Griffin Revisits Whitehead Century

Griffin Revisits Whitehead Century

By   |  Jun. 14, 2015

“I’ve Never Felt So Connected” by Tucker Nichols. Copyright (c) 2015 by the artist.

Whitehead Century Revisited

By David Ray Griffin

David Griffin delivered this presentation at the closing banquet of the SEIZING AN ALTERNATIVE conference on June 7, 2015 at Pomona College, Claremont, CA.  The conference was the 10th International Whitehead Conference. (For a copy of these remarks with footnotes, please click here.)

At the 1998 International Whitehead Conference, I presented a lecture entitled “Being Bold: Anticipating a Whiteheadian Century.” In subsequent years, a myth built up that I had predicted that the 21st century would be a Whiteheadian century. However, I had only said, “We should act as if we expect the 21st century, at least by the time it is over, to be a Whiteheadian century.” l have repeatedly tried to make clear that I made no prediction. Nevertheless, at a recent conference, one of the lecturers began by saying: “David Griffin is famous for his prediction that the 21st Century will be the Whiteheadian century.”

I again tried to explain that I had never made any such prediction. But when I got the program for tonight, I saw that I was to speak on “The ‘Whitehead Century’ Revisited.”

Having found it impossible to destroy the myth, I decided that I might as well embrace it. So I will ask: On the assumption that I had predicted that the present century will turn out to be Whiteheadian, is that prediction becoming closer to becoming true?

“Becoming closer” is, of course, a relative matter. Several years ago, when Ann and I were in England, I met a man who at one time had been the science editor for London’s Sunday Times. He had given up that plumb position because he had concluded that the modern scientific worldview portrays a meaningless universe. Feeling a strong need for a meaningful worldview, he joined a Hindu-based movement teaching that the universe is cyclic, with each cycle lasting only 40,000 years. One day he excitedly told me that astrophysicists, who had previously declared the universe to be about 15 billon years old, have decided that it is actually only about 14 billion years old. Being puzzled by his excitement, I pointed out that there is still an enormous difference between 40 thousand and 14 billion years. “Yes,” he said, “but it’s going in the right direction!”

Are we anywhere close to having a Whiteheadian century? If we look at the dominant positions in the social and academic worlds, we are still very far from it. For example:

Social-Political-Economic World

In the social-political-economic world, destructive modernism is still firmly in charge, with international relations still carried out in terms of Social Darwinism, with powerful states using coercive power to achieve their purposes. Although glaciers are melting, oceans rising, and droughts and forest fires increasing, the use of fossil fuels continues virtually full speed ahead. And although Bill McKibben and climate scientists say that if civilization is to have any chance for survival, most of the remaining fossil fuels must remain in the ground, the search for new oil and gas deposits continues, with America’s “environmental president” allowing US oil companies to drill in the Arctic.

Academic World

If the social, political, and economic policies ruling the world are diametrically opposed to what a Whiteheadian worldview would imply, the same is true of the dominant views in the academy. In biological evolution, neo-Darwinism is still the reigning paradigm, with the ideas of purpose and progress ruled out. In physics circles, time is still assumed to be ultimately unreal. In cosmology, most astrophysics, holding that the universe begun with a big bang, suggest that, prior to this event, time did not exist. With regard to the mind-body relation, the mechanistic worldview is still dominant, with genuine freedom assumed to be impossible.

However, although modernism with its destructiveness is still firmly in control, there are developments that are moving in the direction of a Whiteheadian postmodernism.


Within philosophy, some such developments have occurred.

Theory and Practice
One development concerns Hume’s disastrous dualism between theory and practice, according to which we must presuppose various ideas in practice that we cannot defend in theory. Rejecting this dualism, Whitehead said:

[W]e must bow to those presumptions, which, in despite of criticism, we still employ for the regulation of our lives.

This position historically was known as “commonsense philosophy.”

This commonsense approach is still rejected by many major philosophers. For example, according to UC Berkeley’s John Searle, it is “impossible for us to abandon the belief in the freedom of the will,” because that belief “is built into every normal, conscious, intentional action.” However, Searle said, science implies that “the universe [is] a purely physical system,” which consists entirely of “mindless, meaningless, physical particles.” So the belief in freedom must be an illusion.

By contrast, a number of important philosophers have endorsed the commonsense approach. Jürgen Habermas said that philosophy must avoid “performative contradiction,” in which the performance of making a statement contradicts the statement’s meaning. Harvard’s Hilary Putnam – with reference to Peirce, James, and Dewey – rejected the idea “that there is a ‘first philosophy’ higher than the practice that we take most seriously when the chips are down. There is no Archimedean point from which we can argue that what is indispensable in life [is not valid in philosophy].”

Among philosophers who still reject this commonsense approach, the belief that we are purely physical systems has sometimes led to the conclusion that consciousness is an illusion. Assuming that the neurons in our brains are purely physical things, without experience, most mainstream philosophers have concluded that it would be impossible to understand how consciousness could emerge out of the brain, apart from assuming a supernatural deity. Some of these philosophers espouse eliminative materialism, according to which consciousness must be eliminated from our language in order to have a coherent position.

Whitehead’s solution to this problem is his affirmation of panexperientialism – traditionally called “panpsychism” – according to which experience goes all the way down. Although this view was long rejected out of hand, some major analytic philosophers now affirm it. Princeton’s Thomas Nagel said that to understand how we “descended from bacteria,” we must think of natural entities as “something more than physical all the way down.” Nagel even endorsed Whitehead’s position, according to which philosophers should not equate the “abstractions of physics with the whole of reality,” but should regard “concrete entities, all the way down to the level of electrons,” as having experience.

Another major philosopher who has adopted this position is Galen Strawson, son of the famous British philosopher P. F. Strawson. The seeming insolubility of the mind-body problem, says Galen Strawson, has been due to a false concept of the physical, according to which it is devoid of experience.

Nagel and Strawson, moreover, are only two of the increasing number of philosophers taking this position. According to Wikipedia, the mind-body problem has “made panpsychism a mainstream theory.” Also, a look at the Internet shows that the term “panexperientialism” has become increasingly common.

As this position grows, philosophers will no longer feel that, to avoid Descartes’ mind-body dualism, they must deny the reality of freedom and consciousness.


Experience and Decision-Making in Bacteria
Part of the reason this position is growing is that it is now supported by biologists. Lynn Margulis developed the idea that low-level organisms can be compounded into more complex organisms, an idea she developed independently of Whitehead and Hartshorne. Calling this process “symbiogenesis,” she showed that eukaryotic cells – the kinds of cells our bodies are composed of – are compound individuals resulting from symbiotic unions of primitive prokaryotic cells, meaning bacteria. Although her idea was long ridiculed by neo-Darwinists, even Richard Dawkins ended up calling her discovery “one of the great achievements of twentieth-century evolutionary biology.”

Her doctrine that our bodily cells were compounded out of bacteria was based on her conviction that “consciousness is a property of all living cells,” so that “[b]acteria are conscious.” Although this idea was once considered absurd, the idea that bacteria are conscious is now commonplace in biology, with this idea being confirmed by many scientific studies.

Margulis herself pointed out the importance of this view for the mind-body relation, saying:

Thought and behavior in people are rendered far less mysterious when we realize that choice and sensitivity are already exquisitely developed in the microbial cells that became our ancestors.

Another major biologist making the experience and decision-making of bacteria central is University of Chicago microbiologist James Shapiro, who recently published a book entitled Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. “Cells are capable of sophisticated information processing,” says Shapiro. Rejecting Intelligent Design (by an omnipotent creator) and also the neo-Darwinian view that there is no intelligent guidance to evolution whatsoever, Shapiro speaks of cellular intelligence.

Accordingly, Whitehead’s idea that cells have experience and even propositional feelings is becoming part of mainstream science.

A number of biochemists have pushed memory down even further. Whitehead had cited with approval the work of Harvard biochemist L. J. Henderson, calling it fundamental for any discussion of the order of nature. Arguing that the universe is biocentric, Henderson focused primarily on the extraordinary properties of water. Today, biochemists from many countries have provided evidence that water molecules have memory, being capable of storing information.

Laws of Nature as Habits
A contemporary biologist who has become explicitly Whiteheadian is Rupert Sheldrake, who has recently published a well-received book entitled Science Set Free. Using, like Whitehead, “the philosophy of organism” as the name for his own position, he says that “the life of biological organisms is different in degree but not in kind from physical systems like molecules and crystals.” He endorses Whitehead’s statement, “Biology is the study of the larger organisms, whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.” Describing the components of the world as “occasions of experience,” he says that physical entities are events, which take time to occur, so there is no “nature at an instant.” Temporality and hence process goes all the way down.

Sheldrake’s own thought, moreover, is based primarily on the idea expressed by Whitehead, following Peirce and James, that the so-called “laws of nature” are really the habits of nature.

The work of these biologists, in conjunction with that of Habermas, Putnam, Nagel, and Strawson, suggests that a sea-change is occurring in philosophy and biology: The mechanistic paradigm is being replaced by scientific studies that are based on the reality of experience and freedom at all levels of nature.

