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David Ray Griffin

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From David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Prob-lem, University of California Press,  1998, Chapter 8, 117-162. 

“Because it contains my answer to the question of the relation of ‘matter’ and ‘consciousness,’ . . . this is the key chapter in the book.”   

“We need . . . a philosophical cosmology that explains the fact that our minds seem to be fully natural.  The reason a cosmology based on scientific materialism cannot provide such an explanation is that the abstraction on which this materialism is based involves precisely the removal of mind from nature.”    

The book's complete text is available here.  I have added only the word “Introduction” on this page. 

Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

David Ray Griffin

             I.      The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

          II.      Overcoming Misplaced Concreteness with Regard to Both Matter and Mind

A. The Status of Human Experience in Nature

B. The Status of Consciousness in Human Experience

C. The Status of Sensory Perception in Human Experience

D. The Spatializing Nature of Sensory Perception’s Presentational Immediacy

E. Implications of the Bodily Origin of Sensory Perception

F. Information about Nature Derived from Direct Prehension of Our Bodies

       III.      From Inner Physics to Human Psychology: Subjective Universals

        IV.      Subjects, Objects, and Enduring Individuals: from Photons to Psyches



The crux of the mind-body problem is that, given what is assumed to be the scientific conception of nature and therefore the human body, including the brain, it is impossible to understand how our conscious experience, which we know exists, could arise out of the body, and also how this experience could have the dual capacity for self-determining freedom and for employing this freedom in directing the body, which we all presuppose in practice.  We are confronted by a paradox: What we in one sense know to be the case seemingly cannot be.  The solution to be suggested here is based on Whitehead’s proposal that “the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstraction for concrete realities” (SMW, 55).

Whitehead’s statement occurs in the midst of his historical-philosophical examination of the effects on modern Western thought of its “acceptance of the [seventeenth-century] scientific cosmology at its face value” (SMW, 17).  What was accepted at “face value” was “scientific materialism,” which “presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations,” material that is “senseless, valueless, purposeless . . . following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being” (SMW, 17).  The view of nature articulated by this “scientific materialism,” which is still widely presupposed, lies at the root of the mind-body problem—a fact illustrated by Searle’s statement of the problem:  “We think of ourselves as conscious, free, mindful, rational agents in a world that science tells us consists entirely of mindless, meaningless physical particles” (MBS, 13).  This view of nature, Whitehead suggests, results from “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  

Whitehead connects his own philosophical reconstruction, which is devoted to explaining and overcoming this fallacy, directly to the mind-body problem:

The living organ of experience is the living body as a whole. . . . In the course of [its] physical activities human experience has its origin.  The plausible interpretation of such experience is that it is one of the natural activities involved in the functioning of such a high-grade organism.  The actualities of nature must be so interpreted as to be explanatory of this fact. (AI, 225)

We need, in other words, a philosophical cosmology that explains the fact that our minds seem to be fully natural.  The reason a cosmology based on scientific materialism cannot provide such an explanation is that the abstraction on which this materialism is based involves precisely the removal of mind from nature.  The science that has provided the most help toward a reinterpretation of the actualities of nature, Whitehead suggests, is physiology, because “the effect of physiology was to put mind back into nature” (SMW, 148).  Whitehead is not naive: He knows that physiologists “are apt to see more body than soul in human beings” (AI, 189).  What he means is that physiology has had the effect of overcoming the dualism of mind and body formulated by Descartes and Locke and that overcoming this dualism will require us to reconceive the nature of the body as well as the mind.

In this chapter I lay out the various kinds of evidence and argument employed by Whitehead in justifying his reconstrual of both mind and body.  Because it contains my answer to the question of the relation of “matter” and “consciousness,” and because this answer will be presupposed in the following chapter (on freedom), this is the key chapter in the book.  Unfortunately, however, it is also the most difficult one.  There are three reasons for this difficulty.  

First, the mind-body problem is inherently a difficult one, as more than three centuries of discussion have demonstrated.  

Second, this chapter is where the radical conceptual innovation called for by several thinkers, and promised in the introduction, is encountered.  Now, it is one thing to call formally for radical reconceptualization; it is something quite else to encounter an example of it in which deeply ingrained ways of thinking are challenged, new words (such as prehension ) are employed, and old words (such as feeling, physical, and mental ) are given new meanings.  One will probably find it difficult to keep the meanings straight, and the new way of looking at things may seem so odd that one will wonder if it is worth the effort.  

Third, this chapter’s argument is developed in the form of an exposition of Whitehead’s thought, and I quote rather extensively from Whitehead’s own statements, which sometimes, especially when containing technical terms and taken out of context, are not as clear as one might like.  I use this method, in spite of the added difficulty it creates, because one of my purposes is to show that, although this fact has not been widely appreciated (even among Whitehead scholars), Whitehead’s philosophy can best be read as an extended solution to the mind-body problem.  

Also, exactly what the various elements in his solution are, and how they fit together, have not been widely understood (again, even among Whitehead scholars), so it is necessary to show, by means of extensive quotation, that the points I make really are Whitehead’s points.  I hope thereby to contribute not only to a viable solution to the mind-body problem but also to a much wider appreciation of the power and relevance of Whitehead’s thought, now that philosophy is emerging from its anti-metaphysical slumbers.

Before moving to the heart of this chapter, which is an exposition of Whitehead’s new understanding of both mind and body, I need to discuss the fallacy that he sees as lying at the root of modernity’s mind-body problem.

Posted August 31, 2007



I. The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness


Abbreviations of Works Cited

·          AI Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas

·          SMW Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

·          MBS John R. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures

·          MR Galen Strawson, Mental Reality

·          MT Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought

·          PCH Lewis Edwin Hahn, ed., The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne: Library of Living Philosophers XX

·          PR Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology

·          VN Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere

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