Chapter 9: The Place of the Brain in an Ocean of Feelings by George Wolf

Existence and Actuality: Conversations with Charles Hartshorne
by John B. Cobb, Jr. and Franklin I. Gamwell (eds.)

Chapter 9: The Place of the Brain in an Ocean of Feelings by George Wolf

George Wolf was research professor in the department of Psychology at New York University, New York City, upon his death in 1983.

Some months ago, in the midst of working on this paper, I happened to run across Charles Hartshorne at a symposium. I asked him what had led him to write the Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation (PPS), his first book and the impetus for this paper. He answered by telling me a little story about how one day, as a young man, he stood on a cliff on the coast of France and beheld a scene of great natural beauty. Suddenly he saw "into the life of things" and at that moment gained a sense of all of nature being alive and expressing feelings. Hartshorne spent the next two decades trying to make sense of what he saw that day.

The book appeared in 1934. It presents a theory of experience -- the "doctrine of affective continuity" -- which tries to unite philosophic ideas and scientific knowledge about sensation. The theory proposes that each sensory quality, such as yellowness, or the taste of an apple, or the buzz of a bee, is composed of a particular combination of basic dimensions of feeling -- for example, intensity, pleasantness, proximity to self, and activity-passivity. Therefore, according to this theory, sensations differ in degree and not in kind. Hartshorne suggests that the theory is relevant to science in three ways. First, it accounts for the diverse qualities of experience in terms of a single idea -- all qualities are forms of feeling. Second, it is supported by experimental data in sensory psychology. Third, it has empirical implications that suggest new lines of experimentation.

The theory of affective continuity never received much attention from the scientific community. It was too phenomenological, speculative, and general to arouse scientific interest in an era dominated by behaviorism and positivism. But there are recent indications that the Zeitgeist may be changing, especially in the neural and behavioral sciences. Researchers like John Eccles and Roger Sperry are addressing the philosophical problems of mind and brain, and there is an increasing interest in theories of mental functions. This seems like a good time to revive Hartshorne’s pioneering endeavor to unite process cosmology and scientific research and see if we can advance it in the light of modern neurobehavioral research. I will try to begin this here.

I also have had experiences like Hartshorne’s that set me to wondering how we perceive the world and led me to both process thought and science. But whereas Hartshorne approached the problems of spanning these two modes of thought from a background in philosophy, I come to them from a background in science. I am interested in the consequences of adopting a framework of process cosmology for research in the neural and behavioral sciences. In this paper I will try to show that the world view of process cosmology is reasonable from the standpoint of ordinary mechanistic, reductionistic science. I will also discuss how process cosmology can enhance science by suggesting new interpretations of facts and raising new questions for research. In the first part of the paper I will evaluate the reasonableness of two central concepts of process cosmology -- concrescence and self-creation. In the second part I will discuss the usefulness of a process framework for scientific explanation and inquiry.1


Of Concrescence

I stand on a high knoll in an apple orchard and look at a panoramic landscape that connects the bright red-and-green apple trees close by with vague, gray mountains in the distance. I’m struck by the incredible variety of forms and colors that I take in with a single glance. I find myself wondering, "How does all this fit inside my head?" It must be represented in my brain, bit for bit. And yet it’s not in my brain; it’s out there, big and bright. I can walk out there and touch each thing I see -- it would take days to get to those mountains.2

Process cosmology tries to make sense of this experience by means of the notion of concrescence. It asserts that my experience of the countryside is really out there where it seems to be. I am continuous with the countryside -- it is in my experience. According to the notion of concrescence, objective facts and subjective experiences are not really separate things but are mere abstractions. What is concretely real is the process by which diverse facts are united in an occasion of experience. Finally, concrescence includes not only the facts that I consciously perceive but all the facts that constitute the whole antecedent universe.3

Consider now the compatibility of concrescence with scientific facts and principles. First of all, how can we reconcile the idea that the countryside is contained in my experience with the scientific fact that there are photons and nerve impulses that intervene between the countryside and my experience of it? In fact this is not hard to do. To say that the countryside is contained in the experience does not mean that there is nothing between the two, it means that the countryside is contained within each of the intervening entities in much the same way that it is contained in my experience. Is this, in turn, compatible with scientific notions of causality?

A familiar model of a causal sequence which is often associated with science pictures each event as a link in a chain -- a separate thing distinctly located in space. In contrast, the notion of concrescence pictures each (elementary) event as a cone that opens endlessly into the past to include the whole antecedent universe within it. So a causal sequence is like a stack of time-cones. (To be more accurate, I should say that each cone is stacked on a bundle of innumerable cones because each actual occasion that it prehends is itself a cone.)

The chain model and the time-cone model of a causal sequence appear to be incongruous. But, it turns out that the chain model is, in fact, a less accurate representation of the scientific notion of causality than the time-cone model is. This is because there is a sense in which any particular event is dependent on every event in its causal past. For example, consider a particular event -- say lighting a match. This particular flame involves particular molecules of oxygen. If each of the molecules had not been just where it was, this flame would not have been just the flame it was. Now, if my understanding of statistical mechanics is correct, the chances are infinitesimally small that a given configuration of air molecules in the atmosphere would be just what it was if any configuration in its causal past had been even slightly different. If we Interpret this implication of statistical mechanics to mean that every past event is involved in each present event, then we are coming close to the meaning of concrescence.4

There is another way that concrescence might seem to be incongruent with science but, in fact, is not. If the whole world is involved in every concrescence, then what is the function of the sensory systems? In other words, why did special sense organs evolve if every organism can feel everything in the world anyway? No notion can be considered credible if it is out of line with the "golden thread of biology" -- the theory of natural selection.

