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Epochal time and the continuity of experience *.

I SHOULD LIKE TO EXAMINE THE PLAUSIBILITY AND CONSEQUENCES of a particular view of the nature of metaphysics, especially in its relation to immediate human experience which it is designed to illuminate. In order to make the consideration concrete I shall apply this interpretation to a familiar controversy about the nature of time. One view, accepted by Whiteheadian process philosophers, is that time is actually episodic, atomic, epochal. The contrasting view, that of Henri Bergson among others, is that time is continuous, even though it embodies temporal qualitative variations.

These contrasting opinions bring out, in their clarity and relative simplicity, important consequences of the interpretation of metaphysics that I shall propose. My primary aim, therefore, is not so much to resolve that particular controversy as to show its dependence on divergent views of metaphysics, although I shall indeed draw some conclusions that tend to favor one of those views over the other.


To start with I lay some metaphysical cards right on the table. For one thing I assume that metaphysics is a philosophic enterprise that is neither futile nor meaningless. This of course runs counter to a powerful philosophic tradition since Hume, as well as to popular conceptions. (1) I agree with Etienne Gilson who held that failed metaphysics are instances of bad metaphysics, not exercises in a priori futility.

Second, I take for granted a certain form of epistemic realism. It is not, I think, a naive realism, and certainly it is neither an idealism like that of Kant nor a representationalism like that of Locke and Hume. It is a relational realism, and is a fundamentally Thomistic view put into a modern context.

Third, I assume that the more fundamental issue is not whether time itself is epochal or continuous, but whether becoming, especially the becoming that is immediate experience, is such. For time, whether the time of bodies moving in space or the time of consciousness, is not itself a fundamental entity but a derivative one. Bergson prefers to talk about duration--the duration of experiential becoming--and the Whiteheadian view of time as epochal is really the view that becoming is basically atomic or epochal. Whitehead explicitly concluded that continuity belongs to the possible but atomicity to the actual--that is, to those acts of becoming that constitute actual entities. (2) In whatever way we look at it, then, the question of the continuous or the epochal nature of time confronts us exactly with an inquiry into the metaphysics of immediate experience.

Before developing the viewpoint that I shall propose, it will be useful to attain further clarity concerning the philosophic controversy mentioned above. With that in mind I first briefly sketch Bergson's and Whitehead's respective conceptions of metaphysical method.

Bergson distinguished between two extreme ways in which we can use our minds. The more familiar is what he called "intelligence," though one might also call it conceptualization. In it our mind approaches the real by means of concepts, intellectual snapshots that freeze for thought the intelligible patterns of reality. This is what we do when we form those abstractions from the particularities of the flow of experience that enable us to develop sciences or even just to get along successfully in the world. (3)

The contrasting way of using the mind he called "intuition," by which we enter directly into an object or a process by immediate, reflective insight. We grasp it for itself without the intervention of concepts or even of symbols. The primary object of intuition, he wrote, is "our own person in its flowing through time, the self which endures," (4) and he took this intuitive reflection upon immediate experience to be the essence of metaphysics. (5) In its perfection, intuition achieves an identity with its object. "Metaphysics will then become experience itself; and duration will be revealed as it really is--unceasing creation, the uninterrupted up-surge of novelty." (6) For Bergson metaphysics is above all an immediate grasping of the self in its flowing through time, the flowing that he called "duration." The primary object of intuition is immediate experience itself, duration, and the primary characters of duration discoverable by intuition but opaque to conceptualization, are its continuity of flow and its freedom.

Whitehead also meant to build his metaphysics on an insight into immediate human experience. He called his ultimate ontological units "actual occasions" (of experience), and he wrote that in describing the capacities, realized or unrealized, of an actual occasion he had, with Locke, tacitly taken human experience as the model upon which to found the generalized description required for metaphysics. (7)

Furthermore, Whitehead held that "the true method of philosophical construction is to flame a scheme of ideas, the best that one can, and unflinchingly to explore the interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme." (8) He also very significantly wrote: "The true method of discovery [in metaphysics] is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation." (9)

For both thinkers, then, metaphysics is intimately linked with immediate experience. But how did they interpret that experience with respect to time and continuity?

