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North Whitehead, Alfred

Category: Philosopher

 

Alfred North Whitehead OM FRS (15 February 1861 – 30 December 1947) was an English mathematician and philosopher.

He is best known as the defining figure of the philosophical school known as ‘process philosophy’.  In this he proposed that the world is, in a sense, ‘software’, and the hardware, such that it is, is a temporary condition that relies on the processes themselves.

  To put this analogously, if we think of the world as an enormous integrated system, which is all coded within the ‘water’ [symbolically], what we experience with our 5 senses is a very temporary but constant cycle of freezing and melting of the water around crystal patterns.   The world is constantly ‘becoming’. A thin sheet of ice is constantly being created then destroyed; and behind it, left in its wake, is a trail, and in each historical slice [or ripple of the water analogously], is a history of the state of the entire integrated system at that point and all the entities in it.

Bridget Riley - Cataract

Genesis - Ripples

Blue girls come in every size
Some are wise and some otherwise,
They got pretty blue eyes.
For an hour a man may change
For an hour her face looks strange -
Looks strange, looks strange.

Marching to the promised land
Where the honey flows and takes you by the hand,
Pulls you down on your knees,
While you're down a pool appears.
The face in the water looks up,
And she shakes her head as if to say
That it's the last time you'll look like today.

Sail away, away
Ripples never come back.
Gone to the other side.
Sail away, away.

In his early career, Whitehead wrote primarily on mathematics, logic, and physics. His most notable work in these fields is the three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910–13), which he wrote with former student Bertrand Russell. Principia Mathematica is considered one of the twentieth century's most important works in mathematical logic, and in writing it, Whitehead most probably gained considerable insight into the mathematical possibilities for functions as means of control of natural processes, as well as on geometrical crystalline shapes as the basis for the underlying substrate.

Ch. 2: "Mathematics as an Element in the History of Thought"
The pursuit of mathematics is a divine madness of the human spirit...

Bridget Riley- Hesitate

Beginning in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Whitehead gradually turned his attention from mathematics to philosophy of science, and finally to metaphysics. At exactly the same time, physicists were starting to discuss the nature of the atom and relativity, as well as turn their attention to quanta.

As such he was at the cutting edge of understanding at the time, but from what one gathers, because he was a mathematician turned philosopher, few in the physics or chemistry disciplines took any notice of his work.  It was not helped by the fact his metaphysical system radically departed from most of western philosophy. It was well in line with Eastern philosophy.  Today Whitehead's philosophical work – Process and Reality – is the foundational text of his process philosophy.

Preface to Process and reality
this work would never have been written without the constant encouragement and counsel which I owe to my wife. A. N. W. Harvard University January, 1929

Beliefs

There is no doubting that Whitehead believed in a spiritual world and in ‘God’, along with any number of other spirit entities, but his entire philosophy was based on a much more multi-cultural and varied view of this realm of spirit.  There was no obvious dogma.

He was a fervent believer in inspiration – the receipt of new ideas from a realm that was beyond that of the mind and he stated a number of times that the inspiration provided was in relation to one’s destiny.  As such he was cognisant of the Great Work and the concept of destiny

Bridget Riley - Arrest

But you can catch yourself entertaining habitually certain ideas and setting others aside; and that, I think, is where our personal destinies are largely decided.

In recognising the existence of such processes as will, emotion and objectives or desires as drivers of human activity …..

The Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919)
Life is complex in its expression, involving more than percipience, namely desire, emotion, will, and feeling.

His personal philosophy incorporated nothing of personal desire, of wealth or fame of recognition or the other ego related motives, but instead was based on the principle of the common good, which would make him a humanist as well as a Christian and any number of other labels one could pin on him.

Religion in the Making (February 1926), Lecture II: "Religion and Dogma"
In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. Religion is world-loyalty.

It is worth knowing that this is one of his favourite poems, it does rather summarise his views.

Bridget Riley, 'Deny II' 1967

From The Excursion – William Wordsworth

0n Man, on Nature, and on Human Life,
Musing in solitude, I oft perceive
Fair trains of imagery before me rise,
Accompanied by feelings of delight,
Pure, or with no unpleasing sadness mixed ;
And I am conscious of affecting thoughts
And dear remembrances, whose presence soothes
Or elevates the Mind, intent to weigh
The good and evil of our mortal state.
— To these emotions, whencesoe'er they come,
Whether from breath of outward circumstance.
Or from the Soul — an impulse to herself —
I would give utterance in numerous verse,
Of Truth, of Grandeur, Beauty, Love, and Hope,
And melancholy Fear subdued by Faith ;
Of blessed consolations in distress ;
Of moral strength, and intellectual Power ;
Of joy in widest commonality spread ;
Of the individual Mind that keeps her own
Inviolate retirement, subject there
To Conscience only, and the law supreme
Of that Intelligence which governs all —
I sing : — 'fit audience let me find though few ! '"

Life

Bridget Riley - Achæan

Alfred North Whitehead was born in Ramsgate, Kent, England, in 1861. His father, Alfred Whitehead, was a minister and schoolmaster of Chatham House Academy, a school for boys established by Thomas Whitehead, Alfred North's grandfather. Whitehead himself recalled both of them as being very successful schoolmasters, but that his grandfather was the more extraordinary man.   Whitehead was educated at Sherborne School, Dorset, when at school he excelled in sports and mathematics.  In 1880, Whitehead went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and studied mathematics.  He obtained his BA from Trinity in 1884 and was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1884.

