Auditors are welcome, though space is limited. Email me at email@example.com for more information.
One of our core texts in this course will be my Physics of the World-Soul (a new third edition soon to be published).
Auditors are welcome, though space is limited. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
One of our core texts in this course will be my Physics of the World-Soul (a new third edition soon to be published).
Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature
“[Creativity] prevents us from considering the temporal world as a definite actual creature. For the temporal world is an essential incompleteness.” -Whitehead188
Epperson argues that Whitehead’s account of the process of concrescence, the centerpiece of his metaphysical scheme, provides “an extremely precise, phase-by-phase exemplification” of contemporary “decoherence-based interpretations” of quantum mechanics.189 Unlike the instrumentalist interpretations that have spun off Niels Bohr’s account of quantum effects in terms of epistemological “complementarity,” quantum decoherence offers a fully fledged ontological description of quantum reality.190 Further, unlike Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation, the decoherence-based approach provides a more ontologically parsimonious, not to mention less empirically question begging, account of the unfolding of the physical universe. And finally, unlike the quantum cosmogonies offered by Hawking and Krauss, which purport to explain the random emergence of the actual universe ex nihilo from the sheer potentiality of the “quantum void,” decoherence-based interpretations avoid the logical incoherence of having to posit a realm of pure potentiality utterly independent of, and somehow responsible for generating, concrete actuality.191 Whitehead, as discussed earlier, also describes something akin to the “quantum void,” or “vacuum,” from which all potency is ceaselessly born: Creativity. But, in order to maintain the coherence of the fundamental categories of his metaphysical scheme (such that all ideas require one another for their meaning), the sheer potentiality of Creativity is said always to be conditioned by at least one actual creature.192 The primordial creature of Creativity is God. Subsequently to God, Creativity also comes to be conditioned by the passage into objective immortality of finite actual occasions.193 Potentiality, in other words, has never been untouched by actuality.
The decoherence interpretation of quantum mechanics, like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, presupposes the givenness of facts, rather than trying to offer some arbitrary ex nihilo explanation of their spontaneous appearance. According to Epperson,
…actuality is necessarily presupposed by…potentiality, such that the latter cannot be abstracted from the former. This is both a logical requirement and a requirement of quantum mechanics, which describes the evolution of actual facts and their associated potentia–not the evolution of vacuous potentia into actuality.194
In other words, quantum mechanical descriptions presuppose actuality, and so cannot explain its emergence by reference only to potentiality. Nonetheless, potentiality does have a significant role to play in both decoherence-based and Whiteheadian accounts of the evolution of the universe. In 1958, probably independently of Whitehead’s earlier re-incorporation, Werner Heisenberg argued that quantum effects demanded that something like Aristotle’s concept of “potentia” be brought back into the philosophy of nature.195 The decoherence interpretation describes the way a quantum event, or wave-function, first arises from the actualized facts of the past, evaluates the potentia relevant to its situation, and finally selects among those potentia to bring about the collapse of its wave-function, thereby realizing some novel actual fact.196 It is a process of “evolutions from actuality to potentiality to actuality.”197 In Whitehead’s terms, the concrescence of an actual occasion passes through several phases: 1) the occasion prehends the initial data provided to it by the multiplicity of objectively immortal occasions making up its past actual world, negatively prehending those elements which are irrelevant to its situation, 2) the occasion, through a process of integration of simpler feelings into more complex feelings, unifies its many prehensions of its actual world into one, objective datum, 3) the objective datum is felt by the subjective form of the occasion, which is the complex qualitative pattern of eternal objects characterizing how this occasion experiences its world, 4) the occasion, having satisfied its subjective form, perishes into objective immortality to become the data prehended by further occasions.198 The end result of this process is the emergence of a novel actuality.
