What’s Going On In This Metaphysics Is A Bootstrapping Of Sentient Nature

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Whitehead thought of these “prehending entities” as processes of self-formation with “subjective aim”

Discussion in thin air

“I think,” Noel interrupted, “you a victim of your own success, Stan. And, I might add, welcome to the club. We’ve all been there. The hardest lesson we have to learn is when to stop when we’re ahead. Right!”

“You mean you’re disagreeing with me,” Stan replied.

“Well yes, because I didn’t say any of that,” Noel responded, “you’re just getting carried away with your own extrapolations.”

“I am?” said Stan, “But I thought you were insinuating, ideally at least, that the function of the conceptual symbolic form was to reduce everything to number, or at least to the simplest possible abstractions.”

“That’s true enough,” Noel replied. “But I didn’t compare Einstein’s success to Pythagoras’s failure, nor did I remotely imply that between the two theories, there was not much difference.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” said Stan, “I guess I saw it a bit differently. What about Minkowski’s world—a world reduced to numbers? Besides number, the space-time continuum, and the constancy of the velocity of light, what else is left to say about the idea of a ‘fixed and permanent’ realm of objectivity? Anyway, didn’t you say the goal of the conceptual symbolic form was to simplify, simplify to the most necessary relations, simplify to the simplest application of mathematics and law? And didn’t you further say that that determinism must be weighed against the creative aspect of the only symbol-generating animal we know of–man? Did I hear you wrong or what?”

“What’s your point Stan?” replied Noel. “Sure I said those things, but isn’t it a bit of a stretch to link Einstein with Pythagoras, I mean did Pythagoras give us the bomb?

Pythagoras did one better than that,” replied Stan. ”He showed us how to generate harmonies from strings, but don’t get me started on that. It’s not strings were talking about here, it’s symbolic form and function. From that point of view, Pythagoras was doing the very same thing as Einstein, and, if I heard you correctly, even Einstein’s theory will one day get replaced with a new form of symbolic representation, a new theory that will increase our predictive power and broaden the range of our perceptual field. If you ask me, Einstein and Pythagoras were brothers in arms!”

“You win Stan,” responded Noel, “tell me more about what I said.”

“Wouldn’t you know it,” said Stan, “I’ve lost my train of thought. But I do have a few more observations, albeit a little off the topic.”

“Go for it,” said Noel, “it’s time to move on anyway.”

“Well, it’s not totally new,” Stan replied, “its just that when I was listening to your bantering, I felt like I had heard it all before. In my youth I studied Alfred North Whitehead. In fact, he inspired my desire to attend Harvard. He ended his career teaching there. Did you read him Tony?”

“No, I shy away from metaphysics,” responded Tony. “But I know about him. You can’t go to Harvard without becoming familiar with prestigious alumnae.”

“Whitehead spent the first half of his academic career as a Professor of Mathematics,” Stan continued, “ he and Bertrand Russell attempted to prove that the axioms of number theory could be deduced from the premises of formal logic. Their book on that subject, Principia Mathematic, is quite famous. Whitehead also published another book on mathematics in which he formalized a set of rules and theorems, from which the theorems of Euclidean geometry are derivable. All this was done, for the most part, before Einstein published his famous theories. Whitehead, not surprisingly, took a keen interest in Einstein’s published works. And, like Cassirer, he wrote a book on relativity theory; only in his book he disagreed with Einstein. As I recall he didn’t like the elevation of the velocity of light to a law of nature and he was critical of the flexible nature of space. Whitehead’s formalism was based on the premise of uniform space, or more precisely on the ‘non-contingent uniformity in spatial relations.’ As might be expected, in the scientific community, his ideas fell out of favor, but they played a major role in the metaphysics that he developed latter in life. In that metaphysics, Whitehead lifted the ‘process’ out of the philosopher (Kant) and put it squarely back into nature where he felt it belonged. Man, the symbol-generating animal, became instead, the product of process reality.”

