Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy [draft]

Below is the introduction of paper I presented at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April 2019. The conference aimed to revisit important philosophical issues related to the famous 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson. HERE is the conference site (it is in Italian, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).

Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy

“What is Time?” Bergson-Einstein Conference in L’Aquila, Italy April 4-6, 2019

By Matthew D. Segall

“What is time?” Reflecting on this ageless question stretches my imagination in several directions: I first consider the time of my own most direct and intimate experience of being alive: I was born, I live and age, and I will die, necessarily in that biological order. Each year, I watch as winter frost melts to make way for spring flowers. My interest in fundamental physics then leads me to ponder the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory: I wonder what, if any, significance my personal biography has given the deterministic mechanism and time-reversibility of Nature’s fundamental laws. I reflect on whether my experience of seasonal rhythms is reducible without remainder to the mechanical effect of a slight tilt in the rotation of our dust mote planet as it revolves in warped space-time around a massive ball of radiating plasma. Finally, my incurable philosophical itch compels me to search for some more general metaphysical scheme or wider interpretive context within which the laws of physics might find a place alongside  lived experience.

It is this quest to understand time that has brought us together for today’s conference. Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really all thoughtful human beings—have at one point or another been struck by this question and struggled to answer it in their own terms. Nearly a century ago, time was at the center of Einstein and Bergson’s debate in Paris. Centuries earlier, another influential intellect, Ben Franklin, had tried to settle accounts: “Time is money.” Centuries earlier still, Augustine had to confess that he did not know what time is (though he offered a few conjectures). And Plato, as he stared in wonder at the stars above him while inwardly contemplating the perfections of geometry, offered at least a likely story: time is a moving image of eternity.

The passage of time is both inescapably obvious and profoundly mysterious. Nothing gets to the heart of who and what we are more than time. Stars ignite, burn their atomic fuel, and go supernova, creating the heavier elements needed for conscious lifeforms like us to take shape. We are born, we age, we die. Civilizations rise and fall. None of these processes is intelligible in reverse. And yet, there has been a strong consensus among physicists for at least a century that the time of human experience, let us call it “phenomenal” or “lived time,” is, as Einstein once put, a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Everyday time is not at all what it appears to be. As Augustine admitted, time is plain as day until someone asks us to explain how it works: suddenly, we find ourselves having a hell of a time trying to make any sense of it. A recent New York Times article chronicled the growing controversy (and confusion) about seasonal changes in clock-time, so-called “daylight savings” time.1 Back in the 1920s, changes to local clock-times in US cities like Boston and Detroit led some residents to worry that an extra hour of sunlight in the evening would dry up their gardens and disturb their farm animals. The article quotes Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving’s Time (Counterpoint, 2005):

“The idea of losing or gaining an hour is itself such a fantastically bad philosophical proposition that nobody knows what they’re talking about…Most people don’t even understand whether moving the clocks forward gives them more sunlight or less sunlight in the morning. They just can’t remember what it does, because it so defies logic.”

As if the time of everyday experience wasn’t strange enough already, in the equations of physics— whether classical, relativistic, or quantum—it doesn’t even matter which direction time flows, if it can even be said to “flow” at all. The one exception, perhaps, is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, to which I return later.

I cannot promise that the paper to follow won’t make an even bigger mess out of time. I can only offer a few potential pathways through the thicket in the hopes of finding some new perspectives on a very old question. I first revisit the crucial bifurcation between natural science and human experience that has informed not only our views of time but so much of modern thought and culture. Alfred North Whitehead will be my principal guide in this endeavor. Along the way I distinguish Whitehead’s process philosophy from Henri Bergson’s understanding of temporality. Though Whitehead affirmed much of Bergson’s critique of scientific materialism, he departs in crucial respects from the Frenchman’s vitalism. Finally, I draw Whitehead into conversation with the work of loop quantum gravity theorist and popular science author Carlo Rovelli. While the convergence is by no means complete, I believe there are some hopeful signs in Rovelli’s professed natural philosophy that align him with Whitehead and thus bring us closer to a philosophical reconciliation between human experience and the Nature known to science.

Who is Alfred North Whitehead & What is Process Philosophy?

Environmental lawyer, philosopher, and fellow Whitehead enthusiast Tam Hunt and I started an email exchange a few weeks ago after I stumbled upon his interview with the physicist Carol Rovelli. Our emails grew into a pretty extensive conversation on all things Whitehead, which I am sharing below. We discuss the importance of Whitehead’s ideas for a future ecological civilization, his philosophy of time (including critiques of Einstein), the role of God and eternal  objects in his cosmology, and more. 


Tam: Why is Whitehead relevant today, to both the layperson, and in physics and the philosophy of physics?

Matt: Whitehead was one of the first initiates into the new cosmological story that, with any luck, will help us build an ecological civilization in the coming decades. The advances in philosophy of nature and discoveries in natural science that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., Schelling, Humboldt, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, Bergson, Whitehead, et al.) were even more revolutionary than those made by Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton in the 16th and 17th centuries.

If we take a Whiteheadian lens on the contemporary natural sciences, it becomes clear that 21st century people are living in an entirely new world, a self-organizing cosmogenesis that is nothing like the mechanical clockwork universe imagined by 17th century scientists. The problem is, hardly anybody—laypeople or physicists—realizes that we are living in this new universe! We are so mesmerized by the old mechanical model of Nature and by the technological toys it has allowed us to invent and surround ourselves with that we’ve lost touch with the nonhuman world that is literally dying for us to remember it.

Tam: Would you describe yourself as a Whiteheadian traditionalist? Or are there any aspects of Whitehead’s system that you would change?

Matt: I think Whitehead understood metaphysics as an open-ended project, so I engage with his work in the spirit of a co-inquirer. I would describe myself as a Whiteheadian, but there are plenty of ways that I diverge from “traditional” readings of Whitehead. If something in his scheme of abstractions doesn’t fit with my own experience and understanding, I first interrogate his writing more deeply just to be sure I am not misinterpreting him. But once I’m satisfied that I am not misunderstanding, I am perfectly willing to adjust his scheme accordingly. For example, his concept of God’s function in the universe is, by Whitehead’s own admission, incomplete. In my dissertation, I took some liberties in re-interpreting the process God in more pluralistic terms, such that each cosmic epoch has its own divine occasion, with certain characteristics being inherited by subsequent epochs.   

Tam: Who do you regard as the most helpful intellectual descendants/students of Whitehead, thinkers who can both help us understand what the heck Whitehead meant in his sometimes opaque prose, or thinkers who have helpfully extended Whitehead’s system?

Matt: John Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin should be mentioned first. They have and continue to contribute tremendously to Whitehead’s legacy, and to helping us make sense of his sometimes difficult ideas. I have not spent much time myself with Charles Hartshorne’s work, but he has also been very influential. More recently, thinkers as diverse as Catherine Keller, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and William Connolly have taken up Whitehead’s work and applied it in illuminating and important ways to, e.g., mystical theology, geopolitics, and the sociology of science. The philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H has also done some fascinating work on the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy to the interpretation of psychedelic experience.

Tam: Whitehead’s process philosophy is so named because it focuses on process, a succession of states, as the central feature of reality. Yet there are some aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy that are largely and perhaps wholly outside of time, such as “eternal objects” that are akin to Plato’s forms. How would you (succinctly) describe the nature of time in Whitehead’s philosophy in relation to the time of human experience?

Matt: I’ll be as succinct as I can be, but this is a complicated question! Whitehead was one of a number of early 20th century thinkers (including William James, Edmund Husserl, and Henri Bergson) who zeroed in on time, process, or becoming as a crucial nexus point that might help reconnect human experience with the natural world known to science. Whitehead was not influenced by Husserl so far as I know, but he was certainly an inheritor of James’ radical empiricism and Bergson’s vitalism. But he did not inherit from them uncritically. I hope it is not an unfair summary of his criticisms to simply say that he rejected James’ nominalism and Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. That said, he inherited enough from Bergson that he would likely be uncomfortable with your characterization of process as “a succession of states,” since such a characterization may fall prey to what Bergson called the “cinematographic” tendency of the intellect, whereby the continuous flow of time is broken into discrete states, instants, or still frames that are then supposed to generate a sort of cartoon illusion of movement in the flip book of our conscious experience.

Like Bergson, Whitehead entirely rejected the materialistic idea of “Nature at an instant.” This idea is as central to Newton’s absolutist view of space and time as it is to Einstein’s relativistic conception of space-time. Whitehead follows James and Bergson in denying that it has any reality whatsoever. It is a mere abstraction used for convenience in the measurements and equations of physical models. Concrete time cannot be captured by such models because it always has duration. All attempts to measure duration necessarily erase what is essential to it. Duration is pure succession, in Bergson’s terms, which is to say that it is a continuous transformation and not merely a series of translated spatial states.

The point here is not to give up measuring and calculating. Science can go on doing what science does. Following Bergson, Whitehead simply wanted to remind scientists that they should avoid committing his famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by never forgetting that the measurements made by clocks, though convenient for physical models and for the coordination of civilized life, falsely spatialize the flow of temporality.

