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David Ray Griffin

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Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness


David Ray Griffin       


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


We saw above one of the fruits of Whitehead’s reversal of late modern methodology: Rather than try to understand mind in terms of objective features assumed to be universal, we enlarge our understanding of matter by conceiving it in terms of subjective universals as well as in terms of objective features.  However, as I have indicated now and then, given a pluralistic monism, the generalization from mind to matter can be complemented by the reverse generalization.  What can be learned from physics that can be applied, by analogy, to our minds?

By far the most important generalization Whitehead makes from physics is the notion, derivable from both relativity and quantum physics, that the world studied by physics is composed of spatial-temporal events.  We have already seen one implication he draws therefrom: the notion that each unit of nature has a certain minimal duration, which means that there are no actual infinitesimals and therefore no “nature at an instant.”  A second implication is that the apparently enduring things, such as electrons and photons, are in reality temporally ordered societies of events, in which events with essentially the same form follow on one another rapidly (sometimes a billion or more per second): “The real actual things that endure are all societies.  They are not actual occasions” (AI, 204).  Although this notion can be derived from reflection on one’s own experience—both Buddhists and William James, with his notion of “drops of perception,” seem to have done so—Whitehead evidently derived it primarily from twentieth-century physics, then generalized it to our own stream of experience, concluding that the apparently continuous stream actually comes in drops, or occasions, of experience.  The generalization of this notion lies at the root of that aspect of his philosophy that is, along with his inversion of the sensationist doctrine of perception, his most original contribution to our understanding of both mind and matter and their interconnection.

The idea that our own experience is in reality a series of discrete drops of experience provides the basis for answering the primary philosophical question about causality: How are efficient and final causation (in the sense of self-determination in terms of an ideal end or finis) related? “One task of a sound metaphysics,” Whitehead comments, “is to exhibit final and efficient causes in their proper relation to each other” (PR, 84).  A solution has been impossible as long as the ultimate units—the “substances” in the sense of the most fully actual entities—were assumed to be enduring individuals.  As such, they could seem to be capable of only one of the two kinds of causation—material bodies could exert and be affected only by efficient causation, whereas minds, as illustrated most clearly by Leibniz’s windowless monads, could exemplify only final causation—or else efficient and final causation could, mysteriously enough, run parallel to each other.  There was no way to conceptualize what our experience seems to suggest, that efficient causation conditions final causation, which then becomes the basis for another act of efficient causation.  For example, my present experience is conditioned by causation both from my body and from past states of my own mind.  These efficient causes, however, do not totally determine my present experience: I still can, and in fact must, decide precisely how to respond to those conditioning causes—those bodily cravings, those promises made, those plans, those sensory percepts.  When I do make my decisions, they seem to exert causal efficacy on my bodily states and my own subsequent experiences, and so on.  The idea that our stream of experience is really composed of momentary occasions of experience, each of which begins with physical experience and ends with a mental reaction thereto, explains how efficient and final causation can be interwoven.  

Whitehead provides a conceptuality for this interweaving of efficient and final causation by retrofitting Leibnizian monads with windows.  Each such monad begins as an open window to the past world, into which aspects of previous events stream.  This is the physical side of the monad, its physical prehensions.  This is the efficient causation of the past world on it.  Then it has its mental side, in which it responds not just to actuality but also to ideality, drawing possibilities out of what was received and then deciding just how to respond thereto.  This is the monad’s self-determination, its exercise of final causation.  When this decision has been made, the subjective phase of that monad is completed: Its subjectivity perishes.  But it does not perish.  The end of its existence as a subject of experience means the beginning of its existence as a cause on, and thereby an object in, the experience of subsequent subjects.  This is why it is not simply located in one place.  It exerts efficient causation on subsequent subjects, hurling aspects of itself into their open windows (AI, 177).  In this way Whitehead’s monads are subject to and exert efficient causation and thereby have the physicality that Leibniz’s monads did not (PR, 19).  This is made possible by making the monads momentary events, rather than enduring substances.  With that switch, of course, it is better to give up the term “monads,” precisely because of its association with enduring units that cannot really prehend other actual things.  

Enduring individuals had traditionally been conceived as numerically self-identical substances enduring through time, for which relations to other things were “metaphysical nuisances,” being at best construed as “accidents” (PR, 79, 137).  Enduring individuals are reconceived by Whitehead to be temporally ordered societies of momentary occasions of experience, in which there is a perpetual oscillation between subjectivity and objectivity, final causation and efficient causation.  Each occasion’s “activity in self -formation passes into its activity of other -formation” (AI, 193).  

