[Update 3/28/2019: Here is a PDF of the final draft prior to my conference presentation: Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy: Whiteheadian Reflections on Bergson, Einstein, and Rovelli.”  This will eventually be published in an anthology with the other conference papers and is likely to undergo further revisions at a later date.]


Below is a rough draft [updated 3/12/2019] of a paper I’ll be presenting at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April. The conference aims to revisit important philosophical issues related to the famous 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson. HERE is the conference site (it is in Italian, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).

Any feedback on what I’ve shared below would be greatly appreciated, as I’ll be working to improve the draft for the next couple months.


Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy

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

By Matthew T. Segall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Einstein and Bergson: The Clash between Physics and Philosophy

The canonical interpretation of the 1922 debate that our conference is meant to revisit is that Einstein the mathematical physicist won out over Bergson the philosopher by dismissing any role for the latter’s special faculty of intuition in cosmological investigations. This view of what happened has had lasting consequences for how the general public understands the relationship between scientific knowledge and human experience. While at the time, Bergson’s position seems to have been strong enough for the Nobel Prize committee to deny Einstein the award for his relativity theory (officially granting him the prize in 1922 for the photoelectric effect2), by 1945, the standard view was cemented by Bertrand Russell’s widely read A History of Western Philosophy, wherein Russell challenged Bergson’s understanding of mathematics and dismissed his philosophy as “anti- intellectual.”3 This triumphalist interpretation continued to echo in the “Science Wars” of the mid-1990s, when Sokal and Bricmont published their book Intellectual Impostures (1997), which devoted an entire chapter to the debate between Bergson and Einstein (at least in the French edition).As more sympathetic interpreters have recently made clear (e.g., Val Dusek4, Milic Capek5, Bruno Latour, Jimena Cannales, Melanie White6), contrary to the canonical interpretation it must remembered that Bergson had no qualms with Einstein’s mathematical logic or with the empirical data supporting it. Bergson accepted the epistemological importance of Einstein’s relativity physics and conceived of his own intuitive philosophy not as a competitor but as a metaphysical supplement. Einstein, on the other hand, rejected the metaphysical importance of Bergson’s philosophy, dismissing it as a subjective psychological illusion. Bergson’s main point of contention with Einstein concerned whether relativity theory tells us more about the behavior of clocks than it does about concrete or lived time. For Bergson, the vital energy and creative metamorphosis of lived time will always remain invisible to the spatializing methods of scientific measurement and mathematical representation. For Einstein and his inheritors, the invisibility to their methods of Bergson’s so- called “lived time” signals only its nonexistence. “The philosopher’s time does not exist,” Einstein insists.

Bergson’s refusal to accept Einstein’s dismissal as the final word on real time does not mean he denies the practical utility of relativity theory’s spatialization of time. Clearly the measurements and models of 20th century physics have produced untold technological miracles that have transformed human life and society. Einstein came of age just as newly erected steam engine trains began to criss-cross the European landscape, forever warping the time-consciousness of pre-industrial peoples. Trains linked cities and towns across the continent at faster speeds than ever before. The newly linked stations needed to invent evermore ingenious ways of synchronizing their clocks in order to remain on schedule and avoid collisions. As is well known, prior to becoming the world’s most famous scientist, Einstein worked as a patent clerk reviewing the latest signaling technologies to assist in establishing the (at least approximate) simultaneity of clocks across long distances. In today’s globally interconnected and increasingly digitized world, this convenient way of measuring time has become nearly all-encompassing. We have all of us been swallowed alive by mechanical clock-time. The daily and seasonal rhythms of Sun, Moon, and stars have faded away into the background of our electrified routines. It is, in Dickens’ words, “as if the sun itself had given in” to the ordering power of clocks and the network of machines they coordinate.7 A convenient tool has thus become our master.

Bergson believed that an intuition of lived time is necessarily presupposed in all the physicist’s intellectual operations, including his mathematical reflections and empirical measurements. Einstein regarded Bergsonian intuition as an illusory artifact of our human perception and thus as irrelevant to the objective truths revealed by physics. For Einstein and the physicists who inherit his way of thinking, there simply is no such thing as a “philosopher’s time,” that is, the living duration through which evolution continually generates novel forms, as Bergson might say. Instead, Einstein distinguished two kinds of time: psychological time, which is a subjective illusion generated by relative motion, and physical time, which is an objective quantity measured by clocks (that ultimately reduces to a four-dimensional block universe wherein all time exists eternally because no scientifically relevant distinctions can be made between past, present, and future). Einstein’s is a deterministic universe that leaves no room for divine dice rolls, creative evolution, or real becoming, since in the 4th dimension, everything has always already occurred. Nothing is held in reserve or in potentia. It is as though the whole life of the universe were already captured on a cosmic movie reel that may as well be collecting dust in some eternal film archive.

