Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Whitehead and Process Philosophy

In past posts I have advanced the virtues of the metaphysical worldview described as panexperientialism. To explain the nature of reality and the phenomenon of first-person conscious experience, one is ultimately led to question the assumption that the world is a machine consisting of matter-in-motion. The revised vision is of a relational network of interactions, where each interaction entails first person experience for the participating system.

Now this idea is not without its challenges to work out, perhaps the biggest is explaining how the “experience” of primitive entities like electrons gets scaled up to entities like us. But it is an idea that philosophers plumbing the mysteries of consciousness keep coming back to (almost unwillingly). In my own reading over the last 15 years of books on consciousness by philosophers like John Searle, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn and Max Velmans, I was repeatedly struck by this sequence: first, their arguments would naturally lead their discussions to panexperientialism; next, they might spend a few pages flirting with it; and finally they would find (to me) unconvincing reasons not to make the final leap (see this paper by William Seager which makes similar points). My own conviction has built as I have recently focused on the considerable support this worldview receives from the theory of quantum mechanics (see my previous post).

Now, a panexperientialist metaphysical scheme was proposed by A.N. Whitehead in the 1920’s! The question arises as to why Whitehead’s process philosophy has remained outside the mainstream of philosophy for 80 years.

I think I see a couple of reasons for this.

As set out in 1929’s Process and Reality, it was a hugely ambitious metaphysical scheme. Such schemes (reminiscent of Continental philosophers such as Kant and Hegel) have definitely been out of fashion. Certainly part of the problem is that the book is famously difficult to read. Filled with invented terminology, it is very detailed and elaborate and ultimately somewhat obscure. Also, Whitehead included God as an element in the scheme, which is certainly not a popular move in mainstream philosophy.

Whitehead’s modern adherents, which I believe are exemplified by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, the founders of the Center for Process Studies, seem to also remain outside the mainstream of academic philosophy. I think this is exacerbated by the fact that their philosophy is coupled to a highly developed and specifically Christian theology. (Also, I’m a bit put off by the way they like to stretch to apply “process thinking” to social/political topics).

With that said, I must emphasize that while I started on my intellectual journey toward panexperientialism before encountering process philosophy, my thinking has been greatly aided by reading Whitehead and some of his intellectual heirs (notably Griffin). I will continue to study it. I also think the more “mainstream” thinkers would benefit from directly engaging process philosophy.

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