All that said, Whitehead had more hope than Bergson that the scientific intellect could be reformed so as not to falsify the creative becoming of Nature in its abstract models. His notoriously complex metaphysical system, the so-called “philosophy of organism,” is the result of his effort. I can understand why you would characterize Whitehead’s view of process as “a succession of states,” since he does in fact articulate an “atomic” or “epochal” theory of time, whereby a historical route of atomic “actual occasions” or “drops of experience” constitutes the continuous flow or stream of our consciousness. These occasions “arise and perish” in Whitehead’s terms and are not simply identical to the unbroken flow of conscious time, nor are they static instants. Whitehead thus challenged Bergson’s idea, mentioned above, of duration as “pure succession,” since the duration of Whitehead’s actual occasions is not pure but a mixture of spatial and temporal (as well as eternal, as we will see) ingredients. Whitehead asks us to imagine two distinct types of process: the first is “transition” (roughly equivalent to Bergson’s “duration”), which is the continuous time of our conscious experience, and the second is “concrescence,” which is the epochal or punctuated becoming of actual occasions.

Concrescence is Whitehead’s neologism for what occurs within each drop or occasion of experience as it arises and perishes. Whereas transition provides an empirical account of what we experience in consciousness, concrescence is a speculative idea that is supposed to provide an explanation of the metaphysical conditions necessary for conscious experience. In other words, concrescence is Whitehead’s account of what is going on under the hood of consciousness.

It is in concrescence that Whitehead’s “eternal objects” come into play. They are the “forms of definiteness” or “pure potentials” that constitute the character of what each occasion experiences. Eternal objects can be mathematical or sensual in nature (e.g., circularity, twoness, a particular shade of redness, and saltiness are all examples of eternal objects). Whitehead tells us that they are required for our experience of Nature and not emergent from it. So far, they sound identical to Plato’s forms, but Whitehead actually inverts Plato’s theory of forms. While for Plato, eternal forms are the preeminent realities while physical creatures are derivative copies or pale imitations, for Whitehead, eternal objects are “deficient in actuality” and depend entirely on the decisions of actual occasions to make any difference in the world.

Tam: Can we achieve an improved version of Whitehead by eliminating eternal objects, as some thinkers have aspired to do? Or does the whole edifice fall apart if we remove this concept from Whitehead?

Matt: There have been several attempts to eliminate eternal objects from Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. In my opinion, the two most interesting recent examples are Ralph Pred’s Onflow (2005) and Mark Hansen’s Feed-Forward (2015). Along with eliminating eternal objects, they also try to eliminate Whitehead’s concept of God. Let me clearly state that these are both excellent philosophical works worthy of close study by all Whiteheadians and by anyone interested in the deepest questions we can ask about human consciousness and the technological environment we find ourselves increasingly embedded within.

And let me state just as clearly that Whitehead’s process-relational ontology falls into incoherence as soon as eternal objects and God are removed. Eternal objects and actual occasions are the magnetic poles powering the explanatory dynamo that is Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. I’ve argued at length elsewhere that those who attempt to do without eternal objects (perhaps because they believe they have no place in a supposedly “processual” ontology) while still deploying Whitehead’s other categories only end up re-inventing the wheel and calling it something else. It’s like trying to break a magnet to remove the negative pole: you just end up with a new negative pole at the broken end. I have no problem whatsoever with thinkers who want to develop their own process ontology, but if they want to build on Whitehead’s work, it just doesn’t make sense to talk about actual occasions without eternal objects.

Tam: You stated that actual occasions (Whitehead’s atoms of actuality) are “not states or static instants,” but isn’t it the case that the passage of time in Whitehead’s system is indeed a series of actual occasions, at every level of reality, which are states but not static instants (I didn’t invoke any static features in my question)? This is the shared character of Whitehead’s concrescence, “perpetual perishing,” the “creative advance” and more generally Whitehead’s strong emphasis on becoming [PR, xiv, 22]. As such, shouldn’t we characterize the passage of time in Whitehead’s system as a result of a series of instants or snapshots, at every locus of the universe, which are always changing, but still instantiating as “actual” in an eternal oscillation between actuality and potentiality?

Matt: I don’t think it is Whitehead’s intention to say that the passage of time is a series of instants or snapshots. Such instantaneity can be approached via mathematical abstraction, but actual passage or creative advance is a process that moves from occasion to occasion in a network of relations, not a series of point-instants on a graph. Actual occasions are just that: occasions, or in Bergson’s terms, durations. I don’t see how a static instant could be experiential. Whitehead’s actual occasions of experience each exist “stretched out” in a sort of sublime tension, what James called a “specious present,” wherein the already actualized past is inherited and subjectively synthesized with potential futures. An actual occasion’s final phase of becoming is called its “satisfaction,” which is the decisive moment wherein the occasion collapses the field of potentials into a unique form of actualization. This actualization is the achievement of a novel experience of value, “novel” in that with the becoming and perishing of each actual occasion a perspective on the universe is achieved that has never existed before. This perspective, once perished, becomes “objectively immortal” and is taken up by subsequently concrescing actual occasions. This arising and perishing of actual occasions forms what Whitehead calls a historic route or “society,” and it is at this level that what we consciously experience as the flow of time emerges. I do like your characterization of this process as an “eternal oscillation between actuality and potentiality,” but I don’t think the occasional beats composing the oscillation are instantaneous. 

Tam: Building on our agreement that the passage of time may be characterized as an oscillation between actuality and potentiality, an instant in modern physics can have some minimum duration, such as the Planck time (5.4×10^-44 s), in the same way that energy or space can have a minimum quantity (this is the “quantum” in quantum mechanics). So is time for Whitehead not built as a nested hierarchy of these minimum instants, with each actual occasion constituting an instant or multiple thereof, and the universe built from the set of all actual occasions concrescing in each phase of the creative advance into novelty [PR 29 “The ancient doctrine that ‘no one crosses the same river twice’ is extended”]? Whitehead does posit non-temporal aspects of each concrescence, as you point out, but each concrescence itself is temporal through and through, right? So I think we’re generally saying the same thing?

Matt: There is a lot here to unpack. I would want to distinguish the physics of Planck time and Planck space from Whitehead’s metaphysics of actual occasions and their extensive connection. Whitehead would want us to tread very lightly in identifying his actual occasions with quantum events, since it may very well be the case that the latter are a special case of the former. Regarding the notion of the universe as a “set of all actual occasions,” we also need to be careful. In their brilliant text The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism (2017), Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein are careful to distinguish between two approaches to logically formalizing our thinking about such matters. While Whitehead did often use the term “set” in his writing about collections of occasions or of eternal objects, this should not mislead us into a “set theoretical” way of thinking about the relations among actual occasions and eternal objects. Instead, Auxier and Herstein point to what has come to be called “category theory” as an alternative, and more Whiteheadian, way of thinking about the extensive relations among occasions, particularly when we try to think the cosmic socius as a whole. In short, while set theory focuses on abstract collections of entities and membership in groups, category theory allows us to think in terms of functions and relations, and in terms of the topological transformation of wholes and parts (i.e., mereotopology). Auxier and Herstein argue that category theory, as a form of spatial or topological reasoning, has a more empirical or experiential character, thus granting it deeper relevance in questions of ontology. So instead of thinking of all actual occasions as though they existed side-by-side as members of the set called “universe” advancing along some universal timeline, we must think of the cosmic socius of occasions as a complex network of open-ended activities, all internally related but also differentiated along multiple timelines. It is difficult if not impossible for our 3-dimensional imagination to picture a topological network of activities wherein each node or occasion is both a whole in itself, prehending the whole universe in its concrescence, and a part within the concrescence of other occasions. This is the sort of situation that category theory can formalize mathematically.

Concrescence is neither wholly eternal nor wholly temporal. It is an amphibious concept meant to account for the way potentiality becomes actual. Concrescence is Whitehead’s explanation for how potentials achieve actualization through the portal of a sort of temporal eternity or eternal moment, the creative repetition or oscillation of which is responsible for generating the spatial and temporal world as we normally experience it. It is also important to remember that the universe as a whole is, in Whitehead’s terms, an “essential incompleteness,” as it is never finished or fully present but always advancing into novelty. To capture this, I sometimes expand and reform Einstein’s space-time “fabric” analogy by saying that space-time is always fraying and needs to be continually re-woven with each concrescence.

Tam: Isn’t Whitehead’s system in key ways in opposition to Einstein’s notion of spacetime? Isn’t this a key point of the “process” in process philosophy, that we need to accept the very real passage of time? Reconciling the experienced passage of time with the “block universe” and combined “space-time” of Einstein’s physics is, of course, a large outstanding problem with modern physics. One reason I find Whitehead’s approach appealing is that it presents a way out of this conundrum that Einsteinian physics has gotten us into.

