Epoché V, Ep. 5: Science and the Modern World, Chs. VII & VIII

Date: 12th August 2021

Presenter: Izak Hudnik

Chapters: Ch. VII “Relativity” & Ch. VIII “The Quantum Theory”

Keywords: physics, mathematics, laws of nature, Bergson, Pierce, Alexander, organism, event, time, space, relations, object, subject, relativity, quantum theory



00:00 (Izak): Chapter VII: Relativity

16:46 (Izak): Chapter VIII: The Quantum Theory


26:05 (Matt): Reception of Whitehead’s interpretation of relativity in the scientific community; in 1922 Whitehead published the Principle of Relativity; Whitehead was concerned with paradoxes in Einstein’s theory such as the measurement problem; in Process and Reality Whitehead distinguishes between a genetic (process of realisation) and a morphological or coordinate account (physical analysis).

33:26 (Izak): Would Whitehead agree with the application of the Planck’s constant (or any universal constant)?

39:17 (Sebastjan): Differentiation of time and space; events and their effectiveness, patterns of aspects.

44:08 (Miha): Samuel Alexander’s remarks on the relation of space and time in his book Space, Time and Deity.

51:46 (Izak): The placement of instruments in a symphonic orchestra; the pattern of the symphony gets realised based on the placement of the instruments.

53:56 (Matt): Differentiation of space from time with reference to our bodily event? Bergson’s distinction between memory (time) and perception (space); memory resides in the internal tension of a reiterating pattern; space is experienced more as a potential for motion; Whitehead wants to carve out a place for agency; How can we reconcile discontinuity with the spatio-temporal continuum?

1:02:11 (Sebastjan and Matt): Internal and external relations; external relations represent abstractions from the concrete internal relations; The Aristotelian society, of which Whitehead was also a member, was more idealistically minded; Whitehead was looking for a more objective rendering of relativity.

1:16:28 (Sebastjan and Matt): Whitehead does not provide a criterion for what constitutes a prehension or grasping. What is it that gets encapsulated within an event (demarcation criteria of an event)? How does one draw a line of an event? The line would be drawn empirically – in other words, it is a matter of convention; an event could be of any size, it is non-local. Can Whitehead’s notion of an organism become obsolete at a certain point of scientific advance? Whitehead did not intend to collapse science into philosophy and was deliberately avoiding scientific notions such as electrons, atoms etc.

1:25:56 (Adnan and Matt): If we presuppose that the delineation between events is purely a matter of convention, does this not have the same effect as saying that there are no external relations? An actual occasion arises and perishes; object-subject-superject structure of an actual occasion. The external relations thus play a part in the perishing of actual occasions.

1:29:26 (Izak): Nancy Cartwright points out that science never really develops any fundamental universalist laws; Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s distinction between “epistemic things” and “technical things”.

1:35:28 (Sebastjan): The changeable, evolutionary character of constants; Rupert Sheldrake’s understanding of natural laws as habits; the changing of boiling points of certain substances.

1:38:56 (Matt): Timothy E. Eastman (influenced by both Whitehead and Pierce); there is a difference between physical and mathematical constants.

1:47:54 (Izak): The relation between mathematical objects and the laws they potentially give rise to.

1:48:34 (Matt): Pierce’s understanding of natural law (its statistical character).

Plant of the week:

This rather plain-looking plant is actually hard to stumble upon. One must take a thorough look around the rocks on Kucelj (Čaven), the peak of Trnovska planota’s edge of plateau, to find perhaps a single clump of celery-like, dark green shiny leaves there. We were lucky enough to spot a flowering specimen in mid-July. Hladnikia pastinacifolia (sl. rebrinčevolistna hladnikija) is an endemic species (and the only endemic genus in Slovenia) with an extremely narrow range situated in the middle part of Trnovski gozd (spanning from Predmeja and slopes of Čaven in the south to mt. Poldanovec on the northern slopes of the plateau). It was first discovered by Franc Hladnik, the founder of the University of Ljubljana botanical garden.

