Searching for Stars: A Conversation with Alan Lightman

Introduction to Process Philosophy

Below is a lecture recorded for the online course PARP 6060 02 – Introduction to Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at CIIS.edu.

I first discuss the meaning of philosophy from a Whiteheadian perspective, then run through a brief history of philosophy as relevant to process thought (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Kant and his immediate successors), and finish by offering a few key perspectives from Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.

Many streams of thought flow into and give shape to PCC’s perspective on the Universe and our human place within it. One of these streams is the process-relational tradition. This tradition is most often associated with the 20th century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), but many of Whitehead’s core insights can be traced back to the beginnings of Western philosophy in ancient Greece, and were carried forward and brilliantly developed by the German Idealists in the early 19th century. 

I hope my lecture helped give you some sense for the philosophical lineage that Whitehead drew upon and entered into dialogue with when he articulated his post-relativistic, post-quantum cosmological scheme in the 1920s and 30s. I have a feeling you agree, after reading the chapters I assigned from his book Modes of Thought (1938), that Whitehead is not an easy thinker to understand. But as someone who has been studying his work for almost a decade now, I can assure you it is well worth the effort to get to know the intimacies of his metaphysical scheme. Almost always it takes multiple readings to grok what he’s on about. All scientists employ instruments to aid them in their study. Philosophy’s instrument of inquiry, according to Whitehead, is language itself. Just like telescopes and microscopes, it takes a bit of practice to learn how to see with them. I encourage you to take Whitehead’s experiments in language seriously, even if they at first seem confusing. 

Whitehead boldly re-affirmed the grand tradition of speculative cosmology at a time when most academic philosophers were retreating from metaphysics into reductionistic materialism and logical positivism. Whitehead summed up the situation of his contemporaries: “…the science of nature stands opposed to the presuppositions of humanism. Where some conciliation is attempted, it often assumes some sort of mysticism. But in general there is no conciliation” (MoT 136). Modern science tells us we are matter in motion, while modern humanism insists we are free agents enjoying profound emotions. While the positivists busied themselves analyzing linguistic puzzles, pretending not to be metaphysical by ignoring the mind/matter dualism implicit in all their reasonings, Whitehead sought insight into creative depths as yet unspoken. Logical positivism attempted to reduce philosophy to the safety of settled science; Whitehead sought instead to engage philosophy as a poetic adventure in world-making. 

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done” (Aims of Education 164).

Whitehead’s cosmological vision is bold, but he may also deserve the title of humblest philosopher in history. “Philosophy begins in wonder,” he tells us. “And, at the end, when philosophy has done its best, the wonder remains” (MoT 168). “How shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things,” he tells us elsewhere. “In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (PR xiv). For Whitehead, philosophy’s aim is to purify emotion by eliciting some increase of understanding, to correct the initial excess of subjectivity in our consciousness so as to grant us a more cosmic perspective on reality. “Purifying” emotion doesn’t mean eliminating it by replacing it with logic; even knowledge, for Whitehead, is a complex form of feeling. The goal of “knowing” is not to explain the All once and for all (impossible in the open-ended, creative cosmos Whitehead imagines), but to elucidate our experience so as to bring more of the Great Mystery’s beauty into our awareness. 

Philosophy is akin to imaginative art, Whitehead tells us. It is the endeavor to creatively reframe naive experience so as to intensify our enjoyment of the meaning and potential of our existence. None of this is to say that Whitehead ignores the importance of science: “I assume as an axiom that science is not a fairy tale” (The Concept of Nature 40). Whitehead turned to philosophical cosmology late in his life (after a illustrious 30 year career as a Royal Society elected mathematician) precisely in order to save 20th century natural science from incoherence. He wanted to provide physics with a new and more adequate metaphysical foundation after quantum and relativity theories spelled the end of the Newtonian paradigm.

