Chapter 5: Some Whiteheadian Comments by John B. Cobb, Jr.

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

Chapter 5: Some Whiteheadian Comments by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., is Professor of Theology at the School of Theology at Claremont, Avery Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate School, and Director of the Center for Process Studies.

Common to the four essays of Part Two is an opposition to the reductive determinism so often viewed as the appropriate consequence of science. It is appropriate that determinism had its spokesman at the conference in the person of Rensch, and that Rensch defends it again in his comments on Koestler’s paper. This dominant view holds that, when prediction of behavior and thought is not possible, this is because of the complexity of the determining factors rather than because of indeterminacy or freedom.

Zucker describes three strategies for responding to the scientific tendency toward reductive determinism. One of them, that of Carl von Weizsaecker, is to carry through the Kantian program to the end. It will then be seen that scientific axioms are themselves a function of the structures of human thought. Whitehead’s philosophy is incompatible with this program, since he believes that the laws governing our cosmic epoch are contingent, exemplifying only some among the many possibilities investigated by mathematicians. The characteristics of our world are, for Whitehead, in principle to be discovered empirically.

The second strategy is to cultivate the simples appropriate to each order. This strategy assumes that the simples are hierarchically ordered and that the wholes that are the simples of each level are more than the sum of their parts. Koestler’s paper develops a position of this kind with sophistication and appropriate caution. Holons function as the simples at each level of analysis; but he recognizes that these are subject to analysis in terms of other holons. Hence reductionism is not overcome by a hierarchical ordering of holons as such. Even the fact that at the lower end the holons dissolve "in the indeterminacy of the Janus-faced electron" (above, p. 65) does not overcome the threat of reductionism to human freedom; for Koestler knows that the "indeterminacy of the micro-level cannot be transferred. . . . to the macro-level" (above, p. 60). The question is instead whether at the higher levels the agent of thought or action can itself be a part (perhaps a holon) into which the event is analyzed. If the self that acts or thinks were a part of what is experienced, then Koestler believes we could not affirm human freedom. But because the self that objectifies itself is never itself finally objectified, human freedom is real.

From a Whiteheadian point of view the transcendence by the agent of its participant holons is indeed essential to freedom, but it is understood in a way that is not dependent on the peculiarity of high-grade human experience. As Capek shows, determinism, and with it reductionism generally, has followed from the spatialization of time, a spatialization still too readily applied in our sciences. Once that is wholly uprooted from our thought and time is recognized as primary, the threat to freedom is greatly weakened. The holons now appear as the effects of the past in the new agent-event, but this new agent-event transcends the holons as the present always transcends the past. The event cannot be an object for itself, since to be object is to be past, whereas the present is always subjectively immediate. In its subjective immediacy every agent-event or experience constitutes itself in relation to its holons, objects, or past. In a world of process, determination by the past is never complete.

Hartshorne points out another factor in this alternative to reductionism which also strengthens Koestler’s basic case. For him, as for Whitehead, there is an important distinction between wholes, such as animals, that give rise to and include a new order of entity, such as the animal’s individual experience, and other organic wholes, such as vegetables, in which this does not occur. Where no new or higher-order individual entity appears, the freedom of the whole is still to be found only in its individual parts, although this may be enhanced by their participation in the whole. Where a higher-order entity does emerge, radically new dimensions of freedom may also occur.

In Zucker’s third strategy to counter reductionism, attention is directed to the nature of the individuals which science studies. If these individuals can be understood as wholes that have properties quite other than those traditionally assigned them by reductive determinism, then the meaning of reduction is profoundly altered. Whitehead contributed to this counter-strategy as well as to the preceding one.

In his early writing, Whitehead defined nature in terms of the public sphere, that which is given to the knower through sense experience. Thus nature was the external aspect of events. Beginning with Science and the Modern World, Whitehead concluded that science itself requires that the knower be included in nature, and he supplemented his earlier treatment of events with a discussion of their internal aspect. Process and Reality provides an elaborate treatment of the internal development of events as perceptual processes, and it can be read as an account of how the outwardly perceived is related to the inner perception. Each ‘microscopic process’ of the becoming of an individual entity or event is a particular internalization of the entire ‘macroscopic process,’ which is the whole actual world as it gives birth to that event. One purpose of this conference was to discover whether thinking of this sort is relevant to biological theory on such subjects as evolution.

Bohm’s paper indicates that, whether or not biologists are ready to take account of internality in their theoretical formulations, there is at least one physicist who sees this as the way ahead in quantum theory. His idea of an enfolded or implicate order is correlative with Whitehead’s notion of microscopic process as internalizing the macroscopic one. Enfolded into each entity is the order of the public world, so that the order of natural entities is not, as generally supposed, only or primarily the pattern of external (spatio-temporal) relations among events, but also the internal order within the individual entity.

Bohm’s vision is remarkably congruent with that of Whitehead. They share in criticizing ‘simple location.’ What is in one respect localized is in another respect "enfolded throughout the whole of space (and time)" (above, p. 40). For both thinkers the physical is characterized by dominant inheritance from the past, the mental by appropriation of the new (above, p. 41). Still, there are significant differences. Bohm interprets the implications of his theory as close to that of Spinoza (above, p. 41), whereas Whitehead consciously differentiated himself from Spinozistic monism. For Whitehead each entity or momentary event is a holomovement enfolding in some measure, however trivial, its entire given universe, but the universe in its entirety is made up of innumerable past individual holomovements. They resemble one another through their enfolding of much the same universe of events, but they differ because no two have identical perspectives. Bohm, after developing the notions of implicate order and holomovement in relation to particular entities or events, attributes this order to the universe as a whole rather than to its individual parts. What Bohm calls ‘the implicate depths of the holomovement’ corresponds with what Whitehead calls the ‘primordial nature of God.’ But for Whitehead this principle of novelty and concretion by itself is abstract and does not include or subordinate to itself the events of nature to which it provides ordered novelty and novel order. Thus Whitehead is pluralistic where Bohm tends toward monism in his stress on the underlying unity.

Zucker’s proposals for mathematical formulations of the implicate order indicate that the basic concept is open to a Whiteheadian pluralistic and realistic interpretation. He shows also the concrete steps in mathematical physics that will be required if the potential of Bohm’s vision is to be actualized and is eventually to inform biology.

From a Whiteheadian perspective, Bohm’s emphasis on an implicate order oriented to quantum theory needs supplementation by Capek’s emphasis on the primacy of time oriented to relativity theory. Perhaps the implicate order of quantum physics can be understood more relativistically and perhaps relativity theory can be reformulated in terms of quanta. If so, theoretical physics may break out of its present impasse. Whitehead’s philosophy of nature may hold the potentiality of assisting science in achieving this unification of quantum and relativity theory.

Bohm notes that we also need "a development that is capable of making full contact with modem science, and yet opens up a way to assimilate common experience and general philosophical reflection on this experience, to give a single, whole, unfragmented world view" (above, p. 42). One of Whitehead’s great appeals has been that his union of the objective and subjective worlds overcomes in principle the dualism of fact and value and of natural science and the humanities. Perhaps the developments required in quantum and relativity theory to bring them into unity with each other will also lead to a mode of thinking that will unify science with the other dimensions of human thought and experience. Perhaps Whitehead can help to nurture this process as well.