Earlier, in a discussion of the inherent limits to our experience of simultaneity based upon the finite (but invariant) speed of light, I mentioned a further complexity based upon quantum non-locality and the difference between efficient and formal causality. Efficient causes are those influences involving the direct transmission of feeling from one actual occasion or society of occasions to another, as when a flashlight shines in my eyes or a baseball breaks through a window. They are physical causes. Formal causes, from both a Whiteheadian perspective on reality more generally and a decoherence-based perspective on quantum physics more specifically, can involve instantaneous, non-local affection of the potenia of distant actual occasions. These are conceptual causes. To illustrate the difference, Epperson uses the example of an asteroid that has just been knocked by a comet into a collision course with Earth.199 Although in terms of physical influence, we will not know about the incoming astroid until the photons reflecting off its surface reach Earth, in conceptual, or potential, terms, the astroid’s change of course has instantaneously affected the potenia describing Earth’s ongoing evolution. Further clarifying the difference between efficient and formal causality, Epperson writes:
“Causal influence,” in the Whiteheadian scheme, is operative in the physical pole or primary stage (the conformal phase, or phase of causal efficacy), and is bound by the speed of light according to the theory of special relativity; “causal affection” is operative in the mental pole or supplementary stage, and is not limited by special relativity.200
If the local relativisitic relationships of causal influence among actual occasions were not supplemented by the non-local quantum relationships of logically ordered potenia, the reality of an asymmetrical passage of time from closed past to open future would be impossible to account for. On the purely relativistic reading, time is symmetrical: causality works just the same whether you run it forward or backward. But from the perspectives of quantum decoherence, thermodynamics, Whitehead’s process philosophy, and our own direct experience, time is intrinsically irreversible.201
The physical account of the decoherence of a wave-function and the metaphysical account of the concrescence of an actual occasion both imply a panexperientialist ontology of constructive becomings, rather than a materialist ontology of ready-made beings. In a materialist ontology, reality is identified with actuality.202 This implies that nothing new ever really emerges, since all that can be has already been actualized. Change is merely apparent, the re-shuffling of static parts that are externally related. In an ensouled process ontology like Whitehead’s, actuality and potentiality are organically integrated so as to allow for a genuinely creative cosmos where, though the past is settled, the future remains wildly open. New forms of fact are always emerging, though none ever exists in isolation from its environment. “In sharp contrast [to mechanistic materialism],” writes Epperson,
[in] Whitehead’s cosmology as exemplified by the decoherence interpretations of quantum mechanics, the universe is…characterized as a fundamentally complex domain with an inherent aim toward an ideal balance of reproduction and reversion–a balance formative of a nurturing home for a seemingly infinitely large family of complex adaptive systems such as ourselves.203
Epperson explicitly connects Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, along with the decoherence-based account of quantum mechanics, to efforts in the complexity sciences to account for the regularity and diversity achieved by the various examples of emergent order at all scales in nature.204 In Whitehead’s terms, emergence concerns the achievement by actual occasions of novel forms of “structured society,” be they physical (atoms, stars), biological (cells, plants), or psychological (animals, humans).205
For contemporary complexity scientist Terrence Deacon, mentioned earlier, coherent accounts of emergence also depend upon the ontologization of potentiality along side actuality. Deacon coins the term “absential” to refer to those features of nature that, while not physically present, nonetheless have an important role to play in the emergence of the higher order organizational levels of biology and psychology.206 These role of these absential features would suggest that nature is in some sense “incomplete.” The recognition of this incompleteness leads Deacon to flirt with something like Whitehead’s panexperientialist process ontology, where
no object, event, or interaction–down to the most fundamental physical interactions, such as between elementary particles–is complete in itself, [meaning that] all aspects of physical causality implicitly depend on something extrinsic that is not physically present “there.”207
But in the end, Deacon remains unsatisfied with Whitehead’s approach, since it seems to assume what he is setting out to explain, namely, how experience and value emerge later on up the scale of complexity from otherwise numb, purposeless matter. Deacon attempts to avoid what he calls “homuncular” accounts of the emergence of complexity from physical processes, which he says include information theoretic accounts as well as Whitehead’s. Information theory suggests that all physical processes can be interpreted as computation-performing operations.208 As a result, physical processes “can be treated as though [they have] mentalistic properties.”209 Although Deacon admits to being favorably influenced by Whitehead early in his career, especially in respect to his attempt to save realism as against nominalism in natural philosophy, he eventually became dissatisfied by Whitehead’s seeming need to “[sneak] in homunculi at a very, very low level…the level of subatomic quantum events.”210 From Deacon’s scientific perspective, building in anything like purpose or feeling at the basement level of actuality doesn’t explain anything; rather, only “if you can show how [these are] generated [will] you have an explanation for [them].”211
From Whitehead’s philosophical perspective, science cannot explain the emergence of experiential qualities like value, purpose, and feeling out of dumb physical activity. Whitehead’s understanding of what constitutes a proper explanation seems to be the reverse of Deacon’s, in that for Whitehead, natural philosophy cannot explain the emergence of what is concrete (i.e., value and experience), but only of what is abstract. New possibilities are always emerging into actuality (or in Whitehead’s terms, novel eternal objects are always ingressing); actuality itself, on the other hand, must be intrinsically evaluative for explanations of such emergence to remain rational instead of miraculous. The emergence of complex forms of organization like galaxies and stars, for example, already requires an explanation in terms of some aim intrinsic to physical activity. “The element of value,” writes Whitehead,
of being valuable, of having value, of being an end in itself, of being something which is for its own sake, must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event.212
In other words, no value, no reality. Akin to Deacon’s scientific desire to avoid humuncular explanations is Whitehead’s philosophical desire to avoid employing the dubious concept of “vacuous actuality.” This concept “haunts realistic philosophy,”213 according to Whitehead, which is born out by the example of Deacon’s realism, where experience is purported to emerge from dumb matter. “Apart from the experience of [actual occasions],” writes Whitehead, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”214
This fundamental divergence of metaphysical first principles may at first seem like a matter impossible to settle other than by subjective preference. As mentioned earlier, aside from their metaphysical differences, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biological and psychological forms of organization can be read as adding much needed specificity to Whitehead’s more general account. In this sense, their approaches are complimentary. But there are other criteria from which to judge the overall coherence of each of their approaches.
Deacon claims to prefer a perspective of radical emergence, wherein infinitely many novel forms of organization are possible, while he regards Whitehead’s cosmological scheme as somehow restricting the open-endedness of emergent evolution.215 On the other hand, Deacon admits that there are limits on the evolution of this novelty, offering a rather sophisticated account of these limits based upon the notion of hierarchically nested constraints.216 The question is, what constrains the emergence of novelty at the cosmic, rather than specifically biological or psychological scale? According to Deacon’s scientific account, cosmic constraint is afforded by the interplay between the biased probability of entropic orthograde processes and the emergent contragrade processes supported by thermodynamic work.217 Once constraints at the thermodynamic level are established, higher-order constraints can emerge to secure what Deacon calls “morphodynamic”, and then “teleodynamic,” modes of organization.
