Chapter 6: Some Whiteheadian Comments by John Cobb, and Response by W. H. Thorpe

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

Chapter 6: Some Whiteheadian Comments by John Cobb, and Response by W. H. Thorpe

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.

W. H. Thorpe is Director of the Sub-Department of Animal Behavior, Department of Zoology, at the University of Cambridge.

Thorpe raises the question whether process thought can illumine the mystery of life and consciousness as evolutionary emergents. Dobzhansky stresses that with human self-consciousness we are dealing with something that is radically new. Both oppose the reductionistic interpretation of these emergent novelties as merely unfolding of pregiven necessities. Both encourage us to view what has happened with wonder.

Birch, without opposing the sense of wonder, holds that evolutionary development must be seen as embodying a fundamental continuity. This means that what is manifest in higher stages must be continuous with what is present at earlier stages. This does not mean that something very like self-conscious human purpose is to be found in amoebae, but it does mean that there must be some continuity between an amoeba’s response to its environment and the response of higher organisms (including human ones) to theirs. Waddington shows how his revisions of Neo-Darwinian Theory clarify the nature of this continuity by focusing on the interactive relating of phenotype and environment.

Both positions reject mechanism or reductionism as an ultimate truth. Both affirm emergence. One stresses the radical mystery of particular emergents. Birch’s Whiteheadian view stresses the continuity underlying all emergence. The difference in emphasis need not amount to systematic opposition, but it can easily be hardened into it. This hardening occurs to the extent that particular gaps, such as that between self-conscious human experience and that of animals, is asserted to be fundamentally different from all the other gaps to be found in reality. Such judgments seem to demand an ontological dualism of the human and the natural that is incompatible with Whiteheadian process philosophy. Short of this extreme, as the gap is seen as one gap among others, in a process of emergence, the extent and importance of the gap is a matter of factual investigation. That is, as long as ontological dualism is avoided, the extent of the difference between human activity, subjectivity, and purpose and those of other animals is a subject for detailed investigation to which process philosophy is entirely open.

If those who fear the stress on continuity wish to make a case against it, they need to define more precisely where that gap occurs which they regard as inexplicable in terms of continuities. Thorpe’s paper is instructive in this regard in that it repeatedly witnesses to the variety of places where significant emergence is found. Although he stresses gaps, and focuses on two, he also testifies to continuities and refers to many gaps. In this respect his paper is highly congenial to the process perspective.

If process thought is to help, it must clarify both what the continuities are and what novelties are introduced through emergence. Whitehead’s suggestion is that all entities whatsoever are understood better as organisms interacting with their environments (composed of other organisms) than as self-enclosed entities passively shaped by external forces. All organisms both take account of their environments and act upon their environments. The taking account involves an element of receptive subjectivity. The action involves aim at some immediate attainment and at altering the situation in some way. Hence subjectivity and purpose in rudimentary and unconscious forms are characteristics of nature generally. The evolutionary process is one in which new forms of order make possible more complex organisms in which both receptivity and action are enlarged in scope.

Whitehead’s theory of consciousness illustrates the way in which he conceives of fundamental emergents, or threshold crossings, in a process that also has a basic continuity. As Birch notes, what is required physiologically for consciousness to emerge is a specialization of cells leading to a central nervous system with sense organs oriented to messages from the external world. Whitehead adds that what this form of bodily organization makes possible is the concentration of complex and novel information in one portion of the body, namely, within the brain. Where complex features of the environment are thus internalized and these internalizations are brought into intense interactions, a series of events becomes possible that integrates selected aspects of this material at a new level. These events Whitehead calls ‘the final percipient occasions’ or ‘the dominant occasions.’ It is these occasions of which we have immediate knowledge; or more accurately, the experiences we speak of as ours (both conscious and unconscious) are these occasions. The basic structure that makes these dominant occasions possible emerged with the development of the central nervous system in animals, and where this structure is present, it is reasonable, as Thorpe does, to posit consciousness as present to some degree.

Consciousness is an aspect of feelings belonging to the dominant occasions in animals with nervous systems of some order of complexity. In all probability consciousness is lacking to all other feelings. Philosophical explanation calls for a more precise statement of the feature of feeling that allows for the emergence of consciousness. Whitehead’s answer to this question is technically developed in terms of ‘propositional feelings’ and ‘intellectual feelings.’ I shall offer a non-technical account that may prove suggestive.