Abridgment of Chs. VII & VIII

By: Miha Flere

Chapter VII: Relativity, p. 142-160

(p. 142) In the nineteenth century history falls into three parts, so far as it is to be grouped around science. These divisions are, (1) contact between the romantic movement and science, (2) the development of technology and physics in the earlier part of the century, (3) and lastly the theory of evolution combined with the general advance of the biological sciences.

The dominant note of the whole period of three centuries [17.-19. century] is that the doctrine of materialism afforded an adequate basis for the concepts of science. It was practically unquestioned.

The note of the present epoch is that so many complexities have developed regarding material, space, time, and energy, that the simple security of the old orthodox assumptions has vanished.

(p. 143) The new situation in the thought of to-day arises from the fact that scientific theory is outrunning common sense.

The eighteenth century (it had got rid of medieval phantasies, Cartesian vertices and gave full rein to its anti-rationalistic tendencies of the historical revolt of the Reformation) opened with the confidence that at last nonsense had been got rid of. To-day we are at the opposite pole of thought. Heaven knows what seeming nonsense may not to-morrow be demonstrated truth. We have recaptured some of the tone of the early nineteenth century, only on a higher imaginative level.

The reason we are on a higher imaginative level is not because we have finer imagination, but because we have better instruments. This advance (of the last forty years) is partly due to Michelson, the German opticians and progress of technological processes of manufacture, particularly in the region of metallurgy. The instruments have put thought onto a new level.

(p. 144) A fresh instrument serves the same purpose as foreign travel; its shows things in unusual combinations. The gain is more than a mere addition; it is transformation.

The result is, that a great deal of information has been accumulated in regions of nature very far removed from the ordinary experience of mankind.

Two famous experiments, one devised by Galileo at the outset of the scientific movement, and the other by Michelson with the aid of his famous interferometer, first carried out in 1881, and repeated in 1887 and 1905, illustrate the assertions that have been made.

(g) Galileo dropped heavy bodies from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa, and demonstrated that bodies of different weights, if released simultaneously, would reach the earth together. So far as experimental skill, and delicacy of apparatus were concerned, this experiment could have been made at any time within the preceding five thousand years.

(m) Michelson’s experiment could not have been made earlier than it was. It required the general advance in (p. 145) technology. It concerned the determination of the earth’s motion through the ether, and it assumes that light consists of waves of vibration.

(p. 146) The ideas of space and of time employed are too simple-minded, and must be modified. This conclusion is a direct challenge to common sense, because the earlier science had only refined upon the ordinary notions of ordinary people.

Some form of the relativity theory seems to be the simplest way of explaining a larger number of facts which otherwise would each require some ad hoc explanation. The theory, therefore does not merely depend upon the experiments which led to its origination.

(p. 148) Thus the modern scientific assumption is that if anything has the speed of light by reference to any one meaning of space and time, then it has the same speed according to any other meaning of space and time.

This is a heavy blow at the classical scientific materialism, which presupposes a definite present instant at which all matter is simultaneously real. In the modern theory there is no such unique present instant. You can find a meaning for the notion of the simultaneous instant throughout all nature, but it will be a different meaning for different notions of temporality.

There has been a tendency to give an extreme subjectivist interpretation to this new doctrine. I mean that the relativity of space and time has been construed as though (p. 149) it were dependent on the choice of the observer. But it is the observer’s body that we want, and not his mind.

The new relativity associates space and time with an intimacy not hitherto contemplated; and presupposes that their separation in concrete fact can be achieved by alternative modes of abstraction, yielding alternative meanings.

What we must ask of philosophy is to give us an interpretation of the status in nature of space and time, so that the possibility of alternative meanings is preserved.

Whitehead stresses that the discrimination between space and time can be understood by presupposing the organic theory of nature as a basis for a thoroughgoing objectivism.

An event is the grasping into unity of a pattern of aspects. The effectiveness of an event beyond itself arises from the aspects of itself which go to form the prehended unities of other events.

