Chapter Four–On The Nature Of The Physical World


In previous chapters, we have:

In this chapter, I shall demonstrate how, within Fact, we can identify that system of factors which comprise the physical world and thus set the stage for a fruitful coordination of the reality of the physical world, as that world is known to us in common sense and in science, with the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds.

In the type of explanatory discourse with which we are familiar in our scientific and technical civilization, we are in the habit of starting with some understanding of the outer, physical world, and then of generating explanations of our experience in terms of that understanding. This mode of explanation begins with a set of abstractions, with hypothetical entities such as atoms and electromagnetic waves that (while thought about) are not, in fact, found in direct experience, and then works from that starting point back towards an accounting for the concrete experience that we actually have. I will call this mode of discourse “explanation from abstractions.”

In what follows, we will be engaging in a rather different mode of discourse. Rather than starting from abstractions, we will start with the full, concrete reality of experience, and then attempt to identify, within that experience, those factors out of which we can abstract the entities which, in our more usual mode of proceeding, we take as the starting point of our explanations. I will call this mode of discourse “explanation from the concrete.”

It is impossible to give a short description of the physical world as that world is known by common sense. Common sense is too rich, too inconsistent, and too complex to be easily systematized. I can only leave it to my reader to decide whether or not his or her common sense is satisfied by the accounting offered here. Science, on the other hand, gives a description of the physical world which is, in its broad outlines, fairly easy to state. Briefly, science posits the physical world as a spatio-temporal framework in which something more or less material (particles, waves of energy, or fields of probability) adopts variable configurations over time according to mathematically expressible laws. Furthermore, for theoretical physics, what is actually real is the particular configuration of this material throughout the expanse of space at the current instant of time. The principal task of the following pages will be to show how this material world postulated by scientific reasoning can be found within Fact.

The Primordial Factors of Fact

Fact, as we have seen, is the total field of experience, and must be understood as an inexhaustible, intrinsically coherent, active relationship of factors. There are many ways in which we can work with Fact. The great yogis of the East, and the mystics, artists, and prophets of all traditions have cultivated ways of working with Fact that rely on various ethical, aesthetic, and intuitive faculties intrinsic to human being. The current exercise, however, is an exercise in thought. We are not cultivating a direct experience of Fact, but rather we are thinking about Fact in order to open up certain possibilities for human understanding and human action.

Thought, by definition, cannot capture and define the ineffable. Thought works only when it has found and grasped factors of Fact with which it can grapple. Accordingly, we begin this analysis by identifying three primordial factors of Fact, in terms of which we will account for all the other factors with which we are concerned. These factors are determinate possibility, consciousness, and force. Whitehead himself does not identify these factors in this way. In Process and Reality, Whitehead identifies Eternal Objects and Creativity as metaphysical ultimates. In order to emphasize the analogy between Whitehead’s ideas and those of Sri Aurobindo, I will refer to Eternal Objects as determinate possibility (this is a shorthand for determinate possibilities of Existence, or Sat). Also, Creativity, as we have seen earlier, eventuates in the manifestation of Actual Occasions with their mental and physical poles, and thus is roughly analogous to Consciousness/ Force as that term is used by Sri Aurobindo. Therefore, in this particular adaptation of Whitehead’s ideas, we will speak in terms of three primordial factors of Fact: consciousness, force, and determinate possibility.

Consciousness is, of course, intrinsic to Fact. This follows from the very definition of Fact as the field of all experience. Consciousness has two functions. It is that factor by virtue of which Fact has that indefinable transparent luminosity which gives it its subjective vividness. It is also that factor of Fact by virtue of which there is choice and variable emphasis on one factor or another. As we proceed in this analysis, we will have occasion to identify “awareness” and “thought” as subsidiary factors within consciousness.

Force is that factor of Fact by virtue of which determinate possibilities enter into dynamic actualization. The word Force here emphasizes the connection with Sri Aurobindo, and with the intrinsic connection between Consciousness and Force which his ideas illuminate. We might also use the word ‘process.’ Every operation of consciousness is a process or a happening, and every happening in Fact involves consciousness. Thus, in Fact, these two factors (consciousness and force), though distinguishable, are inseparable.

Determinate possibility is that factor of Fact by virtue of which there are coherent choices for consciousness to make, and determinate characteristics which can be taken by the differentiated operations of force.

It is hard to think about Fact without recognizing at least these three factors as operative in it.58 Experience is a process, thus there must be some factor within Fact which is dynamic – and that is force. Fact is an experience, and thus there must be some factor which makes it an experience rather than a ‘vacuous actuality’, and that factor is consciousness. Finally, given that Fact is a relationship of factors, given that those factors are different one from another and that, by virtue of the intrinsic coherence of Fact the differences are significant of one another, there must be some scheme of lawfulness governing the possible differentiations of factors, and that factor is what I am here calling determinate possibility.

General Factors Intrinsic to the Dynamic Functioning of Fact

Consciousness, force, and determinate possibility are intrinsic to Fact. Sri Aurobindo, and the great yogis of the past suggest that it is possible to experience these factors in a state of quiescence, a kind of intrinsic knowing of all possibilities of Fact in which no choices are made and no particular possibilities are differentially realized. This poise would correspond to that poise of being which Sri Aurobindo calls Sachchidananda.

It is also, they suggest, possible to experience these factors in a state of dynamic realization in which the knowledge of particulars co-exists perfectly with the knowledge of the unmanifested Sachchidananda. This state would correspond to that poise of being which Sri Aurobindo calls Supermind.

Our purpose in this chapter, however, is to identify the physical world as a system of factors of Fact in our ordinary experience. We can, therefore, ignore those more radical yogic possibilities, and focus on the poise of being which Sri Aurobindo associates with the three-fold world of human existence. Here, we experience Fact as a dynamic process of ongoing, finite realization.

