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Each month Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr. answers questions regarding process thought and faith.
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What Was Whitehead Wrong About?
I identify myself strongly as a disciple of Whitehead. I think he was often right on points where even many of his followers reject him. On some points where I earlier rejected his views, I have come to realize that he was wiser than I. I work to understand and justify his ideas even when his fellow scientists declare that he was wrong. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Whitehead made mistakes. A friend of mine found a strictly mathematical mistake -- I think it was in his Universal Algebra. He and Russell recognized that they did not achieve their goal in Principia Mathematica. His thinking developed, and that meant that from the point of view of later thinking the earlier was inadequate if not entirely wrong. It is important to think of Whitehead’s writings as a work in process rather than as something completed, to be accepted as final and definitive.
The topic is important, and I appreciate the question. However, I fear that this FAQ may call forth from me a more difficult essay than most. I’ll try to make my comments understandable even if the issues are sometimes obscure.
Whitehead certainly recognized that he made mistakes and corrected some as went along. Most strikingly, at one point in Process and Reality he abolished the category of reversion that he had included earlier in the book. That did not mean that he now denied its reality or gave a different description of the phenomenon. It meant only that he now saw that reversion could be explained by other categories in his system so that it was not itself a category. At many points, new formulations supersede earlier ones. Sometimes the earlier one is just improved, but in this case he recognizes that he made a mistake.
One development in Whitehead’s conceptuality is often ignored, and he himself makes no statement about the way that it requires reformulation of earlier statements, even in the categoreal scheme. We continue to speak of Whitehead as having two basic types of feelings, physical and conceptual. But Whitehead eventually found it necessary to add a third, strain feelings. That there are three basic types of feeling is clear, but he never explicitly states this; so it is easily overlooked by his readers.
I have begun with a brief statement on rather technical matters. In terms of my use of Whitehead, these things make little difference. When I go to matters of more importance to me, I will not speak of his being wrong but of my preference for a different account.
I first studied Whitehead with Charles Hartshorne. It took me some time to sort out what was Whitehead and chat was Hartshorne. When I did so, I generally found that I preferred Whitehead. Hartshorne was a metaphysician, with secondary interests in cosmology, whereas Whitehead aimed to develop a comprehensive cosmological vision. To do so required metaphysical reflection. I am interested primarily in cosmology, that is, how things actually are, and am a little put off by purely metaphysical argumentation. Fortunately, Hartshorne included cosmological applications of his ideas.
At this point there was one important difference, and I have followed Hartshorne rather than Whitehead. Whitehead thought that the authentic actual entities were the ultimate elements of analysis. His examples were usually electronic, protonic, and photonic occasions. Causality operates, in his formulation, only at that level. That is where the spontaneity of living things arises. Atoms, molecules, cells, and plants are all societies of these actual occasions. The only exception is that in animal brains there arise final percipient occasions such as moments of human experience. But these are equally tiny and flit around in the interstices of the brain.
Hartshorne, in contrast, taught that new occasions arise at each level of organization. There are, in addition to electronic and protonic occasions, also atomic ones, molecular ones, and cellular ones. I think of these as having loci inclusive of the loci occupied by the component parts. Thus the locus of my experience is a significant portion of the brain, rather than jumping around in the interstices
There are problems with both theories. If Hartshorne is right, and if actual occasion are energy events, then in any given region there is both the energy of the basic entities, we are speaking here of electrons and protons, and also additional energy of atoms and molecules. Presumably this could be scientifically checked. If no additional energy is discovered due to the organization into atoms and molecules, then it would seem that there are two kinds of actual entities. This would be distressing.
If Whitehead is correct, then all the decisions made by bacteria, for example, are actually made by a mass of quanta, whereas the decisions seem to be unitary. There are, of course, other possibilities. There could be two types of actual entities, one that had energy and the other that did not. But this would also reintroduce the sort of dualism that Whitehead is at such pains to overcome.
Accordingly, I hope very much that, all the way down to bacteria, it is found that a living body has more energy than a dead one. I hope it I found that a molecule has more energy than the sum of its parts. I hope that someday it will seem worthwhile to do research on such questions. Directions of research are shaped by worldviews, and there are many directions that have yet to be explored.
Problems along these lines continue. Joseph Bracken has pushed the need to view societies as more fully unified entities than Whitehead allows. If causality is exercised only by individual actual entities, the apparently unified action of societies is poorly accounted for. Even in simple matters such as a stone breaking a piece of glass, it seems that characteristics of the society are needed to explain what happens. If we ask what causes us to see a bed and act on doing so, the explanation must lie in the form of the society, its shape and color, rather than any property of individual electrons and protons. Whitehead may well agree, but his treatment of societies focuses on their constitution rather than their actions or effects.
Whitehead made a clear distinction between democratic and monarchical societies. The latter have a dominant or final percipient member. The former do not. He believed that monarchical societies exist only where there was a central nervous system.
Today there is increasing evidence that plants engage in decision-making and act intelligently. This goes beyond what their individual cells can do. Perhaps they too have final percipient occasions. Whitehead may have thought that the evidence called for his position, but he was sure that when evidence called for a different explanation, his followers should develop new theories. So we may change only empirical statements. But some of these go rather deep. It is my belief that the best approach to these questions is provided by Whitehead. But answering them will require significant revisions of his system.