(p. 150) If the pattern endures throughout the successive parts of the event, and also exhibits itself in the whole, so that the event is the life-history of the pattern, then in virtue of that enduring pattern the event gains in external effectiveness. For the effectiveness is re-enforced by the analogous aspects of all its successive parts. The event constitutes a patterned value with a permanence inherent throughout its own parts; and by reason of this inherent endurance the event is important for the modification of its environment.

It is in this endurance of pattern that time differentiates itself from space. The pattern is spatially now; and this temporal determination constitutes its relation to each partial event. For it is reproduced in this temporal succession of these spatial parts of its own life. This particular rule of temporal order allows the pattern to be reproduced in each temporal slice of its history. So to speak, each enduring object discovers in nature and requires from nature a principle discriminating space from time.

Enduring objects are significant of a differentiation of space from time in respect to the patterns ingredient within events; and conversely the differentiation of space from time in the patterns ingredient within events expresses the patience of the community of events for enduring objects.

(p. 151) Endurance means that a pattern which is exhibited in the prehensions of one event is also exhibited in the prehension of those of its parts which are discriminated by a certain rule. It is not true that any part of the whole event will yield the same pattern as does the whole (a thumb does not exhibit the pattern of the whole body).

The questions now arises whether all enduring objects discover the same principle of differentiation of space from time; or even whether at different stages of its own life-history one object may not vary in its spatio-temporal discrimination. It has been assumed that in dealing with one object, time would have exactly the same meaning in reference to endurance as in dealing with the endurance of another object. But now it seems that the observed effectiveness of objects can only be explained by assuming meanings of space and of time which are not identical from one object to another.

(p. 154-155) The theory of the relationship between events at which we have now arrived is based first upon the doctrine that relatedness of an event are all internal relations, so far as concerns that event, though not necessarily so far as concerns the other relata. For each relationship enters into the essence of the event; so that, apart from that relationship, the event would not be itself. On the other hand, the eternal objects, thus involved, are externally related.

The concept of internal relatedness involves the analysis of the event into two factors, (i) one the underlying substantial activity of individualisation, and the other (ii) the complex of aspects—that is to say, the complex of relatedness as entering into the essence of the given event—which are unified by this individualised activity.

The event is what it is, by reason of the unification in itself of a multiplicity of relationships.

The scheme of relationships as thus impartially expressed becomes the scheme of a complex of events variously related as wholes to parts and as joint parts within some one whole.

(p. 156) But this exhibition of the actual universe as extensive and divisible has left out the distinction between space and time. It has in fact left out the process of realisation, which is the adjustment of the synthetic activities by virtue of which the various events become their realised selves.

In some sense, time, in its character of the adjustment of the process of synthetic realisation, extends beyond the spatio-temporal continuum of nature. There is no necessity that temporal process, in this sense, should be constituted by one single series of linear succession.

(p. 157) The pattern is spatialised in a whole duration for the benefits of the event into whose essence the pattern enters. The event is part of the duration, i.e., is part of what is exhibited in the aspects inherent in itself; and conversely the duration is the whole of nature simultaneous with the event in that sense of simultaneity. Thus an event in realising itself displays a pattern, and this pattern requires a definite duration determined by a definite, meaning of simultaneity.

A pattern requires a duration involving a definite lapse of time, and not merely an instantaneous moment. Thus a duration is spatialised; and by “spatialised” is meant that the duration is the field for the realised pattern constituting the character of the event. A duration, as the field of the pattern realised in the actualisation of one of its contained events, is an epoch, i.e., an arrest. Endurance is the repetition of the pattern in successive events. Thus endurance requires a succession of durations, each exhibiting the pattern. In this account “time” has been separated from “extension” and from the “divisibility” which arise from the character of spatio-temporal extension.

(p. 158) Time is sheer succession of epochal durations (not another form of extensiveness). But the entities which succeed each other in this account are durations. The duration is that which is required for the realisation of a pattern in the given event. Thus the divisibility and extensiveness is within the given duration. The epochal duration is not realised via its successive divisible parts, but is given with its parts.

In this way, the objection which Zeno might make to the joint validity of two passages from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Max Müller’s translation) is met by abandoning the earlier of the two passages. Whitehead is here referring to two passages from the section Of the Axioms of Intuition: (i) Extensive Quantity [the one Whitehead will abandon] and (ii) Intensive Quantity.

