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Whitehead's Even More Dangerous Idea

Peter Farleigh


"....any doctrine which refuses to place human experience outside nature, must find in descriptions of human experience factors which also enter into the descriptions of less specialized natural occurrences. If there can be no such factors, then the doctrine of human experience as a fact within nature is mere bluff, founded upon vague phrases whose sole merit is a comforting familiarity. We should either admit dualism, at least as a provisional doctrine, or we should point out the identical elements connecting human experience with physical science."

Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas 1933


"Old habits die hard", writes Daniel Dennett in a short newspaper article that was part of a prelude to the Tucson II conference, "especially habits of thinking, and our "intuitive" ways of thinking about consciousness are infected with leftover Cartesian images, an underestimated legacy of the dualist past." (Dennett 1996) Materialists and functionalists pride themselves on how much they have rejected Cartesian dualism with its bifurcation of nature into two separate entities - mind-things and substance-things. They attempt to explain how mind arises either from raw matter, or from some sort of information processing. Others, who think that mind is 'mere bluff', choose a third option - the eliminativist one. Consciousness for them does not really exist as we might imagine, but is a construction based on our "old habits" of folk psychology.

Materialists, functionalists and eliminativists may have critically rejected the Cartesian images of consciousness from their schemes, but for whatever reason, they have uncritically accepted the Cartesian image of matter. Matter in this case, being "an existent thing which requires nothing but itself in order to exist". Matter as 'simply located'. In sharing this much with the dualists, should they more properly claim to have rejected just half of the dualist doctrine?

Cartesian substance provides the ground for the classical mechanistic paradigm, Newton's 'world-machine'- the 'billiard-ball' universe-a powerful metaphor still very much with us today (e.g. Dawkins 1995). While, there are some contemporary forms of materialism that have a less deterministic view of substance, as modified in the light of modern physics and biology (e.g. Searle 1992), it is the functionalists who have gallantly upheld the very traditional mechanistic concept of matter in motion. The prime model for them being the computational metaphor for the mind.

In rejecting our 'folk psychology' concepts, we could equally make a case for rejecting our 'folk physics' concepts, too (i.e. the 'billiard-ball' variety). But if we were to throw out the machine along with the ghost, what would our starting point be? If it's not substance, and if it's not information processing, what then? Are we to exclude these concepts altogether, or are they part of a much larger scheme?

Whitehead's even more dangerous idea:

Darwin is rightly said to have a 'dangerous' idea with his theory of natural selection. (Dennett 1995) With respect to the nature of mind and matter, Alfred North Whitehead has an even more dangerous idea. An idea that he investigates in enormous detail, particularly in his major philosophical work Process and Reality written in 1929. It is to reject Cartesian dualism fully, and in "point(ing) out the identical elements connecting human experience with physical science", construct a scientific world-view in terms of events and their relations, rather than in terms of matter in motion. Certain sorts of events and temporal series of events (processes), would then hold the status as the fundamental units or 'primitives' of the universe - a position traditionally the domain of Cartesian substance. These events provide a unity between the observer and the observed, subject and object. Rejecting dualism fully meant for Whitehead, that epistemology has no priority over ontology - any inquiry into knowing is simultaneously an inquiry into being. (Cobb 1981)

Whitehead's process cosmology has 'dangerous' implications in many areas of science and philosophy and not primarily because he offers us new answers to the old problems. Rather, it is because we are offered another perspective-one that includes the observer in our observing. Dangerous, particularly for dualists, materialists functionalists and eliminativists as it displaces the concept of machine as the primary metaphor for our understanding the world-a position now given to the concept of organism. In this short paper I aim to give a very brief introduction to his event ontology with respect to the philosophy of mind.

From Substance-thinking to Event-thinking:

Events, as we commonly refer to them, are happenings in certain places, at certain times, for particular durations - everything from the fall of an autumn leaf, to the fall of the Roman Empire. We can discuss such events by starting with concepts of matter in motion, but such an approach is a limited case of a more general view that regards matter, itself, as aggregates of sub-atomic events, as modern physics has shown. Sub-atomic events are instances of the fundamental types of events that Whitehead takes as the basis for his ontology.

