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Essays by Me

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Process, Insight, and Empirical Method 

An Argument for the Compatibility of the Philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Bernard J. F. Lonergan and Its Implications for Foundational Theology.

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Divinity School, The University of Chicago, for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

December 1983

Thomas Hosinski, C.S.C.

Chapter I:

Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s Interpretations of Empirical Scientific Method and Philosophic Method 


This chapter has two principal tasks.  First, I want to set forth the understandings or interpretations of empirical scientific method present in the philosophies of Whitehead and Lonergan and to compare them.  My thesis is that they are virtually identical.  When I first observed this virtual identity between their interpretations of empirical scientific method, it acted as a clue suggesting that Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s philosophies might be compatible in ways that had not yet been recognized. The first step in pursuing this clue would be to trace the influence of their interpretations of empirical scientific method on their understanding of philosophic method.  Thus the second task of this chapter is to discuss how Whitehead and Lonergan understand the relation between empirical scientific method and the method of philosophy.  This discussion ought to reveal if there are in fact grounds for suggesting that their philosophies are in any respects compatible.

It might be expected that the first task of this study would be to define precisely what is meant by the term “empirical scientific method.”  For two reasons, however, I must begin by giving a very general meaning to that term.  First, to specify Whitehead’s and Lonergan’s understandings of “empirical scientific method” is exactly one of the tasks of the chapter, and these specific understandings obviously can emerge only in the course of the study.  Secondly, as I shall discuss in Chapter II, there is no agreement among contemporary philosophers of science as to what exactly constitutes empirical scientific method. Indeed, the diversity in contemporary philosophy of science arises largely in response to this very question.  

See, e.g., Dudley Shapere, “Introduction,” to Dudley Shapere, ed., Philosophical Problems of Natural Science (New York: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 1-29; or, more recently, Frederick Suppe, ed., The Structure of Scientific Theories, 2nd ed. (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977), especially Suppe, “The Search for Philosophic Understanding of Scientific Theories,” pp. 3-241, and Suppe, “Afterword,” pp. 617-730.

Given such pluralism of specific interpretations, I must begin this study with a very general meaning for the term “empirical scientific method.”  By “empirical scientific method,” then, I mean the method of reasoning used in the empirical sciences, the way in which scientists pursue understanding and knowledge in the natural and physical sciences.  It is perhaps evident from this preliminary definition that my concern is not with the specific methods actually used in the sciences but with the structure and dynamic of the general method which guides the application and use of the specific methods within each specialized science.  It will become clear that this is also the concern of Whitehead and Lonergan.


Whitehead’s Interpretation of Scientific and Philosophic Method


Although Whitehead’s early writings  

The generally accepted division of Whitehead’s writings into “earlier and “later” takes the publication of Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1926) as the first of his “later” works.  Included in his “early” writings would be the books An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1919; The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920); and The Principle of Relativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), as well as the earlier An Introduction to Mathematics (London: Williams and Norgate; New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1911); (with Bertrand Russell) Principia Mathematica, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910-1913; The Axioms of Descriptive Geometry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907; The Axioms of Projective Geometry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1906); and A Treatise on Universal Algebra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898).  Also included in Whitehead’s “early” writings are a significant number of articles and papers, many of which are collected in The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929) and The Interpretation of Science: Selected Essays, ed. A. H. Johnson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961).

are almost exclusive concerned with the philosophy of science, no extensive analysis of empirical scientific method occurs in them.  Whitehead was interested primarily in clarifying and revising the central concepts used in science, concepts which one could alternatively regard as forming the underlying basis of scientific thought or as expressing the fruition of the scientific analysis of nature.  In the course of his analyses, the actual method of scientific thought is most often presumed by Whitehead rather than becoming the focus of his discussions.  There are several appeals to the actual method of empirical scientific thought in Whitehead’s critiques of traditional scientific concepts,

See, e.g., Whitehead’s statement in “Time, Space, and Material,” The Interpretation of Science: Selected Essays, ed. A. H. Johnson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961, p. 57: “Murder is a prerequisite for the absorption of biology into physics as expressed in these traditional concepts. 

“This account of nature and of physical science has, in my opinion, every vice of a hasty systematization based on a false simplicity; it does not fit the facts.” (Hereafter cited as IS.)

that is, arguments that some particular conclusion embodied in a scientific concept does not satisfy the demands of scientific method since it does not conform to the facts of experience.  But in his early work there is no extended discussion of that method itself.