Whitehead also offers an account of limitation, but his rests on a far more general, and therefore metaphysical, basis. As discussed in a preceding section, the unfathomable potency of Creativity being the ultimate category of his scheme, Whitehead needed a principle of limitation, or concretion, to account for how anything of definite value could come to exist. Whitehead calls his principle of limitation, or concretion, “God.” Instead of basing limitation on some particular tendency in the physical world, as Deacon does, Whitehead asks what must be the case, metaphysically speaking, for physical “tendencies” to be possible at all: “What is the status of the enduring stability of the order of nature?”218 Whitehead’s answer to this question depends, again, on what is to count as a valid means of explanation. From his perspective, the aim of any genuine philosophical explanation is to produce “self-evidence,” or “sheer disclosure.”219 This aim can never be finally realized due to the fact that “language halts behind intuition.”220 In this sense, “all explanation must end in an ultimate arbitrariness.”221 Nevertheless, although total disclosure cannot finally be achieved, the penetration of our understanding can be increased.222
Many contemporary scientists, Deacon included, would seem to have little patience for traditional theology. Whitehead generally shares their distaste for those philosophers and theologians who, “anxious to establish the religious significance of God,” succumbed to the unfortunate habit of paying him “metaphysical compliments.”223 The God of Western religion has tended to be fashioned in the image of an imperial ruler.224 Rather than making God an exception to the principles holding true of every other actual occasion, Whitehead’s God is “their chief exemplification.”225 Why then does Whitehead risk the scorn of atheistic or agnostic scientists and philosophers by calling his principle of concretion “God”? “Because,” writes Whitehead,
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.226
God’s primordial act of concretion cannot be rationally explained, since this divine act provides the foundation for rationality.227 That the universe has some definite character, some order, realized along certain limits despite the onrush of Creativity possessing no intrinsic reasons of its own, requires explanation. But in attempting to explain how this definite order could be possible, we come to the very limits of reason. As a panexperientialist, Whitehead’s allegiance is ultimately to empiricism. “The general principle of empiricism,” he writes,
depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason. What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis.228
It follows from Whitehead’s allegiance to empiricism that the progress of the general science of metaphysics and the special sciences alike depends upon a certain faith, or “ultimate moral intuition into the nature of intellectual action.”229 Whitehead’s approach also has rationalist aspects, but he always checks the impulse for theoretical explanation with the requirement that “there be ‘given’ elements so as to form the material for theorizing.”230 God is such an element, the primordial reason conditioning the creative flux, though not itself rationally explainable.
As discussed earlier, God is that actual entity responsible for grading the relevance of the infinite multiplicity of eternal objects. “Apart from God,” writes Whitehead, “there could be no relevant novelty.”231 In other words, it is God’s primordial role to provide each concrescing actual occasion with possibilities graded as relevant to the givenness of its unique situation. Without this provision, eternal objects yet to be realized in the actual world would be all but non-existent for the occasion in question.232 It follows from Whitehead’s ontological principle that as of yet unactualized possibilities, or eternal objects, cannot float into actuality from nowhere.233 Eternal objects yet to be actualized by any finite actual occasion have already been conceptually prehended by the divine non-temporal actual occasion. God is that non-temporal actual occasion which conceptually prehends, and thereby evaluates, the infinite set of eternal objects, thereby adjusting, or conditioning, creativity so as to allow a definite order to emerge in the ongoing course of cosmogenesis. “The adjustment is the reason for the world,” writes Whitehead; he continues:
It is not the case that there is an actual world which accidentally happens to exhibit an order of nature. There is an actual world because there is an order in nature. If there were no order, there would be no world. Also since there is a world, we know that there is an order. The ordering entity [God] is a necessary element in the metaphysical situation presented by the actual world.234
In respect to Deacon’s desire both to “save Plato, or to save realism,”235 and to describe a cosmos with open-ended possibilities of emergent order, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved without some cosmic principle of concretion to provide the basis for the emergence of forms of order relevant to the actual occasions, or societies of occasions, in question. That biological and psychological forms of order have emerged in the course of time would be nothing short of a miracle unless the tendency to harmony was basic to creation itself, already there “in the beginning.” Epperson likens this harmonious tendency, or “subjective aim” provided by God “by which nature regulates herself without determining herself,” to the concept of “effective complexity” employed in complexity theory.236 It could be said that this tendency is “built in” to the universe, but this phrase is likely to foster an image of a transcendent divine craftsman who programmed every detail of the universe, “building in” its properties before the moment of creation even occurred. In his famous cosmological dialogue Timaeus, Plato uses a similar image to tell his “likely story” about the genesis of the cosmos. Timaeus also employs other images to account for cosmogenesis, including that of an indwelling World-Soul, and that of a formless mediatrix for form called the Receptacle. Were Plato alive today, he may have emphasized these latter images as the more appropriate rhetorical choices for mythologizing his cosmology. Whitehead not only attempts to “save Plato” from the myth of a transcendent demiurge, but also to save modern theology from the jealous tyrant imagined by Job, and modern science from the deistic mechanical engineer imagined by Newton. To do so, he re-imagines God as immanent to every finite actual occasion, the cause of their feeling an “urge towards the future based upon an appetite in the present.”237 God does not determine the specific decision each finite occasion will make regarding this “initial aim.” God only supplies each occasion with the complex feeling of the graded relevance of all the possibilities available to it in any given moment. Which of these possibilities it chooses to realize is a free decision on its part, a freedom conditioned also by the objective immortality of the past decisions of all the other historical routes of concrescence populating its cosmic community. God’s valuation is persuasive enough that a cosmos with not only stars and galaxies, but living planets and intelligent civilizations has emerged. In the final section, the implications of Whitehead’s reformed Platonism will be explored, with special attention paid to the need to mythologize his metaphysics so as to excite the aesthetic, emotional, and moral appetites in a way that purely rational discourse cannot.