Like all modern scientists since Galileo, rather than situating scientific theory and practice within human experience as one of the latter’s possible modes of relation to cosmic reality, Einstein opposed his theoretical model of space-time to our experience of being alive. The existence of humans or any lifeform is thus deemed irrelevant to our understanding of the universe. Though Bergson said the following of Kant’s transcendental philosophy, it could just as easily have been said of Einstein’s gravitational epistemology:

“Knowledge is presented to us in it as an ever-open roll, experience as a push of facts that is for ever going on. But…those facts are spread out on one plane as fast as they arise; they are external to each other and external to the mind. Of a knowledge from within, that could grasp them in their springing forth instead of taking them already sprung, that would dig beneath space and spatialized time, there is never any question. Yet it is indeed beneath this plane that our consciousness places us; there flows true duration.”8

Bergson and Whitehead: Confluence and Divergence

Bergson was not the only early 20th century philosopher to protest against this sort of greedy reductionism. In Germany, through a sort of re-charged Kantian transcendentalism, Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenological inquiries undermined the epistemic and existential ground of scientific materialism. But the anti-naturalistic attitude of especially Heidegger left us with a rather intensely anthropocentric understanding of reality, where all non-humans are “poor” or entirely lacking in “world.” In England, Whitehead articulated an alternative philosophy of Nature, which was neither transcendental nor naively realist. He attempted to avoid the false decision between transcendental idealism and reductionistic materialism by diagnosing and healing the metaphysical incoherence he called the “bifurcation of Nature.” While he would eventually leave his home country and travel to Harvard to take up the philosophical task of constructing a fully-fledged metaphysical cosmology, it was Einstein’s relativity theory that first drew Whitehead out of his early work on the foundations of mathematics and into the philosophy of Nature. While Whitehead praised Einstein for the relativistic paradigm shift he initiated, he did not accept Einstein’s identification of a particular geometrical scheme with the physics of gravitation. Further, like Bergson, he did not accept the implicitly metaphysical interpretation that Einstein attached to his theory.

In his 1919 book An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, Whitehead begins to re- imagine the scientific conception of Nature in process-relational rather than materialistic terms. He argues that we must give up the attempt to “conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material.” Instead, we must come to see that “Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events.” “On the old theory of relativity,” he continues, “Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events.”9

In his 1922 book The Principle of Relativity, Whitehead sided with Bergson by explicitly rejecting Einstein’s bifurcation of nature “between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature” (66). He also claimed to have uncovered a significant contradiction in Einstein’s philosophical account of relativity that, if left unaddressed, threatens to undermine the possibility of spatial measurement. In short, if Einstein’s hypostatization of 4-D geometrical manifold is to be believed and space-time really is a “fabric” warped by the presence of massive objects, then the accurate measurement of distances would require precise and complete knowledge of the distribution of all masses in the universe. The problem is that this knowledge cannot be gained in advance of measurement, so we are left having to know everything before we can know anything. Einstein briefly mentions issues of spatial measurement raised by general relativity in a 1921 paper “Geometry and Experience,” but he does not appear to believe they represent a problem worth dwelling on, much less a fundamental contradiction in his interpretation of relativity.10 In a 1923 paper on the cosmological implications of his theory, he admits that a consequence of allowing the metrical character or curvature of space-time to be determined at every point by the matter at that point is that this space-time must be “extremely complicated.” But he claims that the possibility of accurate cosmological measurement is saved so long as we believe that matter remains “uniformly distributed over enormous spaces.”11 Whitehead was not convinced. “I cannot understand,” he wrote in book Relativity:

“what meaning can be assigned to the distance of the sun from Sirius if the very nature of space depends upon casual intervening objects which we know nothing about. Unless we start with some knowledge of a systematically related structure of space-time we are dependent upon the contingent relations of bodies which we have not examined and cannot prejudge.”12