We generally assume that primitive organisms are not sensitive to as many different kinds of stimuli as higher organisms are and that the sensory systems evolve to give organisms access to more and more types of stimuli. In the framework of process cosmology this can be interpreted differently. All organisms are sensitive to all possible stimuli right from the start (because all the data of the actual world are involved in every concrescence). But for primitive organisms the sensitivity is not differentiated and for higher organisms it is. The reason why the sensory systems evolve is to enhance the differentiation between stimuli that are relevant for life and those that are not. Each sensory system is like a special channel for a particular type of stimulus. Since there is an upper limit to how many data a finite organism can handle, opening a channel for one stimulus type automatically results in a filtering out or dampening of other types. In this interpretation the notion of concrescence is entirely in accordance with the evolution of the sensory systems.5

Now I want to turn to the meaningfulness of concrescence. Does it make sense? What does it mean to say that the universe is unified in each concrescence? The objective meaning seems fairly clear. Each event is the outcome of its entire causal past, and this can be understood in terms of statistical mechanics. But the subjective meaning is cloudy. I understand to some degree how the perceptible features of the world are unified in my experience. But how is the world beyond this countryside in my experience (not just the world behind the mountains but the imperceptible things between the mountains and me)? Perhaps I experience it unconsciously. But I’m not sure exactly what this means, and I have no good idea of the sense in which the unconscious experience is unified with what I experience consciously. Furthermore my experience of the countryside is supposed to be conveyed through the experiences of the intervening photons and neurons. Now, am I to believe that these entities experience the red apple that I see before me in the same way that I do? If not, then what is the relation between the redness I see and the object that I am looking at? I don’t know of any good answers to these questions. Still, the notion of concrescence does not strike me as so unreasonable when I consider the alternatives. For instance, if photons and neural impulses are really no more than what the textbooks say they are, then I have to believe that this bright, beautiful, panoramic experience miraculously arises out of insentient chemical reactions inside my brain. I wouldn’t accept this alternative for a minute.

Of Self-Creation

As I look over this countryside, I feel that I have some control over what I perceive and what I do with myself. I can look at the apple trees, or I can listen for the sound of bees, or I can sniff the scents of autumn in the breeze. I deliberate about whether to go back before it gets late or stay to watch the sunset. I can decide to be practical and go, or I can yield to my inclinations and carry on a while.

Traditional notions of causality only allow for two ways of accounting for my decisions -- either they are caused or they are uncaused. Insofar as they are caused, they are the inevitable outcomes of antecedent events. Insofar as they are uncaused, they are haphazard. Neither of these alternatives captures what I feel at this moment or accounts for the free agency that my everyday concerns presuppose.

Process cosmology has a different notion of causality -- the notion of self-creation. According to this notion, my impressions and presuppositions about my decisions pretty much reflect what is really going on. Self-creation incorporates both order and freedom in a single process. Also, self-creation is completely general; it is not limited to human decisions but is the basic process of all causality from subatomic events to social interactions. This sounds wonderful, but what is this notion exactly? Does it make sense in itself, and is it compatible with scientific thought?

Since it would take too much space to describe all that is involved in the notion of self-creation, I will focus only on the features that I find most problematic. It will be convenient to begin by considering whether the notion makes sense and then to consider its compatibility with science.

I will consider two problems concerning the sense of the notion. The first has to do with mind-body interaction and the second with temporal sequence. Self-creation is a subjective process that stands between every objective cause and objective effect. Objective causes constitute the data which are brought together by the self-creative act to form a new objective datum (the effect). This general idea is clear enough, but I do not have a clear idea of just how these transformations take place. Exactly how does a physical fact enter experience, and exactly how does experience become a physical fact? To answer this by saying that a physical fact is prehended into experience or that experience becomes a physical fact through concresence does not quite satisfy me. I do not mean to say that these technical terms have no explanatory value; they convey images that make a certain amount of sense to me. But they don’t get to the crux of what I want to know here -- I am still in the dark. Of course, I don’t really expect an entirely satisfactory answer to this question, because I agree with process cosmology that, after all, subject and object are merely abstractions from the concrete unity of the world process. This means that on the one hand no analysis of subject or object alone can be complete, and on the other hand the togetherness of the two in their full concreteness cannot be fully comprehended.

The second conceptual problem involves temporal sequence. In order for a decision to be free of the past but still be based on reasons rather than being merely haphazard, not all of the reasons for the decision can precede the decision in time. According to the notion of self-creation, the final reason for the decision is created by the decision itself. This is the essence of self-creation. But how can a cause follow its effect? The theory of epochal time was formulated to avoid this logical inconsistency. In this theory the act of self-creation takes place within an epoch of time which contains no temporal sequence. Now, it is not at all clear to me how one can conceive of a process of self-creation in which one thing "follows" another unless one thinks of it as a temporal sequence. It seems that the theory of epochal time involves a tradeoff of logical inconsistency for incomprehensibility. One might conclude that the temporal epoch is merely a kind of neat little black box for tucking away the ultimate paradoxes of freedom and causality. On the other hand, one might conclude that it is a better way of framing the problems of freedom and causality because the problems it solves are more significant than the ones it creates.

Let us go on to the question of whether the notion of self-creation conflicts with any scientific principles. It is obvious that self-creation is not compatible with strictly deterministic concepts of natural law. However, it is compatible with predictability of any degree short of perfection in any physical system from atom to man. Therefore it is entirely in accordance with probablistic concepts of natural law, and these are acceptable to many, if not most, scientists today.

On the other hand, self-creation seems to be discordant with the first law of thermodynamics. This is most apparent in the case of human behavior. Insofar as a decision is free, it must be independent of the ongoing flows of physical energy in the brain. But if the decision is not part of the flow, how does it affect that flow to produce a bodily action? Where does the energy come from? I discuss this problem and its theoretical and experimental implications in more detail elsewhere.6 All that needs to be added here is that, although this is a most serious problem, it is not necessarily incurable; after all, the laws of thermodynamics are open to reinterpretation.

Before drawing any conclusions from these analyses, I want to discuss briefly the validity of my criteria and norms of reasonableness. The criteria were (a) clarity, consistency, and completeness of meaning and (b) compatibility with scientific facts and principles. While these are presumably relevant criteria, I am not sure that adequately objective measures of them are possible. Certainly, they were applied rather informally in this study. Norms are also a problem. It is obvious that my norms for reasonableness here have been low compared to norms of ordinary scientific discourse. However, this seems appropriate if one accepts Whitehead’s distinction between speculative and scientific reasoning.7 The concreteness and generality of speculative notions such as self-creation and concrescence preclude the precision of meaning that is possible for abstract scientific notions such as homeostasis or momentum. Nevertheless, one might still judge the present norms as too low for any reasonable domain of discourse.