188 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 80.
189 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 129.
190 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 33.
191 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 18; Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, xiv.
192 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 3.
193 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.
194 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 7
195 Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 185.
196 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 8-9.
197 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.
198 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 221.
199 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii-xiii.
200 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 228.
201 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 234.
202 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.
203 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 17.
204 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 198.
205 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 100.
206 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 3.
207 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 78.
208 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 75.
209 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 374.
210 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.
211 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.
212 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89.
213 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.
214 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 167.
215 “I see emergence as an open-ended process, while [Whitehead] does not,” Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.
216 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 423cf.
217 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 230, 247.
218 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.
219 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.
220 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.
221 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.
222 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 51.
223 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.
224 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 342.
225 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.
226 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31-32.
227 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.
228 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.
229 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.
230 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.
231 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.
232 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.
233 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.
234 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 91.
235 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.
236 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 236.
237 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32.
Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory
“The general principles of physics are exactly what we should expect as a specific exemplification of the metaphysics required by the philosophy of organism.” -Whitehead103
Since its eruption in the 17th century, modern science has instigated profound re-orientations in the outlook and self-conception of European civilization. More recently, in the last century and a half, various discoveries have forced upon science the need for no less fundamental a transformation of its own presupposed materialistic-mechanistic ontology. This transformation, understood in the light of Whitehead’s organic ontology, is the focus of this section. To begin, let us take stock of what has happened: In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, wherein he described, according to the special abstractions proper to biology, a process which would later come to be known more generally as the theory of evolution:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.104
In the early 1880s, while Whitehead was still a student of mathematics at Cambridge, “physics was supposed to be nearly a closed subject,” with just a few minor details left to be explained in terms of Newton’s fundamental principles. “No one sensed what was coming,” according to Whitehead: “By 1900, the Newtonian physics were demolished, done for!”105 The whole notion of fixed laws of nature imposed upon the behavior of ready-made material particles in absolute time and space, which Darwin’s mechanistic biology took for granted as its foundation, had been called into question by relativity and quantum theories. “The appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology,” wrote Whitehead in 1925,
was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena. But at present there is no such system of concepts.106
Arguably, almost a century after Whitehead’s remark, physical science still lacks anything approaching such a systematic account of nature. While several candidate theories uniting relativistic and quantum effects have been proposed, due to lack of empirical confirmation or mathematical coherence, none of them has succeeded in garnering the widespread support of the physics community. Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is generally understood to have successfully unified quantum mechanics with at least special relativity, but because it leaves out gravitational effects, and because its approach remains largely instrumental, it does little in the way of providing a truly unifying theory of nature.107 According to physicist Leon Lederman,
Gravity is our number one problem as we attempt to combine particle physics with cosmology…Here we are like the ancient Greeks, waiting and watching for something to happen, not able to experiment…Without bringing the gravitational force into the family of quantum forces, we’ll never understand the details of the Big Bang or, in fact, the deep, deep structure of elementary particles.108
Though it remains mechanistic in orientation, unlike 19th century physics QED can longer claim that its mechanical accounts reflect a reality independent of its experimental instruments. What was originally a mechanistic ontology meant to explain nature has become a mechanistic epistemology meant to operationally describe it; as a result, metaphysical realism in science has devolved into nominalism. This allows instrumentalist approaches to quantum mechanics to avoid the philosophical challenge of having to integrate the spooky paradoxes of wave/particle duality and non-locality into their hypothesized materialist ontology. Instead, as Whiteheadian physicist Michael Epperson suggests, instrumentalists can defer their philosophical failings by invoking the fact that “quantum mechanics is simply a tool used to predict the outcomes of measurements under specific conditions.”109 Even if its mechanistic models cannot be unambiguously proven to reflect the reality of nature in itself, “nature” (whatever it is) can be forced, at least under laboratory conditions, to agree with QED’s operational predictions to an extremely high degree of statistical accuracy. According to philosopher of science Karl Popper, this instrumentalist mindset among physicists is a result of a lack of respect for the importance of philosophy in framing the way problems are posed in physics: “It is a tradition which may easily lead to the end of science and its replacement by technology.”110
Supposing a properly physical (if not fully metaphysical) “grand unifying theory” is eventually discovered, there still remains the philosophical problem of unifying physics with biology, psychology, and spirituality. During the later half of the 20th century, a number of explanatory and descriptive strategies began to be developed in an attempt to tackle aspects of this problem, all of which could be said to fall under the general umbrella of complex systems theory. Many of these scientific approaches to theretofore intractable philosophical problems became possible, not because humanity suddenly developed a finer imagination, but rather because we developed finer technological instruments.111 Computer modeling now provides scientists with God-like powers of simulation; however, deep philosophical issues remain regarding how such simulations can be said to relate to reality.
