort of sharing power with ideas, co-eternal with ideas? The latter would be more Whitehead’s view, and I think probably also Huxley’s. They are both more Platonist in the sense that the Good is good intrinsically, not because God wills it or because God loves it. The Good is not good because God wills it; God wills it because it is good. It is then interesting to consider the theodicies that one could construct, where we’re able to deal with evil as something that isn’t eliminable, as if we could finally fight it off or defeat it, which some Biblical versions of the story seem to suggest. There are of course plenty of Christians who have alternative views: think of Origen who said that even Satan will one day be redeemed, that there are no people whose souls are eternally stuck burning in hell.

In Origen’s Christian cosmos, and in Whitehead’s, there are ways of dealing with evil that allow us to interact with it as the Trickster. And here’s the thing about psychedelic trips: often we can get pulled into the shadow, into the dark places of our psyche, into the demonic, during our psychedelic journeys because we imagine that the the dark might win. We lose contact with a deeper divine personality: it’s not Satan or Christ, it’s not Satan versus Christ. Rather, really Satan and Christ are two faces of the same Hidden God which is a God that’s more like a trickster than a pure light or a pure dark, a pure good or a pure evil kind of being. A trickster is more like a divine dramatist: S/He’s the comic-tragic poet who is able to move between light and dark to dance in the color. This would be the type of God the perception of which presupposes what Huxley referred to as mystical experience.

So the thing that I think makes psychedelic experience philosophically productive is precisely the way that it these these consciousness-altering chemicals reliably produce such experiences. There are a variety of them, and the set and setting within which one uses them are certainly co-constitutive of the experience. So when I refer to them as “chemicals” I don’t mean to simply locate their generative power in a molecule. The thing about the molecule is that it’s in vibratory resonance with the rest of the cosmos. So we’re talking about a field effect here, which is why anyone who’s ever walked into a room full of people on MDMA knows the sound or the vibratory frequency of the the voices of the group. In conversation with each other, even if you have not ingested the chemical, you can still feel it, you begin to get a contact high. So there is clearly a field effect going on here. So the reason these chemicals, these molecular frequencies, are philosophically productive, the reason that psychedelics have a place in philosophy, is that they reliably generate mystical experiences. This has been empirically proven by several psychopharmacology labs, at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, that these chemicals reliably produce mystical experience.

As William James and many others, including Huxley and Whitehead, have all said, mystical experiences are revelatory of reality. They are ontologically significant, not hallucinatory. It would appear, instead, that the rational Cartesian sense, the modern rational adult sense, of being fully autonomous and separate, absolutely free from the causal flows of extended nature, is the hallucination. As if there is truly a dualism between who and what we are as individual selves and what the world is, what matter is, what the universe is, who other people are… to think that there was actually an ontological rift, a bifurcation of the very fabric of becoming: that is the hallucination. This notion of a mind separate from nature that could come to have mastery over nature, or of a God separate from the the cosmos that could have created the cosmos out of nothing. These are the imaginary fantasies of a bad trip. There are other stories we can tell, other worlds we can build.

I think that’s some of what I want to try to weave together in this chapter. I’m curious what you guys think of all that.

William James (from “A World of Pure Experience,” Part 2, p. 568):

“With this we have the outlines of a philosophy of pure experience before us. At the outset of my essay, I called it a mosaic philosophy. In actual mosaics the pieces are held together by their bedding, for which bedding the Substances, transcendental Egos, or Absolutes of other philosophies may be taken to stand. In radical empiricism there is no bedding; it is as if the pieces clung together by their edges, the transitions experienced between them forming their cement. . . The metaphor serves to symbolize the fact that Experience itself, taken at large, can grow by its edges. That one moment of it proliferates into the next by transitions which, whether conjunctive or disjunctive, continue the experiential tissue, can not, I contend, be denied.”