In view of these considerations, I will speak only for myself. The notions of self-creation and concrescence seem reasonable enough to me. Insofar as these notions embody the basic categories of process cosmology, the system as a whole should pass my test of reasonableness along with the notions. At the same time the problems inherent in these notions are bewildering. However, I believe that metaphysical presuppositions are inevitable in any form of inquiry, so we are stuck with notions like these whether we consider them reasonable or not. The question is whether the present notions are less reasonable than the conventional alternatives. My analysis thus far has convinced me that they are at least par for the course. For example, when I scrutinize, in the same way that I scrutinized the notion of self-creation, modern physical notions of what goes on when one billiard ball strikes another, and when I try to understand my sense of agency in terms of an admixture of physical causes and random happenings, I find myself just as bewildered -- and a little more forlorn.


For Explanation

I’m having a hard time getting myself to leave this lovely place. I muse over what this implies about my sense of agency. Suddenly, a bee interrupts my reveries. As it hovers before my eyes, insisting on itself, I find myself confronted by more limits upon my freedom. My eyes react like an electronic camera. As they focus on the bee, the apple trees I was just looking at dissolve into a blur.

Ordinary science can give a good account of involuntary reactions, such as focusing reflexes. Starting with the entry of the stimulus through the lens of the eye and progressing to the neural reflex mechanisms in the roof of the midbrain, it gives a step-by-step account of how a small moving object in the field of vision can cause a shift in the focus of attention. The account involves simple physical and logical principles such as those governing the focusing of a camera and the operation of a servomechanism in a computer.

For all practical purposes this kind of account is useful, informative, interesting, and complete. Additional information about my feelings and intentions is not relevant here. I am not asking questions about agency because I was not functioning as an agent; my attention seemed to shift itself, and my eyes focused reflexively. Therefore, my curiosity is pretty well satisfied by a purely mechanistic answer to my question.

Is there anything that process cosmology can add to this kind of explanation? It seems to me that as long as we are looking for practical knowledge about how aggregates work, and our criteria of understanding are based on prediction and control, we do not gain much from process thought. The language of science is tailor-made for talking about what aggregates do and how they do it.8 In contrast, the language of process cosmology does not seem very useful for talking about aggregates. The basic concepts of process cosmology are about individuals, and all explanations are in terms of prehensions of individuals. In a sense, process concepts should still be applicable to aggregates because aggregates are supposed to be composed of individuals at some level or another, and mechanistic functions are due to the coordinated acts of these individuals. But how could such an account be of any value to ordinary science?

I do not know how to investigate the prehensions of the constituent individuals involved in mechanical functions. All I can do is infer what the prehensions are from my scientific studies of the mechanistic functions. But then the process account seems superfluous. For instance, once I have determined the physical and chemical mechanisms of muscle contraction, an additional account in terms of subjective aims and physical prehensions that are manifested in the contractions of muscle cells does not add anything of practical value to my understanding. In fact, this additional account seems Incongruous with scientific method, for we are introducing unnecessary entities into our explanation and thus violating the principle of parsimony.

Still, I don’t see any reason to close the doors to further inquiry into the possible benefits of process concepts for scientific explanations. Maybe we will discover radically different ways to envision aggregate functions, ways that involve thinking in terms of populations of individuals acting in concert. I am not suggesting a return to primitive animistic notions but an advance to new forms of animistic explanation through process thought. For instance, Hartshorne has described the functions of aggregates of cells in terms of "waves of mob feeling." I think it is important to let ideas like this stimulate one’s imagination and to try to apply them to a variety of phenomena. Although it does not make much sense now, it is not inconceivable that we might find ways of understanding the operations of ordinary machines like, say, a diesel engine in terms of feelings of pressure, friction, fatigue, and so on in the constituent occasions. It might turn out that animistic interpretations informed by process thought will give us a richer understanding of how both organic and inorganic mechanisms work and lead to unique predictions and new methods of control.

Another door might be opened by the discovery of phenomena that do not fit neatly into the ordinary scientific scheme and can more easily be understood in terms of process concepts. We may be close to this in some areas of brain research. One of the most interesting phenomena that is currently being studied is the emergence of two separate individuals when the connections between the cerebral hemispheres are severed. The concepts of the theory of societies seem to apply particularly well to this phenomenon, and they may provide a better explanation of it than to ordinary scientific concepts. But all this is just conjecture, and the immediate fact is that there is no obvious way of enhancing scientific explanations with process concepts. In the meantime, I think it will be more fruitful to look elsewhere for the immediate value of process cosmology for neurobehavioral research.

For Inquiry

It’s beginning to be dawn on the knoll. I can make out the shapes of leaves and apples against the eastern sky. How do I know what these thing are? How do I prehend the shapes of aggregates? The data of prehensions are the objective features of individuals and nothing else. The shape of a leaf as a whole can’t very well be a feature of the individuals that make up the leaf. It must be that the leaf is part of an overarching individual so that the shape of the leaf is an objective feature of the overarching individual that I prehend. Maybe we are inside a cell. How can we find out?

Process cosmology raises new questions, and I believe that this is where its immediate value for scientific research lies -- it expands the range of inquiry. In the remainder of this paper I want to show how process concepts can give rise to new hypotheses, new areas of experimentation, and new methodologies. To illustrate the scope of the research implications, I will describe several different hypotheses and experiments that range from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Also, I will cover three diverse fields of research in the neural and behavioral sciences, namely, neuroanatomy, psychophysics, and comparative psychology. (See reference in note 6 for additional experiments in neurophysiology.)

