Whitehead on Space and Time

Whitehead has some of the most conceptually liberating notions for thinking about time, space, and extensionality, but unfortunately, they can be difficult to grasp. Whitehead places space and time, as well as any other possible dimension, on what he terms the extensive continuum. This is the widest possible field which we are able to imagine. The bare extensive continuum is merely a field of potential that can be filled by actual entities through extensive connection.

Any kind of extension, either through space or time, takes place on the extensive continuum. Any kind of dimensionality is a form of extension, and the forms of extension which we bear witness to are not the only ways in which actual entities can and do manifest themselves. The three spatial dimensions which we are used to could be different. It’s entirely possible for there to be a society of entities which live in a “flatland” for instance.  This notion of time as one type of extensive connectedness allows for thinking about becoming and process outside of notions of pure time.

What is meant by extensive connectedness deserves some clarification. When an entity extends through space or time, this fundamentally has to do with the way in which the entity is situating itself in a scheme of relatedness. The different modes of extension are part of what determines how an entity interacts, or connects with other entities. It can do this spatially or temporally, or any other numbers of ways which we cannot conceive.  An entity that is highly extended is strongly related to many entities compared to one which is less extended. With this in mind, we can begin to think of time as just one form of extensive connection. The process of becoming is atemporal for Whitehead, time merely illustrates certain effects of becoming. What is more fundamental in talking about past, present, and future for Whitehead is determining the causal order of things. What we see as time merely illustrates some aspects of the causal relationships in a given entity’s becoming.

The extensive continuum also represents the potential divisibility of things. Everything on the continuum can be divided or split into parts by examination, but is found as a unified solidarity, hence continuum.

Now, what would this actually look like? The actual world of a given actual entity for Whitehead is causally in the past for that entity. That is, the entity is causally dependent on the entities in it. The things which this concresence is causally independent of are its contemporary entities. Though Whitehead is not clear on this, the way in which an entity extends temporally would determine which entities in its causal future are dependent on it and which are independent, while matters of space would deal with the “location” and importance of its connections to entities in this timeframe.

Thinking of becoming outside of time allows for a great expansion of the imagination. It lets us to reconcile notions of eternity and permanence inside of an ever-novel and changing universe, and also makes the discoveries of empirical sciencelike relativity, quantum entanglement, et ceteramore easily reconcileable with our categories of thought, though I am hesitant to make any sweeping claims on this matter without doing further research.

Understanding the Nonhuman: The Relevance of Ontology

In my philosophical and political circles, general schemes of reality have been accused of being unimportant. That is, in attempting to expand towards what lies beyond human experience, it ensures that whatever it adds to our worldviews will be irrelevant to any of our practical endeavors. I hope to dispel such notions.

As an analogy, let us imagine a group of physicists are measuring the behavior of an atom. These physicists develop a model to understand how this type of atom will move about when placed in certain conditions. In normal, earth-like conditions, they develop a model that explains its behavior in every case. However, they discover that this theory is limited: it cannot explain how the object behaves in extreme conditions. For this example, the atom behaves strangely at high speeds.

If these scientists were to announce, “No, the current model is completely fine, there is no need to develop a general one,” we would certainly be surprised and scold them for such behavior. Then, someone presents to them a general theory, and they respond, “This is just irrelevant! It does not present anything that matters for human engineering or technology! Do you not care about how things are for us?” People who acted like this would be treated as bad scientists in an ideal world, for if people acted this way, we would certainly never have made the discoveries that we have and the advances that we previously thought impossible. We would certainly consider it unjust if when the first person looked up at the stars and wondered aloud if they could be reached he was scolded by his peers and told to keep his mind on more practical things. Thanks to the work of the curious, we have discovered a great hope for our species in space travel.

Yet in philosophy and the more philosophical sciences, a similar attitude is not only pervasive, but dominant. Quoting Matthew T. Segal Quoting Graham Harman:

“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).

While Kant or Hegel will go to great lengths to make such spaces unreachable or nonexistent respectively, what we are dealing with here is a purely pragmatic objection. The non-human exists, but it does not matter. Objects may interact with each other and have a life of their own so to speak, but it is irrelevant to us, so there is no need to talk about it. This line of thought is as absurd as saying that because I have never opened and never needed to open a certain cabinet in my house that I never check what is inside. Checking what is inside will not hinder my ability to check the other cabinets, just as being able to talk about the nonhuman will not hinder my ability to talk about the human. It can only help it.