Bertrand Russell felt the force of this idea. In 1914 Whitehead convinced him "to abandon Newtonian absolute time and space, and also particles of matter, substituting systems of events" and this "fitted in well with Einstein". (Ushenko 1949) He further elucidated the Whiteheadian concept of matter when he later wrote: "An event does not persist and move, like the traditional piece of matter; it merely exists for its little moment and then ceases. A piece of matter will thus be resolved into a series of events. Just as, in the old view, an extended body was composed of a number of particles, so, now each particle, being extended in time, must be regarded as composed of what we may call 'event-particles'. The whole series of these events makes up the whole history of the particle, and the particle is regarded as being its history, not some metaphysical entity to which the events happen." (Russell 1969)

Whitehead's 'Actual Occasions':

Whitehead does not confine his fundamental unit-events to the sub-atomic level, his is not a 'quantum mechanics' theory of mind per se. Rather, his speculation is that there are universal principles operating at all levels in nature, quantum mechanical phenomena being instances of these principles at one extreme, and psychological phenomena being instances at another. So not only the low-grade sub-atomic events, but also atomic, molecular and cellular events count as fundamental Whiteheadian 'actual occasions'. The most complex high-grade events are the most familiar ones-moments of human perception, or percipient events. All of these occasions have to some degree, a subjective or psychophysical nature. An occasion, technically for Whitehead, being an "occasion of experience", though not necessarily a conscious experience.

While Whitehead is quite the opposite to an eliminativist, he nevertheless does not write extensively about consciousness itself, preferring to talk in more general terms about experience and feeling. "We experience more than we can analyze. For we experience the universe, and we analyze in our consciousness a minute selection of its details." (Whitehead 1938) For instance, we are conscious of the person we are talking to at a party while at the same time experiencing the ambience of the crowd. He sees the major role of consciousness to be the explicit awareness that a present situation could be other than it is, and so one is conscious of what it is. We could be talking to anyone at the party, but we are talking to this person.

Broadening the concept of experience beyond the familiar human realm to include the lowest levels of nature maybe unsettling but not completely unreasonable. The fact that many of our day-to-day activities are performed 'without thinking', and that decisions and judgments are often colored by forgotten or suppressed memories, indicates that there is a continuity between conscious and unconscious experience. Ethologists like Donald Griffin (1992), and Susan Armstrong-Buck (1989), provide evidence for experience in animals. Others provide evidence for it in single-celled organisms. (see Agar 1951) Evidence for even sub-atomic particles having a very primitive subjective nature is given by McDaniel (1983).

The word 'panpsychism' is often used to describe Whitehead's position, even though he did not use the word himself. The word can be problematic. For some, 'psyche', which usually pertains to the human mind, suggests that this position would hold that low-grade individuals like bacteria, or even electrons, are conscious. This certainly is not the case and David Ray Griffin suggests that 'pan-experientialism' is a more appropriate term. (Griffin 1988) One should not expect all of the characteristics of mentality we observe at the macro-scale to be evident at the micro-scale, just as we no longer expect the physicality to be the same at both levels. For instance, the atoms in a sponge aren't expected to be 'spongy', themselves. The word 'pan' should also not be misconstrued. Meaning 'all', it can imply that everything has some mentality, which again, is certainly not true. Things like tables, teapots, thermostats and tetraflop computers, are regarded as uncoordinated aggregates of low-grade occasions and have no mental properties in themselves. Whitehead distinguishes them from things like cells and organisms:

"...in bodies that are obviously living, a coordination has been achieved that raises into prominence some functions inherent in the ultimate occasions. For lifeless matter these functionings thwart each other, and average out so as to produce a negligible total effect. In the case of living bodies the coordination intervenes, and the average effect of these intimate functionings has to be taken into account." (Whitehead 1933) .