I would like to begin by returning to the wealth of ideas for research that are suggested by Hartshorne’s speculations in PPS. For instance, the notion of affective continuity among the senses has implications for neuroanatomical research. Recall that Hartshorne proposes that all sensory qualities are composed of some combination of basic dimensions of feeling. This suggests several hypotheses that can be tested by routine neuroanatomical procedures involving methods of histochemistry and electrophysiology. For instance, according to the theory, particular sensory qualities are innately related to particular emotional qualities, e.g., yellowness is related to gaiety. We know that certain groups of neurons respond to yellow stimuli and certain other groups mediate positive affects. We might expect to find histological or physiological evidence of special connections between these groups of neurons.

There are also implications for comparative neuroanatomical studies. We might look for evidence that the sensory and the emotional-motivational systems of the brain evolved from a common pool of primitive neurons. There is already evidence that discrete sensory pathways have gradually replaced a relatively undifferentiated network of neurons (the reticular system), which initially mediated all sensory input. The primitive neurons of this network, which still function in our brains, typically do not discriminate distinctly among the different sensory modalities. But they seem to be sensitive to common dimensions of feeling, such as intensity and hedonic tone. As one might expect, the emotional-motivational system is still closely connected to these primitive neurons.9

Process concepts also suggest more creative possibilities for neuroanatomical research. For instance, according to the theory of societies, we can envision the structures which we find in the brain as being products of social interactions among individuals. Understood in this way, these structures can serve as clues to the nature of the social organizations and of the individuals that make up the brain. One might look for aesthetic or symbolic forms that are found in human societies or even for familiar artifacts of everyday life. It is not clear where this line of research might take us, and this is part of the adventure here. Let me give an idea of what one might find.

With the aid of modern techniques of microscopy and a little imagination, one can find plenty of evidence of hierarchies of individuals and complex social interactions among and within brain cells. For instance, motion pictures of living brain cells taken through a microscope reveal tiny microglial cells that look like spiders and climb the trunks and branches of neurons cleaning up debris and performing who knows what other functions. At a higher level of magnification you can see inside the neurons where little corpuscles stream down the long axons like traffic down a highway. You can see collisions and traffic jams. At yet higher magnification, a slice through a neuron viewed in an electron microscope looks like a landscape seen from an airplane -- one anatomist calls it the "cytoscape." At the highest magnifications we begin to see things that look like spiral galaxies.

Turning now to the field of psychophysics, let us consider some of the implications of the notion of concrescence here.10 This notion raised a question about the evolution of the sense organs. The answer I proposed suggests that we should be able to receive some kinds of information from our environment in the absence of normal sensory functions. Let me make this more explicit. Recall the idea that each sense organ is like a selective channel for a particular type of data. The data coming through each channel can be thought of as forming a peak of distinctness in our experience. The "landscape’’ of our experience generally has several peaks, one for each sensory modality. But, according to the notion of concrescence, no data are completely excluded from experience, and so, between the peaks of ordinary sensory input should be troughs of vague feeling that seep in diffusely through other routes. These are the primitive modes of knowing the world that are largely walled out in evolution as the selective sensory windows evolve. Let us refer to these modes that fill the gaps between the senses as "intersensory prehensions" and see how one might find evidence for them.

First of all, the kind of information conveyed through intersensory prehensions might well involve ordinary physical energies such as electromagnetic waves. Second, there is little reason to expect intersensory prehensions to be particularly distinct or complex, not necessarily anything like some of the remarkable phenomena studied by ESP researchers. What I would look for first, to test the hypothesis of intersensory prehension, is straightforward, reliable evidence of a vague awareness of presences (a feeling of feelings in the environment) in the absence of normal sensory input. For instance, there have been studies of the ability of blindfolded people to estimate locations of large objects such as a wall nearby. It was found that people were able to use such cues as heat radiation to make estimates. Another phenomenon that is well established is the ability of some people to identify colors by touch. This also seems to be a function of sensing different frequencies of radiation. In gifted people this phenomenon is robust and highly repeatable. The influence of ambient electromagnetic fields on experimental animals is currently being studied by neuroscientists, and it seems that certain frequencies and intensities can affect brain function and behavior.

These lines of research have not been of major interest in sensory psychology, and possibly one reason is that they have not had interesting theoretical implications. However, in the framework of process cosmology these lines of research become much more interesting. One might want to explore the range of intersensory prehensions by determining the types of environmental stimuli that people can detect, the degrees of accuracy that are possible, and the conditions that enhance or impede detection. Furthermore, one can think of specific hypotheses that can easily be tested. For example, hybrid physical prehensions should be intersensory insofar as they involve something other than ordinary sensory stimuli. Therefore, one might predict that people deprived of ordinary sensory input will detect the presence of other people in a room more reliably than they detect the presence of aggregates such as a piece of furniture.

The evolutionary considerations also suggest other hypotheses that are easy to test. For example, if intersensory prehensions are primitive modes of feeling that are suppressed during the course of evolution, then one might predict that lower animals will perform better in detection tasks when deprived of sensory input than will people. Also, insofar as ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, children should perform better than adults.

Finally, let us look at the empirical implications of process cosmology for research in the field of comparative psychology. Hartshorne’s concept of social feeling is especially relevant here because it is a version of prehension that emphasizes the empathic nature of human experience and the commonality of feelings among all species of individuals. This concept led to Hartshorne’s ethological research on bird song. In Born to Sing he presents a novel interpretation of bird song that is based on his empathic impressions of the feelings that birds have when they sing.

There are especially difficult experimental problems involved in testing hypotheses about the experiences of other individuals. I think it is possible to get relevant empirical evidence, but we will probably have to be satisfied with less conclusive results than we get in other fields of research. One reason for doing research in this field is to find out just how much we can learn here. Consider the possibilities for the following method of inquiry.

According to the concept of social feelings, under appropriate conditions people should generally agree in their empathic impressions of a given individual’s feelings, be it a human, a bird, or an atom. If this is true, then we should be able to get reliable indices of the feelings of an individual by using a "behavioral assay" method for feelings. What this would involve is using people’s empathic reactions to an individual as an index of that individual’s feelings. This procedure is analogous to the bioassay method commonly used in biology. Here the presence of substances whose chemical structures are unknown is inferred on the basis of the reactions of living tissues to the substances.11

I have done a little work on developing model behavioral assay procedures for studying the experiences of laboratory rats. Such procedures might be helpful in identifying subtle effects of nutritional, social, or other environmental variables upon an animal’s emotional life. We must first find out what happens when people are asked to respond empathetically to individual rats and determine optimal conditions for empathic studies.

In contrast to the common stereotype, rats that are raised as pets are gentle and friendly creatures that enjoy interacting with people. They can conveniently be housed on a card table that contains a shelter, playthings, and food -- sort of a "rat plateau.’’ In one preliminary study students were assigned a small family of tame rats to take home for observation and interaction. In this study the student is not a detached observer, but he or she enters into the life of the subjects. The student is instructed to interact with the rats as though they were little people and to anthropomorphize freely in describing their behavior.

I have been more interested in the empathic responses of the students than in the behavior of the rats in these studies. One rather consistent finding is that before long the students begin to feel affection for the rats. At first one rat seems like another, but after interacting with them for a while, the students usually find themselves responding differently to different individuals. Some students believe that they can recognize distinctive personalities in the individual rats, and that they can tell what a rat’s experiences are like in much the same way that they can tell what another person’s experiences are like.

What should be done next is to determine the reliability and the validity of the empathic impressions. Will different persons give the same descriptions of individual rats? Can a person identify individual rats on the basis of anthropomorphic descriptions of their personalities? Will empirical implications of empathic impressions consistently be verified by objective behavioral and physiological tests? Even if it turns out that there are no useful applications of behavioral assay methods with rats, these studies should be interesting in themselves because they may tell us something about our ability to determine what it is like to be another organism.12

There are also possibilities here for entering more novel areas of inquiry. For instance, astronomers have been searching the macrocosmos for signals that might indicate the presence of intelligence. Process cosmology suggests that we look into the microcosmos as well and that we use our empathic powers to find signs of sentience, as well as use our usual analytic methods to find signs of intelligence. To illustrate the range of possibilities for this line of research, I will describe a gedanken experiment in which a behavioral assay of feelings is employed to test the hypothesis that atoms are sentient individuals.

First of all, we will have to monitor spontaneous, complex events in individual atoms and transduce these events into a form that can readily be perceived. Suppose, for example, we could record the pattern of emission of nuclear particles from a radioactive atom. The pattern can be presented to people for behavioral assay in various ways -- it can be stretched out or compressed in time; it can be presented in a sequence of auditory, visual, or tactual stimuli; or it can be transformed to a spatial pattern. For comparison similar patterns can be generated by random procedures or by mechanical means. Now we want to find out if people react differently to the atomic and the control patterns. Suppose it turned out that people regularly sense something aesthetically or emotionally familiar in the atomic patterns but not in the control patterns’? This would not by itself be convincing evidence that there is sentience present. But it would raise interesting questions for further inquiry.13

Now, that was just a gedanken experiment, one not really feasible with current technology. But if we move up the hierarchy of individuals to the level of cells, then many experiments like this become technically feasible. I would like to offer an empathic interpretation of a cellular event that is easy to monitor, and let the reader think of experiments to test it.

I recently visited a laboratory in which the activities of individual neurons were being monitored by transducing the neural impulses to pulses of sound. In the midst of the "popping" sounds of the neural impulses I heard a soft moan. The researcher told me it was the sound of a dying cell -- a high-frequency discharge as the cell’s life ebbed away. Here is my empathic interpretation of this event which you may treat as an empirical hypothesis. I believe that the moan was an expression of a feeling that all sentient creatures share -- it was a feeling of perishing.

How do I know this?

I have a mind myself and recognize

Mind when I meet with it in any guise.14


This work was supported by Grant GM 30777 from NIH. I thank Robin Frost, Nora Peck, and Lisa Wolf for editing this paper.

1. I limit this discussion to what I shall refer to as "ordinary science" -- traditional mechanistic, reductionistic approaches to research. Other approaches, such as general systems theory, have somewhat different relations to process cosmology, which I do not consider in this paper. Also, the process cosmology I speak of is that of Hartshorne and Whitehead only.

Also, some comments on my biases and some qualifications are appropriate here. My scientific thinking has been most influenced by the liberal behaviorism of Neal Miller and the psychobiology of Curt Richter -- rough-hewn, pragmatic, common-sense approaches. At the same time, my perception of nature is more akin to that of Anglo-American Romanticism. Thus I feel most closely connected to the strand of thought in American philosophy that runs from Pierce to Hartshorne and intertwines empirical and romantic approaches to nature.

In view of this rather anomalous combination I want to qualify the claim that my judgments represent contemporary thought in the neural and behavioral sciences. I do believe that my analyses reflect sound scientific thinking. But there are many intangible factors that result in divergences in final judgments between me and my colleagues. We may agree that a notion is reasonable in terms of its compatibility with scientific facts and its clarity, consistency, and completeness of meaning, but at the same time differ in our judgment of its plausibility. In my experience many scientists find the notions of process cosmology hard to believe (and also hard to understand). For instance, after I had presented a long and careful account of the notion that the basic actualities that make up the world are sentient creatures, a very intelligent and scholarly neuroscientist said to me, "I still can’t imagine what it would be like for an atom to have feelings, and I still can’t see any good reason to believe this in the first place." This notion about basic actualities and reasons for belief in them arise from a different way of seeing the world in the first place. Certainly process cosmology has a more immediate appeal to a person who sees experience at the heart of nature than to one who perceives the world as an insentient mechanism.

2. I’d like to quote a poem by Emily Dickinson which expresses what I am trying to say here in a most remarkable way.

The Brain -- is wider than the Sky --

For -- put them side by side --

The one the other will contain

With ease -- and you beside--

The Brain is deeper than the sea --

For -- hold them -- Blue to Blue --

The one the other will absorb --

As Sponges -- Buckets -- do --

The Brain is just the weight of God --

For -- Heft them -- Pound for Pound --

And they will differ -- if they do--

As Syllable from Sound --

3. Concrescence is a complex notion, and this account describes only one aspect of it which is particularly relevant to science. However, I want to mention briefly the essential role of feeling in concrescence because the ability of process cosmology to explain the kinds of experiences that I am concerned with in this paper depends on it, Also the notion of feeling will come up again in later sections of the paper, and so I want to state my understanding of it explicitly.