To avoid what he believed was a serious problem, Whitehead built on his new event ontology to develop a set of empirically equivalent tensor equations that did not rely upon the idea of a contingently curved space-time geometry to explain gravitational effects. Instead, he elaborated a scheme wherein space retained a uniform metrical structure. In place of Einstein’s flexible space- time fabric, Whitehead offered his own theory of the propagation of gravitational potential in terms similar to electromagnetic waves, only now gravitational and electromagnetic activity was vibrating in an “ether of events” rather than either the old material ether. In this way, Whitehead was actually able to move physics closer to the unified field theory that Einstein spent the second half of his life searching for, but only by shifting from material points to creative events as fundamental to physical ontology.13 The radical implications of this shift to an event ontology prevented the physics community from accepting Whitehead’s approach until quite recently.14 For one thing, accepting the fundamental nature of creative events means letting go of the quest for certainty that has plagued modern science since its inception. Unlike simply located particles that can be conceived of as fully present at a given instant, events are overlapping, have fuzzy spatial and temporal boundaries, and thus only submit to approximate measurement.15 An event ontology is also crucial for Whitehead’s attempt to heal the bifurcation of Nature, as the gap between the durational unfolding of an electromagnetic event and a moment of conscious experience is far easier to leap than is that between experience and dead matter. The former gap is a difference in degree or intensity, while the latter is a difference in kind.

There is a rich literature trying to sort out the extent and nature of Bergson’s influence upon Whitehead. Whitehead’s biographer Victor Lowe downplayed the significance of the influence, while more recent scholarship by Randall Auxier, Pete Gunter, and Carl Hausman has amplified the relation to the level of a fundamental confluence of ideas.16

According to Whitehead, the measured clock-time of the physicist and of conventional civilized life “merely exhibits some aspects of the more fundamental fact of the passage of nature.” On this point Whitehead claims he is in “full accord with Bergson.”17 Bergson took notice, writing that Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature (1920) “is certainly one of the most profound [works] ever written on the philosophy of nature.”18 Almost a decade later, Whitehead affirmed in Process & Reality that “the history of philosophy supports Bergson’s charge that the human intellect ‘spatializes the universe’; that is to say, that it tends to ignore the fluency, and to analyze the world in terms of static categories.” But, continues Whitehead, “Bergson went further and conceived this tendency as an inherent necessity of the intellect. I do not believe this accusation.”19 In the preface to the same book, Whitehead says he was lured into his adventure in cosmology in part to save Bergson’s “type of thought from the charge of anti-intellectualism, which rightly or wrongly has been associated with it.”20

According to Gunter, Whitehead is not reacting to Bergson’s true view in these excerpts. Bergson is not anti-intellectual and does not believe the scientific intellect is inevitably mechanistic and bound to falsely spatialize the universe in all its attempted explanations. In Creative Evolution (1907), Bergson himself attempted to initiate an organic reformation of the abstractions of science. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism can be understood to have brought this project closer to fruition. Whitehead and Bergson’s views diverge in places, but this may be more a divergence of emphasis than of substance.

Whitehead attempted to re-imagine science so that it would no longer be forced to resort to “heroic feats of explaining away.”21 His response to Einstein’s reductionistic metaphysical interpretation of the physics of gravitation was really aimed at a philosophical postulate that long preceded Einstein: the so-called “bifurcation of nature” first articulated by Galileo in the 17th century. In Galileo’s terms, this bifurcation was a division between primary quantitative or material characteristics and secondary qualitative or mental characteristics of reality. This bifurcation is the founding metaphysical gesture of modern scientific materialism. For centuries, it proved to be a tremendous boon to natural scientific investigation, freeing researchers from Scholastic metaphysics by encouraging parsimonious explanations based in mathematical calculation and empirical measurement. But as with all abstract models meant to capture some aspect of concrete reality, its limits will eventually be reached and must be understood and accepted. While immensely useful for describing the widespread regularities and settled facts of physical nature, the bifurcation between primary and secondary characteristics severely handicapped inquires into not only fundamental ontology but the biological and psychological sciences, where the role of perceptual evaluation and conscious decision-making can no longer be ignored. Disturbed by Einstein’s dismissal of the place of consciousness in the cosmos (“For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one”22), Whitehead realized he needed to challenge this founding metaphysical gesture and search for a more adequate scientific world view.

In Whitehead’s new organic philosophy of Nature, human perception and agency come to be understood as especially intense expressions of rather than miraculous exceptions to the more habit- bound vibratory rhythms of the physical universe. Replacing the old gesture of bifurcation, Whitehead offers the following founding proposition for a new kind of natural philosophy to undergird physics:

“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.”