Matt: Whitehead accepted Einstein’s extension of some of the formulae related to electromagnetism to the concept of gravity. As a scientific theory, he was not disputing the usefulness of Einstein’s space-time model. His dispute with Einstein concerned the latter’s metaphysical interpretation of said model. Whitehead was concerned not only about the reduced status of time in Einstein’s eternal vision of the cosmos, but with the possibility of measurement in a space that, according to Einstein, was heterogeneous as a result of being warped by contingently arrayed mass. Accurate measurement requires rigid rulers. Unless we know in advance where all the mass in the universe is, we cannot be sure how our ruler (or its equivalent, light rays) may be bending in any attempted measurement, particularly if we are talking about astronomical distances. Problem is, we cannot know in advance how mass is arrayed in the cosmos since that would require measurement. We are stuck, as Whitehead puts it, having to know everything before we can know anything. As part of his attempt to articulate precisely why he disagreed with Einstein, Whitehead produced his own tensor equations that did not rely on the idea of “curved” space but that nonetheless made equivalent empirical predictions as Einstein’s model (i.e., Whitehead’s formulae make the same predictions about Mercury’s perihelion, etc., and its variables could be easily modified to fit with any new observations resulting from more sensitive instruments).

As for time, Whitehead was in agreement with Bergson (who debated Einstein on this issue in 1922) that Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of relativity mistook the abstract units of mechanical clock-time for the ontology of temporality. But unlike Bergson, who sometimes seems to have imagined that some universal flow of time underlies everything, Whitehead was perfectly clear that relativity theory destroys the idea of global simultaneity or universal time. Contra Einstein, he argued that time was perfectly real and not an illusion, but it is real only in a local sense related to unique historical routes of actual occasions of experience. So the Whiteheadian universe includes many distinct (more or less overlapping) time-systems. For this reason, I sometimes refer to a Whiteheadian pluriverse instead of calling it a universe.

Tam: Can you elaborate on why you think that Whitehead’s system would become incoherent without the inclusion of eternal objects?

Matt: Without eternal objects, there would no longer be any potential ingredient in the passage of Nature. The past and the future would become ontologically indistinguishable. Everything would already be actualized and there’d be no room for genuine creativity. All process would become locked in habit and repetition. Further, eternal objects are part of what allows actual occasions to be individual creatures rather than being indiscriminately merged together with every other occasion. Whitehead does view actual occasions as “internally related” and thus in some sense each occasion is dependent on every other occasion to be what it is, but it is the mediating role played by eternal objects in characterizing the “how” of experience that allows actual occasions to decide on unique subjective interpretations of the world rather than just directly inheriting the world as it is objectively given. Occasions can consider possible alternatives by ingressing novel eternal objects, thus inviting new potentials into settled actuality. Finally, eternal objects are what allow us to recognize and identify stable entities in what is otherwise a world of flux. What is it that you recognize in a friend or loved one as their distinct personality or character, something that sticks with them through many years of life despite other changes to their appearance?

Tam: You suggest that without eternal objects the past and future could not be distinguished. But if we eliminate eternal objects and ingression from Whitehead’s ontology we are left with actual entities and Creativity (as a general principle of potentiality or novelty [PR 21 “’Creativity’ is the principle of novelty”]). Isn’t concresence of actual entities, the sum of which is the creative advance into novelty, in addition to Creativity as the principle of potentiality becoming actual in each actual occasion, enough to provide all of these aspects of our experienced reality: 1) the experienced passage of time; 2) a physical passage of time more generally; 3) novelty; 4) a clear arrow of time that distinguishes between past and present?  

Matt: No, I don’t think so. To fully answer this question, I need to bring in Whitehead’s concept of God again. If we eliminate the notion of ingressing eternal objects and God from Whitehead’s ontology, preserving only prehending actual occasions and Creativity, I am no longer sure what we could possibly mean by “concrescence.” God’s function in Whitehead’s ontology is to provide relevance to each occasion as it concresces out of Creativity. Without this mediating or filtering role, each occasion would be overwhelmed by the sheer infinity of potentials available for actualization in any given moment. God is Whitehead’s principle of limitation or concretion, and the graded hierarchy of eternal objects is Whitehead’s way of describing how infinite possibility is made relevant to each finite occasion’s experience. Further, it is precisely through the contrast granted by contact with eternity in each concrescence that an experience of passage arises. Without the contrast, without the punctuation of process by eternality, time would be experientially undetectable.

Tam: Why can’t physical prehensions of surrounding actual entities, in each moment of the creative advance, be sufficient for limiting the “infinity of potentials available for actualization”? I’ve suggested this kind of notion in my work on the mind-body problem, inspired by Whitehead, and it is based on the uncontroversial notion that actual entities can only include in each instantiation information that they can receive within the duration of each concrescence, limiting the actual entities that form each set of data available to the new concrescing entity. Under this framework, each actual entity is still an ordering of Creativity, an actualization of pure potentiality, but there is no need to posit what seem like more religious notions of God or eternal objects beyond the pure potentiality of Creativity.

Matt: Whitehead did not include a concept of God in his metaphysical scheme for religious reasons. His God is a concept to be reflected upon and not a personal being to be worshipped (though of course God may become this secondarily for those who fully inhabit and live into his cosmology). Noting this up front is important, as it allows us (hopefully) to just focus on the philosophical issues at stake without dragging in all the emotional controversies associated with the battle between religious belief and secularity, etc. Whitehead specifically says in Process & Reality that he wants to “secularize the concept of God” and that this is one of the most important tasks for modern philosophy.

That said, it  may be possible to account for the provision of relevance to each concrescing occasion of experience in the way that you suggest, via the physical prehension of past actualities in its environment. But then we are left with another problem, which is how to account for the novelty added by each occasion. If there is just physical prehension of the actualized past and no conceptual prehension of potentia (i.e., eternal objects), what prevents actual occasions from just repeating the experiences of the past ad infinitum? The question is not just about the relevance of each newly concrescing occasion to its inherited past, but the relevance of this past to potential futures. The provision of this relevance is necessary for a concrescence to decide how to actualize the potential value it is incubating. Even if we eliminate the role of God and eternal objects in determining the relevance of a concrescent occasion to its past, we still have to account for the determination of the relevant possibilities open to that occasion given its past. While the realm of actuality is finite, the realm of potential is infinite. So again, actual occasions would seem to need a little divine help here to avoid being overwhelmed by unlimited creative potential.

Tam: Various thinkers have tried to “naturalize” Whitehead by removing eternal objects, God or other aspects of his system that seem to some to be out of place or unnecessary. Donald Sherburne, one of the editors of the standard corrected edition of Process and Reality, and a serious Whitehead scholar, has proposed “Whitehead without God.” You are clear so far in rejecting attempts to eliminate eternal objects or God from Whitehead’s system, but what about substituting Creativity for more non-religious notions of God like Source/Brahman/akasha, as thinkers like Huston Smith have argued (see, e.g., the great debate between Griffin and Smith in the book-length dialogue Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology)? Under this amendment to Whitehead’s system, we retain Whitehead’s Creativity as the Ultimate and we can call it Source/Brahman, etc., as well as Creativity, since it is the ontological ground of being in Whitehead’s system. But we can eliminate God in its primordial nature (which is comprised of the set of all eternal objects), while retaining God in its consequent nature, as the high/highest level of a nested hierarchy of concrescing actual entities.

Matt: I am fine with folks coming up with whatever cosmological scheme they feel best captures the reality of their experience and understanding. But I don’t think we are talking about Whitehead’s scheme anymore if we remove God. Creativity is Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, while God is said to be the first creature of Creativity. God’s function here is to limit the unlimited. So strictly speaking, Creativity is not the ground of Whitehead’s ontology; rather, the primordial nature of God, as the principle of concretion or limitation, provides this ground. Creativity itself is a groundless abyss of pure potential, more a fountain than a foundation.

Tam: In terms of the discussion about mathematical discovery vs. invention, this is as you point out a longstanding debate. Many thinkers have taken the view that it is invention, which means that mathematical and similar truths are based on concepts that we create in our minds and manipulate to find new insights. So twoness, to use your example, is in this view an invented generality based on the observation that many things in our experienced world can be enumerated and compared, and in doing so given labels. A human 100,000 or more years ago probably realized that using her fingers to keep track of things in the real world was useful and then eventually gave labels to each numbered finger and by extension items in the real world labeled similarly. In this evolutionary approach to the development of language and mathematics there is no need to posit discovery of eternal objects in a realm only accessible to human reason. We also have good evidence that other animals have basic concepts of number; crows, for example, can count at least as high as three, with specialized cells in the brain, similar to how primates like us count. Are crows discovering transcendent mathematical truths or only using their evolved brains to create useful tools mapped on to their experienced worlds?

Matt: Whitehead’s eternal objects are not sequestered in a realm accessible only to human reason. They were ingredients in the creative advance of Nature long before humans showed up. Indeed, Whitehead tells us, “in the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas” (Religion in the Making, 100). In Whitehead’s view, human reason does not even begin to comprehend the full breadth of the realm of ideal possibilities from out of which it has emerged and toward which it is passing.

Whitehead does not deny that other humans and animals exist on a cognitive spectrum, with some animals possessing very basic conceptions of number. In Modes of Thought, he describes watching a mother squirrel remove her young ones from a nest that had grown too small. She becomes distressed when she sees her children outside the cramped setting of the nest for the first time, running back and forth to make sure she hadn’t left anyone behind. This is because, according to Whitehead, she had only an indefinite or vague sense of how many children she had. She had no definite sense of number, in other words. Perhaps crows, clever as they are, have the ability to count higher than squirrels. Granting the cognitive continuum here, Whitehead still points to the advance achieved by humans, likely due to language: “Mankind enjoys a vision of the function of form within fact, and of the issue of value from this interplay. That day in the history of mankind when the vague appreciation of multitude was transformed into the exact observation of number, human beings made a long stride in the comprehension of that interweaving of form necessary for the higher life which is the disclosure of the good” (Modes of Thought, 77). So while eternal objects were ingredients in the evolutionary process long before humans showed up on the scene, our linguistic capacities do indeed grant us more definite conceptions of their distinct forms and mathematical relations. But our symbolic languages do not invent mathematical relations, they discover and express them.

