return to religion-online

Nature and Purpose by John F. Haught

John F. Haught, who received the Ph.D. from Catholic University, is professor of theology at Georgetown University. He has written extensively on religion and science. His books include The Revelation of God in History; What is God?, The Cosmic Adventure, Nature and Propose, and Religion and Self-Acceptance. Published by University Press of America, 1980. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock..

Chapter 2: Physical Reality

The question, "Is there purpose in nature?" must be preceded by another: What is meant by "nature"? R. G. Collingwood, in his well-known book, The Idea of Nature, develops the thesis that the idea of nature in philosophical discussion has always been conditioned by historical preoccupations and circumstances.1 We cannot hope to isolate nature from our historicity so as to describe clearly and distinctly what it is "in itself." Even the statement that "nature is objective" and presumably neutral toward human meanings, is the product of an historically rooted perspective, the very one that we called dualistic in the previous chapter. The idea of nature, then, is always already overlaid with our meanings and cannot be understood apart from them.

Instead of constituting a barrier to our understanding, this interpenetration of our meanings and mentality with nature is our very access to understanding physical reality. White- head observes that "scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the presupposition that mental functionings are not properly part of nature." But this reasoning, he says, while justifiable within limits, leaves out a massive amount of data:

. . . this sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. We find ourselves living within nature. . . . We should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature.2

Throughout this book we shall follow Whitehead’s admonition to avoid the dualism that puts nature in one arena and subjective experience in another. There is no decisive line of demarcation in the universe that segregates experience on the one side from insensitive objects on the other. Rather, as we shall propose, the universe is ultimately and pervasively made up of units of experience.

The alliance of nature and mind for which we are arguing is presumed in an ambiguous way by science itself. Evolutionary theory, physiology, molecular biology and other fields of science have made our species intelligible to us only as a part of the natural world. One of the major implications of this naturalistic absorption of the human dimension is that the categories of thought we employ to understand nature are not irrelevant to our understanding the nature of man. And a great deal of contemporary anthropology, sociology and psychology utilizes this premise. At the same time, however, the obverse should also hold: the concepts we employ in order to interpret human experience are applicable in our attempts at understanding the rest of nature. This latter suggestion, however, has not often been taken as seriously as the first. But if we are to understand anything about nature we must not exclude ourselves and our experience from the world we are trying to understand.

Suppose, then, that we begin our description of the natural world by making explicit what it means to be an experiencing, conscious subject. Is this an unscientific way of proceeding? Perhaps so, depending upon ones view of what science is. Nevertheless, it seems to be a very empirical way of beginning to understand the universe, more radically empirical in fact than science is itself.3 Here we are attending not only to the data of sense-perception but also to a much more proximate set of givens -- the experiential components of our own subjectivity. These data constitute the nearest and richest point of entry each of us has to the physical world in which we are embedded. Our attempt to grasp what nature is will be considerably emaciated if we abstract from these data. The fact that awareness of our experiencing subjectivity is so immediate to us is no warrant for our shoving it aside when we work out our cosmological perspectives. After all, our own experiencing, knowing and desiring are a part of the world-process, and we cannot hope to understand this process without first reflecting upon them as somehow expressive of what the world is.

The Subjective Experience of Becoming

One of the most immediately available characteristics of my subjective experience is its quality of "becoming". This becoming is so basic and pervasive that I seldom reflect upon it. But retrieving it now on a reflective level will give us the needed base for understanding our physical universe.

Each moment of my life is made of becoming and perishing. As I reflect on the experience of my temporality I note that it is a process composed of occasions, each of them a "throb of experience4 that momentarily becomes and then perishes. My own enduring subjectivity is made up of these moments of experience, each flowing into the next as part of an enduring series of experiential occasions.

While I always abide in the present, the present moment is always perishing. As it perishes, however, it is not totally thrust into nothingness. Something of my experience of past moments abides in the "now", I am able to retain in memory that which no longer is now, the moments of my experience that have become and then perished. And each moment of my experience somehow preserves, however vaguely, the moments that have made up my experience in the past. At the same time that I hold onto the past in memory, I also anticipate the future that is not yet. I grasp yet unrealized possibilities, and my present feelings and decisions take a shape corresponding to my accepting or refusing these possibilities.

There is nothing extraordinary in this brief description of temporal experience. And yet there is the nucleus here of a model we might employ to understand the basic constituent elements of physical reality. On the basis of our own experience of temporality we may construct a general view of nature that will allow us to reconsider this issue of purpose in the universe.

