Realism vs Idealism Saga Continues

Often cast in the physicalism vs pan-psychism sense, it’s an argument I’ve left long behind for my “information realism”.

Many reacting recently to Kastrup’s Idealism / Pan-psychism as the kind of stuff “only stoned hippies could contemplate as real”. Myself, I get why he’s contemplating (promoting) it, but it’s really just word-play in the end using “consciousness” where I would use “information.” ie although he’s using the word he’s not really saying the real / physical world is conscious, merely made of experience-stuff, more like experiencable stuff (ie real information).

That is the physical and the psychological are equally real, since they are both manifestations of the fact that fundamental reality is information, and both equally explicable – along with erstwhile conundrums (“hard-problems”) like free-will, subjectivity and mental agency – in terms of their evolution from there.

Several times before when writing on this (see links) A J Owens comments with quotes from Whitehead, to which I often respond “no doubt, nothing new under the sun”. I did spend some effort getting up to speed with Russell’s metaphysical take, so I guess I should do the same with Whitehead at some point.

Prompted today, by these two tweets, the first with a quote from Wallace:

And this response from Matthew Seagall (FootnotesToPlato):

With a link to this (draft) piece: “Physicalism and Its Discontents: A Study in Whitehead’s Panexperientialist Alternative

[Although not referred to in this piece, Seagall has written on Kastrup, and Pigliucci’s response, in a Whitehead context before. See links at the bottom. He does however refer to IIT(Tononi) and Dennett(B2BnB) and more, often mentioned here on Psybertron.]

Whiethead’s “radical empiricism” is kinda where I started, though for me it was Wm James “radical empiricism” as used by Pirsig – stuff experienced / experiencable immediately / diectly as an interaction in the world at a fundamentally real level prior to / independent of any mental abstraction or interpretation.

“a conception of experience as basic to Nature”
Whitehead quoted by Seagall

Also concluding:

“the panpsychist alternative is superior to physicalism’s eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism”

No doubt, as I say, but it’s not necessary to go that far. We still have emergence and a kind of causal supervenience but both physics and psyche emerge from the experiencable stuff – information realism.

It’s the experience that’s basic to nature, not the consciousness of it or of itself.

[Leibnitz – see Smolin’s “nads”.]

Pan-experientialism better than Pan-psychism – I’ll say.
[Russell > Whitehead > Quine > Dennett … pedigree apparent]

[Wittgenstein – referring to Tractatus only, misses Witt’s joke at the expense of the logical positivists – misreading of “Whereof one cannot speak …”]

But I have no doubt this is true:

“Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism is a protest against the lifeless Nature imagined by Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, and a rejection of the narrow linguistic analysis and sterile logical positivism of his philosophical contemporaries. His is an attempt to make natural science philosophical again by asking whether physical causes and motions need be so violently segregated from the conscious reasons and emotions by which we apprehend them.”

No indeed, they surely don’t. And it’s as unfair on Descartes, Galileo and Newton, as it is on Wittgenstein – they each had their own projects of their day. With the first three it was about making space for God alongside their physics, since consciousness appeared God-given and God had to be given a place.

“He is perhaps best situated within the American pragmatist tradition stemming from Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey …”

“… in particular his genetic account of mutually sensitive prehensions is an attempt to make good on James’ psychological insight by building it out into a coherent cosmological scheme.”

Now that I can believe (see James ref above.)
Him, Pirsig, me & all. I like “prehensions” before “app” and “comp” – pre-conceptual experience, radical empiricism.

“He was influenced by the French philosopher Henri Bergson whom he credits along with William James and John Dewey in the preface to Process and Reality.” [Wikipedia]

[Interestingly Tononi in the list of refs, but not in the text.]

[Need to see a statement of “Whitehead’s process-ontology”- as I’ve said before, the fundamental nature of experiencable real world information, is a process view because it’s the interaction, the event, that is the experience of the real world. I’ve called it “relationalism” previously, before I settled on the atomic nads being “bits” of information.]


Post Note: Clearly just rough notes, not really a review of Seagall’s paper, simply sparked by it, but also previously:

Clearly that real entity vs conceptual object is in Whitehead too via the process of radical experience. Simply easier in French because they have distinct words for the different knowings – which may go a long way back – but clearly a lot of this goes back to James (US) & Bergson (Fr)  in the western canon. Whitehead is the Brit that most picked-up on it and influenced the rest of us, despite the dominant prevalence of the objective (and all the logical positivism that ensues) in present day scientific orthodoxy

“Bergson travelled to London in 1908 and met there with William James, the Harvard philosopher who was Bergson’s senior by seventeen years, and who was instrumental in calling the attention of the Anglo-American public to the work of the French professor. The two became great friends. James’s impression of Bergson is given in his Letters under date of 4 October 1908:

‘So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy.'”


A long, slow turning “point” it has turned-out to be (see scientistic orthodoxy) but just maybe we’re getting there. (James seems to be the nexus of the whole story?)

12 thoughts on “Realism vs Idealism Saga Continues”

  1. I too have the feeling that William James is at the nexus, and in particular his Principles of Psychology. Reading the summary at, I can see how connections could be drawn between ‘the assertion that emotions are simply the manifestations in consciousness of a tide of sensory impressions from skeletal muscles, viscera, and other organs’ and some form of pan-experientialism. Also I can make out Whitehead’s central concerns in the statement that ‘So far as we class the states or field of consciousness, write down their several natures, analyze their contents into elements, or trace their habits of succession, we are on the descriptive or analytic level. So far as we ask where they come from or why they are just what they are, we are on the explanatory level.’

