Chapter Three–On The Nature Of Fact


There are two fundamental truths concerning the physical world which we inherit from common sense. First, the physical world is real and objective. It exists outside of us and independently of us. It was there before we arrived, and it will be there after we are gone. Second, all of our knowledge of the physical world depends, ultimately, on our subjective, personal experiences.

These two truths are a very odd couple. Either of them, taken to its extreme, negates the other. If the physical world is entirely outside of subjective experience, if consciousness is in no way intrinsic to its mode of being, then it is hard to imagine how conscious knowledge of that reality could ever arise. And yet if all of our knowledge of the physical world depends on our subjective experience, then how can we know that the physical is truly objective and independent of the consciousness of it that we have?

Either truth, taken to its extreme, negates the other – and yet we cannot make sense of our reality except by acknowledging both. What we observe here is a fundamental complementarity, somewhat akin to the wave/particle complementarity that is discussed in the context of quantum physics. Both descriptions are necessary. Each is useful in the proper context. But each seems to contradict the other.

Over the last few hundred years, our scientific and technical civilization has focused most of its intellectual energies on exploring the implications of the first of these truths – the truth of the external, objective reality of the physical world in which we live. We have been engaged in a grand and heroic intellectual adventure. We have learned things about this physical world that no civilization before us had every imagined, and we have achieved a level of mastery in this world that is entirely unprecedented in its scope and in its quantitative majesty.

For this triumph, however, we have paid a heavy price. We have distorted and impoverished the richness and diversity of our lives, we have precipitated vast ecological devastation, and we have lost access to the intimacy with the biosphere, the nearness to the Gods, and the life-ordering power of the higher mentality that graced the less technically sophisticated civilizations of our ancestors.

Our civilization is out of balance. We have gotten so lost in the objective, outer truth that we sometimes genuinely doubt the reality, the power, and the significance of our own conscious existence. In this chapter, we are going to reach for balance by exploring some of the implications of the other great truth about the physical world – the subjective truth, the truth that all of our knowledge of the outer world is gathered from our own, seemingly internal, subjective experiences.

Because scientific truths about the objective world are of such importance to us, however, the first task of this exploration must be that of showing how our own subjective experience is connected to the real, objective, outer world – the world that we learn about from scientists. This task is an extremely important one, and one that is often neglected by those exploring this more subjective line of approach. It is sometimes suggested that since the physical world only appears in our conscious experience, it is therefore just maya, an illusion, a dream.37 Thus, it is held, the details explored by science are just an oddity of the particular dream we are inhabiting, and are of no fundamental importance. It is suggested that what is really important are not the quantitative details of the dream, but rather the overwhelming fact that physical reality is, indeed, a dream – in particular a rather bad dream from which we can and should strive to awaken. But this line of reasoning can satisfy us only if we are willing to turn our backs on this world, on its beauty and its mystery, and on its vital, pragmatic concerns.

Those of us who live among the technological marvels of the twenty-first century are too overwhelmingly awed by the physical world and too interested in its details to dismiss it as a mere illusion. If we are going to regard the truth of subjectivity as something more than an intellectual curiosity, fit to amuse the philosophically inclined, it is going to have to say something interesting about the physical world as that world is understood by science.

The world as science describes it is ‘smooth.’38 It is a world of discrete events and precisely delineated fields, with clearly defined locations, interacting in ways that can be precisely quantified39. Under the influence of science, we sometimes imagine that the world that we actually experience is that smooth world. But if we actually look at our subjective experience, what we find is not ‘smooth’ at all. It is rather, as Whitehead suggests,40 a ‘rough’ world, a world of vague boundaries, of shifting foci, of discontinuous fragments; and many of our most vivid experiences – experiences of love or hatred, of moral or aesthetic value, or even of hunger and thirst – cannot be quantified at all.

What, then, is the relationship between the smooth world of science and the rough world of experience? Many thinkers have tried to account for the rough world of perception in terms of the smooth world of science. Physiological theories of perception, and the entire discipline of cognitive science, are devoted to this endeavor. Given that our bodies are made up of sub-atomic particles, of atoms, of cells and of organs, how is it that the perceptual process can be understood? Many valuable insights have emerged from this line of approach, though the ‘hard problem,’ the problem of accounting for the emergence of consciousness in a world of unconscious objects, remains unsolved by any of these approaches.41

In the following pages, we will take the opposite tack. Rather than trying to account for the rough world of perception in terms of the smooth world of science, we will start with the rough world of perception and ask how, from within that world, we can arrive at the smooth, quantifiable world of science.

