Whitehead (continued)

I have continued my exploration of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead by reading Science and the Modern World (1925), together with the first half of Isabelle Stengers’ commentary

I have continued my exploration of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead by reading Science and the Modern World (1925), together with the first half of Isabelle Stengers’ commentary

As Stengers says, Science and the Modern World is a strange book. In the guise of providing an intellectual theory of the development of modern science, Whitehead in fact introduces his own metaphysical speculations. Each chapter starts with a discussion of Galileo, or Newton, or Romanticism (by which Whitehead means mostly Wordsworth and Shelley) or Relativity or Quantum Mechanics; but in each case Whitehead breaks away from his conventional-sounding (but highly idiosyncratic in the details) accounts of these figures or movements, to provide aspects of his own take on the problems at hand. These start out fairly modestly, but blossom by the latter portion of the book into a full-blown metaphysical system.

Stengers has functioned as my guide to the details of Whitehead’s metaphysics – including several rather significant changes of direction that are deeply buried in the text of Science and the Modern World. But it’s not for such details that one really reads Whitehead, so much as for his manner of approach to problems. This is also something that Stengers articulates well – she says that, as a mathematician, Whitehead seeks to find a resolution to logical dilemmas, given certain initial constraints; and points how different this is from the legislative mode of Kantian/Hegelian/Marxist/modernist critique. Rather than drawing lines of limitation beyond which thought must not go (as Kant does) or finding bogus ways to relativize, internalize, and thus at once digest and transcend those limitations (as Hegel does), Whitehead treats these limits not as boundaries to thought, but as stimuli to thought: initial constraints that the construction of problems and their solutions must begin with.

But I don’t want this just to be a paraphrase of Stengers’ paraphrase of Whitehead. What I get from Whitehead himself is a sense of continually shifting contexts. This is especially visible in the way he handles science. Whitehead, like many other 20th century thinkers, is a critic of science’s pretensions to totality: its claims to monopolize understanding and to disqualify all other kinds of potential knowledge. But he makes this argument in a surprising way, one that cannot be called obscurantist or anti-scientific.

I must say that I am sick and tired of Heideggerian critiques of science and technology, with their phobia toward novelty, their absurd valorizations of origins, and their ridiculously totalizing views of technological ‘enframing’ or scientific objectification. Heidegger seems incapable of understanding that technology is as basic to human existence as language (which is a technology itself); I can see little but Nazi nostalgia in his preference for unspoiled forest paths over hydroelectric dams. Or in other words, there is no such thing as a pristine nature before genetic engineering of crops came along. (I object to Monsanto’s patent monopolies, as well as to the danger in imposing monocultures where before there was greater genetic diversity; but I certainly do not condemn genetic engineering itself as a supposed tampering with nature).

Leaving Heidegger and his followers aside, the major critique that comes up in “science studies” today is a rhetorical and ideological one, that points out the metaphorical basis, and the ideological biases, of science’s claims to literal truth. This isn’t wrong, but it is rather limited in its analytical possibilities, if only because science studies itself, by definition, cannot offer a discourse that is any less compromised. This line of analysis also tends to beg the question in many important respects: for instance, though it is a fact that the history of eugenics, and of characterizations of human beings on the basis of their genes, in the 19th and 20th centuries is mostly one of racism and (potential and actual) genocide, this does not mean that any attempt to modify human gene lines is thereby necessarily racist and genocidal. Denouncing the evolutionary psychologists (sociobiologists) as racists and bigots, even if this charge is true, basically lets them off the hook, because it is substituting a moralistic denunciation for an analysis of of how shoddy their “science” really is. We need better arguments, ones that do not rely on the worn-out language of moralistic denunciation (which only succeeds in giving the objects of the attack a transgressive allure they do not merit).

Where does Whitehead come into all this? Well, a better critique of things like evolutionary psychology and genetic determinism needs to proceed on both scientific and extra-scientific grounds. A scientific critique of gene-centrism, for instance, can be found in the book by Lenny Moss I reviewed in my last blog entry, as well as in the writings of Evelyn Fox Keller and others. But for an extra-scientific critique, there are few better places to go than Whitehead.

