Chapter 3: Whitehead’s Philosophy and Some General Notions of Physics and Biology by David R. Griffin

Mind in Nature: the Interface of Science and Philosophy
by John B. and David R. Griffin Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 3: Whitehead’s Philosophy and Some General Notions of Physics and Biology by David R. Griffin

David Griffin teaches philosophy of religion at the School of Theology at Claremont and Claremont Graduate School and is Executive Director of the Center for Process Studies.

Many readers of this volume may find the Whiteheadian notions scattered throughout it helpfully suggestive, without being concerned with Whitehead’s methodological justification for his ideas, or with the more precise understanding of his philosophy that can only be attained by learning some of his technical vocabulary. However, other readers may have these concerns. The present essay is written for them.

Alfred North Whitehead believed that there should be positive mutual relationships between metaphysical philosophy and the special sciences. He further believed that his own philosophy, which he called the ‘philosophy of organism,’ was more compatible with modern science than previous philosophies, and provided a more adequate set of fundamental notions for interpreting each of the special sciences, as well as their interrelations. His own applications were limited primarily to "the most general notions of physics and biology" (PR vi).

In the first section of this paper, I will discuss Whitehead’s understanding of metaphysics and its relation to the special sciences. In the second part, I will sketch his procedure for drawing his fundamental categories from human experience and applying them to all of reality. [n the third part, I will focus upon some of the implications of his fundamental categories for understanding the objects of physics. In the fourth part, I will briefly point out how the previous ideas allow for a nonreductionistic biology which avoids dualism, including vitalism.

I. The Mutually-Beneficial Relations Between Metaphysics and the Special Sciences

Metaphysics is the endeavor to develop a set of fundamental categories in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted (PR 4). This means that it must develop a set of notions that will coordinate and thereby reconcile the more limited sets of ideas suggested by religion, ethics, and aesthetics, as well as the various special sciences (SMW ixf.; PR vi, 23). Furthermore, these special ideas must be made compatible with the ‘common sense’ or common experience of humanity as a whole. "those presumptions, which, in despite of criticism, we still employ for the regulation of our lives." These ultimate presuppositions of our ‘practice’ provide the final test (PR 19, 25, 229, 502).

The method of metaphysics is to begin with factors based upon one topic of human interest, such as physics or psychology, imaginatively to generalize those factors in such a way that they might apply to all fields of interest, and then to test these generalizations by trying to apply them to the facts in these other fields (PR 7f., 24f.). "In default of such extended application, a generalization started from physics, for example, remains merely an alternative expression of notions applicable to physics" (PR 8). Insofar as the application fails in other fields, the generalizations need to be reformed, and then tested again.

Because of its task, metaphysics must combine boldness and humility (PR 25). It must be bold by the very nature of its undertaking, to frame categories which all facts whatsoever must exemplify (PR 5, 67). And, if any progress is to be made, it must state its categorical scheme with precision and definiteness, in order that its implications can be clearly deduced and then confronted with the facts (PR x, 12, 13, 16). On the other hand, it must think of this categorical scheme as a working hypothesis and be humble before logic and the facts of experience (AI 286; PR 25). It is in terms of the second of these criteria that most philosophies exhibit misplaced boldness: "Failure to include some obvious elements of experience in the scope of the system is met by boldly denying the facts’ (PR 9). Of course, Whitehead knows that "the appeal to the facts is a difficult operation," since the facts as stated are always interpreted in terms of some set of general notions. The "received notions as to fact" are in doubt as well as the new theory (PR 13). Accordingly, what from one set of notions may appear to be facts of experience that must be included within any adequate philosophy may seem, from another metaphysical point of view, simply a false verbal interpretation of the real facts (PR 16-18). Nevertheless, Whitehead believes that there are real facts independent of human interpretation (PR 18f.), that some of these are reflected in the common presuppositions of civilized humanity, and that philosophy, while it can never hope to state the ultimate generalities with finality, can make progress in approximating them (PR x, 6, 11, 13, 19, 20f.).

Science, then, aids metaphysics in two ways: it provides a possible starting point for its imaginative generalizations, and it provides some of the facts against which these generalizations are to be tested and reformed.

Each of the special sciences deals with one type of facts, and as such it does not make statements about facts lying outside that type (PR 14). Nevertheless, these sciences have a tendency toward overstatement, to assume that the categories as they have formulated them in terms of their special interests are adequate for interpreting all facts (PR 8). Even apart from this dogmatism, a special science will be likely to state its basic principles in a manner that will prevent their coordination with the basic principles of the other sciences, and with the presuppositions of religion, ethics, and aesthetics, as well as with other inescapable presuppositions of human ‘practice.’ For example, the scientific principles formulated in the 17th century were primarily based upon the current physics, and were such as to be unsuited to biology, due to the total displacement of ‘final causation’ by mechanistic explanation (SMW 60, 150; PR 128f.). This sometimes led to reductionistic doctrines which violate our experience of freedom and responsibility, which is "too large to be put aside merely as misconstruction" (PR 74). It also has led to outright inconsistency: "A scientific realism, based on mechanism, is conjoined with an unwavering belief in the world of men and of the higher animals as being composed of self-determining organisms" (SMW 110). Hence, both logic and the facts of experience are violated.

Accordingly, "one aim of philosophy is to challenge the half-truths constituting the scientific first principles" (PR 15). On the principle that all general truths form a coherent system, metaphysics suggests how the general principles of a given science might be reformulated so as to be compatible with the even wider generalities of metaphysics, and hence not to be in conflict with the general principles of the other special areas of interest (PR 15). This suggestion might take the form, for example, of changing the denial that the entities of physics have any capacity for self-determination to the assertion that this capacity is ‘negligible.’ Since the difference between a ‘zero amount and a ‘negligible’ amount of some capacity is a difference in kind, this change would in principle allow the entities of physics to be interpreted in terms of the same categories used for interpreting entities in which the capacity for self-determination is not negligible.

