Do Ideas Matter?

Do Ideas Matter?

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. John Sweeney is the plenary speaker for Section IX with a lecture titled, “Do Ideas Matter?” and will discuss the topic of this post.  


We are really connected with other people and indeed with everything else.  Whitehead calls these connections “physical feelings.”  They constitute the causality that defines the world of mainstream physics.  They are very important for human experience as well.  Academic psychology, including physiological psychology, focuses on them.

But what about ideas?  Do they “matter?”  The tracks in this section and in many others clearly indicate that they do.  All of us have experienced the results in our lives of the beliefs about sexuality that dominate our culture.   We are now aware that such beliefs can change, resulting in obvious changes in the experience of many people.  The experience of gays and lesbians is significantly affected by ideas about acceptable forms of sexual activity.

Similarly, when people are sick they have been treated differently in different cultures.  The differences derive from diverse understandings of the human body.  The map of the human body developed in China is different from that developed in India.  Both differ from the very successful maps developed in modern Europe.  But the greater success of the latter does not entail that the others are false or worthless.  Today, many people in the West turn for help to Chinese and Indian sources as well as Western ones.  The actions people take based on their understanding of the body may determine whether they live or die.

This and much else about the enormous effect of ideas is so clear that the contrary view would seem to have a hard time getting a serious hearing.  Nevertheless, the dominant modern mindset from the beginning announced that ideas play no role in the physical world.  What happens physically is determined by other physical events.   In the first centuries of modernity it was assumed that alongside this physical sphere is a mental one in which, of course, ideas ruled.

This early modern view came to a crisis when the evidence for evolution became overwhelming.  Some recognized that the inclusion of human beings in nature called for drastic revision of the understanding of nature.  However, most of our academic leaders decided that the principle that all natural events are explained physically should be extended to human experience and ideas as well.  Accordingly, they teach that the ideas about sexuality or the body are simply by-products of neural events.  Further the effects in the world are not mediated by the ideas but result from the neuronal events only.   Finally, ideas held in one moment have no effect on ideas held in the next moment.    They are related only because neuronal changes are productive of similar but developing ideas.   The standard view of the modern research university is that everything is to be physically explained.

One may doubt that even those who put forward these ideas about ideas are fully convinced by them.  These ideas lack intuitive appeal, and there is empirical evidence against them.  Of course, it can be shown that what happens physically affects how we think.  But it can also be shown that how we think affects what happens physically.  I doubt that anyone who teaches a class really believes that the only reality in this whole process consists in valueless, purposeless physical events.

Indeed, when pressed, some scientists and other scholars will acknowledge that this is not a belief about reality but only about how reality is to be studied.  That might be a sufficient answer if it left open for serious discussion the question of what reality is really like.  But it does not, and when the evidence found by methods devised to show physical causation actually show mental causation, this is largely suppressed.  The appeal to research methodology rather than metaphysics leaves the operative metaphysics unchanged and unexamined.

In the face of both common sense and evidence, why does physicalism continue to be the almost unchallenged official dogma of our universities?  The reason, I think, is that dualistic habits of mind still reign.  Given a nonphysical mind, we have no clue as to how it can intervene in a mechanistic material world.  The simplest solution is to assume that it does not.

To overcome this problem, Whitehead posited a world of events that have both physical and mental features.  He found an example of such events in his own experience, and he noted that something of this sort is actually assumed even by those who ridicule it.  Sadly, those socialized into the traditional dualism usually dismiss this idea unreflectively.  This conference as a whole is asking that we stop and consider it, recognizing its many advantages.

Whitehead’s proposal is that every event has what he calls a mental pole or conceptual feelings along with a physical pole.  This solves a lot of problems, but it can be accepted only at the cost of deeper changes in habits of modern Western thinking.  If one compares the idea with one’s own experience it fits quite readily.  But because our thinking about our experience is filtered through centuries of dualism, it needs unpacking.