Keeping the limits of modeling in mind, the key concept that has arisen out of work on complexity theory is undoubtedly that of emergence. Simply defined, emergence is that process by which the components of a system begin to interact in such a way that the behavior of the system as a system can no longer be understood by reduction to the sum of its components. Even more succinctly put, emergence is said to have occurred whenever a whole exhibits properties which are greater than the sum of its parts. The most recent attempt to unify the emergent stages of nature by applying the principles of complexity is that of biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). Regarding the history of the concept of emergence, Deacon writes that
it has been used to describe the way that living and mental processes depend upon chemical and physical processes, yet exhibit collective properties not exhibited by non-living and non-mental processes, and in many cases appear to violate the ubiquitous tendencies exhibited by these component interactions.112
Deacon’s path-breaking scientific work in this area provides an ideal comparison with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, in that both seek to articulate a processual account of the universe no longer restricted to the efficient causes of strict mechanism, or to the nominalist epistemology of instrumentalism, but open to the creative organic influence of formal and final causality. The two also provide an ideal contrast, in that they each set out to think nature on somewhat different metaphysical footing. Whitehead begins his path by balancing his thinking upon the speculative stance that experience pervades the natural world, which is to say that a universally communicated texture of experience links everything in the cosmos.113 Deacon begins his climb toward knowledge of nature from a somewhat off-kilter panmaterialist posture that assumes experience and value (in his terms, “ententionality”) emerge atop a basically purposeless material flux. Despite their differing philosophical presuppositions, it is nevertheless possible to re-interpret Deacon’s scientific contribution as a specific application of Whitehead’s more general cosmological scheme. In other words, despite Deacon’s dissatisfaction with panexperientialism, without something like Whitehead’s radical reconstruction of the metaphysical foundations of scientific materialism, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biotic and psychic phenomena from physics and chemistry remains literally incomplete. Deacon’s and Whitehead’s approaches are compared and contrasted in more detail in a later subsection. The philosophical commitments differentiating their approaches to the emergence of complexity should become clearer if I first unpack Whitehead’s startlingly novel interpretations of 20th century physics and his cosmological generalization of evolutionary theory.
103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 116.
104 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1859/2004), 384. Darwin added the words “by the Creator” in the second edition.
105 Lucien Price, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Mentor, 1954), 277.
106 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.
107 Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 277cf.
108 Lederman, The God Particle, 99.
109 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004), 33.
110 Karl Popper, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1956), 100.
111 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 107.
112 Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 549.
113 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.
Krauss: …Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can’t spell the word “philosophy,” aren’t justified in talking about these things, or haven’t thought deeply about them—
Is that really a claim that you see often?
Krauss: It is. Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.
“Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating.”
“…it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.”
“When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile. Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant. In science, there are no authorities, and appeal to quotes from brilliant scholars who lived before we knew the Earth orbited the Sun, or that space can be curved, or that dark matter or dark energy exist do not generally inform our current understanding of nature. Empirical explorations ultimately change our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not.”
If all possibilities—all universes with all laws—can arise dynamically, and if anything that is not forbidden must arise, then this implies that both nothing and something must both exist, and we will of necessity find ourselves amidst something. A universe like ours is, in this context, guaranteed to arise dynamically, and we are here because we could not ask the question if our universe weren’t here. It is in this sense that I argued that the seemingly profound question of why there is something rather than nothing might be actually no more profound than asking why some flowers are red or some are blue. I was surprised that this very claim was turned around by the reviewer as if it somehow invalidated this possible physical resolution of the something versus nothing conundrum.
Instead, sticking firm to the classical ontological definition of nothing as “the absence of anything”—whatever this means—so essential to theological, and some subset of philosophical intransigence, strikes me as essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying. If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing’. It may be that even an eternal multiverse in which all universes and laws of nature arise dynamically will still leave open some ‘why’ questions, and therefore never fully satisfy theologians and some philosophers. But focusing on that issue and ignoring the remarkable progress we can make toward answering perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the something from nothing question—understanding why there is ‘stuff’ and not empty space, why there is space at all, and how both stuff and space and even the forces we measure could arise from no stuff and no space—is, in my opinion, impotent, and useless.
Krauss’ rejection of Leibniz’s famous question, “why is there something, rather than nothing?” reminds me a lot of Meillassoux in After Finitude. In the end, though, Krauss’ universe is made up of “stuff” and “space.” I don’t think it is inconsequential that he fails to mention time (be sure to watch Albert’s video linked above on time if you’ve read this far). It is the false spatialization of time that first sent physics astray from Naturphilosophie. Time is intensity, not extension. Krauss can’t help but picture the pre-big bang quantum vacuum of “no stuff and no space” as some kind of stuff in space. What if we temporalize the question of the nature of the physical universe, relating to it not as a given thing or set of things, but as an evolving community of life, a growing, changing, ensouled creature (ensouled, as in not just stuff in space, but an unfolding process)? All the sudden, the big bang is no longer an event which happened back then, 13.7 billion years ago. Creation is what the universe is still doing. Plato already intuited the fundamental presupposition of physical cosmology in Timaeus (Krauss’ formulation is but an obscure footnote): something (the limited) and nothing (the unlimited) have always already been mixed. This mixing constitutes the life of the universe as a moving image of eternity.
