Chapter 4: Some Whiteheadian Comments by David Ray Griffin

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

Chapter 4: Some Whiteheadian Comments by David Ray 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.

The above three authors (ed: Rensch: Arguments for Panpsychistic Identism; Wright: Panpsycism and Science; Hartshorne: Phisics and Psychics: The Place of Mind in Nature) obviously agree on many points. They all agree that our knowledge of our own experience is primary, in comparison with which all scientific knowledge is derivative and inferential, and that no system based on the latter is acceptable if it makes ‘mind’ (used broadly to refer to experience at any level) less real than non-mind. They also agree, in Wright’s words, that "emergence of mind from no mind at all is sheer magic." And, on the basis of these two points, they also agree, in Hartshorne’s words, that " ‘mind’ is not confined to a corner of nature but is everywhere in it, just as behavior is." And on all these points they are at one with Whitehead.

However, they do not agree with each other on every topic. I will point out four topics upon which there are differences among the three men, and upon which one or more of them is in disagreement with Whitehead: (1) The use and meaning of ‘panpsychism’; (2) the mind-brain relation; (3) freedom and determinism; (4) philosophy and science. Hartshorne’s position on the latter three points is close to Whitehead’s, so the statement of his position can be taken as a statement of Whitehead’s. However, in regard to the first issue, a distinction between them must be made.

1. The Use and Meaning of ‘Panpsychism.’ Hartshorne has used the term panpsychism.’ But the term literally suggests that all things have or are psyches, while he (as well as Wright) stresses that only genuine individuals, not aggregates (such as rocks), have or are psyches. For this reason he now prefers the term ‘psychicalism.’

However, Whitehead never uses the term ‘panpsychism,’ and his probable reasons for avoiding it would also apply to ‘psychicalism.’ He uses the term ‘soul’ (the translation of ‘psyche’) only for the series of dominant or presiding occasions in the higher vertebrates. There are hence three differentiating characteristics implied by his use of the term ‘psyche’ which make it inapplicable even to all individuals. A psyche is a series of (1) very high-grade occasions which (2) are the dominant occasions in an organism and (3) are ordered into a personally-ordered society. It is this high-grade society which is termed the soul. Accordingly, if ‘psyche’ is understood as Whitehead uses it, Whitehead is no panpsychist, or even a psychicalist.

However, sometimes the word ‘panpsychism’ is used to mean that all things, or better, all individuals, have minds. Whitehead uses the term ‘mind’ in four ways. Hence, deciding whether he is a ‘panpsychist’ in the sense of attributing mind to all individuals depends upon which of the four meanings of ‘mind’ is in view. In the first place, Whitehead sometimes uses ‘mind’ synonymously with ‘psyche’ (as in speaking of the mind-body relation); hence the considerations in the previous paragraph would apply here also. Second, Whitehead sometimes uses ‘mind’ to refer to a purely mental substance, one which has no essential connection with physical actualities, and as such is not essentially subject to efficient causation. This use of ‘mind’ does not refer to anything in his own system, of course, but is a purely historical usage. It applies to Descartes’ view of the human mind. It applies also to Leibnizian ‘monads,’ since they were not subject to efficient causation from other monads, and had no ‘physical’ properties. Hence, since Whitehead believes every actual entity is subject to efficient causation, he obviously is not a panpsychist in the sense of believing that all individuals are Cartesian minds or mental substances.

Third, some actual occasions have ‘intellectual operations,’ which involve consciousness. Whitehead says:

The complex of such intellectual operations is sometimes termed the ‘mind’ of the actual occasion; and the actual occasion is also termed ‘conscious.’ But the term ‘mind’ conveys the suggestion of independent substance. This is not meant here: a better term is the ‘consciousness’ belonging to the actual occasion (PR 326).

This passage makes clear that Whitehead does not like to use ‘mind’ in this sense, since it suggests a Cartesian substance. But, more importantly, Whitehead does not attribute ‘mind’ in this sense to all genuine individuals, since some, indeed most, actual occasions are blind -- "‘blind’ in the sense that no intellectual operations are involved" (PR 326). Otherwise expressed, most occasions have no consciousness. Hence, in distinction from Wright, Whitehead believes the term ‘consciousness’ should be reserved for a very high-grade and rare form of experience.

However, there is a fourth sense in which Whitehead uses the term ‘mind,’ and in this sense he does attribute it to all actual occasions. Every actual occasion has ‘mentality,’ which for Whitehead simply means that it has an appetitive element, an aim towards the achievement of some value. Whitehead says:

This subjective aim is not primarily intellectual; it is the lure for feeling. This lure for feeling is the germ of mind. Here I am using the term ‘mind’ to mean the complex of mental operations involved in the constitution of an actual entity. Mental operations do not necessarily involve consciousness (PR 130).