(p. 159) Whitehead accepts the later, and reject the earlier, passage. Realisation is the becoming of time in the field of extension. Extension is the complex of events, qua their potentialities. In realisation the potentiality becomes actuality. But the potential pattern requires a duration; and the duration must be exhibited as an epochal whole, by the realisation of the pattern. Thus time is the succession of elements in themselves divisible and contiguous. A duration, in becoming temporal, thereby incurs realisation in respect to some enduring object. Temporalisation is realisation. Temporalisation is not another continuous process. It is an atomic succession. Thus time is atomic (i.e. epochal), though what is temporalised is divisible. This doctrine follows from the doctrine of events, and of the nature of enduring objects.

(p. 160) Whitehead gives three additional points: (1) The second quotation from Kant, does not depend on any peculiar Kantian doctrine. The latter of the two is in agreement with Plato as against Aristotle. (2) In the second place, the argument assumes that Zeno understated his argument. He should have urged it against the current notion of time in itself, and not against motion, which involves relations between time and space. (3) Thirdly, in the epochal theory Zeno’s difficulty is met by conceiving temporalisation as the realisation of a complete organism. This organism is an event holding in its essence its spatio-temporal relationships (both within itself, and beyond itself) throughout the spatio-temporal continuum.

(Ivan Shishkin, Forest flowers, 1895, source: Christie’s. Here depicted is another species from the parsley family (Apiaceae), likely the hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium, sl. navadni dežen.))

Chapter VIII: The Quantum Theory, p. 161-171

(p. 161) The point of interest in the quantum theory is that, according to it, some effects which appear essentially capable of gradual increase or gradual diminution are in reality to be increased or decreased only by certain definite jumps.

The effects in question are concerned with the radiation of light from a molecule which has been excited by some collision. When that happens the molecule vibrates with a certain definite set of modes of vibration of the molecule, and each mode of vibration has one definite frequency.

(p. 162) You would think that each mode of vibration could be excited to any intensity, so that the energy carried away by light of that frequency could be of any amount. But this is not the case. There appear to be certain minimum amounts of energy which cannot be subdivided. The case is analogous to that of a citizen of the United States who, in paying his debts in the currency of his country, cannot subdivide a cent so as to correspond to some minute subdivision of the goods obtained.

In the molecule, different modes of vibration have different frequencies. Compare each mode to a nation. One mode corresponds to the United States, and another mode corresponds to England. One mode can only radiate its energy in an integral number of cents, so that a cent of energy is the least it can pay out; whereas the other mode can only radiate its energy in an integral number of farthings, so that a farthing of energy is the least that it can pay out.

(p. 163) To put the matter more concisely, each smallest coin of energy has a value in strict proportion to the frequency belonging to that mode.

The perplexity of understanding the quantum theory arises from the effort to fit the theory into the current scientific picture of what is going on in the molecule or atom.

It has been the basis of the materialistic theory, that the happenings of nature are to be explained in terms of the locomotion of material. In accordance with this principle, the waves of light were explained in terms of the locomotion of a material ether, and the internal happenings of a molecule are now explained in terms of the locomotion of separate material parts.

(p. 164) The assumption is that whatever vibration takes place in the atom is to be attributed to the vibratory locomotion of some bit of material, detachable from the remainder.

The quantum theory wants trolley-cars with a limited number of routes, and the scientific picture provides horses galloping over prairies. The result is that the physical doctrine of the atom has got into a state which is strongly suggestive of the epicycles of astronomy before Copernicus.

On the organic theory of nature there are two sorts of vibrations which radically differ from each other. There is (i) vibratory locomotion, and there is (ii) vibratory organic deformation; and the conditions for the two types of changes are of a different character. In other words, there is vibratory locomotion of a given pattern as one whole, and there is vibratory change of pattern.