“In the present-day reconstruction of physics fragments of the Newtonian concepts are stubbornly retained. The result is to reduce modern physics to a sort of mystic chant over an unintelligible Universe. This chant has the exact merits of the old magic ceremonies which flourished in ancient Mesopotamia and later in Europe. One of the earliest fragments of writing which has survived is a report from a Babylonian astrologer to the King, stating the favorable days to turn cattle into the fields, as deduced by his observations of the stars. This mystic relation of observation, theory, and practice, is exactly the present position of science in modern life, according to the prevalent scientific philosophy. The notion of empty space, the mere vehicle of spatial interconnections, has been eliminated from recent science. The whole spatial universe is a field of force, or in other words, a field of incessant activity. The mathematical formulae of physics express the mathematical relations realized in this activity. The unexpected result has been the elimination of bits of matter, as the self-identical supports for physical properties. At first, throughout the nineteenth century, the notion of matter was extended. The empty space was conceived as filled with ether…The more recent revolution which has culminated in the physics of the present day has only carried one step further this trend of nineteenth century science…Matter has been identified with energy, and energy is sheer activity; the passive substratum composed of self-identical enduring bits of matter has been abandoned, so far as concerns any fundamental description…The modern point of view is expressed in terms of energy, activity, and the vibratory differentiations of space-time. Any local agitation shakes the whole universe. The distant effects are minute, but they are there. The concept of matter presupposed simple location. Each bit of matter was self-contained, localized in a region with a passive, static network of spatial relations, entwined in a uniform relational system from infinity to infinity and from eternity to eternity. But in the modern concept the group of agitations which we term matter is fused into its environment. There is no possibility of a detached, self-contained local existence. The environment enters into the nature of each thing” (MoT 138).

Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy is an attempt to integrate the latest scientific evidence with our moral, aesthetic, and spiritual intuitions regarding the ultimate nature of the Universe. Whitehead envisions the Universe as a creative becoming, a cosmogenesis. The creatures who inhabit his world are bound up together in an infinite web of evolving relations. Reason has often functioned to alienate humanity from its relations, but Whitehead offers another possibility. Whiteheadian rationality is guided by its commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself” (PR 4). To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of cosmic relationality. Any truth philosophy may seek can only ever be found here among us. 

Whiteheadian commentary on contemporary scientific cosmology: Are the fundamental constants changing?

The following is a lecture from a course I’m currently teaching called Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology: Toward a Physics of the World-Soul. Watch the PBS Space Time video first for context.

“The animal body is only the more highly organized and immediate part of the general environment for its dominant actual occasion [i.e., its consciousness], which is the ultimate percipient […] According to this interpretation, the human body is to be conceived as a complex ‘amplifier’ — to use the language of the technology of electromagnetism. The various actual entities, which compose the body, are so coordinated that the experiences of any part of the body are transmitted to one or more central occasions to be inherited with enhancements accruing upon the way, or finally added by reason of the final integration. The enduring personality is the historic route of living occasions which are severally dominant in the body at successive instants. 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 whereby a cosmic epoch shelters in itself intensity of satisfaction.”

-Alfred North Whitehead, Process & Reality, p. 119

Key terms:

1) Actual Occasions: the final realities of which the world is composed. Actual occasions are not “things” in space-time, but spatiotemporal events. Space-time is emergent from the relationships among actual occasions.

2) Eternal Objects: the “pure potentials” that characterize the experience of actual occasions. Eternal objects can be both quantitative/mathematical or qualitative (e.g., colors, sounds, tastes, etc.). They characterize the “how” of experience and have thus been described as “adjectival” and “adverbial” by Whiteheadian scholar Steven Shaviro. Eternal objects determine how actual entities relate to one another and “enter into each others’ constitutions” (PR, 148-149). An eternal object does not involve any necessary reference to a specific occasion of experience: an experience of two chairs and an experience of two cats are quite distinct experiences, but both ingress the same eternal object, “twoness,” that captures an identical essence participant in both situations. Eternal objects “ingress” into actual occasions, but don’t themselves cause actual occasions (Heller misleadingly claims that “an eternal object is a pure possibility which causes an actual entity to be what it is”; Whitehead is very clear that actual occasions are the only causes or reasons). 

