Foreword To the Newly Reprinted British Edition of Science and the Modern World

by Robert M. Young

Robert M. Young is the publisher of Free Association Books, 26 Freegrove, London N7 9RQ England.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 67-71, Vol. 20, Number 2, Summer, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Science threatens to control our lives and scramble our ethics and sense of human dignity. The author suggests that Whitehead would redefine the world view so that science and other forms of research would serve us better.

It is a commonplace of modern science that facts are one thing and values quite another, that we can rely on objective scientific knowledge, while subjective metaphysical thinking (the logical positivists would say) is dubious and to be avoided whenever possible. Indeed, it is an assumption of our world view that progress consists in the advance of science and technology, replacing lore and craft.

And yet people are increasingly bewildered when the great resources of our research institutions bring forth products which maim -- napalm -- and threaten civilization itself -- nuclear weapons. People are ambivalent when modern medicine and medical institutions cause diseases and distress in measures which seem to undermine their undoubted benefits, as occurs in antibiotic resistance, tranquilizer dependence and the inhumanities of high-technology obstetrics. People feel consternation when microelectronics, biotechnology and the new techniques of fertilization and transplant surgery threaten to control our lives and scramble our ethics and our sense of human dignity and life, quite as much as they improve our lives from conception to a (hopefully) caring demise.

I owe it to the fact that my teachers told me to read Science and the Modern World at an early age that I have found these conundrums less confusing than I might otherwise have done. In my opinion it is one of a small number of books (others listed in bibliography) that can provide a real basis for achieving the sort of society that our imprint was created to serve: an association in which the free development of each is a condition of the free development of all.

The reason that Science and the Modern World is such a wonderful and penetrating book is that Whitehead looks at the deepest level of our modern world view -- at the metaphysical foundations of modern science. He argues with great audacity that the system of abstractions which was created by the scientific revolution to serve us has got out of control. It was created for a certain set of purposes, has been overgeneralized and should now be replaced.

He tells us in a powerful passage just how odd a world the doctrine of primary and secondary qualities which was developed during the scientific revolution gives us:

Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely the offspring of the mind. Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless, merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly (p. 80).

Born in the seventeenth century, this is still the reigning view.

Every university in the world organizes itself in accordance with it. No alternative system of organizing the pursuit of scientific truth has been suggested. It is not only reigning, but it is without a rival.

And yet -- it is quite unbelievable. This conception of the universe is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstraction for concrete realities (80-81).

It was ‘a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians, for the use of mathematicians’ (81). The result was a conception of the world which we ‘could neither live with nor live without’ (74). The consequence, according to Whitehead, is that modern philosophy has been ruined.

It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century (82).

But Whitehead is not only in the business of criticizing this world view. He believes that its weaknesses provide hope. ‘The field is now open for the introduction of some new doctrine of organism which may take the place of the materialism with which, since the seventeenth century, science has saddled philosophy’ (55). He points out that in between the material on the one hand and the mental on the other ‘there lie the concepts of life, organism, function, instantaneous reality, interaction, order of nature, which collectively form the Achilles’ heel of the whole system’ (84).

Anyone who has followed recent critiques of modern science should find in Whitehead a sure guide to the deepest issues involved. His analysis of modern materialism and his advocacy of organic mechanism’ should be comforting to those who have criticized science as domination, science as sexist, science as reductive, science as opposed to ecological and environmental values. His views are also a real advance on the many misguided scientist-philosophers who argue that recent developments in fundamental particle physics provide a new basis for holistic thinking. The point is to stop extrapolating from scientific research. Instead, with Whitehead, we need to redefine the world view we want science and other forms of research to serve.

It is time we noticed the hypocrisy in the scientific world view. On the one hand, its advocates represent themselves as humble, disinterested seekers after objective truth -- separators of facts from values. On the other hand, they serve the political, military and economic powers that be and operate as consultants to them as well as accepting invitations to generalize from scientific research to political and social philosophies -- blinkered mandarins, speaking as if they were wise.

Whenever I reread this book, its effect on me is emboldening. The absurdities of mind-body dualism lose their hold. The misplaced concreteness of mind language and body language and the impossibility of interaction between domains whose very definitions preclude causal relations, become clear in the teeth of all the theories and institutions based on a dualistic ontology, e.g., psychiatry versus neurology versus psychoanalysis versus a holistic view of humanity. In their place one puts the ontological priority of the concept of a person and the properly derivative nature of the mental and the physical.

Similarly -- and for the same reason -- Whitehead helps me to reintegrate purposes, values, goals and meanings with the other elements of explanation. In the great rent in reality which the scientific revolution codified, concepts were made separate which urgently require reintegration. The deepest divisions of our world have their philosophical roots just here -- in dualistic thinking. Many of the dualisms overlap, but the duality remains crippling.

matter -- mind

primary qualities -- secondary qualities

mechanism -- purpose

physical -- mental

physiological -- psychological

science -- arts

science -- society

nature -- culture

meaningless -- meaningful

is -- ought

positive knowledge -- metaphysics

determined -- responsible (free?)