I want to emphasize that the purpose here is not to undercut or to invalidate the physical sciences in any way. This approach is very sympathetic to science and, in fact, it is the approach that was taken by Alfred North Whitehead in the “middle period” of his work, when he was concerned with working out a philosophical to validation for the results of scientific method.42 The purpose, rather, is to complement the scientific form of explanation. Science presents us with ideas about a real, objective physical world, and in terms of those ideas we can usefully account for many of the features of our experience. The approach we will take in the following pages starts with our experience and shows how, from within that experience, we can arrive at, experientially validate, and significantly illuminate the world described by science.

As we do the work of clarifying the precise place of the physical world within the field of our own subjective experiences, we will find that our entire understanding of the physical world has changed decisively, and we will find, too, a perspective from which we can fruitfully coordinate the reality of the physical world as that world is described by science with the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds.

The Definition of Fact

We begin with the fundamental truth, enshrined deeply in the texture of common sense and at the heart of the scientific method, that all of our knowledge of the physical world is ultimately grounded in subjective experience. Scientists, of course, tell us things about the physical world that no one can ever perceive directly through the five senses. No one has ever directly perceived an atom, an electromagnetic wave or a quark. But when we ask scientists how they know about atoms, electromagnetic waves, and quarks, they tell us that they know those things because they are necessary in generating explanations for the results of experiments that were directly perceived with the senses. In science, all valid knowledge is grounded in direct, sensory experience.

The conviction that truth is ultimately grounded in direct experience is even more binding in the context of everyday life. If I ask you how you know whether or not you are seated, or whether or not you are indoors at this moment, you refer quite naturally to the details of your current experience as entirely binding arbiters of truth. But while we can speak with ease about the things that we perceive, what can we say about experience itself? In order to begin any meaningful investigation, we must delimit clearly the subject of our study. What do we mean when we refer, in scientific work or in everyday life, to our experience? How can we be reasonably sure that we mean the same thing when we use that most obvious and most mysterious of terms?

In our ordinary, everyday intercourse with the world, we look at the world through our experience of it. But if we are going to explore the subjective grounds of our objective knowledge, we must rather learn to look at experience itself. Say I am thirsty and I see a glass of water. The perception involves variously shaped patches of different colors, but I do not look at those patches of color, I rather look through them at the actual glass and its alluring contents. For the purposes of our current investigation, I want to ask you to take a moment and to suspend the usual way of perceiving through the senses, to pause, and to notice the possibility of looking rather at the data of the senses themselves.

Examine, for example, your visual field. I invite you to forget, for a moment, about the familiar things that are usually the objects of your attention, and to notice the visual field itself. You will notice that the visual field is roughly oval, that it has a region of sharp definition towards the center in which boundaries seem crisp, and then it fades off into areas of less and less distinct visual definition towards its outer edges. While it is clear that the visual field has a boundary – human anatomy does not permit us to see behind our heads at any given moment – it is nonetheless very difficult to discern the actual boundary of the field with any clarity. At any given moment, the field is tessellated by colored regions. There is a great deal more that can be said about this field, but my point is to draw attention to the interesting properties of the visual field itself, rather than to any of its contents. It is possible to conduct an analogous investigation for each of our senses. Although each is structured differently, each reveals itself as a complexly structured field for the activity of varying sensory impressions.

Now the fields of experience constituted by the various senses are all contained in a unifying field of experience, so that we can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch simultaneously. Furthermore, these interacting fields of sensory experience are, as a complex whole, themselves contained in a larger field of experience which embraces interactions not only among varying sensory impressions, but also among various modalities of non-sensory experiences such as emotions, judgments, thoughts, intuitions and so forth.

When I refer to the field of experience, I am referring to that which comprises this entire, complexly structured interaction of varying sensory and non-sensory impressions. I propose, following the elegant terminology introduced by Whitehead in his essay on The Principle of Relativity,43 to call this overall field of experience by the name “Fact.” Fact is the totality of what is being experienced.

We habitually assume that the physical world transcends our experience of it.44 By this, I mean that the being of the physical world does not depend on its being experienced, and that all experience depends on underlying physical events. But there is an important sense in which experience transcends the physical world. By this, I mean that the physical world is, for us, always contained in experience45, and that the physical world is not, in a sense that will emerge more clearly as our exploration unfolds, the totality of what it is that we do, actually, experience.