The Limits of Language
It seems ironic, at least in light of the premise of this paper, that the thoughts of a man such as Socrates could have given birth to the last twenty-four hundred years of Western philosophical discourse. Was it not he who said “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”? Was it not also he who wandered the streets of Athens constantly reminding his fellow countrymen that they did not know exactly what they meant by the words they were using? And was it not he who suggested that our merely human means of expression is an insufficient tool for the task we have employed it with, namely the pursuit of Truth? Maybe it isn’t ironic at all, for what else could humanity, after having conquered nature to the extent that leisure time became the norm rather than the exception, busy its rational intelligence with but the insoluble game of philosophy? That philosophy is a game that cannot be won, and that is therefore necessarily unconcerned with Truth, is the central premise of this paper. This premise will be elucidated in a detailed look at the medium of language and the impossibility of its describing the fundamental nature of reality itself.
To say that the game of philosophy cannot provide Truth is to say that its mode of operation is incongruent with the apprehension of the ultimate. This is so simply because all philosophy must be done using language, and no thoughts can be written down (or spoken) without unconscious metaphysical assumptions about reality built into them. As one philosopher put it (Alan Watts), “Language based on the sentence composed of subject, verb, and predicate contains the hidden belief system that events are started by nouns—by things.” If we look unassumingly at the natural world, its interconnected nature is hard to miss. Nowhere in nature do we find the separate categories of the sentence; all in nature goes together. Our unconscious assumptions contaminate pure reality, making it impossible for the philosopher to see past the self-invented syntax of his mind. Only poets retain the ability to feel with their language, creating imagery that displays a truth all at once before the mind’s eye. In contrast, for a philosophical treatise to be taken seriously, it must adhere to the strict rules of logic and exhibit a rational structure. Its truths must therefore become linear and flat, losing the extra dimensions present in more musical, directly apprehended presentations. When such treatises concern the nature of reality, and therefore, of Truth, how is it that they deduce that reality itself is rational? On what is such an assertion based? We must save this question for later, saying only that it originates from a misunderstanding of the nature of Truth. For now we will maintain that it is impossible to make such an assertion, as reality itself is neither rational nor irrational, but arational. That is, reality itself is unconcerned with the categories of the human mind, being neither ordered nor chaotic, but both at the same time.
A lot has been asserted thus far, and in order that it is properly understood and defended, we must now begin a bit of unpacking. Examples will be drawn from quantum physics, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Plato and the Pythagorean school of Ancient Greece, as well as various other insights from mystical traditions and persons.
To begin, we must further define Truth. A range of definitions are possible, but for our purposes, Truth shall be synonymous with reality as it actually is. Reality as it actually is, in this case, means reality before words and concepts break it up into more understandable bits and pieces. Truth then, is not something that can be communicated or described in its entirety in any way. Descriptions that point the way toward Truth may be called knowledge, but ultimately, they are relative. In other words, knowledge is always provisional: its validity is dependent upon certain preconditions remaining constant. Its conditional nature is exemplified by the progress of science, as new paradigms replace the old and our knowledge adapts to fresh observations.
The fresh observations made by physicists in the past century of the smallest bits of matter yet discovered are still struggling to find their proper context in a coherent universal theory of the physical world. In fact, to call the observed phenomena “the smallest bits” of matter may be misleading, as it would be just as correct to refer to them as waves, or patterns of probability spread throughout space and time. But the true physical make-up of the world is not our problem at the moment. Our problem, and the problem of most of the greatest physicists of the past hundred years, concerns the impossibility of ever knowing the true physical make-up of the world. The so-called “physical” nature of the world is not a verifiable aspect of reality. Physicality is merely one of the silently agreed upon assumptions made about the structure of reality that allows us to communicate meaningfully about it. Meaning, in this sense, is nothing more than correspondence. Meaning allows one aspect of the world to correspond to another using various types of representation. Nouns are used to represent especially pronounced or rigid aspects of our environment, while verbs are used to represent the more fluid and rhythmic aspects. But at their constituent level, “All the words or concepts we use to describe ordinary physical objects, such as position, velocity, color, size, and so on, become indefinite and problematic,” as Physicist Werner Heisenberg has said. Heisenberg wasn’t alone in his skepticism of language’s ability to reflect reality, as Erwin Schrödinger, Albert Einstein, Louis de Broglie, Sir James Jeans, Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauli, and Sir Arthur Eddington all agreed. They all believed that to think about the question of quantum physics as if it hinged on the indeterminate nature of the “wavicles” that composed the physical world was to misunderstand the situation entirely. The actual problem was that the physical world, with its supposed separate events and individual objects, was nothing more than a way of speaking. Author Eddington put it wonderfully: “We have found that where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but regained from nature that which the mind has put into nature. We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And Lo! it is our own.” This suggests that human descriptions of the world, down even to the most detailed and abstract of mathematical equations, are not aspects of the world itself, but are superimposed upon it by the linguistically trained mind.
