Chapter 4: Can Whitehead Help Us Learn What We’re Talking About? by Richard H. Overman

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

Chapter 4: Can Whitehead Help Us Learn What We’re Talking About? by Richard H. Overman

Richard Overman spent four years in the general practice of medicine before returning to school to study philosophy and religion. He is now chairman of the Faculty in Religion at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

"He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!" Isn’t this what we all feel like blurting out occasionally? Especially when we find someone else’s language failing to express what we know! Still, in our better moments we refrain from such outbursts, because in our depths we know that, in the part of our lives concerned with language, hardly anything is more difficult than being sure what we mean. We know that when we are speaking seriously, we are trying to let something up into awareness -- the ‘what’ which is the true subject matter of our speaking -- and we are trying to become well-enough acquainted with it so we can deliver it in words. But there’s many a slip ‘twixt the ‘what’ and the lip! Indeed, unless we already know that ‘something’ quite well, our speaking may deliver something else by mistake. Anyone who tries to explain a minority viewpoint knows that his listeners may suspect him of just such an error, and he will know that a certain lightheartedness is necessary when hearing his words treated as a ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ or a huge trash heap! By ‘lightheartedness’ I am not speaking of childish frivolity in constructing one’s speech, or of shallow willingness to retrench. I mean the ability to be quite serious in trying to plumb the depths, to ‘draw up Leviathan’ into words, while at the same time being amused when one’s linguistic ‘fishline’ keeps pulling up minnows, blowfishes, and an occasional old tire. I mean the ability to be quite responsible for what one says, while at the same time knowing that his accuser is correct in exclaiming, "He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!"

Therefore, one must answer on two levels when he is asked, "Have I understood what you mean?" The easy level concerns whether the listener has grasped the conscious intention of the speaker, and most arguments in the worlds of politics, science, and theology remain at this level. But the more important, and much more difficult, answer concerns whether either person, listener or speaker, has fished up that deep ‘something’ or ‘what’ which may be pressing for expression then, meaning to be said. Sometimes it appears that we will go to almost any lengths to avoid looking deeper for that ‘something’ just beyond the edges of clear consciousness! But if there is anything to St. Paul’s notion that mysteries are cleared up in heaven, I am sure the first words of Plato upon entering those portals were the same as those of Lamarck, Darwin, and Einstein: "Aha! So that’s what I was talking about!"

May I draw two ‘morals’ from this story? The first is short, concerning the way we should read the essays in this volume. Our whole civilization seems to act as though restoring things to their ‘natural’ state would mean making them dead, and this crisis in our world has a lot to do with our ancestors’ enjoyment in dealing with easy, clear, conscious meanings and their dislike in looking for that deeper ‘something.’ So, if we want to help cure our sick world we had better remember that the real subject matter of this hook is not likely to emerge unless each of us looks through the conscious language of the essays, asking, "Now what is it that he doesn’t know he is saying?"

The second ‘moral’ is longer, and I will dwell on it in the rest of this paper. But briefly, it is this: ‘orthodox’ scientific uneasiness about the role of purpose or final causation in planetary evolution has its grounds partly in the fact that over the centuries most people who have tried to describe the role of purpose on Earth haven’t known ‘what’ they were talking about. They have known that somehow or other everything depends on purposes somewhere, in something or other -- or in something and another -- but they have hardly ever had a very clear grasp of just where the purposes are, in what things, and how much. So sometimes they have rendered to God the purposes that really were Caesar’s, and sometimes they have credited crowds of Caesar’s liver cells with a unified conscious vision of the future which only Caesar’s soul could have enjoyed. The result, as we all know, has been the gradual eliminating of the notion of purpose from scientific thought. And not merely from scientific thought, for it has been suppressed in theological thought as well! I don’t know which is more perplexing, to be told by a ‘Fundamentalist’ in theology that all the purposes of the universe are hoarded everlastingly in heaven by God, or to be told by a ‘Fundamentalist’ in science that there just aren’t any purposes. Either way, my own purposes here on Earth (which are more obvious to me than either God or evolution!) seem to be neatly explained away. The two ‘Fundamentalists’ seem to agree in giving me a perplexing bit of advice: "Why worry? You’re really dead!"

But all this perplexity is unnecessary -- the fact that a lot of people haven’t known ‘what’ they were talking about for centuries is important, but it is not grounds for assuming they were talking of nothing! On the contrary, the very persistence of language about purpose indicates that people are trying to speak of something -- the question is, what? At this point, Whitehead’s analysis is particularly helpful, for he helps us understand where the purposes of the world are, in what kinds of things, and how they are related to the intricate patterns of physical causation we may discover through scientific research. In other words, he can help people who experience purposes to know much more closely ‘what’ they are talking about, so that the whole discussion of purposes in our world can move on beyond the typical confusion of the last few centuries. Perhaps, if we are granted time, some more purified currents of thought may emerge to support life instead of death!

‘Life’ and ‘Purpose’ in Evolution1

Most of our trouble in discussing ‘life’ and ‘purpose’ comes from assuming that the subjects which are ‘alive’ and enjoy ‘purposes’ are the things which appear before our eyes, enduring through time. But Whitehead directs our attention away from such enduring things to the individual ‘occasions of experience,’ momentary events whose subjective aims determine their becoming. In thinking of the world we rarely consider the purposes of these basic entities; instead, we tend to be conscious of and think almost entirely of collections of entities, arranged in complex spatial and temporal patterns. Whitehead calls any such group of occasions with some sort of connectedness a nexus,’ and a nexus which shows some trait shared by each member in dependence on the others he calls a ‘society’ (PR 30, 50f.). The common trait is called the ‘defining characteristic’ of the society. For example, what we usually call ‘an electron’ really is a society of occasions, each of which is a distinct subjective process of becoming, flickeringly brief in duration; each inherits some characteristic forms (which we call ‘electronic’) from a predecessor and mediates them to a successor. Taken together, any such nexus of occasions composing a society stretching through time is an enduring object’ (PR 51f.); so a ‘molecule’ also is an enduring object -- but it is composed of more-complex ‘molecular’ occasions in a temporally-ordered society which also contains sub-societies of atoms. Ordinary objects of our experience, such as rocks and tables, are composed of many strands of enduring objects; and the story of planetary evolution focuses on the careers of incredibly complex organisms which may be analyzed into societies with sub-societies of many kinds. But even the most complex order of life can be analyzed ultimately into the relationships among short-lived occasions with subjective aims. The reasons for things, Whitehead insists, always lie in actual entities (PR 28); and since all these are invisible to our eyes, it is no wonder that we often speak confusedly!

Nearly everyone agrees that a moment of ‘human’ experience is richer, more intense, more laden with intrinsic value than a moment of ‘electronic’ experience. Also we believe that this complex human experience has evolved gradually from some such simpler kinds of entities. But how? Here is one great ‘problem’ faced by nature, which has its solution in the events which Dobzhansky and Thorpe call ‘evolutionary emergences.’ But for Whitehead, nature’s ‘problem’ can be solved only if two mutually-dependent kinds of emergences are occurring: (a) more complex societies of occasions must emerge if there is to be (b) the emergence of higher-grade individual occasions which then are the final loci of actuality and value. As Birch suggests (above, p. 15), this view of ‘emergence’ does not in Whitehead’s view allow us to suggest that new explanatory categories (such as ‘subjectivity’ or mentality’) emerge partway along the evolutionary way; but Dobzhansky’s belief that evolution is "emergence of new patterns" (above p. 21) certainly can be accepted as a statement about new kinds of societies of societies, and new grades of actual entities within these societies.

Yet ‘emergence’ alone is not enough. No matter how complex the actual entities in a society, the society only ‘counts’ in evolution if it has a method of surviving. Whitehead saw two ways in which nature has solved this ‘problem’ of ‘survival’:

1. Material bodies, such as rocks and stars, are composed of societies which persist because their occasions are dominated by massive, average feelings of their environments. In turn, this reflects the fact that the subjective aims of such entities are confined ordinarily very closely to what Whitehead calls ‘physical purposes’ (PR 280, 406 ff.) -- that is, aims merely to repeat in themselves and pass on the physical characteristics of their immediate surroundings. Mentality in these entities is real, but it operates at a trivial level, serving only to eliminate any novel possibilities which may have entered into their predecessors and to suppress any fresh novelty within themselves beyond that which may account for the vibratory phenomena of these basic societies. Such societies are what we call ‘inorganic,’ and we correctly recognize them as being dominated by the patterns of physical feeling which stimulate our sense organs and scientific instruments.