How to think about the relation between actual occasions and eternal objects: Actual occasions, as the final realities of which the universe is composed, are self-creating buds of experience, each one uniquely itself even while it remains internally related to every other occasion in the creative community of the universe. Occasions are interrelated by way of the pattern of eternal objects characterizing for each of them the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the other occasions in their community. Eternal objects “interpret [occasions], each to the other,” such that they come to find themselves related to one another in an extended space-time continuum according to certain more or less stable geometric principles (SMW pgs. 137,145).

3)  Prehensions: If we ask what actual occasions are made of, the answer is “prehensions.” Prehensions are feelings that come in two pure forms: physical prehensions of already actualized occasions in our causal past, and conceptual prehensions of as yet unactualized possibilities (or eternal objects). Prehension is what allows actual occasions take one another up into their own being. It replaces the Cartesian notion of “representation,” whereby a mind was said to internally picture an external object. When an actual occasion prehends another occasion, it is not just constructing picture of that occasion, thus relating to it only indirectly; rather, it is feeling that occasion’s feelings directly. Each actual occasion is in some sense nothing but the multiplicity of prehensions of other occasions (as characterized adverbially by eternal objects) which it unifies. But in another sense, as a self-unifying creature, an occasion not only prehends and reiterates the realized spatiotemporal pattern of the settled past, it adds a novel actualization of value—itself—to the ongoing evolution of the universe.

4) Societies: Actual occasions group themselves together into societies. A society is a group of actual occasions that ingresses some shared defining characteristic or set of characteristics. These groupings are both spatial and temporal. Galaxies, stars, planets, organisms, and souls are all examples of societies of actual occasions.

Media Ecology Conference Paper

Later this month, St. Mary’s College of California will host the 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association. The conference theme is “Technology, Spirituality, Ecology.” My paper proposal was accepted. The abstract is below

Title: A Communicative Cosmos: Toward a Whiteheadian Media Ecology
Author: Matthew T. Segall, PhD
Affiliation: California Institute of Integral Studies
Contact: msegall@ciis.edu
415-575-6104

In this paper, I draw upon Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy in an attempt to expand the scope of media ecology beyond the exclusively humanistic charter given it by Neil Postman into more cosmic and divine waters. Postman defined media ecology as the critical study of how media technologies envelope and form cultures. He argued that human beings live in two different worlds: a natural environment and a media environment. At the dawn of the Anthropocene, such a bifurcation between nature and culture can no longer be taken for granted. If there ever was a salient distinction to be made between art and nature, advances in biotechnology and the severity of the ecological crisis have now irrevocably entangled cultural productions with physical processes. This paper builds on the process-relational cosmology of Whitehead, as well as recent work by media theorists including Mark B. N. Hansen, John D. Peters, and Andrew Murphie, to argue that the world itself is already a medium and thus can be conceived of as an evolving network of communicative processes in its own right. Recognizing that humans represent only one of the cosmos’ many forms of communicative being, and that basic semiotic processes (what Whitehead calls “prehensions”) operate even at the level of quantum events, opens up new theoretical perspectives on the study of media as environment and environment as media. Further, and relevant to this conference’s theme, becoming conscious of a communicative cosmos has profound technological, ecological, and perhaps even spiritual implications.

Towards a new root image in natural science…

Here is anthropologist Anne Buchanan on the post-truth era in natural science.

I was reminded of my post on the federally-funded Brain Initiative a few years ago.

Buchanan includes geneticist Ken Weiss’ list of facts that do not fit the reductionistic paradigm of “normal science” in biology at the end of her post.

Weiss and Buchanan have co-authored the book The Mermaid’s Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things

Though I haven’t read their book yet, Buchanan and Weiss’ perspective seems to dovetail nicely with what I argue (with Whitehead’s help) in Physics of the World-Soul: that the paradigm shift required to make sense of self-organizing dynamics active at the biological scale will also need to make sense of the self-organizing dynamics active at the quantum and astrophysical scales. In short, mechanical models describable solely in terms of efficient causation cannot account for the observable facts of physics or of biology. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image, and formal and final causation must be reincorporated into a more adequate naturalistic ontology—a naturalism wherein value and experience are intrinsic to every process of realty.