Chapter 3: Perception

Nature and Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 3: Perception

It should be evident by now that our question about purpose in nature is one way of raising the problem of the intelligibility and validity of religious discourse in a scientific age. Is the religious reference to an ultimate ground of meaning compatible with what science tells us about our world?

Religious articulation of meaning has often been associated with "teleology". Derived from the Greek word "telos" (goal, end, purpose), the term "teleology" refers to the branch of cosmology that treats of the purpose or destiny of the universe. Biblical religion in particular, because of its eschatological and at times apocalyptic characteristics, has often been viewed as teleological; and in a qualified sense this association is appropriate. Precisely how to understand and pull together the wide variety of ways in which the Bible symbolizes the purposes of peoples, nature and history has always been a problem. But it is safe to hold, at least in a loose sense, that biblical consciousness is teleological in that it posits symbolically a final significance to events in nature and history.

Important devotees of modern science, however, have found it hard to accept the believer’s apparently unwarranted espousal of such a teleological perspective on the universe. Scientific method, they maintain, discloses no evidence of cosmic purpose. While it is evident to science that there is a functional "teleonomy" or machine-like purposiveness in individual organisms (for example, the fish’s eye is constructed so as to enable it to see under water, the heart toward pumping blood, the human brain toward problem-solving, etc.), still there is no hard evidence that life itself, terrestrial evolution or the universe as a whole has any overarching meaning. Belief in a teleological universe is viewed as wishful thinking rather than verified knowledge. As Jacques Monod would have us understand it, teleology is simply the product of projecting onto an intrinsically indifferent universe our own intensely teleonomic nervous systems.1 According to Monods interpretation, those of us who are inclined toward teleology extend our intimate perception of the limited teleonomy in our own organisms onto the foreign terrain of the "objective" universe. And out of such groundless projections are fashioned the myths, religions and philosophies that have for ages given people a false sense of warmth and purpose in the cosmos. Scientific method, though, cannot reconcile itself to teleological perspectives and, therefore, must reject any such facile covenants of man with a world that is alien to his longings for ultimate meaning.2 Monod’s position is reminiscent of innumerable others that see the reading of purpose into nature as analogous to our subjectively superimposing colorful secondary qualities onto starkly colorless "objective" and neutral primary qualities. Accordingly teleology is characterized as essentially derivative, subjective and flawed with the arbitrariness and relativity that pertain to secondary qualities. The view that nature is purposeful appears to have no grounding in the universe itself.

I would like to explore further the presuppositions of this common "scientific" objection to teleology. While I would admit that scientific materialists are correct in their rejection of certain rigid forms of teleology, I shall argue here that their opposition to a universe imbued with value and significance flows in part out of a naive notion of human perception. This notion of perception, in turn, is linked to the dualism discussed in Chapter I and the materialistic view of physical reality criticized in the preceding chapter.

Is Sense-Perception Primary?

Michael Polanyi has accurately and tidily stated the crux of the problem of science and religion:

Intellectual assent to the reduction of the world to its atomic elements acting blindly in terms of equilibrations of forces, an assent that has gradually come to prevail since the birth of modern science, has made any sort of teleological view of the cosmos seem unscientific and wool gathering to us. And it is this assent, more than any other one intellectual factor, that has set science and religion in opposition to each other in the contemporary mind.3

Polanyi’s statement brings to mind the similar one by W.T. Stace issued several decades ago:

Religion could survive the discoveries that the sun, not the earth is the center; that men are descended from simian ancestors; that the earth is hundreds of millions of years old. These discoveries may render out of date some of the details of older theological dogmas, may force their restatement in new intellectual frameworks. But they do not touch the essence of the religious vision itself, which is the faith that there is plan and purpose in the world, that the world is a moral order, that in the end all things are for the best. This faith may express itself through many intellectual dogmas, those of Christianity, of Hinduism, of Islam. All and any of these intellectual dogmas may be destroyed without destroying the essential religious spirit. But that spirit cannot survive destruction of belief in a plan and purpose of the world, for that is the very heart of it. Religion cannot get on with a purposeless and meaningless universe.4

The intellectual assent to an indifferent and aimless cosmos is usually defended on the assumption that our senses give us such a world and that in all honesty we should accept this world in the precise shape our sense perception transmits it to our minds. We are often exhorted by scientists and philosophers alike to accept the material given to us by sense perception as though it is the rock-bottom foundation of our knowledge of the physical world, Simultaneously we are told to refrain from coloring neutral sense data over with our subjective wishes and teleological desires.

Are we are obliged to accept this doctrine that sense perception is the ultimate foundation of full and genuine knowledge of the world? It seems so obvious to most of us that our knowledge of the world enters first through the gateway of the five senses, especially sight, that any questioning of the primacy of this kind of perception will initially seem quite bewildering. Yet it is not self-evident, after all, that sense perception is primary. And a careful investigation of our own experiencing may lead us to question the common philosophical assumption that it is. What is more, a re-experiencing of our experience without the blinders put on us by several centuries of "sensationalist" philosophy can lead us to question the legitimacy of the picture of an indifferent, totally non -- teleological universe apparently entailed by this truncated rendition of human experience.

The Two Poles of Perception

When "perception" is limited to the material presented to our minds by the five senses we are by no means dealing yet in a fundamental way with the reality of the world. Instead we are simply focusing on the end results of a very complex process of experiencing. This process has filtered out and abstracted from the data presented to us at a more basic level of our being by a much more global mode of sensitivity. We seldom think of our perceptive experience as itself a process of screening and abstracting. The data presented by our five senses appear to be so clear, distinct and irreducible that we scarcely recognize the experiential refining process prior to sense perception. And we seldom notice that the price paid for clarity in our sense perception is the lack of vivid awareness of what we have left behind in the process. This lack of awareness, though, is directly commensurate with the "perception" of vacuousness that scientism has "found" to be "inherent" in the physical world. The indifference and intrinsic valuelessness of the universe of scientific materialism is the product of a view of perception that ignores the depths and hazy beginnings of a whole process of sensation that merely culminates in but goes far deeper than sense perception.5

Perception may be understood as having two poles, primary and secondary. The first pole (called "perception in the mode of causal efficacy" by Whitehead) we shall refer to simply as "primary perception". At this pole of the perceptive process there is a pervasive and vague feeling of the influence of the world upon our being and becoming. As the universe first influences the percipient subject it is not yet parceled out into distinct objects, chunks of matter, particles or any other merely spatially defined phenomena. Instead, at the initial point of entry into primary perception the universe is felt viscerally as a value-laden causal process of events, a series of occasions of experience with which the subject’s bodily sensitivity is itself continuous.

Again, this sounds extraordinary. Conditioned by dualism, we usually think that there are two sharply separated kinds of being, subject and object, mind and matter. Accordingly, we tend to believe that matter impresses itself (somehow?) on mind and that this impression is what constitutes perception. Often we go even further and identify the objects of our experience as constellations of the particles defined by science. Thus we assume the priority of material "stuff" over experience and make experience a passive reception of "matter" by our senses. But this common conviction about the nature of perception is in the final analysis incoherent. It never explains exactly how the experiencing subject actually comes into contact with the inert matter that makes up the objects of sense perception. There remains an unbridgeable gap between two totally disparate types of reality, mind and matter. How matter makes the transition into mind and how mind receives content or meaning from the mindless realm of matter is never clarified. We can avoid this epistemological obscurantism if we recognize the experiential, perceptive quality of all reality. With Whitehead we have made occasions of experience the basic constitutive elements in our envisagement of the universe. Since experience is pervasive there can be no isolation of mentality from nature. Every occasion is itself a moment of sensitive "enjoyment". Each "drop of experience" receives the entire universe into itself more or less vaguely. Although the immediate past of an occasion of experience is felt or experienced with more intensity than the remote past, still in a dim way the whole universe and its past is synthesized into each of the moments of experience that taken together make up reality.

