Whitehead on the mind-body problem

consciousnessThe mind-body problem and Whitehead’s non-reductive monism

Anderson Weekes, City University, New York

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 19, nos. 9-10, pp.40-66

Weekes takes the view that the basis of the problem with Cartesian thinking is that the two sides, mind and body, have no need of one another, at least in the form that they are often conceived of. The essential step is to understand that mind and body are not really distinct.  Alfred North Whitehead went beyond just saying that mind and body are the same thing, and instead postulated the more ambitious concept that mind and matter are the same thing. In his view matter could not be separated from mind.

Whitehead considered that this view could be maintained within the physical science of causality. He criticised science for not explaining the irreversibility of time, the reality of the present, or what is referred to as ‘the cumulative character of events’. These three are lumped together as ‘the concrete temporality of physical events’. Time is seen as of fundamental importance. The core of Whitehead’s thinking is argued to be the ‘equivalence thesis’ according to which a physical theory that can account for time would also be able to account for the mind. Making ‘concrete temporality internal internal or first-person within the ultimate physical constituents is proposed to endow them with an element of subjectivity, and thus eliminate the distinction between mind and matter.

According to Whitehead there is only one type of thing existing in the world, but there is more than one individual thing. He stresses the importance of a theory of relations. This refers to the relationship between things, and particularly to understanding the role of causality and time in these relationships. His theory tries to explain how diverse individual things are related. He points to the difference or assymetry between cause and effect. Effects depend on causes, but causes do not depend on effects. In line with special relativity, he understood time in terms of causality. If B is after A in time, B is in the future light cone of A. B is therefore to some extent influenced by A. The earlier event can make a difference to the later event, and this equates to temporal flow.

Each event comprises a part of the event that is happening in the present, and a part of the event that is the determined past that is giving the present reality. Time is seen as a working out of logical relations. An event integrates the past world at a specific event in spacetime. Events are constituted from their environment and this concept also applies to whole organisms. Events are seen by Whitehead as a transient pattern rather than an interaction between enduring things. Although Whitehead did not appear to engage with the contemporary emergence of quantum theory, his view is more in line with this than with any idea of enduring things. Events are a point at which causal influences converge. A particle that appears to persist is in fact seen as an event subject to similar influences as those that converged on a previous event. The two events only appear to be the same. Whitehead recognised that this view was incompatible with continuity in spacetime, and therefore came to the view that time involved finite quanta. This again is compatible with the modern drift towards quantising spacetime.

In Whitehead’s view, an event is related to the subjectivity that is found in consciousness, and subjective experience is seen as the basis for any individuation in physics. Thus each event is not just a manifold of qualities, but also comprises subjective experience. Whitehead is seen as implying that at the lowest level there are just qualities. If enough of these are felt together in a form of summing up, then some of these qualities become a unity or an individual with conscious experience. Subjectivity is thus a form of unity capable of turning groups into cohesive individuals. Living organisms are seen as a good example of this, whereas rocks and many other inanimate objects are only judged to be aggregates of microscopic individuals. Only complex things such as brains are seen as having enough organisation to generate anything that is more than noise. A highly constrained environment such as a brain can thus produce the temporal series of occasions referred to as consciousness.

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