In other words, in ordinary matter neighbouring occasions are 'incoherent' and so there is a 'smoothing out' effect of the tiny freedoms and unpredictabilities that can be found in those occasions in isolation. The causal chains are constant and predictable, and so the descriptions of matter by traditional physical theory are therefore statistically very accurate and hence, mechanistic analogies are most useful and appropriate.

In contrast, things like molecules and organisms are temporal chains of high-grade occasions and are characterized by their part-whole relations. The organization of their parts is dependent on the mutual action of those parts on each other, with the consequence that the whole acts as a causal unit both on its own parts and on its environment. A molecule or an organism acts as a causal unit in a way, which is other than the summed causal actions of the lower grade occasions taken in isolation. For instance the properties of a molecule are different from the sum of the properties of its constituent atoms, even though both the properties and synthesis of the molecule are entirely dependent on the intrinsic properties of those atoms. This is not due to some miraculous addition, but because the activity of all actual occasions, including mental and percipient events, is fundamentally relational from the start.

There has of course, been a lot of study of the self-organization of living things with computer models using artificial life and artificial neural networks techniques. There is no doubt that these sorts of research programs provide us with new insights to understanding some of the nature of part-whole relations in actual organisms. On the other hand, the very fact that any modeling of the real world involves abstractions inevitably imposes limitations on the sort of results we should expect to get. It is sometimes easy to confuse the 'abstract' with the 'concrete'. For instance if we were to believe that a computer virus is 'alive' in the biological sense. We would then be committing what Whitehead famously calls the "Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness". A fallacy, by the way, the biologist C. H. Waddington warns us, "is dangerous to forget"! (Waddington 1977)

The nature of events and their relations:

Having established in general what Whitehead's 'actual occasions' are, some explanation of their nature needs to be made. It might be thought that such an explanation is to be found by starting at the bottom and working up from there. In fact, the place to start, and the place that Whitehead wants us to start, is at the level of human experience. For two reasons: first, because human experience at any moment is itself, an actual occasion, and the occasion we know better than any other, and known from the inside. Second, because high-level occasions are themselves highly coordinated societies of low-level occasions, certain features of human experiential events can be generically applied to more primitive occasions.

Consider the act of perception. It is by perception, and this involves cognition, intentionality and affective tone, that we take account of our environment. I look at a pencil in front of me, for example. I have an immediate sense of its overall look-its shape, its length, its color. The pencil is set against a background of my desk and other things in my field of vision, but not things I am at that moment acutely aware of. Also I am only vaguely aware of my body and its relation to the desk and pen. In seeing the pencil, too, whole streams of associative memories are stirred. All of these perceptions and memories are gathered together into the unity, which is this single percipient event-a 'specious present'. The focal point or center of this event being my body. The pencil and the background, as well as the memories, are all internal constituents of my experience, and are therefore causally efficacious of that experiential event. They are said to be internally related to this event. Those objects at that moment are unaffected by my act of perception and so are said to be externally related to the event.

The act of perception then, establishes the causal relation of a subject to the external world at that moment. Perception and memory recall for Whitehead are high level instances of a more general concept, which he calls prehension. Most simply, for a subject to prehend an object, it is to experience it, perceive it, feel it, or 'take it into account,' though not necessarily in a conscious or reflective way. An object can be a physical object, like a pencil, or a conceptual object like a memory. Prehension is also a feature at lower levels of nature. Single cells 'feel' or take account of their environment (which is often other cells). Within a series of sub-atomic events, each event prehends its antecedent event, and is almost entirely determined by it.

