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David Ray Griffin

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Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

David Ray Griffin

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


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

[*] I distinguished, in the final section of chapter 7, between two kinds of sensory perception: perception of things external to one's body and “proprioception” of parts of one's own body.   In this section, I distinguish between sensory perception as such, but especially of external things, and perception in the mode of causal efficacy.  

The general thesis of the remainder of this section is that “among the primary elements of nature as apprehended in our immediate experience” there is no element that is experienced as simply located or vacuous, with “vacuous” understood to mean void of all experience (SMW, 58; PR, 29, 167).  The points below (E and F) treat the positive side of this thesis, which is that the truly given elements of experience are all given so as to suggest just the opposite—that the units of nature contain experience and references to the past and the future.  The present point treats the negative side of the thesis, which is that the conception of matter as having the twin characteristics of vacuity and simple location is based on constructed, not given, elements in experience.  

In this discussion, I will, as the above head indicates, be thinking of sensory perception in terms of its dimension of presentational immediacy (which is overwhelmingly dominant in it and with which it is usually simply equated).  The main point is that the view of nature on which scientific materialism is based, in which matter is seen as having none but spatial properties, is a result of the spatializing nature of presentational immediacy.  Because of the prominence of presentational immediacy in sensory perception, the perceptual mode of causal efficacy, which suggests a quite different view of nature, is virtually if not totally ignored.  By misunderstanding the status of presentational immediacy within sensory perception, we are led to construct a false view of nature.  

The point that presentational immediacy is a derivative, not a direct, mode of perception has already been made.  Whereas nonsensory prehension of our own body is perception of nature as directly given to experience, in sensory perception that provides information of things beyond the body we have nature as constructed, not simply given.  This is a point on which our usual epistemological assumptions should be partly corrected by our science: “Unless the physical and physiological sciences are fables, the qualitative experiences which are the sensations, such as sight, hearing, etc., are involved in an intricate flux of reactions within and without the animal body” (MT, 121).  Sense data, in other words, are produced by an amazingly complex, indirect process.  Philosophers tend to give lip service to this fact and then continue to think of nature in terms of the purely spatial matter that is a product of (external) sensory perception.

One respect in which sensory perception is illusory—we now know, thanks to modern physics, chemistry, and biology, with their atomic, molecular, and cell theories—is that sensory perception hides the true individuals composing material things.  A stone, for example, is composed of billions of individuals engaged in energetic activity.  Sensory perception, however, gives us a single, passive, enduring substance, numerically one both temporally and spatially (MT, 154; PR, 77).  Even when we know better, we may continue, with Popper, to take “solid material bodies” as the paradigms of reality.[*] Historically, what happened was that the characteristics originally attributed to the stone were reassigned to the molecule and the atom.  In Whitehead’s words, “The metaphysical concepts, which had their origin in a mistake about the stone, were now applied to the individual molecules.  Each atom was still a stuff which retained its self-identity and its essential attributes in any portion of time—however short, and however long” (PR, 78).  When it became clear that the concept of passive, enduring matter did not apply to the atom, its application was shifted to the (revealingly named) “elementary particles.”  Even though quantum physics suggests that the whole concept is a mistake, it continues to be assumed.  This is the power of the perception-based conceptions suggested by perception in the mode of presentational immediacy.

[*] Even Strawson seems to continue this practice.  Although he says that experience must be taken to be fully natural and to be as real as any other properties or phenomena of physical things, emphasizing that the reality of experience is “the thing of which we can be most certain” (MR, 57), he nevertheless, when naming “paradigm cases of physical phenomena,” names “rocks, seas, neurons, and so on” (MR, 110).  The logic of his argument would seem to require him, instead, to take human beings, especially himself as known from within, as paradigmatic.

Whereas the former point is well known (even if its implications are usually ignored), Whitehead’s further point about the constructed nature of sensory data is among his most original and, to conventional ways of thinking, most challenging ideas.  It is also one of his most important ideas, lying behind his greater suspicion (compared with McGinn) about the adequacy of our conceptions based on sensory perception with its tendency to “spatialize” its objects.  The idea in question is that the transition from the perceptual mode of causal efficacy to that of presentational immediacy involves an inversion of emphasis, so that the features that were prominent in the data as received in physical prehension are radically played down by presentational immediacy, whereas other features, which were only faintly present in the primal perceptual mode, are greatly emphasized in the derivative mode.  Let us deal with a case of visual perception, in which I perceive the early morning sky as red.  I, as the prehensive unification of the relevant activities in my brain at that moment, receive, in the perceptual mode of causal efficacy, both a sensum and certain geometrical relationships to the environment (PR, 171, 312).  In that mode of perception, the sensum is strongly felt in terms of its primary status in the nature of things, which is as a qualification of affective tone (AI, 245).  Whitehead knows that this is not the conventional view about sensa: “Unfortunately the learned tradition of philosophy has missed their main characteristic, which is their enormous emotional significance” (AI, 215).  In a physical prehension, it is this aspect of the sensum, in this case red, that is primarily felt.

In their most primitive form of functioning, a sensum is felt physically with emotional enjoyment of its sheer individual essence.  For example, red is felt with emotional enjoyment of its sheer redness.  In this primitive prehension we have aboriginal physical feeling in which the subject feels itself as enjoying redness.  (PR, 314f.)  

