Epoché V, Ep. 8: Science and the Modern World, Chs. XII & XIII

Date: 30th September 2021

Presenter: Adnan Sivić

Chapters: Ch. XII “Religion and Science ” & Ch. XIII “Requisites for Social Progress”

Keywords: religion, science, art, culture, value, beauty, civilisation, Friedrich Nietzsche, education



00:00 (Adnan): Chapter XII: Religion and Science

09:00 (Adnan): Chapter XIII: Requisites for Social Progress


21:05 (Matt): The enduring relevance of Whitehead’s concerns about the course of civilisation.

22:29 (Adnan): Whitehead and Nietzsche: both were interested in the change of moral values, more so than in the scientific progress itself.

24:30 (Primož and Matt): Whitehead’s claim that there is a decline in religiosity. The moving of religious sentiment could be characterized as the moving of the tides. In modernity it was certainly “low tide”.

26:50 (Sebastjan): Currently we are most likely in a transitory period of sorts. Talking about the religious has somehow become more of a taboo than talking about sexuality (cf. Viktor Frankl).

32:11 (Matt): Increasing individuality and the accelerating rate of change.

39:53 (Sebastjan): Lack of vision in civilisation culture as noticed by Whitehead.

43:29 (Miha): Whitehead on education; An upward trend in wandering.

52:39 (Sebastjan): The possibility of reintroducing value and beauty into the structure of the world.

53:41 (Matthias, Adnan and Primož): Cynicism and relativism in today’s culture.

1:05:56 (Matthias, Adnan and Primož): Ancient art and culture (Buddhist, Christian, Ancient Greek).

Plant of the week:

Pictured above is one of the species of winter daffodil, Sternbergia colchiciflora. By its looks, it is rather similar to the spring crocus (Crocus vernus; sl. pomladanski žafran) that belongs to the Iridaceae family, or to the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale; sl. jesenski podlesek) that belongs to the Colchicaceae family – but it is not related to either of them. It belongs to its own family, Amaryllidaceae. It is a Mediterranean native that flowers in September. We’ve encountered his specimen near Donja Bitunja in Herzegovina.

Abridgment of Chs. XII & XIII

By: Miha Flere

Chapter XII: Religion and Science, p. 224-239

(p. 224) The relation between science and religion will be spoken of in the most general way possible, and will keep in the background any comparison of particular creeds, scientific or religious.

It seems as though, during the last half-century, the results of science and the belief of religion had come into a position of frank disagreement.

(p. 225) We have here the two strongest forces (apart from mere impulse of the various senses) which influence men, and they seem to be set one against the other.

It is well to map our history on a large scale, and to disengage ourselves from our immediate absorption in the present conflicts. When we do this, we immediately discover two great facts: (i) There has always been a conflict between religion and science; (ii) both religion and science have always been in a state of continual development.

For example: (a) In the early days of Christianity, there was a general belief that Christians that the world was coming to an end in the lifetime of people then living. The belief proved itself to be mistaken, and Christian doctrine adjusted itself to the change. (b) In the year A.D. 535, a monk named Cosmas [Whitehead added: Cf. Lecky’s The Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, Ch. III.] wrote a book Christian Topography in which (p. 226) he denied the existence of the antipodes, and asserted that the world is a flat parallelogram whose length is double its breath. (c) In the seventeenth century the doctrine of the motion of the earth was condemned by a Catholic tribunal. (d) And in Whitehead’s day the doctrine of evolution was an equal stumbling-block.

But all our ideas will be in a wrong perspective if we think that this recurring perplexity was confined to contradictions between religion and science; and that in these controversies religion was always wrong, and that science was always right.

Theology itself exhibits exactly the same character of gradual development, arising from an aspect of conflict between its own proper ideas. Regarding this Whitehead mentions Father Petavius and Cardinal Newman.

(p. 227-228) Science is even more changeable than theology. No man of science could subscribe without qualification to Galileo’s beliefs, or to Newton’s beliefs, or to all his own scientific beliefs of ten years ago.

