Thanks to Bruce Alderman at The Integral Stage for moderating.
“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.
My lecture in two parts introducing German Idealism (focusing on Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Goethe, Hegel)
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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Graziano, Michael S. A. 2019. “We Are Machines That Claim to Be Conscious.” In Journal of Consciousness Studies, 26:95-104.
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Here’s the recording of a lecture that Becca Tarnas and I delivered last night for the Atlanta Astrological Society.
Here are some relevant links if you want a more in depth discussion on some of what I mention in this lecture:
[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.
Auditors are welcome, though space is limited. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
One of our core texts in this course will be my Physics of the World-Soul (a new third edition soon to be published).
I’ll be teaching another short course at Schumacher College in the UK the week of April 22nd-26th, 2019.
Here’s a link if you’re interested in registering:
Here’s what I’ll be teaching on:
“The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”
This week-long course will trace the evolution of consciousness in the West from ancient Greece through to the present. The goal is twofold: to understand the historical process whereby humanity severed itself from a meaningful universe and to re-ignite the cosmological imagination allowing us to reconnect to the soul of the world. The course begins by exploring Plato’s cosmology and theory of participation and moves on to consider the Scientific Revolution and the Romantic reaction to it. It concludes with a study of several contemporary efforts to re-enchant the cosmos by grounding human consciousness back in the more-than-human creative process responsible for generating it. In addition to Plato, the course draws upon the archetypal astronomy of Johannes Kepler, the Naturphilosophie of Goethe and Schelling, the nature poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, the esoteric philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and the contemporary participatory theory of Jorge Ferrer.
*featured image above by Jakob Boehme
Here’s my talk from the INTERSECT: Science & Spirituality conference in Telluride, CO earlier this summer. It’s titled “Participatory Spirituality in an Evolving Cosmos”
On Thursday at CIIS, I’ll interview physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, author of the just published Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (2018). As of this writing, Lightman’s book is #1 in Metaphysics on Amazon.com.*
Lightman begins his reflections in a cave in Font-de-Gaume, France, famous for its adornment of ochre and charcoal painted animal forms left behind by its long deceased Paleolithic inhabitants. Lightman’s cave visit inspires musings about how these primal people may have imagined the meaning of their existence. It is as though our species has always been inspired by two great mysteries (though each age further refines its understanding of them): by the unconscious depths within our psyches and by the ever-expanding edges of the evolving cosmos. We are lured deep into dark labyrinthine caves to paint Living Forms on fire-lit walls, and we are drawn skyward toward ancestral light in an attempt to calculate the spiraling of stars. Creation and discovery, art and science. Homo sapiens seems caught in a “necessary tension” between the two. With one foot aloft in a spiritual world of eternal Absolutes and the other firmly planted in a perpetually perishing material world, we stumble along through history.
Lightman doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but his ruminations functioned to heighten my sense of the importance of the questions. Is there any meaning in it all? Or is it just material? Even if it is all just material, isn’t it still beautiful, anyway? Depending on our personal proclivities, the existential tension produced by such questions can either release us into enchantment with mysterious paradox or entrap us in the frustration of irresolvable contradiction. Our nature is not a unified essence. We are tripartite: artists striving to enjoy and express nature’s beauty, scientists trying to explain its necessary truths, and priests longing to embrace and be embraced by its goodness. Expression, explanation, embrace. Beauty, truth, goodness. Art, science, religion. How are these human ideals connected? Must one or the other of them dominate, or is some integral harmonization possible? Can our search for hard scientific truth be made to cohere with our longing for meaning and our love of beauty?
Lightman moves from curiosity concerning the spirituality of the ancients to recounting his own mystical experience. One night, while he was piloting a small boat on the way to his cabin on Pole Island, he was struck by the desire to turn off the lights and cut the engine of his vessel. He laid down on the deck to gaze up at the stars in silent contemplation. It wasn’t long before the boat, his body, and any sense of separation from nature dissolved. He began to feel like he was “falling into infinity.” A spiritual sensation of cosmic kinship with the stars overtook him.
Unlike many theists, whose faith in a personal God originates in such experiences of overpowering transcendent unity, Lightman did not draw religious conclusions from his celestial vision. He remains committed to a purely scientific view of the world, a view he has held since his childhood experiments with petri dishes and pendulums. He references Freud’s reductive view of such “oceanic feelings,” accepting that his experience of the infinite may be nothing more than an infantile desire to crawl back into his mother’s womb. Despite this possible interpretation, his personal experience of being swallowed whole by the sky has allowed him to at least understand the power and allure of religious belief.