Whitehead believes that consciousness is a feature of feelings which contrast what is felt with what might have been felt. We are not conscious of feelings that are constant unless by an unusual imaginative leap we are able to consider the possibility of their absence. This is why metaphysics is so difficult. It consists in an account of what is always and everywhere necessarily occurrent, whereas all our ordinary attention is directed to what differentiates one situation from another. Similarly, if our visual experience were completely homogeneous in terms of color, we would not be conscious of that color. As it is, if we were on some occasion exposed only to a particular shade of red, we would still be conscious of it, because we would compare what we saw with other colors we had seen in the past. Whitehead thinks that even low grades of conscious feeling require this contrast of what is felt with what is not felt, or better, of what is with what might be.

The note of possibility is thus indispensable to consciousness. Only subjects capable of bringing contrasting possibilities of some sort to bear upon present perception are conscious. That requires that there be not only a concentration of information of the sort the nervous system offers in the brain but also memory. The qualities given in past experience must be contrasted with those given in the present. The introduction of memory brings us one step further into the analysis, but we will have to back up a bit to grasp what is distinctive of memory.

The ordinary way in which nature achieves order through time is by means of repetition or re-enactment. The characteristics of one event are inherited by its successor which in turn transmits them very little changed. A route of such occasions is in Whitehead’s language an ‘enduring object,’ and the ordinary physical objects of the world are built up of such enduring objects. These provide for order and predictability, but the occasions in non-living enduring objects cannot achieve much value or intensity. They have to trivialize almost all of the potential offered by the past in order to maintain intact one route of dominant inheritance.

There are, however, occasions that, instead of almost totally repeating past characteristics, achieve significant novelty. They respond to their data in such a way that they can incorporate more complex elements and still achieve the unity needed for actuality of any sort. These are living occasions. The novelty they incorporate provides for this inclusion of more variegated elements, but it also tends to disrupt the continuities and orderliness that are equally needed for further achievements.

In the dominant occasions, Whitehead believes, novelty and order reach a new synthesis. For, they are living occasions and yet they can be ordered to a greater or lesser degree into enduring objects. Hence, each of these occasions receives data not only from the events transpiring outside the body through the nervous system but also from preceding dominant occasions. A succession of these occasions emerges with a definite pattern of relatedness. However, unlike ordinary enduring objects the succession is not primarily a matter of repetition of qualities in one occasion after another through long stretches of time. Instead, the successor also remembers or prehends what was novel and creative in its predecessor, and what is novel and creative in its own feelings is transmitted to its successor.

It seems likely that only occasions of considerable complexity and vitality could profit from the novelties in their antecedents in this way. Once this becomes possible then a rich storehouse of memories is available to bring into comparison with present perceptions. (E.g., the scent of a predator is noticed by its contrast with preceding olfactory experience in which that scent was lacking. The animal is conscious of the new scent.) The point being stressed here is that conscious experience is a radically new emergent in the evolutionary process, and required and still requires an extremely complex, even awe-inspiring set of conditions; and yet it emerged and still emerges out of entities which are not totally different in kind. Lower grade events or ‘occasions’ constituting the life of a cell illustrate the same characteristics as conscious events or occasions, but in a radically lesser degree.

This account of the physiological-psychological grounds of consciousness deals only with one of the many astounding stages of evolutionary development. Beyond it is the human self-consciousness to which Dobzhansky especially calls our attention. But, in Whiteheadian perspective, the explanatory description of each stage prepares the way for the understanding of the subsequent stage without in any way showing that the subsequent stage is necessitated by its antecedents. The wonder remains, but the novel emergence at each level is seen as made possible by and as continuous with the many earlier stages of emergence. (For a speculative account of a variety of emergent stages in human pre-history and history among which the rise of modern self-consciousness is one, see my The Structure of Christian Existence, Westminster Press, 1967.)

One of the great gaps often noted between the human species and other animals is that human purpose is a factor in shaping events on the planet, whereas pre-human evolution is interpreted without reference to purpose. This seems to justify a dualism that is antithetical to process thought. The duality can be somewhat reduced by considering how blind are many of the processes that shape human history, but it is not the intention of process philosophy to deny human purposes an important role. The question is instead whether evolutionary theory has been correct in excluding animal purpose altogether from the explanation of biological evolution generally. Is it not rather the case, as Teilhard pointed out, that "what we call evolution develops only in virtue of a certain internal preference for survival?" (Science and Christ, Harper, 1968, p.212.)