Now, it is basic to Whitehead’s vision that each occasion is first a subject whose process of becoming is absolutely private; only afterwards is it an object which can have an effect on subsequent subjects. I stress: nothing is simultaneously a subject for itself and an object for other subjects. Because the subjective immediacy of every occasion is quite private, there is no way for scientific research to peer in and ‘verify’ the reality of subjectivity in the world. (Anyone who says, "Show me a subject with purposes and then I’ll believe in it!" is only muddled -- what he means is, "The only kind of ‘subject’ I’m willing to believe in is one which really is an ‘object.’" And one of the clearest examples of ‘not knowing what we’re talking about’ is to say that ‘subjects’ are ‘objects’!) Nevertheless, no real problems are posed to the quest for scientific understanding by the fact that we cannot get ‘inside’ the subjectivity of an occasion in a rock or a star with our research instruments. This is because the subjective aim of such an occasion is so nearly limited to repeating the physical patterns which we can detect; in other words, if we pay attention only to the physical characteristics of these enduring objects, we are not missing anything very significant. Only when we are considering much more complex occasions, e.g., moments of human experience, are there significant aspects of aim and mentality which elude our instruments (see below).

The high-grade organisms we study in biological evolution contain many subordinate enduring objects; molecules and cells, for example, comprise the environment for atoms and electrons in our bodies. Since every occasion somehow is influenced by its environment, a sodium atom within a living body is different from one outside it, say, in a salt mine. Yet the atom in the living body is just as ‘law-abiding,’ just as dominated by ‘physical purposes, as one we might study outside the body in a crystal. Sodium atoms are just as much ‘conformists’ inside the body as outside it, but the pattern of physical feeling to which they conform is different in the body. So, if we are able to discover statistical laws describing the average behavior of such tiny enduring objects in salt mines, we should expect to find analogous laws which describe the slightly-different behavior of their ‘cousins’ in livers and brains. Also, in speaking of the differences, we can avoid cumbersome notions such as ‘emergent properties of sodium’ merely by recalling that the occasions of sodium which conform to one pattern of physical feeling in a salt mine are not the same occasions which later (after the salt has been eaten) conform to a somewhat different pattern of physical feeling in a human brain.

2. The second way for societies of occasions to survive is by changing their defining characteristics, done by admitting novelty in the form of conceptual feeling. As Whitehead puts it, the world advances into novelty along a road paved with ‘propositions’ (PR 284). This advance occurs wherever the mentality of an occasion entertains a possibility of that occasion’s becoming something more than it would become by merely conforming to past matter-of-fact. The decision to synthesize some novelty with inherited physical feeling is directed by subjective aim. For this to succeed, of course, the ‘something more’ must be a quality of newness which can be introduced without destroying the already-existing characteristics of the society. Also, in low-grade living societies this purposive adaptation occurs quite without any consciousness; all that is required is that an occasion be able to incorporate some alternative for itself beyond what is supplied by physical feelings of its past. But it is this subjective aim to incorporate novelty which lies behind all purposive adaptation to the environment.

Societies in which this method of ‘survival’ is important are what Whitehead calls ‘living societies’ (PR 156). In this sense, then, ‘life’ is the escape from physical routine. But why has such an important factor in evolution always eluded the grasp of those most anxious to demonstrate its reality? Here we can recall that all subjectivity is private. But we can point also to Whitehead’s judgment that ‘life’ is a characteristic of ‘empty space’ (PR 161). Of course he does not mean to discover life we must take a voyage in a rocket ship! Rather, he uses the term ‘empty space’ to designate a state of affairs which we do recognize most easily in the apparent void beyond Earth’s atmosphere, but which occurs also within animal organisms. We have seen that inorganic societies, such as rock molecules, endure through time by repeating endlessly their patterns of physical feeling, and that it is just this endurance through time of a definite pattern of physical feeling which ‘catches our eye.’ Thus interstellar ‘empty space’ is ‘empty’ for us because it is deficient in such enduring objects. Now, the occasions which cause us to call a society ‘living’ are characterized by a certain freedom from domination by the physical past, and just to the extent that they are characterized by novelty they too become unlikely candidates to ‘register’ on our sense organs. From the perspective of those sense organs, then, these occasions occur in the ‘empty space’ of cells. A scientist studying a living cell can hope to detect its atoms and molecules, which are strands of physical inheritance, but the ‘life’ of the cell will elude his gaze. He can only infer the presence of occasions which account for ‘life’ by noticing the slight but definite ways they modify the typical patterns of physical feeling displayed by the enduring objects which he can perceive. For example, we may infer the presence of living societies in cells when we find that certain chemical reactions occur there but not elsewhere.