Accordingly, Whitehead does not merely say that science should avoid becoming ‘scientism’ by recognizing that there are dimensions of reality to which its categories do not apply. He also says that these categories themselves should be reformulated. In asking whether there are aspects in nature that fail to receive expression in science, he says:

I ask this question in the interest of science itself; for one main position in these lectures is a protest against the idea that the abstractions of science are irreformable and unalterable. . . . Is it not possible that the standardized concepts of science are only valid within narrow limitations, perhaps too narrow for science itself? (SMW 121, 122).

To anticipate the remainder of this paper: what Whitehead has in mind here is "the shift from materialism to organism, as the basic idea of physical science" (PR 471).

Furthermore, insofar as philosophy helps a science reformulate its basic ideas, it may help it see facts previously unnoticed. A new set of fundamental principles might provide the basis for deducing the existence of some previously unnoticed factors. This aids the interrogation of experience: "The observation acquires an enhanced penetration by reason of the expectation evoked by the conclusion of the argument" (PR 13).

These two ways in which metaphysical philosophy can influence science are summed up in a discussion of the relation between specialism and common sense. While it is the task of the special sciences to modify common sense, "philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists, and also into an enlargement of their imaginations" (PR 26).

Before concluding this discussion of the mutually-helpful relationships Whitehead advocated between philosophy and the special sciences, the relevance of the distinction between ‘metaphysics’ and ‘cosmology’ should be mentioned. Although Process and Reality is subtitled "An Essay in Cosmology," it is really a combination of metaphysics and cosmology. Metaphysical principles about actuality are those which are without conceivable alternative, and hence apply in this and every possible world (PR 138f., 441). Cosmology is the attempt to describe the present order of the world in terms of principles which are special exemplifications of the most general, i.e., metaphysical, principles.

Accordingly, disagreements with Whitehead’s thought can occur on different levels, and some types of disagreement would be more serious than others. A disagreement with one of his basic metaphysical doctrines would probably entail disagreement with the whole philosophy. Disagreements with the principle of relativity (that it belongs to the nature of every being to be a potential ingredient in the becoming of actual entities), the principle of process (that how an actual entity becomes constitutes what it is), or the ontological principle (that only actual entities can exert influence) would be of this type. But disagreements with other statements made by Whitehead might be irrelevant in regard to the viability of the central metaphysical theses, since more than one description of the contingent aspects of the present universe would always be consistent with the metaphysical principles. When he discusses "the hierarchy of societies composing our present epoch," he says he is "deserting metaphysical generality" and only "considering the more special possibilities of explanation consistent with our general cosmological doctrine, but not necessitated by it" (PR 147). And he refers to these discussions as "conjectures." Hence, one could well disagree with some of Whitehead’s personal cosmological conjectures (and advancing scientific knowledge will surely necessitate this) without disagreeing with any of his fundamental principles.

II. Human Experience and Metaphysical Principles

The basic idea behind Whitehead’s entire enterprise is probably best expressed in this statement: "All occasions proclaim themselves as actualities within the flux of a solid world, demanding a unity of interpretation" (PR 22). This is the idea that rules out all dualisms within the actual world. It is self-evident to Whitehead that, if the perceived solidarity of the world -- the perceived fact that it all hangs together -- is to be made intelligible, there must be a set of interpretative principles in terms of which all actualities can be described. This is why it is necessary to develop a ‘one-substance cosmology,’ i.e., one in which there is only one type of actual entities (PR 29; cf. 28).

The fact that for Whitehead there is only one genus of actual entities means that he can in principle derive notions from any species of actual entities in order to interpret other species. Accordingly, if an electron and a human psyche are both considered examples of actualities, he could hope to use ideas derived from each one to interpret the other. And this is what he does (with the important qualification that psyches and electrons are both considered temporally-ordered societies of actual entities, a notion to be explained below).

If human experience is genuinely a part of nature, and if there be only one type of actual entity within nature (an idea whose truth-value must finally be verified heuristically), then, since it is that part of nature one knows most intimately, it provides the best starting point for finding principles that can be generalized to all actual entities. In fact, it provides the very standard of actuality (PR 219). This means that Whitehead believes that "Locke’s account of mental substance embodies, in a very special form, a more penetrating philosophic description than does Descartes’ account of corporeal substance" (PR 29). In this respect Whitehead is one with Leibniz. However, the description of physical things must also find its place, which it did in Leibniz’s Monadology only subordinately. "The philosophy of organism endeavors to hold the balance more evenly. But it does start with a generalization of Locke’s account of mental operations" (PR 29). Consistent with this starting point, Whitehead says: "The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent" (PR 28).

The fact that Whitehead understands human experience to consist in discrete ‘drops’ or ‘actual occasions’ of experience may be an example of the fact that Whitehead’s generalizations were developed from more than one starting point, in this case modern quantum theory as well as psychology. He says:

It is equally possible to arrive at this organic conception of the world if we start from the fundamental notions of modern physics, instead of. . . from psychology and physiology. In fact by reason of my own studies in mathematics and mathematical physics, I did in fact arrive at my convictions in this way (SMW 219f.).

In spite of this reciprocal influence, however, it is clear that Whitehead’s fundamental categories are generalizations from human experience (PR 172). The purpose of this part of the paper is to describe the principles by which this generalization is carried out and justified.

The first thing to do, when turning from a description of the capacities of an occasion of human experience to that of the lower organisms, is "to determine which among such capacities fade from realization into irrelevance" (PR 172). The necessity for this determination is explained:

Any doctrine which refuses to place human experience outside nature, must descriptions of human experience factors which also enter into the description specialized natural occurrences. If there be no such factors, then the doctrine of experience as a fact within nature is mere bluff. . . . We should either admit dualism should point out the identical elements connecting human experience with physical (AI 237).

