Beyond Metaphysical Materialism: A. N. Whitehead & Co.

The name of Alfred North Whitehead is nearly synonymous with the twentieth century thinker’s revolutionary philosophy known as “ontology of organism.” The latter, alternatively called “process philosophy,” seeks to heal the metaphysical schism between mind and matter that has plagued modern Western philosophy since Descartes, and whose symptoms have recently erupted in the form of the so-called “hard problem of consciousness.” The question of how sentience could possibly emerge from dumb, insentient particles would have been meaningless for Whitehead since he recognised the dichotomy to be pure stipulation and ultimately counterfactual. Instead, Whitehead posited the true atomic basis of the universe as infinite drops of self-realising sentience, more numerous than the visible stars in the midwinter sky, together with all the invisible ones. These “actual occasions” consist in all window, like translucent tortoise shells. For Whitehead, therefore, it is living experience all the way down. In the philosopher’s own words, “Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.” In this way, philosophy of organism—and its implication of a dynamic and panexperiential substratum of reality—represents Whitehead’s great contribution in the ongoing evolution of thought.

In order to appreciate Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, one may consider what it means to identify organism as the fundament of reality. Such an ontology contrasts sharply with the mechanistic world-conception that Whitehead inherited from the preceding centuries of European philosophy and science. In this conventional view, inert bits of stuff called “matter” blindly aggregate to form objects, and then dissolve back into dust, all in accordance with the immutable mandates of deterministic physics. As Whitehead expresses the state of philosophy during his time:

There persists a fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.

Whitehead rejects the materialistic conceit on the basis that it fails to account for most of what is most immediate in our experience of the world. Indeed, matter per se, is never an object of immediate experience. Instead, “matter” is an abstraction which one generally fails to recognise as such, which error Whitehead calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (i.e. confounding immediate experience with abstractions from it). Thus, Whitehead inverts the notion that reality consists in res, which is to say, “things,” and conceives instead of relation as fundamental. Whitehead’s conception recognises objects as derivative and their interaction as primary. As a consequence, reality for Whitehead consists in “a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process” …and not the stuff. In this way, Whitehead integrates two essential insights of ancient philosophy: the first being Heraclitus’ doctrine of flux, indicated by his immortal enunciation of “panta rhei,” together with the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda or “dependent origination,” expressed by the words:

When this is, that is;
This arising, that arises;
When this is not, that is not;
This ceasing, that ceases

as recorded in the Majjhima Nikaya and attributed to Buddha Shakyamuni himself.

In this way, Whitehead’s cosmology rectifies the imbalanced intellectual proclivities towards reification, reductionism, atomism, analysis, abstraction, etc… which are the constitutive principles of scientific materialism, the latter which overran philosophy after the Renaissance and has been the de facto metaphysic of the Western world since Galileo first observed the lamp pendulating in the Tower of Pisa. Whitehead’s ontology of organism posits a living universe in place of the conventional mechanistic one. To understand the distinction between reality as mechanism and reality as organism, one may enlist Aristotle’s notion of causality.

The Ancient Greek philosopher and classifier nonpareil famously delineated four types of causality. In brief, these types are (1) material, (2) efficient, (3) formal, and (4) final. The first consists in the substance or stuff that composes a given entity, the second its motion or velocity as a factor of space and time, or relative to other entities. Aristotle’s third cause refers to the formative or sculptural forces that determine the shape of the given entity and, lastly, the final cause indicates its entelechial principle. Thus, the proverbial apple that buffeted Sir Isaac Newton about the sconce withal instantiated Aristotle’s causes in the following manner: (1) the substantial constituents such as pulps, skin, seeds, germs, juices, sugars, carbon, oxygen, phosphorus, etc…, (2) the efficient cause of gravitation, which impelled the falling fruit to a terminal velocity according to an acceleration of 32 feet per second^2 before it contacted the gregorian about genius’ cranium, (3) the intelligent marshaling of substance according to the unique “idea,” “form,” “blueprint,” “morphogenetic field,” “pranamaya-kosha,” or “etheric body,” etc…of the malus pumila-being, and (4) the ultimate end of the fruit as a vessel to gestate the seeds of future beings and to please God.