The time-cone of concrescence is nothing but a creative synthesis of feelings. Hartshorne states the thesis plainly -- "all experience is feeling of feeling." What this means is that the actual world that enters into a concrescence is ultimately made up of sentient individuals, and the facts of the world are the objective manifestations of their feelings. Likewise, everything in subjective experience is a form of feeling -- the colors and palpable textures, the thoughts and intentions as well as the emotional tones are all articulations of feelings derived from the world. I will have to bypass the many interesting implications and problems of this "social theory of feeling" because they are too complex to deal with adequately in the space available here.

4. There is a more general issue that arises from this analysis of concrescence. I have shown that the objective meaning of concrescence is compatible with the scientific notion of causality. But concrescence also has a subjective meaning; it states that every elementary event involves an experience. Is this compatible with scientific method, which eschews subjective language and adheres strictly to the law of parsimony? I think it is. To show how, I would like to rephrase the question as follows. Should the ontology of the cosmological framework of science be as limited as the ontology of science itself’? It seems that many scientists would like the two domains to be congruent. The apparent advantage of this is that science then ranges over all of reality; it can potentially explain everything that exists. But this is accomplished by a contraction of the domain of existence; it is too easy. Insofar as speculative cosmology aims for more generality and concreteness than science does, it needs a richer ontology. In fact, at the final metaphysical level, one should want the richest ontology possible, because each thing that is omitted from the ontology is a thing whose possible mode of existence is no longer subject to inquiry. Finally, there is no reason to think that a rich ontology in the framework will intrude into the limited domain of science within the framework. Scientific method automatically insures against that. Abstraction is the natural mode of scientific thought. It isolates relevant variables and disregards the rest. So, while it may be true that science functions best in a "desert landscape," it is also true that there is plenty of room for such a landscape in the endless domain of speculative cosmology (a sort of "garden of delights").

5. This brief account omits many details and problems. This is not the place for a technical discussion of concrescence and evolution, but I would like to clear up one bit of confusion that the account might have generated. In what sense can one say that there is a limit to how many data an organism can handle if all the data of the actual world are involved in the concrescence? The limit is manifested in the number of data that can be harmonized in the satisfaction. This is finite. The remaining data which are discordant are also involved in the satisfaction but do not contribute to the intensity of the experience. What the sensory systems do is begin the process of sorting out relevant and irrelevant data on the way to the final percipient occasion.

6. See my paper ‘‘Psychological Physiology from the Standpoint of a Physiological Psychologist,’’ Process Studies 11(1981): 274-91.

7. Whitehead discusses this in The Function of Reason and in the first chapter of Process and Reality.

8. I use Hartshorne’s terminology of "individuals" and "aggregates" according to the following understanding of these terms. Individuals correspond roughly to Whitehead’s personally ordered societies. When time is reduced to a limit, "individual" becomes roughly synonymous with "actual occasion." Hartshorne gives as examples of individuals: animals, cells, and atoms. It is important to keep in mind that to call a thing an individual does not imply that the thing is an individual all the time. For instance, a cell might have only brief moments of unified experience -- in the case of a neuron this might occur only at the moment when the membrane potential reaches the threshold for triggering an all-or-none impulse. At other times the cell would be just an aggregate. The term "aggregate" includes anything that is not an individual (more precisely, that does not attain moments of individuality). Examples of presumed aggregates are a leaf, a machine, any assortment of things. The distinctions between different types of aggregates are not relevant to the present discussion. But it is worth mentioning that there are important problems here and that approaches such as general systems theory attempt to work out taxonomies of aggregates and to identify characteristics of aggregate hierarchies that are necessary and sufficient for emergence of various forms of holistic functioning, including individuality. It is also worth noting here that the theory of societies envisions everyday physical things (individuals or aggregates) as made up of hierarchies of individuals and aggregates. For example, an animal (individual) is made up of organs (aggregates), which are made up of tissues (aggregates), which are made up of cells (individuals), and so on down to basic actualities which have to be individuals (assuming that there are basic actualities).

9. Recently, a study was published that addressed the problem of reconciling the neuroanatomical structure of the sensory projection areas with their functions. The study involved commentaries by thirty-six neuroscientists and philosophers. The problem was how to resolve the merely quantitative neuroanatomical differences among the various cortical projection areas with the qualitative differences among the sensory experiences mediated by these areas. Although this problem is more philosophical than experimental, I mention it here because of the striking relevance of the theory of affective continuity to it. (See R. Puccetti and R. W. Dykes, "Sensory Cortex and the Mind-Brain Problem,’’ The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1 [19781: 337-76.)

10. Psychophysics is a field of research which measures the relations between changes in the physical properties of stimuli and changes in the evoked sensory experience. Strictly speaking, the research I describe here asks some questions which extend beyond the ordinary boundaries of this field. But I think it is appropriate to put this work under the heading of psychophysics because they both arise from the same tradition of thought. Psychophysics was founded by Gustav Fechner, unquestionably a predecessor in the field of modern process cosmology, and the long history of this field is evidence of the value of this kind of thought for research in the behavioral sciences.