Tam: In terms of your suggestion that it is eternal objects that allow us to identify loved ones over time, I don’t understand what you mean so can you elaborate on this further? Isn’t the constancy of their person and your recognition of that person the same as any changing pattern in nature in terms of steady change over time but with a general commonality over time (in Buddhist thought, this notion is a “continuant” as described in the Milindapanha)? Or are you suggesting there is some eternal essence that each individual enjoys that is an eternal object?

Matt: Whitehead wanted to give some explanation for how it is that in a world of process we nonetheless are able to recognize and identify definite characters or entities. We are out at sea and glimpse a whale just before it dives under the surface. A moment later, it explodes into the air. “There it is again,” we say. A simple enough observation, but Whitehead finds it metaphysically perplexing. Why are we justified in saying it is the same whale? I am not certain of the exact physiological details here, but scientists tell us that after some number of years every single atom in our body is replaced. Despite this complete material renewal, we are still somehow justified in claiming a sense of stable identity. Our matter changes, but our form endures. Whitehead talks about societies of actual occasions with “personal order,” and here he does not just mean the persistent identities of human persons but the persistent “serially ordered” identity of everything from rocks and trees to whales and skyscrapers. The serial personal order of a human being or a whale is constituted by especially intimately related historical routes of actual occasions of experience that repeatedly and collectively ingress a complex constellation of eternal objects. This unique constellation of eternal objects grants an individual human or whale its definite character or personality, experienced from within and recognized by others as in some sense a consistent identity despite its continual passage. Whitehead does not accept substantial notions of identity (“no thinker thinks twice,” he reminds us in Process & Reality), so he is forced to invent a processual account of this continuity, and the ingression of definite possibilities through historical routes of socially ordered actual occasions is how he attempts to pull it off.

Tam: But can’t a society of actual entities, as you and Whitehead discuss, accomplish this continuity over time (but always changing in each moment) without eternal objects? More generally, isn’t this kind of continuity over time what Whitehead means by “enduring objects” (which are different from eternal objects and are societies with “personal order”) [PR p. 34, 109]?

Matt: Whitehead is pretty clear, it seems to me, that what defines a society of actual occasions as an enduring object with personal order (personally ordered societies are a special case of enduring objects) is the complex constellation of eternal objects that these occasions repeatedly ingress through a historical route of genetic inheritance. The common form of any society of occasions, including personally ordered societies, is provided by the inherited constellation of eternal objects that sustains its definite characteristics.       

Tam: More specifically, what does it mean to you that “saltiness,” an example you provide of eternal objects, is an eternal something that exists in a different realm than our manifest world? Aren’t these features of reality far more likely to be biologically evolved features of our universe that arose out of the specific conditions found on our planet? I personally have a hard time with positing such features of human reality and of reality more generally as unchanging “eternal objects”?

Matt: Saltiness is probably a complex eternal object, rather than a simple one that cannot be further decomposed. So it is not the best example to convince you of the metaphysical role of eternal objects. Mathematical objects almost certainly provide the strongest case for the necessity of something like Plato’s forms. You’ll never find “twoness” anywhere in the physical world. You’ll find endless examples of twoness participating in the physical world: two birds, two stones, two people, two fingers, two very different objects that you decide to group together for whatever reason, etc. But the idea of “twoness” itself is not captured by any of these specific instances. Where does it come from? Nominalists would say twoness, like other mathematical ideas, is just a name whose meaning derives from the conventional use of an arbitrarily invented symbol. But in my experience the majority of mathematicians, including Whitehead, would strongly contest this notion and claim that the history of mathematics is full of genuine discoveries that cannot be reduced to invented symbolisms. Yes, mathematicians need symbols to express their ideas, but there is more to the mathematical patterns and relations they discover than just these symbols.

A complex eternal object like saltiness is dependent upon the crystalization of sodium chloride molecules and the evolution of sensory organs and many other factors in order to ingress. Whitehead isn’t denying the importance and indeed the priority of these factors, but he was unable to conceive of a coherent metaphysical scheme that didn’t do justice to the realm of potentiality alongside that of actuality. “Coherence” for Whitehead means that neither potentiality nor actuality can be understood in isolation from the other.

Tam: How do we help spread a wider interest and understanding of Whitehead’s ideas? Are there any attempts to spread his ideas through, for example, primary school education (at a kid-friendly level)?

Matt: This is a really important question. I believe that the most developed effort on this front is coming from the Pando Populus organization, which emerged from the huge International Whitehead Conference held in Claremont, CA back in 2015 called “Toward an Ecological Civilization.” Most of their work is focused locally in Los Angeles at this point, but they also have plans aiming at a more global impact and already have a foothold in China (where there are something like 30 graduate programs devoted to Whitehead’s ideas).

I don’t know of any attempts to bring his ideas into primary school classrooms, but that sounds like a great idea! I would even be happy with just the story of philosophy and its most basic questions being taught in primary school. Whitehead’s panpsychist outlook is only a philosophically refined and attenuated form of animism, so it may already be common sense to most kids. That it is animate is an obvious fact about the world for childhood consciousness (and for most of our species’ 200,000+ year history: the disenchanted mechanistic view is only a few hundred years old). Kids have a much more intuitive grasp of basic metaphysical questions. Unfortunately, our innate curiosity about the hidden causes of everyday facts (“But why?”) is beaten out of us pretty early on by impatient adults. Bringing philosophy into primary school classrooms would really just be about encouraging the wonder and curiosity that is already everpresent in childhood. Sharing the best historical articulations of the Big Questions so that they take root in the imaginations of children might help shape them into more intellectually flexible adults who are capable of avoiding ideological fixation in the face of an overwhelmingly complex world.

Whitehead’s Quantum of Explanation: Thinking with Auxier and Herstein

“Our central idea is that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
-Auxier and Herstein

“So long as necessity is taken to be the guarantor of rationality, the conception of rationality advocated will be as useless to science as it is to practical life.”
-Auxier and Herstein

Those looking for a proper review of their book should read George Lucas’ in NDPR. My thoughts are somewhat self-referential, as I am trying to sort through the intellectual earthquake unleashed within my mind as a result of reading this text.

Auxier and Herstein’s book has been on my radar for several years. I first read small sections of the unpublished manuscript in late 2016 as I was finishing my dissertation. The book was published last year by Routledge, unfortunately in highly abridged form. I just finished reading the published text in its entirety. It is nothing short of marvelous.  

Not since Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011) has there been such a significant contribution to Whitehead studies. Some might question the extent to which Stengers’ book contributes to understanding Whitehead in his own terms. She often (I think fruitfully) reads Whitehead through a Deleuzean lens, and, more importantly for the authors of Quantum, she leans heavily on Lewis Ford’s “compositional analysis” of Whitehead’s philosophical genesis. Auxier and Herstein make many contributions to understanding Whitehead in their book, but one of the most forceful is their attempt to rebut Ford’s influential reading of Whitehead’s supposed “temporal atomism.” While Ford makes use of his theological training by applying methods of New Testament analysis to Whitehead’s texts, there discovering (or inventing?) evidence of radical breaks in his thinking during the 1920s, Auxier and Herstein argue rather convincingly for an unbroken continuity in Whitehead’s thought from his early work at Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics and logic through his philosophy of science to his work at Harvard on metaphysics and cosmology. Unlike Ford, Auxier and Herstein believe that Whitehead, in keeping with his mathematical training, published the organized results of his thinking, not the scattered pieces of its development (QE 26).

Much of their book focuses on explicating Whitehead’s non-metrical theory of extension. This is originally what drew my attention to their unpublished manuscript: my dissertation also attempts to make sense of this notoriously difficult but central feature of Whitehead’s thought. I describe his “extensive continuum” in my dissertation as a new kind of ether theory, comparing it to the ether theories of Plato (i.e., the Receptacle), Kant, Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner (see chapter 4 of my dissertation). This may seem like a stretch, but Whitehead does refer to the extensive continuum as an “ether of events” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and in The Principle of Relativity (1922). He likely dropped the term in future books because of the way Einsteinian physicists ridiculed the old ether idea as akin to phlogiston, as it was made superfluous by Einstein’s special theory of relativity (despite the fact that Einstein himself claimed his general theory of relativity posited a “new ether”). But Whitehead’s novel ether theory is not the materialistic sort deployed by 19th century physicists, nor is it the relativistic sort deployed by Einstein.* Whitehead’s ether is not a physical “stuff” or space-time “fabric,” but a logical space or topological nexus allowing us to understand how self-creating actual occasions become coordinated participants in the same cosmic epoch. 