“I guess this is as good a time as any to bid you fine fellows ado,” interrupted Peter, “It’s past my bedtime. But thanks for making my sleeping bag look so delicious. See you in the morning.”

“Sleep tight,” Stan replied, and then throwing another log on the campfire, he continued, “what you were saying about ‘organic unities of time’ constituting our inner sense of being really made me t
hink about Whitehead. He too believed that ‘whole movements’ or ‘epochs’ constituted individual unities of experience. He called those unities of experience occasions and then he went on to base his metaphysics on those occasions. For him, occasions came all at once or not at all and ultimately provided nature with a kind of sentience. What’s interesting is that, at their most elementary level, where occasions are overlapping events, they still possessed a kind of sentience. Is anybody familiar with what I am talking about?”

“Yeah, it’s called animism,” replied Noel, “Eh, I’m only joking. Sure I’ve heard of Whitehead’s metaphysics, but I haven’t studied it in any depth. As I recall he turned nature into a kind of sentient being, and thus sidestepped all the epistemological problems that arise in subject-object opposition and in the self-world dichotomy. But, in his philosophy, didn’t he understand occasions as processes of self-development, or even self-creation?”

“Yes, that’s exactly right,” Stan responded. “The idea was that an occasion was a ‘prehending entity’ in active interaction with its whole environment. Whitehead thought of these ‘prehending entities’ as processes of self-formation with ‘subjective aim.’ They began as simple overlapping events, evolved, and, as they say, the rest is history. Right?”

“Of course,” said Noel, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. But, you are aware that teleological explanations of the world are not just history, they’re ancient history! Isn’t that why we call it meta-physics, eh Stan?”

“Don’t forget about the problematic areas of science,” Stan responded. “Whitehead’s metaphysics speaks directly to those issues, especially the ones at the quantum level. Just hear me out.”

“I’m all ears,” replied Noel.

“Just as in quantum theory,” Stan continued, “where physical reality is at best, quasi-continuous, where successive leaps or vibrations of energy fuse together to form physical objects perceived by us as continuous, so too in Whitehead’s occasions we see physical experience taking place in leaps of becoming. His ‘process reality’ moves from becoming to being. For him, potentiality is rendered specific with the becoming of each event. What this all means is that the whole system that we take to be space and time literally grows out of the way that events are systematically related to one another in nature.

“Again, in quantum mechanics, where the discontinuous existence of fundamental particles form the continuous existence of larger physical bodies, in Whitehead’s occasions there is a parallel state of affairs going on. First, elementary events overlap and become part of the actual world. Then these enduring occasions develop into a biosphere full of sentient qualities, which, in turn, develops into this–our present state of affairs, specifically, into the words we are speaking right now. But that is not the end of it. In fact, it doesn’t end. The ‘subjective aim’ of the occasion presses in upon the environing realities of all physical, biological, and psychological phenomena, and in combination with these realities, continues to create a more fully developed reality. Species evolve, and so it goes, one occasion after another, unfolding, pushing this ‘now’ into the past while receiving ‘what is’ and ‘will be,’ again and again. Novelty arises as new forms of self-expression and new vistas of self-fulfillment unfold. Ultimately, what is going on in Whitehead’s metaphysics—in addition to eliminating the subjective /objective split that occurs in the philosophies of Descartes, Locke, and Kant, is a ‘bootstrapping’ of self-development, a bringing into existence a more self-fulfilling, self-expressive, sentient nature.”

“This is getting too ethereal for me,” said Tony. “What’s next, God?”

“Well, yes, that’s exactly right,” responded Stan, “But apart from the God thing, I believe Whitehead’s thought speaks directly to the concerns brought up in this conversation.”

“If you say so, “Noel replied,” but what about God? How did Whitehead perceive God, anyway?”

“Same o, same o,” replied Tony, “as a redeeming father figure.”

“That’s not true,” said Stan, “Well, maybe its a little true, but it’s more complicated than that. Whitehead would be the first to admit that if religion didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. From a sociological point of view, it does too many things for too many people for it not to exist.

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