This account of ‘life’ as a characteristic of cells means that in the human organism there are billions of centers of life, not one. Since we cannot identify ‘life’ with ‘self,’ how then should we speak of that center of bodily experience which we call the ‘soul’ or ‘personality’? For Whitehead, the ‘soul’ is composed of a series of ‘presiding’ or ‘dominant’ occasions in our bodies; he supposes that these ‘dominant occasions’ occur in or about the brain so as to receive from the brain a peculiarly-focussed ‘report’ of bodily experience, not available to any other occasion. But the human ‘soul’ is only the most complex example of what Whitehead calls a ‘living nexus,’ and we should note two general characteristics of all such nexus.2 First, the continued existence of any ‘living nexus’ seems to depend upon the support of inorganic societies; this helps us understand why living organisms require food and why a ‘soul’ is always somehow embodied.3 Second, each occasion in a ‘living nexus’ introduces some novelty through its mental pole. Now, Whitehead supposed that even in the lowest forms of life the mentality in any ‘living nexus’ is "canalized into some faint form of mutual conformity" (PR 164), allowing for the emergence of a society whose defining characteristic is mental. Such a society is composed of occasions each of which is able to sum up the mental experience of its predecessors in such a way that any novelty which enters into a new occasion builds upon that which was experienced by earlier occasions. Higher animals all seem to contain at least one such society, called a ‘living person,’ present in the body in addition to the cells and molecules of the central nervous system, even though dependent upon them. The human ‘living person’ or ‘soul’ is what I call ‘myself,’ as known to introspection.

The overall picture, then, is one of ‘life’ on Earth as a movement from mere physical order to mental novelty, and from mental novelty to coordinated inheritance of mental novelty. It is of some interest that Whitehead’s use of the word ‘life’ changed in a way reflecting his interest in this same movement: his earlier discussion of ‘life’ in Process and Reality (PR 156 ff.) stressed the emergence of novelty (so that he spoke of individual ‘living occasions’ as the loci of this emergence in the ‘living societies’), but his later discussion in Adventures of Ideas (AI 266 ff.) focussed more on the coordination of novelty (so that he used the word ‘life’ only to designate a characteristic of a ‘living society’ enduring through time). Either way, we can trace the ‘upward thrust’ of evolution to final causation in nature -- the subjective aims of actual occasions.

The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics

Arguments about the inheritance of acquired characteristics -- what I shall call here ‘Lamarckian inheritance,’ with due apology to Lamarck! -- commonly prove fruitless because someone proposes, in effect, that we try to consider the life of an animal as though it were one of Whitehead’s occasions, with a single subjective aim determining the whole course of its life. A clear example of what happens if we don’t know what we are talking about! So here let us try to sort out carefully the several grades of actual occasions discussed by Whitehead, and the several kinds of aggregations of occasions which seem to occur in nature. There are four discernible grades of actual occasions, listed here in order of increasing complexity (PR 269).

1. There are the very primitive occasions, as in the ‘empty space’ beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

2. There are the occasions in inorganic enduring objects, such as electrons and rock molecules.

3. There are the occasions in living enduring objects (‘living nexus’), enjoying a degree of conceptual novelty

4. There are the occasions in the life histories of ‘living persons’ with conscious knowledge.

Comparing these, we see tremendous differences in actual subjective attainment and complexity of mentality, differences sufficient to account for our conviction that ‘life’ really is very different from the inorganic realm. Between the world of rocks and a world of people, there has been a series of ‘emergences’ -- new forms of actuality have appeared. But, as noted above, we should not suppose that any new abstract categories of explanation have emerged! I stress this mainly because one old error in explaining the evolution of ‘mind’ seems quite persistent: the notion that ‘bodies’ evolved first through purely physical means, and then later ‘minds’ appeared, exhibiting mentality. This really is an effort to explain the vast gulf between inorganic and organic actuality by proposing that ‘subjectivity’ and ‘mentality’ emerged partway through Earth’s history. On the contrary, Whitehead insists that every occasion in this long history is, during its moment of becoming, a subject governed by subjective aim and characterized by both a physical and a mental pole of experience.