“We shall term the traditional ether an ‘ether of material’ or a ‘material ether,’ and shall employ the term ‘ether of events’ to express the assumption of this enquiry, which may be loosely stated as being ‘that something is going on everywhere and always.’ It is our purpose to express accurately the relations between these events so far as they are disclosed by our perceptual experience, and in particular to consider those relations from which the essential concepts of Time, Space, and persistent material are derived. Thus primarily we must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material. Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events. On the old theory of relativity, Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events” -Whitehead (Principles of Natural Knowledge 26).

The search for a proper theory of extension or spatiality was the guiding thread in all of Whitehead’s philosophizing, culminating in the infamously impenetrable Part IV of Process and Reality, wherein Whitehead invents what has since come to be called mereotopology (current applications include programming the visual systems of robots). But his magnum opus is titled Process and Reality, not Extension and Reality. Why?

In a second edition of Principles of Natural Knowledge (202), Whitehead writes:

“this book is dominated by the idea that the relation of extension has a unique preeminence and that everything can be got out of it. During the development of this theme, it gradually became evident that this is not the case…[T]he true doctrine, that ‘process’ is the fundamental idea, was not in my mind with sufficient emphasis. Extension is derivative from process, and is required by it.”

Auxier and Herstein remind students of Whitehead not to neglect his pre-Harvard “triptych” on the philosophy of science (Principles of Natural Knowledge [1919], The Principle of Relativity [1920], and The Concept of Nature [1922]) under the false assumption that he radically departs from these earlier texts in Process and Reality. All three of these books were written as a response to Einstein’s misguided identification of a preferred model of curved geometry with physical space-time (QE 30), but they carry forward physico-mathematical hypotheses that Whitehead had already been constructing for decades. Auxier and Herstein argue for the continuity of Whitehead’s thought by pointing out that already in A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1897) Whitehead was hard at work on the problem of spatiality (QE 63). I agree with them that Whitehead’s theory of extension is the golden thread linking his work in mathematics, physics, philosophy of science, cosmology, and metaphysics. There are no sharp breaks or revolutions in the story of his philosophical genesis, but there is evidence of a gradual shift in Whitehead’s thought toward an emphasis on the creative originality of process and its accretion of value over the pure possibility of extension. Yes: process requires extension to express itself. But extension, and the process of extensive abstraction by which we come to know anything about it, are functions of process. The primality of process or tension** as such over extension is part of what follows, I would think, from Auxier and Herstein’s stated radical empiricism, “that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”

My dissertation treats Whitehead’s process philosophy as a 20th century re-emergence of Schellingian Naturphilosophie. I thus treat Whitehead as a post-Kantian thinker, which is to say I read his philosophy of organism as an attempt to correct Kant’s wrong turn. Though there is little direct influence, I argue that Whitehead in effect follows Schelling by inverting the Kantian method, replacing transcendentalism with what I refer to as “descendental” philosophy. I do not believe this is the only fruitful way to interpret Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, but given Auxier and Herstein’s criticisms of “habitual” readings of Whitehead as a post-Kantian (QE 35), I feel the need to defend my approach (see also pages 19-21 of my dissertation, which cites the earlier manuscript version of QE). While Whitehead does state in the first pages of Process and Reality that his philosophy of organism is a recursion to pre-Kantian modes of thought, I must disagree with Auxier and Herstein’s claim that Whitehead viewed his speculative philosophy as entirely unrelated to the Kantian project. On my reading, Whitehead explicitly and repeatedly engages with Kant’s transcendentalism throughout Process and Reality as well as other texts. I believe he did so because he recognized the significance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the pursuit of knowledge of Nature and the need to demonstrate the ways his own speculative thinking did not fall prey to transcendental illusions. It is true that “rationality” is entirely re-imagined by Whitehead in relational and radically empirical terms. His is a “critique of feeling” rather than pure Reason. Whitehead is a realist, but his realism does not ignore or recede from the challenge to knowledge of reality posed by Kant. Like Schelling, Whitehead wanted to respond to Kant, to point out and fix his errors, and to re-establish the possibility of rational cosmology, theology, and psychology on organic and aesthetic grounds. 

In addition to shedding much needed light on Whitehead’s theory of extension, Auxier and Herstein dismantle “model-centric” approaches to physics (including the standard model of gravitational cosmology), redefine naturalism in radically empiricist terms, and contribute profoundly to carrying forward Whitehead’s urgent call to secularize the concept of God’s functions in the world (see Process and Reality 207). I hope to offer further blog reflections on each of these topics in the coming weeks. 

 


* I unpack Whitehead’s processual and organic alternative to Einstein’s mechanistic relativity theory at length in Physics of the World-Soul (2018).

** see pgs. 101 and 180 of my dissertation

The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help From Bergson and Whitehead

Above is my talk for the Jean Gebser Society conference held at the California Institute of Integral Studies the weekend of October 16th.

Title: The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help from Bergson and Whitehead

Abstract: Gebser suggests that the world-constituting reality of time first irrupted into Western consciousness with the publication in 1905 of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This was the first indication of an emerging mutation from the three-dimensional, Copernican world of the mental structure into the four-dimensional world of the integral structure. My presentation will critically examine Einstein’s role in this evolutionary initiation by situating his concept of a space-time continuum within its early 20th century context.  While Einstein’s relativity theory played a central role in the 20th century revolution in physics, revisiting the debates he was engaged in with thinkers like Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead reveal that his perception of time was still obscured by the residue of the mental structure’s spatializing tendency. As Gebser remarked, we are “compelled to become fully conscious of time—the new component—not just as a physical-geometric fourth dimension but in its full complexity” (EPO, 288, 352). During his controversial debate with Bergson in Paris in 1922, Einstein argued that the former’s understanding of time as “creative evolution” was merely the subjective fantasy of an artist, and that, as a hard-nosed scientist, he was concerned only with the real, objective time made manifest by the geometrical reasoning of relativity theory. Bergson, for his part, argued that Einstein had mistaken a particular way of measuring time (i.e., clock-time) for time itself. Whitehead’s meeting with Einstein shortly after this debate with Bergson, though not as public, was no less significant. Whitehead similarly argued that the philosophical implications of Einstein’s brilliant scientific theory must be saved from Einstein’s faulty interpretation. My presentation will review these early 20th century debates about the nature of time in light of Gebser’s prophetic announcement of the birth of a new structure of consciousness. More than a century after Einstein’s theory was published, mainstream scientific cosmology still has not fully integrated the immeasurably creative character of qualitative time. I will argue that Bergson and Whitehead’s largely neglected critiques and reconstructions of relativity theory help show the way towards the concrete realization of Gebser’s integral structure.

Bergson, Henri ; philosophe français (prix Nobel de Littérature 1927) ; Paris 18.10.1859 - 4.1.1941. Photo, v. 1928. Année de l'évènement: 1928 Année de l'oeuvre: 1928 © akg-images

gravity-works-3 whitehead

Space and Time in an Ontology of Organism

IMG_5916

I’m thoroughly enjoying Jimena Canales social, scientific, and philosophical history of the Einstein-Bergson debate in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time. There are quite a few pages on Whitehead’s alternative rendering of relativity theory. There is one place (198-99) where Canales, while commenting on George Herbert Mead’s criticism of Whitehead, offers what to me reads like a distortion of Whitehead’s concept of eternal objects. It could be that Whitehead only worked out a more coherent understanding of eternal objects in Process and Reality as a result of his early exchange with Mead at Harvard in September of 1926.

IMG_6365I’ve often wondered if it makes more sense to replace Whitehead’s phrase “eternal object” with the poet Charles Olson’s suggestion of “eternal event.” The poet’s phrase may actually convey Whitehead’s concept better than Whitehead’s way of wording it. Perhaps Whitehead’s original intent was to put eternal objects in irrevocable tension with occasional subjects, such that experience always presupposed participation in both. Every event or occasion is eternally temporal, a differential repetition or concrescence of Creative Process into creaturely product.

Earlier today, Justin commented under my essay on Whitehead’s cosmological scheme titled Physics of the World-Soul. He took issue with Whiteheadian jargon and with what he thought was the “straw man” version of Einstein I spent several paragraphs critiquing. These are both valid concerns. I’d argue that the former concern is true of every significant thinker. Personally, if I don’t find a philosopher’s prose difficult to understand at first pass, I quickly become bored with the ideas. Sure, Burt Russell is often clearer and more straightforward than the “muddleheaded” Whitehead. But Russell’s demand that the depths of the world reveal themselves to him in clear and distinct ideas may in fact do violence to the chaotic heteronomy of those depths. New ideas cannot always be expressed in old words. The latter concern is something I hope to respond to more fully after I finish Canales’ book. The wider question of the relationship between space, time, and experience in an ontology of organism is one I hope to expand upon in my dissertation.

Latour’s Space-Time Experiment: Thinking with Whitehead

Watch Olafur Eliasson and Bruno Latour re-enact the debate between Einstein and Bergson about space-time and the polarity between art and science. 

Though I first heard about Latour’s re-enactment of the Einstein-Bergson debate several years ago, I only uncovered the videos of this conversation while engaging in a FaceBook thread yesterday about Einstein’s bloc universe. Einstein famously claimed that time as we experience it is a mere psychological illusion. If we want the fact of the matter regarding real time, we must accept the verdict of the positive sciences. Einstein didn’t fess up to the covert metaphysic of bifurcation he was employing, and although Bergson wasn’t able to get through to him on this point during their debate in 1922, other philosophers were listening.