By engaging in a detailed analysis of Whitehead’s many books and papers on the fundamental concepts of modern science it might prove possible to arrive at his presupposed understanding of empirical scientific method.  Frankly, however, this would be a tedious task of little interest for my purposes.  It is not necessary for my thesis to become involved in a detailed study of the content of Whitehead’s philosophy of science

Detailed studies of Whitehead’s philosophy of science are available.  See Robert M. Palter, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); the brief analysis given in A. H. Johnson, “Introduction” to IS, pp. xi-xli; and Wolfe Mays, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1977).

since the focus of my concern is how the method of empirical science influences and is used in his philosophy.  Fortunately Whitehead has, albeit briefly, set forth his understanding of empirical scientific method in his later works where his discussions shift to cosmological and metaphysical concerns.  Still, it is important at this juncture to show that a fundamental relationship exists between Whitehead’s earlier work in the philosophy of science and his later work in cosmology and metaphysics.

A fairly common approach to Whitehead’s work is to view it as falling into two distinct and for the most part unrelated sets of concerns: the early work concerned with mathematics, logic, the foundations of algebra and geometry, and the philosophy of science; and the later work concerned with metaphysics, cosmology, and humanistic discussions.  Those who read in one of these groupings of writings generally ignore the other. Palter argues

Palter, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science, pp. 1-4.  Mays, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics, pp. 9-11 also so argues and patterns his argument after Palter.

that there is an inherent relationship between Whitehead’s “scientific” and “metaphysical” work.  I think that Palter’s argument can be substantiated and supplemented by pointing out the consistent concern with the basic concepts and assumptions of science Whitehead maintains throughout all his work.

0ne major example of this consistently maintained concern is the often unread Part IV of Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: Macmillan, 1929), “The Theory of Extension.”

His concern is to ground science by making these concepts as clear and faithful to the facts of experience and the assumptions as reasonable as he possibly can.

The key to understanding Whitehead’s consistent concern with the basic concepts of science lies in recognizing that in Whitehead’s view these basic concepts of time, space, objects, location, motion, points, and so on, are the fundamental working tools which guide and influence the scientific analysis of nature.  Concepts are in effect hypotheses, general hypotheses that make possible the framing of all less general hypotheses in science.

See Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933; Free Press pb. ed., 1967), Chapter IX, Sections iii, v-vii, pp. 144, 154-158 (hereafter cited as AI, with Chapter and Section numbers, followed by pp. numbers of Free Press pb. ed.).  See also Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926; Meridian pb. ed. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1960), Chapter IV, section 1, p. 127 (hereafter cited as RM, with Chapter and Section numbers, followed by pp. numbers of pb. ed:).  Also, from Whitehead’s earlier work, see the following statements from “The Organization of Thought,” (1916), IS, pp. 21, 34: “At the stage where we now are, the formulation of the concepts can be seen to be as important as the formulation of the empirical laws connecting the events in the universe as thus conceived by us . . .”  “One great use of the study of logical method is not in the region of elaborate deduction, but to guide us in the study of the formation of the main concepts of science.”

Whitehead is concerned to clarify these concepts and bring them into accord with the actual facts of experience.  But underlying these concepts, indeed underlying the whole pursuit of science, are the basic assumptions of scientists: that the method of induction is possible and fruitful; that causality is a real element of nature; and, ultimately, that there is an “order of nature” to be discovered.  This last assumption is the scientific “faith” that nature is inherently intelligible.  These assumptions are the most basic, foundational hypotheses of science, and they are interrelated.  Scientific activity makes no sense, cannot be understood, and is absurd unless one assumes the existence of some order in nature to be discovered, the existence of causality which enables the construction of explanatory descriptions of the natural order, and the faith that the method of induction will enable the scientist to trace causal connections.  A significant portion of Whitehead’s later work is devoted to the grounding, justification and support of these fundamental assumptions of science.

The topics of causality, induction, and the order of nature all receive extended discussion in each of Whitehead’s “later” works.

Without these foundational assumptions or most general hypotheses of science there is no reason for observing nature and hoping to frame any specific hypothesis that will be explanatory of it.  To anticipate my later discussion, observation is the first moment in the method of empirical science, and the formation of hypotheses is its central creative moment.  It is Whitehead’s continuous interest in legitimating or grounding this central creative moment of scientific method that constitutes at least one unbroken thread running through all of his work. Full discussion of these issues must be reserved for a later section, but at the outset it is important to note that Whitehead’s later discussions of empirical method, causality, induction, and the order of nature are the manifestations of his continuing concern to ground science in as coherent and reasonable a way as possible.


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