In 1890, Whitehead married Evelyn Wade, an Irish woman raised in France; they had a daughter, Jessie, and two sons, Thomas and Eric. Eric died in action while serving in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I at the age of 19.

Whitehead taught and wrote on mathematics and physics at the college until 1910, spending the 1890s writing his Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898), and the 1900s collaborating with his former pupil, Bertrand Russell, on the first edition of Principia Mathematica.

In 1910, Whitehead resigned his senior lectureship in mathematics at Trinity and moved to London without first lining up another job. After being unemployed for a year, Whitehead accepted a position as lecturer in applied mathematics and mechanics at University College London, and in 1914 became professor of applied mathematics at the newly chartered Imperial College London.  He was elected dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of London in late 1918 (a post he held for four years), a member of the University of London's Senate in 1919, and chairman of the Senate's Academic (leadership) Council in 1920, a post which he held until he departed for America in 1924. Whitehead was able to exert his newfound influence to successfully lobby for a new history of science department, help establish a Bachelor of Science degree (previously only Bachelor of Arts degrees had been offered), and make the school more accessible to less wealthy students.

 

Toward the end of his time in England, Whitehead turned his attention to philosophy. He wrote The Concept of Nature in 1920, and served as president of the Aristotelian Society from 1922 to 1923.

In 1924, Henry Osborn Taylor invited the 63-year-old Whitehead to join the faculty at Harvard University as a professor of philosophy.  During his time at Harvard, Whitehead wrote Science and the Modern World.  Lectures from 1927–28, were published in 1929 as the book we are using in the observations -  Process and Reality.

The Whiteheads spent the rest of their lives in the United States. Alfred North retired from Harvard in 1937 and remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts until his death on 30 December 1947.

Although a two volume biography of Whitehead by Victor Lowe exists, it is fairly clear Whitehead had no wish that his life should be made public in this way. His family carried out his instructions that all of his papers be destroyed after his death.  According to Wikipedia, Whitehead was known for his "almost fanatical belief in the right to privacy, and for writing very few personal letters of the kind that would help to gain insight on his life”.

Some problems

Bridget Riley

The problem with some of North Whitehead’s philosophical books is that he treats them like a mathematical exercise – where it is important to show all the working out one did to get to the result. 

Process and Reality, for example, is around 450 pages as a consequence, and none of it is easy reading – some of it is almost unfathomable and at worst unreadable.  The disadvantage with showing the thinking that went behind some of the conclusions, is that it is on occasions difficult to know which were his final conclusions, so rambling is the text; furthermore the working out at times does not fill one with a great deal of confidence that he knew what he was talking about. Here is an example:

the objectified contemporaries are only directly relevant to the subject in their character of arising from a datum which is an extensive continuum. They do, in fact, atomize this continuum; but the aboriginal potentiality, which they include and realize, is what they contribute as the relevant factor in their objectifications.

 

He had no analogies he could use - no software, no hardware, no extant systems he could use to demonstrate; and there was no established terminology either and, frankly, he struggled. 

In the circumstances, we think he made a very good first stab at this area, but he clearly found it very difficult to explain what he 'saw'.  And the most important thing of all, he had the humility to recognise that it was a beginning - a baton to be passed to others as more was known:

Preface to Process and reality
....how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.

But unravelling his books is made worse by the fact – according to the editors of the edition we used, that the publishers did not always provide the words he used, as the original was hand written, his handwriting was awful, and he hardly ever proof read his books.  So if it appears to be nonsense, it may well be, as a consequence of the publishing problems. 

This seems a somewhat harsh critique, but we are not the only ones to have come to this conclusion:

Distinguished University of Chicago Divinity School theologian Shailer Mathews
It is infuriating, and I must say embarrassing as well, to read page after page of relatively familiar words without understanding a single sentence.

and

H. L. Mencken, Treatise on the Gods, "Biographical Note" 1930
In "Religion in the Making," by A. N. Whitehead... the approach is philosophical, and there are many interesting and valuable observations. But Dr. Whitehead occasionally indulges himself … in what has a suspicious resemblance to nonsense.

 

The key phrase then becomes “there are many interesting and valuable observations” and indeed there are; the question then becomes – how to extract insights from waffle or nonsense.  And this is what we have tried to do in the observations, although we are aware this is open to criticism.  Remember however, that the extract has been based on the scope of our study, there may be other insights we have not included because they do not relate to ‘heaven’ and more particularly the cosmic model.