Alfred North Whitehead agreed with Bergson’s critique of Einstein, though not with Bergson’s philosophical reconstruction of relativity. Whitehead developed his own alternative (philosophical and geometrical) formulation of relativity in a 1922 book The Principle of Relativity:

It follows from my refusal to bifurcate nature into individual experience and external cause that we must reject the distinction between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature (66).

Whitehead’s reformed principle of relativity is based on the metaphysical priority of actual facts, or occasions of experience, from which the geometrical order of spatiotemporal extension is derived (Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 5). Through an abstractive process of logical construction rooted in the coordination of the somewhat fragmentary nature of individual occasions of experience, the general character of space-time holding true for our cosmic epoch can be produced (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” in The Aims of Education, 162-163). While Einstein’s proposal of a universal and a priori space-time implies a taut, already fully woven fabric whose spatial curvature is modified by the material bodies situated within it, Whitehead’s alternative theory of a coordinated plurality of space-times implies a fraying fabric always in the process of being repaired by the dipolar physical-mental concrescences of organismic occasions of experience. In this sense, contrary to Levi Bryant’s dismissal of Whitehead as an armchair philosopher who concocted “just so” stories with no empirical grounding (see the FaceBook thread), Whitehead’s innovation was to translate many of the properties that Einstein’s general relativity defines a priori into empirical, or a posteriori facts (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168). Instead of privileging the misplaced concreteness of an abstract space-time that would “[separate] an organism from its environment” such that “the endurance of the former and the patience of the latter [is defined] in terms of right [or “law”], not of fact,” Whitehead emphasizes the contingency of the evolved habits currently holding sway over the ecology of organisms shaping our cosmic epoch, no matter how general or universal they may appear at this time (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 169).

Whitehead terms the general character of space-time “the uniformity of the texture of experience” (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 163). “The physical world [i.e., the extensive continuum of space-time],” he goes on, is,

in some general sense of the term, a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 165).

Here, Whitehead directly contradicts Einstein’s famous statement that our immediate experience of temporality, while perhaps necessary for civilized life (or for biotic existence in general, for that matter), is in reality nothing but a persistent illusion no longer to be believed in by professional physicists. Whitehead’s reconstruction of relativity theory so as to avoid the social and ecological perils of the bifurcation of nature is not based on a denial of Einstein’s physical formulations, but a denial of the unconscious imaginative background shaping Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of these formulations. Following Stengers, it can be said that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism aims not to belittle or deny the abstractions of the scientific intellect, as Bergson seems to, but rather to articulate an

ecology of abstraction…that creates the possibility of a mutual aesthetic appreciation between specialists of precision and adventurers of generalization (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 141).

Ecologies of Space-Time in Organic Ontologies

Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology threw a great post up concerning ethology, ecology, and time. Here is a sneak peek:

“The organism is not an entity acting from within space and time; rather, the organism is an active generator of space-time, enfolding both into a complex ecology that flows from organisms and their behavior. The ecosystem, when viewed from this ontological perspective, is a dynamic and evolving zone of space-time generated in part by the activity of organisms. Ecosystems are not in space or time, they differentially construct multiple entangled layers of both.”

The gestalt shift Adam calls for is exactly what I tried to get Whitehead to say in this section of a longer essay on his contributions to scientific cosmology.

[Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism

“The metrical properties associated with space-time should not be defined a priori, but should characterize the pattern of the environment that is inseparable from [the endurance of organisms].” -Stengers141

 

Whitehead’s amendments to the general theory of evolution follow from his desire to re-construct the theory on the basis of the demands of post-Newtonian physics, as he understands them. As a result of relativity theory, the pre-existent geometrical structure of the spatio-temporal environment can no longer be taken for granted; a further result of relativity is the displacement of static material substances by dynamic energetic processes as fundamental to nature. As a result of quantum theory, the activity of this energy must be understood in terms of the definite values achieved by the momentary synergy of rhythmic vibrations, where the emergence of a complete pulse of energy, or organic bud of experience, requires a stretch of time for its unfolding.142 The abstract point-instants of mechanistic materialism, be they Newtonian or Einsteinian, become concrete actual occasions in Whitehead’s reading of the new physics. The discoveries of the 20th century regarding the nature of space, time, and energy are a warning against the misplaced concreteness that would “abstract from change [in an attempt] to conceive the full reality of nature at an instant.”143

By 1920, Whitehead had already published two books exploring the implications of relativity theory for the philosophy of science.144 In June 1921, Whitehead met and had several in depth conversations with Einstein during the latter’s stay with the philosopher and statesman Richard Haldane in London. Accounts offered by those present suggest that Whitehead made several gentle attempts over the course of two days to convince Einstein “to give up his identification of the [curved] geometry of space-time and the physics of gravitation.”145 Einstein admitted he had difficulty grasping Whitehead’s radically novel metaphysical scheme. It was a little more than a year later, in September of 1922, that Whitehead published The Principle of Relativity in an attempt not only to more fully work out the proper philosophical rendering of Einstein’s scientific discovery, but to provide an alternative set of gravitational field equations no longer based on the notion of curved space-time. The book follows on the heals of the famous debate between Einstein and Henri Bergson, which took place in April of 1922 at the Société Française de Philosophie in Paris. At stake in this debate was not only “the status of philosophy vis à vis physics”–that is, it was not only “a controversy about who could speak for nature and about which of these two disciplines would have the last word.”146 It was also a political debate about the proper roles of science and philosophy in society, especially in regard to international relations. Bergson had recently been appointed president of the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation, a precursor to UNESCO. Einstein, originally a member of the Commission and a vocal supporter of its internationalist mission, would eventually resign, largely as a result of his disagreement with Bergson concerning relativity.147

Bergson’s tremendous popularity prior to confronting Einstein began to wane, probably due to the perception that he was willing to ignore scientific facts if they contradicted his irrational intuitions. This orthodox narrative, retold most recently by the anti-philosophical physicist Alan Sokal,148 has it that Bergson lost the debate because he did not understand the mathematical physics behind relativity. Following the recent revival of interest in Bergsonism,149 the orthodox narrative is increasingly being called into question.150 The specifics of Bergson’s alleged “mistake” regarding the details of Einstein’s twin paradox are beyond the scope of this discussion, but suffice it to say that, contra Sokal and other scientific critics, Bergson was well aware of the observational facts concerning the comparison of different time-systems.151 His critical approach to relativity theory was based on metaphysical, not physical grounds. Like Whitehead, Bergson was not contesting the general physical validity of Einstein’s theory. Rather, Bergson simply wanted to establish, despite Einstein’s protests, that the scientific confirmation of relativity theory was not the end of the matter regarding the philosophical understanding of time.152

Regardless of whether or not Sokal’s criticisms of Bergson’s alleged misunderstandings are justified, he would have a far more difficult case trying to dismiss Whitehead, whose grasp of the mathematical and physical principles at stake arguably surpassed even Einstein’s.153 “The essence of [the structure formed by space-time],” wrote Whitehead in 1922,

is that it is stratified in many different ways by different time-systems. This is a very peculiar idea which is the product of the speculations of the last 15 years or so. We owe the whole conception notably to Einstein… no one can study the evidence in its detail without becoming convinced that we are in the presence of one of the most profound reorganizations of scientific and philosophic thought. But so many considerations are raised, so diverse in character, that we are not justified in accepting blindfolded the formulation of principles which guided Einstein to his forumlae.154

Whitehead set out in his book on relativity to “[carefully scrutinize] the fundamental ideas of physical science in general and of mathematical physics in particular.”155 As discussed earlier, his reaction to the disorienting discoveries of the new physics lead him to re-assess the philosophical foundations of scientific materialism, which had been assumed with great (instrumental) success since the time of Newton. Though Einstein was initially suspicious of philosophy’s role in physics, as is evidenced both by his debate with Bergson and by his signature of a 1913 anti-metaphysical positivist manifesto,156 he came late in life to respect the importance of philosophical reflection upon the conceptual background of science. In his foreword to physicist and philosopher Max Jammer’s historical study of the concept of space, written in 1953, Einstein admits that

…the scientist makes use of a whole arsenal of concepts which he imbibed practically with his mother’s milk; and seldom is he ever aware of the eternally problematic character of his concepts…He uses these conceptual tools of thought as something…immutably given…which is hardly ever…to be doubted. How could he do otherwise? How would the ascent of a mountain be possible, if the use of hands, legs, and tools had to be sanctioned step by step on the basis of the science of mechanics?157

Here, even though Einstein affirms science’s practical need to take its conceptual tools for granted, he he also seems to approach Whitehead’s characterization of philosophy as “the criticism of abstractions which govern special modes of thought.”158 Further, in 1950, Einstein remarked that every genuine physicist “is a kind of tamed metaphysician,” no matter how much lip service he or she may pay to positivism.159 This taming is achieved, according to Whitehead, by holdings one’s “flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization” accountable, upon landing, to “renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.”160 Unfortunately, Einstein’s more mature views on the proper disciplinary relationship between philosophy and physics have still not been fully digested by contemporary materialistic scientists.