I look down at the desk before me, and I have a visual experience of the physical world. I see colored patches. I recognize a desk. I remember a desk that I used to have. I wish this desk were different. I imagine a faery desk, translucent and alive with a sparkling play of color. Which of these experiences is actually an experience of the physical world? From a scientific point of view, the answer to this question is clear: only the colored patches that I see with my eyes and the simple recognitions involved in measurement count as ultimately valid information about the physical world.

I do not wish to dispute the scientists on this point. I only wish to point out an assumption that we might otherwise take for granted. We experience sensations, simple recognitions, complex perceptions, memories, imaginations, wishes, dreams, intuitions, occult experiences and mystical experiences of various kinds – but we assume, both in common sense and in scientific praxis, that only the sensations which can be involved in measurement connect us with any directness to the actual physical world outside of ourselves. At this moment, my visual and tactile impressions (which could, in principle, be involved in measurements) connect me to a real, physical desk, but my memories, my wishes, my ideas and my dreams are impressions of another sort, indirectly related to the physical, but not admissible as evidence in the courts of scientific truth.

In what follows, we will explore in some depth the relations among these various sets of impressions. What I want to emphasize here is the breadth and the depth of Fact. Fact comprises the measurable impressions that connect us to the physical world, the non-measurable impressions that inform us of our bodily and emotional states, the impressions that illustrate our imaginings, the impressions that inform of us of dream realities, the currents of thought impressions and feeling impressions that illuminate and color all those streams of sensation, and more.

The Elusiveness of Fact

Fact, the overall field of experience, the actual totality of what is felt and known at every moment, ought to be the most obvious of realities, and yet it is remarkably elusive and mysterious. This is, in part, because of our habit of looking through experience rather than at it. It is also because our entire perceptual and linguistic apparatus has evolved to elicit into relevance those particular factors in our experience which are most important in assuring our physical survival. What our senses register are changes. Factors which remain relatively constant quickly fade into the background of our consciousness. And what we perceive and name are , in general, things – particular complexes of factors which stand out against a background. But Fact, which comprises all factors of experience and the background against which they stand out is always there and is, thus, particularly difficult to notice and to name.

Some Characteristics of Fact

We can, however, with a little effort begin to explore Fact, and when we do so, the characteristics which emerge are strangely interesting.

Fact Is a Relationship of Factors46

Rather cryptically, Whitehead characterizes Fact as follows:

Fact is a relationship of factors. Every factor of Fact essentially refers to its relationships within Fact. Apart from this reference it is not itself. Thus every factor of Fact has Fact for its background, and refers to Fact in a way peculiar to itself47

In order to grasp what Whitehead is getting at when he says that Fact is a relationship of factors, we need to make three observations: first, Fact is an integral whole; second, Fact is discriminated into factors; third, Fact is intrinsically coherent. These three observations are discussed below.

Fact Is an Integral Whole. In every experience of the here and the now, the field of experience is first and foremost a unified totality. The implicit unity of the field is often obscured by our habit of paying primary attention to the discrete, clearly bounded impressions that occupy the focal center of the field in everyday experience.

To make this clear, let us confine our attention for a moment to the visual field which we began to explore earlier. If, under everyday conditions, we confine our attention to the focal region of that particular field, we immediately notice relatively discrete colored patches. Whitehead calls these patches (and the analogous phenomena in other sensory fields) sense-objects.

Now whenever we focus on a particular, visual sense-object, the rest of the field fades into obscurity. It is actually quite difficult to describe just what the non-focal regions of the visual field look like. But whenever we shift our focus to those more obscure regions, we discover in those regions other sense-objects which are, upon suitable inspection, also crisply delineated. We thus, quite naturally, form the notion that the visual field consists of a collection of discrete sense-objects, and we assume that our attention simply selects first one, then another of those objects as it moves about in the field.

