Reality is composed of interrelated events

The modern world settled on a view of nature modeled on a clock.  The great medieval clocks not only gave the time but also, some of them, on the hour, provided a show composed of moving figures that appeared lifelike.  This suggested that living things could ultimately be explained along with inanimate objects as complex mechanisms.  The task of science was to discover this mechanism.   The whole world consists, in this vision, of objects in motion.  Science based on this model learned a great deal about the world, a very great deal.The main point that gave it pause was that we humans, including the scientists themselves, did not fit readily into the world of objects operating according to mechanical laws.  The founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, was clear that human thinking was something very different from this world of objects.  Alongside matter, he posited mind as a fundamentally different kind of entity.  By limiting mind to human beings, he left the rest of the world to mechanistic science.For practical purposes most moderns are dualists.  When scientists experiment, make new discoveries, and formulate new principles, they do not really suppose that they are in fact doing so as part of the mechanical world that they study.  But to consider themselves radically different from the rest of the world, including their own bodies created theoretical problems that deeply troubled subsequent philosophers.

The success of mechanistic science led to enormous confidence on the part of many that it could encompass even human experience in its domain.  Evolutionary theory showed that human beings developed by gradual stages out of pre-human beings that were much like the other animals.  This made it difficult to continue to affirm a radical difference between the human mind and everything else.  The currently dominant version of modern thought theoretically affirms that all reality can be explained mechanistically.

Mechanistic thought is generally atomistic.  The atoms are understood to be tiny bits of matter that cannot be analyzed into smaller bits.  These atoms are thought to move and to cluster together, and all the complex entities studied by science are thought to be explained by these clusterings and movements.  In such a world, qualities and values, feelings and beliefs, hopes and purposes play no causal or explanatory role.  They are, at most, epiphenomenal.  That is, they occur, but only as adjuncts to what is truly real.

In addition to the problem of fitting actual human experience into this world of objects in motion, this worldview experienced another shock.  It turned out that what had been called atoms were not atomic.  That is, they could be broken up into smaller entities.  These subatomic entities did not behave in ways that science understood little lumps of matter should behave.  Nor were they as independent of one another as little lumps of matter should be.  They even seemed to relate to each other when spatially separated in ways that were generally forbidden by the principles of mechanistic science.  The general response of science has been to retain its basic understanding and regard these problems, like those with human experience, as anomalies that will eventually be explained.

However, another response is possible.  When evolutionary theory showed that human experience and thought are part of the natural world, some thinkers declared that nature is richer and more complex than the dominant model allowed.  If human beings have feelings and hopes and purposes, then it seems likely (1) that their animal ancestors also had something of this sort and (2) that other animals today also share them.  Perhaps to be part of nature does not mean to be only an object for human experience.  Nature seems to possess experiential characteristics in itself.  Quite remarkably and surprisingly, what scientists have found about the subatomic world fits better with a nature that has experiential characteristics than with a purely material one.

Perhaps science as we know it is forced to ignore this feature of nature.  But if so, it should be very clear that much of what is most important about the world it studies is excluded from its grasp.  Scientists should be careful not to treat their findings as exhaustive of the natural world.  Alternately, perhaps science might free itself from subservience to the model derived from medieval clocks.  Perhaps a different model would be able to include all the data.

Those who follow Whitehead adopt the latter alternative.  To begin with, he proposes that we shift away from supposing that reality consists most fundamentally of things that endure through long periods of time.  This is the idea of material substances.  We actually have no idea what these can be, and philosophers have pointed out that they are posited as a convenience but with no actual evidence.  Another approach is to imagine that the world is made up of events.  There are great big events like wars or elections.  These can be analyzed into many, many smaller events, ultimately into moments of animal experience, on the one side, and quantum events, on the other.  These are examples of the indivisible events out of which the big ones are composed.

A moment of human experience is an event, and it is this event that we are in best position to analyze.  Of course, it has many features that we would assume are absent in subatomic events, such as abstract thought and consciousness.  But Whitehead discerns other features that may be shared with all events.  It comes into being as the synthesis of elements of preceding events.  It becomes a contributor to the events that lie beyond it.  It participates in the act of its own becoming, so that if we explain why the event happens just as it does, the event must be included as one of its own causes.

This means the event is a subject in its own becoming as well as an object for future events.  It is a subject both in that it is acted on and in that it acts both in its own becoming and in future events.  As a subject, it has subjective characteristics.  Whitehead proposes that it is primarily appetitive and emotional.  It aims to achieve an emotional state that is satisfying.  Whereas in the mechanistic worldview each entity is external to every other entity, Whitehead’s events are largely characterized as including features of past entities, and each event participates in constituting future events.  Internal relations are primary.

Whitehead does not question that there is a distinction between the physical and the mental.  But he holds that there are no events that are purely physical and none that are purely mental.  Every event is in part physical.  This means that it inherits much from its past.  Every event is in part mental.  This means that it includes possibilities among which it chooses.

For many of us who have studied both the dominant conceptuality underlying most modern science and Whitehead’s philosophy, it becomes impossible to doubt that Whitehead’s thought is more inclusive of the evidence.  It has been adopted by a scattering of scientists in various fields.  But most scientists want to pursue their research in the patterns to which they have been socialized.  As long as they can develop new data in the established ways, they have no interest in considering a different approach.  Our argument is that continuing in the present pattern underlies the many practices and policies that are leading toward a disaster of unimaginable proportions.  There is very good reason for considering an alternative.”

John B. Cobb, Jr.

Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet — Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization