Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead

Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead

by Michael Epperson
Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead

Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead

by Michael Epperson



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In Process and Reality and other works, Alfred North Whitehead struggled to come to terms with the impact the new science of quantum mechanics would have on metaphysics.

This ambitious book is the first extended analysis of the intricate relationships between relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and Whitehead's cosmology. Michael Epperson illuminates the intersection of science and philosophy in Whitehead's work-and details Whitehead's attempts to fashion an ontology coherent with quantum anomalies.

Including a nonspecialist introduction to quantum mechanics, Epperson adds an essential new dimension to our understanding of Whitehead-and of the constantly enriching encounter between science and philosophy in our century.

Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead is available from the publisher on an open-access basis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823283064
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 09/18/2018
Series: American Philosophy
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 278
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Michael Epperson is the founding director of the Center for Philosophy and the Natural Sciences in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at California State University, Sacramento, where he is a research professor and principal investigator.

Read an Excerpt



This chapter is intended to provide a brief overview of the synthesis developed over the course of the book. As a result, it occasionally incorporates certain concepts and terminology that have yet to be introduced. Since this book was written for readers with varying familiarity with quantum mechanics and Whitehead's philosophy — including no familiarity with either — readers with some knowledge of both should begin with this chapter, whereas those who need familiarization with the subjects might skip ahead to chapter 2.

The attempted correlation of quantum mechanics and Whitehead's cosmological scheme — or any philosophical scheme, for that matter — is an endeavor to be expected of both philosophers and physicists discomfited by the various "paradoxical" conceptual innovations inherent in quantum mechanics when interpreted according to the classical ontology of mechanistic materialism. That various proposed correlations of quantum mechanics and Whitehead's cosmology have come from both philosophers and physicists, then, should not surprise, nor should their respective emphases of approach: The philosophers tend to depict the physical side of the correlation in overly broad strokes in order to avoid the infamously complicated concepts and terminology inherent in quantum mechanics, and the physicists, who prefer to avoid the infamously complicated concepts and terminology inherent in Whiteheadian cosmology, tend to depict his metaphysical scheme in similarly broad strokes.

Some of the proposals made thus far — those suggested by Abner Shimony, Henry Folse, and George Lucas, for example — have proven useful in establishing an initial dialogue; but they have tended to break down once a certain level of detail is approached, on either the physics side or the philosophy side. With respect to the latter, the reason lies not in any failure by philosophers to comprehend quantum mechanics adequately, but rather with the advocacy of certain popular interpretations of quantum mechanics founded upon and inspired by concepts wholly incompatible with the Whiteheadian cosmological scheme. These incompatibilities are most easily evinced by the extent to which a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics fails to meet the four desiderata Whitehead requires of his and any philosophical interpretation of experience — physical, microphysical, or otherwise. Such an interpretation, writes Whitehead, should be: (i) coherent, in the sense that its fundamental concepts are mutually implicative and thus incapable of abstraction from each other; (ii) logical, in the ordinary sense of the word, as regards consistency, lack of contradiction, and the like; (iii) applicable, meaning that the interpretation must apply to certain types of experience; (iv) adequate, in the sense that there are no types of experience conceivable that would be incapable of accommodation by the interpretation.

Thus, for example, attempts to demonstrate the compatibility of Bohr's principle of complementarity and Whiteheadian metaphysics, though perhaps useful in terms of higher-order epistemological issues, fails for lack of coherence at the most fundamental level, the very level for which it was intended. Bohr's two complementary characterizations of our experiences of nature — classical and quantum — are not mutually implicative, and this is the very point of complementarity. Henry Folse suggests that a correlation of Bohr's interpretation of quantum mechanics and Whitehead's philosophy is in order, primarily because of the repudiation of fundamental mechanistic materialism common to both; "however," Folse admonishes, "the fate of any potential alliance is in jeopardy so long as current discussions of the subject insist on concentrating on the fine points of quantum interpretation rather than its broader more general ramifications." He continues:

Quite naturally there are many aspects of the philosophy of organism which find no counterpart in the philosophical extrapolations of the Copenhagen Interpretation. ... There is no reference to the equivalents of "feeling," "satisfaction," or "conceptual prehension." Yet Whitehead would have anticipated this, for the physicists' interpretation of theory is based on a very small segment of experience; Whitehead's system aims at far greater compass.