This quite natural way of thinking has led to doctrines, such as those of Locke and the other Empiricists, who seek to understand Fact as a collection of discrete impressions. Hume, however, demonstrated quite incontrovertibly that such a way of conceiving the nature of Fact is philosophically disastrous. To make a long story quite short, Hume demonstrated that once we try to understand Fact as a mere collection of discrete elements, we lose all sense of the intrinsic coherence of experience, and we find ourselves unable to locate in our experience any grounds for the indispensable notion of causality and the indispensable procedures of inductive reasoning – both of which make sense only if there is an intrinsic connection among impressions such that they regularly and reliably signify each other.48

It is worth noting that Hume’s reductio ad absurdum of the Empiricist doctrines was the spark that awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and radicalized the subjective turn of modern philosophy that had begun with Descartes. But Kant and his successors, while recognizing the validity of Hume’s conclusions, also accepted Hume’s original analysis of Fact as a collection of discrete impressions. Whitehead opens up a completely new path for the philosophical enterprise by rejecting the Empiricist analysis and by pointing to the integral wholeness of Fact. Experience does not start from discrete impressions which are, subsequently, associated with others in various collections. Rather experience starts with a whole field out of which individual elements are subsequently discriminated.

Fact Is Discriminated Into Factors. The wholeness of the field is, however, only part of the story. Quite evidently, Fact is not a monolithic whole, but a whole in which individual elements – factors – are always discriminated. This factorization of Fact is entirely evident and is the partial truth which is overly emphasized in the Empiricist analysis.

Fact Is Intrinsically Coherent. Since fact is an integral whole, and since it is nonetheless factored, it is evident that the factors of Fact are intrinsically interrelated in such a way as to form a coherent totality.

The failure to note that the integral wholeness of Fact implies the essential interrelatedness of its factors has led to much confusion in modern philosophy. To see how this is the case, let us return to the visual field and to the discrete sense-objects that occupy its focal region. Whitehead draws our attention to the fact that these sense-objects never manifest themselves in isolation. Rather, whenever there is, in Fact, a visual sense-object, that sense object appears within the larger visual field, against a background of other, less clearly discriminated visual impressions, and in necessary relation to a perceiver. It is this whole, complexly structured visual field that is the actual visual fact. Visual sense-impressions are always elements of that visual fact, but they never, ever, manifest themselves in isolation from the full context of visual experience.49

The mistake which the Empiricists make is what Whitehead, in his later works, calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” When we analyze the visual field we can, for certain purposes, abstract out of that field the crisp visual impressions that occupy its focal region. But to claim that those impressions have any ontological priority, to claim that they are in any sense ultimate, self-existing, atoms of experience, is to assign to those elements a concrete reality that belongs only to the field as a whole. These elements only exist as elements of the total field in which they are embedded. As Whitehead says, “Every factor of Fact essentially refers to its relationships within Fact. Apart from this reference it is not itself. Thus every factor of Fact has Fact for its background, and refers to Fact in a way peculiar to itself”50

Fact Is Active

While Fact, in some sense, remains a constant background against which all differentiated experiences can be apprehended, all finite experience is experience of change. While Fact itself may is constant, the functioning of Fact is an activity of differentiation. It is process.

Fact Is Inexhaustible

We can appreciate the inexhaustibility of Fact in several ways. First, no matter what particular factor of Fact occupies the focal region of our consciousness, there are always other factors of Fact beyond it and contextualizing it. Secondly, whenever we recognize several factors of Fact, the relations among those factors are also factors of Fact, thus the more factors we recognize, the more factors there are for recognition. Finally, Fact itself does not enter awareness in the same way that its factors do. All other factors of Fact enter awareness by virtue of their contrast with other factors. But Fact, as the all embracing context, cannot enter into the relation of contrast.51

Whitehead tells us:

Fact enters consciousness in a way peculiar to itself. It is not the sum of factors; it is rather the concreteness (or, embeddedness) of factors, and the concreteness of an inexhaustible relatedness among inexhaustible relata…. Thus inexhaustibleness is the prime character of [Fact] as disclosed in awareness; that is to say, [Fact] (even as in individual awareness) cannot be exhausted by any definite class of factors.52

The point here is that Fact, the overall field of experience, can always be factored, but no particular way of factoring Fact exhausts the richness of possibility which Fact presents. Whitehead here rejects any possible reductionistic analysis of Fact.

Suppose, for example, we look once again at the analysis of Fact performed by the hapless Empiricists. Empiricists identify “impressions” as the fundamental type of factor, and want to explain fact as a collection of these factors. But then what about the notion of “collection” and the operation of “collecting.” That notion and that operation themselves must be factors of Fact, but they are not, themselves, impressions. Fact cannot be exhausted by any combination of factors. Fact is a relationship of factors, but it cannot be reduced to the sum or collection or set of any particular class of factors that can be found within it.