The geometrical relationships that I inherit from the feelings transmitted through the brain from the optic nerve, however, are only vaguely felt in this mode of perception; they are ill-defined, having only faint relevance to any particular region.  The sensum is felt with strong emotion, accordingly, but is “unspatialized” (PR, 114, 172).  

In the perceptual mode of presentational immediacy, by contrast, this relationship is inverted.  The geometrical relationships are lifted into prominence, with the result that the sensum is projected onto a contemporary region of space (which may or may not be the locus from which the red originated).  In this process, the sensum is transmuted from being primarily a qualification of affective tone into being primarily a qualification of an external region (PR, 172; AI, 215, 245).  The sensum has, accordingly, been “spatialized.”   Here is a summary statement:

The more primitive types of experience are concerned with sense-reception, and not with sense-perception. . . . [S]ense-reception is ‘unspatialized,’ and sense-perception is ‘spatialized.’ In sense-reception the sensa are the definiteness of emotion: they are emotional forms transmitted from occasion to occasion.  Finally in some occasion of adequate complexity, [a transmutation] endows them with the new function of characterizing nexūs[*] (PR, 114)

[*] “Nexūs” is the plural of “nexus.”

This spatializing nature of presentational immediacy is of its essence: “presentational immediacy is the mode in which vivid feelings of contemporary geometrical relations, with special emphasis on certain ‘focal’ regions, enter into experience” (PR, 324).

We have now arrived at Whitehead’s explanation as to how sensory perception tends to lead us astray in ontology, once more because of our tendency to mistake an abstraction for the real thing.  “The separation of the emotional experience from the presentational intuition,” he says, “is a high abstraction of thought” (PR, 162f.)  We are so accustomed to thinking about the world in terms of high abstractions, such as “the tree as green,” furthermore, that “we have difficulty in eliciting into consciousness the notion of ‘green’ as the qualifying character of an emotion” (PR, 162).  Although more than one reader is probably having that difficulty right now, we do have some reasons from ordinary experience to think that colors are, down deep, emotional in nature.  If sensa had no tendency to evoke affective, aesthetic responses, it would be difficult to explain how art is possible (PR, 162; AI, 216).  Also, many people experience irritation in the presence of red (PR, 315).  There is further support for Whitehead’s view, I might add, in recent studies demonstrating the differing emotional and behavioral responses of people depending on whether they are in red rooms or green rooms.  

Whitehead’s position on sensa does agree with the orthodox view that, for example, colors as we see them are “secondary qualities,” which as such do not inhere in the objects onto which we project them.  But Whitehead’s view has quite different consequences.  The orthodox view is that these secondary qualities have arisen, mysteriously, out of so-called primary qualities, which are, in fact, purely quantitative factors.  It is generally held, for example, that colors are “really” nothing but wavelengths, which are said to be turned into colors by one’s mind (often in spite of its being assigned purely epiphenomenal status, so that a miracle is performed by an illusion).  Whitehead’s view is that secondary qualities are produced by the mind out of values, or emotions.  Recalling that such things are sometimes spoken of as “tertiary” qualities, we could say that secondary qualities are produced in the mind out of tertiary qualities that are in the body and even nature in general.  From Whitehead’s standpoint, however, these terms need to be reapplied, because what was tertiary in the dualistic view is primary in the panexperientialist view: “Value” is the term Whitehead applies to the intrinsic reality of every actual entity (SMW, 93).  The qualities called primary in the dualistic and materialistic views are for him simply features of things as viewed from without.  For example, in the transmission of light, the events intrinsically are “pulses of emotions,” while from the outside these appear as “wave-lengths and vibrations” (PR, 163).  Lest this seem an idea that could not be reconciled with “real physics,” it should be recalled that before turning to metaphysics Whitehead produced an alternative interpretation of relativity physics.[2]

In any case, the central point of the foregoing discussion is that the idea of matter as devoid of any inherent values, and as instead consisting of purely spatial features, is a result of misinterpreting the status of presentational immediacy within sensory perception, especially the fact that it “spatializes” the data as received in the more primal mode of perception, thereby submerging their emotional significance by turning them into qualifications of geometrical regions.  The perception of matter that leads to the notion of vacuous actuality, accordingly, does not arise from nature as immediately given to human experience but from nature as constructed by a derivative mode of perception.  The building of a worldview (with an insoluble mind-body problem) on the basis of this type of perception is the result of failing to see that the prominent side of sensory perception, the perceptual mode of presentational immediacy, gives us an artificial, constructed view of the world.  We have failed to see the deeper significance of the fact that our sensory perception in respect to its “prominent side of external reference is very superficial in its disclosure of the universe” (MT, 153).  It is implicit in that statement, however, that there is another side to our sensory perception: its “bodily reference.”  The next points will deal with that other side, in which nature is perceived more concretely.  These points involve overcoming philosophy’s tendency to concentrate on visual feelings to the neglect of visceral feelings (PR, 121).  



2.  Alfred North Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity.  For a recent report on the viability of Whitehead’s theory, see Robert John Russell, “Whitehead, Einstein and the Newtonian Legacy,” in Newton and the New Direction in Science, ed. G. V. Coyne, M. Holier, and J. Zycinski (Vatican City: Specola Vaticana, 1988), 175-92.

 Posted August 31, 2007


E. Implications of the Bodily Origin of Sensory Perception


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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