A complete organism in the organic theory is what corresponds to a bit of material on the materialistic theory. There is, for Whitehead, a primary genus, comprising a number of species of organism, such that each primary organism, belonging to a species of the primary genus, is not decomposable into subordinate organism. Whitehead will thusly call any organism of the primary genus a primate, of which there will be different species.

(p. 165) In the language of physics, the aspects of a primate are merely its contributions to the electromagnetic field. This is in fact exactly what we know of electrons and protons. An electron for us is merely the pattern of its aspects in its environment, so far as those aspects are relevant to the electromagnetic field.

(p. 166) The requirements of physics now suggest an idea which is very consonant with the organic philosophical theory: Has our organic theory of endurance been tainted by the materialistic theory in so far as it assumes without question that endurance must mean undifferentiated sameness throughout the life-history concerned?

Whitehead wants to suggest a difference between (r) reiteration and (e) endurance, which were previously understood as synonyms (cf. 130)

The difference is very analogous to that between the Galileans and the Aristoteleans: (e) Aristotle said “rest” where (r) Galileo added “or uniform motion in a straight line”.

Thus in the organic theory, a pattern need not endure in undifferentiated sameness through time. The pattern may be essentially one of aesthetic contrasts requiring a lapse of time for its unfolding. A tune is an example of such a pattern. Thus the endurance of the pattern now means the reiteration of its succession of contrasts.

But when we translate this notion into the abstractions of physics, it at once becomes the technical notion of “vibration”. This vibration is not the vibratory locomotion: it is the vibration of the organic deformation.

(p. 168) All science must start with some assumptions as to the ultimate analysis of the facts with which it deals. These assumptions are justified partly by their adherence to the types of occurrence of which we are directly conscious, and partly by their success in representing the observed facts with a certain generality, devoid of ad hoc suppositions.

(p. 169) At any epoch the assumptions of science are giving way, when they exhibit symptoms of the epicyclic state from which astronomy was rescued in the sixteenth century. Physical science is now exhibiting such symptoms. In order to reconsider its foundations, it must recur to a more concrete view of the character of real things, and must conceive its fundamental notions as abstractions derived from this direct intuition.

The discontinuities introduced by the quantum theory require revision of physical concepts in order to meet them. In particular, it has been pointed out that some theory of discontinuous existence is required.

It will be remembered that the continuity of the complex of events arises from the relationships of extensiveness; whereas the temporality arises from the realisation in a subject-event of a pattern which requires for its display that the whole of a duration be spatialised (i.e. arrested), as given by its aspects in the event. Thus realisation proceeds via a succession of epochal durations; and the continuous transition, i.e. the organic deformation, is within the duration which is already given. The vibratory organic deformation is in fact the reiteration of the pattern.

(p. 170) Thus the primate is realised atomically in a succession of durations, each duration to be measured from one maximum to another. Accordingly, so far as the primate as one enduring whole entity is to be taken account of, it is to be assigned to these durations successively. If it is considered as one thing, its orbit is to be diagrammatically exhibited by a series of detached dots.

If we go below the quanta of time which are the successive vibratory periods of the primate, we find a succession of vibratory electromagnetic fields, each stationary in the space-time of its own duration. Each of these fields exhibits a single complete period of the electromagnetic vibration which constitutes the primate. This vibration is not to be thought of as the becoming of reality; it is what the primate is in one of its discontinuous realisations. Also the successive durations in which the primate is realised are contiguous; it follows that the life history of the primate can be exhibited as being the continuous development of occurrences in the electromagnetic field. But these occurrences enter into realisation as whole atomic blocks, occupying definite periods of time.

There is no need to conceive that time is atomic in the sense that all patterns must be realised in the same successive durations. (a) In the first place, even if the periods were the same in the case of two primates, the durations of realisation may not be the same. In other words, the two primates may be out of phase. (b) Also if the periods are different, the atomism of any one duration of one primate is necessarily subdivided by the boundary moments of durations of the other primate.

(p. 171) Whitehead gives a further remark, that the justification of the concept of vibratory existence must be purely experimental. Also if this concept of temporalisation as a successive realisation of epochal durations be adopted, the difficulty of Zeno is evaded.