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David Ray Griffin

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Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness


David Ray Griffin       


III. From Inner Physics to Human Psychology: Subjective Universals

Nagel argues that we need to be able to think objectively about subjectivity, which requires having “an objective concept of mind” (VN, 18).  This would allow us to “think of mind as a phenomenon to which the human case is not necessarily central” (VN, 18).  An objective concept of mind, however, “cannot abandon the essential factor of a point of view” (VN, 20).  Rather, this factor must be generalized.  Doing so would involve characterizing experience “in terms of certain general features of subjective experience—subjective universals” (VN, 21).  

It is implicit in my foregoing exposition that Whitehead’s philosophy is built around just such a concept of subjective universals.  This concept is implied by his statement that unless we can “find in descriptions of human experience factors which also enter into the descriptions of less specialized natural occurrences,” then “the doctrine of human experience as a fact within nature is mere bluff.”  Either we must “admit dualism,” he adds, or else indicate “the identical elements connecting human experience with physical science” (AI, 184f.)  What he means here by “physical science,” of course, is the entities studied by physical science.  The result would be what we could call “inner physics,” because it would involve thinking imaginatively about what such entities are in themselves, as we do when we imagine what other people must be going through, or when we engage in cognitive ethology.  Although Whitehead himself did not use the term “inner physics,” he did suggest the need to complement the “physical physiology” practiced thus far with a “psychological physiology” (PR, 103).  This notion of an inner physics answers to Strawson’s call for “a qualitative-character-of-experience physics” (MR, 89).

The subjective universals are meant to apply to all subjects, understood as momentary occasions of experience, from the human level to the actualities studied by physics.  This does not include all identifiable entities in the world, of course, because many of these, such as rocks, lakes, and computers, have a merely aggregational, not a subjective or experiential, unity.  The subjective universals apply only to all genuine individuals, whether simple or compound individuals (to be discussed in the following chapter).  Which things are to be considered true individuals is an empirical question, to be decided in terms of whether the behavior suggests a unity of responsive action that involves an element of spontaneity (meaning that the response does not seem fully explainable in terms of efficient causation from prior events).  Whitehead himself evidently supposed humans, most other animals, eukaryotic cells, molecules, and atoms to be compound individuals, with subatomic (elementary) particles thought of as primary individuals.  My supposition is that today the list of likely candidates for compound individuals should also include prokaryotic cells, organelles, macromolecules, and perhaps the previously designated “elementary particles,” with that status perhaps now assigned to quarks.  But nothing of metaphysical import hinges on the correctness of all these suppositions.  If the empirical study of atoms and molecules, for example, suggests that they are best understood as mere aggregational societies, with no overall spontaneity, that would not affect the validity of the philosophical position as such.  All it requires is that some degree of partially spontaneous experience be present in human beings and other animals, in the ultimate units of nature, and in some individuals at an intermediary level.  In any case, the question is: What features exemplified in our own experience can we think to be subjective universals, exemplified in all experience and therefore (by hypothesis) all individuals?

Lying behind Whitehead’s list of subjective universals is his conception that creative experience is the ultimate reality, the “universal of universals” (PR, 21).  Creative experience as such is not an actuality but that which is exemplified in all actualities.  This conception of the “category of the ultimate” replaces Aristotle’s category of “primary substance” or “matter,” eliminating “the notion of passive receptivity” (PR, 21, 31).  Whitehead’s own term for it is simply “creativity,” but I, following Hartshorne (PCH, 690, 720), have added the term “experience” to emphasize this aspect of the ultimate.  The ensuing list of subjective universals is simply an explication of what is implicit in the idea that all individuals embody creative experience.  I will list nine such universals, indicating very briefly the meaning of each.  

1. Feeling in the sense of physical prehension.  All experiences begin with feelings or prehensions of other actual things, in which they grasp aspects of those things.  This prehension of actualities lies at the root of what philosophers call “intentionality” (aboutness) in our experience.[*]  This physical prehension, which is an experience’s orientation to the past, provides (among other things) the basis for memory, which in low-grade entities may extend back no farther than a fraction of a second.

[*] See Nicholas F. Gier, “Intentionality and Prehension,” Process Studies 6, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 197-213.  In saying that the (physical) prehension of prior actualities, with which an occasion of experience begins, lies at the root of intentionality (rather than simply being equatable with it), I am presupposing my discussion above, in which I equated “intellectual feelings” with conscious intentionality, “propositional feelings” with intentionality as such, and “physical purposes” with incipient intentionality.

2. Causal feeling.  Each experience begins with the experience of the efficacy of other things (for good or ill) for itself.  This is simply an aspect of physical prehension but is listed as a separate universal because it is a distinguishable and overwhelming aspect of physical experience.