Refactoring your ontology is a little more complicated than opening a cabinet, but that does not mean it is terribly difficult. It never hurts for a theory to be able to talk about more things, as being able to talk about new things does not exclude what we were able to talk about before. It is especially critical when navigating human society and politics that we have as general a scheme as possible. Human society is situated in a worlda world which is for the most part nonhuman. We must speak about the nonhuman when discussing human society, and when we do so, we have to do so in a manner that is coherent. There is no avoiding ontology in this regard; there is simply doing ontology and pretending you have not. Winging our ontology will inevitably result in something reductionistic and limited.

One of the most important fields where the understanding of the nonhuman is important is ecology. For a long time, environmental concerns were ignored in politics and philosophy, yet our ignorance of how such things interact has led to one of the greatest crises to ever face humanity. It is important to understand the nonhuman here because we do not know the line where “affecting humans” ends and where “irrelevant” begins. I am not suggesting that the solution to the climate crisis is that we all become object-oriented philosophers; I am saying that our sciences and theories must have methodologies and theories which are not hopelessly skewed towards the human. We have nothing to lose from doing so except at most some hours of our time, and we may gain ways of thinking about our world which are more flexible, coherent, and expansive. It is common sense that such a thing is beneficial. Only when we do so can we put our more special endeavors into context and understand how they interact.

Philosophers, scientists, and political thinkers have long criticized the attitude that “if it does not affect me or my friends, then it does not matter.” Why then do they not purge themselves of the last vestige of this mode of thought? Philosophy has been irrelevant for so long because of this attitude writes Bogost:

“The problem is not the humanities as a discipline (who can blame a discipline?), the problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century whilst simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.”

The sooner we rid ourselves of such an attitude, the better. No more skewed theories; no more faulty instruments.

Freedom and Creativity in Whitehead

In Lecture 4 of Modes of Thought, Whitehead claims “the essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order. The Universe refuses the deadening influence of complete conformity.” The subtitle of this blog is based on a possibly apocryphal quote by Whitehead. “Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the universe.” If the essence of life for Whitehead is the frustration of the established order, then the essence of life lies in Creativity, the refusal of complete conformity. Indeed, creativity is given the status of “category of the ultimate” by Whitehead in his categoreal scheme. All of the creatures of Whitehead’s philosophy, from God to space dust, are creatures of Creativity. Now, that is not to say that a cloud of space dust is really a creative and inventive artist. It is merely pointing out the fact that things do not remain the same. It is the constant advance of novelty, however trivial it may be.

One might want to dub this “becoming,” but Whitehead refrains from doing so, as the word becoming is reserved for a particular characteristic of actual entities, and creativity is not an actual entity. Furthermore, becoming in Whitehead’s philosophy is something intermittent. Becoming is not temporal for Whitehead, but rather temporality is something that becomes. There is not a continuity of becoming, but a becoming of continuity. However, there is a continuity of creativity, as continuity itself emerges for creativity, yet creativity is not something that is substantive. Everything in the Whiteheadian universe is taking part in creativity, but creativity is something actual only in virtue of entities that are able to condition and characterize it, i.e. actual entities.

Creativity is found in the fact that the world is never the same twice, and the temporal worldand, for Whitehead, the world in generalis constantly producing something new. Even space dust does not merely conform to the past. If there was no creativityno novelty being introduced by entitiesthere would be no change. Even space dust is floating about, sometimes clumping together, sometimes breaking apart, and always undergoing some small change. Life itself is something that is one of the greatest agents of creativity, for it allows for complex types of entities to emerge. Bacteria react to their environment and maintain themselves. Early lifeforms are some of the first things to exhibit complex selective behavior, transforming, reducing, and reacting to the flow of information that they are fine-tuned to receive.

Yet bacteria are not great poets. Their creativity is still trivial, and a bacterium is almost entirely determined by its environment. It is highly limited in its individual capacity to change itself and determine, and the means by which it transforms its experience are primitive. Yet compared to space dust, the bacterium is much more independent of its environment because of the very fact that it resists conformity. It is an active order of events, and the species that it belongs to is as a whole even more dynamic, able to adapt over time in ways of which previous types of entities were simply incapable. It is clear that creativity for Whitehead is not something that floats in from nowhere, but something that develops out of a social environment. Every entity has a conformative period in which the past fills it, and each entity then issues forth from the past a novel satisfaction, something new and different. In a sense, an entity is an interpreter of the past. Every act of interpretation is novel creation and vice versa. Again, if an entity did not introduce anything new into the equation, there would not be a new entity! Rather, there would simply be more of the same.