Whitehead between East and West

Hume performed an invaluable service for the Western tradition by demonstrating that a reductionistic approach to the analysis of Fact yields a description of experience which fails to find a suitable basis for our indispensable belief in causality and inductive reasoning, and which, thus, fails to find a suitable basis for the entire edifice of common sense and scientific thought.

Whitehead, in the service of science, undertook a fresh examination of the field of experience, and came to the conclusion that Fact, the overall field of experience, is an inexhaustible, intrinsically coherent, active relationship of factors.

Whitehead’s aims in performing this analysis were modest. He was simply trying to describe Fact in such a way that the roots in raw experience of the fundamental truths of common sense and science could be laid bare. Quite remarkably, however, Whitehead has, in this analysis, adumbrated some of the most profound root notions of Eastern metaphysics.

In the next chapter, we will observe some important relationships between Whitehead’s fundamental metaphysical categories and those of Sri Aurobindo. But this connection between Whitehead’s thought and Eastern thought can be seen especially clearly if we look at the relationship between the fundamental characteristics of Fact and some of the fundamental notions of Buddhist philosophy.53

Eastern philosophy in general, and Buddhism in particular, has focused its primary attention on a deep exploration and analysis of the field of experience. F.S.C. Northrop, in The Meeting of East and West, identified this field of experience as one of the most important notions in Eastern thought. He defined it as “the totality of the immediately apprehended” and went on to say “This is the aesthetic component of all things in its entirety, with nothing neglected or abstracted. It is more accurately described as the differentiated aesthetic continuum.”54 This is exactly what Whitehead calls “Fact.”

The early (for example, the Theravada) schools of Buddhism, like modern Empiricists, were engaged in analyzing Fact into fundamental factors. They called these factors dharmas which, in this context, roughly translates as “point-instants of experience.” These early Buddhists were quite aware that these dharmas never arise alone and, in fact, that the arising of any particular dharma is fundamentally dependent on the preceding and concurrent arising of other dharmas in certain systematic patterns. They called this the truth of interdependent origination – one of the fundamental tenets of all Buddhist teaching. Thus these early Buddhists would have been quite comfortable with Whitehead’s characterization of Fact as a relationship of factors.

The middle (Mahayana) schools of Buddhism came to feel, however, that the reductionist analysis of the field of experience into determinate dharmas did not do full justice to its depth and richness. They came to recognize that any analysis of the field of experience into determinate dharmas was itself a phenomenon arising in the context of interdependent origination, and could not be deemed the ultimate truth. In other words, Mahayana Buddhists realized what we have here called the inexhaustibility of Fact, and they called this “the open dimension of Being”, or Sunyata.

Finally, the later (Vajrayana) schools of Buddhism, working to comprehend and to master the miraculous appearance of coherent worlds of experience out of the inexhaustible richness of the open dimension of Being, developed the symbolism of the mandala. The mandala principle is that factor in existence which is responsible for the intrinsic and meaningful coherence of the differentiated aesthetic continuum.

Thus, when Whitehead describes the field of experience as an inexhaustible, intrinsically coherent, active relationship of factors, he is saying something very much like what Vajrayana Buddhists are saying when they describe experience in terms of the mandala principle.55

This is not, by any means, to say that Whitehead has exhausted the insights of Buddhism. Buddhism, and the other Eastern schools of thought, are based on highly sophisticated meditative techniques that, in Whitehead’s language, involve systematic suspension of the activity of “thought” in order to deepen, broaden, and magnify the underlying “awareness” out of which thought grows.56 It is claimed that these techniques bring about experiences and insights capable of opening up radically new epistemic horizons and, thus, of totally transforming the entire texture of experience. I do not want to suggest that Whitehead was aware of these possibilities.

Nonetheless, it is highly significant that, in generating a description of Fact which does justice to causality, to inductive reasoning, and to science, Whitehead generated a description which is also consonant with some of the fundamental metaphysical notions of the East. The metaphysical systems of the East usually support cosmologies which feature the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds.57 It will not be entirely surprising, therefore, that we will find that Whitehead’s description of the field of experience also allows for at least the possibility of the that doctrine.

In any case, as we proceed with our task of locating the physical world within the domain of Fact, we will also be making a contribution to the reconciliation of Eastern and Western modes of knowing.

© 2009 Eric Weiss. All rights reserved.