In addition to four grades of actual occasions, Whitehead also distinguishes four kinds of aggregations of occasions on Earth:

1. There are the inorganic things which persist for long periods of time.

2. There are the vegetable-grade things, complex ‘democracies of cells’ whose occasions seem to have no aims beyond survival.

3. There are the animal-grade things, where some occasions, at least, seem to enjoy aims for experience richer than necessary for mere survival.

4. There is human life, with its immense powers of novel conceptuality.

Now, if we combine both modes of analysis, we have roughly five kinds of occurrences in nature, shading off into each other:

1. There is the inframolecular activity studied by physics.

2. There is the inorganic realm of molecules.

3. There is cell life with its complex societies.

4. There is vegetable life, with its ‘republic’ of cells.

5. There is animal life, exhibiting in its higher forms some central direction.

The higher organisms which most interest us thus can be analyzed into complexly-related levels of social order. Beginning with the lowest level, there are societies of electrons, and there are the occasions in cellular ‘empty space’ which account for the life of the body. Within the cells and in the body fluids there are societies of atoms and molecules; what we call ‘metabolism’ springs from the delicately-balanced forms of atomic and molecular order at this level. Then there are societies of cells in organs and tissues; some of these societies may be dispersed widely through the body, as in the case of blood cells. Finally, in some animals there is a society of ‘dominant occasions.

To clarify the problem of ‘Lamarckian inheritance,’ we need to ask just how influences may be transmitted among the levels of social order sketched above. The ‘traditional’ (and erroneous) proposal amounts to a claim that influences from either the dominant occasions or some cellular occasions are transmitted to the molecular occasions in sexual cells which are responsible for the succession of organisms between generations -- as though the giraffe’s aim to stretch his neck somehow could cause his DNA molecules to ‘stretch’ too! Now, anyone who claims that doesn’t know ‘what’ he is talking about! But by analyzing a few key notions we may be able to see what he is talking about. Let us take Lamarck’s notion of ‘adaptation to a need imposed by the environment’ and ask how the analysis of actual occasions may help us find its meaning. Whitehead notes that the upward thrust of evolution has produced animals increasingly able to adapt the environment to themselves (FR 4-5), and this suggests that ‘adaptation’ concerns not only an occasion’s mode of responding to a given world but also its mode of altering the world beyond itself. The first sense of ‘adaptation’ springs from subjective aims to increase the intensity of experience so that potentially-destructive feelings from the environment may be absorbed and integrated. (We gain a hint of this in our own experience whenever we are able to ‘contain’ a sharp insult without ‘blowing up.’) In this case, a ‘need imposed by the environment’ is any influence in the actual world of an occasion which threatens to disrupt its achievement. Applying this insight, we can see how to use the time-honored expression ‘natural selection’ in a more adequate way: evolution toward ‘adaptation’ with the environment involves the survival of societies whose occasions aim to incorporate in a richer experience influences which might otherwise be destructive of the society’s defining characteristics.

This reference to societies, and the above reference to ‘altering the world beyond itself,’ can be clarified by noting that the subjective aim of an occasion is never merely for some intensity of experience within itself. Always there is some aim for achievement in its ‘relevant future,’ i.e., in whatever occasions are significantly derived from it. This aim for achievement in another, later occasion(s) is the ground both of altruism and of our sense that the past pays a claim upon us. Therefore, a ‘need imposed by the environment’ will be experienced by an occasion not merely as a ‘threat’ to its own subjective fulfillment but also in terms of its capacity to disrupt the future which that occasion is able to affect by its aims. Probably one of the least complex ‘relevant futures’ is that for a single occasion in an electron; the aims of such an occasion may reach no further than its immediate successor; if so, no one need suppose that an electronic occasion ‘cares’ whether the electron survives as an enduring object. But occasions in higher-grade societies entertain aims for more inclusive futures. For example, the subjective aim of a single occasion within a complex DNA-molecule’s life history as an enduring object might include aims to perpetuate the existence of its own atomic and molecular sub-societies. Even so, a ‘need imposed by the environment’ will be experienced only as a threat to that (very limited!) future -- there is no reason to suppose that in its aim to ‘adapt’ to that ‘need’ the DNA-molecular-occasion is taking into account anything more complex. The amount of conceptual novelty it can introduce is tiny indeed, and the ‘cleverest’ DNA-molecular-occasion in the world is oblivious of the fact that its aims may have an effect on the welfare of the human ‘living person’ who happens to inhabit the same organism!