11. One might ask whether this analogy is misleading. The inference from the bioassay can potentially be confirmed by chemical tests, but how can we confirm the inference from a behavioral assay? Although there is obviously a sense in which we can not get at subjective features in the same way that we can get at objective features, this does not preclude the efficacy of converging operations for confirming hypotheses about subjective features. For example, if the individual whose feelings are being inferred is a person, or even a higher animal, we can potentially confirm empathic judgments by looking at neurophysiological data. Suppose, for instance, that we have an empathically derived hypothesis that a bird is experiencing pleasure when it sings. Suppose we had identified a particular brain chemical that is released from binding sites whenever animals are placed in conditions that are usually associated with pleasant feelings. Suppose further that we confirmed this with tests on our own brain when we were having pleasant feelings. Clearly if we found that this chemical were released whenever the bird began to sing, this would be a strong bit of evidence in favor of our hypothesis. There are other ways to get converging evidence on empathic hypotheses that can also strongly affect our confidence. For instance, if we judge that an individual is having a pleasant experience, we would expect him to favor conditions that produce this experience. Here we could use behavioral preference tests to get empirical evidence. Still, when it comes to making judgments about another individual’s subjectivity, we can always be fooled in the end-it could be an insentient computer, after all. But in the meantime we can increase our confidence in our empathic hypotheses without limit so long as successive converging operations confirm our expectations. I do not ask more from ordinary science than this. And finally, returning to our bioassay and chemical tests, we can always be fooled in the end here too -- it could be gremlins, after all.

12. I think it is important to be especially concerned about the welfare of the animals in this kind of study. Unlike research aimed at important practical goals such as medical treatment, this highly speculative research does not justify causing the animals any undue discomfort. Besides, it would be entirely contrary to the spirit of this kind of inquiry.

13. One factor that I overlook in this design is the contiguity of the feeler and the feeling felt. It seems to me that something important might be lost by recording the objective display of the feeling and interjecting it between the feeling and the feeler. But I cannot imagine how this could be done otherwise in this case.

Finally, if it turns out that it is indeed possible to transform the behavior of imperceptible individuals into a form which can be appreciated empathically by people, then we could conceivably use behavioral assay procedures to look for macrocosmic as well as microcosmic individuals. Giving imagination free play for a moment, one can conceive of behavioral assay studies of immense, slowly changing entities. For instance, what might we see if we looked at a time-lapse telescopic motion picture of some large segment of the universe taken over a period of millions of years and played back within the period of an hour? Perhaps we might see some familiar-looking actions -- perhaps something resembling organismic, purposive behavior.

14. And then Robert Frost adds,

No one can know how glad I am to find

On any sheet the least display of mind.


Response by Charles Hartshorne

The researches (for several years intensively pursued) which were part of my preparations for the book on sensation to which Wolf reacts so generously and imaginatively were made about a half century ago. (The book is still in print.) The basic theory of sensation the book presents came to me sixty years ago and is the subject of one chapter of my doctoral dissertation, written in 1923. The experience in France referred to by Wolf was in 1917 or 1918. I then knew almost nothing of the many evidences in the history of philosophy and psychology that various philosophers and psychologists have had somewhat similar intimations that reality as immediately given is indeed an "ocean of feelings." I refer to some of these writers in the book mentioned. They all show a phenomenological thread in the history of speculative idealism, a thread less manifest in Husserl’s writings than in those of Heidegger, and, before him, in writings of Berkeley, Goethe, Rickert, Croce, and many others. One of the ways in which philosophers differ in personality, and, in part, a cause of their theoretical differences, is in their sensitivity, or lack of it, to certain aspects of experience.

The sensation book pleased a few psychologists, e.g., Carroll Pratt, author of an excellent book on the psychology of music, who some years ago told me he thought my book was in some respects well ahead of those by the general run of psychologists. One prominent psychologist, misled by a misprint (one of only two in the book) which happened to come early (p. 27) and seemed to imply that I did not know the difference between millimeter and millimicron, saw little merit in the book. In fact it was not I that put "milli-meter" in the manuscript but an editor at the press who made no other serious mistake. What I had put was an abbreviation, two Greek letters -- -- for millimicrons. I corrected in the galleys the erroneous spelling of the abbreviated word but by a moment of carelessness missed its persistence in the page proofs -- the worst proofreading error of my career. No student of Leonard Troland (parts of whose great psychophysiology I almost memorized) could fail to recall his frequent use of ‘‘millimicron," and I knew that millimeter is a very different magnitude. Another psychologist who praised the book became an administrator and was not prominent as a researcher thereafter. Some philosophers did think highly of the work, including, oddly, a self-styled materialist. Wolf’s explanation of why the book did not exert much influence is to the point. An additional reason, though, is that the work has some flaws of presentation which, again unluckily, but also partly arising from inexperience (it was my first book), occur quite early and so might easily lead some to stop reading further. The flaws included an indulgence in some arguments so vague that now I wonder if they are anything but special pleading. I had enough more definite arguments to make my case, which was only weakened by attempting the doubtful ones. Another mistake was to show more scorn than was tactful or altogether seemly in an outsider, a nonprofessional in psychology, for some standard psychological notions.

I still think, however, that in some ways psychology has tended to miss the biological-emotional function of sensation, which is far deeper than mere "associations" and individual learning. Natural sweet-tasting substances are nourishing, and the taste encourages us to eat them; natural sour, bitter, or salty-tasting substances tend to be unnourishing or even poisonous, especially in substantial quantities, and the tastes discourage us from eating or drinking such things, e.g., sea water. The evolutionary explanation is obvious and has nothing to do with personal learning. My thesis is that something less obvious, but in basic principle similar in biological-evolutionary meaning, is true of all sensations. And I am sure that the psychology of music or painting will never go very deep until it is realized that underneath the role of personal learning is an innate basis in the sense organs themselves, or the sensory areas of the brain, which gives sounds and colors their emotional character. This is part of the explanation of the fact that bird song is intelligible as music to mammals such as ourselves, crossing a deep gulf between classes of animals. It is why no one has to learn what a growl, by which a newborn infant would be frightened, means. It means danger, and does this for inherited evolutionary reasons, not reasons of individual experience.

My work on bird song was my other attempt to be an empirical scientist, somewhat more successful than the other in getting the attention of experts. In 1973 I knew better how to relate to professionals than I did in 1934. And I did far more direct observing and simple experimenting, such as replaying songs, sometimes at slower speeds. Also I got help from those who knew how to use computers.

