On an Alleged Inconsistency in Whitehead

by Milic Capek

Milic Capek is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus of Boston University.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.175-178, Vol. 20, Number 3, Fall, 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.


John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler claim contradictions in two of Whitehead’s works — The Concept of Nature and Science and the Modern World. The author refutes their contradiction and shows it is only apparent.

In the interesting and stimulating book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, the authors John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler compare passages from two of Whitehead’s works -- The Concept of Nature and Science and the Modern World -- and declare them to be mutually incompatible (ANC 216). (Barrow and Tipler assumed that I reached the same conclusion in one section of my book, Bergson and Modern Physics, [252-53], but my conclusion was different. I believe that the alleged inconsistency is only apparent, and I have never claimed that there is any inconsistency between those two passages.) They are correct that the impression of inconsistency between these two passages comes up very naturally, but it can be dispelled by a careful and attentive analysis.

Here is the first passage:

It is not the usual way in which we think of the Universe. We think of one necessary time-system and one necessary (i.e., instantaneous) space. According to the new theory, there are an indefinite number of discordant time-series and an indefinite number of distinct (i.e., instantaneous) spaces. Any correlated pair, a time-system and space-system, will do in which to fit our description of the Universe. We find that under given conditions our measurements are necessarily made in some one pair which together form our natural measure-system. The difficulty as to discordant time-systems is partly solved by distinguishing between what I call the creative advance of nature, which is not properly serial at all, and any one time-series. We habitually muddle together this creative advance, which we experience and know as the perpetual transition of nature into novelty, with the single time-series which we naturally employ for measurement. The various time-series each measure some aspect of the creative advance, and the whole bundle of them express all the properties which are measurable. The reason why we have not previously noted this difference of time-series is the very small difference of properties between any two such series. Any observable phenomena due to this cause depend on the square of the ratio of any velocity entering into the observation to the velocity of light. (CN 178; italics added)

Although this is not the usual language in which the special theory is presented in the textbooks on relativity, all essential concepts of this theory are presented in this passage and their differences from their classical counterparts stated. While Newtonian mechanics admitted at each instant a single instantaneous space which was a substrate for all objectivity of simultaneous events, the theory of special relativity denies it: in the four-dimensional "world" (I would prefer to call it the "world-history") of Minkowski, there is no privileged instantaneous three-dimensional cross-section, and therefore no privileged frame of reference which Newton identified with absolute space. Hence the multiplicity of time-systems each having its own instantaneous space -- in other words, the multiplicity of "discordant" time-series. Although Whitehead does not explicitly use the phrase "relativity of simultaneity," a denial of absolute simultaneity is clearly implied; it is in complete agreement with what he wrote in Science and the Modern World, where the existence of "the unique present instant" is explicitly denied:

[The modern scientific assumption] is a heavy blow at the classical scientific materialism, which presupposes a definite present instant in which all matter is simultaneously real. In the modem theory there is no such unique present instant. You can find a meaning for the notion of the simultaneous instant throughout all nature, but it will be a different meaning for different notions of temporality. (SMW 118)

This is the second passage cited by Barrow and Tipler and referred to above. Despite the difference in formulation, it certainly does not contradict the first passage from The Concept of Nature.

Why then, an appearance of contradiction? It is certainly due to Whitehead’s defense of "the creative advance of nature," which seems to be nothing but a poetic term for the uniform time of Newton. But it is not so, since Whitehead explicitly insists that it is "not properly serial [not metrical] at all"; it in some sense underlies different metrically discordant time-series which express all its properties which are measurable. Unfortunately, Whitehead made very little effort -- at least in this over-concise passage -- to clarify the relation of his" creative advance into novelty" to the plurality of measurable time. But with the use of more explicit and less poetic terminology, such clarification can be obtained.

In a language which would probably be more acceptable to physicists, one can say that Whitehead, in asserting "the creative advance of novelty," wanted to preserve the topological unity of time. Now the topological properties of time are those concerning the relations of "before" and "after," independent of the quantitative relations between the temporal intervals -- in other words, the relations of succession. Those are precisely the relations which the special theory preserves as long as the events in question are causally related; the successive character of such events is topologically invariant, i.e., independent of any particular frame of reference. Only the succession of causally unrelated event, what Hans Reichenbach called "unreal sequences" (PST 147-49) can by an appropriate choice of the frame of reference be reduced to apparent simultaneity or even inverted; but the real concrete causal links -- the "world-lines," in the language of relativity -- are objectively irreversible since the order of succession of the events of which they consist remains the same in every frame of reference. The world of Minkowski is nothing but a network of such irreversible, intrinsically successive world-lines; this is why it should be more appropriately called "timespace" rather than "space-time.