I quote Whitehead at length on this issue, as it is central to his criticism of scientific materialism’s attempt to explain away time:

“In making this demand [that everything perceived is in nature], I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known….What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.”23

Healing the bifurcation of Nature allows natural philosophy to avoid committing what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” which is what Einstein falls prey to when he dismisses lived experience as a dream and falsely concretizes a conjectured geometrical model as though it were identical to real Nature. Of course, as the history of modern science has made evident, appearances are often deceiving. Taking lived experience seriously doesn’t mean accepting reality as it first appears to us. The Earth is not flat and is not orbited by the Sun. As Whitehead says in the excerpt above, we instinctively search for deeper realities and are not satisfied with superficial appearances. There is always more than what at first meets the eye. But the dismissal of our lived experience of temporal becoming in favor of an atemporal theoretical model asks us to accept that Nature is less than our experience tells us it is. To dismiss lived time would be to lose the thread of experience that makes scientific reflection and experimentation possible in the first place. Even the mind-bending paradoxes of contemporary theoretical physics are, according to Latour, “child’s play in comparison with the multiplicity and complexity of the dimensions that are simultaneously accessible to the most minimal experience of common sense.”24 Inheriting the protests of Bergson and Whitehead, Latour invites us to return from outer space to re-inhabit the solid ground of our common sense experience. The interlacing ecological complexity of our everyday experience of standing on earth beneath the sky, enveloped within an atmosphere alongside many millions of unique species of plants, animals, and other human beings, makes the even the mathematizable quantum and relativistic realms of theoretical physics look like toy models in comparison. The world of common sense experience is even more difficult to fathom than the abstract micro- and macroscopic worlds modeled by physicists, since, as Latour reminds us, the former “has been infinitely less explored than the other!” We have as much to learn from artists and philosophers as from scientists about the textures of this world, our world.

One of Whitehead’s apparent divergences from Bergson concerns the latter’s emphasis upon the continuity of becoming. In contrast, by the mid-1920s, Whitehead came to affirm an atomic or epochal theory of the “becoming of continuity.”25 Lowe26 argues this is an irreconcilable difference, but Gunter27 and Capek28 insist that the divergence is only a difference in emphasis. The latter two thinkers point out that Bergson’s duration was no simple continuity, but a multiplicity of overlapping rhythms. As Bergson describes his view in Duration and Simultaneity (1922), duration is “multiplicity without divisibility and succession without separation.”29 This account resonates with Whitehead’s epochal theory, which rejects both the metaphysical fairy tale of “Nature at an instant” (which is still residual even in Einstein’s notion of the relativity of simultaneity) and the idea that time is simply a homogeneous flow. Instead, Whitehead inherits William James’ notion of a concrete time that grows “dropwise, by discrete pulses of perception.”30 In Whitehead’s mature philosophy, our experience of apparently continuous becoming is thought to be composed of historical routes of “actual occasions of experience” that each arise from the settled past to achieve their subjective aim in the present before superjectively perishing into the future to be resurrected by subsequently concrescing occasions. Concrescence is a phasic process but it does not occur “in” an already actualized and mathematically continuous space-time fabric. Rather, Whitehead describes a universe wherein vast societies of electromagnetic and gravitational occasions are actively weaving and re-weaving the fraying fabric of space-time as a field of potential relationship.

Still, some Bergsonians may be tempted to view Whitehead’s epochal theory of space-time as another intellectual falsification of living duration. But Whitehead’s understanding of space-time as epochal is not another “cinematographic” model of reality, where juxtaposed instants are translated into a cartoon-like illusion of the creative flow and musical rhythm of our inner life. Whitehead affirms the reality of continuous transition, but because his speculative scheme is an effort to reform the scientific intellect so that it acknowledges the evidences of intuition, he asks us to imagine another fundamental form of process alongside that of transition: namely, the process of “concrescence” described earlier. Space-time can be conceived of as continuous in the social coordination achieved by transitions between actual occasions of experience, which though they each atomize the continuum nonetheless remain linked together in an abstract field of definite potentiality. Space-time can also be conceived of as epochal, as the real potentiality established by past actual occasions is taken up into each newborn drop of experience, there achieving some concrete actualization of value before perishing to gift its novel value-potency back to the cosmic

community. There is continuity and there is individuality. Concrescence is thus a process whereby “the many become one and are increased by one.”31 There is established, through the synthesis of inherited public feeling and private anticipatory expression, a cumulative movement or creative evolution from past to future. There is a becoming of continuity rather than a continuity of becoming in this iterative growth process, which is achieved occasion by occasion through individuating acts of valuation. The space-time continuum, like living organisms, grows in a cellular way.