Whitehead is not anti-science. He admires the development of physical and life science from the age of Galileo to his own time (the age of relativity, quantum mechanics, and the beginnings of an integrated evolutionary biology). And he accepts the findings of this science, on its own terms. What he questions is the extent to which those terms can extend. An account of how light is reflected and refracted, for instance, can explain, in a very real sense, this sensation of a particular shade of bright red that I am experiencing now. But such an explanation does not reduce or disqualify the phenomenological experience of seeing/feeling that red; it adds to it, or abstracts away from it, by considering it from a particular point of view. Science need not “unweave the rainbow,” so long as we are broad-minded enough to accept both the physicist’s and the poet’s accounts of the rainbow as a phenomenon. The only thing wrong with science, in Whitehead’s view, is when it relegates all descriptions and experiences other than its own to the realm of the merely subjective and illusory.

So the effort of Whitehead’s metaphysics is to construct a view of the world, and of experience, that does not contradict the discoveries of science, that in fact accounts for, ratifies, and endorses them, but that at the same time leaves the gates totally open, by equally accounting for, ratifying, and endorsing other modes of experiencing the world: aesthetic, religious, pragmatic, what have you. To do this is to make a kind of abstraction from the totality of experience; but Whitehead’s point is that all our modes of comprehending the world, aesthetic and religious and philosophical ones as well as scientific ones, are abstractions of this sort. We cannot live without abstractions; they alone make thought possible. We only get in trouble when we think that our abstractions are more complete and actual than they are; this is what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” I could not see the world, and this color red, without the incessant action of photons; but photons are not what I am seeing, right now.

For Whitehead, the world is made of events, not static entities; and these events are what he calls prehensions. He invents this neologism by omitting the first syllable of the word “apprehension” (used in the sense of perceptual experience: I apprehend a particular shade of red). A prehension is the manner in which anything takes account of anything else; conscious sense-perception is a prehension, but so are many non-conscious activities, like the tropism of a plant that turns toward the sun, or even what happens when a rock falls off a cliff: the rock is prehending the gravitational field of the earth. Entities prehend other entities, and are prehended by those other entities in their own turn. But these “entities” are themselves already prehensions.

This doesn’t mean that everything is conscious or mental; but rather (to use a more contemporary vocabulary, translating Whitehead into terms that we use today in complexity theory) that conscious mental activity is itself a life activity that has become reflexive on a higher, more self-organized level; even as life activities are themselves physical processes that have become reflexive on higher, more self-organized levels. One startling result of this way of seeing things is that there is no special privileging of subjectivity, or of subject/object dualism, even when Whitehead is talking about consciousness and mental activity. Another, equally startling result is that questions of “representation” become simply irrelevant; prehending the world, or parts of the world, does not mean “representing” the world and its parts to ourselves. This is very much in line with the “performative” accounts of meaning and identity that are argued today by pragmatists, language philosophers, and deconstructionists alike; but Whitehead’s way of posing the issue is arguably richer than any of these, because of the way he refuses to privilege subjectivity and human-centeredness.

The other crucial point in Whitehead’s metaphysics also comes out of his interest in process. This is his theory of individuation. Like Heraclitus and Nietzsche, Whitehead insists that the world is flux and change, rather than being composed of stable entities. But Whitehead does not thereby say (as Heraclitus does, and Nietzsche at least sometimes) that stability and endurance (the endurance of personal identity, or of physical objects) is an illusion. It is a real part of our experience, and must be accounted for just like scientific analysis, phenomenological sensation, or anything else. So Whitehead does not “deconstruct” the ego, for instance. Rather, he inverts metaphysical tradition by asking how something apparently persistent like the ego can subsist when everything is continual change, when there are no entities but only events. Rather than taking stability as the norm, and regarding the breakdown of this stability with either apocalyptic exuberance or paranoid dread, Whitehead looks at stability as something that is not self-evident, but needs in its turn to be explained. The ego is not an illusion that needs to be deconstructed (as philosophers from Hume to Derrida have deconstructed it), but a real datum of experience: one that, however, is not given in advance, but itself needs to be constructed and explained.

Whitehead felt that the discoveries of 20th century physics – relativity and quantum mechanics – had shown the inadequacy of the positivism that was the philosophical basis of science in the 17th through 19th centuries. Scientists themselves have been for the most part reluctant to agree with this, even as chaos and complexity theories, not to mention the complications of evolutionary biology, have joined relativity and quantum mechanics in denying any stable, Newtonian vision of the universe. But this is precisely why Whitehead might well be useful and relevant today for the project re-evaluating science, accepting its enormous and profound accomplishments while resisting its claims for a “theory of everything,” or for what E. O. Wilson calls “consilience”.

I’d better stop at this point, before I blather on into even greater confusion. Since school is starting soon, and I will be rather busy, I am taking a break, before I return to Whitehead by reading his magnum opus Process and Reality, together with the second half of Stengers’ book.