The difficulty is that concepts like "feeling," "satisfaction," and "conceptual prehension" are fundamental to Whiteheadian metaphysics. They are not higher-order abstractions that should be, or even can be, ignored whenever applied to the specialized interpretation of physical experiences. But aside from specific correlatives in the physical sciences for the terms "feeling," "satisfaction," and "conceptual prehension," which Whitehead does, in fact, specify, the incompatibility of Bohr's interpretation of quantum mechanics and Whitehead's metaphysical scheme lies most fundamentally in the simple failure of Bohr's principle of complementarity to meet the desideratum of ontological coherence.

Similar attempts to ally Whitehead's cosmology with David Bohm's nonlocal hidden variables interpretation of quantum mechanics fail for the same reason, despite the focus upon certain significant compatibilities, such as that of (i) Bohm's "implicate order" pertaining to the etherlike field of all actualities in the universe, correlate with (ii) the analogous concept of necessarily and mutually interrelated actualities in Whitehead's scheme, as well as the repudiation of fundamental classical "extended substance" common to both. In Bohm's scheme, however, the repudiation of fundamental substance (Bohm's particles, though concrete, are more akin to Einstein's "point-instants" and Whitehead's "actual occasions" than extended substance) is not a repudiation of deterministic, mechanistic materialism, as it is in Whitehead's ontology. Bohm's fundamentally deterministic "implicate order" inherent in the field of all actualities entails symmetrical and therefore purely deterministic relations among these actualities.

Insofar as these relations remain hidden within the deep realm of Bohm's "implicate order," our participation in this order is restricted to manifold epistemically limited observational contexts. Bohm suggests that because of this, his theory in no way vitiates conceptions of freedom, creativity, novelty, and so forth — principles central to Whiteheadian metaphysics. However, given that the fundamental implicate order of the universe is deterministic, hidden though this order may be, it is difficult to see how freedom grounded in epistemic ambiguity can be thought to be as significant as freedom grounded in an ontological principle — even if our finite observational contexts all but guarantee such ambiguity. Bohm writes:

As long as we restrict ourselves to some finite structures of this kind, however extended and deep they may be, then there is no question of complete determinism. Each context has a certain ambiguity, which may, in part, be removed by combination with and inclusion within other contexts. ... If we were to remove all ambiguity and uncertainty, however, creativity would no longer be possible.

An ontologically significant principle of freedom from determinacy requires an asymmetrical temporal modality and its associated logical order, where the past is settled and closed and the future is open — a temporality that is irreversible. This is a key feature of Whitehead's metaphysics. Though Bohm's implicate order is fundamentally temporally symmetrical and deterministic, he suggests that there is some similarity between Whitehead's process of concrescence and the quantum mechanical relationships among the actualities of his "implicate order" cosmology. "A key difference," he notes,

is that these relationships are grounded in the deeper, "timeless" implicate order that is common to all these moments. ... It is this implicate "timeless" ground that is the basis of the oneness of the entire creative act. In this ground, the projection operator Pn, the earlier ones such as Pn-1, and the later ones such as Pn+11 all interpenetrate, while yet remaining distinct (as represented by their invariant algebraic structures).

Epistemic uncertainty as to the specifications of most of these relations manifests itself as the familiar, temporally asymmetrical "explicit order" characterizing our experiences, such that temporal priority appears reflective of logical priority. This reflection is evinced, for example, by the one-way direction of time associated with the laws of thermodynamics. But if one could peer through the epistemic veil of this temporal asymmetry — if one could perceive the implicate order of hidden variables and its associated "prespace" — then the fundamentally symmetrical relationship among past, present, and future would be revealed. Bohm writes:

If it were possible for consciousness somehow to reach a very deep level, for example, that of pre-space or beyond, then all "nows" would not only be similar — they would all be one and essentially the same. One could say that in its inward depths now is eternity, while in its outward features each "now" is different from the others. (But eternity means the depths of the implicate order, not the whole of the successive moments of time.)