Why then is Minkowski’s union of space with time so frequently interpreted as a spatialization of time? Apart from some traditional philosophical influences, this is due mainly to the fact that relativity excluded the universal cosmic "Now" as the substratum of absolute simultaneity; and since such "Now" was naturally viewed as a boundary between past and future events, its elimination was interpreted as a denial of the successive character of the world. In this context it is difficult not to recall the observation of Eddington, made a half-century ago (NPW 47-58) that in Minkowski’s time-space the past is separated from the future even more effectively than in the world of Newton: instead of an instantaneous three-dimensional cross-section, it is a four-dimensional region of "Elsewhere" which separates the causal past from the causal future. Moreover, an attentive inspection of Minkowski’s space-time diagram discloses that while there is no "world-wide Now-instant," there is such a thing as "absolute future" -- not only for my own Here-Now, but for every other conceivable observer, i.e., for all observers located anywhere in the Elsewhere region. Furthermore, such an absolute causal future is physically empty, since it is intrinsically unobservable by any conceivable observer mentioned above: for it is included neither in my own causal past (of Here-Now), nor in the causal past of any other observer anywhere in the Elsewhere region. To postulate the existence of such intrinsically unobservable entities runs contrary to the most elementary rules of scientific methodology.

It may be objected that my own present Here-Now is arbitrarily chosen since it is continually shifting toward the future; and that the future events are included in the causal past of my future Here-Now. The answer to the first part of the objection is that to admit the "moving" character of my own Now is tantamount to the recognition of the reality of succession. Furthermore, as Hans Reichenbach pointed out (AHT 157), our own present Now is inescapable since the very act of denying it reasserts it. The second part of the objection can be reduced to the harmless truism that "the future events will be observed in my future frames of reference." The disagreement begins when the future tense "will be observed" is replaced by the tenseless "is observed." If the latter is understood in the timeless Eleatic sense, then all systems of reference, including those which "are" in my causal future, would be absurdly on the same footing, being all "equally real." But they cannot be; we are certainly not living in the Cretaceous period, nor in the year 2000.

Thus Whitehead’s term, "creative advance of nature" is not a mere poetic metaphor; it expresses the irreducibly successive character of time-space. Unfortunately, Whitehead weakened his argument by an ill-advised defense of the concept of simultaneity in his first book, referring to "blind people barking both their shins at the same moment" (PNK 53), without realizing that simultaneity at the same place is not denied by relativity. This has been pointed out by G.J. Whitrow (NPT 253). But clearly there is no inconsistency between the two passages referred to at the beginning of this paper.

Concerning Barrow’s and Tipler’s remarks on Bergson and the special theory of relativity (ACP 216), I must refer to my previous books as well as to my detailed analysis in Revue de synthèse (RS 313-44). I cannot see what is "incorrect" in the view that no asymmetrical aging can ever occur unless some acceleration occurs at a certain point and instant in the path of the traveling twin. This occurs at the point where the traveling twin reverses the direction of his motion and where his acceleration -- not only with respect to the twin "at rest," but also with respect to the large masses of the universe -- takes place. This is what was correctly seen by Paul Langevin (PDV 292-97), Hans Reichenbach (AHP 157). and Whitehead (AS 34-41), among others, and what Bergson failed to see. But Bergson was correct that as long as both systems remain Inertial, the dilation of time is reciprocal, i.e., only referential. Only the acceleration-gravitational field can cause an effective "slowing-down" of time, i.e., asymmetrical aging.



ACP -- John D. Barrow and Frank Tipler. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

AHP -- Hans Reichenbach. "Les fondements logiques de la mécanique de quanta." Annalesde l’Institut Henri Poincaré 13(1952): 157.

AS -- A.N. Whitehead. "The Problem of Simultaneity." Aristotelian Society, Supplement to Vol. 3 (1923): 34-41. (This article was reprinted in The Concepts of Space and lime, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 12, ed. Milic Capek [Dordrecht: Reidel, 1976]: 441-46.)

BMP -- Milic Capek. Bergson and Modern Physics. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 7. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1971.

NPT -- G.J. Whitrow. The Natural Philosophy of lime. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

NPW -- A. E. Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World. Cambridge, Macmillan, 1933.

PDV -- Paul Langevin. "L’Evolution de l’espace et du temps." La physique depuis vingt ans. Paris: Gaston Doin, Èditeur, 1923: 292-97.

PST -- Hans Reichenbach. The Philosophy of Space and lime. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

RS -- Milic Capek. "Ce qui est vivant et ce qui est mort dans la critique bergsonienne de la relativité" Revue de synthese c/99- 100 (1980): 313-44. (Now in its English translation, What is Living and What is Dead in the Bergsonian Critique of Relativity," in Milic Capek, The New Aspects of lime [Boston: Klüwer Academic Publishers, 1991]: 296-323.)