3. Feeling in the sense of conceptual prehension.  Conscious human experience is “conscious of its experient essence as constituted by its internal relatedness to the world of realities, and to the world of ideas” (SMW, 152).  This statement, which summarizes both types of “intentionality,” states in terms of human experience the inclusion by all experiences of ideality as well as actuality.  In the most elementary experiences, this conceptual experience, or mentality, is no more than a slight appetition to repeat or attenuate forms (in-formation) transmitted from prior experiences.  This initiation of the “mental pole” of an experience is the beginning of whatever self-creativity it exercises.  The idea that electrons and other subatomic entities have a “mental pole” may, incidentally, seem a purely speculative idea, posited to avoid an unintelligible emergence of freedom out of entities lacking any degree of spontaneity.  This is, indeed, an important reason for the affirmation.  Beyond this, however, David Bohm and B. J. Hiley’s ontological interpretation of quantum theory depends crucially on the notion that “even an electron has at least a rudimentary mental pole, represented mathematically by the quantum potential” (UU, 387).

4. Feeling in the sense of emotion.  Both physical and mental prehensions are felt in a certain way, with particular “subjective forms” (which is Whitehead’s technical term for the subjective universal in question).  In the highest experiences the subjective forms may include consciousness, but emotional forms are included in experiences of all levels.  

5. Final causation or self-determination.  This feature is the integrative exercise of the experience’s power for self-creation, in which it reconciles any tensions that may have existed between various appetitions at the outset of the mental pole.  In being partly causa sui, the experience does not create itself out of nothing, of course, but out of the physical experiences imposed on it by its past.  This element of self-determination may be trivial, as it is in the most elementary experiences, extremely important, as in conscious purposes, or anywhere in between.  Whitehead’s technical term for this universal is “subjective aim.”  

6. Anticipation.  This dimension is the future orientation of an experience, its anticipation of exerting creative influence on future events.  The anticipation may be directed toward events a thousandth of a second or thousands of years in the future.  (This anticipation, which is the necessity that the experience lays on the future by its very existence, is the ground for induction [AI, 193].)  An experience’s subjective aim, accordingly, involves an aim at the future (however limited) as well as at creating itself for its own sake.  (The altruism that can occur in high-level experience, accordingly, is an extreme exemplification of a subjective universal.)  

7. Value experience.  This universal is best described in Whitehead’s own words: “The element of value, of being valuable, of having value, of being an end in itself, of being something which is for its own sake, must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something.  ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event” (SMW, 93).

8. Duration.  This dimension is the time, the epoch, the arrest between an experience’s two transitions: its arising from past influences and the perishing of its own subjectivity in the transition to future experiences.  The duration, which from the outside might constitute less than a billionth of a second in the lowest-grade experiences, is the event’s experienced time to be, its time of “enjoyment.”  

9. Perspectival location.  Every experience is from some perspective in relation to other things, both spatially and temporally: Experience is always here and now.  This point and the previous one together reflect the fact that all actual occasions are both temporally and spatially extensive.  

These subjective universals flesh out the notion that creative experience is, in Whitehead’s phrase, the “universal of universals” (PR, 21), in the sense of “the ultimate behind all forms” (PR, 20), the dynamic “stuff” in which all abstract forms are embedded in actual things.  The meaning of the idea that creative experience is the ultimate reality, and what this implies in terms of revising the materialistic view of nature (which materialism and dualism share), can be made clearer by comparing “creative experience” with “energy” as understood in physics.

I referred earlier to Whitehead’s assertion that the physicists’ energy is an abstraction (SMW, 36).  Such an assertion by itself, he recognizes, is all too easy to make: “The mere phrase that ‘physical science is an abstraction’, is a confession of philosophical failure.  It is the business of rational thought to describe the more concrete fact from which that abstraction is derivable” (AI, 186).  So, what is the energy as described in physics an abstraction from? Whitehead’s answer: “The notion of physical energy, which is at the base of physics, must . . . be conceived as an abstraction from the complex energy, emotional and purposeful, inherent in the subjective form of the final synthesis in which each occasion completes itself” (AI, 186).  In other words, the widespread idea that energy (as conceived in physics) is the ultimate reality embodied in all actual things is an example of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.  This concept of energy points to something real, but it has the reality of an abstraction from full-fledged creative experience, which is always emotional and purposeful.  In this regard, we can recall Whitehead’s assertion (based on his own days as a mathematical physicist) that physics abstracts from “what anything is in itself”—that is, its intrinsic reality.  Furthermore, even in dealing with the extrinsic reality of things—meaning their aspects in other things—it abstracts still further, paying attention to these external aspects only “as modifying the spatio-temporal specifications of the life histories of those other things” (SMW, 153).  In saying this he is not criticizing physics.  He is only saying that insofar as human beings (including physicists) try to think about how the world really is, we should not assume that physics, given the abstractions it makes for its limited purposes, describes the full reality of the most elementary types of actual events at the base of nature.  To get a fuller account of what these actual events are in themselves, we need to engage in imaginative generalization, through which we can develop what I call an “inner physics.”  The development of the subjective universals is part and parcel of that imaginative generalization.