Waddington’s paper illustrates how a Whiteheadian vision of organisms interacting with environments takes account of a purposive element throughout the evolutionary process. This is not, of course, a purpose for the process as a whole or even for any long-range goals at all. The ability to act in terms of far-reaching goals appears flickeringly among human beings and, so far as we know, nowhere else. But animals act intelligently in their quest for food and, in doing so, modify their environments. Evolutionary theory needs to take account of the interaction between short-term purposive behavior on the part of animals and the survival value of particular characteristics.

Whitehead in this respect as in others provides a rigorous ontological grounding at the microcosmic level for the macrocosmic phenomena studied by biologists. This will appear more fully in the papers by Griffin and Overman in Part Four. However, it can be noted briefly and less technically here.

In the past, when purpose has been introduced as a category into evolutionary thinking, it has been attributed to animals as complex organisms enduring through time. Even in the understanding of human ethical behavior this kind of view has proved unsatisfactory. To describe any complex event or pattern of behavior as guided by a single purpose is always to abstract radically from the concrete course of events. The novelist more accurately shows us through a detailed account of the succession of occurrences how the result came about in a way that no one had purposed. But this does not mean that purposes were not factors in the events. As attention is focused on more and more limited sub-events, one finds it possible to see why, in just that situation, a person acted as he or she did. The action makes sense, that is, it conforms to the actual felt need of the moment. To explain it is to show how the agent concretely experienced the situation rather than to show what, from a more objective vantage point, the situation actually was. How the agent experienced the situation can be explained causally in terms of antecedent events. But the action is directly determined not by these antecedent events as such but by the aim, in the situation so perceived, to achieve something. Otherwise it is not an action at all.

There are many factors present in the perception of a situation by a human being that cannot be attributed even to the higher animals. Also, a larger part of animal behavior may rightly be interpreted as reflex action. But despite these important differences, the situation is often similar. Animals act in any moment in terms of how they perceive the situation. This perception characterizes the final percipient or dominant occasion. Why they perceive the situation as they do can be explained largely in terms of efficient causes or antecedent events. But the action that responds to that perceived situation is not determined by those conditions but by the purpose or aim to which the perception gives rise. Through the bodily action precipitated by the purposes of the momentary dominant occasions within the organism, the actual situation is changed as well as the perceived situation for subsequent dominant occasions. Thus purposive animal behavior alters the situation to which future animal behavior must be adapted. This also alters, as Waddington shows, the evolutionary selection of phenotypes and, indirectly, the genetic factors that prove most adaptive. Hence, the many purposes of individual events, if not some encompassing purpose, do constitute a factor in evolutionary development.


By W. H. Thorpe

I feel that the comments by Cobb are lucid and helpful. But there are one or two points concerning which it seems needful to argue further here.

The first of these concerns Cobb’s question "whether evolutionary theory has been correct in excluding animal purposes altogether from the explanations of the biological situation generally." To this I would reply that for a long time now many biologists have readily accepted the possibility, if not the virtual certainty, that purposes in the form of the making of choices between alternative situations may indeed have played an important function as canalising in certain directions the selective forces acting on the stock in question.

I myself discussed this in 1951 in the first chapter of my book, Learning and Instinct in Animals, and in a number of writings since. More recently Sir Alister Hardy has put forward such ideas very cogently (1965). Much of Waddington’s writing also impinges very significantly on this topic.

But it seems to me essential to be as precise as possible as to the evidence of purpose.

While the evolutionary biologist might agree that no purpose can be discerned in the physical universe prior to the state at which evolution in the biological sense commenced (that is to say, where entities which are born, reproduce and die and in so doing are subject to natural selection), yet he might argue that evolution by natural selection automatically provides the ‘purpose.’ That is to say, he might argue that natural selection inevitably injects something into the cosmos which appears to us as purpose. In other words, once you have a selective mechanism which ensures that forms which produce more offspring and tend to last longer become more numerous, then you have the directiveness which is characteristic of biological and ultimately of man-made mechanisms. Thus it is meaningless to ask the question: What is a physical system such as a nebula, an atom or a solar system for? On the contrary, it is always meaningful to ask of a mechanism, whether a biological mechanism or a man-made mechanism, "What is this for?" The evolutionary biologist might cite the view of Bertalanffy (1952) that organisms are open systems which display equifinality. By this is meant that organisms are systems which (exchanging materials from the environment) attain a steady state, which is then independent of the initial conditions. "The directiveness which is so characteristic of life processes that it was considered the very essence of life, explicable only in vitalistic terms, is a necessary result of the peculiar system-rate of living organisms, namely that they are open systems." And today, twenty years later, we can be more precise and say that living organisms accumulate, store, and process information. They are thus not merely internally programmed but, having internal self-representation (as in the DNA of the nucleus), are self-programming. (For recent further discussion see Thorpe 1974, Chapter 1.)