Whitehead agrees with the traditional principle that philosophical "generalization must be based upon the primary elements in actual experience as starting points" (PR 240). But which elements in experience are primary in the relevant sense? The answer to this requires a look at Whitehead’s critique of dominant epistemologies.

These epistemologies have held that the primary elements in experience are barren universals, and that all other elements must be classified as derivative. For purposes of criticism, Whitehead divides this view, normally called ‘sensationalism,’ into two parts, the ‘subjectivist principle’ and the sensationalist principle,’ corresponding respectively to the notions that the primary data of perception are universals, and that the reception of the primary data is barren.

Regarding the former, Whitehead says: "It is impossible to scrutinize too carefully the character to be assigned to the datum in the act of experience. The whole philosophical system depends on it" (PR 238). Now, the ‘subjectivist principle’ holds that "the datum in the act of experience can be adequately analyzed purely in terms of universals" (PR 239). Universals are qualities such as blueness and triangularity which can be exemplified in many instances. In other words, according to this dominant view, no actual things are directly experienced, and of course no causal efficacy of actual things is experienced. If one who holds the subjectivist principle posits the reality of a world of actual entities spatially and/or temporally beyond the present moment of experience, and the reality of causal interaction among these entities, one does so solely on the basis of inference, not direct knowledge. There is not even one instance of direct acquaintance with such other ‘actualities’ and their ‘causal efficacy’ that can be used as an analogical basis for grounding the use of these terms elsewhere (PR 77). Accordingly, on the basis of the empiricist doctrine (which Whitehead accepts) "that nothing is to be received into the philosophical scheme which is not discoverable as an element in subjective experience," the subjectivist principle entails that the notion of causal influence between actualities must be dismissed (PR 253).

In the light of the principles mentioned in Part 1, Whitehead has to believe that something is wrong with this analysis of the datum of experience. For the common sense of humanity is inflexibly objectivist. "We perceive other things which are in the world of actualities in the same sense as we are" (PR 240, cf. 78f., 83). And everyone in practice gives evidence of presupposing genuine causal influence between things. But if the subjectivist principle is consistently followed, it leads to the strange phenomenon of ‘empiricists’ explaining away the obvious facts of experience in obedience to an a priori doctrine (PR 220, 221).

Whitehead believes that the subjectivist principle is in turn rooted in the substance-quality dogma, i.e., the dogma that "the final metaphysical fact is always to be expressed as a quality inhering in a substance" (PR 239). This dogma, which makes the subject-predicate form of statement ultimate, implies that one ‘substance’ (i.e., actuality) is never ‘qualified’ by another one, but only by universal qualities, such as colors and shapes. This doctrine implies that actualities are essentially independent of each other. Accordingly, the most a ‘relationship’ can be is "the correlation of a pair of qualities one belonging exclusively to one individual, and the other exclusively to the other individual" (PR 219). In epistemology, this leads to the representative theory of perception, in which an experienced quality is said to ‘represent’ an exterior thing (PR 77f.). It cannot be admitted that the exterior thing is directly perceived, for that would mean that one actuality (the perceived thing) would be qualifying another one (the perceiver). It is this dogma, Whitehead believes, rather than an impartial analysis of immediate experience, which leads to the subjectivist principle. Hence, this principle must be rejected if we are to do justice to the perceived solidarity of the world, the basic character about reality to which a philosophy must be adequate.

Whitehead’s definition of the ‘sensationalist principle’ also focuses attention upon the question of the primary elements in experience. It is defined as the doctrine that "the primary activity in the act of experience is the bare subjective entertainment of the datum, devoid of any subjective form of reception" (PR 239). This implies that all emotional and purposive response must be considered derivative from the more primary conscious perception of those universals constituting the data of sense perception (PR 246). It is obviously essential to Whitehead’s program to reject this principle. For if he is to generalize the primary elements of human experience to all actualities, these primary elements cannot be factors, such as conscious sense experience, which rather obviously cannot be reasonably predicated of those actual entities at the base of the evolutionary process.

In explaining his rejection of the subjectivist and sensationalist principles, Whitehead distinguishes two modes of perception that are generally combined in human experience One mode is termed ‘perception in the mode of presentational immediacy,’ which involves as its most conspicuous aspect the perception of sense data as qualifying external regions. But (and this is Whitehead’s epistemological revolution) this mode is derivative from a more basic, temporally prior, mode, which he terms ‘perception in the mode of causal efficacy,’ or simply ‘prehension’ or ‘feeling.’ In this more fundamental mode, other actual entities are perceived, and the data are received not neutrally, but with emotional and purposive subjective forms of reception. Furthermore, the data themselves are prehended as emotional feelings. All of this is held to be involved in the primary phase of an act of human perception. Since these elements are prior to, rather than derivative from, what is normally referred to as ‘perception’ (i.e., presentational immediacy), it is not impossible in principle to attribute these elements to lower forms of actual entities. Since consciousness presupposes more basic forms of experience, rather than experience presupposing or being identical with consciousness (PR 83), it is possible to attribute experience to low-grade actual entities without supposing that they have conscious experience.

This revolutionary doctrine of what is really (temporally) prior in experience means that Whitehead believes that in most philosophy "experience has been explained in a thoroughly topsy-turvy fashion, the wrong end first" (PR 246). The essential fact that has been overlooked is that "clearness in consciousness is no evidence for primitiveness in the genetic process" (PR 263f.). Whitehead believes that "the opposite doctrine is more nearly true" (PR 264). He formulates this as a principle: "The late derivative elements are more clearly illuminated by consciousness than the primitive elements" (PR 246). Whitehead’s position is that consciousness can only illuminate those elements of experience which have been considerably simplified and integrated. Thus those elements of our experience which stand out clearly and distinctly in our consciousness are not its basic facts; they are the derivative modifications which arise in the process" (PR 243f.). Accordingly, the primary experience of receiving with emotional and purposive subjective form the causal influence of other actualities tends to be only dimly illuminated in consciousness precisely because it is primary. This is Whitehead’s basis for rejecting the Kantian ‘critical philosophy,’ which was based upon the inherited assumption that presentational immediacy was the primary fact of perception, so that the notion of causation (along with notions of value, emotion, and purpose) had to be derived from some source other than perception (PR 263).