What Makes Up the Universe?5

Once we reject the dualism of mind and nature we must place our experience of temporality on a continuum with the rest of physical reality. What we ourselves experience as moments of duration must bear some relation to the rest of nature. Therefore we may entertain the hypothesis that the universe as a whole is made up of moments of experience analogous to those that constitute our own enduring and becoming. Following Whitehead’s terminology we shall refer to these experiences as "events" or "actual occasions" of which our own experiences are only one variety.6 It is these events or occasions of experience that make up the universe of nature. And each of these units of becoming is characterized in its own way by the features that make up the occasions or moments of our own experience. Something like present immediacy of enjoyment, memory and anticipation enters into each of the events that organically compose physical reality.

Initially the suggestion that the universe is composed of experiential events will understandably seem quite puzzling. Our common sense tells us that the universe is made up of chunks of solid matter simply located in space and time. Furthermore, the classical physics of Galileo, Descartes and Newton, basing itself on this common sense view of matter, portrays nature as made up of hard, impermeable material particles or mechanisms obeying immutable physical laws. This "corpuscular" view of nature is firmly fixed in the minds and sensitivities of most of us, including biologists, physicists and chemists. So when it is maintained that experiential temporal events, rather than spatialized particles, are the ultimate constituent elements of the universe, our first reaction will probably be somewhat skeptical.

However, let us examine the traditional philosophy of nature based on classical physics and common sense. Upon closer inspection this corpuscular, spatialized view of nature that sticks so firmly in our imaginations turns out to be incompatible with experience, contemporary science and sound logic:

(1) The Testimony of Experience: The persistent belief that the physical universe is unexperiential can be sustained only so long as we arbitrarily and dogmatically exclude from nature our own experiencing subjectivity. The radical empiricism alluded to above demands that we attend to all the data of our experience including the most proximate, our experiencing itself. Now in our experience of our own subjectivity we do not discover anything like the inert brute stuff into which classical physics attempts to analyze nature. Scientific materialism either abstracts from this phenomenon of subjective consciousness, or else, when it does advert to it, attempts to explain it only in terms of what it takes to be inanimate matter. Thereby it is led to the dubious view that the unconscious is the cause of the conscious. The procedure we shall follow, however, is one that begins with our own mental experience as the key to the rest of nature. We object to the materialistic approach as unempirical and excessively abstract in its representation of physical reality. Scientific objectivism, it appears, pays only lip-service to the empirical imperative. It brackets as useless to science what is the most lively and immediate experience we have of the world -- our own feeling, becoming, conscious and desiring subjectivity. Thus it fails to reach a fundamental description of the composition of nature.

(2) The Implications of Contemporary Science:

If the conclusions of modern biology and physics were fully thought out it would be extremely difficult to reconcile them with the classical materialistic philosophies of nature. It appears, though, that orthodox biology has not yet torn itself away from the old cosmography, nor for that matter has modern physics succeeded totally in doing so either. A preference for atomicity (explanation in terms of amino and nucleic acids) prescribes the method for molecular biology; and a persistent materialism hovers over the essentially anti- mechanistic physics of this century. The common sense notions presupposed by the scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that still shape our everyday thinking, are no longer tenable as comprehensive and fundamental explanations of things. And yet they continue to infiltrate the many worlds of thought. What Whitehead wrote four decades ago regrettably still holds today:

The common sense notion still reigns supreme in the work-a -day life of mankind. . . . The state of modern thought is that every single item in this general doctrine is denied, but that the general conclusions from the doctrine as a whole are tenaciously retained. The result is a complete muddle in scientific thought, in philosophical cosmology, and in epistemology. But any doctrine which does not implicitly presuppose this point of view is assailed as unintelligible.7

Issues in science and religion today arise in great measure from this general intellectual muddle. The problem of purpose in nature in particular stems out of the reluctance of contemporary thought to revise the Newtonian-Cartesian cosmography in the light of recent developments in physics. Whitehead noted that ". . . in the present-day reconstruction of physics fragments of the Newtonian concepts are stubbornly retained. The result is to reduce modern physics to a sort of mystic chant over an unintelligible universe."8 But if we were to take more seriously the modern revolution in physics we would have to move radically beyond the corpuscular philosophy and the atomistic ideal that seek to divest nature of mentality and significance.

In its notions of matter, space and time, the new physics gives us a fundamentally different picture of nature from the one we are accustomed to. For example, matter is now seen as the product of a "group of agitations" or "energy-events" rather than a collection of bits of solid stuff.9 And because matter emerges out of a substratum of energetic occurrences, we also have to revise our notions of the relation of both space and time to physical reality.