“The materiality of the world is a fact, but facts don’t explain the experience.”
Lightman admits that even science is founded on a kind of faith, a faith in what he calls “the Central Doctrine of Science,” that all physical events are governed by universal and necessary laws, or mathematical patterns, that hold everywhere in observable time and space. Because of this scientific faith, he can imagine no “miracles,” or seemingly unexplainable supernatural events. Any such event, while perhaps surprising at first, should be treated as nothing more than an opportunity to refine and expand the laws of physics.
He contrasts the theological certainty of Augustine with the geometrical certainty of Euclid. In Lightman’s view, Augustine’s certainty, rather than a product of divine revelation, is nothing more than fervently held personal opinion. Science, on the other hand, is empirically validated and mathematically proven.
“Theoretical physics is a temple built of mathematics and logic and aesthetics.”
Lightman contrasts the process of scientific discovery with that of artistic creation. Whereas the artist’s creativity, even if rooted in some sort of transcendent experience, remains purely subjective or internal, transcendent moments of discovery in science are both inner and outer, at once subjective and objective. Scientific inspiration has a “vital connection to the physical world,” and thus operates as a kind of “double discovery”: the inner mental world aligns with and thus reveals to consciousness the mathematical truth of the outer material world.
Lightman recounts the history of modern science and the way its discoveries decentered and humbled the human being. After Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo, and Newton, it became more difficult for humans to imagine themselves as the uniquely special creation of a personal God. We now know (as Bruno was among the first to speculate) that there are countless other planets that are potentially habitable. Life, even intelligent life, may be pervasive in the universe. We are hardly special.
Lightman views death not as an on/off switch, but as a gradual process of disassembly of the atomic assemblage that, for a time, constitutes who and what we are. Consciousness, he wagers, is just an illusion, a word we use to describe the “mental sensation” of electrochemical flows of neurons in the brain. He claims to be “content with the illusion of life,” with the idea that he is but a “self-referencing machine.” Strangely, however, he is a machine with feelings. Even if illusory, our “mental sensations” remain undeniable. Lightman reframes Descartes’ argument for the reality of the soul: instead of “I think, therefore I am,” it becomes “I feel, therefore I am.” He accepts that, since he cannot escape the feeling of being alive, of life’s joys and sorrows, it hardly matters whether he is actually a soulless machine or not. He may as well find ways to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Despite the illusory nature of consciousness, the neural sham of selfhood, Lightman thinks morality can still be grounded on this simple hedonistic principle.
Lightman ponders the source of our universe’s apparent “fine tuning,” the fact that, were any of the fundamental physical constants even the slightest fraction different from their observed values, life and consciousness could never have emerged. The multiverse theory is offered as one possible explanation, that is, that our universe is just one of infinitely many universes to have randomly emerged from the quantum vacuum, and we just happen to be in one of the rare worlds where the constants aligned just right so as to produce creatures capable of reflecting on this fact. But since it is impossible to test whether or not other universes exist, and because the theory offers a pseudo-explanation rooted in pure chance rather than causal necessity, Lightman is unsure whether it can really be considered scientific. In the end, when physical science reaches the question of the origin of the universe, of why there is something rather than nothing, Lightman admits that philosophy and religion still have a role to play.
While I have some problems with his view of humanity’s place in the universe, I appreciate Lightman’s acknowledgement that philosophy, and even religion, still have a place in human life (at least so long as they avoid making false claims about the physical world). This is far better than some popularizers of science, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Dawkins, who tend to dismiss philosophy and ridicule religion.
I would like to ask Lightman whether he thinks we could ever finally define the meaning of “physical” without doing metaphysics. Physicists can bracket many of philosophy’s more nebulous questions to pursue their precisely defined experimental measurements and build their mathematical models, but at the end of the day, their theoretical definitions inevitably fade off into metaphysics around the edges. I have a few philosophical objections to some of what Lightman seems to take to be incontestably scientific claims. He sometimes wanders into metaphysics without explicitly realizing it, particularly when he discusses consciousness and the mind/body problem.
Lightman emphasizes the mere materiality of everything we experience: our personal identity is nothing but neurochemistry; the enchanting beauty of an island-enveloping fog is really just minuscule droplets of water adrift in the wind; the magical bioluminescent shimmering of the ocean is just little bugs in the water, etc. “It’s all material.”