    Both authors are hard to read, but for different reasons. James is highly entertaining, but erratic in his organization, and playful with his rhetoric to the point of recklessness. He is persuasive, but in a way that suggests he is charming us. Whitehead is also highly readable for his discerning observations, but his systematic metaphysics involves a radical ontology, described using a highly specialized terminology that is not always sufficiently explained.

  2. You’ll be pleased to hear I’m reading the original Whitehead (Process & Reality corrected edition). He is very good, as suggested / expected. Loving the fact that he is anally detailed in his categoreal scheme – discussing an contrasting detail with his list of main sources – and yet he sees “mathematical science” as the problem misleading philosophers including (his erstwhile partner) Russell. He’s already another person I wish had lived to meet Wittgenstein and/or Godel. More when I’vge read more.

  3. Process and Reality is said to set out his metaphysics most comprehensively. I haven’t run into it yet (probably I should order it). He also talks about it in Science and the Modern World, and he touches on it in many books. What I understand of it is fascinating; it attempts to interpret the then-new science of quantum mechanics as requiring a radical change in our thinking about reality, in terms of process rather than matter. Matter is viewed as an isolated representation of some types of process. “Spooky action at a distance” is (I think he means) explicable in terms of a vast experiential partiicipation in process. But I asked a Whitehead discussion group what drew them to Whitehead, and some found his emphasis on modes of awareness more significant. So I’ve been diverted in that direction. which also connects with James, but this time with his pragmatism.

    Personally, I see a connection with Kierkegaard’s critique of the scientific viewpoint in Concluding Unscientific Postscript — that it leaves out the individual. Whitehead is also very much about reminding science that it deliberately excludes the most important thing in the world: the unique immediacy of personal experience. There is nothing wrong with that, indeed there is much advantageous about it, except when i misleads us in our question to understand the world for what it is.

  4. Strange, I thought is was you kept sharing great long quotes from Whitehead?

    “reminding science that it deliberately excludes the most important thing in the world”
    Me too.

    Good for the control volume called science, but undoubtedly bad for the world.

  5. Yes, that was me (AJ Owens with an ‘s’, but you can call me Jim). While I’ve read quite a bit of Whitehead (Sceince and the Modern World, Modes of Thought, The Function of reason, Adventures in Ideas), so far I haven’t run across a copy of Process and Reality. Since you’re now reading it, I’ve just ordered one. It’s expected sometime in mid-November (I didn’t use Amazon).

    I recently picked up Dennett’s Kinds of Minds from an overstock bin. Where he says early in Chapter 4, “Animals… get their epistemic hunger from the combination, in exquisite organization, of the specific epistemic hungers of millions of microagents… Each of these tiny agents can be conceived of as an utterly minimal intentional system, whose life project is to ask a single question, over and over,” he takes a position related to Whitehead’s process metaphysics, or so it seems to me. But Dennett is determined to draw a line between dead matter and something else, which is alive, but can’t quite be called “live matter.” For him, as far as I can see, life is some sort of epiphenomenon in a reductionist materialistic world (however he might want to avoid the word, or that characterization). Whitehead, on the other hand, sees the concept of “matter” as useful but potentially misleading. Everything is understood as process, and out of that comes what we think of as matter and its properties.

    Of course I’m still learning about both these thinkers. Perhaps I could pick up something by Smolin, or someone else you recommend, for discussion?

  6. I’ve just placed a request for Smolin’s “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution” at the local library. I’m 29th in line.

  7. OK, I’ll bite – you said “Dennett is determined to draw a line between dead matter and something else, which is alive, but can’t quite be called “live matter.” For him, as far as I can see, life is some sort of epiphenomenon in a reductionist materialistic world.”

    Absolutely not. Life, like consciousness, exists in the most fundamental parts (like Whitehead’s occasions or Smolin’s events – or any monism based on atoms of interaction – radical empiricism – before the “material”). He is the opposite of a material reductionist, in fact he criticises other scientific types for being too reductionist, too super-determinist. The only lines drawn are taxonomic ones in evolution – how we give names to species that evolve. Life and consciousness are two such species.

    The material/physical “things” evolve from these “occasions” – until then they’re not material. The biological “things” evolves from more of these, until then, they’re not alive. The conscious “things” evolved from more of these, until then, they’re not conscious. All these phenomena are “emergent” from large-scale-complex evolutionary arrangements from the simpler. “Epiphenomenal” is misused in a pejorative sense – but emergent stuff is just as real as the stuff it emerges from. It’s all real.

  8. “The biological ‘things’ evolves from more of these, until then, they’re not alive. ” — This is my understanding of Dennett: that there are things that are not alive. Life appears at a certain stage.

    It depends what you mean by ‘life,’ but I think Dennett means to exclude things like rocks, and to suggest that somewhere between rocks and humanity, ‘life’ emerged where before there was none. Whitehead’s position, I think, would be that here is always ‘life,’ always something experiential, always something assessing ‘better’ and ‘worse’ at every instant.

  9. It’s the difference between life and things that are alive. (And Dennett isn’t a metaphysician, so he makes no comment on the fundamental “radical empirical” experience.) It’s a matter of when we “call” things alive – and there are pragmatic choices about that kind of definition, why and what for? I wouldn’t call a rock “alive” in any useful sense, (would you?) – but it contains that same fundaments of life as anything else. No magic required, just evolutionary emergence.

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