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The Philosophy of Life
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 18: Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead occupies a place in the history of Western philosophy which makes his importance comparable only with that of the great masters - Plato, Kant and Hegel, who gave to mankind monumental systems of thought. Whitehead conceives the universe as an organism, a process, to understand which our notions of things, entities, substances, and of place and time have to be completely overhauled and transformed. We are generally accustomed to think that material bodies are located at particular points of space and instants in time, and that no other body can occupy those points of space at that time. This idea of what Whitehead calls 'simple location', which falsely tries to explain things without reference to other regions of space and time, is bound up with the common belief that causation is the production of an effect by a cause which precedes it in time. Whitehead's criticism is that a causal relation between two things is incompatible with their simple location, for two things which are separate from each other cannot bear a causally binding relation between themselves. Causation as it is ordinarily understood implies that a knowledge of the cause should give us the knowledge of all its effects. This is impossible if we persist in believing that things and events are separated from one another. If the simple location of events is a fact, even inference would give us no knowledge of the inferred events, for inference requires that the events from which we infer others should have an 'inherent reference' to the inferred events in order that they may give us knowledge of these latter; but such a reference is absent between events that are really different from each other. Memory of the past, too, would not be possible if all events are utterly cut off from one another in space and time. Our experiences oblige us to give up the belief in the simple location of things and events. There do not exist disconnected bodies or events at different points of space or moments in time.

If, then, events are not separated from one another, how can we distinguish between a cause and its effect, between the events from which we infer and those which we infer? Whitehead's answer is: By admitting a process that lies between all things, a process in which things themselves become parts of the process, a continuous flow of events, which takes us to the conception of the universe as an organism, a system in which every part influences every other part, every event is pervaded and interpenetrated by every other event. It is impossible to find anywhere in the universe isolated objects existing by themselves statically in space and time.

The theory of organism provides a solution to the problem of the relation between mind and matter. We are wont to think that mind and matter are two distinct facts of experience influencing each other in some way. But how can any mutual interference be possible if they are separated from each other? The problem can be solved only if mind and matter interact by a relation of process. Nature flows into the mind and flows out transformed by it into the objects of perception. Here, neither of the two is more real that the other. The perceiver and the perceived form one continuous process. There are no subjects and objects differentiated from one another. The perceived universe is a view of itself from the standpoint of its parts that are modified by the activity of its whole being. There is a continuity of process between mind and matter.

The relation of substance and its qualities, too, as it is generally understood, presents great difficulties. We cannot say how qualities inhere in a substance; we do not know whether they are different or identical. The usually accepted view is that substances are featureless things possessing only primary qualities, to which the secondary qualities are imparted by the knowing mind. Then there remains nothing in Nature except motion, which appears as light when it impinges on the retina and as sound when it strikes the eardrum. The world, says classical physics, consists of mere electrical charges, having no colour, no sound, no beauty, no good, no value, nothing that we call a world. The world is in our minds. What is real is electrical force, mathematical point-events, symbols and formulae. And what of aesthetic, ethical and religious values? Science has no such things as these. We also know how Locke's distinction of the primary qualities from the secondary ones led to the astonishing conclusions arrived at by Berkeley and Hume. Whitehead points out that classical science discovers a featureless universe because of the notion of simple location of things. It committed the mistake of abstracting things and events from their relation to others, and substances from the qualities which characterise them. The remedy is the acceptance of a universe of organic relations, where all facts, meanings and values are conserved without contradicting sense, reason and experience, and in which all spatial otherness and temporal distinction is overcome in a system of universal mutual reference of things and events. Space, time and events are organically related to each other; nothing can ever exist as isolated from other existences.

