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Absent-Minded Science, Part III: What Is Matter?
For those of us who are contemplative, there is a tendency when encountering a philosophical system that is initially appealing to become overly excited. It is the system, the approach to explaining all of this (arms out-stretched), which we have been looking for and failed to find for so many years.
This happened to me a few years ago when I first encountered Alfred North Whitehead’s ideas. I’ve read widely in philosophy for decades now, but it was only when I was sufficiently inspired to write down my own ideas, my own theory of this, that I got serious about examining other serious theories. Whitehead was a British mathematician, logician, physicist, and philosopher. He spent the last decade or so of his academic life at the Harvard philosophy department and became, ironically, a key part of the American 20th Century philosophic tradition, along with William James, Charles Peirce, Josiah Royce, etc. Before then, he spent many years at Cambridge, where he famously collaborated with Bertrand Russell on the three-volume Principia Mathematica, a tour de force that attempted to reduce all of mathematics to simple logic. It failed, ultimately, but that’s a different story.
Whitehead is best-known today for his “process philosophy,” which he himself called the “philosophy of organism.” The basic idea of process philosophy, as with all Buddhist schools of thought, is that all of this is impermanent, flux, constant change – process. Whitehead wrote a number of books in the last phase of his career that fleshed out his incredibly rich philosophy. None is more rich – or more difficult – than his Process and Reality, which first appeared in 1929. This book presents Whitehead’s theory of everything and situates it within the Western tradition of John Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hume, and others.
Whitehead’s system is compelling for a number of reasons, not least of which are its adequacy to the facts of human experience, its logical consistency, and the pedigree of its creator. It’s hard to find someone more qualified than Whitehead to create a comprehensive philosophical system, due to his background in mathematics, logic, and physics at the highest levels of academia.
Anyway, I became infatuated with Whitehead and his intellectual successors David Ray Griffin, John Cobb, Jr., Charles Hartshorne, and others, and here’s why.
Perhaps the primary purpose of philosophy is to explain the objective world and how we fit into it. When we look around us, feel around us, sense around us in the most general sense, we detect solidity. The chair I’m in right now stops me from falling to the ground because of its solidity. The ground more generally stops me, and you, from falling through the Earth because of its solidity. The stars in the heavens are detectable to our telescopes because of their presumed solidity. And the microbes and electrons we see in our microscopes are detectable because of their solidity. So what is this solidity?
Physics is of course the science of solidity and “matter” is what we generally call most of the stuff that collectively comprises solidity. Most non-physicists – and perhaps many physicists also – presume that modern physics has in fact pinned down solidity. But it hasn’t. Physics still has no idea what matter really is. Many theories abound and most physicists, when pressed to really drill down deep, would suggest that matter is comprised of fields, which are themselves comprised of energy, or vice versa. Quantum field theory is one of the crown jewels in modern physics, which successfully combined quantum mechanics with special relativity. (See Max Jammer’s Concepts of Matter).
The far more difficult task of reconciling general relativity (the prevailing theory of gravity, space and time) with quantum mechanics (the prevailing theory of matter) has yet to be achieved. String theory is the most well-known reconciliation attempt and this theory, or actually “set of theories” because there are a huge number of related theories, suggests that all matter/energy/fields are really tiny strings vibrating in many dimensions. There are many problems, however, with string theory, as described by Lee Smolin in his 2006 book, The Trouble with Physics.
My point here is not, however, to survey all the candidates for a “general unified theory.” Rather, my point is to highlight that we really don’t know – still – what the heck this is.
But there is a solution. It’s more philosophical than physical, even though there’s really no separation between these two endeavors because philosophy’s role is to truly generalize science. And we don’t need to get hung up on the terms – matter, energy, fields, strings, etc. – to get to that solution.
For example, if we consider energy to be the most fundamental reality behind the apparent solidity of matter, it becomes very difficult to define what energy “really” is. Ultimately, this discussion becomes just a word game. We can define energy by using yet more words. But what we’re trying to do is to explain the apparent solidity around us, the apparent solidity that our senses present to us. We can label the apparent solidity around us “matter,” as is the usual convention, or we can label it “condensed energy,” or we can use both terms. We can also describe it as tiny vibrating strings when we look all the way down. We could even label the “true” reality behind our senses “Ideas,” as Plato did and many Idealist philosophers since Plato have done. What really matters, however, is not the terminology but the conceptual placeholder. What are we trying to explain? In this case we’re trying to explain the apparent solidity of the objective world.
Philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian polymath, have realized this difficulty and have opted to use more general terms that will remain accurate and useful no matter what terms our current physical theories prefer. For Whitehead, the ultimate constituents of reality are “actual entities.” An actual entity is just another name, but it’s very different than traditional views of “matter” or “energy.” An actual entity is a general description for an event. An event is a happening, a becoming. So the actual entity is very different than the traditional notions of matter or energy. An actual entity never exists outside of time. It’s a process, not a thing. Time – duration – is built into the definition.
Whitehead’s “actual entity” is thus a more complete description of fundamental reality because it necessarily implies that no physical thing exists outside of time. To be actual, which means to be perceivable or “physical,” a thing must exist in time. We can conceptually freeze objects. We can imagine an arrow frozen in mid-flight, hanging in space. But this is just a reflection of our imaginations, not a reflection of reality. Similarly, modern physics often imagines that the ultimate constituents of matter could in actuality be frozen in place and given a name, independent of time. Physics takes the approach of asking the universe to “just please hold still for a second so that we can study you.” But it never does. The universe is always in motion, always becoming. Time is always proceeding forward. It is, then, a mistake to conceptually separate matter from time and to believe that this conceptual separation is indicative of reality.
Arthur Koestler coined another term that is perhaps even more general than Whitehead’s actual entities. Koestler described a holon as a universal unit of organization that is both a part and a whole. Koestler writes:
A part, as we generally use the word, means something fragmentary and incomplete, which by itself would have no legitimate existence. On the other hand, there is a tendency among holists to use the word 'whole' or 'Gestalt' as something complete in itself which needs no further explanation. But wholes and parts in this absolute sense do not exist anywhere, either in the domain of living organisms or of social organizations. What we find are intermediary structures on a series of levels in ascending order of complexity, each of which has two faces looking in opposite directions: the face turned toward the lower levels is that of an autonomous whole, the one turned upward that of a dependent part.i
Koestler’s holon is a very useful explanatory concept that can be used to describe any level of reality. It can also be used outside of physics to describe social organization or biological structures.
Holons and actual entities are, then, the most general of terms to explain the apparent solidity around us. For Whitehead and Koestler, all actual entities and all (physical) holons have an accompanying experience. This is more than a re-labeling. Holons and actual entities do a far better job of explaining the solidity around us because they also explain our relationship, as conscious beings, to that solidity.
Each actual entity is, according to Whitehead, a “drop of experience."ii If all things are actual entities, then all things have experience. Ergo: experience goes all the way down. And up. This is where we return to the theme of this series of articles: absent-minded science. Today’s prevailing physical theories have such a hard time explaining consciousness because they subscribe to a view of matter that from the outset excludes mind.
Whitehead, Koestler, Griffin, and other panpsychists have realized that our explanations of solidity had to be revised in order to adequately explain our place in that solidity, the universe around us. These philosophers have some good company. David Bohm, a highly influential American physicist, wrote in 1987: "Even the electron is informed with a certain level of mind.” Similarly, Freeman Dyson, another American physicist, wrote: “[T]he processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons."iii
Now, back to my opening theme. I’m still infatuated with Whitehead because his ideas are, as mentioned, logically coherent, empirically adequate, and come from such a respected intellect. But I’ve realized since my initial infatuation that Whitehead is one in a long line of comprehensive thinkers that includes Heraclitus, Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, Locke, Russell, James, Royce, etc., all the way to the modern era with such key figures as Ken Wilber and David Chalmers. But I’ve also realized that thinkers who I at first dismissed as silly, such as the idealists Berkeley, Hegel, and Schelling, were actually arriving at many of the same truths. They just use different language.
The terms don’t matter as much as what these terms point to. Whether we call our philosophy “idealism” or “materialism” or “panpsychism,” we are trying to explain the same thing: reality, this. Some approaches are better than others, but our criteria are themselves necessarily subjective. I have highlighted empirical adequacy, logical consistency, and intellectual pedigree here, but other criteria could be used and different conclusions reached.
I’m still highly partial to Whitehead and his co-thinkers because I see process philosophy as the most sophisticated philosophical system around, but my love has been extended to other great thinkers and my understanding is better off for it.
[i] Koestler, Janus: A Summing Up, 1978, pp. 272-73.
[ii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 18.
[iii] Dyson, 1979, Disturbing the Universe.