He grants that “the human body is the most amazing and baffling phenomenon of the material world,” but still, he reminds us, it is all just molecules and chemicals, just atoms out for a swerve in the void.
Nearly a century ago, just as the relativistic and quantum revolutions in science were beginning to sink in, another mathematical physicist-turned-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead offered an alternative reading of the scientific evidence:
“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (PR 119).
“We think of ourselves as so intimately entwined in bodily life that a man is a complex unity–body and mind. But the body is part of the external world, continuous with it. In fact, it is just as much part of nature as anything else there–a river, or a mountain, or a cloud. Also, if we are fussily exact, we cannot define where a body begins and where external nature ends” (MT 21).
“The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…Analogous notions of activity, and forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience” (MT 115).
I am in agreement with Lightman that Descartes’ mind/body dualism is unacceptable. Somehow, the mental activities disclosed in our personal experience must be intimately connected with the physiological activities of our body. Like Lightman, I reject vitalistic interpretations of living organisms, where some extra spirit or vital force is thought to inhabit and organize the material body. Physical activity is the same, whether it takes place inside or outside the skin of a living organism. It’s all matter. But “just” matter? “Mere” matter? “Nothing but” matter? Why must we take such a deflationary view of materiality when, as the evidence of our own intimate experience makes clear, matter is capable in some of its forms of nothing less than conscious reflection and intelligent deliberation? What is to prevent us, like Whitehead, of generalizing from our own experience so as to recognize that all matter is to some extent experience-imbued?
Even if we were to accept Lightman’s deflationary view of matter as just dead stuff, and of our consciousness as a linguistically produced illusion, we are still left having to explain how mere molecules could give rise to the illusion of consciousness. Whether the mind has real causal influence, or is merely an epiphenomenal hallucination, how is it that neurons generate mental sensations at all? Feelings arise as self-evident, with their own phenomenological warrant, regardless of any materialist conjectures regarding their real underlying causes. Even if they were ultimately “illusory,” reducible to some purely material level of reality, we still feel them. The “illusion” at least appears, and is thus real enough to require explanation. But I’ve yet to come across a scientific theory of how extensional lumps of matter could produce even the illusion of emotions and mental intentions. Rather than trying to solve this “hard problem,” what is to prevent us from accepting Whitehead’s converse deduction, that our bodily experience grants us insight into the intrinsic nature of matter, a nature that the overly abstract Cartesian view of its extrinsic nature totally misses? What if matter is itself somehow intrinsically mindful or sentient, and gradually increases its experiential intensity as more complex organic forms evolve? Such a view would in no way contradict the known scientific evidence. It just offers an alternative metaphysical interpretation of what we already know about the physical world, an interpretation that allows us to avoid the absurdity of having to deny the reality of our own most intimate experience of being alive. Instead of the reductive nihilism of eliminative materialism, why not the re-enchantment of evolutionary panpsychism?
Such an alternative interpretation is strengthened by revisiting the origin story of modern science. The early modern founders of the scientific worldview were not as soberly positivistic as they are often made to seem. Copernicus’ acceptance of the heliocentric theory was motivated not by its improved predictive power (Ptolemy’s model remained more accurate until Kepler’s and Newton’s later adjustments), but by his spiritual commitment to Neo-Platonism. Similarly, Kepler perceived not just mathematical harmony in the heavenly orbits, but their archetypal music. His astronomical science was practiced right alongside his astrological divination. Galileo, too, was a practicing astrologer. His book Starry Messenger includes a dedication to Cosimo de’ Medici that details the prominent placement of Jupiter in his natal chart.Giordano Bruno was a panpsychist magician (not to mention a political radical). Newton was an alchemist. Sure, we could dismiss their strange mystical proclivities by saying they were all transitional figures, not yet fully modern. But we could also acknowledge that an enchanted cosmology need not preclude scientific investigation. Indeed, in the case of these early founders, it seems to have motivated it!
For these early scientists, the lawful mathematical order of the universe was highly suggestive of its intelligent construction by God. From Whitehead’s perspective, there is a direct line of descent from the medieval theological doctrine of an omniscient and omnipotent God concerned with and in charge of every detail of the created world to the modern scientific faith in the lawful ordering of nature (“faith in the possibility of science is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology” [SMW 13]).
Lightman’s compromise between science and religion has it that the former concerns objective truths about the physical world, while the latter concerns subjective or personal truths about the spiritual world. The truths pursued by each need not compete since they exist in entirely distinct domains. While this position, similar to Stephen J. Gould’s notion of non-overlapping magisteria, is far superior to the aggressive atheism proffered by the likes of Dawkins and Sam Harris, I prefer to seek a more integral solution that situates human spirituality within the same evolving cosmos known to science. Rather than two worlds, one physical and the other spiritual, I inherit Schelling’s view:
This is not to say that the claims made by religious believers ought to be treated as epistemologically equivalent to the claims of natural scientists, especially when it is a question of experimentally testable hypotheses. If the claims of a religion are in conflict with those of a widely accepted scientific fact or theory, it is religious dogma that must bend. Whitehead again:
“Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development” (SMW 234).
That said, modern materialistic cosmology must find a way to make room for human meaning and consciousness. Our meaning-making must of course be informed by modern scientific discoveries, but it cannot be explained away as entirely illusory. [I unpack Whitehead’s attempt to make room in Physics of the World-Soul (2016)].
At least on our planet, cosmic evolution has produced conscious human beings. All the evidence suggests that something similar may be happening on countless other planets. Life and consciousness may be just as pervasive as atoms and stars. To my mind, this fact is not evidence against the existence of a meaningful cosmos or even of a personal God. It could also be interpreted as evidence for an immanent evolutionary aim toward personalization**, and for a far less provincial, truly infinite divinity.
Even in such an enchanted cosmos, our species may be doomed to go extinct. We may be no more than a passing evolutionary phase, as Lightman suggests, destined to be replaced by “Homo techno” in a few generations. But letting go of our anthropocentrism need not leave us with a sense of purposelessness. Even if our species goes extinct, other intelligences surely populate this universe. And even if death is the end of our individual egos, in a panpsychist cosmos, sentience never fully evaporates.
*Interestingly, #2 is Sarte’s Being & Nothingness and #3 is Robert Lanza’s Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, & the Illusion of Death–two radically different philosophical orientations on ultimate reality.
**As William James suggested, we can view nature as composed “of personal lives (which may be of any grade of complication, and superhuman or infrahuman as well as human), variously cognitive of each other…, genuinely evolving and changing by effort and trial, and by their interaction and cumulative achievements making up the world” (Collected Essays and Reviews, 443-444).
I’m sharing two lectures recorded for my online course this semester, Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. In these two modules, we are studying Latour’s recently translated book Facing Gaia.
Below is a lecture recorded for the online course PARP 6060 02 – Introduction to Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at CIIS.edu.
I first discuss the meaning of philosophy from a Whiteheadian perspective, then run through a brief history of philosophy as relevant to process thought (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Kant and his immediate successors), and finish by offering a few key perspectives from Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.
Many streams of thought flow into and give shape to PCC’s perspective on the Universe and our human place within it. One of these streams is the process-relational tradition. This tradition is most often associated with the 20th century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), but many of Whitehead’s core insights can be traced back to the beginnings of Western philosophy in ancient Greece, and were carried forward and brilliantly developed by the German Idealists in the early 19th century.
I hope my lecture helped give you some sense for the philosophical lineage that Whitehead drew upon and entered into dialogue with when he articulated his post-relativistic, post-quantum cosmological scheme in the 1920s and 30s. I have a feeling you agree, after reading the chapters I assigned from his book Modes of Thought (1938), that Whitehead is not an easy thinker to understand. But as someone who has been studying his work for almost a decade now, I can assure you it is well worth the effort to get to know the intimacies of his metaphysical scheme. Almost always it takes multiple readings to grok what he’s on about. All scientists employ instruments to aid them in their study. Philosophy’s instrument of inquiry, according to Whitehead, is language itself. Just like telescopes and microscopes, it takes a bit of practice to learn how to see with them. I encourage you to take Whitehead’s experiments in language seriously, even if they at first seem confusing.
Whitehead boldly re-affirmed the grand tradition of speculative cosmology at a time when most academic philosophers were retreating from metaphysics into reductionistic materialism and logical positivism. Whitehead summed up the situation of his contemporaries: “…the science of nature stands opposed to the presuppositions of humanism. Where some conciliation is attempted, it often assumes some sort of mysticism. But in general there is no conciliation” (MoT 136). Modern science tells us we are matter in motion, while modern humanism insists we are free agents enjoying profound emotions. While the positivists busied themselves analyzing linguistic puzzles, pretending not to be metaphysical by ignoring the mind/matter dualism implicit in all their reasonings, Whitehead sought insight into creative depths as yet unspoken. Logical positivism attempted to reduce philosophy to the safety of settled science; Whitehead sought instead to engage philosophy as a poetic adventure in world-making.