The concept of prehension does sound a lot like the more familiar concept of intentionality. Indeed, Nicholas Gier has examined in depth the relations between the two concepts. Gier points out their similarities: "Both prehension and intentionality describe the relationship of a subject and an object in such a way as to overcome this subject­object split. In the same way that intentionality is always 'consciousness of an object,' prehension is always 'feeling of' some datum. This means that any prehensive unification or intentional act is codetermined by the respective data." (Gier 1976) One major difference is that intentionality is only discussed in terms of human consciousness, while prehension is extended far beyond the human realm. Both affirm a doctrine of internal relations so that consciousness is never simply 'there' without content or object, but with phenomenology the relationship of consciousness and its object is not considered a causal one. Whitehead had solved this problem of causation with his doctrine of asymmetrical relations between a present event and its past. Lewis Ford sums up the comparison by stating "Rather than being simply identical with intentionality, prehension generalizes both intentionality and causality, thus unifying both phenomenology and science." (Gier 1976)

While being affected by the object I see, my experience is not completely determined by it. The present moment is tinged with the possibilities for what the next occasion might be, and this requires a certain creative response or choice by me that may or may not be a conscious one. I have a fairly conscious anticipation about what I want to do with the pencil, if anything at all-I may want a pen-and a much less conscious anticipation as to how I am to pick it up. A future event cannot be the physical cause of a present event-there is no backward causation. But a present event can be partly determined by the anticipation of the conceptual possibilities for what the succeeding event could be. This is known as the subjective aim of the occasion.

The breadth of possibilities for an event to occur is a measure of the amount of freedom within any particular causal chain-an extremely small degree at the sub-atomic level and a large degree of freedom at the human level. If the degree of freedom is zero then the causal chain is completely deterministic. Thus, Whitehead has a general theory of causation that is well adapted for explaining the nature of organic processes and mental events. Also, it is a theory if taken to one extreme, will explain the more specific nature of mechanistic events.


It is a dangerous thing to change our mode of thinking-from looking at the world in terms of substances, to thinking of it in terms of events. All, and not just some, of our old Cartesian images have to go. Mind and matter are not separate. Mind is not rejected in preference for matter, and mind does not arise from matter that initially has no mind. This is because both concepts undergo a radical change within Whitehead's philosophy of organism and are replaced by the single concept of relational events. These events have characteristics that can be considered matter-like in some respects and mind-like in others.

As an approach that avoids the many of the pitfalls of dualism, materialism and functionalism, I believe it is equally a solid candidate theory of mind, worthy of serious consideration and discussion within the contemporary debate.


Agar, W. E. 1951 A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism 2nd Ed. University of Melbourne Press

Armstrong-Buck, S 1989 Nonhuman Experience: A Whiteheadian Analysis Process Studies Vol.18 No.1

Cobb, J. B. 1981 Whitehead and Natural Philosophy in Whitehead and The Idea of Process eds. Holz, H. and Wolf­Gazo, E. Pub: Karl Alber Freiburg & München

Dawkins, R 1995 River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life Basic Books

Dennett, D.C. 1995 Darwin's Dangerous Idea Simon and Schuster

Dennett, D.C. 1996 in The Times Higher Education Supplement, London 5 April 1996

Gier, N. 1976 Intentionality and Prehension Process Studies Vol. 6 No. 3

Griffin, David Ray 1988 Of Minds and Molecules in The Reenchantment of Science ed. Griffin D. R. SUNY Press

Griffin, Donald R. 1992 Animal Minds The University of Chicago Press

McDaniel, J. 1983 Physical Matter as Creative and Sentient Environmental Ethics Vol. 5 pp291 -317

Russell, B. 1969 The ABC of Relativity (3rd Ed.) George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Searle, J.R. 1992 The Rediscovery of the Mind The MIT Press

Ushenko, A. P. 1949 Einstein's Influence on Philosophy in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist. Ed. Schilpp, P. A. Open Court

Waddington, C. H. 1977 Tools for Thought Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Whitehead, A. N. 1926 Science and the Modern World 2nd edition Cambridge University Press

Whitehead, A. N. 1978 Process and Reality (Corrected) (1929) Free Press edition

Whitehead, A. N. 1933 Adventures of Ideas Free Press edition 1967

Whitehead, A. N. 1938 Modes of Thought Cambridge University Press

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