Alfred North Whitehead—The Bootstrapping Of Sentient Nature

For Whitehead, insofar as occasions conform to their environment, insofar as the ‘self-aim’ conforms to its immediate past, there is determinism, but insofar as any entity modifies its response through the subjective element of feeling, there is freedom.

Discussion In Thin Air Concluded

July, ’80

“Whitehead,” said Stan, “spent the first half of his academic career as a Professor of Mathematics. He and Bertrand Russell attempted to prove that the axioms of number theory could be deduced from the premises of formal logic. Their book on that subject, Principia Mathematic, is quite famous. Whitehead also published another book on mathematics in which he formalized a set of rules and theorems, from which the theorems of Euclidean geometry are derivable. All this was done, for the most part, before Einstein published his famous theories. Whitehead, not surprisingly, took a keen interest in Einstein’s published works. And, like Cassirer, he wrote a book on relativity theory; only in his book, he disagreed with Einstein. As I recall he didn’t like the elevation of the velocity of light to a law of nature and he was critical of the flexible nature of space. Whitehead’s formalism was based on the premise of uniform space, or more precisely on the ‘non-contingent uniformity in spatial relations.’ As might be expected, in the scientific community, his ideas fell out of favor, but they played a major role in the metaphysics that he developed latter in life. In that metaphysics, Whitehead lifted the ‘process’ out of the philosopher (Kant) and put it squarely back into nature where he felt it belonged. Man, the symbol-generating animal, became instead, a product of process reality.”

“I guess this is as good a time as any to bid you fine fellows ado,” interrupted Peter, “It’s past my bedtime. But thanks for making my sleeping bag look so delicious. See you in the morning.”

“Sleep tight,” Stan replied, and then after throwing another log on the fire he continued, “what you were saying about ‘organic unities of time’ constituting our inner sense of being really made me think about Whitehead. He too believed that ‘whole movements’ or ‘epochs’ constituted individual unities of experience. Is anybody familiar with what I am talking about?”

“Yeah, it’s called animism,” replied Noel, “Eh, I’m only joking. Sure I’ve heard of Whitehead’s metaphysics, but I haven’t studied it in any depth. As I recall he turned nature into a kind of sentient being, and thus sidestepped all the epistemological problems that arise in subject-object opposition and in the self-world dichotomy. But, in his philosophy, didn’t he understand occasions as processes of self-development, or even self-creation?”

“Yes, that’s exactly right,” Stan responded. “The idea was that an occasion was a ‘prehending entity’ in active interaction with its whole environment. Whitehead thought of these ‘prehending entities’ as processes of self-formation with ‘subjective aim.’ They began as simple overlapping events, evolved, and, as they say, the rest is history. Right!”

“Thanks for the history lesson,” Tony replied, “and now it is my turn to bid you fine fellows ado. And, like my friend Peter before me, I want to thank you all for making my sleeping bag look so delicious. Goodnight.”

“What, you don’t want to hear about Whitehead? He’s got some really interesting ideas. His insights speak directly to what we’re talking about.”

“As that philosophical cowboy, Kenny Rogers, likes to sing,” Noel interrupted, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Actually, I think its time for me to call it a night too. See you with the sun. Errr, scratch that. See you when I see ya.”

“Well it looks like it’s just you and me kid, or are you calling it a night, too,” said Stan.

“Whitehead was another one of my philosophy teacher’s favorite people, but I don’t remember much about him,” I replied.

“Gee, your teacher was doing some interesting work. What was his name anyway?”

“John Gill,” I said.

“Never heard of him! What university did you go to?”

“Central Michigan University,” I replied.

“Never heard of that university, either. It’s not a Big Ten school, eh,” said Stan.

“What about Whitehead,” I said, “Tell me what he believed?”

“Sure kid,” replied Stan. “But it’s getting late. Anyway, he was full of ideas on how to make everything fit together. Ultimately, what is going on in Whitehead’s metaphysics—in addition to eliminating the subjective /objective split that occurs in the philosophies of Descartes, Locke, and Kant, is a ‘bootstrapping’ of self-development, a bringing into existence a more self-fulfilling, self-expressive, sentient nature.” He even managed to incorporate free will and divinity into his thesis, or the theory of the ‘bootstrapping’ of self-development. For Whitehead, insofar as occasions conform to their environment, insofar as the ‘self-aim’ conforms to its immediate past, there is determinism, but insofar as any entity modifies its response through the subjective element of feeling, there is freedom. Feeling and freedom are codependent for Whitehead, and divinity–God by any other name, is in touch with all feelings. Divinity is inside all agonizing screams, especially screams caused by injustice. He is also there, however, in all hopes, joys, and happiness, in addition to fears, regrets, and sorrows. Good feelings move the world forward to a better place. It is feeling that gives subjective aim to occasions. We encounter, in good feelings, the ‘allure of realization.’ For Whitehead, it is possible to create a more humane, peaceful, and loving world. Whitehead said as much, and Gandhi told us how to proceed, ‘You must be the change you want to see in the world’—both in life and love. Well, that’s about it. I feel my sleeping bag calling me. Are you staying up?”

“For a little while,” I said. “I’m not at all tired.”

“Well, goodnight then; I’d be throwing another log on that fire if I were you,” replied Stan. “See you in the morning.”


About bwinwnbwi

About me: Marvin Gaye’s song, "What’s Going On" was playing on the jukebox when I went up to the counter and bought another cup of coffee. When I got back, the painting on the wall next to where I was sitting jumped out at me, the same way it had done many times before. On it was written a diatribe on creativity. It was the quote at the bottom, though, that brought me back to this seat time after time. The quote had to do with infinity; it went something like this: Think of yourself as being in that place where infinity comes together in a point; where the infinite past and the infinite future meet, where you are at right now. The quote was attributed to Hermann Hesse, but I didn’t remember reading it in any of the books that I had read by him, so I went out and bought Hesse’s last novel, Magister Ludi. I haven’t found the quote yet, but I haven't tired of looking for it either.
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2 Responses to Alfred North Whitehead—The Bootstrapping Of Sentient Nature

  1. I like Whitehead…good ideas.

  2. bwinwnbwi says:

    Scientific hypotheses are confirmable because the evolution of the universe takes place in the space that separates, embeds and connects—connects to the space of logical implication—and that is why science will never be able to solve the riddle of consciousness. Professor Whitehead gets the last word here. He, in a different context (Process and Reality 1929), said (I’m paraphrasing) insofar as “self-aim” conforms to its environment and immediate past, there is determinism, but insofar as any entity modifies its response through the subjective element of feeling, there is freedom.

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