Bergson insisted that continuity belongs to the essence of duration, that inner process of becoming that is both the core of all our experience and our primary analogue for world-process and time. This internal duration, he held, is "succession which is not juxtaposition, a growth from within, the uninterrupted prolongation of the past into a present which is already blending into the future." (10) If we sometimes think of our inner states as if they were a multiplicity of items placed end to end, this stems in part from the diverse psychological acts by which we take note of the character of our inner life. "The apparent discontinuity of the psychical life is then due to our attention being fixed on it by a series of separate acts: actually there is only a gentle slope. (13)

The substantiality of the ego, he said, as also its duration, is "an indivisible and indestructible continuity of a melody where the past enters into the present and forms with it an undivided whole which remains undivided and even indivisible in spite of what is added at every instant, or rather, thanks to what is added." (12) The heterogeneous moments of the succeeding states of the self permeate one another, so that for states to succeed one another means for them to melt into one another and form an organic whole. (13)

Whitehead, however, held that "if we admit that `something becomes, it is easy, by employing Zeno's method, to prove that there can be no continuity of becoming." (14) He made much--arguably too much--of William James's assertion that reality grows literally by "buds or drops of perception." (15) Whitehead concluded that the only way to make rational sense of becoming is to hold that although instances of becoming succeed one another in time and are temporally thick, they are nevertheless not temporally divisible within themselves.

Whitehead's contention that becoming is thus atomic or epochal is most convincingly seen, I think, in the context of trying to make intellectual sense of human freedom. (16) John Cobb has framed this argument with exceptional clarity and I paraphrase it here. (17) He takes for granted that each event or occurrence (and every aspect of it) is either caused or uncaused. If uncaused, then it simply happens, for no reason, hence cannot be an act of moral agency. Human acts must be caused if we are to make sense of their ethical dimension. Further, they must be caused from within, for if they are caused by outside agents they are once again deprived of the ethical dimension of responsibility. The concern therefore centers neither on indetermination, nor on determination from without, but on serf-determination.

But even serf-determination is not compatible with freedom so long as we retain the usual assumption that the cause must temporally precede its effect. For on that assumption serf-determination reduces to a succession of inner states and we are faced once again with the same dilemma as before: if each state is caused by a preceding state, there is no locus for a free state; if, on the other hand, the determination or decision in question is simply uncaused we are in the arena of chance, not freedom. Clearly the kind of "causation" that takes place in free serf-determination must be such that the "cause" (the agent or agency) is somehow simultaneous with its "effect" (the decision), not antecedent to it.

Now this moment of deciding must either be instantaneous or occupy some finite interval of time. But it cannot be the former, says Cobb, for no action can occur in a timeless instant. But neither can it be the latter so long as we continue to view process as continuous, for we could not then justify supposing that the free act occurs during an extended temporal interval. For if we continue to suppose that becoming is continuous, not only is the length of the assumed interval essentially arbitrary, its unity becomes ultimately illusory. Just as the temporal flow is infinitely divisible, so also is the act of deciding. Zeno's argument shivers the act into an infinite succession of instantaneous states, in which, presumably, there can be no process.

Only two routes of escape seem to lie open. One route is to suppose that although freedom makes no sense within the causal fabric of human experience, it yet makes intelligible sense within a realm transcending that experience. This is the route taken by Kant. The other is to suppose that process or becoming is discontinuous; that although acts of becoming succeed one another in such a way as to "take time," they are not themselves temporally divisible but are in some sense all-at-once, thus forming atomic yet temporally thick units of becoming. This is the route taken by Whitehead. He wrote:
 The conclusion is that in every act of becoming there is the becoming of
 something with temporal extension; but that the act itself is not
 extensive, in the sense that it is divisible into earlier and later acts of
 becoming which correspond to the extensive divisibility of what has become,

And in another place he wrote:
 Temporalisation is not another continuous process. It is an atomic
 succession. Thus time is atomic (i.e. epochal), though what is temporalised
 is divisible. (19)

But what is divisible is not yet divided. Thus Whitehead places continuity on the side of potentiality, whereas the actual, he says, is "incurably atomic." (20)

The consequences of this view for Whitehead's whole metaphysics are considerable. Since time is derivative from the very activity of becoming, Whitehead was adopting an epochal theory of all becoming--a kind of event-atomism. (21) The most radical consequence of this appears to be his "societal" theory of the make-up of the human person. In virtue of the above sort of reasoning, he cannot regard the person as enduring serf-identically through a significant span of time-certainly not through a lifetime--but must think of the person as a temporally ordered succession of extremely brief occasions of experience all of which are ontically distinct from one another.