As far as the question of space is concerned, in the universe of classical physics

. . .the concept of matter presupposed simple location. Each bit of matter was self-contained, localized in a region with a passive, static network of spatial relations, entwined in a uniform relational system from infinity to infinity and from eternity to eternity. But in the modern concept the group of agitations which we term matter is fused into its environment. There is no possibility of a detached, self-contained local existence. The environment enters into the nature of each thing. . . . In truth, the notion of the self-contained particle of matter, self-sufficient within its local habitation, is an abstraction. 10

Accordingly, "any local agitation shakes the whole universe." As the poet, Francis Thompson, put it:

All things by immortal power
Near and far
To each other linked are,
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.12

The testimony of the poet is no longer alien to the scientific view of the world.

The dramatic revisions in our ideas on the spatiality of matter have, therefore, a major implication: We must abandon the assumption that we can understand physical reality by simply locating bits of matter in space without taking into account the relational web of energy-events in which they are situated. The "assumption of simple location," upon which classical physics was based, abstracts from an aspect of physical reality that must now be considered fundamental and not just accidental -- time.

"There is no nature at an instant."13 In order for matter to take on the shape that it does, time is required. Time is woven into the texture of things in a much more interior way than the old cosmology allowed for. According to the latter, if time abruptly came to a halt, there would still be a universe of "space" filled with bits of matter. That is, there would be nature at an instant. But this sort of universe is inconceivable according to the space-time physics of today. It is commonly recognized now that the things we call molecules, atoms, electrons, neutrons, protons, etc. are all physical patterns that require time in order to make their impact felt. Without a certain quantum of time an electron simply could not be. Electrons, and all other so-called sub-atomic particles, are the result of happenings. And these happenings are spatio-temporal vibrations that cannot be simply located. Nor can they be adequately described at all without taking into account their total context -- the temporal, evolutionary universe.

Thus contemporary physics supports the proposal made earlier that events rather than solid particles of inert matter are the fundamental units of nature. Particles, as it now appears, are really abstractions useful for grouping certain patterns of occurrences. But it is the energy-events themselves that are the actual fundamental units. This conclusion calls for a whole new way of picturing and representing the world of nature. Unfortunately, though, modern scientific thought has barely begun the difficult but essential enterprise of revising our cosmography. To a great extent it continues to fall back on the classical imagery even while going far beyond it theoretically and mathematically. Some re-imaging, however, is a pre-requisite of any possible vision of purpose in the universe.

(3) The Demands of Logic: The materialistic philosophy of nature fails to take into account not only our experience of subjective consciousness and the modern revolution in physics. It also fails on logical grounds by confusing the abstract with the concrete. That is, it is guilty of what Whitehead calls the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness."14 Following the assumption of simple location,15 the cosmology derived from Galileo, Newton and Descartes persistently views the objects isolated by scientific method as though they were the fundamental units of the physical world itself. In fact, however, they are scientific abstractions derived by distinguishing "primary qualities" (mass, position, velocity) of large bodies from "secondary qualities" (color, taste, sound, smell, etc. ). Primary qualities are viewed as objective, i.e., independent of the knower’s frame of reference, while secondary qualities are judged to be subjective, i.e., involving the complicity of the subject imposing his own peculiar sensory apparatus on the bodies perceived. Along with this rigorous distinction of primary from secondary qualities there has often gone a belief that only the primary qualities could be called really real (their persistence throughout accidental changes being the criterion of their reality), and that secondary qualities are not part of the real world.

This division is obviously rooted in the dualistic expulsion of experience from nature. It shows vividly the reluctance of traditional reflection to accept our own perceptivity as itself part of nature. And in doing so it leads to a serious error in logic: after abstracting so completely from the experiential quality that pervades all of nature it sets forth the desiccated end-product of its abstracting as though it were reality-itself and everything else a mere coloring by human sensory projection.

This misrepresentation is a result of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, the confusion of the concrete with the abstract. This is a fallacy to which we are always inclined by our talent for reductionism, but one that has wrought a pernicious influence in modern thought. For example, it has encouraged the uncritical attempt to explain experience, life and consciousness exhaustively in terms of colorless and inanimate abstractions. In order to grasp more vividly the way in which the fallacy of mistaking abstractions for concrete realities has inclined thought in this direction, observe the following "rough" breakdown of nature’s hierarchical structure:16 i.e.