Our own experience of the world is not an exception to but an exemplification of the features that pertain to all of nature’s becoming and experiencing. Thus in what we have called primary perception there is a feeling of the entire universe entering into our experiencing. However, only a very small sector of this universe is apprehended with any degree of vividness. It is the function of the secondary pole of perception (in the mode of "presentational immediacy") to project the spatially clear and distinct objects of sense perception onto the background of the temporal series of occasions that are vaguely assimilated by primary perception. The so-called objects of secondary perception, therefore, are abstracted from and projected onto a densely dynamic field of occasions that can never be fully brought into focus but that continue to enter our perception at the primary pole.

Science takes as the material for its inductive and descriptive procedures the spatialized abstractions of secondary perception. As such, science is incapable of dealing with nature in a fundamental way. This is not to deny that scientific method is appropriate and valid. Rather it is simply to point out its insufficiency for describing the world in depth and with anything approaching adequacy. Since it describes and predicts on the basis of correlations among the relatively abstract entities of secondary perception, it cannot be taken as comprehensive or sufficiently rudimentary. While modern physics has taken us deeper into the eventful, relational spatio-temporal web of nature than did classical physics, it too is far from giving us a fundamental cosmological description. Science always abstracts to some degree from the universe and its significance as it is apprehended in primary perception.

And yet it is difficult to find many important scientific thinkers, philosophers of science or naturalists who sufficiently recognize the failure of scientific method to reach as deeply into the nature of the universe as we must if we are to respond intelligently to the question of purpose. More often than not philosophers of nature take the abstractions of science and secondary perception as the bed-rock of their speculations. And since these abstractions lack the aspects of mentality and value that we would locate at the deeper level of primary perception, the universe of science appears as essentially mindless and insignificant. Seemingly it lacks the prerequisites to sustain a teleological interpretation.

Science of late has been inundated by the disclosure of ever new and peculiar sub-atomic "particles." There is still alive an underlying hope that we will discover some ultimate particulate substance out of which we might conceive the building up of the universe into the diverse phenomena that confront our senses. In cosmological description, however, we cannot pretend that by coming upon some irreducible particle or pattern of particulate activity we will have reached a firm foundation for a philosophy of nature. For what we experience primordially are not particles but rather occasions of experience bound together serially into enduring objects, particles, corpuscular "societies" or personal "societies." The search by contemporary physics for more and more basic particles is a useful and exciting part of scientific work. Nonetheless, it does not considerably deepen, but merely broadens our sense of what the universe is. Cosmology demands that we go beneath the scientific abstractions called particles, including those strange and elusive ones of recent physics.

Our thesis is that experience itself is the basic "building-block" of the universe. Accordingly our primary perception is not something over-against an objective, insensate material world "out there." Rather our own perceptive subjectivity is itself a blossoming forth of the world process, totally continuous with its intrinsically eventful and experiential character. We can understand nature as itself intrinsically perceptive rather than as a body of opaque particles. And this means that our universe is quite different from the congeries of mindless abstractions that inhabit the world of scientific materialism.

We stated earlier that a mindless universe is a purposeless one. There is no way in which a hypothetically teleological principle could influence or be felt by a natural world that lacks any quality of sensitivity to such influence. However, there is no convincing reason for us now to believe that the non-teleological universe issuing from scientific method’s rejection of final causal explanation coincides with the one given to us at the pole of primary perception. Our primary perception of the world is much deeper, more sweeping and more ragged at the edges than the lucid sensing by our eyes of lit objects or our ears of vibrating objects. Below the threshold of sense perception of corpuscular aggregates there is a dimmer and cloudier impression of things as not yet sharply set out in distinct shapes and forms. Sense perception puts these latter into quantifiable focus but only by refining them out of a primary matrix of "qualitative" fuzziness. If our universe is a purposeful process, then it is not so much in secondary perception as in primary perception that it would give us an inkling of its teleological status. It is in the darkness of primary perception that our universe’s aim toward value would first be vaguely perceived. Not science, but rather religious symbol and myth would have the task of bringing this sense of significance to expression. Scientific discourse, because of its distance from the universe as primarily perceived, cannot be the measuring stick for the trustworthiness of those symbols and myths pointing to a final purpose to events in nature and history. Science as it is usually understood is simply incapable of addressing the question of the possible purpose of nature since the material it deals with has already been abstracted out of the "qualitative" realm of value and placed in that of the merely quantifiable, subject only to mathematical calculation.

