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Ask Dr. Cobb

January 2011 Question

What does process thought say about the current trends in some corners of physics to think of the universe as a giant information process, or as in some sense made up of information? There was a recent experiment that succeeded in transforming information into energy, and it has me thinking.

Dr. Cobb's Response

I am glad to get a question about physics even though I am very far from being well-versed on this topic. Looking at the world through Whiteheadian glasses I develop opinions on many topics on which I have little background. I am happy to share those opinions. But I hope very much that readers will understand that what I say is a largely untested hypothesis. “Largely untested” is the main point here. Everything I say is a hypothesis, just as all scientific doctrines are hypotheses. But in my own field of theology, many of my hypotheses have been tested quite a lot, and I develop considerable confidence. Sometimes I assert them passionately hoping to convince others. Nothing of this sort can take place in my answer to this question. My proposal is put forward in hopes that others who are much better qualified to make judgments in these areas may consider them and help me formulate better hypotheses.

Since Whitehead was a mathematical physicist, much of the cosmology that I find so rich and fruitful developed out of his profound reflections on relativity theory. For him testing this cosmology in relation to new developments in the sciences would be of great importance. I have tried to promote such tests where possible. The most troubling, but also potentially most exciting, feature of Whitehead’s relation to physics is that the community of physicists in general has proceeded as though Einstein’s formulation of relativity is established. Whitehead thought it did not make philosophical sense and proposed one that largely agrees empirically with Einstein but is based on a different conceptuality.

My own view is that the Einsteinian cosmology is currently in increasing difficulty. To maintain it, for example, physicists now tell us that the vast majority of matter and energy in the universe is “dark.” That means that we have no empirical access to it. There were already phenomena that the Einsteinian community was ignoring. This seems to me too much. Basic assumptions need to be reexamined, and at that point Whitehead’s ideas may prove fruitful.

Meanwhile, what is truly remarkable is that his conceptuality seems particularly fruitful in fields where he did not test it extensively. This is especially the case in quantum physics in which a number of leaders take Whitehead’s thought quite seriously. It is also playing a role in the biological sciences.

The growing importance of the idea of information in the sciences is also supportive of Whitehead in a general way. Many physicists still oppose any idea of subjectivity in nature. But the concept of information is difficult to unpack in a wholly materialist or objectivist context. That entities transmit information to other entities fits much better with Whitehead’s prehensions than with the relationships of billiard balls.

I have shifted quickly from the “process thought” in the question to “Whitehead’s cosmology.” Although process thought is far wider than Whitehead, most process thinkers would agree that Whitehead has no peers in “process physics.” But one cannot directly answer the question of what Whitehead said about information. The only answer would be “nothing.” It was not discussed in the physics of his day. So the question has to be what would Whitehead say about information or what did Whitehead say about the phenomena now discussed under that heading. There is danger that I err even at that starting point. But I will share my hypotheses.

Whitehead made a distinction between pure physical feelings and hybrid physical feelings. Pure physical feelings objectify what is felt by one or more of its physical feelings. They are physical feelings of physical feelings. Much of the stability of the world is due to the fact that what we call physical objects are largely kept in being by the primacy of such pure physical feelings in each successive occasion of their life history. These transmit energy from the past into the present, and this transmission depends on spatiotemporal contiguity. That is, there are pure physical feelings only of those occasions that are in the immediate past. Through them the influence of more remote occasions are also mediated. The whole physical past has some effect on the becoming occasion, but this is mediated through all the intermediate occasions.

Hybrid physical feelings objectify past occasions by their conceptual feelings. For example, my memory of events that took place two minutes or two years ago does not have to be mediated through all the intervening events. The mental poles of those past events can be directly felt now. Also it is possible for the conceptual pole of the experience of one person to be felt directly by another person. Telepathic communication is of this kind.

Whitehead does not expressly relate his doctrine of hybrid physical feelings to the explanation of physical phenomena. But it seems to fit some of the phenomena that so surprised most quantum physicists. Clearly there is action at a distance between quantum events under certain circumstances. Whitehead’s conceptuality can account for this in terms of hybrid physical feelings, since these do not depend on spatio-temporal contiguity.

Of course, much information is transmitted by contiguous occasions. There is no problem in supposing that in many instances there are both pure physical feelings and hybrid physical feelings of the same occasion. Our experience in one moment of its immediate past would almost always involve both types of feelings.

For Whitehead, pure physical feelings transmit energy, and hybrid physical feelings transmit concepts or propositions. It does not seem much of a stretch to say they transmit “information.” Hence I have been comfortable to suppose that what has learned in recent times about the importance and extensiveness of the transmission of information can be quite readily understood in Whiteheadian terms.

However, the question is not whether Whitehead’s cosmology can account for the transmission of information. I take it, rather, that the questioner assumes that it can. The question is about the idea that the universe as a whole is composed of information. That would be a new form of panpsychism, or at least a new formulation of it.

There are those who have thought of Whitehead as a panpsychist, and the discovery of the wide role of information in the universe might seem to support panpsychism. I believe, however, that it is seriously misleading to label Whitehead a panpsychist. The issue is, like so many others, partly terminological. Whitehead does affirm that every occasion, however simple it may be, does have conceptual feelings as well as physical ones. Hence, something that we associate with the psyche is present in everything. Those who use “panpsychism” to mean only this can certainly place Whitehead in that column. But panpsychism is usually thought to assert that psychic characteristics are the primary reality in all things. Translated into Whiteheadian terms, that would mean that hybrid physical feelings are more basic to reality than pure physical feelings. Whitehead emphatically does not assert that. So he does not agree.

The discovery of the importance of information in the physical world seems to have led some to judgments of this kind. Whitehead would resist them. There are, or at least there could be, actual occasions that have no hybrid physical feelings. There could not be any actual entities that do not have pure physical feelings. If physics eventually shows that there are no occasions that do not receive information from the past in a way that Whitehead would attribute to hybrid physical feelings, he would be surprised, but his basic conceptuality would not be affected. One would then judge that the psychic elements in the universe are equally fundamental with the physical ones.

Of course, the meaning of “panpsychism” may be quite different. Whitehead clearly affirms that to be actual is to have the nature of “experience.” It is to be, momentarily, a subject. A subject is acted on and acts. To be an actual occasion is to function in both of these ways. But this is an explanation of the physical world, not its replacement by the psychic one.

In the Whiteheadian account of information above, it is clearly distinguished from energy. The questioner indicates that some physicist has transformed information into energy. This would send me, and perhaps also Whitehead, back to the drawing board. However, one would have to examine the exact nature of the experiment before abandoning Whitehead’s conceptuality.

For Whitehead an actual occasion is a synthesis of physical and conceptual feelings and the physical feelings often include both pure and hybrid ones. It is doubtful that the experiment could show that hybrid physical feelings can be transformed into pure physical feelings. What would make more sense would be that an experiment shows that hybrid physical feelings contribute to the vector transmission of energy, which Whitehead associates with the pure physical feelings alone. That would threaten the law of the conservation of energy. In any case trying to guess what the experiment actually shows is not very fruitful without a lot more information.

I will close as I began. In an important sense, when I talk about the world studied by physics, I do not know what I am talking about. I have lived my professional life as one of the fools who rushes in where far more informed scholars fear to tread. If I could persuade those who do know what they are talking about to try on a pair of Whiteheadian glasses, I suspect that often they would see things more clearly. I keep hoping that by putting forward hypotheses about what they might see, I can persuade more to try. But I also hope that all who read will understand the severe limitations on what I say.

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