But since temporal priority is merely epistemically significant by such an interpretation, it is unclear how it might have any significant correlation with an ontologically significant logical priority. As mentioned earlier, such a gulf between the contingent and the necessary has its roots in the problem of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], or "separation" of necessary forms from contingent facts in Plato's metaphysics. It is a problem central to many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and also to interpretations of the special and general theories of relativity — the latter with respect to the relationship between the formal geometrical character of spacetime and the facts constitutive of spacetime. In the general theory of relativity, Einstein bridges Plato's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] by deriving the formal geometry of spacetime from the events themselves; this approach to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], then, has a certain compatibility with the hidden variables interpretations of quantum mechanics discussed earlier. (The close relationship between quantum mechanics and theories of spatiotemporal extension is addressed at length in chapter 5.)

In the Whiteheadian cosmology, the integration of (i) the asymmetrical, logical modal relations among facts and (ii) the symmetrical, relativistic modal relations among spatiotemporal forms of facts, is a function of the fundamental dipolarity of actualities. But in Whitehead's scheme, the asymmetrical, logical ordering among actualities as genetically related, serially ordered becomings, is, in one sense, the fundamental order upon which their symmetrical, relativistic spatiotemporal ordering is predicated. The existence of facts is thus, by the requirement of logic, necessarily prior to their spatiotemporal ordering in Whitehead's metaphysical scheme. But Bohm's hidden variables interpretation entails the opposite — that it is the symmetrical, deterministic relations among actualities which are fundamental to the asymmetrical — and by his interpretation, ontologically insignificant — logical ordering of the actualities themselves. Thus, the irreversibility of thermodynamic processes, for example, is by Bohm's interpretation merely a statistical epistemic artifact of an underlying purely deterministic, symmetrical, "implicate" order.

Bohm and his colleague B. J. Hiley illustrate this fundamental deterministic symmetry of the implicate order by describing the workings of a particular experimental apparatus:

This device consists of two concentric glass cylinders; the outer cylinder is fixed, while the inner one is made to rotate slowly about its axis. In between the cylinders there is a viscous fluid, such as glycerine, and into this fluid is inserted a droplet of insoluble ink. Let us now consider what happens to a small element of fluid as its inner radius moves faster than its outer radius. This element is slowly drawn out into a finer and finer thread. If there is ink in this element it will move with the fluid and will be drawn out together with it. What actually happens is that eventually the thread becomes so fine that the ink becomes invisible. However, if the inner cylinder is turned in the reverse direction, the parts of this thread will retrace their steps. (Because the viscosity is so high, diffusion can be neglected.) Eventually the whole thread comes together to reform the ink droplet and the latter suddenly emerges into view. If we continue to turn the cylinder in the same direction, it will be drawn out and become invisible once again.

When the ink droplet is drawn out, one is able to see no visible order in the fluid. Yet evidently there must be some order there since an arbitrary distribution of ink particles would not come back to a droplet. One can say that in some sense the ink droplet has been enfolded into the glycerine, from which it unfolds when the movement of the cylinder is reversed.

Of course if one were to analyse the movements of the ink particles in full detail, one would always see them following trajectories and therefore one could say that fundamentally the movement is described in an explicate order. Nevertheless within the context under discussion in which our perception does not follow the particles, we may say this device gives us an illustrative example of the implicate order. And from this we may be able to obtain some insight into how this order could be defined and developed.

Bohm and Hiley go on to suggest that this implicate order "contains explicate suborders as aspects which are particular cases of the general notion of implicate order. In this way we clarify our earlier statement that the implicate order is general and necessary, while explicate orders are particular and contingent cases of this."

The predication of actualities upon the relativistic spatiotemporal relations among actualities — the predication of facts upon their implicate ordering — similarly manifests itself in popular quantum cosmogonic models such as those proposed by Stephen Hawking and James Hartle, wherein a vacuous spacetime is purported to evolve quantum mechanically from a void of pure potentiality — potentiality somehow abstracted from actuality. Such a void, often termed a "quantum vacuum" or "quantum foam," is a fundamentally incoherent construction, given that the concept of actuality is necessarily presupposed by the concept of potentiality, such that the latter cannot be abstracted from the former. This is both a logical requirement and a requirement of quantum mechanics, which describes the evolution of actual facts and their associated potentia — not the evolution of vacuous potentia into actuality.