Whitehead two examples from science: (1) Galileo said that the earth moves and that the sun is fixed; the Inquisition said that the earth is fixed and the sun moves; and Newtonian astronomers, adopting an absolute theory of space, said that both the sun and the earth move. But now we say that any one of these three statements is equally true.

(2) In the eighteenth century Newton’s theory as to light was believed, in the nineteenth century Huyghens’ theory was believed. To-day there is one large group of phenomena which can be explained only on the wave theory, and another large group which can be explained only on the corpuscular theory.

(p. 229) If we have any sense of perspective and of the history of thought, we shall wait and refrain from mutual anathemas between science and religion.

We should wait: but we should not wait passively, or in despair. The clash is a sign that there are wider truths and finer perspectives within which a reconciliation of a deeper religion and a more subtle science will be found.

(p. 230) A clash of doctrines is not a disaster – it is an opportunity.

Whitehead gives two additional examples from science.

(i) Two experimenters, the late Lord Rayleigh and the late Sir William Ramsay, found that if they obtained nitrogen by two different methods, each equally effective for that purpose, they always observed a persistent slight difference between the average weights of the atoms in the two cases. Would it have been rational of these men to have despaired because of this conflict between chemical theory and scientific observation? Would it have been wise, candid or moral, to forbid the disclosure of the fact that the experiments produced discordant results? Or, on the other hand, should Sir William Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh have proclaimed that chemical theory way now a detected delusion?

(p. 231) What Rayleigh and Ramsay did was this: They at once perceived that they had hit upon a line of investigation which would disclose some subtlety of chemical theory that had hitherto eluded observation. The discrepancy was not a disaster: it was an opportunity to increase the sweep of chemical knowledge. Finally, argon was discovered, a new chemical element which had lurked undetected, mixed with the nitrogen.

(ii) This discovery [of argon] drew attention to the importance of observing accurately minute differences in chemical substances as obtained by different methods. Finally another physicist; F. W. Aston, working in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge in England, discovered that even the same element might assume two or more distinct forms, termed isotopes, and that the law of the constancy of average atomic weight holds for each of these forms, but as between the different isotopes differs slightly.

In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of a defeat: but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress towards a victory. This is one great reason for the utmost toleration of variety of opinion. “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:30).

( A depiction of autumn croci (Colchicum autumnale): Felix Valloton, Autumn crocuses, 1900, source: wikiart)

(p. 232) Every age produces people with clear logical intellects, and with the most praiseworthy grasp of the importance of some sphere of human experience, who have elaborated, or inherited, a scheme of thought which exactly fits those experiences which claim their interest. Such people are apt resolutely to ignore, or to explain away, all evidence which confuses their scheme with contradictory instances.

An unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account is the only method of preservation against the fluctuating extremes of fashionable opinion.

This advice seems so easy, and is in fact so difficult to follow because we cannot think first and act afterwards. From the moment of birth we are immersed in action, and can only fitfully guide it by taking thought.

Also apart from the necessities of action, we cannot even keep before our minds the whole evidence except under the guise of doctrines which are incompletely harmonised. We cannot think in terms of an indefinite multiplicity of detail; our evidence can acquire its proper importance only if it comes before us marshalled by general ideas. These ideas we inherit – they form the tradition of our civilisation. Such traditional ideas are never static. (p. 233) They are either fading into meaningless formulae, or are gaining power by the new lights thrown by a more delicate apprehension.

You may preserve the life in a flux of form, or preserve the form amid an ebb of life. But you cannot permanently enclose the same life in the same mould.

Religion is tending to degenerate into a decent formula wherewith to embellish a comfortable life. A great historical movement on this scale results from the convergence of many causes. Whitehead will suggest two of them which lie within the scope of this chapter for consideration.

(1) In the first place for over two centuries religion has been on the defensive, and on a weak defensive. The period has been one of unprecedented intellectual progress. In this way a series of novel situations have been produced for thought. Each such occasion has – found the religious thinkers unprepared.

(p. 234) Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.

(p. 236) Religion is the expression of one type of fundamental experiences of mankind: that religious thought develops into an increasing accuracy of expression, disengaged from adventitious imagery: that the interaction between religion and science is one great factor in promoting this development.