In formal philosophical terms, the language of final causes or purposes in Aristotelian explanation, was sequestered from formal, material and efficient causes. Thus the form or plan found its way in to modern science as formal relations, plans, formulae. The material cause found its way into the theory of matter, that out of which things are made or come to be. Efficient cause remains with us in the theory of agency, energy, motion. But the purposes, goals, uses and meanings got left outside the concept of scientific explanation -- in the mind, in the church, in the domain of ethics, relative and subjective, while science was said to be objective, positivistically true.

Whitehead makes a beginning at putting the world back together by advocating the replacement of the brute concept of matter with that of organism and replacing the other parameters of space/time with the concept of event. Both are designed to be irreducibly purposeful and meaningful. The result of this drastic act of metaphysical reconstruction is intended to be the reintegration of reality into one world in which values are intrinsic, not extrinsic, to scientific explanations. On this model, of course, the separate category of ‘science’ would be reintegrated into the social totality. Research would thereby be precluded from the sequestration that now occurs in our ivory or industrial or military towers, the distinctions between which are themselves disappearing very rapidly due to the separation of the values embedded in research and patronage from the minds of the researchers -- all of which, in turn, are increasingly distanced from public accountability.

I want to conclude this foreword with three caveats. First, Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is about a great deal more than I have mentioned. I have made no effort to allude to his concept of ingression, his theory of eternal objects or many other topics in Whiteheadian scholarship. Some readers will want to go further into these matters. Others, like myself, will decide to learn from his critique of the world view of modern science without wishing to become Whiteheadian organismic philosophers. A person may make a brilliant diagnosis, but it often falls to others to effect a successful cure. Even so, it is a great achievement to insist that the biological concept of organism provides a better basis for metaphysics than the physical concept of matter. This makes at least possible a project that was not conceivable if the concept of matter bequeathed to us by the scientific revolution remained our basic building block of reality. With the value-laden concept of organism as our starting point, there is a hope of having a single set of principles which encompass all forms of experience, physiology and psychology, including morals, politics and aesthetics.

My second caveat is about the text. I share the following views of the eminent Whitehead scholar, Dorothy Emmett:

Science and the Modern World (given as Lowell lectures at Harvard in 1925) is perhaps the most inspired expression of Whitehead’s metaphysical philosophy. It is a book in which lucid and illuminating reflections on the history of science in relation to philosophy are interspersed with technically difficult passages; the book might have been written, as one reviewer remarked, by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Emmett, 1967, p. 293).

She goes on to say that in this book the ‘technical passages are less overlaid with idiosyncratic terminology and a labored attempt at producing a system’ than other works of his. Cold comfort, perhaps, but this is the place to begin.

My third warning is that the framework of the book is limited. Science and the Modern World is a great work in the critical history of ideas. As Whitehead says, there are periods when philosophers can play an important role as critics of abstractions. He shows us what the scientific philosophers’ philosophical reasons were for commenting on the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. But he never asks what social, economic, political and ideological forces were at work in the creation of the modern scientific world view, any more than he looks at the role of those forces in the eighteenth century celebration of it, the romantic reaction against it, or the nineteenth and twentieth century codification of positive science. What he sees and says is, I think, true and profound, but it is a partial truth, deeply ahistorical. For example, he evokes Tennyson:

Tennyson goes to the heart of the difficulty. It is the problem of mechanism which appalls him, "‘The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run."’ This line states starkly the whole philosophic problem implicit in the poem. Each molecule blindly runs. The human body is a collection of molecules. Therefore, the human body blindly runs, and therefore there can be no individual responsibility for the actions of the body. If we once accept that the molecule is definitely determined to be what it is, independently of any determination by reason of the total organism, of the body, and if you further admit that the blind run is settled by the general mechanical laws, there can be no escape from this conclusion (113).

This example forms part of a trenchant critique of materialism, but Whitehead nowhere characterizes the industrial revolution which evoked romanticism -- early and late.

In my view we need to connect the scientific revolution with the protestant and capitalist revolutions as facets of a single change in world view. Whitehead is right about the abstractions but addresses them (as befits a mathematical logician) abstractly. He does not ask what other values are served by sequestering values. They remain efficacious but are not amenable to public contestation. This is the ideological function of positivism’s separation of fact and value. His analysis calls for reintegration of the history of science with social, economic and political history just as his philosophical proposals call for integration with current reasons for making science, technology and medicine more accessible and accountable. There is, therefore, a last dichotomy to overcome: from Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World to science in the modern world.