By Arlette Poland
Years ago, as an attorney, I had to use ‘facts’ in evidence. Now, as a Professor and Whiteheadian philosopher, I teach that we humans, in our drive to give meaning to things, tend to make our meanings too concrete. We decide what a ‘fact’ is with certainty and then proceed as if our declaration on the issue is truth for every creature that exists. Right?
Whitehead would challenge the notion of a concrete fact by pointing out that our perceptions are based in our bodies. Each body is different. Embodied perceptions determine what is fact for us. Whitehead would point out how different the many bodies are, even as there are similarities in species. We are biological beings whose ability to perceive is impacted by the body and environment we live and breathe in.
As a lawyer, cross examining a witness was the simplest way to challenge any ‘fact.’ How far away was the object? How dark was the lighting? How tired were you? And on and on, and on some more. We have all seen the questions on TV and in movies.
Whitehead taught that perception involves three aspects, at the least. There is the perceiver. That would be you or I. Then there is the object or form that is perceived. That might be the person in the next room – as she enters, you see her. Then there is the act of perception. That might be you perceiving her as she enters the room. By your embodied standards, is she pretty, large, elderly? Your perception of her is embedded in your life experience. From that world view within, you determine if she is elderly, for instance. But, if you are over 90 and she is 70, for you, she is young.
All this is to point back to Whitehead and the Buddhist importance of becoming mindful. Our mind, thinking or consciousness, is what we are working with in every perception. If that is the case, then it would behoove us to learn well how this mind, thinking and/or consciousness works – and why. That is the point here. And that is also likely the point Whitehead wanted to make.
Here is where meditation becomes a critical tool. One of the most important aspects of meditation is to simply watch thoughts without judgment, attachment or the need to label the thoughts or the observations. Just watch and breathe.
How does that fit with Whitehead’s concept of misplaced concreteness? My understanding of his concept is that we humans make meaning and then become clingy, attached or judgmental with or about the meaning. The meaning then becomes like concrete – fixed and hard.
Interestingly, from the Buddhist standpoint, the root of suffering, discontent, fighting and not caring for each other or our planet is attachment to our ideas, our meanings – misplaced concreteness: our thinking.
All of this is to say that investigating our thinking and how it relates to our perception and the act of making meaning are both exercises that Whitehead would, no doubt, have approved and even touted. Since context begets context, Whitehead’s ideas beget more ideas. Add Buddhism into the mix with Whitehead and even more ideas emerge.
What is a fact, after all? Is ‘fact’ an idea? What do you think?