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


Students of living things have long been in a quandary. On the one hand, progress in understanding follows when they treat their objects like complicated machines, composed purely of matter. On the other hand, it is clear to many of them that living organisms, and especially self-conscious human living organisms, are something quite different from what their explanatory categories allow. Explaining in this conventional way is too much like explaining away.

Many working biologists are content to add to the corpus of biological knowledge without troubling themselves about these issues. Some strongly insist that reductionistic explanations are fully adequate. But others continue to seek ways of thinking that explain without explaining away. The conferences and volumes for which C. H. Waddington has been responsible have pressed toward new conceptualization; and Arthur Koestler and 1. R. Smythies have edited essays developed from a conference on "Beyond Reductionism."

Neo-Darwinism has played a prominent role in expanding the power of reductionistic modes of thought in evolutionary theory. It has been an effective force in weakening older forms of vitalism and teleological thinking. Yet some of its chief architects do not themselves draw reductionistic or materialistic implications from their theories. Sewall Wright sees biological science as treating the externals of living things with deterministic and statistical laws, but he believes the creatures themselves have internality and freedom. Theodosius Dobzhansky stresses the miracle of the emergence of humanity in its radical discontinuity with the rest of the world. C. H. Waddington sees an interaction between the purposive behavior of animals and their environment that was inadequately recognized in more reductionistic interpretations of neo-Darwinism.

Topics of this sort have not been in the center of philosophical attention in the past generation. Neither existentialists nor language analysts undertook to explain life. But there has been a tradition of philosophical naturalism in this century, stressing organic and processive categories, which seems to have the potential for fruitful interaction with the work of reflective biologists. Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin in France have obvious relevance, as do James, Peirce, and Dewey in the United States, and Tennant and Alexander in England.

A small but growing number of philosophers have been particularly impressed by the potential fruitfulness of the conceptuality of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead called his position the ‘philosophy of organism.’ He held that, while biology studies the larger organisms, physics studies the smaller ones. Much scope for ‘reduction’ of biological phenomena to physical ones remains, but when that to which reduction occurs is not matter in motion but organisms in environments, the meaning of ‘reduction’ is changed. Furthermore, organisms of organisms can be understood as transcending their organic parts in ways that the most complex machines do not.

In June, 1974, a meeting was held at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Study and Conference Center at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellaglo, Italy, to consider whether and how process philosophy in general, and Whitehead’s conceptuality in particular, might help those who are seeking new, nonmaterialistic or nonreductionistic ways of understanding biology. Whitehead’s fully developed system in Process and Reality is of such complexity as to have been largely inaccessible to scientists, and the developments in science are so rapid and technical as to bewilder philosophers. The hope underlying the conference was that, if aspects of Whitehead’s form of process philosophy were effectively communicated to scientists who in turn could help philosophers understand the nature of their current problems, both philosophers and scientists would benefit. Although communication between the two communities is far from easy, this volume suggests that it is possible and that, when it occurs, it is mutually fructifying.

The use of the term ‘mind’ in the title of the book may be misleading; for the noun suggests that a substantial entity is in view. Process thought, on the contrary, understands mind as mental activity or functioning, especially purposive action. ‘Nature’ is similarly understood by most participants as occurrence or event.

The papers in Part One, "The Evolution of Mind," describes the mystery of the rise of self conscious, human, purposive action out of a flux in which it has been customary to find no grounds for such an emergence. Thorpe formulates the problem as a challenge to process philosophy and, after papers by Birch, Dobzhansky, and Waddington, and comments by Cobb on the potential contribution of Whitehead, Thorpe shares his concluding reflections. The issues are: What kind of continuity and what kind of discontinuity are to be found in the evolutionary process? And can process philosophy help biologists to understand their data?

Part Two, "Mind and Order," treats the broader question of what is meant by ‘order’ and how order is related to the human experience of purposive freedom. Several strategies for overcoming reductionism are distinguished and defended. The discussion is chiefly between physicists and philosophers, although the relation to biology is always especially in view.

Part Three, "The Primacy of Mind," opens up the specifically ontological question of how the ultimate entities of the universe are to be conceived. Two biologists and one philosopher argue that the psychical, or mental, or subjective elements in reality are more fundamental than the physical, material, or objective elements.

Part Four, "Mind and Organism," consists of papers that deal specifically with Whitehead. They include expositions of his philosophy of nature and his philosophy of science as well as more topical and critical treatments. The final essay (apart from the concluding editorial comments) is an account by Waddington of how his own work as a biologist has been influenced by Whitehead’s philosophy.

A collection of essays of this sort does not reach a unified conclusion. Yet the editors find themselves confirmed in the beliefs (1) that the philosophy of nature is an important and fruitful area for continuing exploration, especially if scientists and philosophers can learn to work together, and (2) that for the time being Whitehead’s rigorously articulated vision provides the most promising basis for further reflection in this area.

This book is published under the auspices of the Center for Process Studies. The conference out of which this book arose was sponsored by the Center with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Public thanks are herewith given to the Rockefeller Foundation, with special thanks to the directors of the study and conference program.