As Whitehead puts it:

“Time and space express the universe as including the essence of transition and the success of achievement. The transition is real, and the achievement is real. The difficulty is for language to express one of them without explaining away the other.”32

By rejecting the bifurcation of Nature, Whitehead is also rejecting the idea that time is merely “inner,” whether transcendental or psychological, leaving the physicist to reduce the objective external universe to a timeless block. While in his response to Einstein’s relativity theory in Duration and Simultaneity (1922), Bergson confusedly presents his theory of duration as a phenomenological defense of “direct and immediate experience,” the Bergson of earlier works like Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907) affirms that duration reaches beyond the subject and is also intrinsic to the evolution of all life on Earth and indeed to the unfolding of the physical universe itself.33 As Bergson put it in Matter and Memory, there is another pathway open to philosophers after the transcendental critique of experiential time as merely a form of “inner” intuition: they must “seek experience at its source, or rather above the decisive turn where, taking a bias in the direction of utility, it becomes properly human experience” (184).34 Like the Bergson of these earlier works, Whitehead’s process philosophy attempts precisely such a return to the source to uncover a more primordial form of temporal experience that can no longer be anthropocentrically claimed as the unique province of human or even living beings but which must be understood to infect the universe to some degree at every scale of its actualization, from its earliest to its latest evolutionary expressions. Whitehead tells us that “the primordial element” of the universe itself is “a vibratory ebb and flow…an…energy, or activity” that is “nothing at any instant” and that “requires its whole period…to manifest itself.”35

This vibratory activity unfolds through its concrescent phases of sensitive reception and creative expression. Crucially, Whitehead unambiguously rejects the dualism Bergson sometimes slips into by affirming that “ultimate concrete fact is an extended process.” “If you have lost process or lost extension,” he continues, “you know you are dealing with abstraction.”36 Extension is essentially processual, and process is essentially extensional. This is Whitehead’s metaphysical reformulation of a now even more general theory of relativity.

Whitehead and Rovelli: Reconciling Physics and Philosophy

The final part of this paper marks some preliminary connections and divergences between Whitehead’s cosmological scheme and the quantum gravity theory of Carlo Rovelli. Aside from a few comments here and there scattered across the philosophy blogosphere37, I have found exactly two mentions of a possible Whitehead-Rovelli nexus in academic publications. The first is a frustratingly brief footnote in Epperson and Zafiris’ Whitehead-inspired Foundations of Relational Realism, wherein they suggest that Rovelli’s “relational quantum mechanics” is “sufficiently compatible for fruitful conversation” even if the underlying philosophical frameworks turn out to be very different.38 The second is in Ronny Desmet’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Whitehead, where he writes that Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics is “strikingly Whiteheadian.”39 I agree with Epperson, Safiris, and Desmet that many passages in Rovelli’s popular works align with the process-relational perspective; but it is not yet clear whether Rovelli has fully overcome the modern bifurcation of Nature.

Unlike many popular physicists who regularly disparage philosophy (e.g., Neil deGrasse Tyson, Laurence Krauss, Steven Weinberg, Steven Hawking), Rovelli laments the “narrow-mindedness” displayed by his scientific colleagues when it comes to considering the importance of philosophy for their discipline.40 To be fair, he is equally critical of philosophers who don’t want to learn about science. Rovelli, like Whitehead, is one of the rare thinkers who is capable of making meaningful connections linking mathematics, theoretical physics, philosophy, and human life more generally.

In his most recent book, The Order of Time, Rovelli not only lucidly summarizes the latest findings of contemporary physics, including his own loop quantum gravity theory, he also skillfully weaves these theories together with the philosophical insights of Augustine, Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger (who each thought time had more to do with human nature than with physical nature). Rovelli criticizes some philosophers, like Parmenides, Plato, and Hegel, for allegedly fleeing to eternity in an effort to escape the anxiety time causes us.41 Heraclitus and Bergson, on the other hand, are criticized for allowing an overly emotional veneration of time to cloud their vision.42

In Rovelli’s view, contemporary physics has revealed the time of our conscious experience to be, at best, an “approximation” resulting from our thermodynamically improbable perspective on the universe. Aside from the study of thermodynamics, several centuries of modern scientific investigation have left us with “an empty, windswept landscape almost devoid of all trace of temporality.”43 Rovelli rejects Newton’s conception of absolute time as well as the “block universe” idea often associated with Einstein: “The absence of time does not mean that everything is frozen and unmoving…[forming] a four-dimensional geometry”; rather, Rovelli claims, the world is an “incessant happening … a boundless and disorderly network of quantum events.”44 After recounting the “epic and magical” distortions of time created by the ingestion of cannabis or LSD, Rovelli reminds his readers that “it was certainly not our direct experience of time that gave us the idea” of a purely continuous time passing “at the same rate, always and everywhere.”45 This an abstract and relatively recent idea of time reflecting our immersion in a modern civilization ruled over by mechanical clocks, rather than an intuition of either psychological or physical reality. So far there would appear to be plenty of overlap between Rovelli’s quantum network of events and Whitehead’s nexūs of actual occasions.