For some of us this atomistic conception of the human person seems unbelievable. Certainly it seems to contradict the evident character of that immediate experience on which Whitehead wished to model his own metaphysics. As Sandra Rosenthal has put it:
 Whitehead holds the view that the continuity of the stream of experience is
 a surface feature prominent for consciousness, but the underlying reality
 is a succession of atomic experiences.... Hence our lived sense of time,
 time consciousness, is in some way subjective, set over against an alien
 objective reality of successive temporal atoms. The lived sense of time and
 the objective reality of time are incompatible, and the gulf between them
 is ultimately unbridgeable....

 The temporal continuity of the flow of time consciousness is the most
 fundamental and pervasive feature of human experience, yet its nature as
 seemingly continuous closes us off from the cosmic reality of time as
 constituted by discrete temporal units. (22)

Besides appearing contrary to experience, the epochal view of becoming has its own intrinsic difficulties. A number of Whiteheadian scholars have wrestled, without general agreement, over the meaning to be assigned to the notions of the "earlier" and "later" phases of becoming that are essential to the Whiteheadian analysis. The predominant view has been that the phases cannot be said to take place earlier or later in time, yet it is difficult to see any other meaning that can be attached to this priority. (23)

This apparently anomalous character of the actual occasion, and the counter-experiential conception of human consciousness as a succession of discrete units, have long been taken for granted by Whiteheadian scholars, swallowed whole, as it were, in lieu of any alternative that seems acceptable. One simply gets used to ideas that at first seem outlandish. I wonder whether one of Whitehead's own remarks might not apply to this, his theory of epochal becoming. For he once wrote: "Of course it is always possible to work oneself into a state of complete contentment with an ultimate irrationality." (24)


I wish now briefly to suggest a simple theory of how metaphysics may be thought to relate to immediate experience. The theory will, I believe, illuminate what is going on in the divergent views we have just reviewed and will in a certain sense reconcile them. First I propose some theses about knowledge in general, theses that I expect the reader will find familiar and, as I hope, acceptable.

The first thesis is simply this: All knowledge is relational. That is, in knowing we never attain a thing-in-itself, an object just as it exists independently of its being known. Rather, we attain a thing precisely as it stands related to us in the act of knowing, and this holds whether we consider knowing in the narrow sense, or knowing in the broader sense that includes sense perception. I already noted that I am proposing a theory of epistemological realism; I maintain that we do attain real extra-mental objects in sensing and knowing. Yet these attained objects are of their very nature relational objects, objects precisely as they stand related to us in the act of knowing them and thus as embodying all the elements entering into that cognitive act. This thesis contrasts with a pure idealism on the one hand and with a naive realism on the other, as well as with any representational interpretation of perception, such as that of Locke.

The second thesis is this: All knowledge, as relational, is also perspectival. By that I mean, with the phenomenologists, that there is an inevitable polarity between the heuristic perspective that we bring to knowledge, however implicit or subconscious it be, and the horizon for a possible world attainable in virtue of that perspective. In a profound sense the world that we encounter can only be a world that fails within the horizon already delimited by our heuristic perspective.

This polarity of all knowledge between perspective and horizon is simply one particular specification of the relationality of knowledge. If the world we encounter in knowing is inevitably relational to that act of knowing, then the perspective--that is, the structured heuristic anticipations that we bring to the act of knowing--defines an essential part of that relationship.

An analogue of this is afforded, I think, even by classical, Newtonian physics. If, for instance, one considers a satellite orbiting the earth and asks why it orbits at a constant distance from the earth, the positing of a single force suffices to render the situation intelligible, namely the centripetal force of gravity attracting the satellite toward the center of gravity of the earth and thus constantly causing it to deviate from a straight path in space. But suppose we place ourselves inside the satellite. Gravity is attracting us toward the earth yet we approach no closer to it, so in order to understand the situation precisely from this perspective we must posit another force, centrifugal force, acting just opposite to the force of gravity and exactly equaling it.

Now if we ask which of these two scenarios is correct, we must reply "both," but each is a matter of heuristic standpoint or perspective. Centrifugal force is undoubtedly "real" for the person in the satellite (the noninertial observer), but not real for the observer on earth (who approximates an inertial observer). The reality of centrifugal force depends on the perspective one adopts in viewing the situation. In an analogous way, our metaphysical perspective or set of heuristic and methodic presuppositions determines the sort of world that we shall metaphysically encounter. The polar relationship between heuristic standpoint and its corresponding horizon of reality is inescapable.

Combining the two theses proposed above, we can formulate a third thesis: Metaphysical knowledge of reality is both relational and perspectival. Though it seems obviously true, the importance of this thesis can scarcely be exaggerated. The old persuasion, so often since criticized, that metaphysics opens to our minds a sort of God's-eye view of reality is patently false. If there be a God's-eye view of the world, we haven't got it and we can't possibly have it.

If, however, we are to assess the plausibility of a metaphysics of reality, we must attend to the perspective or set of presuppositions that is entailed in its analysis. These presuppositions are arbitrary in the sense that, as the foundation of all other thinking, they cannot be the outcome of any demonstrations. As Whitehead noted, one picks them "the best that one can." (25) Perhaps of even greater moment are the presuppositions that one does not deliberately pick but implicitly and subconsciously entertains. All these initial presuppositions will determine the whole outcome of the metaphysical analysis. As Gilson put it, "Philosophers are free to lay down their own sets of principles, but once this is done, they no longer think as they wish--they think as they can." (26) I believe that the choice of metaphysical views on the nature of time or becoming exactly demonstrates this inevitability.

Paramount among the presuppositions we bring to this analysis is the method we select in attempting to grasp the intelligibility of immediate experience. If Bergson is right, the ways in which we can use the mind range between the extremes of immediate intuition on the one hand and of conceptualization on the other. He recognized a legitimate place for both activities but considered that the true method of metaphysics is essentially intuitive rather than conceptual.

Whitehead also recognized both activities. He wished to ground his metaphysics on the immediacy of human experience, and he recognized the dual role of insight on the one hand and of conceptual abstraction on the other. Recall his airplane analogy in which metaphysics both begins and ends in direct insight into experience, but meanwhile ascends to high, conceptual abstraction, such as is monumentally embodied in his Categoreal Scheme which nonetheless is meant to render that experience intellectually explicable. Sensitive to the loss of concreteness involved in abstract analysis, Whitehead himself repeated Wordsworth's phrase, "we murder to dissect." (27)

What then was the upshot of the Bergsonian and Whiteheadian analyses of immediate experience when brought to bear on the question of time? Bergson pointed out that conceptual, rather than intuitive, analysis of immediate experience naturally leads to a spacelike conception of time. (28) This is readily seen in Augustine's well-known perplexity about the length of the present. As he first analyzed it in its relation to a conceived past and future, he found the present shrink by a kind of Zenonian disintegration into an ultimate instant in which there was literally no time for time. (29) He thus implicitly attributed to time a spacelike continuity inasmuch as he thereby thought of the present as indefinitely divisible in the same way as is a geometric line. To conceive space as if it were fundamentally like time is not only natural to us, it has been accentuated by the Einsteinian conception of time as a kind of fourth dimension of space. Thus the parts of time--the minutes and the days--are thought of as indefinitely subdivisible and so as homogeneous--one minute exactly like another--and also mutually exclusive of one another just as each part of space excludes every other.

But is this the sort of continuity that we actually encounter in immediate experience, not as we abstractly conceive it but as we live it? Augustine himself thought not, at least implicitly, for only a page or two after his above considerations about the seeming timelessness of the present, he went on to surmise, in a passage too little noted, "Perhaps it would be exact to say: there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come. In the soul there are these three aspects of time, and I do not see them anywhere else." (30)

Now when past, present, and future are thought of as laid out against one another like parts of a geometric line, there cannot possibly be a present of the past, for each part excludes every other. A present of the past would be a contradiction in terms. So if we in fact experience a present of the past, it follows that the time of immediate experience cannot be spacelike. After all, why should we expect that? Spacelike time is exactly suited to the measurement of the motion of bodies in space, as Aristotle pointed out, and is it likely that this describes the activity of our psychic life?

In fact there are excellent reasons for thinking otherwise. Two of our most ordinary experiences show this. One is the familiar experience of hearing a melody, another is communication through speech. A melody is not simply a succession of different notes, it is those different notes as forming a unity, the past notes with the present together with a certain anticipation of the future ones. But where is this unity of different successive notes, where does the melody, as such, exist except in consciousness or, as Augustine put it, in the soul? In our experience of hearing a melody the present does indeed include the past rather than exclude it. So too, if you do not retain within your conscious awareness the earlier words of my sentence, you cannot draw meaning from it at the end. In immediate experience the past is included rather than excluded from the present. (31)

I now propose that we can shed light on the diverse views we have seen concerning the nature of time by considering them from the perspective of the respective conceptions of continuity, implicit or explicit, that are taken for granted in the two analyses. If Bergson is right, the conception of continuity that fits conceptual analysis, such as Augustine's reduction of the present to a timeless instant or Whitehead's conclusion that becoming must be epochal, is one wherein the parts of time or becoming are thought of as homogeneous, differing from other parts only in their position within the continuity. Each second necessarily excludes every other second just in being itself. Thus we have conceived a continuity of exclusive, quantitative homogeneity. But such a continuity is immediately prey to Zeno's endless and paradoxical subdivision, as Augustine demonstrated.

Direct attunement to immediate experience, however, reveals a very different sort of continuity, a continuity that somehow includes its parts within a single whole and whose parts differ qualitatively, not quantitatively, from one another since, unlike miles or minutes, no conscious state is qualitatively just like any other. The continuity proper to immediate experience is, therefore, a continuity of inclusive, qualitative heterogeneity quite unlike the other continuity of exclusive quantitative homogeneity that is the natural result of conceptualization. How can two such radically different sorts of continuity have been confused?

Now the conception of a particular sort of continuity--a conception that is all the more influential if it is merely implicit and therefore unrecognized--forms an essential part of the heuristic structure of any metaphysical analysis of immediate experience. It constitutes a particular perspective that antecedently determines the sort of reality that can be acknowledged.

But since the continuity of the time that is thought of as necessarily epochal is patently spacelike, and the continuity of the time of immediate experience is quite the opposite, it follows that epochal time and epochal becoming constitute derivative, conceptual abstractions drawn from experience rather than a metaphysical description of direct experiencing itself. Epochal time, as for instance in Cobb's argument above, is a necessary interpretation of the nature of intelligible experience but only on condition that that interpretation is conceptual rather than intuitive, and that it presupposes a spacelike notion of continuity. That last condition inevitably defines a horizon of reality into which immediate experience simply does not fit. It is the horizon of reality that Whitehead calls "the thin air of imaginative generalization." The same must be said, I think, of Whitehead's consequent theory of the human person as a socially ordered series of discrete occasions.

I repeat: Whitehead's theory of epochal becoming is a necessary conclusion of metaphysical analysis if, but only if, one remains on the plane of conceptual abstraction and presupposes, as he did, a conception of continuity that is essentially spacelike. But that method and that presupposition are neither necessary nor sound. One arrives at a quite different world when one denies them. Whitehead himself realized that there was a mismatch between his theory of epochal time and the immediacy of experience that was supposed to be the model for his occasions of experience. Thus he found himself constrained to distinguish between what he calls a "coordinate," quasi-quantitative analysis of the actual occasion taken as a whole, and a "genetic," nonquantitative analysis of it when it is regarded in its interior becoming. Coordinate analysis, taken from the outside, supposes a time occupied by the occasion that is indefinitely divisible just as is its space. But genetic analysis, viewing the occasion on the inside, must deny such divisibility even though the occasion is temporally thick. Whitehead is doubtless right in feeling the need for this distinction, but the paradoxical nature of his conclusion arises in part because in his analysis of experience he is employing, though not recognizing, two different and mutually incompatible conceptions of continuity.


In this brief look at the relation of metaphysics to immediate experience and at the old controversy about epochal time I have advanced two central considerations about metaphysical method. One, following Bergson, is that intuitive insight into immediate experience is essential to metaphysical analysis, and that this nonconceptual, immediate insight describes experience more concretely than abstract conceptualization. The other consideration, borrowed from the phenomenologists, is that metaphysical knowledge, like all forms of knowledge, is unavoidably perspectival, so that the reality we encounter and endeavor to render intelligible is inescapably a function of the heuristic perspective that we bring to the analysis. Different perspectives define different world-horizons.

I propose that if we grant these two suppositions, as well as recognize the radical difference between the two kinds of continuity I have distinguished above, we can suggest a satisfactory reply to the question whether time and becoming are epochal or continuous, and whether the human person need be conceived as a historical succession of minute, successive though interrelated occasions of experience.

Bergson contended that immediate experience as we actually find it is in fact continuous, not successive, and for Bergson this contention was not only phenomenological, it was metaphysical, inasmuch as his method of introspective intuition claims to be the metaphysical method par excellence. Bergson of course was not so naive as to suppose that we find no succession of qualitative divergences in our experience, but he held that these recognizable changes melt into one another so as to form a continuous unity that he compares to a melody. (32) Is Bergson right about this, or is Whitehead?

In facing this question directly, I find it illuminating first to notice a special difficulty that might be advanced against Whitehead's epochal theory of time. If one supposes that ongoing experience seems, phenomenologically, to be continuous, then the question naturally arises why one does not notice the repeated succession of occasions that are demanded by Whitehead's analysis. Now it would be pointless for a Whiteheadian to reply that the succession is simply too rapid to be observed, as in a motion picture, because that reply overlooks a contradiction already contained within the difficulty itself. The only way to notice the successiveness of the series would be to view it from the outside, as one views cars on a passing train, and such an external view seems to be the habitual standpoint for Whiteheadian discussions of personal identity. Yet the objection also points out that the successiveness is not noticed, that is, not immediately experienced. But noticing takes place only within the interior of an actual occasion; it belongs to its subjective immediacy. Thus the objection is intrinsically inconsistent in demanding that one simultaneously stand both within and without the series. It does, however, illustrate that the conception of the person as a rapid succession of occasions must belong to the horizon of conceptual abstraction rather than to that of subjective immediacy.


It is now possible, I think, to give a direct reply to the question whether time and becoming are epochal as Whitehead thought, or continuous as Bergson thought. I say that if becoming is analyzed from a perspective of conceptual abstraction, which, Bergson maintained, entails the tacit supposition that the form of continuity in question is spacelike, then the Whiteheadian conclusion that becoming is epochal or atomic is probably unavoidable, as Cobb's form of the argument shows. But the horizon of reality that is thereby described lies within the realm of conceptual abstraction. That is, in concluding that time is epochal Whitehead is still flying in what he himself called "the thin air of imaginative generalization." He has not yet returned to direct observation of immediate experience. For the sort of continuity that he rightly denies to genetic or subjective immediacy is clearly spacelike, a continuity of exclusive quantitative homogeneity, quite unlike the continuity that actually characterizes immediate experience. But when concluding that becoming must be epochal, Whitehead seems to conceive of no form of continuity other than the spacelike, no continuity of inclusive, qualitative heterogeneity, and so in describing becoming and time as necessarily noncontinuous or epochal Whitehead is not in fact describing immediate experience but rather an abstract, conceptual surrogate artificially derived from it. He is describing a different world from that of immediate experience. The same conclusion, I would argue, holds for his description of the human person as a serial succession of atomic units of becoming. Such a "person" exists only as a kind of conceptual virtual image substituted for the concrete person who grasps himself as enjoying an unbroken continuity of experiencing over time.

I know of no better way of finally driving home this point than by recalling a famous passage from the English physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington. At the beginning of his Gifford Lectures he wrote:
 I have settled down to the task of writing these lectures and have drawn up
 my chairs to my two tables. Two tables! Yes; there are duplicates of every
 object about me--two tables, two chairs, two pens....

 One of them has been familiar to me from earliest years. It is a
 commonplace object of that environment which I call the world. How shall I
 describe it? It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is
 coloured; above all it is substantial....

 Table No. 2 is my scientific table. It is a more recent acquaintance and
 I do not feel so familiar with it. It does not belong to the world
 previously mentioned--that world which spontaneously appears around me when
 I open my eyes.... My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely
 scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about
 with great speed....

 I need not tell you that modern physics has by delicate test and
 remorseless logic assured me that my second scientific table is the only
 one which is really there. (33)

Is Eddington's conclusion not correct? Is the logic of science not remorseless? Of course we might point out to Eddington that it is inappropriate to speak of a scientific table, inasmuch as "table" is not a term that belongs to the horizon of science. But that aside, does not science describe reality more authentically than our senses do?

No it doesn't. It describes a different horizon of reality, not a more real one. The sensible table is, in fact, the only table that is really there, and it belongs to the commonsense horizon attainable though the use of our senses. That is as real a table as you could have or want. Eddington's perceived table really was smooth and hard and brown.

Of course if we take certain sophisticated scientific instruments and involve a sensible table, or some part of it, in an interaction with those instruments, scientific theory will interpret that interaction, which we cannot ourselves sensibly experience, as indicative of an array of molecules moving in a kind of empty space, and so forth. But the horizon of reality to which that scientific entity belongs is very different from that of direct perception. It is narrower in its scope and it essentially involves an instrumental interaction that is not, and cannot be, part of immediate human experience. What science's remorseless logic concludes to is an abstract conceptualization drawn from concrete human experience only through highly indirect theoretical means. The scientific table, if you can call it that, belongs to that abstract, conceptualized world, and our affirming it does not acknowledge it to have a more authentic reality than that of the table we sense. In fact, even affirming that the scientific table exists depends upon the use of our senses, at least in the perception of the instrument's reactions.

I grant that the parallel between Eddington's so-called scientific table and Whitehead's conception of time as epochal or of the human person as a successive society of minute occasions is not indeed perfect because, as I said, science deliberately narrows its field of interest to only certain factors given in immediate experience and it needs to utilize indirect, instrumental reactions. Nevertheless, the similarity between the two conceptions--and they are conceptions--remains striking. Whitehead's conclusion that time is epochal and that the human person is a succession of actual occasions plausibly resembles Eddington's conviction that the table must be mostly empty space because science presumably assured him that this was so. For if one remains within the horizon defined by the perspective of conceptual abstraction rather than of an intuitive grasp of immediate experience, and if one also conceives the continuity of experience as fundamentally spacelike, then it might indeed follow that time or becoming, so conceived, is epochal and the human person, so conceived, is an atomic succession of discrete occasions. But that is a metaphysical description not of the time of immediate experience or of a living person but of their virtual images projected into the thin air of conceptual generalization. To confuse such an image with the concrete person seems, ironically, to commit the very error that Whitehead tried to avoid, "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." In fact, does not applying spacelike time to immediate experiencing, and confusing the two horizons of intuitive insight and of conceptual generalizations, amount to a kind of "ultimate irrationality"? Yet most Whiteheadian philosophers have long since worked themselves into a state of complete contentment with it.

What Whiteheadians could learn from Bergson is to take seriously Whitehead's own requirement that in metaphysics one return from the realm of abstraction to the immediacy of experience from which one started. Process philosophy sometimes seems less like the flight of an airplane than that of a balloon which need not, in principle, come back down again. To allow discussion of immediate experience or of the human person to terminate at the level of conceptual abstraction rather than of intuitive awareness is not, I am afraid, to return to that concrete experience from which the philosophic enterprise took off.

If we accept, with Bergson, an intuited continuity of time and becoming, as well as an ontological identity of the self through a span of time, we do not directly contradict Whitehead's theory of epochal time, or of the successive multiplicity of the person, because Whitehead is not thereby describing either the time or the person that are found in immediate experience but rather their conceptual surrogates within the horizon of abstraction. Bergson, however, points us back to immediate experience itself. He calls on us, not only as phenomenologists but as metaphysicians, finally to land the plane.

I dare to think that what I have here said crudely fits what T. S. Eliot said with unforgettable power:
 We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will
 be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. (34)

Santa Clara University

* Presidential Address at the 53d annual meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America, 16 March 2002, at Santa Clara University.

Correspondence to: Department of Philosophy, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA 95053.

(1) One is liable, for instance, to find in the local Yellow Pages a heading such as the following: "Metaphysics: See Astrologers, Psychic Consulting & Healing Services, Spiritual Consultants, Yoga Instruction ..."

(2) Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (hereafter, "PR") (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 61, 67.

(3) See for instance Bergson's "Introduction to Metaphysics" which is chap. 6 of his Creative Mind (hereafter, "CM") (Totowa, N. J.: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1975).

(4) CM, 162.

(5) Ibid.

(6) CM, 18.

(7) PR, 112.

(8) PR, xiv.

(9) PR, 5.

(10) GM, 32.

(11) Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983),

(12) CM, 71.

(13) Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will (hereafter, "TFW") (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 128.

(14) PR, 35.

(15) William James, Some Problems of Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 80. Sandra Rosenthal has argued in Time, Continuity, and Indeterminacy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 123, that in the context James likely had something rather different in mind than the interpretation Whitehead gave to the passage.

(16) That a general analysis of becoming may legitimately be framed within the more limited context of human freedom calls for justification. Whitehead did in fact regard the structure of immediate human experience as essentially typical of all events. (See again PR, 112, and his Adventures of Ideas [New York: Macmillan: 1933], 237.) This view becomes plausible if, first, we accept Whitehead's contention that the concrete real is wholly constituted by instances of experience ("apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, bare nothingness"; PR, 167) and if, second, we agree with him that human experience lies within nature, not outside it. It is then both an instance and an outcome of the evolutionary process of the cosmos, and conscious experience is that cosmic process come to serf-awareness. Hence we should expect, through consciousness, to discover within the process that is experience the basic structure of all process. Partly for this reason Whitehead supposes some degree of freedom in all actual entities, however primitive. This is also consistent with his teleological view of the nature of all becoming.

(17) John B. Cobb, Jr., "Freedom in Whitehead's Philosophy: A Reply to Edward Pols," The Southern Journal of Philosophy 7 (1969-70): 409-13. I am no longer entirely persuaded by Cobb's argument but this is not the place to disagree with it and it still seems to me the clearest form of Whitehead's position.

(18) PR, 69.

(19) Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press, 1967), 126.

(20) PR, 61, 67.

(21) In The Emergence of Whitehead's Metaphysics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 51-65 and 247, Lewis S. Ford speculates on how Whitehead came to adopt this theory.

(22) Sandra B. Rosenthal, Time, Continuity, and Indeterminacy: A Pragmatic Engagement with Contemporary Perspectives (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 29.

(23) See, for instance, William A. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 80-1; Lewis S. Ford, "On Genetic Successiveness: A Third Alternative," The Southern Journal of Philosophy 7 (1969-70): 421-5; Lewis S. Ford, "Can Whitehead Provide for Real Subjective Agency? A Reply to Edward Pols' Critique," The Modern Schoolman 47 (1970): 209-25; Edward Pols, "Whitehead on Subjective Agency: A Reply to Lewis S. Ford," The Modern Schoolman 49 (1972): 144-50; and Ford's reply to Pols, 151-2. Also see Ford, "Genetic and Coordinate Division Correlated," Process Studies 1 (1971): 199-209; and John W. Lango, "The Time of Whitehead's Concrescence," Process Studies 30 (2001): 3-21.

(24) Modes of Thought (New York: Free Press, 1968), 148.

(25) PR, xiv.

(26) Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 243.

(27) PR, 140.

(28) TFW, 98-9.

(29) Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 11.15.

(30) Confessions, 11.20.

(31) See TFW, 128, 226.

(32) CM, 127.

(33) Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (Ann Arbor. The University of Michigan Press, 1963), xi-xiv.

(34) T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," in Four Quartets (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 59.
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Author:Felt, James W.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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