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David Ray Griffin

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Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness


David Ray Griffin       


I. The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

What is common to all forms of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness is the “error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete” (SMW, 51)—of assuming an abstraction from a concrete reality to be the totality.  The version of this error most germane to our topic is that of assuming nature as it actually is to be composed of matter understood as having “simple location.”   For a bit of matter to be “simply located” would mean that it could properly be said to be right here in space and time in a way that required no essential reference to other regions of space-time (SMW, 49).  In other words, the concrete units of nature would have no essential reference either to the past or to the future.

This notion of nature creates obvious difficulties.  As Hume pointed out, it makes the justification for scientific induction difficult.

For [Whitehead says], if in the location of configurations of matter throughout a stretch of time there is no inherent reference to any other times, past or future, it immediately follows that nature within any period does not refer to nature at any other period.  Accordingly, induction is not based on anything which can be observed as inherent in nature. (SMW, 51)

Thinkers in the early modern period were not bothered by this fact, because they held that matter obeyed rigorous laws imposed by its creator; even Darwin retained a deistic form of that belief.  But what is the justification for induction in a naturalistic framework?  It is freeloading to keep the imposition while rejecting the Imposer.  It seems that we are again presupposing something in practice for which orthodox theory provides no basis.  Also, if nature’s units have no reference to the past, our own memory, given the assumption that we are fully natural, would be difficult to explain (SMW, 51).

A second feature of the materialistic view of the concrete units of nature, besides simple location, is the notion that they can exist at an instant, in the technical sense of an idealized slice in time completely devoid of duration.  According to this view, “if material has existed during any period, it has equally been in existence during any portion of that period.  In other words, dividing the time does not divide the material” (SMW, 49), which means that “the lapse of time is an accident, rather than of the essence, of the material. . . . The material is equally itself at an instant of time” (SMW, 50).  There is, accordingly, no inner motion, no internal becoming; the only kind of motion ascribable to the units of nature is locomotion, motion through space.  Combining this second feature with the first, we get the notion of the “simple location of instantaneous material configurations” (SMW, 50).

A third feature of this view of matter is that because the concrete units of nature are assumed to have no inner duration, they are assumed to have no intrinsic reality whatsoever, which means that they are assumed not to have any intrinsic value, not to be things that exist for their own sakes.  They are “vacuous actualities” (PR, 167), meaning actualities totally devoid of experience.  “Nature is thus described as made up of vacuous bits of matter with no internal values, and merely hurrying through space” (MT, 158).

According to this view, the units of nature, being completely timeless, are totally different from our conscious experience as we know it immediately.  We have memory, whereas natural units are said to have no reference to the past.  We experience a present duration, in which we enjoy intrinsic value and make choices among possible values, whereas the reality of the units of nature is said to be exhausted by their outer features.  Finally, our present experience, with its purposes, includes an anticipation of the future, whereas nothing analogous is said to occur in the units of nature.  Our experience is temporal through and through; the units of nature are purely spatial.

The idea that our experience could arise out of natural units thus conceived is indeed paradoxical.  But this paradox only arises, Whitehead says, because we have committed the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.  Employing Bergson’s term to express the nature of the error involved, he says that we tend to “spatialize” the objects of sensory perception (SMW, 50; PR, 209).  This tendency is so strong because it arises from the conjunction of at least three factors:

(1) We cannot perceive contemporary events while they are becoming; we can perceive events only when they are past, after their internal becoming is finished.

(2) Objects of sensory perception are aggregational societies of large numbers of individuals and, as such, are predominantly spatial entities.

(3) Conscious sensory perception itself spatializes its data, removing in the process any inherited affective tone.

The meaning of these three points will be filled out in the ensuing discussion; for now, the point is the old one of being suspicious of appearances.  Modern philosophy, in stressing the illusory nature of sensory appearances, has congratulated itself on having fulfilled its duty to be suspicious by distinguishing between primary and secondary qualities while accepting unquestioningly the deeper illusion: the notion of instantaneous bits of matter simply located in space (which lay behind the distinction between primary and secondary qualities).  Whitehead is much more suspicious than McGinn of the conception of matter based on spatializing sensory perceptions.

Philosophy’s task, Whitehead suggests, is to be “the critic of abstractions.”   By playing this role, it can be helpful to society, including society’s science (SMW, 59, 87).  For a period, of course, society in general and science in particular were not interested in this help, thanks to the “narrow efficiency” of the scheme of ideas based on scientific materialism.  That is, this scheme of ideas was extremely successful in directing attention to, and getting relevant knowledge about, “just those groups of facts which, in the state of knowledge then existing, required investigation” (SMW, 17).  This scheme of ideas was efficient precisely because it was narrow, suitable only for a particular range of facts that needed to be considered first, namely, the “simplest things” (MT, 154).  The great success of this method made it impervious to philosophical criticism, such as that of Berkeley and Hume (SMW, 59, 66).  Because of “its expulsion by science from the objectivist sphere of matter,” philosophy “retreated into the subjectivist sphere of mind,” thereby losing “its proper role as a constant critic of partial formulations” (SMW, 142).

Now, however, Whitehead says, this scientific materialism, with its abstractions, has become too narrow for science itself, “too narrow for the concrete facts which are before it for analysis.  This is true even in physics, and is more especially urgent in the biological sciences” (SMW, 66).

Whitehead’s attempt to provide a “wider basis for scientific thought” (SMW, 67) has, of course, been largely ignored.  Like previous philosophical critics of the abstractions that the scientific community has inherited from the dualists of the seventeenth century, Whitehead has until now been left crying in the wilderness.  However, the present attempt to develop a science of mind or consciousness, which requires putting mind back into nature, provides the context in which Whitehead’s analysis of misplaced concreteness may get a hearing.  The attempt to produce a fully naturalistic science of mind makes abundantly obvious—even more so than does biology, including physiology—that the received ideas are “too narrow for the concrete facts which are before [science] for analysis.”   This is the recognition behind the dissatisfaction of Madell, the perplexity of Nagel, the agnosticism of Strawson, and the pessimism of McGinn, Robinson, and Campbell.  The basic reason for the problem, as these thinkers more or less clearly recognize, is the one Whitehead gave—that this scheme of ideas “provides none of the elements which compose the immediate psychological experiences of mankind.  Nor does it provide any elementary trace of the organic unity of a whole” (SMW, 73).

Whitehead bases his criticism of these abstractions, as well as his own proffered replacements, on the conviction that although the tendency to spatialize the objects of sensory perception is a very general tendency, it is not, as McGinn’s analysis seems to suppose, an inherent necessity of the intellect (SMW, 51; PR, 209).  He rejects the idea that “the abstractions of science are irreformable,” offering his own program of reform “in the interest of science itself” (SMW, 83).

Besides hindering the progress of science, Whitehead says, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, resulting in the idea of instantaneous matter with simple location, has been “the occasion of great confusion in philosophy” (SMW, 51).  This confusion has not been limited, however, to the abstract view of matter.  The usual notion of the mind, as consisting essentially of consciousness and distinctively mental operations, is also a high abstraction (SMW, 58).  This twofold abstraction lies behind the reason that neither the top-down strategy nor the bottom-up strategy, as described by McGinn, could go very far toward overcoming the gap between matter and mind.  Closing the apparent gap requires overcoming both parts of the twofold abstraction.  That is, although my Whiteheadian approach agrees with Strawson that the primary reason for the intractability of the mind-body problem has been the received view of the physical body, not, as the majority view holds, the received notion of conscious experience, my approach holds that this notion of consciousness shares some of the blame—partly because it contributes significantly to the false view of the body.

The mind-body problem has been generated, Whitehead suggests, because the bits of matter that enter into scientific description, as well as the conscious minds thought to be doing the observing and describing, are entities “of a high degree of abstraction” resulting from “a process of constructive abstraction” (SMW, 52, 58).  Unlike extremists on this point, Whitehead does not say that the very notion of matter is a complete fiction, created out of whole cloth, with no correspondence to reality.  Nor does he, unlike other extremists, say this about consciousness. Rather, he says, “‘matter’ and ‘consciousness’ both express something so evident in ordinary experience that any philosophy must provide some things which answer to their respective meanings” (SMW, 143).  To speak of them as abstractions is to say that, rather than being simply fictions, they are “simplified editions of immediate matters of fact” (SMW, 52).  Overcoming the twofold abstractness of vacuous bits of matter and consciousness as the stuff of mind can be described as the central purpose of Whitehead’s philosophy.

The fallacious view of matter resulting from misplaced concreteness, Whitehead believes, can be overcome by starting from the bottom, with physics, or at the top, with human psychology, supplemented by physiology.  The “organic realism” toward which he is heading (PR, 309) could also be reached, he says, by beginning in the middle, with biology, which most readily suggests the concept of organism in place of mechanism (SMW, 41, 103) and which, with its doctrine of evolution, demands a doctrine of elementary units that are capable of evolution (which the aboriginal stuff of the materialistic philosophy is not [SMW, 107]).  But he devotes most of his attention to psychological and physiological studies of human beings and to physics, reporting that he in fact arrived at his own convictions by means of an analysis of fundamental notions in physics (SMW, 152).  Part of what he means can be learned from chapters 1 through 10 of Science and the Modern World or, more briefly, from chapter 7 of Modes of Thought.

Developments in modern physics, he argues in these chapters, have undermined all the elements on which the materialistic view of nature was based. In the new view, in particular, “there is no nature at an instant” (MT, 146), and the notion of passive, enduring matter has been undermined: “Matter has been identified with energy, and energy is sheer activity” (MT, 137).  Physics as such, to be sure, does not completely overcome the dualism between experience and matter, because of the limited interests of physics:  “In physics there is an abstraction. The science ignores what anything is in itself,” that is, its intrinsic reality, considering its entities only with regard to their extrinsic reality, and only certain aspects of this, namely, the modifications of spatiotemporal specifications of other things (SMW, 153).[*]

[*] I quoted earlier Strawson’s statement that physics provides “what we think of as our best account of the nature of the physical” (MR, 47).  Although Strawson’s statement can be accepted as a sociological statement about the dominant view today in scientific and philosophical circles, from Whitehead’s analysis it follows that we emphatically should not think of (present-day) physics as performing this role.  To do so involves doubly misplaced concreteness, given the double abstraction involved in the conceptions provided by (present-day) physics.  Of course, Strawson’s statement does not mean that he himself is guilty of this fallacy, given his assertion that the account of the physical provided by present-day physics must, at a general level, be radically incomplete.  It does seem, however, that by and large scientists and philosophers reinforce each other in this fallacy of misplaced concreteness:  Most philosophers seem to think that the materialistic view of nature’s ultimate units is vouchsafed by physics, whereas most physicists, generally being aware that, because they deal only with abstractions, they are not in a position to settle philosophical questions about the nature of nature, seem to assume that the materialistic view of their realm is based on good philosophical reasoning (whether of professional philosophers or of fellow physicists functioning as their own philosophers).  If philosophy would, as Whitehead proposes, recover its role as the critic of abstractions, this vicious cycle might be broken.

Also, although the notion of energy as fundamental is an advance on the older idea of matter, “the physicists’ energy is obviously an abstraction” (SMW, 36).  But, in sweeping away the Cartesian-Newtonian “essential distinction between matter at an instant and the agitations of experience,” the new physics now at least allows “bodily activities and forms of experience [to] be construed in terms of each other” (MT, 115).  That is, we can add content to the notion of “bare activity” by fusing experience and nature (MT, 166).

The bottom-up approach from physics, however, can only take us part of the way.  Bridging the apparent gap requires supplementation from the top-down approach.  That approach, however, faces great obstacles, especially given inherited modes of thought.   I turn now to this approach.

 Posted August 31, 2007


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

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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