I interviewed Rupert Sheldrake as part of a new series for the Cobb Institute. I’ll be speaking with a number of scientists who have been influenced by Whitehead.
Thanks to John Vervaeke for hosting me on his channel. It was a wonderful conversation. As you’ll hear, we are planning to do a few trilogues soon with Jorge Ferrer and Evan Thompson.
Christopher Satoor and I discussed Schelling, his German Idealist context, and Whitehead’s inheritance of Schellingian ideas about mind and nature.
My lecture in two parts introducing German Idealism (focusing on Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Goethe, Hegel)
Below are a couple of video sessions from my course on Whitehead’s Process & Reality.
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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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:
Here’s the audio:
I’m particularly interested in what folks familiar with Deleuze think about the exchange between me and the woman in the audience during the discussion portion. Am I getting Deleuze’s general approach wrong?
Here’s the text of my paper: pact-2019-conference-presentation.pdf
This Fall at CIIS.edu, I’m teaching an online advanced seminar on Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process & Reality. Here are my reflections on Part I of Process & Reality, “The Speculative Scheme.”
Note that I discuss Richard Rorty’s conference presentation during a symposium on Whitehead at Stanford back in April 2006. Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway were there, too.
Notes on Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality
Part 1: The Speculative Scheme
Chapter 1: Speculative Philosophy
- Whitehead needs to defend his speculative method as productive of important knowledge. He seeks to frame a “coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” His scheme of general ideas must be adequate and applicable to “everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought” (3).
- “coherence” means no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the rest of the universe
- “logical” means the system must be self-consistent and not self-contradictory
- “necessary” means that the general ideas or categories must bear within themselves their own warrant of universality throughout all experience (4)
- “There is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.” Thus, for Whitehead, a rational interpretation always means a relational interpretation.
- Whitehead admits that deficiencies of language plague metaphysics. Even his technically defined terms “remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.”
- The datum of speculative philosophy is the actual world, including ourselves.
- “The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought.”
- We habitually observe by the method of difference,” meaning we notice only what changes, not what stays the same. This is why metaphysics is so difficult. Metaphysics is the search for that generic texture which remains the same throughout all experience. Whitehead says elsewhere that it takes a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious. Such an analysis is precisely what metaphysics is. It is the search for what is so obvious we almost always fail to notice or mention it.
- “We can never catch the world taking a holiday from the sway of metaphysical first principles.”
- Whitehead says that “rigid empiricism” prevents metaphysics from discovering the “larger generalities.” For such discovery depends upon “the play of free imagination, controlled by requirements of coherence and logic” (5).
- Whitehead articulates his aeroplane method of “imaginative rationalization.” This method allows further progress when the method of difference fails because it imaginatively supplies the differences which direct observation lacks. In other words, the metaphysician can observe everyday experience and think “this could have been otherwise,” and by imagining things other possibilities bring more of what is actually there into focus.
- “The negative judgment is the peak of mentality,” which we see on display in thinkers like Hegel, who made an entire idealist method out of the power of negation.
- “A system of philosophy is never refuted, it is only abandoned” for lack of interest.
- Whitehead found it necessary to abandon the “subject-predicate mode of thought” because he does not believe it mirrors the basic structure of reality (this mode of thought is the basis of the substance-quality ontology) (7).
- Philosophy is not deduction! Philosophy is thus misled by the example of mathematics and logic. Philosophy is the search for premises; it’s method is descriptive generalization. “Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities” (8).
- “The history of thought shows that false interpretations of observed facts enter into the records of the observation. Thus both theory, and received notions of fact, are in doubt.”
- Productive thought is won either via poetic insight or via imaginative elaboration of schemes of thought.
- “Progress is always transcendence of what is obvious.”
- “Rationalism is an experimental adventure…in clarification of thought, progressive and never final, [such that] even partial success has importance” (9). This makes Whitehead’s method unlike Kant’s or Descartes’, for whom rationalism meant beginning with clear and distinct premises and working out what necessarily follows from them.
- Every science makes use of instruments in its investigation. Philosophy’s instrument is language. Just as the physical sciences redesign existing instruments, philosophy often has to redesign language (11).
- “Complete propositions cannot be captured by verbal language”: Whitehead is saying that propositions (we’ll define these in a moment) are ingredients in the becoming of the physical universe long before humans arrived on the scene to consciously reflect upon and attempt to linguistically articulate them.
- What is found in practice must be part of the metaphysical scheme: we cannot ignore what in practice is presupposed.
- Interpretation is an intrinsic part of experience.
- “Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity” (15)
- Philosophy finds its importance by fusing religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.
- Religion is among the data of experience that philosophy must weave into its scheme.
- “Scientific interest is a variant form of religious interest,” which is to say doing science presupposes that we have a faith in the order of nature. Why do scientists believe that the natural world is rational? This belief, according to Whitehead, is derived from religion. Thus, religion and science, far from being enemies, are entirely dependent upon one another.
- “Religion deals with the formation of the experiencing subject, whereas science deals with the objects, which are that data forming the primary phase of this experience” (16)
- “Philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away” (17).
- “It is the part of the special sciences to modify common sense. Philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists.”
