A Drunk History of Time: The Einstein, Bergson, Whitehead Debates

Is the flow of time a “stubbornly persistent illusion,” a mere psychological mirage, as Albert Einstein held? Or is it the very essence of all psychical life and material things alike, as Henri Bergson argued? Might there be an equally scientific rendering of relativity that does not force us to deny our lived experience, as Alfred North Whitehead preferred? Whose time is it? Join us for this drunk history lesson about the epochal clash between these three geniuses to find out.

*Errata: At 30:29, I misspoke: Einstein’s train thought experiment is, of course, in reference to the special, not the general theory of relativity. But Einstein first articulates it in a text meant for the general public that summarizes both theories. At 34:08, I misspoke again: Of course, since 2014, Russia has claimed Crimea as its own.

Lecture and notes on Part I of Whitehead’s “Process & Reality”

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)
  • 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
  1. “subjective unity”: incompleteness of many feelings in early phase find compatibility when integrated by subject
  2. “objective identity”: no duplicate elements in satisfaction of an actual entity
  3. “objective diversity”: diverse elements cannot exercise identical functions
  4. “conceptual valuation”: conceptual feelings of eternal objects are derived from physical feelings of other entities or of a nexus
  5. “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
  6. “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).
  7. “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”
  8. “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.
  9. “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).

“Electrons Don’t Think” by Sabine Hossenfelder

The following is a comment I posted on the physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog Backreaction to a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.”


Hi Sabine.

I discovered your blog last night after Googling “Carlo Rovelli and Alfred North Whitehead.” It brought me to Tam Hunt’s interview with Rovelli. I have been studying Rovelli’s popular works lately (I just finished The Order of Time) because I’d heard his loop quantum gravity might be a natural fit with Whitehead’s panexperiential process-relational ontology. I am a philosopher, not a physicist or a mathematician, so I struggle with many technical papers in physics journals (it is helpful when the author is kind enough to lay out the conceptual structure of the math). Luckily, I’ve noticed that popular books are the best place to look for a physicist’s natural philosophy and the best way to understand the metaphysical background of a physicist’s theories. I am looking forward to reading your book Lost in Math. It strikes me as another example of a larger trend in theoretical physics (also exemplified by Lee Smolin) that’s challenging the ascendency of mathematical speculation over experimental evidence and empiricism.

As for your post “Electrons Don’t Think”, I don’t know what panpsychist philosophy you read, but either it was badly written or you misunderstood it. There are, of course, many varieties of panpsychism, just as there are many varieties of materialism and idealism, etc. Perhaps the variety you read has misled you. The panpsychism of, for example, the mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was constructed precisely in order to provide a new metaphysical interpretation of the latest scientific evidence (including relativity, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories), since the old mechanistic materialism could no longer do the job in a coherent way. Panpsychism is metaphysics, not physics. A metaphysical scheme should aid in our philosophical interpretation of the physical evidence, not contradict it. Any philosopher whose metaphysics contradict the physical evidence is doing bad philosophy.

I like to distinguish between two main species of panpsychism:

1) substance-property panpsychism (Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and contemporary philosophers Philip Goff, Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers seem to me to fall into this category)

2) process-relational panpsychism (Friedrich Schelling, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, A. N. Whitehead)

I count myself among the later category, and following the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin, I prefer the term “panexperientialism” to panpsychism, since the idea is not that electrons have the full capacities of human psyches (reflective thinking, deliberate willing, artistic imagining, etc.) but that all self-organizing systems are possessed of at least some modicum of feeling, even if this feeling is faint and largely unconscious in the vast majority of systems. Human consciousness is an extremely rare and complex integration of the more primordial feelings of these self-organizing systems.

I unpack the differences between these species of panpsychism/panexperientialism at more length in this blog post. In short, the substance-property species of panpsychism has it that mind is an intrinsic property of all substance. This at least has the advantage over materialism that it avoids the hard problem of consciousness and provides a way out of the incoherence of dualism. But I think substance-property panpsychism is working with an overly abstract concept of consciousness. Consciousness is a relational process, not a quality inhering in a substance. Consciousness emerges between us, not in you or in me.

You write: panpsychism is “the idea that all matter – animate or inanimate – is conscious, we just happen to be somewhat more conscious than carrots. Panpsychism is the modern elan vital.”