“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done” (Aims of Education 164).
Whitehead’s cosmological vision is bold, but he may also deserve the title of humblest philosopher in history. “Philosophy begins in wonder,” he tells us. “And, at the end, when philosophy has done its best, the wonder remains” (MoT 168). “How shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things,” he tells us elsewhere. “In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (PR xiv). For Whitehead, philosophy’s aim is to purify emotion by eliciting some increase of understanding, to correct the initial excess of subjectivity in our consciousness so as to grant us a more cosmic perspective on reality. “Purifying” emotion doesn’t mean eliminating it by replacing it with logic; even knowledge, for Whitehead, is a complex form of feeling. The goal of “knowing” is not to explain the All once and for all (impossible in the open-ended, creative cosmos Whitehead imagines), but to elucidate our experience so as to bring more of the Great Mystery’s beauty into our awareness.
Philosophy is akin to imaginative art, Whitehead tells us. It is the endeavor to creatively reframe naive experience so as to intensify our enjoyment of the meaning and potential of our existence. None of this is to say that Whitehead ignores the importance of science: “I assume as an axiom that science is not a fairy tale” (The Concept of Nature 40). Whitehead turned to philosophical cosmology late in his life (after a illustrious 30 year career as a Royal Society elected mathematician) precisely in order to save 20th century natural science from incoherence. He wanted to provide physics with a new and more adequate metaphysical foundation after quantum and relativity theories spelled the end of the Newtonian paradigm.
“In the present-day reconstruction of physics fragments of the Newtonian concepts are stubbornly retained. The result is to reduce modern physics to a sort of mystic chant over an unintelligible Universe. This chant has the exact merits of the old magic ceremonies which flourished in ancient Mesopotamia and later in Europe. One of the earliest fragments of writing which has survived is a report from a Babylonian astrologer to the King, stating the favorable days to turn cattle into the fields, as deduced by his observations of the stars. This mystic relation of observation, theory, and practice, is exactly the present position of science in modern life, according to the prevalent scientific philosophy. The notion of empty space, the mere vehicle of spatial interconnections, has been eliminated from recent science. The whole spatial universe is a field of force, or in other words, a field of incessant activity. The mathematical formulae of physics express the mathematical relations realized in this activity. The unexpected result has been the elimination of bits of matter, as the self-identical supports for physical properties. At first, throughout the nineteenth century, the notion of matter was extended. The empty space was conceived as filled with ether…The more recent revolution which has culminated in the physics of the present day has only carried one step further this trend of nineteenth century science…Matter has been identified with energy, and energy is sheer activity; the passive substratum composed of self-identical enduring bits of matter has been abandoned, so far as concerns any fundamental description…The modern point of view is expressed in terms of energy, activity, and the vibratory differentiations of space-time. Any local agitation shakes the whole universe. The distant effects are minute, but they are there. The concept of matter presupposed simple location. Each bit of matter was self-contained, localized in a region with a passive, static network of spatial relations, entwined in a uniform relational system from infinity to infinity and from eternity to eternity. But in the modern concept the group of agitations which we term matter is fused into its environment. There is no possibility of a detached, self-contained local existence. The environment enters into the nature of each thing” (MoT 138).
Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy is an attempt to integrate the latest scientific evidence with our moral, aesthetic, and spiritual intuitions regarding the ultimate nature of the Universe. Whitehead envisions the Universe as a creative becoming, a cosmogenesis. The creatures who inhabit his world are bound up together in an infinite web of evolving relations. Reason has often functioned to alienate humanity from its relations, but Whitehead offers another possibility. Whiteheadian rationality is guided by its commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself” (PR 4). To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of cosmic relationality. Any truth philosophy may seek can only ever be found here among us.
Published in International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Volume 36, Issue 1 (2017)
Abstract: This essay argues that the organic realism of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) provides a viable alternative to anti-realist tendencies in modern and postmodern philosophy since Descartes. The metaphysical merits of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism are unpacked in conversation with Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s recent book Retrieving Realism (2015). Like Dreyfus and Taylor, Whitehead’s philosophical project was motivated by a desire to heal the modern epistemic wound separating soul from world in order to put human consciousness back into meaningful contact with reality. While Dreyfus and Taylor’s book succeeds in articulating the problem cogently, its still too phenomenological answer remains ontologically unsatisfying. Whitehead’s process-relational approach invites philosophy to move closer to a real solution.
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