Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wesley Salmon's Early Interest in Whitehead

I was reading Probability and Causality: Essays in Honor of Wesley C. Salmon, and was interested to see it included an annotated bibliography, where Salmon provides contextual commentary regarding all of his publications up to that time (1988).  The first entry was an interesting surprise.  While his post-doctoral work was squarely in the mid-twentieth century empiricist tradition of philosophy of science, his MA thesis in 1947 was on the topic “Whitehead’s Conception of Freedom”, about which he comments: 

“A relic, best forgotten, of the days when I was totally committed to Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysics.” 

In his later career, when stretching his empiricist commitments in search of a realist approach to causation, Salmon developed his own causal "process” theory (Salmon 1984).  No mention of Whitehead, but perhaps some background inspiration?

Here’s a bit longer autobiographical excerpt from Salmon’s book on Hans Reichenbach:

“On the basis of personal experience, I can testify to Reichenbach’s qualities both as a teacher and a man. I was a raw young graduate student with an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago when first I went to UCLA in 1947 to work for a doctorate. At Chicago I had been totally immersed in Whitehead’s philosophy; ironically, Carnap was at Chicago during those years, but I never took a course from him. My advisors barely acknowledged his existence, and certainly never recommended taking any of his classes. Upon arrival at UCLA I was totally unfamiliar with Reichenbach or his works, but during my first semester I was stimulated and delighted by his course, ‘Philosophy of Nature’, based upon Atom and Cosmos. Simultaneously, I continued my intensive studies of Whitehead’s Process and Reality. A severe intellectual tension emerged in my mind between Whitehead, the scientifically sophisticated metaphysician, and Reichenbach, the scientifically sophisticated anti-metaphysician.

     To the best of my recollection, the tension grew to crisis proportions when I heard Reichenbach deliver his masterful Presidential Address, on rationalism and empiricism, to the Pacific Division of the APA at its meeting in Los Angeles in December of 1947.  This lecture was precisely what I – as a naïve graduate student – needed to make me face the crucial question: on what conceivable grounds could one make reasonable judgments concerning the truth or falsity of Whitehead’s metaphysical claims? When I posed this question to myself, as well as to teachers and fellow graduate students sympathetic to Whitehead, I received nothing even approaching a satisfactory answer.  By the end of that academic year I was a convinced – though still very naïve – logical empiricist.”
Salmon, Wesley C. (1979). Hans Reichenbach, Logical Empiricist, Dortrecht: D. Reidel, p.8.


Carey Carlson said...

Some key findings regarding Whitehead put some big issues to rest. First, Whitehead simplified his view of space-time tremendously by the time of Adventures of Ideas, in 1936. He had embraced a discrete view of time, as next-to-next succession. He defined space-time in terms of sheer temporal succession. And he had come to believe that not only the 4-D manifold, but the particles as well, are formations of sheer temporal succession. Secondly, today's causal set theory is precisely the formal expression of sheer temporal succession as the replacement for a dual-parameter "space-time" manifold. Thirdly, arrow diagrams are used to denote causal sets, which are simply formations of temporal succession. You can recognize that frequency ratios are formed among the simplest arrow diagrams of causal sets, the simplest being a diagram of only 3 arrows. This means that Whitehead's temporal succession (of individual occasions of experience) can account for frequency with relying on any sort of motion or vibration. Time alone can account for frequency. The step of temporal succession, or "causal link" as it is called in causal set theory, is the countable unit of the frequency ratios, and thus, in accord with Planck's E=hf, it is the unit of energy ratios. This led me to attempt the construction of the manifold and the simplest particles using the arrow diagrams of causal set theory, or the "arrows of time." This attempt met with unreasonable success, yielding the electron, the proton, and the mass-ratio of one to the other. In short, Whitehead's intuition that physics reduces to the structural formations generated by occasions engaged in temporal/causal succession, is confirmed by actual detailed diagram constructions.
Secondly, Russell's version of structural realism, which was Grover Maxwell's specialty (my advisor in philosophy of science,) held that the scientific method can at best obtain the "causal skeleton" of the world external to our percepts. Primitive spatial relations are excluded from physics, in favor of time-ordering relations alone, by both Russell and Whitehead, as well as today's causal set theory. The arrow diagram reconstruction of physics, serving as quantum schematics, satisfy Russell's concept of the "causal skeleton." Thus, there is no reason to use the term "monism," much less "neutral monism," for Russell's metaphysics, since he and Whitehead can share credit for the solution to physics and the mind-body problem for what used to be called "the event ontology," which is a metaphysics of momentary monads, connected by causal inheritance relations. The formal solution to physics is a reduction to standalone causal sets. It has only two types of primitive entity, "elements" and "causal links." This is the minimum logical equipment required to define "structure," and thus, the minimum to have a theory. The "elements" and "causal links" correspond to Whitehead's "occasions" and "physical prehensions," respectively. Nothing could be simpler or more certain than this. My findings are worthy of a primary school student. It does not take a genius to recognize frequency ratios in a diagram of 3 arrows. Please have a look at the simple findings at -- Carey

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