Rovelli briefly discusses the heretical view of another philosophically open physicist, Lee Smolin, whose recent book with Roberto Unger, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (2014), argues forcefully against the scientific consensus and for the fundamental reality of time. Smolin and Unger approvingly cite Whitehead in their introduction as an exponent of the ancient but dissident tradition of becoming in Western philosophy (others mentioned are Heraclitus, Hegel, Peirce, and Bergson).46 Whitehead shares with Unger and Smolin the conviction that the so-called “laws” and “constants” of physics, far from being eternal and necessary, are in fact contingently evolved habits. Rovelli and Smolin were collaborators on loop quantum gravity for a time and remain close friends, but they diverge sharply on the question of time’s place in physics. Like Whitehead, Rovelli views the “gelatinous” space-time continuum as a second-order emergent property of quantum events.47 Space-time, he says,

“has loosened into a network of relations that no longer holds together as a coherent canvas. The picture of spacetimes (in the plural) fluctuating, super-imposed one above the other, materializing at certain times with respect to particular objects, provides us with a very vague vision. But it is the best that we have for the fine granularity of the world.”48

Rovelli’s projective topological account of the quantum network underlying space and time sounds a lot like Whitehead’s notion of the relational complex he calls the “extensive continuum.”49 But unlike Whitehead, Rovelli reduces his relational quantum events to mere transitions of “physical quantities from one to another,”50 thus robbing them of any experiential quality or explanatory value. Whitehead’s actual occasions, in their atomization of the extensive continuum, are not timeless “quanta” mutely crunching an algorithmic program. What sense is there in rejecting Newton and Einstein’s clock-work universe only to then computerize the cosmos, instead? Whitehead lamented the way “The divergence of the formulae about nature from the appearance of nature has robbed the formulae of any explanatory power.”51 Whitehead’s cosmos is composed not of blind algorithms but of social relations among creaturely occasions seeking to intensify their value-experience. These occasions do exemplify certain measurable and mathematical patterns, but it is the experiential activity that explains the equations, not the equations that explain the experience. If Rovelli’s theory is not just a convenient model and there is really a network of quantum spin foams at the base of Nature, Whitehead’s philosophy of organism requires that there be something it feels like to spin foam, to endure the topological looping, fraying, and folding of these creative quantum events.

Is the lived time of human consciousness in any sense an expression of some more primordial value- experience in Nature? Or is our existence just a peripheral accident? Rovelli appears to take the latter view, giving physical models precedence over lived experience as regards ontology. He rejects views like Smolin’s because he believes they lean too heavily on an emotionally charged intuition about time’s role in physics. “The choice,” Rovelli tells us, “is between forcing the description of the world so that it adapts to our intuition, or learning instead to adapt our intuition to what we have discovered about the world.”52

Certainly, as we saw earlier, Whitehead affirms the need to “look again” at the world, and to experiment with our perceptions, in order to assure that our ideas or abstract accounts of its operations remain in accord with the concrete happenings of actual Nature. But how are we to access concrete reality except through experience or intuition? Rovelli is careful elsewhere to clearly reject the classical idea of a “view from nowhere”: “A point of view is an ingredient in every description of the observable world that we make”53 and “The world is…a collection of interrelated points of view…there is no ‘outside’ to the world.”54 So while Rovelli’s earlier rejection of intuition seems like a re-entrenchment into the bifurcation of Nature between objective science and subjective dream that Whitehead so forcefully protested against, it is also out of step with his own broader commitment to a relational reality. Such a splitting of our embodied experience from the “scientific discovery” of a toy model of the physical world would neglect the relational essence of reality by succumbing to what Auxier and Herstein call “model-centric thinking”:

“For what are we left with to test our models, other than the formal and recondite cleverness of those models? What standards might we apply to test our models when our model-centric approach demands that we measure experience by those models, rather than those models by experience?”55

Whitehead once wrote that “The physical world is in some general sense of the term a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world.”56 This statement may seem a bit strange coming from a professed realist. But we must not misunderstand Whitehead’s meaning. He is, as Auxier and Herstein make clear, a radical empiricist in William James’ sense. The universe is relational and esemplastic: it grows from the inside out, each part containing the whole in potentia. Whatever this universe is, it is happing not just “out there” but right here, right now within and between us. We do not and cannot experience the universe in is integrity as a child observes a snow globe at arms length. But the “Big Bang” model of inflationary cosmology is often discussed at least in popular science books and by science journalists precisely in this way, as though we were turning the world around in our hand to have a good look at it. Where are we as observers in these acts of cosmological imagination? Precisely nowhere.