In his debate with Bergson, Einstein insisted that no such thing as “philosophical time,” or what Bergson called “duration,” existed; rather, there was the real “physical time” revealed by natural science, and the illusory “psychological time” experienced by human consciousness.161 Whitehead’s unflinching commitment to an organic philosophy of nature prevented him from accepting Einstein’s blatant bifurcation:

It follows from my refusal to bifurcate nature into individual experience and external cause that we must reject the distinction between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature.162

Whitehead differs from Bergson in that he sought to re-construct science itself on an organic basis, whereas Bergson was content to leave science to its mechanical models and instrumental methods. He conceived of science as the result of “intelligence,” rather than “intuition,” meaning that its approach to nature is necessarily mediated by artificial instruments and laboratory techniques; therefore, science can offer no insight into the immediate life of things.163 “For [natural science’s] object,” writes Bergson, “is not to show us the essence of things, but to furnish us with the best means of acting on them.”164 Though Whitehead does not share Bergson’s dualism between the activity of living organisms and the passivity of material mechanisms (since for Whitehead, all sciences are the study of dipolar organismic occasions), he does share his sense that Einstein’s abstract account of relativity in terms of mechanical clock-time obscures the true import of the theory as regards our experience of concrete temporality (i.e., duration). The time of the physicist, as measured by a clock, “merely exhibits some aspects of the more fundamental fact of the passage of nature,” according to Whitehead. “In this doctrine,” he continues, “I am in full accord with Bergson.”165

The agreement between Whitehead and Bergson concerns the way in which concrete temporality is inevitably spatialized in the process of being translated into the abstractions of physics. Mechanical clocks quite literally flatten the passage of time into discrete units of distance meant to represent seconds, minutes, and hours. So far as it goes, such spatialization is necessary for the coordination of civilized life. But it is important not to forget what this translation obscures when we endeavor to understand the creative advance of the actual universe: the clock itself–like everything else in the universe, from carbon atoms to stars to the person who consults it–is aging. To be aging is to be always in process. In a process ontology like Whitehead’s, an actual entity doesn’t “have” an age, as though it were an accidental property of an underlying substance; rather, the very essence of an entity is to age, to emerge out of a definite past and pass into an indefinite future. In Whitehead’s words:

[To discuss]…present fact apart from reference to past, to concurrent present, and to future, and from reference to the preservation or destruction of forms of creation is to rob the universe of essential importance.166

Even a physicist who has mastered all the mathematical formulas and techniques of measurement cannot avoid the philosophical quandaries which arise from a moment’s reflection upon the fact that his or her conscious presence is necessary in order for the clock, or any measuring instrument, to get itself read.167 Our direct experience of concrete existence–whether we are artists, clergymen, homemakers, or astrophysicists–reveals nature to be an irreversible process of becoming, a creative advance. This fact stands in sharp contrast to Einstein’s incredible remark:

For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one.168

The philosopher Niels Viggo Hansen boils down what is at stake in the debate between Einstein, Bergson, and Whitehead by asking about the meaning of “fact,” both as it is assumed in our concrete (temporal) experience of a specious present, and as it is assumed in the abstract (spatialized) notations of physics:

If there is any such thing as a fact…then either there are temporal facts (e.g., that you have already read the previous sentence) or there are atemporal facts (e.g., that your reading of it is later than my writing of it)…Bergson was right that…we cannot seriously hold at the same time both that there are concrete facts involving distant simultaneity, and also that such facts cannot exist in the physical universe. Surely one could claim that such immediate facts are eliminated in the production of physical descriptions…but if concrete facts of co-presence are there before clocks…are used, they will still be there in the background when [clocks] are employed.169

Where Bergson goes wrong, according to Hansen, is in claiming that our concrete experience of co-presence, or durational simultaneity, is somehow universal. It is as if he claims to have some special intuitive access to what is happening right now on the surface of Mars, even though all the theoretical and experimental evidence of relativistic physics suggests that distant happenings are not instantaneously communicated to our concrete experience.170 Whitehead’s novel solution to this paradox regarding the irreconcilable notions of “fact” is to construe the concrete simultaneity of an actual occasion’s specious present as a local, rather than a global, fact. Such a construal entails rejecting the often implicit ontologization of the Einsteinian notion of a ready-made 4-dimensional fabric of space-time “out there” within which actual occasions would unfold, or through which the plane of the present would slide as an indication of global simultaneity (as Bergson seems to have believed171). Actual occasions are not to be pictured as if they were bits of matter located in a pre-given spatiotemporal “loaf”; rather, the abstract geometry of space-time described by the Lorentz transformations, or by Whitehead’s alternative tensor equations,172 is derivative from the most general pattern of experience realizable by the actual occasions constitutive of our cosmic epoch. In other words, the geometry of curved space-time itself emerges from the character, taken collectively, of individual drops of experience. These self-creating and other-prehending drops of experience are the final real things of which reality is composed. These processes are what is concrete, while space-time is an abstraction from the concrete. “Whitehead is explicit about the idea,” writes Hansen,

that the concrete dynamism of processes can be understood as the ground of extension rather than the reverse. This is the first element of the Whiteheadian solution to the tension between extension and becoming: the modalities are not really situated in space and time at all, but in the concrete processes whose web of relations gives rise to space and time.173

Metaphysically speaking, that space-time is abstract doesn’t mean it isn’t real, only that it isn’t actual. Space-time is a system of modalities, a configuration of forms, or, in Whitehead’s terms, a definite patterning of eternal objects that has ingressed into the prehensive unifications of actual occasions. Eternal objects, as discussed earlier, have a relational function: their ingression allows for the solidarity, or extensive continuity, of the universe by providing actual occasions with the definite adverbial “how?” characterizing their prehensions of other occasions. This “two-way function” shapes both the private experience, or “subjective form,” of an occasion, and grants this form publicity, so as to offer it as an objective datum for the larger society of occasions within which the occasion becomes and perishes.174 Among the most fundamental set of adverbs characterizing the “how?” of the mutual prehensions of our cosmic epoch is the system of geometrical modalities known to physics as space-time. Also among the most fundamental set of adverbs are the mathematical fields of force known to physics as gravity and electromagnetism.175

These mathematical relations belong to the systematic order of extensiveness which characterizes the cosmic epoch in which we live. The societies of [organisms]–electrons, protons, molecules, material bodies–at once sustain that order and arise out of it. The mathematical relations involved…thus belong equally to the world perceived and to the nature of the percipient. They are, at the same time, public fact and private experience.176

Whitehead’s reference to our “cosmic epoch” is important, since it is a reminder that the 4-dimensional character of space-time as we experience and measure it today is contingent and could change as the creative advance of the universe continues to unfold. The “laws” of nature, and the structure of space-time, are not eternal, nor necessarily universal.177 They are the result of widespread, habitual forms of organization achieved by the mutual prehensions of the most encompassing society of actual occasions which communicate with our experience.178 “How do we know,” asks Whitehead, “that only one geometry is relevant to the complex happenings of nature?” He continues:

…this planet, or this nebula in which our sun is placed, may be gradually advancing towards a change in the general character of its spatial relations. Perhaps in the dim future mankind, if it then exists, will look back to the queer, contracted three-dimensional universe from which the nobler, wider existence has emerged.179

The cosmic habits called “laws of nature” by contemporary physicists are extremely stable relative to the individual novelty achievable by high-grade, conscious occasions (like multicellular animals) because they are derived from the decisions of very simple, low-grade actual occasions (like electrons). The “mental pole” of these occasions is negligible: they are statistically dominated by the habitual “physical feelings” of their environment, and so almost always reproduce the systematic order of the eternal objects characterizing that environment with little in the way of autonomous flashes of creativity.180

To sum up, Whitehead’s reformed principle of relativity is based on the metaphysical priority of actual facts, or occasions of experience, from which the geometrical order of spatiotemporal extension is derived.181 Through an abstractive process of logical construction rooted in the coordination of the somewhat fragmentary nature of individual occasions of experience, the general character of space-time holding true for our cosmic epoch can be produced.182 While Einstein’s proposal of a universal and a priori space-time implies a taut, already fully woven fabric whose spatial curvature is modified by the material bodies situated within it, Whitehead’s alternative theory of a coordinated plurality of space-times implies a fraying fabric always in the process of being repaired by the dipolar physical-mental concrescences of organismic occasions of experience. In this sense, Whitehead translates many of the properties that Einstein’s general relativity defines a priori into empirical, or a posteriori facts.183 Instead of privileging the misplaced concreteness of an abstract space-time that would “[separate] an organism from its environment” such that “the endurance of the former and the patience of the latter [is defined] in terms of right [or “law”], not of fact,” Whitehead emphasizes the contingency of the evolved habits currently holding sway over the ecology of organisms shaping our cosmic epoch, no matter how general or universal they may appear at this time.184

Whitehead terms the general character of space-time “the uniformity of the texture of experience.”185 “The physical world [i.e., the extensive continuum of space-time],” he goes on, is,

in some general sense of the term, a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world.186

Here, Whitehead directly contradicts Einstein’s famous statement that our immediate experience of temporality, while perhaps necessary for civilized life, is in reality nothing but a persistent illusion no longer to be believed in by professional physicists. Whitehead’s reconstruction of relativity theory so as to avoid the social and ecological perils of the bifurcation of nature is not based on a denial of Einstein’s physical formulations, but a denial of the unconscious imaginative background shaping Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of these formulations. Following Stengers, it can be said that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism aims not to belittle or deny the abstractions of the scientific intellect, as Bergson seems to, but rather to articulate an

ecology of abstraction…that creates the possibility of a mutual aesthetic appreciation between specialists of precision and adventurers of generalization.187

Footnotes

141 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168-169.