The problem is essentially that all scientific knowledge, having to be syntactically arranged in order to be communicated, necessarily negates the observer. In other words, as Schrödinger explains, “We do not belong to this material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators.” Our direct experience of the world, however, is a constant reminder that we are not passive observers, but active participants. We are in the world, inseparable from it. In this context, it becomes apparent why a being who lives in (and who, in fact, is) reality, but nonetheless wishes to, at the same time, objectively describe that reality, is in for quite a surprise. Were one to succeed at such a task, they would need to devise means no less astonishing than those required to lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.
Our language ignores this issue, though, by imposing an a priori separation between observer and observed, or between subject and object. In other words, language becomes useful only when one agrees to assume that each observer has an independent center of consciousness apart from all others, i.e. an individual mind. But this arbitrary distinction between opposite poles of the same essence may actually create more problems than it seems to solve; namely, the problem of the existence of minds other than my own.
The problem of other minds is such that any proposed solution remains frustratingly unverifiable. Behaviorists claim what you directly observe is all that there is, thereby negating the necessity of paying the mind any attention at all. This seems quite silly, though, as such an assertion seems almost contradictory being that the theory itself requires a mind for its manifestation and subsequent application. To “prove,” though, that other minds exist would require that a solution be spelt out here on the page, that some logically coherent intellectual argument be voiced so that you might read it and somehow understand that it were correct. But in the spirit of Wittgenstein, we could say that such an answer was impossible, as “proving” that other minds exist cannot be accomplished using any conventional linguistic means. Rather, the question itself ought to be unasked before anything might be settled. It may be impossible to know that other minds exist, but surely it is quite possible to feel that they do. As Wittgenstein put it, “[See the] consciousness in another’s face. Look into someone else’s face, and see the consciousness in it, and a particular shade of consciousness. You see on it, in it, joy, indifference, interest, excitement, torpor, and so on. [It’s] the light in other people’s faces.” Intuitively, then, the problem of other minds is no problem at all, but a farce—an unnecessary intellectual abstraction of a reality that is easily grasped by anyone willing to admit that “proof” is the burden of language and not the burden of reality as we experience it. In reality, the proof is in the pudding: taste it and you understand. There is no reason another person ought to have a mind, there is only the perception that they do, a perception arrived at through a direct, unmediated experience of reality.
Now, like Wittgenstein’s ladder, take these words and throw them out. You’ve climbed up and arrived at the experience of the truth that other minds exist by following an injunction rather than by understanding a logical proof. Kick aside the ladder and realize the truth as an experience rather than as a rational argument.
Of course, it may be important to define what is meant by “mind” in the first place. Here is John Locke’s view concerning the nature of the self, or mind: “[It is] impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.” Locke’s statement almost perfectly exemplifies the fundamentally contradictory nature of all forms of dualistic knowledge. It is indeed impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive, but notice the necessity of the premise “for any one.” This one is the “mind,” the “I,” the individual person, the illusory place holder given to each human entity by the grammatical structure inherent to his way of describing reality. So it is true then, at least “true enough” in Wittgenstein’s words, that one cannot perceive without knowing he perceives, as it is said “I perceive” such that the perceiving is performed by me and therefore separate from me. But am “I” a real entity, a real thinking substance, or merely a product of the purely functional conventions of language (i.e. Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the meaning of a word is derived from its use)? As Huang Po, a Zen Buddhist monk, once said, “Let me remind you, the perceived cannot perceive.” If “I” am aware of my own perception of myself, which is the real me: my perception or my perception of my perception, or my perception of my perception of my perception, and so on? This indeterminacy appears to be unavoidable, however it arises only because of the dualistic nature of language, because an “I” must “have” perceptions instead of there just being perception alone.
This “perception alone” is the only real quality that can be assigned to reality, although it hardly suggests any specific qualities at all. We all intuitively feel this perception at the deepest level of our experience all the time. It reveals what there is. It is our current experience, our body’s total sensory awareness of our environment as it exists in its entirety before the names and descriptions we then unknowingly superimpose upon it become our only way of thinking about it to describe it to others.
Of course, alphabetized language is only one of the scientific community’s tools of discovery. The other is mathematics, and there is little doubt among scientists that its descriptions of the processes of nature are far more accurate than what words can provide. As physicist Sir James Jeans has said, “The essential fact is simply that all the pictures which science now draws of nature, and which alone seem capable of according with observational fact, are mathematical pictures.” The usefulness of mathematics—its ability to match with astonishing precision the naturally occurring patterns found in the external world—has been known by humans for thousands of years, dating back to the earliest schools of Greek Philosophy. One such school, the Pythagoreans, saw in mathematics a more perfect reality than that which we perceive through our flawed senses. The founder of the school, Pythagoras, carefully studied the sounds made by his lyre, noting that a string could be made to vibrate at different harmonic frequencies. A string half the length would vibrate at twice the frequency. This simple ratio is an example of the early connections found between the pure abstraction of mathematics and the real phenomenal world. But the school had its critics, namely Aristotle, who said of the Pythagoreans that they “did not seek for explanations and theories to suit the facts, but distorted the facts to fit certain theories and favored opinions, and set themselves up, one might say, as co-arrangers of the universe” (Jeans paraphrasing Aristotle). This criticism comes from one of the world’s first great empiricists, and it has been echoed by many since. Most scientists today agree that a certain combination of applied mathematics and empirical investigation is an acceptable means of deriving knowledge from the natural world. Unfortunately, as practical as such a compromise may seem, a growing number of scientists, like the physicists mentioned in this paper, have come to realize the inherent shortcomings of such an approach. The observation of the strange world of quantum particles has forever altered the way science views the world, as the search for the fundamental substance of matter has been shown not only to be difficult, but infeasible. The empiricists can no longer assert a priori that his observations are of an actual, physically subsisting world. In other words, physical science has reached the boundaries of its field of inquiry, not because it has reached the Truth or ultimate ground of being (or because it has come to the conclusion that no such Truth can be said to exist), but because when it tried to do so, it found in nature nothing but its own reflection. If, as Locke said centuries before subsequent empirical observation could prove him correct, that “the real essence of substances” is unknowable, then, to use Jeans words, “We can only progress by discussing the laws which govern the changes of substances, and so produce the phenomena of the external world.” For science to remain viable, it must realize and accept it limits, focusing on bringing hidden patterns (or “laws”) to the surface, rather than on finding the one and only Truth. Mathematics, then, can return to the forefront as the best known map of the phenomenal world. Of all the man-made conceptual molds thus far laid atop nature, mathematics, because of its unique correspondence to the world, remains the one that has allowed us the deepest understanding.