Whitehead saw that a moment of human experience is neither physical nor mental, or we could say it is a very complex integration of both.  He undertook to analyze it into the simplest ingredients of which it is composed.  His analysis came up with two basic types of feeling:  simple physical feelings and simple conceptual feelings.   A simple physical feeling is the feeling of an actual entity, that is, an event that cannot be analyzed into smaller events.  A simple conceptual feeling is a feeling of a pure potential, that is, something that might play a role in the world whether or not it now does so.  That means that the conceptual feeling feels its datum as a possibility rather than in its current presence in the world.

The simplest examples are such things as a particular shade of color.  The painter may see it in one part of the painting and consider it as a potential for use somewhere else.  But the painter may also imagine a shade of color not now present in the painting as potential for use.  This may be a shade the painter has never seen but envisages as a slight adjustment of what he or she has seen.  In the extreme case, it may be the first time that this exact shade has been imagined.  Every color now seen or imagined had a first instance.  Novelty occurs even at this simple level.

Of course, the actual human experience is far more complex.  Physical and conceptual feelings are integrated.  Physical feelings are usually of large clusters of actual entities.  It is at these far more complex levels that consciousness becomes important and throws its added light on the data of experience.   This lecture paves the way for such analyses but cannot engage in them.

Our conference will, however, consider one topic that is especially important for the track on transpersonal psychology and parapsychology.  These presuppose that there are direct connections between events that are not contiguous.  The most obvious is telepathy.  Whitehead did not investigate these more debated elements of experience as did others with whom his thought is congenial.  William James and Henri Bergson were keenly interested in these matters.  Whitehead was open to them and showed how they could be understood in his conceptuality.  He introduced a type of feeling that he called “hybrid.”

Actually hybrid feelings are very important to the understanding of human experience.  Without them there would be no cumulation of knowledge.  Education would not be possible.  A hybrid feeling is a physical feeling.  That is, one feels an antecedent actual entity.  But it is not “pure.”  A pure physical feeling feels the physical feelings of the antecedent occasion.  These are the feelings that constitute the world studied by physics.  The evidence seems to be that they constitute the transmission of energy and that this occurs only between contiguous occasions.  The energy that gives actuality to your being right now cannot come directly from events that occurred an hour ago.  It is transmitted through immediately antecedent events.

Since these are the relations that physicists find important, they have been inclined to rule out any others.  However, we saw that their explanation of human thinking and its effects in the body are unconvincing.  Whitehead said that a feeling of a past event can also be a feeling of its conceptual feelings.  That means that if I had an idea a moment ago, I can continue that idea in the present while I add new ideas and integrate the new with the old.  The actuality of mental life surely involves this accumulation of ideas.

It is of course possible to acknowledge such hybrid feelings and then assume that, like pure physical feelings, they occur only in relation to contiguous events.  I feel the ideas I entertained a moment ago, which may have built on the ideas of its predecessors.

But it seems that there is more to it than that.  As I listen to a musical phrase, that it is a phrase at all depends on retaining and building on the immediate past, but I may also recall something about an earlier phrase in a previous movement with which this phrase contrasts.  The question arises, does this mean that I can now again feel those past events?  Whitehead is open to a positive answer.  Although pure physical feelings depend on contiguity, hybrid feelings need not do so.  Whether they do or do not is an empirical question, and Whitehead’s judgment is that they do not.  This can help explain memories of one’s past experience.

This also opens up the possibility that our present experience is influenced by much that is going on around us.  Most of this is unconscious, but some of it can enter into consciousness.  This kind of experience may be more common for other animals than for human beings.  That dogs seem to be aware when their masters are coming home is an endlessly repeated experience.  There is evidence for something like this among humans, but it seems to be less common or clear.  There is even evidence that cells respond to the feelings of other cells quite apart from physical contiguity.

Again, for Whitehead the issue of influence from events in our environment to which we are not physically connected is a question to be investigated without prejudice.   When there is evidence of such connections, the task of philosophy is to explain them.   That some people have a great deal more sensitivity to events at a distance than others is no reason to avoid serious investigation.  If even one person has clear telepathic experience, then telepathy is real, and this reality should be accounted for.  The fact that hybrid feelings need not be of contiguous actual entities opens the door to such an account.  A more adequate science, a Whiteheadian hopes, will eventually open itself to this evidence and accept a more inclusive understanding of reality.

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

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