What are we to make of this mystery of mysteries, consciousness? Is it thing or process? Entity or function? Origin or terminus? Who knows

In a qualified sense, I agree with the transcendental idealists that consciousness, as a condition of possibility, cannot itself be objectified. But nor can it be simply subjectified! James dissolves the false choice with his insistence on a pure experience without any fixed -jections, a flow or stream or living tissue of experiential connection that always grows at its edges, only terminating temporarily, for as long or as briefly as we, the knowing agent, remain satisfied with the relay linking this with that. 

Who am I in this flowing, growing tissue of relational experience? James does not mean to rob us of our agency in the process of de-entifying consciousness. The lack of solid subject or object need not leave us wallowing in dejection. On the contrary, James’ aim is to eject us from the solipsistic implications of a supposedly transcendental or substantial subjectivity. Experience is no longer mine or yours exclusively (though not to worry, we may still be afforded moments of privacy!), it is the world’s way of weaving itself together. For Whitehead, togetherness is always togetherness in experience; there is no other way to be together. One can easily detect the resonances with James in the following excerpt, from Process & Reality, p. 189: 

“All metaphysical theories which admit a disjunction between the component elements of individual experience on the one hand, and on the other hand the component elements of the external world, must inevitably run into difficulties over the truth and falsehood of propositions, and over the grounds for judgment. The former difficulty is metaphysical, the latter epistemological. But all difficulties as to first principles are only camouflaged metaphysical difficulties. Thus also the epistemological dif­ficulty is only solvable by an appeal to ontology. The first difficulty poses the question as to the account of truth and falsehood, and the second difficulty poses the question as to the account of the intuitive perception of truth and falsehood. The former concerns propositions, the latter con­cerns judgments. There is a togetherness of the component elements in individual experience. This ‘togetherness’ has that special peculiar meaning of ‘togetherness in experience.’ It is a togetherness of its own kind, ex­plicable by reference to nothing else. For the purpose of this discussion it is indifferent whether we speak of a ‘stream’ of experience, or of an ‘occasion’ of experience. With the former alternative there is togetherness in the stream, and with the latter alternative there is togetherness in the occasion. In either case, there is the unique ‘experiential togetherness.’

“The consideration of experiential togetherness raises the final metaphysical question: whether there is any other meaning of ‘togetherness.’ The denial of any alternative meaning, that is to say, of any meaning not abstracted from the experiential meaning, is the ‘subjectivist’ doctrine. This reformed version of the subjectivist doctrine is the doctrine of the philosophy of organism.”

So neither Whitehead nor James is rejecting the importance of subjectivity; rather, they are dissolving the subject’s hard edges, making its boundaries porous to the world, allowing it to partake in the tissue of experience that makes the togetherness of things possible. Consciousness, after all, is a knowing with, essentially it is a withness, perhaps the witness of withness!, not a substantial bedding but a relational field of pure experience. 

Is there a place for theory in James radical empiricism? How do we make sense of the scientific knowledge claimed by astronomers or biologists of times and spaces seemingly far removed from the instant field of the present? We may need Whitehead’s help here. There is a certain approach to modern science that Whitehead calls “scientific materialism” that has tended to bifurcate Nature into its “primary” and “secondary” characteristics, the “primary” being the quantifiable aspects of objective, extended physical stuff, and the “secondary” being the qualitative, subjective aspects of this stuff: colors, scents, aesthetic value, etc. Galileo is perhaps the first modern thinker to formalize this bifurcation, and it proved immensely useful in the further elaboration of the new scientific method, which simplified dramatically the blooming, buzzing confusion of Nature so as to abstract those aspects that could be measured and mathematically modeled. While the early founders of the scientific method and world view (Galileo, Descartes, Newton, et al.) did not yet pretend that the subjective side of reality, our consciousness, could be reduced to the objective side, matter, they did insist upon positing a rather incoherent fissure fracturing the universe right down the middle. In Whitehead’s terms, this left us with two Natures, the subjective dream-image and the objective scientific conjecture. We only directly experience the former, while the latter is a speculative construction (i.e., we do not have any direct experience of electrons, rather we perceive their effects and speculate upon their nature based upon experimental tests). In the 20th century, largely as a result of the invention of microprocessors and computers, scientific materialists did start to argue that the mind is reducible to the brain, nothing more than the software running on physiological hardware. For scientific materialism, there is thus, in Whitehead’s terms,

“the Nature apprehended in awareness and the Nature which is the cause of awareness. The Nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The Nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent Nature.”