Having generalized the idea of momentary events from physics to the psyche, Whitehead can then generalize this notion of the perpetual oscillation between subjectivity and objectivity to all enduring individuals, including those of physics.  Each event is a subject for itself before it is an object for others.  All things other than our own experience appear to be mere objects, rather than subjects, because by the time they can be prehended they are objects; their subjectivity has perished.  This is the very precondition for their being objects for our perception, or for their exerting any efficient causation whatsoever.  This is one of the several interrelated explanations as to why, if the universe is really composed exhaustively of active subjects, it seems to be composed primarily of passive objects.  It is not composed exhaustively of things that are simply subjects (as was the Leibnizian universe); it is composed of subjects-that-become-objects.  So, we are right to think that everything that we perceive is an object—in the ontological as well as the epistemic sense of the term.  We are only wrong to think of them as mere objects.  Some of them, the true individuals (as distinct from the aggregational societies), are objects-that-were-first-subjects.  They are, accordingly, the kinds of objects that can pass on values to us, because in their phase of subjectivity they had themselves experienced values.  Furthermore, they are usually objects that are parts of enduring individuals with subjects who are now contemporaneous with us, subjects with their own intrinsic value.  

It is through this idea that Whitehead’s philosophy provides the basis for what Strawson calls a “qualitative-character-of-experience physics” through which the “theoretical heterogeneity” of the predicates of physics and those of experience can be overcome (MR, 88f.)  The physical predicates refer to actualities (and aggregational clusters thereof) in their objective or superjective mode of existence, in which they exist for others, and in which their esse is percipi.  The experiential predicates apply to actualities in their subjective mode of existence, in which their esse is percepere.  This gives us theoretical homogeneity for all individuals, from photons to cells to human beings.  It does not do this as idealists have traditionally tried, by making the physical predicates less real than the experiential.  And it does not do it as materialists have tried, by making the experiential predicates less real than the physical.  It does so by saying that every actual entity has two modes of existence, a subjective mode, in which it has none but experiential properties, and an objective or superjective mode, in which it has none but objective properties (which can be equated with publicly observable properties if the notion of “public observability” is not limited to properties observable through sensory perception).  Because both modes of existence belong equally to the essence of what it is to be an actual entity, both types of predicates are equally necessary to describe it.  

This position involves a modified acceptance of Strawson’s sense that an integrated position would need to say that experiential phenomena “are just one more variety of physical phenomenon,” so that, for example, “the experiential is as much of a physical phenomenon as electric charge” (MR, 41, 58).  Indeed, Strawson himself suggests that panpsychism, at least of one type, says that “being experience-involving is a fundamental property of existing things on a par with extension, rest mass, or electric charge” (MR, 77).  My Whiteheadian panexperientialism does say that experiential features belong to all actual entities as fully as do those objective features that are usually called “physical.”  In this sense they are “on a par” with them.  But it can be misleading to suggest that experiential phenomena are ‘just one more variety” of physical phenomena, as this could suggest that they belong to the actualities in the same mode of existence.  Trying to think of experiential qualities as “on a par” with properties such as mass, charge, and spatial extension in this sense, however, is precisely what is impossible.  To make the idea of their equal reality intelligible, we must say that the experiential predicates apply only to the actual entity in its subjective mode of existence, when it exists in and for itself, whereas the other predicates apply to it only in its objective or superjective mode of existence, when it exists for others (as an efficient cause on them).  One comes closer to this idea by saying (as do panpsychists in the Spinozistic tradition) that the experiential and the objective properties are identical, in the sense that the former simply represent the inside (first-person) view of the latter.  The idea that the experiential and the objective features of an actual entity exist simultaneously, however, is problematic, perhaps impossible to conceive consistently.  It would, for example, make the relation between final causation (self-determination) and efficient causation unintelligible: How could an actual entity already be exerting efficient causation on others while it was still determining exactly what it is to be? (And, indeed, Spinozistic panpsychists are generally determinists, as they cannot attribute any degree of self-determining power to any individuals.)  The Whiteheadian view espoused here, in any case, is that the objective mode of an actual entity, with its objective properties, exists only after the subjective mode has come to completion.  

This view includes that idea, already intimated, that the type of causality we experience in relation to our own past experiences and our bodily members can also be generalized to other things.  The way in which our present experience prehends immediately previous occasions of our own experience, incorporating their basic character and continuing their projects and subjective forms, can be used to understand the continuity of enduring individuals in the worlds of biology and physics.  At the same time, my present experience is not simply a continuation of my past experiences, with their emotions and purposes, but is constantly broken into by multiple routes of causation from my bodily members, some of which carry causal influence from things beyond the body.  This fact can be generalized to understand many-termed causal relations in nature in general, the relations that generate space as well as time (AI, 184–89, 221; MT, 160–63).

Furthermore, on the principle that our own experience is part of nature as much as anything else, we can generalize from our own distinctively mental experience, in which we grasp possibilities as such with appetition, to the notion that all unitary events have a mental dimension to their experience, hence at least some slight degree of final causation.  Whitehead’s justification for this inference is again his genuine nondualism.  Materialists provide reductionistic explanations of the later products of evolution in terms of the earlier ones.  But this is a one-sided application of the implications of nondualism.  In a discussion limited to living things (he elsewhere extends the point to the inorganic realm), Whitehead asks: “But why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms? Why not reverse the process? It would seem to be more sensible, more truly empirical, to allow each living species to make its own contribution to the demonstration of factors inherent in living things” (FOR, 15).  Besides being more sensible and empirical, understanding the earlier in terms of the later (as well as vice versa) is also pragmatic: It helps us avoid an essential dualism somewhere in the process, whether explicit or camouflaged.  

One final dimension of Whitehead’s overcoming of dualism between the human mind and the enduring individuals comprising even the most elementary levels of nature needs to be brought out explicitly.  This is, in fact, one of the basic dualisms with which we began—that between minds as temporal but nonspatial and physical things as spatial but not essentially temporal.  Whitehead overcomes the vicious dualism between these two types of actual things by putting a duality within each actual entity.  I mentioned earlier that he uses the term “actual occasion” to connote the fact that all actual entities are both spatially and temporally extended.  But he explains that general statement more precisely.  The distinction between the actualities with and those without duration can be understood as the distinction between the subjective and objective modes of existence of each actual occasion.  Qua subject, an actual occasion enjoys duration; qua object for later subjects, it is purely spatial, with no duration left.  We know ourselves from within, hence as having duration, and other things from without, hence as devoid of duration.  To translate this epistemic duality into an ontological dualism between two different kinds of actualities—those that are always subjects and those that are always objects—is to commit a category mistake (as Kant recognized in the passage discussed in the previous chapter): The mistake is to contrast things as known from within with things as known from without and to conclude from this epistemic contrast that they are ontologically disparate.  

The other side of the traditional dualism was that between physicality as spatial and mentality as nonspatial.  Whitehead turns this dualism into a duality within each actual occasion as subject: “Each actuality is essentially bipolar, physical and mental, and the physical inheritance is essentially accompanied by a conceptual reaction. . . . So though mentality is non-spatial, mentality is always a reaction from, and integration with, physical experience which is spatial” (PR, 108).  (The physical pole is spatial in that it is composed of prehensions of things in the spatiotemporal world; the mental pole is not spatial because its distinctive objects belong to the realm of possibility, not actuality.  Whitehead likewise says that whereas the physical pole is “in time,” the mental pole is “out of time” [PR, 248], because its objects are eternal.  These points refer, however, to the objects of the mental pole.  The prehensions of those objects are fully parts of the spatiotemporal occasion.)  Accordingly, although Whitehead agrees that the physical is spatial and the mental nonspatial, he avoids a vicious dualism between two different types of actual things.  That “vicious dualism,” he says, results from “mistaking an abstraction for a final concrete fact” (AI, 190).  His doctrine of momentary occasions of experience, each of which is both subject and object and thereby both with and without duration, and each of which as subject is both physical and mental and thereby both spatial and nonspatial, is his way of overcoming the fallacy of misplaced concreteness and its resuiting vicious dualism between mind and matter, soul and body.  

The next chapter builds on this understanding of enduring individuals to show how compound individuals with varying degrees of freedom can arise.  This discussion of compound individuals also deals with the major question about panexperien-tialism and consciousness raised in chapter 7 but not addressed in the present chapter, which Seager calls “the combination problem”: How can a unified experience emerge out of a multiplicity of neurons, even assuming that each of them has some experience of its own? In other words, can White-headian panexperientialism provide an intelligible understanding of a whole that is more than the sum of its parts and, in particular, a whole with the kind of unity we know our own conscious experience to have?

Posted August 31, 2007 

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