Plato, a Pythagorean, based his theory of Ideas on the supposed perfection of a mathematically-arranged cosmos. His well-known allegory of the cave provides the perfect metaphor of his picture of the universe, in that the world presented as it is to our senses is merely a shadow version of the more ideal world from which it arose. This ideal world, says Plato, is mathematically perfect.
As perfect as this ideal world may be, and as neatly as the mathematician’s calculations may appear to mirror it, there remains an issue of contention. It is as if someone had cast a line into a pond in hopes of catching a fish, had caught a rather large one, and had then proceeded to brag of his accomplishment to another. This other then remarked to the first that he had earlier seen him stock the pond with the fish himself. As Jeans relates, “It would prove nothing if nature had merely been found to act in accordance with the concepts of applied mathematics; these concepts were specially and deliberately designed by man to fit the workings of nature.” Jeans goes on to say that, even if mathematics was not “deliberately designed,” but instead unconsciously remembered from the depths of our mind as a means of translation between it and the world, it remains true that no knowledge is actually gained of the outside world other than that which has been put into it by the mind itself.
So then, we’ve arrived back again at where we started: stumped by the intriguing relationship between mind and matter, thought and substance, ideal and actual. Truth, it would seem, is not some dogmatic claim awaiting human discovery; it is not a secret code etched into nature that might be found and spoken, written, or mathematically formulated and thereafter known for all time. Instead, Truth is that which motivates the formulating. Truth is both that which animates the world and that which makes up its total being. Truth, then, might be said to include but transcend the lesser, knowledge-based notions of true and false that dominate human thought. In this sense, Truth is always one step ahead of our apprehension, consistently outpacing us in our race toward ultimate understanding.
Might it not be said, though, that on account of our current formulating—through the act of our present participation in the cosmic game of pattern formation—we already “know” the Truth? If, as it appears obvious at least to this observer, that the universe, in both its internal/mental and external/material senses, is essentially a continuously forming pattern, then isn’t it more useful to think of Truth as the continuous evolution of the universe as a whole? In this sense, Truth may be closer to a verb than a noun. For the sake of argument, suppose we were to come across some notion of absolute and final Truth about the world we inhabit; would it not become obsolete in the very next moment, as the universe continued to evolve into new forms with altogether different Truths? This is, in effect, another way of saying that, while the mind’s static concepts may not always fit the ever evolving cosmos, the ever evolving cosmos nonetheless always fits the mind, because the cosmos includes and transcends the mind. The cosmos, in other words, includes all time and space in which the mind can theorize. It is then unavoidable that the mind should be enveloped by the Truth always, regardless of how frustrated it may become in its fatuous pursuit of something more. This pursuit, as was said earlier, arises due to a misunderstanding of the nature of Truth. The Truth, by the sheer fact of its namesake, must be directly apprehendable at all times. It is by virtue of this obviousness that the Truth be missed, as we are like fish that swim in the ocean but haven’t yet noticed the water.
Socrates, even though he was doubtless a great philosopher, never wrote a thing. He believed the written word was left too vulnerable to misinterpretation, because the one who reads may pull from the same words something entirely different than what the author himself intended. He also felt that writing made the mind lazy, in that it took over what was formally an internal act of memorization. Knowledge written upon a page no longer needs to be remembered by an individual, and as a result the individual comes to understand less of what he thinks he knows, becoming more focused on the collection and recording of information for its own sake than on the practical application of it in the present moment. Instead of writing, Socrates preferred face-to-face dialogue, as it forced immediate justification of each person’s statements. Truth, for Socrates, was far closer to this kind of immediate, personal discourse than to the abstract realms described by words on a page. Unfortunately, the medium of the page is the one upon which the current set of ideas must be drafted, and as such, the writer can claim only that which the reader has understood. For, as Socrates is still so quick to remind us, we may not have any way of knowing exactly what we mean by the words we use. To conclude a paper on such terms doesn’t leave the claims made in a very convincing light. However, being that the work itself was concerned with exactly this problem, it can only be suggested that the reader take these words, not for what they are, but for what they mean.