Fragments: Whitehead on Relativity & Reification

A. N. Whitehead appreciated the unravelling of the Newtonian reification of uniform space and time that Einstein’s theory of Relativity afforded. The former did not appreciate, however, that the Newtonian reification was merely substituted by a relativistic one: a reification relative space and time. In short, Whitehead protested the physicist’s tendency to do metaphysics, which is to say, to extrapolate one’s findings beyond possible empirical verification so as to arrive at a theory that is unfalsifiable in principle. Instead of simply substituting one “abstraction feigning concreteness” (i.e. the notorious fallacy of misplaced concreteness) for another, Whitehead is adamant that decision to adopt a Newtonian or a Relativistic conception of space and time must be determined by nothing other than immediate measurement of the case in question. In this way, one sustains one’s connection to the concrete event itself, from which either the Newtonian or the Relativistic conception of space and time is an eventual abstraction.

The equation from entry-level physics provides an example of the difference. When we consider the equation velocity (v)=distance (d)/time (t), we should remember that velocity (i.e. change) is the only concrete, observable phenomenon, whereas distance (i.e. space) and time (i.e. as distinct from duration) are abstractions. If water could be divided into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis AND we could pretend that water was real while these particles were conceptual or imaginary, then this would provide a picture of how space and time are born (i.e. as abstractions imbued with the semblance of concreteness by the physicist’s conceit).

Whitehead writes in Process and Reality that “the chief error in philosophy is overstatement.” The former’s take on Einstein’s revolution suggests that physicists who surreptitiously take up philosophy are no-less prone to the cardinal sin of that discipline than are her overt adherents. The spirit of Goethe’s admonition from Zum Farbenlehre that “Our senses don’t deceive us; our judgment does” can also offer us insight into Whitehead’s critique of Einstein. “Our data don’t deceive us; our interpretation does,” Whitehead might have protested during his secret luncheon with Einstein. The latter would have ostensibly interpreted this hypothetical fact as an event predestined from the dawn of time in a deterministic universe, while the speaker would have experienced it as a volitional decision on the part of a particular society of actual occasions whereby an anteceding potential event ingressed into actuality to appear as this hypothetical utterance.*

*My sincere apologies to the read for assuming the hopelessly jargonised register of our beloved philosopher; it is a wonder to me how an thinker who professes such high esteem of poetry and living experience could succumb to such a banefully prosaic manner of expression. Perhaps the circumstances around Gertrude’s observation that “The Lady doth protest too much, methinks” sheds light on the answer. In any case, I expect one would be hard-pressed to hit upon a single Saxon phrase in the entire opera of our dear philosopher. It is this writer’s opinion that the metaphysician of good faith should seek to heal the spirit, not poison it with unalloyed Latinate jargon.


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