(1) human life
(2) animal life
(3) vegetable life
(4) single living cells
(5) large scale inorganic aggregates of occasions
(6) energy-events disclosed by modern physics

The first five of these types of natural occurrence are easily accessible to sense perception (aided perhaps by instruments of observation), the sixth, however, is not available to ordinary sense perception. The events, or actual occasions (6) that we have located at the ground level of natural occurrence are in an entirely different order from the aggregates (spatially located) that constitute the fifth category. And yet it is the latter (5) that have usually been employed by scientists in their attempts to understand categories 1-4 in a fundamental way. Unobservable but dynamic physical events are in fact patterned in inorganic aggregates in such a way that these aggregates are inert, lifeless, unconscious and aimless. But then the visible bodies (5) are imaginatively decomposed by science into smaller, invisible particles possessing the same obdurate features as the larger aggregates on which they are modeled. Thus, when the universe is "explained" in terms of these peculiar contrivances the apparent aimlessness and lack of mentality that we read out of rocks and grains of sand is read back into the universe as a whole and into its constituent occasions.

The fallacy in this projection consists of confusing the abstracted features of aggregates with the concreteness of individual occasions of experience that make up the aggregates. The objects of our ordinary experience, things such as rocks, trees, animals and persons are composites or groupings of what we have been calling occasions of experience. In various modes of serial ordering, the worlds constituent occasions experience one another so as to form these various assemblages of occasions. Our sense perception, however, refers us only to inorganic aggregates or to living and conscious "societies" of these occasions. It is incapable of breaking them down into the experiential-mental moments that lie beneath the threshold of what we can perceive with our senses. Consequently, our notion of physical reality suffers from our taking sense perception too one-sidedly as the foundation of cosmological speculation. The consequences of this superficial notion of perception will be set forth in the next chapter.


If nature is in any sense purposive then "mentality" (not necessarily consciousness) would have to be a pervasive and not merely a localized, accidental and fragmentary characteristic of it. By mentality, in this broad sense of the term, is signified the quality of active receptivity to meaning, value and significance that is intrinsic to each experiential occasion. In order to allow for this quality in nature we must be prepared to envision its constituent elements as themselves units of perception or "feeling", that is, as having rudiments of mentality as we know it from our own experience. In this chapter we have proposed a notion of physical reality in which mentality is intrinsic to the physical. In such a conception the natural world is an organismic one where the occasions that make it up are bound together in mutual, internal relatedness by virtue of their capacity for experiencing (prehending) one another. Rendering mentality a universal category of reality sounds strange when viewed from the perspective of our dualistic heritage and from that of the conventional materialistic view of physical reality. And as we shall see, it also seems alien to the typical notion of perception that accompanies the classical cosmography. perhaps, though, some of this foreignness may be removed by a careful examination of the nature of perception.



1 R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960). p.177.

2 Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1968), p. 156.

3 Whitehead observes that "[the] strength of the theory of materialistic mechanism has been the demand, that no arbitrary breaks be introduced into nature, to eke out the collapse of an explanation. . . But if you start from the immediate facts of our psychological experience, as surely an empiricist should begin, you are at once led to the organic conception of nature. . ." Science and the Modern World (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 73. Whitehead derives the notion of "radical empiricism" from William James.

4 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed., by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 190. Whitehead is employing an expression like that of William James: "Your acquaintance with reality grows literally by buds or drops of perception." (p. 68).

5 The material in this section as well as in the book as a whole comes from my study of a number of works both by and about Whitehead. In particular Whitehead’s own works Process and Reality, Science and the Modern World, Adventures of Ideas, Religion in the Making and Modes of Thought constitute the dominant background of the line of thought developed in this book. As I suggested earlier, however, I am attempting to simplify Whitehead’s thought considerably for the purpose of making it available to introductory readers.

6 The term "event," used predominantly in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, does not have precisely the same meaning as "actual occasion" (the term used extensively in Process and Reality). However, for our purposes it is sufficient to indicate the "temporal-experiential" quality that both expressions are pointing to in the constituents of physical reality. In more precise language we should say that an "event" may actually be constituted by a number of "occasions." (Process and Reality, p. 73).

7 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, pp. 130-132.

8 Ibid. , p. 136.

9 Cf. John Cobb, God and the World (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), p. 70.

10 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 138.

11 Ibid.

12 Quoted by Charles Birch, Nature and God. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), p. 113.

13 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 146:

"For the modern view process, activity and change are the matters of fact. At an instant there is nothing. Each instant is only a way of grouping matters of fact. Thus since there are no instants, conceived as simple primary entities, there is no nature at an instant. Thus all the interrelations of matters of fact must involve transition in their essence. All realization involves implication in the creative advance."

14 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, pp. 51, 58.

15 Ibid.

16 Cf. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, pp. 156-57.

Viewed 65329 times.