Excerpts: Locality and Lack Thereof, “…for water has the quality and essence of the Sun”

Alfred North Whitehead describes the “fallacy of simple location” as one of several errors that has come to characterise the modern world-conception since the Enlightenment. Whitehead’s point interested me because, despite Whitehead’s slightly critical remarks of the Idealist philosophers of the Romantic period for their disregard of science, it has always seemed to me that these Idealists offered an useful corrective to the cut-throat pseudo-Empiricism that typifies much of Western thought. I characterise this mode of thinking as “pseudo-Empiricism” since, as Whitehead also observes, this “Empiricism” is really a confirmation bias of particular basic constitutive principles, or organising ideas. The latter inform perception and as such represent the departure-point of all physical observation. Without such organising ideas, there is no perception as such. Indeed a slightly uncouth comparison might imagine the activity of perception as a cognitive grasping (-cept) through (per-) the keyholes of the senses by means of relevant concepts, which serve as spiritual “forceps” to apprehend salient aspects from the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of mere sense-data. In the case of the Scientific tradition, “atomic matter with simple location” is just such an organising idea or concept. Indeed, over the several centuries since the Scientific Revolution, this concept of matter has become so naturalised in our worldview that we imagine it to be given in immediate sensory experience. A more careful examination of our experience, however, will reveal that this is untrue (indeed, Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” means to draw our attention to just the tendency to conflate the conceptual and the sensory sides of reality). Instead, a specific conceptual basis first discloses a world of localised material bodies. Provided one recognise the essential significance for perception of such organising concepts, it is hardly a surprise that a committed Empiricist should pull the rabbit of “matter with simple location” out of the hat of observation, since the same one actually inserted it in the first place through the former’s (unexamined) philosophical presuppositions.

Whitehead’s “fallacy of simple location,” just like his “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” seems to draw attention to precisely this tendency to overlook one’s own spiritual participation in the process of perception. Our English word “reality” indeed encourages us to ignore our own activity and rather to imagine the world to consist of wrought, ready-made “res,” or “things.” Obviously, this fact suggests the second fallacy indicated above, and thus confirms the fact that discrete existence is a questionable premise not only in physics, but also in philosophy. Interestingly, a translation of “reality” into the German language would produce the word “Wirklichkeit,” which indicates the production of experience and not merely the products: wirken is “to act.” Perhaps it is no accident, therefore, that the German philosophical tradition was less seduced by the fallacy of simple location (since only a specimen is static because it is past, while in the present tense, butterflies flutter from flower to flower and will find reflection in every drop of dew on a September morning). Here, indeed, is the German mystic Jakob Böhme writing about the Sun, and evidently not falling for the fallacy of ascribing discrete space-time coordinates to our resident luminary:

The Sun is not very different from water, for water has the quality and essence of the Sun. Without that the water would not receive the light of the Sun. Although the Sun is a body having a form, nevertheless the essence of the Sun is also in water, but not manifest. In fact, we recognize that the whole world is all Sun, and the locality of the Sun would be everywhere if God would want to ignite it and cause it to become manifest, for all existence begins in the light of the Sun. (Six Theosophical Points, vi. 10.)

Some two centuries later, Friedrich Joseph Schelling also criticises the fallacy of simple location when he observes that not only does a given body act everywhere it is, but that it also is everywhere that it acts. Schelling indeed adopts precisely in the Böhme’s conception of the Sun’s extra-local effectuality in the former’s First Outline to a Philosophy of Nature in 1799. Thus Schelling writes that “the action of the Sun extends to every point in space, and the Sun is everywhere there is an illuminating process” (99). In a way, this is obvious, because if the Sun were really quarantined to such discrete spacetime coordinates as physical models of the solar systems suggest, how could wildflowers grown down here on Earth? It seems worthwhile to note that Böhme’s panheliospherical conceit offers a model for a comprehensive grasp of other planetary influences. Thus, an application of relevant qualities besides L i g h t to the respective heavenly bodies allows for a more intimate appreciation of the celestial harmonies.

Thus, Whitehead, together with Böhme, Schelling, and other healthy thinkers, incite us to enliven our ordinary manner of conception. Rather than attempt to fix our experience into discrete freeze-dried spatiotemporal reference-points, these philosophers encourage us to behold eternity in the wildflowers and to model our cognition more after Dionysus that Medusa.


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