These conceptual impediments to the fundamental logic and coherence of the preceding interpretations of quantum mechanics all stem from a common source — the attempt to use quantum mechanics to account for the existence of actualities, when quantum mechanics both presupposes and anticipates their existence. This presupposition and anticipation is clearly reflected in the mathematical concept of probability, which — as it pertains to the termination of a quantum mechanical measurement in a matrix of probable actualities rather than a determined, unique actuality — is a quantifiable propensity that a presupposed fact will evolve to become a quantifiably anticipated novel fact. (In quantum mechanics, and in Whiteheadian metaphysics, the anticipated unique novel fact is both subsequent to and consequent of the evolution.) Any interpretation of quantum mechanics that meets the desideratum of logic, then, cannot include a quantum mechanical account of the existence of actualities, which are both presupposed and anticipated by the mechanics.

The two interpretations of quantum mechanics briefly described earlier — those of Bohr and Bohm — were both born of inductive philosophical generalizations, which is to be expected of scientific theories to some degree. But these generalizations, each in its own way, fail to meet one or more of the Whiteheadian desiderata for a sound philosophical scheme by which we can coherently and logically interpret our experiences of the physical world. "The only logical conclusion to be drawn, when a contradiction issues from a train of reasoning," writes Whitehead, "is that at least one of the premises involved in the inference is false." As regards these two interpretations of quantum mechanics, the culprit premise is the concept of fundamental mechanistic materialism. Bohr attempts to salvage this concept by draining it, and its complementary quantum theoretical conception of nature, of all ontological significance; the facts of objective nature are thus permanently veiled to the extent that we must replace the notion of "objective facts of nature" with public coordinations of our experiences of nature. And Bohm attempts to salvage the primacy of mechanistic materialism by resorting to a similar veil, such that the apparent openness of the future by its asymmetrical relations with the facts of the past — as related to the apparent indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, for example — is merely a statistical artifact of an epistemic handicap that prevents us from observing and specifying the ether of "hidden variables." This ether, for Bohm, constitutes the implicit, underlying universe of fundamentally symmetrically related facts — that is, a fundamentally deterministic universe.


Excerpted from "Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Fordham University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Fordham University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction,
2. The Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics,
3. The Evolution of Actuality to Probability,
4. The Correlation of Quantum Mechanics and Whitehead's Philosophy,
5. Spatiotemporal Extension,
6. Summary and Outlook,
Works Cited,

What People are Saying About This


"Many of us in the 'process' community have felt a general congruity between Whitehead's cosmology and quantum theory, even though the latter may have directly affected Whitehead's conceptuality only tangentially. We have been glad that in the past decade there has been growing interest among quantum theorists in Whitehead's thought. We especially welcome this remarkable volume. It proposes a correlation of Whitehead's quite technical analysis of the phases of the concrescence of momentary occasions and the strange account of quantum events to which the evidence has driven physicists. At the very least, Michael Epperson has put forward ideas that warrant close attention and point fruitful directions for further inquiry. We may have here a still more successful work, which provides a definitive philosophical ground for quantum theory. In either case, this is an important, as well as a brilliant, book."
Director, Center for Process Studies


"Coming at a time when interest in correlating physics and Whitehead's philosophy has been expanding exponentially, the appearance of Epperson's book is an event of first importance. Employing the decoherence-based interpretation of quantum mechanics, Epperson shows that it can be correlated rather precisely with Whitehead's notion of 'concrescence.' Besides thereby showing how Whitehead's philosophy brings out the ontological significance of quantum mechanics, Epperson also demonstrates that students of Whitehead's philosophy will understand it better by seeing quantum mechanics as a specific exemplification of its general principles."
author of Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts


"Starting from recent interpretations of paradoxical experiments in quantum physics- such as those on nonlocality and decoherence-Michael Epperson has done a wonderful job of exploring in detail the remarkable parallels in Alfred North Whitehead's philosophical analysis of the transition from potentiality to actuality in elementary events."
author of When Science Meets Religion

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