Let us now consider the subjective aims which may be typical of even more complex occasions. Just as we can speak of ‘electronic’ occasions composing an enduring electron, we can speak of ‘cellular’ occasions composing an enduring cell; and we note that a cell is a complex society of societies. Let us consider, say, a liver-cell-occasion. Such occasions might well entertain aims for the welfare of adjoining cells; but since the liver seems to be a ‘republic’ of cells, we would not expect to find in the liver any occasion which has aims for the future welfare of the entire organ, or for the body beyond the liver. More likely, we are dealing with aims which do not extend much beyond an urge to perpetuate the molecular sub-societies on which the life of the cell and its neighbors depend. At least, this conjecture is in line with our knowledge of the habits of liver cells; they show a remarkable plasticity of response to insult, but this has definite limits. For example, liver-cell-occasions seem unable to absorb into their experience the kind of threat posed by molecular carbon tetrachloride in their environment, and in the presence of carbon tetrachloride the order of the cells is disrupted -- which is very bad news for the human ‘living person’ up above! Likewise, we should not suppose that the liver cells aim to store glycogen in order to benefit the muscles; carbohydrate metabolism in the liver merely expresses the complex ways in which the many sub-societies in those cells are ‘pleased’ to enjoy themselves in their immediate environments. For most purposes, then, we are quite safe in regarding physiological processes as dominated by patterns of physical feeling, and in expecting that research will reveal the ‘machinery’ of living cells to be more complex than we have yet imagined.

At first glance, the previous sentence may seem to contradict our claim that purpose and novelty are basic to evolution. But this is not so. In the first place, every liver cell aims to ‘run its machinery’ the way it does. Second, most cellular activities are examples of long-standing evolutionary ‘success stories’; the novelty required for their appearance has long-since passed over into patterns of efficient causation, and any additional novelty would be principally disruptive. Third -- and most important for understanding the emergence of large-scale evolutionary change -- the amount of novelty introduced by a single cellular occasion is extremely small when compared with the power of its physical inheritance. But if we recall that each subjective occasion quickly becomes an object for its successor’s experience, we can see how a tiny increment of novelty in one occasion may be inherited physically by its successors without any requirement for repeated novelty of mental experience. Later occasions merely inherit these patterns from the past but do not introduce them; final causation quickly passes over into efficient causation, and the net result after millions of years is the unbelievably complicated patterns of efficient causation which we observe. The peach tree blindly produces its seeds, the ovum blindly divides when it is fertilized. Still, none of these patterns evolved through ‘blind mechanism’ -- in every case, they must be traced finally to the cumulative power of subjective aims. Even ‘chance,’ which has been recognized in this century as a very important factor in evolution, merely designates the way in which many patterns of physical causation arise from the uncoordinated aims of many occasions. The inheritance of acquired characteristics of feeling is fundamental to evolution.

In the last few paragraphs I have tried to show that there is ‘Lamarckian inheritance,’ if we see that the term applies to the transition from one occasion to a successor and not to the transition from one animal to another animal generation. Also I have suggested that the aims of low-grade occasions in cells do not ‘trickle up’ to include interest in higher-grade bodily occasions, even though the physical results of those aims may well affect the entire body. But can the aims of higher-grade bodily occasions ‘trickle down’ to the cellular and molecular level? It seems clear enough that my own human aims affect some occasions in my brain cells, and through them, occasions in my arm, as I sit here typing. My aim to strike an ‘e’ -- or even to type a complete word ‘the’ triggers a burst of physical responses in my brain cells, which in turn mediate these ‘amplified’ feelings to adjacent occasions in other brain cells and in neurons. Finally, the fingers move. If I am a skilled typist, the whole sequence of events ending up in the typed word may require introducing novelty only at the outset. But if I am just now learning to type, I am aware of aims to make many mid-course corrections’ in the movements of my fingers. The existing patterns of physical feeling in my brain cells have to be deflected repeatedly by fresh novelty -- now this way, now that way, in a tedious sequence of trial-and-error, before these tiny bodily societies learn the new patterns which enable them to respond to my aims to type. Without these repeated opportunities to gain ‘feedback’ by noting the actual way my fingers are moving, I would be helpless in my effort to discover just which patterns of physical feeling in my brain cells should be deflected by some fresh novelty. But once learned, these new patterns of brain-experience may produce muscular movements even without my consciously intending them -- perhaps the arching of my fingers as I drum them idly on my writing board is a reenacting of the skill first learned at my typewriter, or at the piano. In such ways, then, novelty in a high-grade occasion can ‘trickle down’ to influence lower-grade occasions. But there must be some ‘feedback system’ if high-grade novelty is to be effective in influencing the larger bodily pattern.

