Alfred North Whitehead: Continuous Infinite Fields or Finite Discrete Particles?

Alfred North Whitehead was an English mathematician (best known among scientists for his work with his student Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica). But in philosophy and theology, Whitehead is best known as a philosopher whose later work at Harvard included his Process Philosophy and the subsequent development of a Process Theology.

At Harvard, Whitehead supervised Willard van Orman Quine‘s Ph.D. thesis on the Russell and Whitehead Principia Mathematica. Russell and Quine would become giants in the twentieth-century fields of logical positivism and logical empiricism. Although logical positivism and later analytic language philosophy overwhelmed Whiteheadian “process” thinking in philosophy departments, Whitehead’s “process theology” has grown strong in divinity schools around the world. And “Whiteheadian” physicists. impressed by Whitehead’s analysis of events in space and time in special relativity as organic “occasions.” are prominent in debates about the role of quantum mechanics in consciousness and panpsychism.

Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” analyzes the perception of experience as a continuing series of discrete “events” that are created and destroyed. He goes beyond the simple materialist view of elementary particles interacting in space and time, merely following the laws of classical and quantum mechanics. Beyond the atomic particles and the electromagnetic and gravitational fields, and beyond the conservation laws for energy and momentum, Whitehead sees an “organic” evolutionary process of creation and valuation.

We need to understand what it is exactly that Whitehead thinks is being created and why it can serve as a basis for values. We will argue that Whitehead’s process is “organic” because it explains evolution, not merely biological evolution but the cosmic evolution of the galaxies, stars, and planets as well as the creation of all matter from the primordial elementary particles.

In addition to his deep understanding of mathematics, Whitehead may have understood the development of modern physics better than any living philosopher in his day. He saw the greatest invention of the nineteenth century as the invention of the method of invention, namely the scientific method and newly created scientific information, but even more deeply, the means by which novel ideas of all kinds are created.

Whitehead identified four great novel ideas as the new nineteenth-century foundations of physical science, fields, particles, conservation principles, and evolution. The great question for Whitehead as a mathematician (and for Einstein as a physicist) was “Is nature continuous or discrete, fields or particles, infinities or a finite number of objects?”

Whitehead wrote in his great book Science and the Modern World,

One of the ideas is that of a field of physical activity pervading all space, even where there is an apparent vacuum. This notion had occurred to many people, under many forms. We remember the medieval axiom, nature abhors a vacuum…Thus in the seventies of the last century, some main physical sciences were established on a basis which presupposed the idea of continuity.

On the other hand, the idea of atomicity had been introduced by John Dalton, to complete Lavoisier’s work on the foundation of chemistry. This is the second great notion. Ordinary matter was conceived as atomic: electromagnetic effects were conceived as arising from a continuous field…The notion of matter as atomic has a long history. Democritus and Lucretius will at once occur to your minds. In speaking of these ideas as novel, I merely mean relatively novel,..In the eighteenth century every well-educated man read Lucretius, and entertained ideas about atoms. But John Dalton made them efficient in the stream of science; and in this function of efficiency atomicity was a new idea. The influence of atomicity was not limited to chemistry. The living cell is to biology what the electron and the proton are to physics.

The remaining pair of new ideas to be ascribed to this epoch are both of them connected with the notion of transition or change. They are the doctrine of the conservation of energy, and the doctrine of evolution.

The doctrine of energy has to do with the notion of quantitative permanence underlying change. The doctrine of evolution has to do with the emergence of novel organisms as the outcome of chance. The theory of energy lies in the province of physics. The theory of evolution lies mainly in the province of biology, although it had previously been touched upon by Kant and Laplace in connection with the formation of suns and planets.

One thought on “Alfred North Whitehead: Continuous Infinite Fields or Finite Discrete Particles?

  1. Bob helps pull together a realization that the Einstein’s expansion of the universe (Relativity) is expanding with Eddington Arrow of Time. Information Structures as they affect the rate of entropy without violating The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Information mutation is a living, Darwinian entity. Fascinating stuff!


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