I’ve just finished reading “Science and the Modern World” by Alfred North Whitehead (he was, among other things, Bertrand Russel’s sidekick on the Principia Mathematica). I’m starting to get a nice little Whitehead collection:
Science and the Modern World is a remarkable book on the history and philosophy of science. It is an adaptation of a series of lectures given by Whitehead in 1925, but it feels as though it could have been published yesterday: I was frequently amazed at how clearly Whitehead expressed ideas that have yet to crystallize for thinkers 80 years on.
For me, the high-point of the book is the end of his chapter called “The Century of Genius”, in which he, in a scant seven pages, lays out exactly how “modern philosophy has been ruined”.
The key to this ruin, he says, is that we treat objects/matter as having only “simple location”—existence at certain points in space, at particular moments in time. He says that this simple (and still widely held) view of matter is responsible for all manner of bugbears from Hume’s problem of induction, to the triumph of a materialistic view of the world that many people instinctively find aesthetically unsatisfying:
“These sensations [cf Locke's secondary qualities: colour, sound, etc. as opposed to primary qualities: mass, shape, etc.] are projected by the mind so as to clothe appropriate bodies in external nature. Thus the bodies are perceived as with qualities which in reality do not belong to them, qualities which in fact are purely the offspring of the mind. Thus nature gets credit for what should in truth be reserved for ourselves: the rose its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.
“However you disguise it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the seventeenth century.” (p. 54).
His solution to these problems is to change the focus from the reality of “timeless” objects to a reality of processes unfolding in time. “The reality is a process,” he says, “It is nonsense to ask if the colour red is real. The colour red is ingredient in the process of realisation.”
I won’t replay the whole argument here (Go and read the book if you’re interested!), but it has numerous contemporary consequences. To take two:
First, aesthetically, the objects of reality takes on a much more organic flavour: all of the world is imbued with the same vital energy normally reserved to characterizes living things in their evolution over time (and why should life get special status? We are all made out of the same “stuff” as everything else, after all…).
Second, it has huge implications for Artificial Intelligence (my area: my supervisor recommended the book to me) and related information processing endeavors: our current approaches to modeling information about the world treat objects as static, atemporal things with particular fixed properties. If reality is actually made of temporal processes… well, you can see where our state-of-the-art is in danger of falling far short.
How has this been ignored for 80 years?
Fantastic book. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the structure of scientific thought and its various implications.