Chapter 2: The Categoreal Scheme
- Whitehead said that the generic notions he has constructed should reveal themselves as “inevitably presupposed in our reflective experience” (18).
- He introduces four novel notions not found in the philosophical tradition: 1) actual entities, 2) prehensions, 3) nexus, and 4) the ontological principle
- actual entities can be divided into some definite quota of prehensions
- prehensions have a vector character, meaning they are referent to an external world; they involve emotion, purpose, valuation, and causality (unlike in mechanistic materialism, where causality is imagined to be a blind exchange of forces between particles, Whitehead re-imagines causality as the passage of feelings between entities via prehension).
- prehensions might have been actual entities if not for their incomplete partiality; they are subordinated by a subjective aim at further integration, which seeks to unify them into a subjective form which is the satisfaction of the completed subject.
- nexūs are particular facts of togetherness or relatedness among actual entities (20)
- Philosophy’s role is not to explain concreteness in terms of abstractness, but rather to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete.
- Facts are more than their forms, though form participates throughout fact. Facts are creatures, and creativity is ultimate behind all forms.
- Whitehead introduces four types of categories: 1) category of the ultimate, 2) categories of existence, 3) categories of explanation, 4) categoreal obligations
- “Creativity, Many, One are the ultimate notions required for and presupposed by the existence of any entity” (21); “one” = singularity; “many” = diversity; “creativity” = many become one
- Concrescence: the production of novel togetherness; “the many become one and are increased by one”
- Eight categories of existence: 1) actual entities/occasions, 2) prehensions, 3) nexūs (public facts), 4) subjective forms (private facts), 5) eternal objects/pure potentials, 6) propositions/impure potentials/theories, 7) multiplicities, 8) contrasts
- Among these existents, actual entities and eternal objects stand out with “extreme finality” (22)
- Among these existents, actual entities and eternal objects stand out with “extreme finality” (22)
- twenty-seven categories of explanation:
- the actual world is a process: the process is the becoming of actual entities.
- in the becoming of an entity, potential unity becomes real unity, a concrescence of many potentials into one novel actuality
- all existents advance into novelty, except eternal objects: “there are no novel eternal objects”
- “principle of relativity”: each being is a potential for every becoming
- no two actual entities originate from the same universe; but eternal objects are the same for all actual entities.
- “real potentiality”: conditioned modality of entities included in other entities; an entity can be integrated in many ways but is in fact implicated in only one way.
- eternal objects are potentials for “ingression”; analysis of eternal objects discloses only other eternal objects.
- an actual entity can be analyzed as a) objectified in the becoming of other entities (i.e., coordinate division) or b) according to its own internal constitution (i.e., genetic division)
- “principle of process”: how an entity becomes constitutes what it is; its being is constituted by its becoming
- an actual entity is a concrescence of prehensions; analysis of prehensions is “division”
- triadic structure of prehension includes: a subject prehending, a datum which is prehended, and a subjective form which is how that subject prehends that datum (23)
- two types of prehensions: positive prehensions (i.e., operative feelings) and negative prehensions (i.e., scars); the latter are inoperative in the progressive concrescence of a subject, but still “felt” in their absence.
- there are many species of subjective forms: emotions, valuations, purposes, adversions, aversions, consciousness, etc.
- a nexus is a constellation of actual entities that mutually prehend or objectify one another
- a proposition is a potential for relatedness of actual entities into a nexus; the entities in question are the logical subjects and the eternal objects defining them are the predicates.
- a multiplicity is a special logical notion
- the complex unity of a datum is felt as a contrast, or a contrast of contrasts: “the synthesis of entities into a contrast produces a new existential type”; a proposition is a contrast.
- “ontological principle”: process conforms to other occasions or to the subject in process of formation (i.e., efficient and final causation, respectively). “Actual entities are the only reasons.” Propositions are “lures for feeling” shaped by the subjective aim of the concrescing entity.
- actual entities and eternal objects are the fundamental entities; all other entities express how these two types are in community with one another.
- to “function” means to contribute to determining actual entities; self-identity of one entity cannot be abstracted from the community of diverse functionings of all entities. “Determination” requires definiteness (i.e., illustration via eternal objects) and position (relative status in a nexus).
- “an entity is actual when it has significance for itself”
- the becoming of an actual entity transforms incoherence into coherence, ceasing with its attainment
- self-functioning is the real internal constitution of an actual entity, called the “subjective immediacy” of an entity
- an actual entity functions in another actual entity by being objectified; an eternal object functions in an actual entity by being ingressed.
- the final phase of concrescence creative of an actual entity is one complex, fully determinate feeling. “Satisfaction” is determinate with regard to its genesis, its objective character for entities in its future, and its prehensions of every item in its universe.
- every element in the genetic process of an actual entity has a single consistent function in the final satisfaction.
- concrescence unfolds in a series of phases whereby new prehensions arise by integrating their antecedents; negative prehensions contribute only their subjective forms, not their data.