Although I was trying to get at birds’ feelings, in the process I discovered objective, quantitative facts not hitherto observed, facts for which my "aesthetic hypothesis" is an intelligible explanation. No alternative explanation for them has been found. The standard account of why song evolved in certain animals is not such an explanation; for my theory is a special form of that standard account, and only what is special about it explains the objective behavioral and environmental facts in question.

Evolution explains the adaptiveness of certain behaviors of singing animals, but there are two ways of conceiving adaptive behaviors. One is to take them as merely mechanical, like some contrived feedback arrangement (my father made one for our furnace when I was a child). The other is to suppose that the adaptive behavior is motivated by certain feelings, as avoidance of painful burns is motivated by the pain itself, or engaging in sexual reproduction is motivated by the pleasure of the action. Adopting the second view not only fits our natural intuitions of the other animals, especially the higher forms, but fits also the evolutionary scheme according to which our human traits are intensifications and elaborations of traits found in our prehuman ancestors. It also, I argue, explains certain special facts about the distribution of singing skills among species and about how birds sing (avoiding monotony, for instance,) in a fashion not explicable by mere chance, and adaptive only on the hypothesis that to act in certain useful ways it is necessary to have and satisfy the emotional motivations that favor such acting. Scientists today do not usually deny feelings to other animals, as the Cartesians did, but, as William James shrewdly noted, they often proceed as if for all practical purposes animals were indeed mere insentient machines. Any feelings that might be there are treated like "idle wheels" that do nothing.

Wolf uses the word "dismal" in connection with the view of nature as an assemblage of mere mechanisms. Only extreme materialists fail to feel this dismalness. But there are two ways of trying to escape from it. One is to suppose that, while most of nature is purely mechanical, at some point in the evolutionary ascent there appears a new principle, either life or mind, depending upon where the point is supposed to be. This is the dualistic way. Traditional vitalism was of this kind, in Driesch, for example. Theories of emergent evolution generally took this form. Wolf is an example of a scientist who feels that dualism is an unsatisfactory compromise, with some of the disadvantages of both extremes. The other way of escaping the dismal view, or what Fechner called the "night-view," is to reject mechanism altogether, so far as it is supposed strictly true of even the most "inanimate" parts of the world. A distinguished biologist, the entomologist Wheeler, once remarked that while philosophers and biologists were arguing about mechanism and vitalism the physicists took mechanism and "quietly dumped it into the sea." The first physicist to do this, I like to insist, was not any quantum theorist but the chemist, physicist, astronomer, logician, mathematician, and philosophical idealist Charles Peirce, our American universal theorist, who had no notion of quantum theory. Before Peirce the most definite anticipation was in the system of the Greek materialist Epicurus, for whom even atoms had some freedom.

The details of Wolf’s speculations I leave to others. I am not well equipped to make useful comments on them. These are large, difficult issues about which scientists and philosophers may have much to say. In any case I lack the energy at a busy time, and probably should not take the space, to deal with them. But I do wish to say that in all my many contacts with George Wolf for nearly two years now I have found him an admirable example of a scientist who is also by nature a philosopher, or one who wishes to retain the sense of the larger whole while he plies his limited specialty. It has been a privilege indeed to know him.

Some final remarks. Throughout this conference it has been made clear that process philosophy is not a panacea, a magic formula, thanks to which we can soar above our human limitations and all agree upon the perfect truth. Every speaker has felt that there are difficulties still, topics that we scarcely know how to deal with, or upon which we cannot agree. If the search for the truth is better than simply having it (Lessing), we can be content for the search to go on while the species endures -- if, in spite of its appalling quarrelsomeness, it can manage to do so.

Long ago I heard a professor in the Harvard Divinity School, the learned George Foot Moore, remark, "It is civilization that destroys nations. What else could destroy them?" We can today see the element of truth in this more easily than the man who said it or his hearers could. Whatever our philosophy, we had better use it to moderate the tendency that is in all of us to look to violence to settle issues between groups in a world whose technology makes violence against groups ever more likely to destroy all who participate in it, or advocate it, along perhaps with nearly everyone else. Neither process philosophers nor any other philosophers have yet shown us the way out of this terrible impasse. We Americans have relied on nuclear weapons to make up for the inferiority of our conventional arms and training. Now that our enemy is similarly equipped to join us in destroying mankind, the whole matter must be reconsidered. Our own invention has been reduced to a ghastly absurdity. This result was predictable enough; but who of us had the courage to face the prospect and draw a rational conclusion?

What is the relation of process philosophy to this grim dilemma’? At least this: To do justice to the issue it is necessary to care deeply about goods and ills far transcending one’s own personal career. For most of us are old enough to hope that the unthinkable catastrophe will most likely come after our career is finished. Moreover, believing in an "afterlife" has only ambiguous implications for motivating our behavior. If what really matters is achieving, or being granted, heaven, and escaping hell, even nuclear warfare may seem not our major concern. Dying soon or late is after all a very minor matter, compared to life everlasting, either in very happy or more or less unhappy circumstances. The Buddhist-Whiteheadian view of the self implies with radical clarity that the rational aim of the individual must in principle transcend any mere good of that individual, whether between birth and death or everlastingly. We are nothing apart from what our moments of living contribute to future life, and this means to some or all of the following: our own future experiences; future experiences of other human beings, nonhuman animals, or plants; divine experience, this last contribution containing all the value whatsoever that our moments can have. This is the meaning of loving God with all our being. We contribute ourselves to enriching the lives of others, all such enrichment being entirely embraced in its objective immortality in the Life of lives. An incinerated earth will certainly enormously curtail our possible direct or indirect contributions.

Whatever our philosophies, and it seems clear that human beings are not about to agree to any one philosophy, we are all mortal, and even the lower animals act as if their aims stretched beyond their own lives to their offspring. And the Marxists, too, are critical of merely self-regarding views of life’s meaning. This conference is a remarkable illustration of cooperation on a very high level. Perhaps we can take it as a sign that our species can somehow surmount the worst of its threats for the near future.

To George Wolf, and to all the other contributors, and to the planners of this conference, for the extraordinary pains they have taken for this occasion, thanks are due not only from me but, no doubt, from many others who were present or who may benefit from its results