From this perspective, one of the problems often raised against any form of interactionism, the charge that it would violate the principle of the conservation of energy, is not a problem.  I had referred in chapter 6 to W.  D. Hart’s suggestion that we could think in terms of a form of “psychic energy” that would be embodied in minds.  Such an enlargement of the concept of energy would be simply the latest in a long string of enlargements that have been necessary to preserve the principle of conservation.  Psychic energy would be added to the forms of energy, such as mechanical, electrodynamic, chemical, and thermodynamic, into which energy as such is inter-convertible.  I pointed out that this suggestion, although proposed by Hart as a solution to a problem of dualistic interaction, actually moves toward a nondualistic interactionism.  The Whiteheadian position developed here completes that movement, thereby making Hart’s proposal even more viable.

In enlarging the notion of energy, it is a purely terminological matter whether we come to speak of “creativity” (as Whitehead usually does), of “creative experience” (as I have), or of a more “complex energy” (as Whitehead does in the passage quoted above).  The substantive point is that there are two phases to the embodiment of energy in any event: the subjective phase and the objective phase.  The idea of “psychic energy” has seemed purely metaphorical, referring to something that could not conceivably be interconvertible with the forms of energy thus far acknowledged by science, because all those forms involve energy in its objective or extrinsic phase, whereas the psychic energy known in our own experience is energy in its subjective or intrinsic phase.  (This point will be explained more fully in the next section.)  The development of an inner biology of cells (what Whitehead called a “psychological physiology”), as well as an inner physics, will involve positing a subjective as well as an objective phase of the embodiment of energy in all unified events.  This means that the transition from intrinsic or psychic energy to extrinsic energy will be assumed to be going on all the time.  The conversions occurring in the interaction of mind and brain will be exceptional with regard to the level at which they occur, but they will have multiple analogies with interconversions of energy at lower levels, such as that going on within the cell between the molecules and the cell as a whole.  (This point will be explained more fully in the discussion of “compound individuals” in chapter 9.)  

This enlargement of the notion of energy is at the heart of Whitehead’s construction of a cosmology in which the mind-body relation will no longer automatically be thought of as the mind-body problem.  “The key notion from which such construction should start,” he says, “is that the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life” (MT, 168).

The difference between Whitehead’s “organic realism” and the materialistic realism presupposed by most science and philosophy in the modern period, at least with respect to the “physical world,” can be clarified still further by reflecting on the meaning of the idea that physics studies the “simplest things” in nature.  The usual assumption is that the so-called elementary particles, such as photons, protons, neutrons, and neutrinos, or now perhaps quarks, as described by physics, are the simplest actual things, of which more complex things are composed.  Whitehead disagrees, saying that the simplest actual things are the simplest occasions of experience, of which the “elementary particles” as described by physicists are abstractions.  Whitehead does say, it may be recalled, that the Cartesian separation of body and mind allowed “the simplest things to be studied first,” which might seem to imply that the simplest actual things are physical things wholly devoid of experience.  But Whitehead immediately corrects that possible misapprehension, saying that “these simplest things” are the most “widespread habits of nature,” by which he means what have been called “laws of nature” (MT, 154f.)  The term “laws” reflects the assumption that the regularities at issue resulted from supernatural imposition.  The term “habits,” which Whitehead shares with Peirce and James,[5] reflects a naturalistic interpretation of these regularities.  In any case, to describe a thing’s habits, especially in externalist terms, is clearly to describe not the thing in its concreteness, as it is in itself, but a gross abstraction therefrom.  Not even the crudest behaviorist would make that mistake with regard to a rat, let alone a human being.  An analogous mistake, even if on a lesser scale, has been made, Whitehead suggests, with regard to the entities studied by that level of behaviorism that we call modern physics.

This switch from thinking of laws as imposed (at least in effect) to thinking of them as habits is important not only for overcoming the fallacy of misplaced concreteness but also for understanding how freedom is possible—the central concern of the next chapter, which centers around the concept of the compound individual.  Before turning to compound individuals, however, I need to offer a brief explanation of the nature of simple enduring individuals, which will include an explanation of an issue just mentioned, the relation between the subjective and objective embodiments of creative energy.



5. Peter Ochs, “Charles Sanders Peirce,” in David Ray Griffin et al., Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Perice, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, 67-68.

 Posted August 31, 2007



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


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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