Whitehead’s discussion of subhuman actual entities follows from the principles discussed above, viz., that there is only one genus of actual entities, that one’s present experience constitutes the standard for defining actuality, and that subhuman actualities can be conceived in terms of the primary elements in human experience. Accordingly, in reference to perception, Whitehead says:

We must assign the mode of causal efficacy to the fundamental constitution of an occasion so that in germ this mode belongs even to organisms of the lowest grade; while the mode of presentational immediacy requires the more sophistical activity of the latter stages of process, so as to belong only to organisms of a relatively high grade (PR 261).

And he believes this assignment to be harmonious with the observed facts:

It does not seem to be the sense of causal awareness that the lower living things lack, so much as variety of sense-presentation, and then vivid distinctness of presentational immediacy. But animals, and even vegetables, in low forms of organism exhibit modes of behavior directed towards self-preservation. There is every indication of a vague feeling of causal relationship with the external world, of some intensity, vaguely defined as to quality, and with some vague definition as to locality. A jellyfish advances and withdraws, and in so doing exhibits some perception of causal relationship with the world beyond itself; a plant grows downwards to the damp earth, and upwards toward the light. There is thus some direct reason for attributing dim, slow feelings of causal nexus, although we have no reason for any ascription of the definite percepts in the mode of presentational immediacy (PR 268).

To make explicit what is implicit above: Since there is only one type of actual entity, ontology and epistemology partially coincide. An act of human perception (in the primary mode) provides an example of causation which can be generalized to the relations between other actual entities. The percipient’s prehension of another actual entity is the perceived entity’s causal influence upon the percipient (PR 91, 361).

The fact that the prehension of other actualities is a prehension’ of them as other supplies the basis for one of Whitehead’s central concepts, that prehensions have a ‘vector’ character (PR 28). Using ‘feeling’ in place of ‘prehension,’ Whitehead says: "Feelings are ‘vectors’; for they feel what is there and transform it into what is here" (PR 133). This notion of the vector character of prehensions is basic to his attempt to describe the world as a multiplicity of actual things which are genuinely related. For the notion that prehensions are vectors is a rejection of the primary doctrine to which Whitehead is opposed, the doctrine of ‘simple location,’ which is the doctrine that an actual entity’s location can be described without reference to other actualities in other regions of space and time (SMW 72, 84). And, since Whitehead defines ‘matter’ as anything which has this property of simple location (SMW 72), his doctrine that all actual entities have prehensions that are vectors constitutes his rejection of a materialistic view of nature. It should be noted, too, that his doctrine of the vector character of prehensions is simply an ontological restatement of the epistemological rejection of subjectivism. The human perception of other actual entities is an example of the vector-character of prehensions by all actual entities (PR 177).

There is more to be said about the datum of the primary mode of perception. In a passage in which ‘objectification’ is used for ‘prehension,’ Whitehead says:

The more primitive mode of objectification is via emotional tone, and only in exceptional organisms does objectification, via sensation, supervene with any effectiveness. . . Thus the whole notion of prehension should be inverted. We prehend other actual entities more primitively by direct mediation of emotional tone, and only secondarily and waveringly by direct meditation of sense (PR 214).

This reception of emotional tone is combined with the vector-character of prehensions or feelings in order more fully to describe the primary phase of a moment of experience:

The crude aboriginal character of direct perception is inheritance. What is inherited is feeling-tone with evidence of its origin: in other words, vector feeling-tone. Thus perception, in this primary sense, is perception of the settled world in the past as constituted by its feeling-tones, and as efficacious by reason of those feeling-tones (PR 182, 184).

Accordingly, Whitehead attributes to all actual entities this feeling of the emotional tone of other actual entities. In his words, "The more primitive types of experience are concerned with sense-reception, and not with sense-perception" (PR 174). By this he means that low-grade organisms receive and pass along sensa, which are for them emotional forms. They are ‘unspatialized,’ in the sense that the location of the actual entities from which they were derived is very vague. It is only in sense-perception, enjoyed by high-grade organisms, that the sensa are clearly perceived as qualifying some external region of space (PR 174, 177; AI 276).

This emotional character of the datum leads to another factor in human experience that is generalizable. The objective datum is not prehended neutrally, but with a ‘subjective form’ of reception, and therefore emotionally. The objective datum of a feeling was itself a feeling constitutive of a previous actual entity. In the first phase of a moment of experience, the previous feeling is received with a subjective form which conforms to its own subjective form. For example, a person feeling a previous angry feeling will initially feel it with anger. Accordingly, this first stage of a moment of experience is called the ‘conformal phase.’ This doctrine represents the rejection of the sensationalist principle, according to which the primary activity in perception would be a bare reception of a datum, devoid of any subjective form of reception. This conformal, non-orginative phase of experience, which "merely transforms the objective content into subjective feelings," is said to be "common to all modes of perception" (PR 179, 250). Accordingly, Whitehead affirms that even the actual entities studied by physics have emotional responses to their environments. The notion of physical energy in physics is an abstraction from the complex energy, emotional and purposive, which is embodied in an actual entity (Al 239; PR 178).

