Fragments: Ye Medusa of Misplaced Concreteness

A. N. Whitehead reveals that evolution is incompatible with the world-conception of scientific materialism. As he writes in Science and the Modern World, “any one set of external relations is just as good as any other” (120). External relations are those relations that have no essential bearing on the entity in question and they represent the only sort of relations that are possible between particles of matter, according to the conception of scientific materialism. Because external relations are entirely accidental to the entities they are relating, there is no sense in conceiving a given set of relations to be superior to any other. Whitehead continues:

Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter…There is nothing to evolve…There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive.

In other words, MATTER does not evolve but is rather evolved. One mistakenly supposes otherwise for the same reason that one imagines SPACE to exist independently of the entities (i.e. “actual occasions” or “societies of actual occasions,” to employ Whitehead’s jargon) it relates, and time to pass irrespective of the events that constitute its actual unfolding. Space, time, and matter are all abstractions borrowed from immediate experience and for which this borrowing is subsequently ignored. To wit, materialistic theories of evolution owe their conclusions to ye Medusa of misplaced concreteness, who confers on abstractions the semblance of reality, and which semblance the idolaters (who are the only adherents of such theories) substitute for “consequent nature of god,” which nature is consubstantial with the world itself. Reality per se, as Heraclitus indicated some twenty-five centuries since, is evolution. For this reason, only what has not been abstracted from the stream of becoming can evolve.

“Matter” cannot evolve because “matter” does not have a concrete referent in reality. Instead, the intellect has cleaved the idea of matter from its verdant lifeline, sundering it from the Tree of Life so that it has shrivelled up into a spectral abstraction. Matter cannot evolve because it is not anything; MATTER, eo ipso, in abstraction from the myriad qualities of being, does not exist. “The concept of matter,” however, maintains a concrete referent in reality. Matter is real as a concept but not as a substance. The latter, being an abstraction taken to be something concrete, cannot do anything. The former, by contrast (i.e. the concept of matter) must, in principle, undergo continual metamorphosis for the basic reason that…“PANTA RHEI….everything flows!” Our understanding can be no less-fluid than the world itself if the former is to keep pace with reality. Indeed the time is ripe for “the idea of matter” to unfold into a new understanding that may befit the current season of the world. As “the critics of abstraction,” the responsibility befalls today’s philosophers to prune the withered branches of yesteryear’s cosmological conceits. The Tree of Knowledge is, in truth, the Tree of Life, only in its autumn season.

The state of modern thought is that every single item in this general doctrine is denied, but that the general conclusions from the doctrine as a whole are tenaciously retained. The result is a complete muddle in scientific thought, in philosophic cosmology, and in epistemology. But any doctrine which does not implicitly presuppose this point of view is assailed as unintelligible.

—A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1937)


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