(2) We have to know what we mean by religion.

The churches, in their presentation of their answers to this query, have put forward aspects of religion which are expressed in terms (a) either suited to the emotional reactions of bygone times or (b) directed to excite modern emotional interests of nonreligious character.

(a) The religious appeal is directed partly to excite that instinctive fear of the wrath of a tyrant which was inbred in the unhappy populations of the arbitrary empires of the ancient world, and in particular to excite that fear of an all-powerful arbitrary tyrant behind the unknown forces of nature.

(b) The nonreligious motive which has entered into modern religious thought is the desire for a comfortable organisation of modern society. Religion has been presented as valuable for the ordering of life. Its claims have been rested upon its function as a sanction to right conduct. Also the purpose of right conduct quickly degenerates into the formation of pleasing social relations.

(p. 238-239) Whitehead now states what he conceives to be the essential character of the religious spirit.

Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; (i) something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; (ii) something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; (iii) something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; (iv) something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; (v) something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

The immediate reaction of human nature to the religious vision is worship; and worship is a surrender to the claim of assimilation, urged with the motive force of mutual love. The vision never overrules. it is always there, and it has the power of love presenting the one purpose whose fulfilment is eternal harmony. Such order as we find in nature is never force – it presents itself as the one harmonious adjustment of complex detail. Evil is the brute motive force of fragmentary purpose, disregarding the eternal vision. Evil is overruling, retarding, hurting.

The worship of God is not a rule of safety – it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure.

Chapter XIII: Requisites for Social Progress, p. 240-260

(p. 240) It has been the purpose of these lectures to analyse the reactions of science in forming that background of instinctive ideas which control the activities of successive generations.

The three centuries, which form the epoch of modern science, have revolved round the ideas of God, mind, matter, and also of space and time in their characters of expressing simple location for matter.

(p. 241) So far Whitehead has sketched an alternative philosophy of science in which organism takes the place of matter. For this purpose, the mind involved in the materialist theory dissolves into a function of organism. The psychological field then exhibits what an event is in itself. Our bodily event is an unusually complex type of organism and consequently includes cognition. Further, space and time, in their most concrete signification, become the locus of events. An organism is the realisation of a definite shape of value. The emergence of some actual value depends on limitation which excludes neutralising cross-lights. Thus an event is a matter of fact which by reason of its limitation is a value for itself; but by reason of its very nature it also requires the whole universe in order to be itself.

Importance depends on endurance. Endurance is the retention through time of an achievement of value. What endures is identity of pattern, self-inherited. Endurance requires the favourable environment. The whole of science revolves round this question of enduring organisms.

The general influence of science in Whitehead’s time can be analysed under the headings: General Conceptions Respecting the Universe, Technological Applications, Professionalism in Knowledge, Influence of Biological Doctrines on the Motives of Conduct.

The general conceptions introduced by science into modern thought cannot be separated from the philosophical situations as expressed by Descartes [alluding to his dualist position of bodies and minds as independent individual substances].

(p. 242) The moral discipline had later emphasized the intrinsic value of the individual entity. This emphasis had put the notion of the individual and of its experiences into the foreground of thought. At this point the confusion commences. (i) The emergent individual value of each entity is transformed into (ii) the independent substantial existence of each entity, which is a very different notion.

(a) Also the independence ascribed to bodily substances carried them away from the realm of values altogether. They degenerated into a mechanism entirely valueless, except as suggestive of an external ingenuity. The heavens had lost the glory of God. This state of mind is illustrated in the recoil of Protestantism from aesthetic effects dependent upon a material medium. It was taken to lead to an ascription of value to what is in itself valueless.

(b) The Cartesian doctrine of bits of matter was probably (p. 243) latent in the scholastic philosophy and was lead to its consequences in the mentality of northern Europe in the sixteenth century.

(+c) The good effects of science, as equipped by Descartes, arose from its efficiency as a method for scientific researches within those limited regions which were then best suited for exploration. The result was a general clearing of the European mind away from the stains left upon it by the hysteria of remote barbaric ages. This was most completely exemplified in the eighteenth century.