Can my aims ‘trickle down’ in this fashion so as to influence such occasions as those in my chromosomes? For example, if I come from a long line of brown-eyed people, can I aim to alter the DNA molecules in my reproductive cells so as to pass on to my son ‘genes for blue-eyedness’? Two facts stand in the way of supposing that such aims can be effective. First, there is no bodily ‘transmission line’ connecting my aims with my chromosomes in the way my central and peripheral nervous systems connect my aims with my muscles. Second, even if there were such a transmission route, my aims to have genes for blue-eyedness are bound to be ineffective because I have no way of getting ‘feedback’ from my chromosomes. In learning to type, successive occasions of my soul probably introduced novel ‘mid-course corrections’ thousands or millions of times; but the only way I can discover the typical condition of DNA in my spermatozoa is by having a child. In short, genetic change is random with regard to any aims of my soul which might ‘trickle down.’

Any ‘trickle-down’ theory assumes that novelty introduced in the mentality of an occasion produces its effects by triggering some pattern of efficient causation. According to Whitehead, however, there is another way in which the mentality of one occasion can produce effects beyond itself. He says that the mental pole of an occasion can take account of the mentality of other occasions spatially removed from it, even though physical effects must be mediated through spatially-contiguous occasions. Thus he proposes a ‘doctrine of immediate objectification’ (PR 469) for the mental poles of occasions, citing as evidence the occurrence of telepathy. In principle, then, it is possible that the mentality of a human personality might immediately affect various bodily sub-societies. Modern psychosomatic medicine has made some progress in analyzing along these lines; for example, it seems quite possible that the emotional tone of my soul may directly alter the patterns of physical feeling in my stomach.4 Still, we should not suppose too quickly that the aims of a human personality have any very effective direct influence on the molecules of body cells, other than those in the brain. First, any direct effect of my aims on cells remote from my soul will be garbled and intermixed with the indirect effects of the same aims as mediated by many routes of physical contact -- the situation is analogous to the problem of understanding a speaker in an echo chamber. Second, the mentality of occasions in my soul is quite unlikely to entertain the sort of simplified possibilities which really would need to be ‘dangled’ before cellular and molecular occasions; surely an aim ‘to have a blue-eyed son’ would overwhelm the tiny creatures in my chromosomes!

We can conclude, then, that ‘Lamarckian inheritance’ does occur as an expression of the ways in which feelings are transmitted from one occasion to the next. But it is quite limited in scope by the available routes of transmission in organisms. The proper interpretation of Lamarckian notions in genetics thus depends fully on knowing ‘what’ we are talking about: all new patterns of efficient causation in animal bodies can be traced to some occasions’ subjective aims. But knowing which occasions, and when in the development of that line of creatures, makes all the difference. We can never know just how ‘the giraffe got his long neck,’ but like everything else in evolution it is the result of subjectivity and purpose.


AI Adventures of Ideas. Macmillan, 1933.

FR The Function of Reason. Princeton University Press, 1929; Beacon, 1958.

PR Process and Reality. Macmillan, 1929.


1 The following sections of this essay contain some ideas and several short quotations from my book Evolution and the Christian Doctrine of Creation (Westminster Press, 1967), Clv IV, "A Whiteheadian Interpretation of Evolutionary Theory."

2 ‘Nexus’ is the plural of ‘nexus.’

3 Whether human souls may be freed of their dependence on bodies is for Whitehead " -- another question" (Al 267).

4 Unfortunately, research has not yet attended carefully to the question of whether my soul may influence your stomach!