Rovelli suggests that our perception of a cosmic evolution through irreversible time results from our perspective at the far end of a thermodynamic heat sink. Inflationary models of the observable cosmos suggest that our world emerged from a very low entropy state at the beginning of the universe and is gradually running down toward heat death. Our vision of the cosmos as such is “blurred” by our special position in this entropic process. Rovelli writes:

“If a subset of the universe is special in this sense, then…memories exist, traces are left—and there can be evolution, life and thought…We observe the universe from within [this subset], interacting with a minuscule portion of the innumerable variables of the cosmos. What we see is a blurred image. This blurring suggests that the dynamic of the universe with which we interact is governed by entropy, which measures the amount of blurring. It measures something that relates to us more than to the cosmos.”57

It is not only our special cosmic position that creates this blurring, according to Rovelli. It is also our special form of biological organization powered by a web of negentropic chemical processes. Life is poised at the cresting wave of a thermodynamic gradient, feeding on light from the Sun and ultimately producing dramatically more entropy than would otherwise be possible on a dead Earth.

Whitehead describes the emergence of special “cosmic epochs” from out of the more general extensive continuum.58 While the “laws” and “constants” of physics, as well as the metrical properties of space-time, the particles described by the standard model, and all larger organized bodies like stars, galaxies, planets, plants, and animals, have emerged within our epoch, the extensive continuum’s generic topological properties hold across all such epochs. Whitehead thought the properties of this extensive continuum were truly metaphysical or fundamental in nature, much as Rovelli thinks his quantum network is fundamental. Whitehead’s notion of a “cosmic epoch” also bears some resemblance to Rovelli’s account of thermodynamically improbable subsets of the wider universe. However, Whitehead does not shy away from the sort of speculative ideas that would be necessary for such an account to count as a coherent explanation. While Rovelli is content to explain away basic features of our universe like memory, causation, and the irreversible flow of time as “nothing but names”59 that we give to describe our statistically improbable egress from a low entropy event in the past,Whitehead would agree with Smolin that the fact that such accounts pass as “explanation” is only a “measure of the depth of the current crisis” faced by scientific cosmology.60 Rather than dismiss the profoundly beautiful forms of complexity achieved by our self-organizing universe as nothing but accidental smudges in the flow of entropy, Whitehead grants reality to a “counter-agency” infusing the physical universe with a tendency toward order.61

At this point, many scientists are probably unable to follow Whitehead. Even he admits that this counter-agency “is too vast and diffusive for our direct observation.”62 But in the course of constructing his speculative cosmology, which seeks to offer a satisfying explanation for the astonishingly organized universe that we do directly observe, Whitehead found it necessary to make reference to what some contemporary physicists are beginning to call “extropy.”63 Which is more improbable, that our universe is erotically lured toward organizational complexity, with human consciousness being a natural outgrowth of evolution, as Whitehead wagers, or, as Rovelli supposes, that the directly observed facts of a time-developmental universe, including everything from physical causation to star and galaxy formation to mental capacities like memory and anticipation, are all just mirages arising from our blurred perspective on an exceedingly rare hot spot at the origin of our subset of the cosmos? Even if the irreversible temporality of cosmic evolution and human life is not metaphysically fundamental, as both Whitehead and Rovelli agree, this does not mean causality, memory, and purpose are merely nominal. These are real features of an exceedingly creative cosmos, as real as energy, entropy, and indeed, should loop quantum gravity turn out to be correct, as real as spin foams. According to Whitehead, “the extreme rejection of final causation from our categories of explanation has been fallacious.”64 A satisfactory cosmology, he insists, must explain the interweaving of entropy and extropy, of dissipation and organization, without attempting to reduce one to an epiphenomenon of the other.

Conclusion

“[The] antagonism between philosophy and natural science has produced unfortunate limitations of thought on both sides,” according to Whitehead. “Philosophy has ceased to claim its proper generality, and natural science is content with the narrow round of its methods.”65 While the original rejection of Scholastic metaphysics and formulation of the mechanical categories and empirical methods of physical science in the 17th century has proven tremendously successful, the advances of the last century and a half (including evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories) have brought us into a critical period of general reorganization of the categories of scientific thought. Not only our concept of time, but space, matter, life, and mind must all be rethought and brought into accord. The old mechanical definitions of these terms and their relations are simply no longer relevant. The needed reorganization of fundamental ideas is not a task that natural science can undertake on its own, as should be clear from the fact that after more than a century a coherent integration of relativity and quantum theories remains as elusive as ever (though there are several contenders, major obstacles stand in the way of their widespread acceptance). Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an effort to construct a new organic and process-relational metaphysics for natural science to replace the now defunct mechanistic ontology. Whether Whitehead has succeeded remains to be seen. There is already plenty of important work going on at the intersections of new paradigm natural science and Whiteheadian philosophy. While the true nature of time undoubtedly remains as mysterious as ever, I hope this brief essay at least contributes to clarifying what is at stake these efforts.