The Concept of Nature, p. 30-31

James’ radical empiricism is an intervention upon this way of conceiving of our relation to Nature, whereby a speculative conjecture is given causal and explanatory priority over firsthand concrete experience. But does James go too far? How are we to make sense of the obvious power of the scientific method if we are limited to the “instant field of the present”? 

James himself would not deny the validity of scientific explanations, he would just caution against holding scientific truths as final. Rather, the theories which for now continue to work, i.e., to make accurate predictions, are “true enough.” Not true in some objective or universal sense, but pragmatically true, as good as we can do for now. James ends up reducing knowledge of Nature to instrumental knowledge. 

Whitehead goes further, building on James’ important criticisms and insights to produce what has been called a “speculative empiricism.” Whitehead is still pragmatic and radically empirical in orientation, but he recognizes a way forward to secure an open-ended form of metaphysical systematicity that James, the mosaic philosopher suspicious of all system, was not willing to follow. Whitehead sought out the “all-embracing relations” that might allow us to understand how the feelings of warmth and visual apprehension of the red glow of a fire might hang together with the agitated molecules of carbon and oxygen that science tells us are the cause of these qualities. 

“Time and space would appear to provide these all embracing relations  which the advocates of the philosophy of the unity of Nature require. The perceived redness of the fire and the warmth are definitely related in time and in space to the molecules of the fire and the molecules of the body.” 

The Concept of Nature, p. 33

Whitehead’s process-relational metaphysical scheme is thus an attempt to make good on James’ return to experience while also leaving room for the systematic relations in time and space of those aspects of Nature formerly divided into subjective and objective, or qualitative and quantitative, dimensions by scientific materialism. Whitehead, like James, sought to understand Nature in terms of pure experience. But Whitehead makes more explicit than James the fact that this tissue of pure experience exhibits a certain texture or systematic structure that mathematical intuition can unveil and understand. Thus, in Whitehead’s terms, 

“It is by reason of this disclosure of ultimate system that an intellectual comprehension of the physical universe is possible. There is a systematic framework permeating all relevant fact. By reference to this framework the variant, various, vagrant, evanescent details of the abundant world can have their mutual relations exhibited by their correlation to the common terms of a universal system. Sounds differ qualitatively among themselves, sounds differ qualitatively from colors, colors differ qualitatively from the rhythmic throbs of emotion and of pain; yet all alike are periodic and have their spatial relations and their wave-lengths. The discovery of the true relevance of the mathematical relations disclosed in presentational immediacy [i.e., sense perception] was the first step in the intellectual conquest of nature. Accu­rate science was then born. Apart from these relations as facts in nature, such science is meaningless, a tale told by an idiot and credited by fools. For example, the conjecture by an eminent astronomer, based on measure­ments of photographic plates, that the period of the revolution of our galaxy of stars is about three hundred million years can only derive its meaning from the systematic geometrical relations which permeate the epoch. But he would have required the same reference to system, if he had made an analogous statement about the period of revolution of a child’s top. Also the two periods are comparable in terms of the system.”  

Process & Reality, p. 327

So, we can have direct experience of the spinning top on the table before us, and we can link by analogy the experienced rhythms of its motions to the revolution of the galaxy, dimly apprehended via sense perception of the night sky, but speculatively grasped via mathematical reflection. This can be achieved without severing the tissue of experience.