142 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 122.

143 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 145.

144 An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (New York: Dover Publications, 1919/1982) and The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920/1964).

145 Ronald Desmet, “Did Whitehead and Einstein Actually Meet?” in Researching With Whitehead: System and Adventure, eds. Franz Riffert and Hans-Joachim Sander (Freiburg: Verlag Karl Alber, 2008), 154.

146 Jimena Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed: Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 120 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 1169; http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/bios/docs/canales-Einstein,%20Bergson%20and%20the%20Experiment%20that%20Failed.pdf (accessed 11/18/2012).

147 Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1175.

148 See Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science (London: Profile Books, 1998).

149 Largely a result of the influence of Gilles Deleuze (see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bergson/#7 [accessed 11/18/2012]).

150 See Canales (2005) and Val Dusek’s review of Sokal’s Intellectual Impostures in the journal Metascience, Vol. 9, Issue 3 (2000); http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/dusek.html (accessed 11/18/2012).

151 See Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1170-1171.

152 Bergson, “Discussion avec Einstein,” in Mélanges (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972), 1345.

153 “Professor Whitehead seems to me to have brought out the character of space and time in his treatment of relativity more thoroughly than Einstein or even Minkowski himself has done” -Richard Haldane, The Reign of Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921), 110. See also letters exchanged between Einstein and his first wife Mileva Einstein-Maric, herself an accomplished mathematician, which suggest that Einstein required her help with some of the more difficult aspects of his equations (“Did Einstein’s Wife Contribute to His Theories?”, in New York Times [March 27, 1990]; http://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/27/science/did-einstein-s-wife-contribute-to-his-theories.html [accessed 11/18/2012]).

154 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 59, 67.

155 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 40.

156 Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1978), 182.

157 Einstein, Foreward to Max Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (Mineola: Dover, 1993), xiii-xiv.

158 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

159 Einstein, “On the Generalized Theory of Gravitation,” in Scientific American, Vol. 182, Issue 4, April 1950.

160 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 5.

161 Bergson, “Discussion avec Einstein,” 1346

162 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 66.

163 C. F. Delaney, “Bergson on Science and Philosophy, in Process Studies, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (1972), 29-43.

164 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911), 93.

165 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 54.

166 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 84.

167 See Canales, “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed,” 1176-1177.

168 Einstein to Vero and Mrs. Bice, March 21, 1955. Einstein Archive, reel 7-245; reprinted in Albert Einstein-Michele Besso Correspondence 1903-1955 (Paris: Harmann, 1972), 537-538.

169 N. V. Hansen, “Spacetime and Becoming: Overcoming the Contradiction Between Special Relativity and the Passage of Time,” in Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience, ed. Timothy Eastman and Hank Keeton (New York: State University of New York, 2003), 150.

170 It takes anywhere between 4 and 20 minutes for light to travel from Mars to Earth, depending on our relative orbital locations. It is important to note here that the non-local effects of quantum physics makes the issue of instantaneous communicability more complicated. I explore this issue below, but suffice it to say for now that Whitehead’s account of the ingression of eternal objects into actual occasions allows for a coherent integration of the relativistic limits placed on efficient causality with the non-local formal causality of quantum physics.

171 See Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, transl. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 82.

172 See Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 139cf.

173 Hansen, “Spacetime and Becoming,” 154.

174 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

175 Unlike Einstein, whose conception of a ready-made “fabric” of space-time allowed him to explain gravity as a pseudo-force which really results from the warping of the fabric due to presence of massive objects, Whitehead described gravity as a genuine physical force, like electromagnetism (Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 91cf).

176 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 326.

177 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168.

178 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 98.

179 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 57.

180 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 245.

181 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 5.

182 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” in The Aims of Education (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1957), 162-163.

183 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168.

184 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 169.

185 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 163.

186 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 165.

187 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 141.

Gilles Deleuze’s and Arthur Young’s Bergsonisms: An Outline and Notes

I’ve just finished Gilles Deleuze’s book Bergsonism (1990). Here is my outline of the text: Deleuze’s Bergsonism: Notes and Outline.

Bergson suggested that the Absolute had to be approached from two sides, the scientific and the metaphysical. Science/Intellect considers the universe according to a series of states. Metaphysics/Intuition considers the universe according to the self-differentiation of a whole.

Here is a video creating/communicating the thoughts of Tom McDonald on Deleuze’s Philosophy of Cinema:


Here is Arthur Young speaking about Bergson and his argument with Einstein about the nature of time:

Young speaks of the photon’s quantum of action at the microcosmic level being productive of time. He counts it as the primordial cycle of learning, the first instance when matter finds itself mixed with memory, perception mixed with recollection.

Young suggests that natural science/physics needs to take into consideration not only the objective and inanimate, but the projective and active aspect of physical nature: i.e., light. Only then will science be able to account for perceptive life and subjective mind further up the scale of cosmic complexity.

Reflections on Physicist Lawrence Krauss and the Consolations of Philosophy

Below is Lawrence Krauss from a recent interview in the Atlantic (Thanks to Jason/Immanent Transcendence for bringing this controversy to my attention):

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.

Krauss just published A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. In it he attempts to explain cosmogenesis mechanistically using quantum field theory, with the larger goal of explaining away the need for spooky theological or philosophical questions about the creation of the universe, such as”why?” Like Weinberg and Hawking, he thinks physics can now do without philosophy, since all the important philosophical problems have already been solved (by science): Life evolved. Mind is in your skull. And now, if we take Richard Dawkins’ word for it, matter has been explained as a random by-product of the laws of quantum fields. Dawkins writes in the afterword of Krauss’ book:

“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.”

Philosopher of science David Albert wrote this review in the New York Times last weekHere is the last paragraph:

“…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.”

I have a lot of sympathy for Albert’s perspective here, though I’d not heard of him until now. After a quick google search, I’m feeling more inclined to check out his book on quantum physics and experience.  Here is Albert offering a Bergsonian/process take on the history of time in physics (top video).

As for Krauss, his disparaging comments regarding the discipline of philosophy were so off key that Dan Dennett forced him to offer an apology of sorts in Scientific American. I would have a hard time myself defending the academic discipline of philosophy as it has come to exist in today’s techno-scientifically driven universities. What I do feel a need to defend is the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life. Given my immersion in Schelling lately, what really interests me in this whole controversy is the relationship between philosophy and physics. How is Schelling’s Naturphilosophie relevant here? How would Schelling respond to this comment in Krauss’ recent “apology” piece?:

“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.”

Schelling would probably dismiss Krauss as a prekantian dogmatist who takes objective nature for granted without accounting for the subjective conditions of its appearance. Philosophically, Krauss has made very little progress in this respect. He has left himself, his own subjectivity, not to mention that of nature, out of his world-equation. It seems he is the one living before the Copernican Revolution (Kant’s).

Krauss has framed things this way: science progresses, while philosophy doesn’t, because science is based upon experimental trial in the real physical world. Fair enough. But the aim of philosophy was never to solve scientific problems; of course it isn’t going to “progress” in that respect. Philosophy is the love of eternal wisdom, of what cannot progress because it never changes. Put another way by Socrates (one of those ancient dudes too dumb to know about “dark matter”), philosophy is learning to die. A philosopher’s “progress” in loving wisdom and learning to die can only be measured one life at a time, and only by the one who is doing the dying. Its a personal matter, a concern to be contemplated only in the depths of one’s soul. On the other hand, as Max Planck famously put it, “science progresses funeral by funeral”; which is to say that science progresses generation at a time as individual scientists refusing to give up their cherished but stale paradigms slowly die off. Science is an impersonal process of knowledge accumulation. That is indeed what makes it special and uniquely valuable. It takes the epistemic weaknesses of finite personalities mostly out of the picture. But science doesn’t make the personal (or interpersonal) pursuit of wisdom in the face of death any less important, and certainly can never replace it with some impersonal techno-scientific methodology. Of course, I wouldn’t want to exempt philosophy from inquiring into impersonal matters. The universe has not only a personal, but an impersonal aspect, so philosophy certainly must include it in its cosmologizing. What is more impersonal than death, after all? At least, its impersonal until it happens to a loved one. Or until it happens to me. I’m really just trying to offer a helpful way of thinking about the difference between philosophy and science. As I said already, philosophy (at least as the ancients understood it) is a way of life. Science is a profession, a specialized discipline. As such it deserves high praise for all its accomplishments. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the good life, about how love wisdom despite death.

All that said, I am very interested in what Krauss has to say in his rebuttal to Albert about how quantum field theorists conceive of “nothing.” Krauss writes:

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.

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