As this and other passages indicate, all genuine individuals (actual entities) have ‘mind’ in this sense, although it is a variable which is present only ‘negligibly’ or ‘in germ’ in low-grade individuals.

There is yet another possible meaning to ‘panpsychism.’ It could mean only that all actualities have or are experiences. This is the denial of what Whitehead terms ‘vacuous actuality,’ i.e., actual things which have no inner reality, and hence are not subjects for themselves, but are mere objects for others. Cartesian ‘extended things’ and Hobbesian atoms are examples. Whitehead denies all such vacuous actualities, affirming instead that all actual entities are ‘occasions of experience.’

The conclusion of this discussion is that Whitehead’s position can be legitimately called panpsychism, if this means attributing experience to all genuine individuals, and also if this means attributing ‘mentality’ to all of them (with the proviso that the mentality may be present only in germ.) However, since Whitehead did not use the term ‘panpsychism’ himself, and rejects most of its normal connotations, it is probably more confusing than helpful to use it or any other derivate of ‘psyche’ to describe his position. Insofar as a short-hand term is needed, ‘panexperientialism’ would be better, as long as the ‘pan’ is taken to refer to all genuine individuals. In the ensuing discussion I will sometimes use this term to refer to the position which Wright, Hartshorne, and Rensch hold in common with Whitehead. When ‘panpsychism’ is used, it is used as a synonym for panexperientialism.

2. The Mind-Brain Relation. Whereas all three men are, with Whitehead, panexperientialists, they differ on the whole-part constitution of experiencing things. One aspect of this difference is a difference on the relation between the human mind and the brain. Hartshorne’s position is closest to Whitehead’s, while Rensch’s is most removed.

Rensch distinguishes between protopsychic phenomena, which he attributes to inorganic entities, and real psychic phenomena, which arise out of certain systemic relations among protopsychic entities. The whole which has the real psychic qualities does involve integrations of the protopsychic qualities, but is not thought to involve a new entity in which the psychic qualities are located, and which might be thought to interact with its parts. The relation between ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ is analagous. Psychic qualities of the human type arise out of the systemic relations among the parts of the brain. But the ‘mind’ is not a new entity which emerges which might then interact with the brain. Rather, brain and mind are numerically identical; ‘mind’ is the name for the brain processes as experienced from within.

Hartshorne and Whitehead believe that some ‘wholes’ are indeed aggregates, whose properties are due entirely to the properties of the parts and the relations among them. But they believe there are other types of wholes, in which a new level of actual entity arises out of the systemic relations among the parts. For example, the living cell is not analyzable exhaustively into its inorganic parts (molecules, atoms, etc.). There is also a series of living actual entities, which have a more complex type of experience than do the inorganic entities. The difference from Rensch’s position is subtle: it is agreed that the peculiar experiential qualities of cells are dependent upon the systemic relations among the parts, and it is agreed that the higher-level experiences are integrations of the data provided by these parts. The difference is that a higher-level ‘stream of experiences,’ as fully actual as the lower level ones, is thought to emerge out of the systemic relations. And this higher-level series of experiences is thought to have its own causal efficacy, which can influence the enduring parts upon which it is dependent.

The relation between the mind and the brain is understood analogously. The brain is composed of myriads of cells with complex systemic relations. Each cell has its own experience. ‘Mind’ is a word for that stream of experiences which integrates data (feelings) from the cells into higher-level occasions of experience, some of which attain consciousness. The mind, while not being an ontologically different type of individual than the cells, is numerically distinct from them, and can thus be thought to interact with them. Its integrations of data received from the cells constitute new experiences which provide data (feelings) which can in turn affect the cells.

Rensch is not animated primarily against this kind of interactionism. Most of his arguments against interactionism are directed against a dualistic form of it. He does offer one argument which would apply also against a panexperientialist interactionism. But, as Hartshorne mentions in his "Response" to Rensch’s paper, the latter conceded in conversation that measurement could not be precise enough to press this argument.