The notion of ‘purposiveness’ was mentioned in the preceding sentence. In order to discuss this notion, which is also thought to apply to all actual entities, another feature of actual entities must be emphasized. This is the idea that each actual entity is temporally atomic -- it is a brief event, and it is indivisible. This is why Whitehead could adopt William James’ expression, ‘drops of experience,’ to refer to actual entities. It is by virtue of this temporal atomicity that Whitehead can correlate efficient and final causation. He introduces this topic in the following way:

It is notable that no biological science has been able to express itself apart from phraseology which is meaningless unless it refers to ideals proper to the organism in question. This aspect of the universe impressed itself on that great biologist and philosopher, Aristotle. His philosophy led to a wild over-stressing of the notion of final causes during the Christian middle ages; and thence, by a reaction, to the correlative overstressing of the notion of ‘efficient causes’ during the modern scientific period. One task of a sound metaphysics is to exhibit final and efficient causes in their proper relation to each other (PR 128f.).

Whitehead’s doctrine of temporal atomicity allows the two forms of causation to be complementary by assigning them to different phases of an actual occasion. The first phase is that of efficient causation, in that the occasion begins as reception of a multiplicity of influences from previous occasions. But once this rush of efficient causes has been allowed in, the monad’s window is closed, as it were, and the actual occasion has to decide precisely how to respond to its given data. "Efficient causation expresses the transition from actual entity to actual entity; and final causation expresses the internal process whereby the actual entity becomes itself" (PR 228). The occasion’s final cause is called its ‘subjective aim’; it is the aim at a determinate ‘satisfaction’ which is the conclusion of the occasion’s process of becoming (PR 1 34). Upon attaining satisfaction, the occasion is then an efficient cause partially determining the occasions which succeed it. It is because the temporal atomicity allows for two kinds of process, the internal process of self-determination called ‘concresence,’ as well as the efficient process of ‘transition’ from occasion to occasion, that there can be freedom in the universe (PR 135). No matter how much is determined for the occasion by the conditions from which it arises, "there is always a contingency left open for immediate decision" (PR 435; cf. 41, 75; AI 255).

Whitehead’s famous ‘ontological principle’ stresses the two kinds of causation. This is the principle that only actual entities can be the causes for anything, so that to ask for a reason is always to ask for one or more actual entities (PR 37). Whereas the acceptance of such a principle leads many to a mechanistic doctrine, Whitehead says that the ontological principle "could also be termed the principle of efficient, and final, causation’" (PR 36f.). For, the reason an actual occasion is what it is will lie in its own process of self-determination as well as in the efficient causation upon it.

Although self-determination is a metaphysical principle, so that every actual entity has at least some iota, it is a matter of degree. And in the low-grade entities studied by physics it is negligible. "For occasions of relatively slight experient intensity, their decisions of creative emphasis are individually negligible compared to the determined components which they receive and transmit" (PR 75). Accordingly, for many purposes the self-determination of the individual occasions can be ignored without serious distortion.

We are now in position to introduce Whitehead’s often-misunderstood doctrine that all actual entities, even those at the electronic level, have ‘mentality,’ or ‘conceptual prehensions.’ Whitehead emphasizes many times that he does not mean by this that all actual entities have intellect, or even consciousness (PR 35, 88, 130, 355, 366, 379, 416, 427). Nor does he mean simply that they all have experience, for actual entities are experiential through and through, even in the earliest phase, which is sometimes called the ‘physical’ phase. Rather, the mental pole is significant to the degree that the occasion originates any novelty, thereby creating something for itself beyond what it received from the past world. To the extent that the occasion has no autonomy over the past, but merely repeats and transmits what it receives, it is dominated by its physical pole. The origination of significant novelty only occurs in living occasions.

However, there is at least some iota of mental functioning in all occasions. One of the basic categories states that "from each physical feeling there is the derivation of a purely conceptual feeling" (PR 40). A ‘physical’ feeling is simply a feeling whose datum is another actual entity. A ‘conceptual’ feeling is one whose datum is a pure possibility, i.e., an ‘eternal object,’ which is Whitehead’s term for a ‘universal.’ These eternal objects include those of the ‘objective species,’ the mathematical forms, and those of the ‘subjective species,’ such as red, anger, aversion, and consciousness. Accordingly, this ‘category of conceptual valuation’ states that, e.g., after having a feeling of the green feeling in a previous actual entity, the present subject will in the second phase of its experience feel green qua green, i.e., as a pure possibility, in abstraction from its ingression in the actual world. The rise of these conceptual prehensions constitutes the essential phase of the mental pole of an actual entity. In commenting upon this category, Whitehead says: "This category maintains the old principle that mentality originates from sensitive experience. It lays down the principle that all sensitive experience originates mental operations" (PR 379)

However, the statement of the category thus far does not indicate the dynamic character of the mental pole. The category does not merely speak of conceptual reproduction, but of valuation. What is received is either valued upward (adversion) or downward (aversion) (PR 388). This is the becoming occasion’s determination of its own subjective form of response to its given data. The dynamic activity involved in conceptual valuation is best suggested by the use of the term ‘appetition’:

Appetition is at once the conceptual valuation of an immediate physical feeling combined with the urge towards realization of the datum conceptually prehended. For example, ‘thirst’ is an immediate physical feeling integrated with the conceptual prehension of its quenching. . . . All physical experience is accompanied by an appetite for, or against, its continuance (PR 47f.).

Accordingly, mentality is closely correlated with self-determination: "Thus the conceptual registration is conceptual valuation; and the conceptual valuation introduces creative purpose. The mental pole introduces the subject as a determinant of its own concrescence (PR 380).

Actually, it is not the conceptual valuation as such that constitutes purposiveness, but the integration of this valuation with the physical feeling from which it was derived. This integration results in a ‘physical purpose’ (PR 380, 388). Insofar as this is all that occurs in the occasion, there is no significant novelty. The occasion simply receives the physical feelings, conforms their valuations, and transmits them to successors. Its own autonomous experience is negligible for the science tracing the transmissions (PR 374f.). Hence, by virtue of this doctrine of physical purpose, Whitehead can maintain that there is mentality in all actual entities and yet agree that this can be ignored without loss when one is concerned with certain abstractions from the full reality of nature.