- nine categoreal obligations
- “subjective unity”: incompleteness of many feelings in early phase find compatibility when integrated by subject
- “objective identity”: no duplicate elements in satisfaction of an actual entity
- “objective diversity”: diverse elements cannot exercise identical functions
- “conceptual valuation”: conceptual feelings of eternal objects are derived from physical feelings of other entities or of a nexus
- “conceptual reversion”: the subjective aim can determine diverse conceptual feelings in a secondary phase of concrescence; conceptual valuation reproduces physical feelings, whereas conceptual reversion introduces divergence from physical feelings
- “transmutation”: a prehending subject can derive the same conceptual feeling from multiple physical feelings of other actual entities and transmute the datum of this conceptual feeling into a characteristic that defines the nexus containing those prehended entities; transmutation is akin to the attachment of a quality to a substance (Aristotle).
- “subjective harmony”: conceptual feelings are adapted to congruence with subjective aim; akin to “pre-established harmony” (Leibniz); “no prehension can be considered in abstraction from its subject, although it originates in the process creative of its subject”
- “subjective intensity”: a subjective aim aims at intensity of feeling in the immediate subject and in the relevant future; this feeling of the effective relevance of the present for the future is the basis of morality.
- “freedom and determination”: concrescence is internally determined and externally free; final decision of subject-superject is the reaction of the unity of the whole to its own internal determination; reaction can modify emotion, appreciation, purpose.
- You cannot abstract the universe from any entity so as to consider it in isolation: “every entity pervades the whole world” (28).
- “the actual world” is a nexus relative to the concrescence of each actual entity
- becoming is a “principle of unrest” resident in every actuality
- the notion of “vacuous actuality” haunts realistic philosophy; it assumes that an actuality could be devoid of subjective immediacy and still be actual. Whitehead’s organic realism repudiates this notion.
- An actual entity is not an unchanging subject of change; it is subject and superject of its experience.
- “no thinker thinks twice”; time is perpetual perishing whereby actualities lose subjective immediacy and perish into objective immortality (i.e., they attain their final cause, lose their unrest, and become an efficient cause that initiates a new round of concrescence)
- actual entities are definite and complete, while eternal objects, propositions, and some complex contrasts are intrinsically indeterminate and indecisive.
Chapter 3: Some Derivative Notions
- Strange as it may seem (in comparison to the Western philosophical and theological tradition), God is merely a derivative notion in Whitehead’s system!
- God is the primordial created fact, the first creature of creativity, the unconditioned valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects (31)
- derivate actual entities objectify God’s valuation and thereby experience a gradation in the relevance of eternal objects to their own concrescence
- there is an additional ground of relevance for the ingression of eternal objects in derivate actual entities: namely, the eternal objects already ingressed into the past actual world
- apart from God, unrealized eternal objects would be invisible to derivate actual entities: God’s primordial nature provides access to possibilities that transcend realized temporal matter of fact
- there is also the consequent nature of God, discussed in Part V of Process and Reality
- “Creativity” is akin to Aristotle’s prime matter, except it is not passively receptive of form or of external relations
- it is activity conditioned by objective immortality of the actual world
- it is without a character of its own: “highest generality at the base of all actuality”
- “God,” like all actual entities, is a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity; unlike other creatures, God is always in concrescence and never perishes. God’s consequent nature is the reaction God receives from the world.
- Why call this creature “God” when it is so different from orthodox theological notion?: “Because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim” (32).
- God’s immanence in the world is “an urge toward the future based upon an appetite in the present” (e.g., physical feeling of thirst aims at conceptual feeling of quenching)
- a “society” is an ordered nexus; some societies are ordered so as to appear as an enduring objects
- in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, an enduring object results from a common form of definiteness (a complex eternal object) ingressing into each included actual entity, such that the form is mutually imposed on each member and reproduced by their positive prehensions. There can be “genetic relations” holding members of such societies together.
- a “serial ordering” of the members of a society produces “personal order,” where serial means any member genetically related to others in a linear mode of inheritance.
- “societies are the [enduring] entities which enjoy adventures of change througout time and space” (35); so atoms are societies, as are stars and galaxies, tables and chairs, plants and animals, etc.
- becoming as such does not have a unique serial order: time is plural; the creative advance of nature has no universal time line (a consequence of relativity theory in physics).
- there is no continuity of becoming, despite the extensive continuity of the physical universe; rather, there is a becoming of continuity.
- Whitehead articulates an atomic theory of becoming to explain how continuity is constructed. “Atomism does not exclude complexity and universal relativity” (36)
- Whitehead suggests that his process atomism reconciles the particle/wave duality in quantum physics.
- While he is often described as a panpsychist, Whitehead rejects the orthodox philosophical tradition which claims that the basic elements of experience are to be described in terms of consciousness, thought, and sense-perception. These are “unessential elements” in experience, and if they enter into experience at all it is only in the late, derivative phases of concrescence associated with very high grade actual occasions (e.g., those associated with complex animals).