(-d) But in the nineteenth century, when society was undergoing transformation into the manufacturing system, the bad effects of these doctrines have been very fatal. The doctrine of minds, as independent substances, leads directly not merely to private worlds of experience, but also to private worlds of morals.

Also the assumption of the bare valuelessness of mere matter led to a lack of reverence in the treatment of natural or artistic beauty.

(p. 244) A striking example of this state of mind in the middle of the nineteenth century is to be seen in London where the marvellous beauty of the estuary of the Thames, as it curves through the city, is wantonly defaced by the Charing Cross railway bridge, constructed apart from any reference to aesthetic values.

The two evils are: (1) the ignoration of the true relation of each organism to its environment; (2) the habit of ignoring the intrinsic worth of the environment which must be allowed its weight in any consideration of final ends.

Another great fact confronting the modern world is the discovery of the method of training professionals. This means that (a) the rate of progress has become such that an individual human being will be called upon to face novel situations which find no parallel in his past. In the second place (b) the modern professionalism in knowledge works in the opposite direction so far as the intellectual sphere is concerned. The modern chemist is likely to be weak in zoology, weaker in Elizabethan drama, and ignorant of rhythm in English versification. (p. 245) Effective knowledge is professionalised knowledge, supported by a restricted acquaintance with useful subjects subservient to it.

This situation has its dangers. It produces minds in a groove. Thus in the modern world, the celibacy of the medieval learned class has been replaced by a celibacy of the intellect which is divorced from the concrete contemplation of the complete facts.

The dangers arising from this aspect of professionalism are great, particularly in our democratic societies. (p. 246) The novel pace of progress requires a great force of direction if disasters are to be avoided. The point is that the discoveries of the nineteenth century were in the direction of professionalism, so that we are left with no expansion of wisdom and with greater need of it.

Wisdom is the fruit of a balanced development. It is this balanced growth of individuality which it should be the aim of education to secure.

Whitehead’s own criticism of the traditional educational methods of his time is that they are far too much occupied with intellectual analysis, and with the acquirement of formularised information.

(p. 247) At present, says Whitehead, our education combines a thorough study of a few abstractions, with a slighter study of a larger number of abstractions. We are too exclusively bookish in our scholastic routine. The general training should aim at eliciting our concrete apprehensions, and should satisfy the itch of youth to be doing something.

In the Garden of Eden Adam saw the animals before he named them: in the traditional system, children named the animals before they saw them.

(A depiction of spring croci (Crocus vernus): Terence Clarke, Crocus field, Holland, source: Thompson’s Gallery)

(p. 248) The object of the intuitive side [the other side being professional training] of education should be immediate apprehension with the minimum of eviscerating analysis. The type of generality, which above all is wanted, is the appreciation of variety of value. What is meant is an aesthetic growth.

What is wanted is an appreciation of the infinite variety of vivid values achieved by an organism in its proper environment. When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality.

What is meant is art [in the most general sense of the word] and aesthetic education. What we want is to draw out habits of aesthetic apprehension. According to the metaphysical doctrine which Whitehead has been developing, to do so is to increase the depth of individuality. The analysis of reality indicates the two factors, activity emerging into individualised aesthetic value. Also the emergent value is the measure of the individualisation of the activity. We must foster the creative initiative towards (p. 249) the maintenance of objective values. You will not obtain the apprehension without the initiative, or the initiative without the apprehension. As soon as you get towards the concrete, you cannot exclude action. Sensitiveness without impulse spells decadence, and impulse without sensitiveness spells brutality. The word “sensitiveness” is used in its most general signification, so as to include apprehension of what lies beyond oneself; that is to say sensitiveness to all the facts of the case.

Thus “art” in the general sense is any selection by which the concrete facts are so arranged as to elicit attention to particular values which are realisable by them. For example, the mere disposing of the human body and the eyesight so as to get a good view of a sunset is a simple form of artistic selection. The habit of art is the habit of enjoying vivid values.