Conventional materialistic science assumes as a foregone conclusion that (1) the material cause ultimately consists in inert particles. It ascribes actual significance exclusively to (2) the efficient cause for the reason that the latter is conveniently measurable and lends itself to quantification. Finally, the materialistic world-conception largely ignores Aristotle’s formal and final causes, subsuming them under the atheistic aegis of a mechanistic, metaphysical Neo-Darwinism. The philosophy of organism, by contrast, offers a far more comprehensive account of causality. Whereas the conventional materialistic philosophy conceives of efficient, formal, and final causes operating on inert bodies from without, the philosophy of organism re-integrates these aspects of causality into the bodies such that change, especially formal causality, becomes immanent to these bodies themselves. Indeed, “re-integrate” may not be the most accurate term for this shift since the immanence of formal causality in a body is precisely a constitutive principle of life as such. Indeed any manifest body represents the operational product of just those formative forces that define Aristotle’s third cause. In other words, the tangible body itself is the result of intangible formative currents. Thus, just as little as one could “re-integrate” wetness into Heraclitus’ river can one re-imbue formal causality into organic bodies. Philosophy of organism, therefore, represents no Frankensteinian philosophical parlour-trick of animating of lifeless bodies with novel metaphysical incantations. Instead, ontology of organism is the recognition of life as an essence, not an accident, of being. All seeming exceptions will find their resolution through increasing one’s scope of inquiry so as to contain the universal all: though a pebble may not imminently bear its own formal, final, and efficient causes, yet the pebble itself pertains to the Earth, which is an organ of the solar system, whose heart is the Sun, and which in turn subsists in communion with infinite stars in cosmic space which society is called “the cosmos” and which does indeed immanently comprehend all causality withal.

A true understanding of the cosmos as organism demands a new way of thinking, for the dimensions of one’s conception circumscribe the scope of one’s perception. Thus, a mechanistic worldview will invariably behold a mechanistic world. To posit a living cosmos without evolving a living cosmology to comprehend it is to put new wine into old wine-skins, which are unsuitable for the task. Whitehead’s challenges us to undergo a philosophical metanoia. This presents no easy feat, since it requires not only to think different, but to think differently. Whitehead revolution confronts us as a special challenge since our language itself encourages conceptual reification, biasing us towards abstract facts and away from the acts that are their original cause—towards ice-cubes in Heraclitus’ river and away from the current that perennially bears them along and without which they would not, in the first place, have come to exist. Reality itself contains such a frozen process as its very essence: res are “things,” which is to say “reifications.” “Organism,” in contrast, is a word whose heart still temperately keeps time with the music of the spheres: organa is the Latin plural of organum, “musical instrument,” from Greek erganon, an “implement, a tool for making or doing” or “a musical instrument.” Literally, erganon is “that which works.” It stems from the the Proto-Indo-European root werg, “to do.” The English word “work” is itself a bough of this etymological cutting, as is the modern German word “wirken,” at whose extremely is the fruit called “Wirklichkeit” (i.e. the German work for “reality,” but which emphasises process instead of product) ripening in the season of knowledge and patiently awaiting the head of the promised “Newton of the Grass-Blade.”

Works Cited, thanks to:

Hanh, Thich Nhat (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. New York, NY: Three River Press.

Segall, Matthew. (2016). Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism
to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Press.

Whitehead, A. N. (1933). Adventures of Ideas. New York, NY: The Free Press.
—(1920). The Concept of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
—(1968). Modes of Thought. New York, NY: The Free Press.
—(1979). Process and Reality: An essay in cosmology. New York, NY: The Free Press.
—(1967). Science and the Modern World. New York, NY: The Free Press.


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