Whitehead is impatient with those philosophers who simply state that "physical science is an abstraction." As such this is "a confession of philosophic failure. It is the business of rational thought to describe the more concrete fact from which that abstraction is derivable" (Al 239). In terms of the above discussion of what is truly primary in human experience, we are now in a position to understand a statement in which Whitehead summarizes how the "more concrete fact" from which science abstracts should be conceived: "The emotional appetitive elements in our conscious experience are those which most closely resemble the basic elements of all physical experience" (PR 248).

The uniqueness of Whitehead’s philosophy is probably best summarized in terms of the theory of prehension as a combination of the doctrines of temporal atomicity and of the primacy of causal efficacy. This theory of prehension means the overcoming of the dualistic notion that there are some concrete facts which are merely public and others which are merely private. Rather, the prehensions have public origins, the objective data; they have private subjective forms, based on the private aim of the actual occasion; and then the occasion, having unified its prehensions, passes back into publicity, providing data for new prehensions. Through this account Whitehead means to overcome "a complex of bifurcations, fatal to a satisfactory cosmology," i.e., "the separations of perceptual fact from emotional fact; and of causal fact from emotional fact, and from perceptual fact, and of perceptual fact, emotional fact, and causal fact, from purposive fact" (PR 444).

III. The Correlation of Principles of Metaphysics with those of Physics

The previous discussion indicates how Whitehead believes one can, by generalizing from occasions of human experience, talk meaningfully about the nature of nonhuman actual entities in themselves. And the advantages of some of the principles for making contact with principles of modern physics, such as quantum physics, is readily apparent. But how can Whitehead’s principles account for the aspects of endurance and continuity?

Whitehead accounts for the endurance of things by his theory of societies. "The real actual things that endure are all societies. They are not actual occasions" (AI 262). The simplest type of society is one with purely temporal order: it is a series of actual occasions in which each occasion inherits a common form from the preceding member of the society and transmits it to its immediate successor. The common form is the defining characteristic of the society (PR 50f.). This type of society is called a ‘temporally-ordered,’ ‘serially-ordered,’ or ‘personally-ordered’ society, or an ‘enduring object.’ Examples are photons, electrons, protons, atoms, molecules, and psyches of human beings and other higher animals (AI 238; SMW 161f.; PR 139f., 141, 151, 269, 492). The society endures by repetition: each member repeats the form constituting the defining characteristic of the society. Enduring things are societies of occasions rather than single substances, so that ‘repetition’ replaces undifferentiated vacuous endurance.’ This notion of repetition is central to the move from materialism to organicism in science. For it offers an alternative explanation for the apparent fact that the basic actualities of the world are describable in terms of passive endurances with essential or non-essential modifications. If this alternative is more adequate, the principle basis of materialism is undercut.

The previously discussed ideas of vectors and the conformal feelings of subjective form are used to understand the transmission of energy. Because Whitehead conceives the human psyche not to be a single actuality, but a temporally-ordered society of occasions of experience, and further believes all actual entities to be occasions of experience, he is able to use "the direct evidence as to the connectedness of one’s immediate present occasion of experience with one’s immediately past occasions . . . to suggest categories applying to the connectedness of all occasions in nature" (AI 284). Accordingly, he understands electrons and atoms in terms of "an analogy between the transference of energy from particular occasion to particular occasion in physical nature and the transference of affective tone, with its emotional energy, from one occasion to another in any human personality. The object-to-subject structure of human experience is reproduced in physical nature by this vector relation of particular to particular" (AI 242). This transference of affective tone, or subjective form, is "the most primitive form of the feeling of causal efficacy. In physics it is the transmission of a form of energy" (479f.).

Of course, this one-dimensional personal inheritance from occasion to occasion in the psyche provides no analogical basis for understanding the many-dimensional connections in nature, in which spatial as well as temporal relations are involved. But we also have direct experience of inheritance from our body, which is made up of innumerable actual occasions. Accordingly, the fact that "our dominant inheritance from our immediately past occasion is broken into by innumerable inheritances through other avenues" provides an analogy for understanding both the endurance of a molecule and the fact that it is subject to countless other influences (AI 243).

Whitehead answers the question as to the relation between continuity and quanta on the basis of discrete occasions of human experience which inherit subjective forms conformally:

Thus, if the analogy is to hold. . ., we should expect a doctrine of quanta, where the individualities of the occasions are relevant, and a doctrine of continuity where the conformal transference of subjective form is the dominant fact. The notion of physical energy, which is at the base of physics, must then be conceived as an abstraction from the complex form of the final synthesis in which each occasion completes itself. It is the total vigor of each activity of experience (AI 239).

This is Whitehead’s attempt to state "the more concrete fact" from which physical science abstracts. But each occasion, as well as each of its constitutive prehensions, does have a quantitative aspect as well as a qualitative one (PR 486). The quantitative aspect of the prehensions, along with their spatio-temporal characteristics, are the ‘vectors’ of physics. "The ultimate physical entities for physical science are always vectors indicating transference" (PR 364f.). Mathematical physics translates Heraclitus’ saying, "All things flow," into "All things are vectors" (PR 471).

The occasion takes what it received from others and unifies it into a total satisfaction, which for the moment is private. The quantitative aspect of this satisfaction is the basis for the scalar localization of energy in physics (PR 177). The fact that in the later phases of an actual occasion this scalar form overwhelms the original vector form, and the fact that the scalar quantity of inertia was dominant in Newtonian physics, have led to a tendency to spatialize reality, to ignore the fact that all fundamental physical quantities are vector rather than scalar (PR 268, 319). Although overwhelmed in the satisfaction, the vector form is never totally lost; and the satisfaction will provide the basis for a subsequent vector transference. The fact "that scalar quantities are constructs derivative from vector quantities" is, of course, simply the scientific formulation of Whitehead’s fundamental doctrine that relations have primacy over qualities, that there are no independent actualities with their private qualities (PR 324). "In the language of physical science, the change from materialism to ‘organic realism’ . . . is the displacement of the notion of static stuff by the notion of fluent energy" (PR 471). The vector character of prehensions whereby the cause is incorporated into the effect is the basis for the cumulative character of time, and hence its irreversibility (PR 363). This is another of our basic presuppositions which the materialistic doctrine, with its merely external relations, could not justify.