The way we have tackled it for each observation, is to provide extensive background information showing why the idea is useful and has relevance, and what it means in the overall context of the cosmic model derived from other scientists.

We have also provided an order for the observations to be read, so that there is a progression of thought and understanding of his concepts – something somewhat lacking in his books.  He has a tendency to cover concepts numerous times in different parts of the books, meaning one has no overall view of what was meant.  We have tried to correct this by grouping quotes and eliminating duplication and unnecessary repetition.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system

Whitehead’s system is essentially described via the observations, but it is important to understand the context in which he was working.  This section will thus provide an overview and we will draw from the work of Professor Wheeler in particular as well as Professor C V Raman.  To a large extent Whitehead’s hypotheses follow on logically from Wheeler’s and Raman’s theories, furthermore they help to tie together physics, chemistry and philosophy in one consistent system of thought. 

 

We now know that the universe consists of Atoms in a sea of Energy that are held together by the forces of repulsion and attraction in the form of a lattice or matrix.  An atom is a ‘software’ object, it is organised energy, programmed energy – there is no matter.  Energy is either ordered [programmed] and thus system, or it is unordered – ‘chaos’.

Atoms form themselves into aggregates.   Neither Atoms or Aggregates are ‘physical’.  They weren’t to Wheeler, they weren’t to Raman, they weren’t to Whitehead.  They are analogously like software objects, whose functions are arranged concentrically in layers around a central core.  Raman and Wheeler were largely interested in the matrix.  Whitehead was interested in the Atoms and Aggregates – and he termed them Entities.

In the diagram, if we were to separate out the atoms in the lattice we would end up with 2As, 1B, 3Cs, 1D and 1E, because mathematically this is the formula to 'make' an Aggregate which we shall call F [say].  Whilst the bonds are formed, however, all the atoms give out the message that they are an Aggregate F and their functions only reflect this state.  Thus in some senses for every unique aggregate, the signature is that set of functions which are active.  Raman noticed this physically via his Raman lines, but Whitehead deduced it logically via his process model.

Bridget Riley - Pause

So here we have the tie in between the idea of a matrix of atoms and the systems of the universe.  The universe is a system having processes/functions.  The processes are stored in each atom – xillions of cosmic eggs – all of which have a set of processes/functions that broadcast its properties to the other atoms.

Whitehead was thus in essence expanding the matrix to examine the nature of the so called atoms/aggregates in more detail.  So he viewed the matrix from a different perspective.  Whitehead also made the distinction between classes of entities which he called eternal and entity occurrences – instances of a class which he called actual entities.

Thus there may be a class called Dog and a particular instance or actual entity called Fifi.  There may be a class called Carbon atom and numerous particular instances of carbon atoms in the matrix.

The outer layers of the cosmic egg [atom], describe the processes/functions of that Actual Entity – but the inner core holds the classes of entities, the system of the universe – the tree of life – to which the Actual Entity belongs.  The Actual Entity is the leaf on the tree.

So now you can read the observations to get more detail.

 

References

Bridget in front of Movement in squares

Paintings

The paintings on this page are by Bridget Louise Riley CH CBE (born 24 April 1931 in Norwood, London), an English painter who currently lives and works in London, Cornwall and the Vaucluse in France.  She specialises on abstract geometric patterns – matrices, waves, quanta… and ‘challenges to the notion of the mind-body duality’.

Books

Besides Process and Reason, which is the text we have used for a number of the observations, Whitehead also wrote numerous articles on mathematics, and three major books on the subject:

  • A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898) - aimed exclusively at professional mathematicians
  • Principia Mathematica  - co-written with Bertrand Russell, published in three volumes between 1910 and 1913), and also aimed exclusively at professional mathematicians.  “The book popularized modern mathematical logic and drew important connections between logic, epistemology, and metaphysics.”
  • An Introduction to Mathematics (1911) - intended for a larger audience, covering the history of mathematics and its philosophical foundations.“The book can be seen as an attempt to understand the growth in unity and interconnection of mathematics and philosophy, language, and physics. Although the book is little-read, it prefigures certain points of Whitehead's later work in philosophy and metaphysics.”

 Other books written by Whitehead, include:

  • The Organization of Thought Educational and Scientific - 1917.
  • An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. 1919
  • The Concept of Nature. 1920 - Based on the November 1919 Tarner Lectures delivered at Trinity College.
  • The Principle of Relativity with Applications to Physical Science. 1922
  • Science and the Modern World. 1925 - Vol. 55 of the Great Books of the Western World series.
  • Religion in the Making. 1926 - Based on the 1926 Lowell Lectures.
  • Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect. 1927 - Based on the 1927 Barbour-Page Lectures delivered at the University of Virginia.
  • The Aims of Education and Other Essays. 1929.
  • The Function of Reason. 1929 - Based on the March 1929 Louis Clark Vanuxem Foundation Lectures delivered at Princeton University.
  • Adventures of Ideas. 1933.
  • Nature and Life. 1934.
  • Modes of Thought. 1938.

 

Left handed

Observations

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