I would say that panpsychism is the idea that all matter is animate. What is “matter,” anyway, other than activity, energy vectors, vibrations? Is there really such a thing as “inanimate” matter, that is, stuff that just sits there and doesn’t do anything? As for the “elan vital,” I suppose you are trying to compare panpsychism to vitalism? Vitalism is the idea that some spiritual agency exists separately from a merely mechanistic material and drives it around; it’s the idea that, for example, angels are pushing the planets around in their orbits. The panexperientialist cosmology I articulate in my book Physics of the World-Soul explicitly denies this sort of dualism between spirit and matter. Panexperientialism is the idea that spirit and matter are not two, that mechanism is merely an appearance, a part mistaken for a self-existing whole, and that ultimately Nature is organic and animate from top to bottom.


My Online Course this Fall: PARP 6133 – Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology

I’m teaching another online graduate course for CIIS.edu this Fall (Aug-Dec) called Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology: Toward a Physics of the World-Soul (PARP 6133). Here is the proposed syllabus.

Auditors and Special Students are welcome to enroll. Email me at msegall@ciis.edu for more information about how to do this.

Diagramming German Idealism

I’m teaching an online graduate course called Mind and Nature in German Idealism this semester. Below I am sharing several diagrams that I’ve developed to depict Kant’s transcendental method as it evolves through the first three critiques, as well as Fichte’s radicalization of the Kantian project. I hope to continue developing this diagram to elucidate Schelling, Goethe, and Hegel’s approaches, but I’m not entirely sure what that will look like yet!

Mind and Nature in German Idealism, a graduate course


I’m very excited to teach a 10-week online course at CIIS next semester (Spring 2017, running from Jan – Mar) called Mind and Nature in German Idealism. The course includes readings and lectures on Kant, Fichte, Goethe, Hegel, and Schelling. Note that you do not need to be enrolled in a graduate program at CIIS in order to take the course. You can also apply for “special student” status (if you want the 2 units of credit), or you can audit (if you don’t care about the academic credit). Contact me if you have any questions (msegall@ciis.edu).

Here is the tentative syllabus.

Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead by Seth Segall

Check out this interesting post by my cousin, Seth Segall, over at the Existential Buddhist. The topics Seth discusses include whether consciousness is emergent from or intrinsic to the physical world, the place of values (human or otherwise) in the universe, and the variety of God concepts available to those willing to philosophize about such matters. Seth also compares the ideas of the 13th century Zen Buddhist monk Dogen, the 17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza, and the 20th century mathematician and cosmologist A.N. Whitehead.


Seth writes:

I could never believe in a supernatural, anthropomorphic God, an omniscient autocrat standing outside of creation, judging it, and miraculously intervening in accordance with our prayers and petitions—in other worlds, the kind of God that Whitehead describes as having the attributes of “a Caesar.” “God talk” doesn’t interest me or turn me on. As I’ve mentioned in another post, when I hear “God” mentioned in a Dharma talk, my mind wanders off.  But how different — really — are Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s naturalistic, creative, immanent Gods from Dogen’s understanding of the dharmakaya? How different is Whitehead’s God who experiences the experiences of the world and nudges us towards love and beauty from Dogen’s compassionate Avalokitesvara who hears the cries of the world and awakens us to wisdom beyond wisdom? Even if one dispenses with Gods and Buddhas, if mentality, morality and aesthetics can be features of reality right down to the bone, why can’t reality also include some non-supernatural “spiritual” dimension as well? Some beneficial principle that encourages us and the world towards greater love and compassion, beauty and understanding, and our own best selves? I’m not convinced, like Whitehead and Spinoza, that God is either necessary or tenable, but I’m more open to consider it than I once was. That’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist; it’s what keeps me from joining the secularist camp.

I appreciate Seth’s pragmatic (in the Jamesian sense) approach to these questions. I do not pretend to any metaphysical certainty about the existence of the Whiteheadian or any other God. From my perspective, we inhabit a cosmos that is always on the edge of chaos with nothing guaranteeing continued peace, goodness, or beauty. I do believe these ideals are realized in the ongoing genesis of this universe to a degree far greater than mere chance, but I cannot go so far as to claim they are metaphysical necessities. I think the process-relational God articulated by Whitehead allows us to recognize the realization of these ideals as somewhere in-between utterly contingent and totally necessary. They are potentials freely realized by the creatures of this cosmos because of their intrinsic desirability. Nothing is to stop any particular being in some particular circumstance from desiring otherwise. On the other hand, Whitehead makes it clear that we cannot speak of a “cosmic order” without already assuming the realization of an ideal of beauty. For Whitehead, all order is aesthetic order. In other words, no beauty, no cosmos. So the fact that there is a cosmos at all is already evidence enough that the scales are tipped toward harmony.