Besides supporting the primacy of vector quantities, Whitehead believes his doctrine of individual actual occasions with their individual prehensions "gives a reason for the atomic quanta to be discerned in the building up of a quantity of energy" (PR 71, 179):

The direct perception whereby the datum in the immediate subject is inherited from the past can thus, under an abstraction, be conceived as the transference of throbs of emotional energy, clothed in the specific forms provided by sensa. Since the vagueness in the experient subject will veil the separate objectifications wherein there are individual contributions to the total satisfaction, the emotional energy in the final satisfaction wears the aspect of a total intensity capable of all gradations of ideal variation. But in its origin it represents the totality arising from the contributions of separate objects to that form of energy. Thus, having regard to its origin, a real atomic structure of each form of energy is discernible, so much from each objectified actual occasion; and only a finite number of actual occasions will be relevant (PR 178).

Although for some purposes the mental pole of the occasions can be ignored, Whitehead says that even the physical world cannot be understood without reference to . . . the complex of mental operations" (PR 366). At least one aspect of what this means is explained in terms of the two species of eternal objects. The intensity of physical energy embodied by actual occasions is a function of the subjective species of eternal objects, while the peculiar form of the flux of energy refers to the objective species, the mathematical forms. The type of analysis normally applied by science, what Whitehead calls coordinate division, "preserves undistorted the elements of definiteness introduced by eternal objects of the objective species" (PR 447). But it abstracts from the total subject of the feelings, and hence from the subjective forms. "Thus insofar as the relationships of these feelings require an appeal to subjective forms for their explanation, the gap must be supplied by the introduction of arbitrary laws of nature regulating the relations of intensities" (PR 447). For physics the laws declaring how its entities mutually react are arbitrary, "because that science has abstracted from what the entities are in themselves" (SMW 155f.).

Also, the endurance of things such as molecules is an arbitrary fact, if material is taken to be fundamental. But if one takes organism to be fundamental, then endurance is the result of evolution (SMW 159). This statement is based upon the notion that all actual entities strive to achieve value. An enduring object represents "the self-retention of that which imposes itself as a definite attainment for its own sake" (SMW 137). An enduring object is the repetition of a certain set of eternal objects whose actualization is experienced as intrinsically valuable. The intensity of the value is increased by the repetition (PR 426). This endurance is compatible with the earlier description of the fact that in each occasion a conceptual prehension is derived from each physical prehension, and that this introduces a purpose into the occasion. For, the activity of lifting out an eternal object and feeling it as an eternal object, i.e., as a pure possibility in abstraction from all physical realizations, is a matter of degree. In low-grade occasions it is not lifted out completely. Accordingly, in the integrative phase of the occasion it is merely reunited with the physical feeling from which it was derived; the resulting feeling is called a ‘physical purpose.’ The only possible alteration is in the intensity of subjective form with which it is felt. It is valued up (adverted), the physical feeling is thereby an element with some force of persistence into the future beyond its own subject." Hence, adversions promote the stability of enduring objects. But if the eternal object which is partially abstracted from a physical feeling is felt with aversion, the future objectification of the value in question is inhibited, and decay sets in (PR 286, 380, 422).

However, Whitehead does not believe there is any evidence for simple repetition based upon strict conformation from occasion to occasion, even in low-grade enduring objects (PR 285). There is some novelty realized, "so that even amid stability there is never undifferentiated endurance" (PR 381). The vibration and rhythm of these enduring objects is explained by the category of reversion, which is in turn explained in terms of Whitehead’s aesthetic principles. ‘Reversion’ occurs when in the mental pole eternal objects are felt which are partly identical with but partially diverse from the eternal objects derived from the physical feelings of occasions in the actual world (PR 380). Reversion thereby introduces a contrast into the conceptual feeling, and as such promotes the depth of intensity that can be felt (PR 381, 424).

When this reverted conceptual feeling acquires a relatively high intensity of upward valuation in its subjective form, the resulting integration of physical feeling, primary conceptual feeling, and secondary conceptual feeling, produces a more complex physical purpose than . . . when the reverted conceptual feeling was negligible (PR 425).

Whitehead then describes what goes on in the vibration of an enduring object:

In the successive occasions of an enduring object in which the inheritance is governed by this complex physical purpose, the reverted conceptual feeling is transmitted into the next occasion as physical feeling, and the pattern of the original physical feeling now reappears as the datum in the reverted conceptual feeling. Thus along the route of the life-history there is a chain of contrasts in the physical feelings of the successive occasions. . . . Thus an enduring object gains the enhanced intensity of feeling arising from the contrast between inheritance and novel effect, and also gains the enhanced intensity arising from the combined inheritance of its stable rhythmic character throughout its life-history. . . . In this way the association of endurance with rhythm and physical vibration are to be explained. They arise out of the conditions for intensity and stability (PR 426).

Whitehead thereby does not leave the empirical facts as merely arbitrary, but tries to account for them on the basis of "the doctrine that an actual fact is a fact of aesthetic experience. All aesthetic experience is feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity" (PR 427; cf. 285).

IV. The Relation Between Inorganic, Living, and Conscious Organisms

If this paper were to stand alone, this fourth section would necessarily be quite lengthy. However, many of the ideas that would belong here are discussed elsewhere in the volume, especially in the papers by Hartshorne and Overman, and the "Whiteheadian Comments" by Cobb and myself. Hence, I will only point out very briefly some of the ways in which Whitehead’s metaphysical ideas, and his related understanding of the objects of physics, form a foundation for seeing inorganic, living, and conscious organisms within one scheme of thought.

1. On the one hand, Whitehead holds that there is only one kind of actuality. All actual entities, even non-living ones, are ‘organisms.’ Inorganic, living, and conscious organisms are only different in degree, not in kind. Hence, the insoluble problem of all dualisms, understanding how two totally different kinds of actualities can causally interact, is avoided. To affirm that living things emerged out of non-living ones, and that conscious beings emerged out of non-conscious ones, is not to affirm that the lower beings or processes produced something totally different from themselves.

On the other hand, Whitehead also holds that there are many different levels within the one kind of actuality. Living organisms have more ‘mentality’ than non-living ones, which means that they have more power of self-determination. And conscious beings have more self-determining power than non-conscious ones. Accordingly, Whitehead does not reduce the activity of complex beings to a mere function of the activity of the simplest, parts. (Leclerc -- above, p. 104 -- is misleading on this issue.) The higher-level actualities are dependent upon the lower-level ones; but the higher-level ones are equally actual, and have their own efficacy. Hence, the activity of the living cell is not totally a product of the inorganic constituents, but is partly due to the living occasions within the cell. The activity of the human being is not totally a product of the bodily cells, but is partly due to the central series of actual occasions which sometimes is conscious.

2. On the one hand, Whitehead has a doctrine of causality as real influence. Hence, he provides a basis for scientific theory, which is always couched in language which presupposes genuine causal influence (not mere constant conjunction). This point, combined with the previous one, means that he can talk about the causal influence, for example, of molecules within the cell upon the cell’s series of living occasions, which can for practical purposes be regarded as the ‘cell as a whole,’ and he can speak about the returned causal influence of the living occasions upon the molecular constituents. Hence, he can talk about causal interaction between part and whole (when the empirical evidence calls for it). Likewise, he can talk about causal interaction between the central series of experiences in the human being (the mind, or psyche) and the bodily cells.

On the other hand, his doctrine of causal influence is not a doctrine of total determination of the effect by the causes. Hence, to say that the cell is influenced by its inorganic parts is not to affirm that it operates mechanistically; to say that the human psyche is influenced by its body is not to affirm that the human being’s activity is totally determined by inorganic, or even nonconscious, processes. No organism is totally determined by the efficient causes upon it, since every actual occasion has at least some iota of mentality or self-determination. And the higher-level actualities are even less completely determined by efficient causes.

3. Whitehead accounts for the fact that some of the things in the world have no power of self-determination. He does this with his idea of two basic ways in which enduring objects can be organized into macroscopic societies. On the one hand, they can form a mere aggregate, such as a rock. This type of thing, although it is composed of partially self-determining organisms, itself has no power of self-determination. This is because there is no one series of higher-level actualities (‘dominant occasions’) within the society which can coordinate the activities of the myriad members. Hence, the spontaneities of the individuals cancel each other out.

On the other hand, some macroscopic things have self-determination. These are societies in which there is a series of higher-level occasions of experience, a series which is the ‘dominant’ member in the society. This domination is not complete, but it can be strong enough to give the society as a whole a significant degree of unity of response to the causes upon it. Animals, especially the higher vertebrates, exemplify this kind of hierarchical organization. However, this kind of order, in which a society of actual entities acts with a significant degree of unity, is not unique to animals. Whitehead also refers to cells, molecules, atoms, and electrons and protons as organisms with significant unity, to be contrasted with those things which are mere aggregates (SMW 161 f.). Precisely how Whitehead himself understood the relation between the lower-level and higher-level actual occasions within an organism of organisms’ is not clear from his writings. In regard to the living cell, he does refer to the series of living occasions as ‘regnant,’ and to the molecular enduring objects as ‘subservient’ (PR 157). And he does say that atoms and molecules are ‘organisms’ of a higher type than electrons (ibid) Furthermore, he refers to molecules as enduring objects, and he speaks of molecular as well as of electronic and protonic actual occasions (PR 114, 123, 124, 139, 141). He is perhaps best understood as intending that the molecule can be treated as an enduring object (i.e., a serially-ordered society of actual occasions) by virtue of the fact that it contains a series of regnant molecular occasions. Likewise, an electron or a proton would be an enduring object by virtue of the fact that, besides the "yet more ultimate actual entities" within the electronic or protonic society (PR 139), the "electronic and protonic actual entities" (PR 139) are regnant occasions within the society in which they are members. Because of the regnant status of the series of electronic, pro-tonic, or molecular occasions, the electron, proton, or molecule has a significant degree of unity of response to its environment (internal and external), and thus can be spoken of, for practical purposes, as a series of actual occasions.

I believe this is the best way to account for Whitehead’s various statements that are relevant to this issue. But in any case, it is clear that Whitehead means that there are various levels of ‘organisms of organisms,’ or hierarchical societies, which are to be contrasted with those types of societies which do not have a hierarchical order and hence no overall unity of activity. It is by virtue of this distinction between two basic types of organization that Whitehead accounts for those things which manifestly are devoid of the power of self-determination, without positing a dualism between two kinds of actual entities. It is also on the basis of this distinction, along with the notion that there are various levels of actualities, that Whitehead explains our common belief not only that some macroscopic beings have freedom, but also that some have more freedom than others.

Accordingly, on the basis of his fundamental notions, Whitehead does not find it necessary to explain’ our beliefs about living and conscious beings by explaining them away. He is able to conform to "those presumptions, which, in despite of criticism, we still employ for the regulation of our lives," (PR 229) which should serve as "the final test of all science and philosophy" (PR 502).


AI Adventures of Ideas. Macmillan, 1933.

PR Process and Reality. Macmillan, 1929.

SMW Science and the Modern World. Macmillan, 1926.