A factory, with its machinery, its community of operatives, its social service to the general population, its dependence upon organising and designing genius, its potentialities as a source of wealth to the holders of its stock is an organism exhibiting a variety of vivid values.

What we want to train is the habit of apprehending such an organism in its completeness. It is very arguable that the science of political economy, as studied in its first period after the death of Adam Smith (1790), did more harm than good. It de-humanised industry.

(p. 250) There are two principles inherent in the very nature of things, recurring in some particular embodiments whatever field we explore – the spirit of change, and the spirit of conservation. There can be nothing real without both.

The character of existent reality is composed of organisms enduring through the flux of things. The low type of organisms have achieved a self-identity dominating their (p. 51) whole physical life. Electrons, molecules, crystals, belong to this type. They exhibit a massive and complete sameness. In the higher types, where life appears, there is greater complexity. Thus, though there is a complex. enduring pattern, it has retreated into deeper recesses of the total fact. In a sense, the self-identity of a human being is more abstract than that of a crystal. It is the life of the spirit.

The fertilisation of the soul from its transient experiences is the reason for the necessity of art. A static value, however serious and important, becomes unendurable by its appalling monotony of endurance. The soul cries aloud for release into change. It suffers the (p. 252) agonies of claustrophobia. The transitions of humour, wit, irreverence, play, sleep, and – above all – of art are necessary for it. Great art is the arrangement of the environment so as to provide for the soul vivid, but transient, values.

It justifies itself both by its immediate enjoyment, and also by its discipline of the inmost being. Its discipline is not distinct from enjoyment, but by reason of it.

In regard to the aesthetic needs of civilised society the reactions of science have so far been unfortunate. Its materialistic basis has directed attention to things as opposed to values.

Thus all thought concerned with social organisation expressed itself in terms of material things and capital. Ultimate values were excluded. (p. 253) They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved, in some respects curiously high; but entirely devoid of consideration for the value of human life.

It was partly the result of aesthetic errors of Protestantism and partly the result of scientific materialism, and partly the result of the natural greed of mankind, and partly the result of the abstractions of political economy. An illustration of Whitehead’s point is to be found in Macaulay’s Essay (1830) criticising Southey’s Colloquies on Society.

(p. 256) The materialistic philosophy directed almost exclusive attention to the aspect of struggle for existence in a fixed environment. To a large extent the environment is fixed, and to this extent there is a struggle for existence. It is folly to look at the universe through rose-tinted spectacles. We must admit the struggle. The question is, who is to be eliminated. In so far as we are educators, we have clear ideas upon that point; for it settles the type to be produced and the practical ethics to be inculcated.

But during the last three generations, the exclusive direction of attention to this aspect of things has been a disaster of the first magnitude. The watchwords of the nineteenth century have been, struggle for existence, competition, class warfare, commercial antagonism between nations, military warfare. The struggle for existence has been construed into the gospel of hate. The full conclusion to be drawn from a philosophy of evolution is fortunately of a more balanced character. Successful organisms modify their environment. Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other.

(p. 257) An example of such a connection between organism and environment is for Whitehead a forest. In nature the normal way in which trees flourish is by their association in a forest. Each tree may lose something of its individual perfection of growth, but they mutually assist each other in preserving the conditions for survival. The soil is preserved and shaded; and the microbes necessary for its fertility are neither scorched, nor frozen, nor washed away. A forest is the triumph of the organisation of mutually dependent species.

(p. 258) Every organism requires an environment of friends, partly to shield it from violent changes, and partly to supply it with its wants. The Gospel of Force is incompatible with a social life. By force, Whitehead means antagonism in its most general sense.

Almost equally dangerous is the Gospel of Uniformity. The differences between the nations and races of mankind are required to preserve the conditions under which higher development is possible. One main factor in the upward trend of animal life has been the power of wandering.

Physical wandering is still important, but greater still is the power of man’s spiritual adventures – adventures of thought, adventures of passionate feeling, adventures of aesthetic experience.

Modern science has imposed on humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive technology make the transition through time, from (p. 259) generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties.