An Atom Is Hard to Find

An Atom Is Hard to Find

By   |  Jan. 8, 2015

Each Section in the “Seizing an Alternative” conference launches with a plenary lecture focused on one aspect of Whitehead’s thought particularly relevant to the tracks in that Section. William Connolly is the plenary speaker for Section X with a lecture titled, “An Atom Is Hard to Find” and will discuss the topic of this post.  


An “atom” is an entity that cannot in actuality be divided.  Some Greek philosophers concluded that there must be such entities, although they did not claim to have found them.   Modern scientists thought they had found them, and what they thought were atoms are still called that.  But they have in fact been broken up.  Scientists now hesitate to affirm that this process of finding smaller and smaller entities is at an end.

Whitehead shared the view of the Greek atomists that there must be indivisible entities of which the highly divisible world is composed.  His requirement of an atom was more demanding than that of the Greeks.  They were speaking only of spatial divisibility.  Whitehead thought the indivisibility must also be temporal.  He taught that the world is made up of events, and that the complex events in which we participate are composed ultimately of indivisible events.  He believed that we have an example of an atomic event in a moment of our own experience.  There either is an experience or there is not.  A part of it cannot exist separately from the whole.  Hence, it seems not to be so hard to find an atom.

On the other hand, one should try the exercise of identifying a moment of one’s own experience.  This is very illusive indeed.  If one tries to think of the immediately antecedent moment, one is likely in fact to be thinking of several of them.  There is a succession of indivisible experiences in a second.  How many may vary.  It is not hard to recognize that the flow of experience can be divided into briefer experiences.  And there are good reasons for thinking that there is a metaphysical limit to this division, but our conscious experience cannot isolate a single momentary occasion of experience for examination.

When we turn to the other data of our experience, we are much further removed from atomic entities.  The chairs and tables, rocks and trees, people and animals that we experience are vast congeries of events.   Quark events may be atomic, but they are far outside our conscious experience.

This means that the data of our conscious experience are all what Whitehead calls societies, and the vast majority of our thoughts are about societies.  Whitehead has gone further than anyone else in enabling us to supplement and transform our thinking about societies with thinking about the atomic individuals of which they are composed, but this does not undercut the importance of thinking about societies.  The nature of societies cannot be derived from our theories about individuals.  Actually our theories about individuals must be developed from our experience of societies.  These theories about individuals must explain how it is that a world composed of atomic individuals is experienced as a world of societies.

Whitehead calls the relation of individuals to other individuals “physical feelings.” When physical feelings feel the physical feelings of antecedent occasions, they are called “pure physical feelings.” Unfortunately for the effects among his students, he also called these pure physical feelings “causal feelings.”  Physics deals extensively with these.   They alone transmit energy.  But calling them “causal feelings” has led some of us to suppose that what happens in the world should ultimately be explained by these alone, qualifying this only in that individual occasions of experience play a role in their own integration of these feelings.

Whitehead, however, cannot have meant that the data of other feelings play no role in determining what constitutes the full actuality of an actual occasion of experience.  An occasion of experience synthesizes all of its data, and that means the data of all of its feelings.  There are even other physical feelings that do not qualify as “causal” in his technical and confusing usage.  They are feelings of the conceptual feelings of earlier occasions.  They do not transmit energy, but they are responsible for some features of the new occasion.   Physicists may neglect them if they wish, but by doing so, they leave much unexplained.  Whiteheadians should certainly no share in this neglect.

Our interest here is in how societies affect individuals.  Whitehead explains that physical feelings of individual occasions are transmuted into feelings of societies.  Our everyday experience consists of these transmuted feelings.  When we ask whether the societies that are the data of these transmuted feelings have characteristics that are not felt in the physical feelings from which they are derived.  The answer is clearly, Yes.   Our conscious experience is shaped by the characteristics of societies many of which are not characteristics of any of the individual occasions of which they are composed.

Some of these characteristics of societies are obvious on reflection.  Most of us take great aesthetic pleasure in the shape of the Taj Mahal.  We may travel a great distance to see it.  Thus the shape has significant effects both in the experience of many people and in physical events.  But that shape does not exist in any atomic entity.  It exists only in that society of actual entities that is the Taj Mahal.  Transmuted feelings make possible its enjoyment in individual occasions of human experience.

Another example, we learn over time about the characteristic behavior of an associate. What we learn affects our expectations which in turn affect our behavior.   The “behavior” in both cases is that of a psycho-physical organism.  It cannot be attributed to the atomic events into which it could theoretically be analyzed.  None of them is behaving in those ways.

Now it is obvious that light can be thrown on some of the associate’s behavior by understanding what is taking place in her personal experience.  That involves the influence of childhood experiences on her as well as recent occurrences.  We can also understand her behavior better by learning about the health or malfunctioning of bodily organs, and so forth.  But no factors of this kind totally explain the very different reality of behavior.   And since her behavior is affected by the behavior of others, behavior needs to be studied on its own terms.

The situation is much the same when we think of people as the individuals in a social context.  We can understand much about human societies as we know more about the individual people.  But the society has many characteristics that are not characteristic of any of its members.  These characteristics affect the members of the society, just as the members affect the society.

Most of Whitehead’s analysis of societies is at this level.  He emphasizes the social character even of the microscopic world.  Even what sociologists treat as individuals are composed of societies of societies of societies.  Much of his analysis is more relevant to physicists, chemists, biologist, physiologists, and ecologists than to social scientists.

Nevertheless, it is also relevant to economists, sociologists, and political theorists.  Indeed from a Whiteheadian point of view these have often misled us by their efforts to explain communities by the study of their members.  Economists, especially, have explicitly postulated a view of autonomous individuals as the basis of their theories.  Whitehead urges an examination of the larger structure of the economy as the larger society in which it is embedded.  One major contribution of Whitehead’s thought to the tracks in this section is its call to attend to the characteristics of societies as such and recognize their explanatory importance.

Of course, Whitehead’s understanding of societies has other contributions to make.  Especially in the modern West, human individuals and societies have been understood as quite separate from the natural world.  Whitehead helps us to see that human societies are embedded in more inclusive ones.  Also there are societies that consist of both human and nonhuman members.

Whitehead’s account of societies also breaks the hold of supposedly unique classifications.  The individual person, by virtual of multiple characteristics, is a member of many societies.  One track in this section will show how inadequate was the older use of “race, class, and gender” as classifications.  In moral terms we all find ourselves members of both victim societies and victimizing societies.  Whitehead’s approach shows that although all these social classifications are important, the individual is not finally defined by any complex of them.

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.

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