Scientifically oriented philosophy of nature has usually taken as unshakable the view of perception espoused by the empirical tradition whose charter members are Francis Bacon, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, and David Hume. The secondary and abstract nature of sense data has led it to view our primary perception of value, aim and significance in the universe as a mere "subjective" projection of our wishes onto the intrinsically neutral and valueless data of sense perception. Once we advert to the polar quality of perception, however, we need no longer view the sense of purpose as a projection, but rather as the cognitive feeling of something intrinsic to the universe entering into the depths of our primary sensitivity and seeking to come to expression in linguistic forms (symbol and myth) the validity of which cannot be assessed merely by scientific, quantitative criteria. But in order to accept this position we need first to reform our standard notions of perception; and this reformation will not occur without a conversion to the radical empiricism of attending once again to our experiencing itself. Further, the alteration of our inherited notions of perception cannot occur without a rethinking of the nature of physical reality and a radical critique of dualistic mythology.

Perception the Key to Causation

I am defending in this book the conviction that nature is something more than the meaningless, blind, absolutely unconscious process proposed by Scientific materialism. But if nature is in any sense a purposefully oriented process, then it would have to be open to the influence of a transcendent, caring, intelligent principle. I understand the word "God" as pointing to such a principle. While I hesitate to identify the biblical Creator-God simply with efficient, formal or final cause of the universe, I do think that there is some validity in employing the category of causation analogously when we try to express the way in which God influences nature. I emphasize "analogously" because of the nonsensical implications resulting from a strictly literalistic transference to God of our mundane experience of causation when referring to the sense that our universe is ultimately cared for and impregnated with purpose. The term "influence" seems to me to be more flexible in its symbolic overtones; and the imagery of "flowing-in" suggested by this word fits the relation of God to world that we shall be developing in subsequent chapters. However, I shall continue to employ the term "causation" as well, even though I have some reservations about doing so.

An accurate understanding of perception is the key to our understanding the notion of causation.6 The quality of physical reality that would render it open to being influenced is its pervasive perceptivity-mentality. The category of perceptivity that we apply to all occasions of actuality allows us to envision them as actively synthesizing the past into themselves. They are influenced in their own "subjective" feelings by the way they each uniquely receive and combine, suppress, or abstract elements of the world process that enter into the primary pole of each moment of perception. In this sense the fact of perceptivity makes causation a valid and intelligible notion.

In order to grasp more specifically how such causal influence might be possible let us examine more clearly the characteristics of the occasions that make up the world process. Each occasion owes its actuality to a "self-creative" process of feeling or "prehending" past occasions that may be called "objective" with respect to its "subjective" appropriation of them. The past, perished occasions are the "data" for synthesis by present occasions. Thus the past causally influences the present occasions by entering into them. But this causal influence is not to be understood according to the model of mechanical causation. It is not as though the present occasion is a totally passive recipient of the impact of the past, as one billiard ball is set in motion by another. Each present actual occasion actively and creatively synthesizes its past by conforming to it, but also by occasionally departing from the patterns of experience embodied by past occasions. The reason that the same rock, atom, or molecule can persist without change for millions of years is that its constituent occasions conform serially to each other without discernible modification as they synthesize their past. But there are also societies of occasions (live organisms for example) in which there is a pronounced element of non-conformity to the past. It is because of the possibility of synthesizing the past without necessarily completely conforming to it that novelty can make its entrance into the world-process. This capacity for partial non- conformity eventually allows life and consciousness to appear on a mineral landscape dominated by the conformity of entities to past patterns.7