Whitehead tells us at the start of the final part of Process & Reality (“Final Interpretation”) that the chief danger in philosophy is narrowness in the selection of evidence. For many modern, scientifically inclined philosophers, this narrowness has taken the form of an all too easy rejection of the world’s religious traditions and the religious experience which gave rise to and continues to inform them. Intellectual chauvinism has led many modern scientific materialists to claim that, given the available scientific evidence, atheism is the only rational position. From Whitehead’s point of view, the history of religious experience is part of the data that any adequate cosmological scheme must incorporate. There is something of great philosophical significance in the religious and spiritual intuitions of human beings, even if these intuitions represent “exceptional elements in our conscious experience,” as Whitehead admits (PR 343). He also reminds us that “the present level of average waking human experience was at one time exceptional” among our ancestors (AoI 294). It is the job of philosophy to elucidate the significance of these rare mystical experiences, to find a systematic place for them in the wider scheme such that the average level of our species’ waking consciousness may continue to deepen.
Philosophy has tended to collapse reality into one or the other of the “ideal opposites” explicated by Whitehead: Permanence and Flux. Plato, for example, over-emphasized the “eminent reality” of permanence by raising his Eternal Forms above the physical world of ever-shifting sensory experience. The world of Ideas was considered ultimate, while the world of physical sensations was demoted to “mere appearance,” or worse, “illusion.” On the other end of the philosophical spectrum, David Hume completely disregarded what Whitehead refers to as “the everlasting elements in the passage of fact” (PR 338). For Hume, only sensory impressions are real, while ideas are merely agglomerations of impressions. All is flux; permanence is an illusion.
Whitehead’s more integral goal is to find a way to think these ideal opposites in a complementary way, such that each is understood to require the other for its meaning. For Whitehead, “perfect realization” is not a timeless perfection (as it was for Plato); rather, perfection “implants timelessness on what in its essence is passing” (PR 338). This is another way of expressing the meaning of the ingression of eternal objects into actual occasions. Think of a sunset: its beauty is haunted by eternal values even as the sun continues to sink below the horizon into darkness. Its passing, its perpetual perishing, somehow enhances its eternal beauty, rather than subtracting from it. There is perhaps something tragic in this interplay between eternal value and temporal activity, but from Whitehead’s point of view, tragedy may indeed be the highest form of beauty that our universe is capable of realizing.
Whitehead defines the “religious problem” (i.e., the general existential issue that all religions attempt to address each in their own way) as follows: “whether the process of the temporal world passes into the formation of other actualities, bound together in an order in which novelty does not mean loss” (PR 340). One of the profound dilemmas of human experience is that, while we crave novelty, we are also haunted by the loss of the past. In Whitehead’s process theology, one source of evil arises from the fact that the past fades, that time has the nature of “perpetual perishing.” Thus, one of God’s functions in the world is to preserve the past (this is God’s consequent nature). God is not an “unmoved mover” or an “imperial ruler,” but a “fellow-sufferer who understands” (PR 351). Whitehead says that God does not create the world, he saves it: God’s infinite patience allows for the preservation of all our sufferings, sorrows, failures, and triumphs. Nothing that occurs in the universe is lost; all is taken up into God’s experience to become unified with his consequent nature. This grants all actual occasions a kind of immortality, though it is not the personal sort promised us by traditional interpretations of Christian heaven. Each actual occasion of experience, though it may be trivial in the value it achieves in itself (if it is a puff of smoke in far off empty space, for example), in perishing becomes an immortal contribution to the greater end realized in God’s ever-enriched, ever-deepening consequent nature. God prehends each finite actual occasion not only for what it is (thus, God shares in each occasion’s world view), but for what it can be within God’s perfected nature. The only immortality we enjoy comes from the sense of transcendent value we experience as we perish beyond ourselves and pass into the eternal life of God.
God’s other function in the world (God’s primordial nature) is to provide the “initial Eros” or “eternal urge of desire” that lures each finite actual occasion toward the most beautiful possibilities available to it given its local circumstances. God’s primordial nature conditions the otherwise unlimited potentialities of Creativity, ordering the realm of eternal objects so as to make this otherwise infinite sphere of potential relevant to each actual occasion’s needs. Actual occasions are not determined by the initial aim provided by God: they still have creative independence from God (God, too, is a creature of Creativity). But God assists finite occasions in their decision as to how to concresce by preventing them from being overwhelmed by the entire infinite array of possibilities all at once. The “initial aim” provided by God grades these possibilities so those that are not immediately relevant are largely negatively prehended by the occasion in question. All particular occasions of experience presuppose the conceptual order provided by God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of eternal objects. God presupposes only the general metaphysical character of the creative advance.
In the final chapters of Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead articulates the same ultimate interpretation, but now in terms like Beauty, Adventure, and Peace instead of using theological language. He tells us that the purpose of the universe is the production of beauty. He tells us that beauty is more fundamental than truth, and that truth’s importance arises because of its beauty. This is not to say that truth (or the conformation of appearance with reality) is unimportant; it is rather that truth without beauty is, in a general metaphysical sense, boring. That is, it lacks importance, it fails to increase the intensity of value realized in the universe, and instead just reiterates the obvious. Similarly, beauty without truth is shallow, since it fails to penetrate to the deeper feelings inherent in the cosmic process: “The truth of supreme beauty lies beyond the dictionary meaning of words” (AoI 267). Beauty without truth is merely pleasing appearance. True beauty is what occurs when appearance elucidates and amplifies the finer textures of reality for experience.
Whitehead defines art as the “purposeful adaptation of appearance to reality” (AoI 267). Consciousness, which results from a heightened contrast between actuality and ideality in an occasion of experience, is that factor in the universe that renders art possible. In some sense, consciousness itself is an evolutionary expression of nature’s artistry. In other words, it is via artistic expression that nature has educated itself by growing more conscious. Said otherwise, art is the appropriation by consciousness of the infinite fecundity of nature. Art, Whitehead tells us, is a little oblivious as to morals. It focuses, instead, on adventure. From the perspective of artistic creation, the Day of Judgment is always with us: art is in the business of “[rendering] the Day of Judgment a success, now” (AoI 269).
Whitehead defines Peace as a trust in the efficacy of beauty. We achieve consciousness of Peace when we rest in that “deep feeling of an aim in the Universe, winning such triumph as is possible for it” (AoI 286). Peace requires of us that we find some balance between our stoic acceptance of the impersonal order of the cosmos and our devotion to loving relationships of a more personal sort.
Adam Robbert interviewed me over on The Side View Podcast. Check it out HERE.
We discussed speculative philosophy, panpsychism, politics, and more.
I’m posting a revised version of a long essay I wrote a decade ago. It draws on thinkers including Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, William Irwin Thompson, Francisco Varela, Alfred North Whitehead, and Alf Hornborg in search of a more integral approach to economics. I had not yet encountered the social ecology of Murray Bookchin when I wrote this essay, so my approach has shifted in emphasis even more strongly toward decentralization and localism, though as readers will see these values were already at the heart of my argument.
You’ll notice that in the first footnote, I left un-revised the world population as I recorded it when I originally composed this essay back in late 2009 (it was ~6.8 billion on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau). Today (February 2019), there are already a billion more people in existence (~7.8 billion total). It took all of human history until the year 1800–that is, hundreds of thousands if not millions of years–for the first billion people to inhabit the Earth. It took only a decade to produce a billion more people.
The table of contents, preface, and introduction are included below. You can find the whole essay as a PDF here: Towards an Integral Economics PDF (2019)
Table of Contents
Introduction: What is Life?
- The Irruption of Time
- Ancient Biology
- Modern Biology
- Teleology as Regulative
- Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive
- Concrescence and Bodily Perception
- Concrescence and Autopoiesis
- Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time
- Integral Thought and Market Cosmology
- Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity
Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life
The relative success of the human endeavor, measured in terms of population1 and technological mastery, has been won at the cost of widespread suffering for much of the rest of the community of life on Earth. Life is not just a quantitative affair, but is everywhere striving to deepen the qualitative intensity of its existence. Industrial civilization has emerged amidst this vital striving, violently shifting the biosphere into the terminal phase of the Cenozoic era by initiating the first mass extinction event in 65 million years.2 In the deep geological past, saurian giants and cycads flourished where long stretches of highway now carry automobiles fueled by their fossilized remains. Should our species continue to ignore the psycho-spiritual wounds responsible for instituting and maintaining our ritualized techno-industrial sacrifice of future generations, we will soon find ourselves joining the dinosaurs.
This essay is my attempt to reveal the metaphysical causes and energetic effects of industrial capitalism such that its inhumane and ecologically ignorant foundations are brought fully into consciousness. Consciousness is our most creative human capacity, but in its fragmented and anxiety-ridden deficient mental mode, it has become the agent of the most powerful strategy of thermodynamic gradient dissipation the planet has ever known. Should human consciousness fail to awaken in time to forestall the inevitable conclusion of the industrial process, not only will capitalist profits continue to be squeezed out of the alienated labor of workers and commoditization continue to homogenize cultural expression, but Earth will become a toxic wasteland eaten alive from the inside out by the mechanical transformation of extropy3 into the fetishized value of money and use-and-dispose consumables.
The emergence of life on earth around 4 billion years ago can be understood as an expression of the same natural tendency to dissipate free energy that is driving the extractive economy of industrialism. The complex activities of living creatures on Earth’s surface work to bring the extreme temperature gradient between sunlight and space toward equilibrium by radiating back more heat than would an inert planet, as per the 2nd law of thermodynamics (p. 46, Margulis, 2002). The industrial organism has brought this process of gradient reduction to new heights by technologically freeing exergy trapped in places no other form of life could reach (like hydrocarbons and radioactive elements).4 But as has been learned from the many identity crises to come before on this planet (i.e., five prior mass extinctions) more of the same leads eventually to extinction because conditions are always evolving: humanity must mutate or perish. Our industrial presence to the biosphere represents a deficient and so unsustainable relationship between mind and life, culture and nature, humanity and Earth.
Unless the as yet unrealized spirit of integration lying dormant in human consciousness can blossom, our species will continue to instinctually play by the entropic rules of thermodynamics5 by devouring the remaining resources of the Earth. Like the ever-optimistic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I am hopeful that we will learn to
“give [our lives] to [being and to knowing], rather than to [possession],” because though “human vision is still diffuse in its operation, mixed up with industrial activity and war…it will not be long now before the noösphere finds its eyes” (p. 280, 1955).
Only with the full emergence of the noösphere can humanity become integral with the Earth, achieving what Jean Gebser has referred to as a transparent aperspectival a-waring of human and universe together in a space-time-free presentiation of origin (p. 312, 1985).
Human societies are not inherently exploitative and selfish, nor is the rest of the biosphere a pitiless struggle for existence guided only by the invisible hand of natural selection. We have not always been capitalists. As Alf Hornborg has argued,
“…there are undoubtedly social metaphors that transfer meanings from relations in the human world to relations with the nonhuman one, committing societies to specific trains of thought” (p. 197, 2001).
I will argue in this essay that our integral potential has been ideologically distorted by the dualistic ontology and fetishized mythology intrinsic to the industrial mode of consciousness. Powerful forces of cultural habit have deceived us into tirelessly slaving and ruthlessly competing for the alienating and spiritually empty ends of techno-industrial accumulation. This ideological distortion of our natural capacity for empathic relationality is the psycho-social precursor that primed modern scientific consciousness for its reductionistic study of living systems and their evolution, and which consequently led to the mechanistic study of the “rational animal,” the human consumer, as scientific metaphors migrated back into economic theory.
The mechanization of biology is typical of the deficient mental mode of consciousness. So long as our understanding of life remains deficient, our planetary civilization will continue to ignore humanity’s integral relationship with the Earth, and probably destroy itself within a century. In the chapters to follow, I argue that modern science’s mechanical theory of life is inseparable from the economic ideology of modern capitalism. The hegemonic industrial parade noisily marching our planet’s living population to the edge of extinction is given ideological steam by the mechanistic theory of life. My purpose in writing this book is to break through the biological bulwarks guarding the economic status quo and to plant the seeds of an alternative, living biology. I hope these seeds will aid humanity in our Great Work of becoming integral with the Earth, a partner in Gaia’s dance through the heavens.
Introduction: What is Life?
Life, for Sri Aurobindo, is the mutual commerce connecting matter and mind in the manifest universe, an
“intermediate energizing of conscious being [that] liberates into sensitive action and reaction a form of the creative force of existence which was working subconsciently or inconsciently, absorbed in its own substance; it supports and liberates into action the apprehensive consciousness of existence called mind and gives it a dynamic instrumentation so that it can work not only on its own forms but on forms of life and matter” (p. 186-187, The Life Divine).
The knowing mind is always supported by embodied experience. Any scientific stories told to explain the cosmos must have some relation to our personal and inter-personal experience of living and dying as earthlings. Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled to adequately articulate a clear concept of life, which ambiguously straddles the apparent boundary between matter and spirit. The conscious human being is always already in life, thrown between matter and mind, and so cannot entirely breach the eternal realm of unchanging ideas, nor totally fathom the depths of material flux and impermanence—at least this side of death. But Aurobindo is not wrong when he writes that “the natural opposition we make between death and life, and between matter and spirit, is an error of our mentality” (p. 176, ibid.). He urges us to become aware of a more integral life, which
“is nothing else than the Force that builds and maintains and destroys the forms in the world…that manifests itself in the form of earth as much as in the plant that grows upon the earth and the animals that support their existence by devouring the life-force of the plants or of each other” (177, ibid.).
Death is a part of life’s dynamic wholeness, a life present
“everywhere, secret or manifest, organized or elemental, involved or evolved, but universal, all-pervading, imperishable; only its forms and organizings differ” (p. 179, ibid.).
But how are we to conceive of life’s wholeness or integrality? An overly reductive definition distorts life’s cosmic import, painting too tragic and meaningless a picture of existence, while an overly triumphant definition obscures life’s fragile beauty, ignoring the fact of death given by the birth of every living creature.
My exploration of the issues surrounding the pursuit of an organic ontology will require a thorough critique of mechanistic biology, whose aim is the reverse of my own: to define life such that it is reducible to a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” (p. 320, Dennett).6 This definition will be shown to be entirely inadequate. It makes of our human experience an aberration, severing all connection whatsoever between human consciousness and the evolutionary adventure that generated it. If we are going to attempt a scientific account of life, it must recursively include the knowing mind of the living scientist in its explanations.
My critique of mechanistic biology and industrial capitalism and reconstruction of an alternative conception of life on planet Earth draws upon the process-relational ontology of Alfred North Whitehead and the phenomenological biology of Francisco J. Varela. Varela’s account of life in terms of autopoiesis will be compared with Whitehead’s analysis of the process of concrescence in the hopes that the affinity of their ideas becomes clear. It will be argued that Varela’s science demands a new metaphysical scheme not available within the confines of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, I suggest, is up to the task.
The approach of these two thinkers is an expression of what cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser has called the “irruption of time consciousness” (p. 380). The time element, repressed by the deficient mental structure’s exclusively spatial orientation, burst into consciousness in various ways during the past few centuries, including Hegel and Marx’s dialectical theory of history, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Einstein’s relativity theory. But the mental structure, convinced it has reached the pinnacle of our species’ evolution, has not relinquished its hold on our consciousness. Now in its deficient phase, mental consciousness retards the emergence of the integral by continuing to falsely spatialize time, thereby reducing its qualitative creative intensity to a measurable quantity. The ideology of modern capitalism is an expression of the deficient mental structure’s repression of the time element, of creative becoming. Instead of recognizing the importance of the dialectic of history and the ongoing and entangled processes of natural and social transformation, capitalist economic theory insists that the present arrangement represents the “end of history” (as Francis Fukuyama has claimed): no revolutions in or improvements to social relations or in human-earth relations are necessary. Capitalist economists thus search for invariant laws supposed to apply universally to all human societies in all historical epochs. In contrast, an ecologized Marxist economic theory, building on the dialectical acuity of Hegel’s historical method, is better prepared to integrate the time element into its understanding of human society and the wider economy of Earth within which our economy is embedded. As the eco-Marxists Foster, Clark, and York describe it, Marx’s approach invites us to
“highlight the dramatic changes in social structures and patterns that have occurred throughout human history and [argues] that what appear to be invariant laws to observers in any particular period, may in fact be transient tendencies unique to that historical era, emerging from the dialectical interaction of an ensemble of social and natural processes” (The Ecological Rift, p. 27).
In addition to the repression of time, Eco-Marxists also critique the techno-optimistic “human exemptionalism” that leads to fantasies about a future “dematerialization” of economic production such that
“the capitalist economy can then walk on air (or create a ‘weightless society’), thereby continuing its relentless expansion—but with a rapidly diminishing effect on the environment” (The Ecological Rift, p. 34, 43).
Such fantasies ignore both the zero-sum thermodynamic reality of the Earth system (thereby “[going] against the basic laws of physics” [ibid., 43]) and the inequality of human society (thereby going against the democratic principles of life, liberty, and happiness).
Gebser also points to the need to heal the rift, both ideological and metabolical, between humanity and the Earth. In the chapters to follow, I offer the beginnings of a more integral biology whose account of the biosphere includes human society as one of its expressions. “The supersession of dualism in biology begins to occur,” according to Gebser, “at the moment when the ‘time’ factor is taken into consideration” (The Ever-Present Origin, p. 384). The time element can only be authentically grasped by an integral consciousness. Gebser’s account of the evolution of consciousness and in particular the irruption of time in the mutation from deficient mental to integral consciousness thus provides the context for much of the discussion to follow.
1 ~6,798,504,820 on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau. High population is hardly an adequate measure of success, just a reflection of unsustainable rates of resource consumption. And even if population were the true gauge of success, surely insects and bacteria would be the real winners in this world.
2 The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.org) estimates that 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates assessed so far are under serious threat of extinction.
3 i.e., energy available to do work.
4 Lynn Margulis goes so far as to argue that “[Technological evolution], whether [expressed in the] human, bower bird, or nitrogen-fixing bacterium, becomes the extension of the second law to open systems” (p. 47, 2002). She means to imply that the proliferation of entropy producing techno-industrial products and their social ramifications is the result of natural law. I will argue in this paper that she is correct only if consciousness fails to become integrally transparent to itself, liberating humanity from the tamasic impulse toward increasing entropy production.
5 Ilya Prigogine defines thermodynamics as “the study of the macroscopic properties of a system and their relations without regard to the underlying dynamics” (p. 205, 1996).
6 For Dennett, an algorithm is any set of conditions tending to produce a certain outcome. He sees Darwin’s conditions (random variation under natural selection) as completely explanatory of the present state of the biosphere. Dennett argues that a “cascade of mere purposeless, mechanical causes” is entirely responsible for the “gradual emergence of meaning” (p. 412).
[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.
Below is the draft of a foreword I’ve coauthored with Robert McDermott. The book, Twelve Ways of Seeing the World by Mario Betti, should be out later this year via Hawthorn Press. Betti’s book builds fruitfully upon the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. You can read Steiner’s original lectures on the topic of the 12 human worldviews here: https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA151/English/RSP1991/HCT991_index.html
Foreword to Mario Betti, Twelve Ways of Seeing the World
By Robert McDermott and Matthew T. Segall
February 4, 2019
Rudolf Steiner was one of the 20th century’s few true Renaissance men. While modern science, art, religion, politics, and philosophy continued to fall into increasing specialization, fragmentation, deconstruction, and narrow-minded conflict, Steiner labored tirelessly to create new integral approaches to education, agriculture, medicine, architecture, social reform, banking, visual and performance art, esotericism, and more, all inspired by a deep commitment to humanity’s spiritual potential. Mario Betti, a lifelong practitioner of Steiner’s anthroposophical method, has written a book that succeeds not only in its clear interpretation of a sometimes enigmatic thinker’s ideas but in its brilliant amplifications and applications of these ideas to our present day circumstances.
Betti offers his book as a stimulus or seed to support the growth of a still fledgling pluralistic society. Achieving a planetary humanity guided by freedom and love out of the ashes of the modern pathologies of fascism, totalitarianism, nationalism, oligarchism, and terrorism (the list goes on) will require more than a shallow, relativistic multiculturalism that settles for mere tolerance. Betti draws on Goethe to remind us that tolerance can only be a temporary position. Genuine pluralism, Betti shows, requires more than toleration: it requires a willingness to engage the whole of our being in deep communication with and mutual affirmation of other worldviews. We must strive to reach across our differences through an inner development that is capable of seeing their holistic interdependence. Betti’s amplification of Steiner’s twelve worldviews is a profound aid in this effort of inner development. Significantly, it shows the dignity and merit of each way of seeing the world at the same time that it reveals the danger of exclusivism. Every worldview becomes false the moment it claims to be the whole of the world.