From the philosophical point of view, the central problem of ethology is the relation between purposiveness (‘purpose’ here has the usual meaning -- a striving after a future goal retained as some kind of an image or idea) and directiveness. All biologists agree that the behavior of organisms as a whole is directive, in the sense that in the course of evolution some at least of it has been modified by selection so as to lead with greater or less certainty towards states which favour the survival and reproduction of the individual. All machines are also directive in the sense that their parts have been designed or selected so as to behave in a particular way whenever activated by an external source of power. But not even the most elaborate machine, such as a computer, is purposive. So for the ethologist the question is, "How much, if any, of the animal’s behavior is purposive and what is the relation of this behavior to the rest?"

In human perception, as H. H. Price (1932) has shown, the very idea of a material object is dependent upon an element of anticipation. He says, "every perceptual act anticipates its own confirmation by subsequent acts." A. N. Whitehead (1929) considers the act of perception as the establishment by the subject of its causal relation with its own external world at a particular moment. Whitehead argues that every vital event, in fact, involves a process of the type which, when we are distinguishing between mental and material, we describe as mental -- the act of perception. A very strong case is made by W. E. Agar (1943) for the theory that a living organism is essentially something which perceives. Therefore some element of anticipation and memory, in other words, some essential ability to deal with events in time as in space is, by definition, to be expected throughout the world of living things.

All this, so far as it goes, fits in well with modern Whiteheadian conceptions; as I should be the first to agree. But I still feel doubtful as to the general value of Whiteheadian theory as a guide for the research biologist, except insofar as it encourages him to doubt the reliability of Lloyd Morgan’s ‘canon’ as the sole guide to research at the present day. This is, admittedly, a very important matter and my own desire to investigate the ‘higher’ and more complex aspects of animal behaviour, and not to rest content with Lloyd Morgan’s injunction, may well have been due to my early reading of Whitehead. Lloyd Morgan’s insistence on never adopting a complex theory or formulation for a given behaviour when a ‘simpler’ (usually a more ‘mechanical’ or more physiological one) would suffice was a most valuable warning at a time when, following Romanes and other naturalists of the period, strongly anthropocentric attitudes were so absurdly rampant. Nowadays the study of perceptual synthesis, of memory, of ideation, of insightful problem-solving and of the complexities of motivation in animals, has reached a point at which the exact opposite of Morgan’s strategy often seems more promising.

For myself I nevertheless find the discontinuities in nature so great and so obvious that I stick to the dualist position as an essential attitude of mind -- I am, so to speak, a pragmatic dualist. But I can say with certainty that if I ever become a monist it will be a monist of the Whiteheadian type!

I will end by quoting a characteristic remark by a very great zoologist. D’Arcy Thompson, in the introduction to his great work, On Growth and Form, has much to say on this and kindred subjects, which biologists, psychologists and philosophers would do well to read and to re-read. One sentence runs: "Still, all the while like warp and woof, mechanism and teleology are interwoven together, and we must not cleave to the one nor despise the other; for their union is rooted in the very nature of totality."



Agar, W. E. 1943. The Theory of the Living Organism. Melbourne University Press.

Bertalanffy Ludwig von. 1952. Problems of Life. London: Watts; New York: Wiley.

Hardy, Sir Alister. 1965. The Living Stream: Evolution and Man. New York: Harper and Row.

Price, H. H. 1932. Perception. London: Methuen and Company, Ltd.

Thompson, D’Arcy W. 1942. On Growth and Form. Cambridge University Press.

Thorpe, W. H. 1951, 2nd ed. 1963. Learning and Instinct in Animals. London: Methuen; Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Thorpe, W. H. 1974. Animal Nature and Human Nature. New York: Doubleday (Anchor); London: Methuen.

Whitehead, A. N. 1929. Process and Reality. New York: Macmillan.