Thus causality in a world of actual occasions can be understood in a non-deterministic way. The temptation to determinism in our thinking arises from the fact that the bulk of nature, the mineral level studied by geology, physics or inorganic chemistry is constituted by aggregates of occasions so conforming to their past that any present state in this inert realm seems to be the purely passive recipient of a series of events leading up to it. Present states or movements in the inorganic arena appear to us to be determined totally by the history of past commotion in the macroscopic order as described by classical physics. We are then inclined without warrant to apply this strong impression of mechanical causation to all of nature, even to the point of explaining life and mind as the passive, determined results of the aimless and blind movement of a dead and unconscious past.

The fact that, quantitatively speaking, most of the societies of occasions making up the universe are dominantly conformal toward past patterns of experience does not entail that all societies of occasions are. The phenomena of life and mind, though quantitatively infinitesimal on a cosmic scale, attest to the potential for non-conformity that must be present even in the inorganic world in Order that these novel patterns could have emerged in evolution. Entities manifesting vitality and consciousness are examples of societies of occasions that do not conform as rigidly to their past as do the occasions of a hydrogen atom or the Rocky Mountains. Thus our understanding of causal efficacy must take into account the apparent flexibility in nature, the apertures it leaves for the ingression of novelty.

In order to make sense of the fact of novelty in the world we must elaborate further the notion of "prehension". Prehension must be understood not only as the assimilation by each occasion of the past perished occasions. The notion of prehension must also be expanded to include the grasping of possibilities lying beyond those realized in the past. Without the occasion’s prehension of further possibilities it would conform totally and completely to its past. If such complete conformity were the case, then determinism would indeed be the only feasible philosophy of nature. All causation would be, as scientism has usually assumed, blindly mechanical.

Even when prehension is dominantly conformal, however, it is not without an entertainment of new possibilities. Each occasion of experience is somehow open to a range of possibilities for synthesizing its past. In the act of prehension, however, we may say that it "de-cides," in the sense of cutting itself off from the many possibilities entertained, in order to realize only one set of such relevant possibilities. Prehension is a present creative act open on both ends, to the past on the one hand and to further possibilities or novelty on the other.8 Causal activity in nature shares in this polarity. Each occasion is an active "effect" synthesizing its causal elements creatively into its own subjective "enjoyment." It prehends its past into itself, thus allowing the past to influence it. But it does so only by simultaneously prehending a range of relevant possibilities in terms of which it de-cides to what extent it will conform to its past or advance beyond it. Causal influence enters into the self-constitution of each occasion, then, both from the past and from some principle of novelty, some source of possibilities, presenting itself for synthesis into each moment of experience.


Nature's openness to divine influence becomes intelligible only if we understand causation in terms of the perceptive or "prehensive" character of occasions. If there is a sustaining ground of order and a principle of novelty behind the evolving cosmos, then nature must be intrinsically open to such transcendent influence. Our task thus far has been to propose as consistent with modern physics, logic and the nature of perception that our universe does indeed possess this openness in a way that the abstract world of scientific materialism does not. We shall expand on our position in the following chapter by reflecting on the apparently emergent quality of the cosmos.



1 Monod, p. 30.

2 Ibid. , p. 180.

3 Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p.162.

4 W.T. Stace, "Man Against Darkness," The Atlantic Monthly (Sept. 1948) , p. 54.

5 Cf. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 121 ff. ; 168-83.

6 For this notion of causation cf. Whitehead, Process and Reality, esp. pp. 168-83.

7 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, pp. 127-69.

8 Cf. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp.

18, 19, 22-26; 219-80, for an elaboration of the notion of prehension. For some of the paraphrasing here I am indebted to Lewis S. Ford, The Lure of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), esp. pp. 5 ff.