Whitehead’s philosophy will make its most important contribution to biology, of course, if it can provide a generally acceptable account of evolution. Although neo-Darwinism is still the dominant approach within academic circles, it is problematic for various reasons, one of which is that its atheism has led to the complete rejection of teleology – a rejection entailing that there is no sense in which humans and other mammals can be considered higher than bacteria and mosquitoes.

Many people, finding neo-Darwinism as unsatisfactory as Intelligent Design, wish for a “third way.” Thomas Nagel said: “I reject both supernaturalism and neo-Darwinism’s explanation of the sources of evolutionary change.” For a worldview to be adequate, he said, it must include “a naturalistic teleology.” Whitehead provided such a teleology, saying that the universe inspires “a three-fold urge: (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better.” Whitehead also said, “The purpose of God in the attainment of value.”

An obstacle to the development of a naturalistic teleology has been a widespread belief that any kind of theism would be supernaturalism. For example, Harvard’s Richard Lewontin has admitted that some of the explanations of evolution based on materialistic atheism are patently absurd. Nevertheless, he said, scientists must hold fast to atheism, because they “cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” “To appeal to an omnipotent deity,” said Lewontin, “is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

If we Whiteheadians can effectively point out that Whitehead’s philosophy, with its naturalistic theism, provides a coherent “third way,” we will be in position to contribute to a more adequate account of evolution.


Physics is another branch of science where Whiteheadian thought has the capacity to overcome contradictions and inadequacies.

Quantum and Relativity Physics
The most oft-discussed contradiction within physics is that between relativity and quantum physics – the fact that they, in their present formulations, cannot both be true. Therefore, it appears to be impossible to unify gravity with the other basic forces in physics.

Whitehead clearly believed that his own theory of gravity was compatible with his view of quantum physics. This belief should not lead anyone to argue for all parts of the theory that Whitehead formulated almost 100 years ago in his book Relativity. But it would certainly be worthwhile to see if his ontology, including his conviction that curvature cannot apply to space, could provide a basis for unifying physics. Significant steps have been made in this direction by physicists at this conference. If this effort turns out to prove successful, scientists and science-based philosophers would surely explore other ways in which Whitehead’s ontology could prove fruitful.

Time and “Now”
Most physicists, following Einstein, hold that time for physics is symmetrical and reversible, providing no basis for distinguishing between past, present, and future, hence no basis for speaking of “now.” This idea makes time in physics completely different from time as known in human experience – an idea that has led many to the conclusion that time is illusory: that past, present, and future all co-exist simultaneously. The idea that time is illusory easily leads to the conclusion that moral effort, such as the effort to prevent destructive climate change, is unimportant.

Einstein himself was troubled by “the problem of the Now,” as he called it. Whereas for us “the experience of the Now means something . . . essentially different from the past and the future,” this difference, said Einstein, “cannot occur within physics.” This conclusion, reported Rudolf Carnap, “seemed to [Einstein] a matter of painful but inevitable resignation.”

Whitehead, besides providing an alternative to Einstein’s theory of relativity, also provided a way to avoid Einstein’s painful conclusion. The idea that time does not exist for the entities studied by physics, explained Whitehead, is an example of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” – equating scientific abstractions with the concrete entities that we call photons, electrons, and protons. From the perspective of Whitehead’s panexperientialism, combined with his doctrine that the world is comprised of momentary events, the distinctions between past, future, and present are real for all enduring individuals – as real for protons and electrons as it is for bacteria and human beings.

Whitehead has thereby helped physicists, and hence intellectuals in general, overcome the belief that time as we experience it is illusory.


Whitehead’s Process and Reality was subtitled An Essay in Cosmology, so it is not surprising that cosmology is a branch of physics where his process philosophy has potential to change the long-held dominant approach.

In fact, a major breakthrough has just occurred. I refer to a 2015 book, by philosopher Roberto Unger and physicist Lee Smolin, entitled The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time.

Identifying with the tradition pioneered by Heraclitus, Hegel, Bergson, and Whitehead, they call their position “temporal naturalism.” Besides affirming “the radical and inclusive reality of time,” they call time “the most real feature of the world.” As such, “time goes all the way down,” so there is a “now” for physics.

This thesis is revolutionary, point out Unger and Smolin, because it reverses the view that time is an illusion, or at best an emergent reality. Unger and Smolin instead call time “the only feature of nature that enjoys absolutely the attribute of non-emergence.”

Being non-emergent, time did not begin in a Big Bang, in which the world, including time itself, emerged. Rather, Unger and Smolin hold, like Whitehead, that our universe was formed after a previous universe had come to an end. Although the Unger-Smolin book has some problems, it is a major articulation by two important thinkers of an essentially Whiteheadian position on cosmology. Unger and Smolin have thereby provided a naturalistic cosmology that, in their words, “does not reduce human experience and aspirations to illusion.”

Cosmology and Natural Theology

Besides affirming the reality of time, the title of the Unger-Smolin book refers to “the singular universe,” thereby responding to what they call the greatest crisis cosmology has faced.

This crisis resulted from the discovery that our cosmos appears to have been fined-tuned for life. That is, if the basic variables of nature, such as gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces, had been slightly different, there could not have been stable atoms and molecules and hence no stars lasting long enough for life to emerge. Given the existence of over 30 such variables, each of which needs to be fine-tuned in relation to the rest of them, the crisis is that there is no explanation for this fine-tuning that is acceptable to the scientific community.

To be sure, many thinkers maintain that the fine-tuning is explained by the existence of an omniscient creator. Even great astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who had long been hostile to any kind of theism, concluded that the universe must have been created by “[s]ome supercalculating intellect.” However, the scientific community in general has ruled out any such explanation, on the grounds that natural science cannot refer to supernatural causation.

Most astrophysicists now hold that there is only one alternative, namely, that our universe is a tiny portion of a multiverse, comprised of billions of universes. Given so many universes, they say, one of them was bound to just happen, accidentally, to have a set of variables needed for life to emerge. In the words of Stephen Hawking, “the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.”

Like many others, Unger and Smolin dismiss the multiverse hypothesis as absurd, calling it an “ontological fantasy,” They also reject it as wildly unscientific, because there is no way to test it. So they suggest another explanation, consistent with there being only one universe at a time. Like Whitehead, they propose that there is a succession of universes, but they also suggest that each one is influenced by the previous one, from which the constants are inherited.

By itself, however, their solution is inadequate. Insisting that everything is temporal, they reject the reality of a divine reality or eternal principles. As a result, their historical explanation of the constants suffers from an infinite regress. Also, holding that our early universe, for millions of years, had no recurrent phenomena and hence no laws, there would have been nothing in which the laws and constants of the previous universe could have subsisted.

It seems that the contingent laws of our universe, with their fine-tuning, cannot be explained without some form of theism. Of course, supernatural theism, with its omnipotent deity, which can interrupt the world’s normal cause-effect relations, is rightly unacceptable to the scientific community. But Whitehead, who in Process and Reality endorsed a very early version of fine-tuning, explained the contingent laws of nature in terms of his naturalistic theism.

Accordingly, the development of cosmology has brought us to a point at which we can seriously propose Whiteheadian theism as the best framework for understanding the universe. Of course we need to show scientists and philosophers that theism can be explanatory without involving supernaturalism.

Europe and China

I will conclude with one more way to gauge the success of Whiteheadian thought: its growth in Europe and China.

At one time, Louvain was the only place in Europe where there were significant resources for studying Whiteheadian thought. But partly because Whitehead has been taken seriously by some leading European philosophers, there are now several European universities where one can specialize in Whitehead’s thought.

But the most amazing development has been the extreme rapidity with which Whiteheadian thought has grown in China – largely under the rubric of “constructive postmodernism,” which combines Whitehead with classical Chinese traditions. Already by 2002, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published a report saying that, thanks to the emergence of constructive postmodernism, “the attitude of the Chinese academic fields towards postmodernism has changed from negative to positive.”

The first book advocating constructive postmodernism, which treated postmodern science, was published in Chinese in 1995. Shortly thereafter, universities started having conferences about it, and between 1995 and May 2015, 30 books and over 4800 articles were published on Whitehead and constructive postmodernism. Google in China has almost two million items on Whitehead and constructive postmodernism, and 26 universities have centers for research on constructive postmodernism.

The influence of constructive postmodernism in China is by no means limited to philosophy and science. It has also become a force in many areas, including education, economics, ecology, and agriculture. Constructive postmodernism has even become influential in Marxist and governmental circles, and constructive postmodernists have been central to China’s commitment to lead the way toward an ecological civilization. Constructive Postmodernism based on Whiteheadian process philosophy, said one Chinese scholar, is “the philosophical foundation of ecological civilization.“


To summarize: This century is still far away from being a Whiteheadian century. But it’s going in the right direction.

Of course, if this century is to have a chance of becoming Whiteheadian, human civilization will need to curtail global warming sufficiently to survive the century. Hopefully, this weekend’s conference, Seizing an Alternative, will help move the world in this direction.

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

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