Albert William Levy’s Philosophy and the Modern World, a particularly expert and readable account of 20th century philosophies, summarizes our present situation well:
…philosophical movements of the recent past are to be viewed as waves of successive reform beating upon an infinite shore, with each group of partisans committed to a conception of philosophy which assure them a virtual monopoly of its legitimate practice.… And to pragmatists, logical empiricists, and linguistic analysts alike, any alternative conception of what philosophy is rests upon a tragic mistake.1
Who would dare an attempt to overcome such differences of opinion, each supported by knowledge and powerful arguments? An ideal candidate would be a teacher whose thinking is lifted by creative pedagogy and artistic imagination. Mario Betti would appear to be such a teacher. Every page of this book reveals an author who teaches thinking as a contribution to individual lives, to relationships, and to a sane society. He is invested not in scoring philosophical points but rather in helping his readers cope with intellectual confusion and conflict.
Betti succeeds in his purpose by giving a positive account of twelve worldviews. He takes as his model Goethe who held in one view both universal harmony and plurality (8). We are led to appreciate that each worldview is convincing up to a point. His treatment of Idealism, for example, invites the reader to see that all reality is, or at least emerges from, ideas, from a realm that Plato described so convincingly. But then Betti draws on Aristotle, an equally brilliant and equally influential philosopher, to show the need for a more positive account of particulars, whether moments, thoughts, or objects. Betti refers to this combination of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy as Realism, the philosophy that occupies the topmost spot on the philosophical compass (more on this below).
In a similar way, the way of showing polarities, Betti makes a case for Rationalism, the philosophy of ethical order and proportion, and then shows how it virtually solicits its polar complement, the philosophy of Dynamism: structure needs process to be effective and process, in order to avoid chaos, needs structure. As an introvert needs at least a little extroversion to get through the day, and as melancholic and phlegmatic temperaments need at least a touch of choleric and sanguine temperaments, so does Psychism, a philosophy ready-made for psychology, need a little Phenomenalism, a philosophy that emphasizes the reality of external objects and events but is not sufficiently affirmative of the interior depths of the soul. “Psychism is the inner version of phenomenalism” (110). These pairs, furthermore, are not only complementary, as in two static halves that make a whole; rather, they need and benefit each other but also oppose each other—like individual and community, inner and outer, and of course, like gender. The twelve views are also like gender in that they exist not only as pairs of clearly demarcated opposites but as a spectrum with fluid boundaries, a perspective that contemporary social justice movements have made increasingly clear (134).
In addition to an emphasis on the conflict of worldviews, Betti emphasizes the importance of mutually enhancing polarities: “Each worldview is both a genuine opposite and an enhancement of its opposite” (110). By plunging downward into the domain of gravity, the Materialist worldview has produced marvels of human understanding like the periodic table of elements, just as the Spiritualist worldview has revealed its own “’levitating’ periodic table of spiritual elements”: the angelic hierarchies (151). While Materialism risks digging itself ever deeper into the sand like a crab, Spiritualism risks fleeing the Earth entirely. Such polar tensions are the engine of the evolutionary adventure that has produced all that we see around us and feel within us.
As was mentioned above, despite insisting on the equal value of each of the twelve views, Betti follows Steiner in giving pride of place to Realism. “All worldviews rest like a bud within [it],” as it is “the fundamental human outlook par excellence” (197). “Cognition,” Steiner tells us in his autobiography, “is not the depiction of intrinsic being but rather the soul living its way into this intrinsic being” (quoted by Betti on 205). In other words, an act of knowing is not an internal mental representation of an external physical world; rather, knowing is a participatory event that is immanent to the world-process itself. “If knowledge did not exist,” Steiner continues, “the world would remain incomplete” (quoted by Betti on 206). This is obviously not a naïve realism: it is a higher realization rooted in Steiner’s participatory approach to knowledge and reality. This higher or participatory Realism is a developmental culmination of the other eleven worldviews, whereby through a sort of alchemical transfiguration the distinct capacities of thinking, feeling, sensing, and willing (each emphasized by their respective worldviews) are etherialized into what Betti calls “a new earth substance” (209). In this primordial etheric life substance, Betti tells us, the opposition between spirit and matter is overcome so that human consciousness can be raised and transubstantiated by the power of the Logos-Christ.
Some readers may have trouble following Betti and Steiner at this point, as these are rather mysterious matters, to say the least. But Betti’s book succeeds at least in leading all spiritually striving individuals to the point where they are able to perceive the intrinsic value of all worldviews. At that point, it is up to each of us to discover the true integral potential of our human existence. “The whole world, apart from the human being, is an enigma,” Steiner tells us. “And the human being is its solution” (quoted in Betti on 206).
1 Albert William Levy, Philosophy and the Modern World (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1959), 444-45.