Whitehead learns from Hegel that all things and events are internally related and that to abstract them from their environment or their context in the whole would be to misrepresent them totally and to conceive them as what they are not. Matter is a group of agitations of force which extends its body to the entire universe and constitutes its stuff. The configurations of this force are called bodies or events and their existence and nature determine everything. Things are without limits or boundaries, they really exist everywhere, at every time, in every way. We cannot pluck a leaf from the tree and know what it is to the tree, or cut a part of the human body and know how it works as its organ. The bifurcation of an event from other events, of substance from its attributes, of cause from its effect, of mind from body, of things from the rest of the universe is a death-blow given to all right knowledge. Whitehead propounds a philosophy based on the scientific theory of relativity. The result is the novel concept of the organism.

Whitehead's universe as an organism is governed by the law of internal relations. All things are all other things in every condition, and the relations themselves are not independent of the things. Now, we have to give up the habit of using the words 'thing', 'entity', etc. while studying Whitehead, for he has pointed out that our ideas of thinghood are bound up with our notions of simple location involving what he calls the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness'. What we call a thing is for him a set of agitations of force, a group of activity or energy, a configuration of process or motion, and he calls such a bit of process an 'actual occasion'. We shall, however, for the sake of convenience, apply this term to things in general or objects of our experience. Sometimes, Whitehead calls these actual occasions 'drops of experience'. These names given to the material of the objects of common perception are to bring out that they are not isolated entities but currents of teleological process, continuous with all things in the universe. No part of the process can be abstracted from the others and studied correctly. Every actual occasion involves every other, and to know any one is to know the whole universe. Actual occasions are spatio-temporal aspects of process, a nexus of which we call an object. An object is nothing but a continuous process of actual occasions as we experience them in their externalised condition. There is no fixed object anywhere. An event is a series of actual occasions revealed in perception as demonstrated in a molecule for a few moments. Objects are more complex formulations of such events. The objectness of an object is in its capacity to be experienced in perception.

Every actual occasion is sensitive to the existence of others, and thus to the entire universe. All actual occasions take account of each other, and in some way, subtler than even sense-perception, 'perceive' each other. There is a kind of pervasive 'feeling' of every actual occasion for the others in the universe. Whitehead uses the word 'feeling' in quite a different sense from the one in which we are used to understand it, and makes it more fundamental than the conscious level of the mind in waking life. This feeling is a natural sympathy which the actual occasions have for the whole, a general connectedness and unity of the universe which they reveal in themselves by the very fact of their constitution. This rudimentary feeling or experience is, to Whitehead, of the nature of unconscious 'prehension' or taking into relation of the other actual occasions, a grasping of the characteristics of every aspect of the universe. The prehensions may be positive absorbings or negative rejections of aspects. The actual occasions are thus related both in physical and mental life; the two are not features of distinct orders of being. The process is feeling and reality, and the energy of physics is but what we feel within ourselves as minds, a feeling in our own constitutions as actual occasions for the indivisible process which is the universe. Every actual occasion represents and feels a situation of the entire process, and its very existence is due to the contribution of the rest of the actual occasions; it is produced by the whole universe by way of integration of characters, which Whitehead calls the process of 'concrescence'. An actual occasion is called more precisely a 'prehensive occasion', for it has no existence independent of its prehensions.

Whitehead speaks of an ‘ingressive' evolution of the actual occasions from possible forms of experience which are known as ‘eternal objects'. The eternal objects ‘ingress' into the formation of actual occasions. These eternal objects are not concrete existences but abstract possibilities of the evolution of the actual occasions. The universe of our experience is the result of the ingression of one of infinite sorts of eternal objects which have not all been actualised in this particular realm of spatio-temporal events. The manner of the selection of particular kinds of eternal objects for ingression is similar to that in which certain actual occasions contribute to the birth of the other actual occasions in varying ways of relation, which are known as the ‘relevances' of these actual occasions to others. The actual occasions determine themselves by physical prehension of other actual occasions and by conceptual prehension of eternal objects. The eternal objects, therefore, are not different from the actual occasions, though distinct in nature, and even when not actualised form part of the process of the universe and influence everything by way of negative prehension. The laws of Nature are the relatively stable expressions or modes of its behaviour in relation to actual occasions that appear at a given time. As the universe evolves in time, its laws must change with its modified relation to its evolved parts.

God, says Whitehead, is finally responsible for the selection of specific types of eternal objects for ingression into the actual occasions and for giving the universe a specific actual character different from the many other possible ones. God is the ‘principle of limitation', for he limits the actual occasions to only a few of the infinite possibilities or patterns of process that may characterise numberless universes. God transcends the universe of process, for what determines the process cannot itself be involved in the process. We cannot conceive of any reason why God should have imposed on the actual occasions a particular kind of limitation and actualised this universe rather than any other. Whitehead says that there is a directing influence immanent in an actual occasion, called by him the ‘subjective aim' of the actual occasion, which makes it what it is. Whitehead is not clear about the ultimate nature of this subjective aim, though we may regard it as an expression of the impulse to advance in evolution. The Vedanta would identify this subjective aim with the aspiration of the universe to realise its perfection in the Absolute which is immanent in the actual occasions and the eternal objects. Whitehead, perhaps, would hold the same opinion, for God and the universe, according to him, are mutually immanent and interpenetrative, though God stands above the universe as the principle of its limitation. God is the universal aim of the activity of the actual occasions, in whom they envisage their highest possibilities. All the values of life are recognisable in God who is the non-temporal ideal determining the actualities of the temporal realm. God does not create the universe, but makes it possible by the process of limitation, and hence he is not responsible for the evils of relative life. Evil is the result of short-sighted activity centred in selfish purposes wrenched from the universal aim.

But Whitehead does not regard his God as identical with the Absolute. God is for him a ‘non-temporal accident'. If God is one of the accidents, he cannot be the cause of the accidents which constitute the temporal universe. God has to be conceived in more satisfactory forms in order that he may determine the universe. If, by the accidental God, Whitehead means a cosmic principle akin to the Isvara of the Vedanta, who is accidental in the sense that he is relative to the constitution of the particular universe of which he is the lord, God has to presuppose a Reality which ranges beyond accident and relativity. Whitehead's God becomes a ‘consequent', an effect, related to the evolving process, and so cannot be saved unless he becomes a manifestation of the Absolute which is beyond creation. This crown of all philosophy appears to be missing in Whitehead's system, though we may suppose that he would have no objection to taking it as implied.

The criticism of the commonsense view of causation advanced by Whitehead agrees with that levelled by the Vedanta against the notion of the production of an effect from a cause separated from it. The effect cannot be different from its cause, for it is not independent of what constitutes its cause. It is not identical with its cause, for, then, we would have to abandon the concept of effect and abolish causation itself from the scheme of things. But Whitehead's process does not fully solve the problem of causation, though it overcomes the shortcomings of the classical theory of the production of certain static entities from other static entities which are antecedent to the former in time. We cannot conceive of a process without spatio-temporal relations; and if space and time are not absolute, process cannot be reality. Process is the nature of the universe as presented to the observation of actual occasions which are falsely abstracted from the rest of the universe. But without this abstraction there cannot be observation or objective perception of the process. And, if the abstraction or the isolation of actual occasions from the other aspects of the universe is false, the experience of the universe as a process, too, becomes false, in which case the identification of process with reality is a falsification of reality. We never know process as what is not experienced, and the experience open to us is in terms of an abstraction of ourselves from the whole. Thus process turns out to be a relative appearance of a reality which is more fundamental. The Vedanta identifies this reality with the immutable consciousness immanent in all processes and yet transcending them. There is the procession of actual occasions because of a reality which does not move with the procession. Whitehead requires to relegate his process to phenomena, and to reconstruct his concept of reality. The process may be real to us, finite beings, but is not real in itself.

If matter and life are fundamentally one, as Whitehead holds, the whole universe gets animated with feeling and experience. We have then, it is implied, to abandon the notion of inert matter and endow the universe with a limitless life which has to be equated with its reality. This life cannot be a process, for we have seen that a process needs some other support for it to appear. Life cannot be mere vital force, for the latter is a process of organic existence. It cannot be mind, for it, again, is a process of ideas. We are forced to return to a universal being underlying even mind, whose essence is consciousness. Matter, life and mind are the different grades of the expression of the Absolute in the region of space-time. They are comprehended in its essential being where they step beyond their distinctness of structure and realise themselves in truth. The Absolute is being and knowing.

The world of physics is the body of the Virat as perceived by spatio-temporal subjects. Science cannot concern itself with the inner significance of aesthetic, ethical and religious values, because it is busy with what is observed through the senses, and not with the factors that condition all observation. The latter become the subjects for study in philosophy. Values are not in things, the things are shells that cover a living principle in them; and it is the things that engage the attention of science. Value is the effect which consciousness produces in us when it envisages objects. The universe by itself has no sympathy with values, for it works mechanically when viewed as sense-object. This happens because in sense-experience the object is abstracted from the consciousness which informs it. Matter appears to consist merely of electrical charges and form just a kink in the continuum of space-time, because the scientist in his observations disregards the existence and constitution of his own personality. Science studies abstractions, not wholes. No wonder, it discovers a corpse instead of a living beauty. To study a piece of mineral or the leg of a frog is not to participate in the miracle of life. The meaning of existence is disclosed in ourselves, not in what we merely see. God peeps out in tiny man, and that dust of a frail body houses a Spirit which encompasses the universe. The eternal in us refuses to be neglected in our activities, and demands a careful attention by which we can listen to the voice of the highest heaven. The clatterings of the senses are silenced by the music of the Divine. Science has to return to philosophy to put on life, and philosophy has to look within to gain its soul.

The unconscious prehensions of Whitehead are really the tentacles with which conscious life feels its own parts in its evolution towards Godhead. The various degrees in which consciousness reveals itself are the forms of the mutual reaction of the phenomenal subject and the object. Consciousness hides itself in matter, breathes in plants, dreams in animals and wakes up in man, though it does not become fully self-conscious even in man. This process of gradual manifestation is valid only in individual existence. In cosmic being it is all an instantaneous illumination of all grades of life. The exigencies of individual experience, however, find it indispensable to extend to the cosmic scheme the scale of the gradual rise of consciousness in different orders of being and to make the cosmos the body of God. But these are explanations of life and accounts of experience as cast in the mould of our own make-up. Reality has no degrees in itself; there are degrees only in our perception of it. Unconscious prehensions are the conscious reaches of the Absolute through the sleeping individualities of the actual occasions. Consciousness cannot rise from unconsciousness unless it is already present in the latter, though veiled. Prehensions when brought about by the sheer force of the necessity of the interdependence of aspects of existence may be unconscious, but they are not so essentially when the aspects become alive to their positions in relation to the universe.

Both for Whitehead and for the Vedanta, God is not the author of evil in creation. For Whitehead this is true because God is not the creator but the principle of limitation, who provides the conditions necessary for the manifestation of the universe. It does not mean, however, that there exists, as Whitehead supposes, any primordial material stuff independently of God, or that God is an efficient cause differentiated from a material cause. God is the efficient, instrumental, material, formal and final cause—all in one. But God appears as consciousness and also a stuff of creation when He is viewed in an empirical abstraction. The Vedanta explains the nature of the present universe as determined by the nature of the latent potencies of the unliberated individuals lying in an unconscious state at the end of the previous cycle of creation. The universe is nothing but a field of experience for the individuals that constitute it. Without the potencies of these contents, the universe is nothing. The good and the evil of life are both expressions of these potencies actualised in experience. God, therefore, has nothing to do either with good or evil. He is not grieved at our sins, nor does he rejoice over our virtues. He does not create agency or action, nor does he bring about the fruits of action. But he appears to do all these when we, as finite beings, try to understand his ways. Whitehead does not find any reason for the particular type of limitation that God has introduced into the universal scheme. The Vedanta makes out that the form of this limitation depends on the dispositions of the latent principles to be manifested in the shape of the universe. God is the light whose mere presence rouses the potencies to activity and self-evolution.