3. Freedom and Determinism. The issue of freedom and determinism is the one on which disagreement is strongest. Rensch affirms classic determinism (see Rensch 1971a and 1974, as well as his "Responses" to Plamondon’s and Koestler’s papers). For him, the attribution of ‘mental’ characteristics to entities does not imply attributing self-determination to them. Wright, on the other hand, virtually identifies the two issues, speaking of "the adoption of dual-aspect panpsychism in place of determinism." This accords with Whitehead’s view, for whom the ‘mental pole’ of an entity is that entity’s self-determining operations. As stated above, Whitehead attributes ‘mentality’ in this sense even to the lowest-grade individuals.

However, the dramatic difference from Rensch’s determinism results only when this attribution is combined with the different view on whole-part relations discussed above. Whitehead believes that the mental pole of low-grade entities is negligible. Furthermore, whatever iota of freedom there is in low-grade individuals is cancelled out in aggregates in which there are large numbers of individuals without any higher-grade individual to coordinate their spontaneities. Hence, a significant degree of freedom emerges only because of the emergence of higher-level actualities with non-negligible self-determination. The behavior of macroscopic entities, such as human beings, is free to a significant extent, due to the fact that such a higher-level actuality, the mind, has a significant degree of causal efficacy back upon the body. Whitehead expresses terminologically the significant degree to which the mind controls the body by referring to moments in the stream of human experience as ‘dominant’ occasions of experience. Wright’s paper, and Hartshorne’s even more clearly, reflect Whitehead’s position on this issue.

4. Philosophy and Science. If a scientist held a panexperientialist philosophy of nature, rather than a materialistic view, should this have any implications for his work as a scientist, e.g., in methodology, in the interpretation of results, or at least in the choice of projects? Rensch’s version of panpsychism would not seem to have any such implications, and his paper does not discuss this issue. Hence, I will limit this discussion to a contrast of Wright’s position with that of Hartshorne and Whitehead.

Wright mentions that a scientist’s panpsychist beliefs might suggest certain research topics to him. But otherwise he believes that one’s scientific work should be kept separate from one’s philosophy of science. In particular, one’s view that all individuals have a subjective side, and exercise free choice, must not be allowed to influence one’s scientific procedure or interpretation. One must presuppose determinism (even though science itself has now revealed it to be only statistical), and all ‘subjective’ terms must be excluded from attempts at precise scientific formulations.

Hartshorne agrees that the advantages of panexperientialism are primarily philosophical, in helping one achieve a unified view of reality in which the results of science are coordinated with aesthetic, ethical, and religious values. However, he also believes it can be helpful to science as such. Although he suspects that the nature of this help is largely for the future to disclose, he does suggest some presently recognizable advantages of thinking of all individuals as having subjective or experiential qualities.

The difference between the two men here rests upon a different understanding of science. Wright holds that it deals not with things in themselves, but with the contents of the minds of normal observers, and in fact only those contents which are verifiable by other persons. Hence, all subjective aspects must be excluded -- even though as a panpsychist one believes the subjective to be the primary reality. As a scientist, one does not use one’s own immediately known psychic characteristics to interpret other beings. Hartshorne does not believe that science is limited to a purely behavioristic viewpoint. The scientist qua scientist could use subjective notions such as memory, feeling, anticipation, and purpose to explain the behavior of individuals.

This difference is in turn based upon a more basic difference. Hartshorne believes that the scientist should be trying to explain the behavior of the various phenomena studied. In his list of advantages he refers primarily to the possibilities ‘psychicalism’ gives for understanding causality (both efficient and final), and hence for explaining why things behave as they do. Wright believes that the task of science is simply to describe, not to explain. Hence, while he agrees with Hartshorne that explanation requires subjective notions, he does not see a need to introduce such notions into science.

Hartshorne is here in fundamental agreement with Whitehead. The latter does in places say that science’s methodological exclusion of all subjective characteristics, such as feeling and final causation, is justifiable, as long as it is recognized as a method that deals with only part of the evidence (MT 154-156; FR II). However, he also suggests that the categories used by science in the past four centuries are not irreformable, and that these categories have now become too narrow for science itself. He believes that this is true in physics as well as in the biological sciences (SMW 97, 121-122). In particular, he believes that the fact that the human mind is now considered a genuine part of nature, thanks to the theory of evolution and the science of physiology, means that the categories needed to describe it should be generalized to other natural unities. And he believes that this expansion is needed if science is to fulfill its original motivating drive, which is to find explanatory descriptions of the facts of reality. In his view, without the drive to find satisfactory explanations, the scientific mentality would never have developed (Al 161-164; MT 148-149).


AI Adventures of Ideas. Macmillan, 1933.

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

MT Modes of Thought. Free Press, 1966.

PR Process and Reality. Macmillan, 1929.

SMW Science and the Modern World. Macmillan, 1926.