Endnotes

 

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/09/us/daylight-savings-time.html?fbclid=IwAR17AlGToFUvx3PkI_U50YJ16rPjw6OYIWvgHdYIYhg8W_nU3-4BMrpJ4Js [accessed March 9, 2019].

2 Arrhenius, S. “Presentation Speech,” 10 December 1922 in Nobel Lectures in Physics (1901-1921)World Scientific, Singapore (1998).

3 History of Western Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1996), 720.

4 https://physics.nyu.edu/sokal/dusek.html

5 Bergson and Modern Physics (1973)

6 https://socialepistemologydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/white_reply_riggio1.pdf

7 Charles Dickens, “Dombey and Son”

8 Creative Evolution, 241.

9 Principles of Natural Knowledge, 25-26.

10 See also the discussion by F. S. C. Northrop in Science and First Principles (Cambridge, 1931), 113-114.

11 Einstein, “Cosmological Considerations on the General Theory of Relativity,” in The Principle of Relativity edited by Francis Davis (Courier, 2013), 183.

12 The Principle of Relativity, 49.

13 See Leemon B. McHenry’s book The Event Universe: The Revisionary Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (2015).

14 See The Event Universe, 139-140 and 413n6.

15 The Event Universe, 44.

16 See Process Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3/4, Fall-Winter 1999, “Special Focus: Bergson and Whitehead.”

17 The Concept of Nature, 54.

18 Duration and Simultaneity, note 10.

19 Process & Reality, 209.

20 PR, xii.

21 Process and Reality, 23.

22 Einstein to Vero and Mrs. Bice, March 21, 1955. Einstein Archive, reel 7-245; reprinted in Albert Einstein- Michele Besso Correspondence, 537-538.

23 The Concept of Nature, 29-30.

24 Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 120.

25 Process & Reality, 35.

26 Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 10, No. 2 [Apr., 1949], 283; https://www.jstor.org/stable/2707418

27 “Bergson, Mathematics, and Creativity” in Process Studies Vol 28; http://www.religion-online.org/article/bergson- mathematics-and-creativity/

28 Bergson and Modern Physics, 120.

29 Duration and Simultaneity (1922/1965), 45.

30 A Pluralistic Universe, 231. Quoted in Capek, Bergson and Modern Physics, 140.

31 Process & Reality, 21.

32 Modes of Thought, 102.

33 See “Introduction,” Henri Bergson: Key Writings, ed. by K. A. Pearson and J. Mullarkey (New York: Continuum, 2002); see also Capek, Bergson and Modern Physics, 154.

34 Matter and Memory, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1991).

35 Science and the Modern World, 37.

36 Science and Philosophy, 252.

37 See especially this post by astrophysicist Geoffrey Edwards: https://www.infiniteconversations.com/t/rethinking-time/2014

38 Foundations of Relational Realism: A Topological Approach to Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Nature (2013, xxn3)

39 https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/#PhilScie

40 Carlo Rovelli, ‘Science Is Not About Certainty’, in The Universe, ed. John Brockman, New York: Harper Perennial, 2014, p.215, 227 & 228

41 The Order of Time, 173.

42 The Order of Time, 174.

43 The Order of Time, 3.

44 The Order of Time, 92.

45 The Order of Time, 53.

46 The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, xv.

47 The Order of Time, 168.

48 The Order of Time, 80.

49 Process & Reality, 66-67.

50 The Order of Time, 168.

51 Modes of Thought, 154.

52 The Order of Time, 190n14.

53 The Order of Time, 132.

54 The Order of Time, 108.

55 The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism (2017), 111.

56 Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity” in Aims of Education, 166.

57 The Order of Time, 130, 134.

58 Process & Reality, 91.

59 The Order of Time, 147.

60 A Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, 355. 61 The Function of Reason, 25.

62 The Function of Reason, 25.

63 “Entropy, Extropy, and the Physical Driver of Irreversibility” by Attila Grandpierre (http://indecs.eu/2012/indecs2012-pp73-79.pdf)

64 The Function of Reason, 28. 65 The Function of Reason, 61.

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.

“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

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

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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.

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).

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 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.

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.

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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