Humans are, as far as we know, the most advanced organisms in regard to novelty-production due to our complex mental abilities. We are able to imagine, theorize, and plan for the future. Yet like bacteria, we do not create ex nihilo. We exist in a society which conditions us to a large degree. Great poets often do not choose the language in which they write. When John Keats sat down to write Ode on a Grecian Urn, the title alone reveals that he was working off of a past culture and society that had placed ideas into his head. There is an urn which inspires him, one that was created by an artist who, like Keats, was conditioned and shaped to a large extent by his culture. Yet the poem is not merely the sum of Keats’ education, with a mere description of the urn; it is something that has never existed before. However small it may be, Keats does indulge in an act of creation that brings something new into the world through his imagination. There would be no Keats without English culture, no Ode without the ancient poetic traditions, and without Greece, no Grecian Urn, yet it is only through Keats creative capacity that they are able to be tied together and something new emerge. This is, in a large part, interpretation, but it is a creative act nonetheless. Keats is able to be creative precisely because there is a basis of past creativity from which he pushes off and differs himself. Think of the artist who made the Grecian urn in question: they themselves engaged in a similar act of creation which provides a basis for future novelty. Furthermore, the English culture itself emerged through a process of evolution and creation, millions of people and elements contributing to the creation of something that did not exist before, despite the influence and inheritance of the past. Creativity is freedom, and just like there is no pure creativity, there is no absolute freedom, but there are shades and degrees.

What really leads to something coming from nothing, though, is the position that all of this merely evolves entirely out of past states. The claim that everything is merely deterministically conforming to past events is all that happens is not only denying that entities can be creative, but is tantamount to rejecting that there is any change or creation at all. If one admits that there is true novelty, we must explain how it is able to emerge without merely waving our hands to an incoherent system in which things simply pop in from non-things and without submitting to the equally incoherent idea of a perfect being which, for reasons unknown, merely unfolds itself out. We must explain our experience, but we cannot explain it away. That is the chief disease of philosophy, to paraphrase Whitehead, and it must be avoided at all costs. The philosophy of organism is merely an explanation of the most basic fact of novelty. Creativity is not something incoherent that floats in from nowhere, unique to genius individuals, but the most basic and ultimate notion of the universe.

This is not to say that creativity is always something valuable. Keats’ poems, for example, are not valuable to those who cannot read them; they are irrelevant. Aliens on some other planet are, for now, irrelevant to humans. When Whitehead speaks of creativity, he is not making a value judgment. Creativity is not good in and of itself, but rather a condition for the possibility of value. Value emerges based on the ways in which other entities experience and interact with each other, rather than as some absolute factor of creativity. Things of little consequence or value to anything happen more often than not. A single photon flying through empty space is, for all intents and purposes, valueless. Creativity is not valuable per se, but value is something that is created.

It must be remembered that the environment which makes creativity possible is only one side of the story. The past presses down upon the present, but never completely. Even when humans are long gone, this creative advance shall not cease.

“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–John Keats

 

Note: Some have asked me why Whitehead uses the term creativity rather than something more traditional like “becoming.” The most concise way of putting this reason is that becoming for Whitehead is ontic, it is something that happens to individual things, while creativity is not a thing or entity, but a description of the general process of reality.

The Philosophy of Organism Part 5: Societies and Nexūs

The world of societies and nexūs (plural of nexus) is the world that we typically experience and live in. The world of rocks, trees, and humans. Aggregated actual entities form complex beings that endure over time. From here on in, things become much more intuitive.

This will probably be the last post in this series. This does not mean I will cease to write about Whitehead, quite the opposite. After this article, the series should be complete enough that anyone reading future posts I make about Whitehead could read these and have a reasonable understanding of how things function. Future articles about Whitehead’s theories of perception, consciousness, causality, etc. will not be numbered in a series, but their own independent articles.

The Nexus

A nexus is the most basic kind of aggregate in the philosophy of organism. The way that a nexus emerges is through a process called “transmutation.” This has nothing to do with alchemy (damn) but merely with disparate datum coming together to produce one complex novel feeling. The many being felt as one. The many disparate entities are prehended not as an aggregate, but as a unity. The doctrine of transmuted feelings allows Whitehead to overcome a problem inherent to monadic metaphysics. If everything is ultimately composed of singular monads, then how do larger objects emerge? Why do we see the world in a macrocosmic manner instead of simply monads? Where Leibniz brought in an ad-hoc and inexplicable doctrine of “confused perception” Whitehead brings in his rigorous category of transmutation:

The Category of Transmutation. When (in accordance with category (iv), or with category (iv) and (v) one and the same conceptual feeling is derived impartially by a prehending subject from its analogous simple physical feelings of various actual entities in its actual world, then, in a subsequent phase of integration of these simple physical feelings together with the derivate conceptual feeling, the prehending subject may transmute the datum of this conceptual feeling into a characteristic of some nexus containing those prehended actual entities among its members, or of some part of that nexus. In this way the nexus (or its part), thus characterized, is the objective datum of a feeling entertained by this prehending subject.”

To translate out of Whiteheadese, this is essentially saying that many disparate feelings that share a common eternal object, (for example, being red) can be grouped together by the subject and felt as a unity due to this common characteristic. This is quite intuitive. The disparate datum have been transmuted into one complex datum. As such, a feeling of a nexus is a termed a “transmuted” feeling. The physical feelings of the separate entities give rise to a common conceptual feeling, and merged into a nexus.

It must be considered though that the eternal object is not always a simple conceptual feeling. It could be derived by conceptual reversion, and as such, error can be introduced. However, this is also how novelty can be introduced. Possible patterns can be introduced through prehending a nexus with a reverted conceptual feeling. The possibilities and potentials of combination bleed in from the eternal.

Order

A nexus is able to provide the kind of systematic order that allows for the universe to be felt as a community rather than as purely chaotic multiplicity. Whitehead tries to make it clear that there is no such thing as an absolute order. There is no far off event to which all things are moving towards. Order is always order in regards to something. The society of “a ball of mud” has order regarding it’s shape, components, etc. The order can shift in multiple ways. The order of the ball can completely collapse, in which case the society of entities as a ball collapses, though the mud-society would persist.

Societies

A society is a nexus with an order that is not merely imposed from the outside. The members of the society mutually condition each other, and possess a route of inheritance that allows them to sustain and persist along the lines of a single characteristic. As this is about the philosophy of organism, let’s use the example of a single-celled organism as a society. The cell can, within reason, be placed in any environment and sustain itself. The cell is engaging in autopoiesis, and each part of the cell is actively engaged with the others in operating as part of the society. Furthermore, the cell, like almost all societies, has numerous sub-societies and/or nexus within itself, in addition to be part of a society itself. Societies to Whitehead always are always like Matryoshka dolls. Each opening only reveals another layer.

A cell’s organelles, however, are not societies, Whitehead contends. Rather, each organelle is a subordinate nexus of the cellular society. This is because the organelles, while being complex groupings of actual entities, are only able to persist functioning as part of the cell. A rock on the other hand is “corpuscular” society. Corpuscular is a term used to describe how independent the parts of a society are from the society. If I cut a rock in two, I will end up with two rocks, which will not cease to exist or transform into something entirely new. The rock is made up of countless societies which are able to persist independently and stably of the others without losing their pattern. Similarly, certain plants may have a shoot cut off of them, and have that shoot grow into an entirely new and independent plant. A human is less corpuscular than a plant, for a human possesses a centralized center of control, a “regnant society” in their brain. The destruction of this one society leads to the breakdown of the entirety of the rest of the body.

The ideally corpuscular society is made up entirely of what Whitehead terms “enduring objects.” An enduring object is a society composed of a single “strand” of actual entities perpetuating themselves over time. In this manner it enjoys what Whitehead terms a “personal order.” There are no contemporary entities, and at any point in time there will only be one entity of this society in existence if it enjoys a personal order. A rock might appear to be this perfectly corpuscular society, composed entirely of enduring objects, but when we reach the atomic level, we discover atomic societies which may be further broken down. Corpuscularity is thus always a gradient in reality. One of the major points that resonates throughout Whitehead’s work is to always be aware of the level of abstraction we operate at. When we generalize, detail, important or unimportant, is lost. Generalizations are powerful and vital to the operation of not just human life, but the world at large, and indeed, the formulation of the widest possible generalities is the goal of philosophy for Whitehead. Understanding what generalizations or abstractions we operate with, and how they work, is vital to both nation-states and dogs. Nevertheless. We must never mistake the map for the territory.

The Extensive Continuum.

Whitehead builds a rough image of our “societal location” in Process and Reality. We are in an electromagnetic society of atoms, molecules, and the laws of physics as we know them. This itself is situated in a society of geometric entities. Each society requires the society in which it resides to provide an environment that sustains it. If the geometric society broke down, presumably the electromagnetic society would too. Whitehead eventually reaches the widest possible generality, that of the extensive continuum. The dominant characteristic here is as it says: “extensive continuity.” This is merely the feature of entities to be extended in some manner, spatially or otherwise, and their connection with other entities. This is the furthest we can ontologically see, and sadly, where this guide will stop short. The chapters of Process and Reality dealing with this directly are some of the hardest in the book, perhaps in the entire western cannon.

Our next article then, will be the conclusion, which will provide advice and recommendations on how to tackle Whitehead’s labyrinthine philosophy. Supplementary books, lectures, and other resources, many of which have been helpful in writing this series, will also be noted. Lastly, I hope to provide an enticing portrait of what the philosophy of organism means in the context of philosophy at large, and all of the important problems which it can provide answers to.