Chapter 6: Concluding Editorial 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 6: Concluding Editorial 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.

In Parts One, Two and Three, the topics under consideration were evolution, order, and the theory of panpsychism, respectively. Process thought, and especially that of Whitehead, was taken into account in most of the essays, but some editorial comments were needed to make explicit the relation of the ideas presented to those of Whitehead. Part Four consists of essays specifically dealing with Whitehead’s philosophy in its relation to science. Hence, there is no need here for comparable "Whiteheadian Comments." These concluding editorial comments will, therefore, only note some interrelations between Part Four and the preceding essays, and point to the potential of Whitehead’s thought to renew the discipline of philosophy of nature as a bridge between science and philosophy.

The subject matter discussed more philosophically in these essays extensively overlaps that discussed in Parts One through Three. Overman’s paper contributes directly to the discussion of evolution, focusing on the role of purpose. Whereas for many scientists the category of purpose appears extraneous to their disciplines, for a Whiteheadian its exclusion must appear inappropriate. Leclerc shows (above) that there is no acting without an end that involves mentality, and for Whitehead every event is also an actualization or an acting. Hence what Whitehead calls the ‘subjective aim’ plays a role in all events whatsoever. If so, then the confusion that has resulted from the effort to discern the role of aim or purpose in the evolutionary process must be due to having sought it at the wrong places rather than to its total absence from the process. In his contribution to Part One, Waddington shows that animal choices affect the requirements for survival and thereby the process of genetic selection. Overman supplements this account of selection at the level of phenotypes by concentration on analogous processes on the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder.

The dual focus on animals and on microscopic entities brings to attention again the distinction made by Zucker in Part Two. Reductionism may be countered either by stressing that complex wholes are more than their parts or by showing that the ultimate parts themselves have characteristics of value and subjectivity that are usually denied them. Whitehead is rightly claimed for both of these strategies. In Part Four, Waddington shows Whitehead’s effective influence in the former way, and Overman in the latter. Leclerc does not find in Whitehead an adequate account of the unity and integrity of complex wholes as agents explanatory of natural phenomena, and he calls for going beyond Whitehead in this respect. Griffin, on the other hand, offers an interpretation of Whitehead’s doctrine of societies which shows that Whitehead can be plausibly viewed as having already met this need.

Western languages generally and Western philosophies in particular have developed quite distinct vocabularies for speaking of the objective world of nature and the subjective world of human experience. Whitehead devoted his energy to overcoming this bifurcation of reality and of language. Hartshorne in Part Three describes this duality in terms of physicalism and psychicalism. For physicalism the categories developed for the understanding of the objective world are ultimate; for psychicalism, those of the subjective world are ultimate. Hartshorne argues that finally psychicalism is more satisfactory than physicalism. If the issue is put in this way, Whitehead would probably agree, but he maintained the balance of the two vocabularies more closely and tried to avoid the choice between them.

The essays in Part Four express diverse attitudes to this issue also, although the differences are mainly of emphasis and rhetoric. Leclerc contrasts the earlier view of external relations and of change as fundamentally locomotion with the Whiteheadian interest in internal relations and in change as fundamentally the process of becoming. Waddington sees a continuity between elementary entities and sophisticated human experience that can be expressed in terms of instructions. Plamondon discusses the continuities between events at all levels in terms of the interdependence of organisms and environments. In these ways the concerns expressed by Hartshorne are approached from the side of a more physicalistic language. Overman and Griffin, on the other hand, are comfortable with the subjective connotations of Whitehead’s formulations in Process and Reality, and they use psychical rhetoric without hesitation. This suggests that they are less reluctant than Leclerc and Waddington to read Whitehead’s latest writings as psychicalist, but Griffin has explained in his comments on Part Three the very limited and special sense in which Whitehead can correctly be seen as panpsychist. The hope for Whitehead’s future influence must be that it will become increasingly possible to accept a conceptuality that is neither physicalist nor psychicalist in a traditional sense and that can shape a way of thinking that does not presuppose the bifurcation Whitehead struggles to overcome.

From the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, philosophy and science developed in close connection. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they have become quite separate. The disciplines of cosmology and philosophy of nature have fallen between the stools. Alfred North Whitehead is the major twentieth-century exception to this breakdown of an ancient and fruitful relation. Ivor Leclerc’s recent book, The Nature of Physical Existence, is an effort to renew the philosophy of nature, building on Whitehead and going beyond him. The response indicates that the time may be ripe for such an undertaking. The editors of the present volume hope that it may be an additional impetus to such a discussion among philosophers and among scientists as well as between scientists and philosophers. But they realize that the task is an enormous one, that the established communities of philosophers of science on the one side and of practitioners of the sciences on the other are far apart, and that both find the issues dealt with at this conference remote. Two essays in this concluding Part reach out to these separated communities to suggest points of relevant contact.

The essay of Ann Plamondon is addressed to those who are involved in philosophy of science in the English-speaking world. For them the major questions are about logic and methodology. Plamondon derives from scattered discussions by Whitehead a philosophy of science that can be placed in the center of the dominant discussion as a worthy participant. Perhaps this may help to show the continuity of philosophy of nature with philosophy of science and draw more philosophers into the former discussion.

The essay of C. H. Waddington expresses how a practising biologist has in fact been influenced in the direction of research and the formulation of theory by Whitehead’s philosophy of nature. This provides, through concrete and important illustration, proof of the potential fruitfulness of renewal of intimate relations between science and the philosophy of nature. Waddington believes that scientific thought is ‘just about now beginning to catch up with the first phase of Whitehead’s thought" (above, p. 144). He thinks science will proceed in the general direction Whitehead moved in his later work; but for him, as for all of us, that remains to be seen. The editors believe that the advance of science can be facilitated by an ongoing discussion with Whitehead’s philosophy of nature, and hope that more philosophers and scientists will join in the discussion.