Within the world of our everyday experience, we can identify three differentiations of consciousness.

Awareness is that factor within Fact by virtue of which there is consciousness of differentiated factors. Consciousness, if the yogis are to be believed, need not function in a way which singles out any factor in particular. When, however, there is such a singling out, that operation of consciousness is termed awareness.

Because of the intrinsic coherence of Fact, awareness of a specific factor does not exclude awareness of the remainder of Fact. Rather awareness of a specific factor organizes the awareness of Fact into a system of relations centered around the factor in question. Thus awareness is of two kinds – awareness by adjective and awareness by relation.59

Awareness by adjective is that awareness which attaches to the central factor which an act of awareness singles out. It is active awareness of some factor for its own sake, or for the sake of what it can make of the rest of Fact. In awareness by adjective, the particular character of the factor is dominant in consciousness.60

Awareness by relation is the awareness of the rest of Fact when some particular factor has been singled out by adjective. It is awareness of those factors of Fact without which the factor singled out by adjective would not be what it is. Awareness by relation need not include an awareness of any particular features of those factors which it implies. If, for example, there is an awareness of red, that awareness would not be what it is if it were not for the existence of the factors of orange, yellow, green, and so forth. But the awareness of red in any given particular experience does not require an explicit awareness of those other factors. Or, there may be awareness by relation of factors which only informs us of them as a ‘bare it’. In being aware of a spherical object, for example, I may be aware by relation that there is something at its center, but I may have virtually no knowledge of its particular characteristics.

It may also be the case that the two forms of awareness are simultaneous. For example, at the focal region of the field of attention, I may be aware of a factor by adjective, and also be aware of its significant relations. This introduces a new factor of Fact, which we will call “full awareness.”61

Thought is a further differentiation of consciousness. Thought is “consciousness of factors prescinded from their background of Fact.”62 In thought, factors that have been singled out in awareness by adjective are separated off from the other factors to which they are intrinsically related, and are thus experienced as individual. Thought accomplishes this individualization of entities by “limiting consciousness to awareness of the contrast of factors.”63 A factor which is thought about will be called an ‘entity.’ While factors are intrinsically interrelated, entities stand out with a kind of apparent self-existence.

This contrast between awareness and thought is one of the most distinctive features of a Whiteheadian approach to the analysis of Fact. Whitehead’s Empiricist predecessors, Berkeley, Locke, and Hume, were also engaged in attempting to ground human knowledge in direct experience, but they made the crucial assumption that experience consists of discrete impressions. Thus they assumed, for example, that sensory experience begins with discrete patches of various colors, discrete sensations of pressure, of temperature, and so forth, and that thought and other perceptual operations are built up by customary associations among these more primitive elements.

Whitehead grounds his philosophical reasoning in a re-examination of the field of everyday experience. He points out that discrete entities emerge in consciousness out of a background that has already been, in awareness, pre-cognitively differentiated into a system of interrelated factors. Thought emerges out of and is grounded in awareness.

This is important because in awareness the intrinsic coherence of Fact has not been lost. In awareness, factors are discriminated, but they are not yet separated. In Whitehead’s words: “For awareness all relations between factors are internal and for [thought] all relations between entities are external.”64 In other words, in awareness, the consciousness of a factor is not separate from the consciousness of the total environment in which that factor is found. Whatever individuality attaches to the factor is just its particular place in its network of relations. In thought, however, because consciousness is focused on the contrast which separates this factor from its environment, the factor takes on the aspect of self-existence by virtue of which we term it an “entity.” Its relations are relegated to the background of consciousness, and thus they come to seem external, or extrinsic to its being. Since, for thought, Fact appears as a collection of entities without intrinsic interrelations, “the unity of consciousness lies in this dependence of [thought] upon awareness.”65

Now the earlier Empiricists, in grounding their reasoning in discrete impressions, failed to penetrate below the level of thought. They took entities as primitive, rather than factors. It is this error that led them into the difficulties which Hume so ably demonstrated. Because relations among entities are external, there is no way to understand the intrinsic relations among them and, therefore, no ground for causal reasoning or for induction. By pointing to the grounding of thought in awareness, Whitehead has articulated an empiricism which avoids Hume’s reductio, and which permits us, as we shall see, to find the physical world within the domain of Fact. This intrinsic relationship of factors to each other by virtue of which we can reason from one to the other is called by Whitehead the doctrine of significance. Thus we will say that factors are significant of one another, and we will have occasion to study this relation of significance in more detail as the exposition unfolds.

When there is full awareness of a factor conjoined with thought about that factor as an entity, then a new factor is introduced – that of perception.

While perception of a factor presupposes full awareness of it, thought about that factor does not. Thus given a system of factors disclosed in awareness, it is important to note that only some of those factors will be discerned in awareness by adjective, and only some of those so discerned will be discerned with full awareness and perception. Those factors that are disclosed in perception will be significant of other factors that may, like certain scientific objects that will be discussed later, be imperceptible, but are nonetheless part of the system of factors which sense-awareness discloses.

It is thought, as was pointed out earlier, that articulates the factorization of Fact with which we are concerned in this exercise. Thus consciousness, force, determinate possibility, awareness, perception, and thought itself are all entities for thought.

The Ideal vs. the Sensory

At this point, we introduce another factorization of Fact, one that, as it were, cuts at right angles to those which we have discussed so far. This new factorization operates at the level of awareness, and differentiates the awareness of what Whitehead terms the ‘ideal’66 from the awareness of sense.

It is impossible to define these factors other than by a direct appeal to the contrast between them. Whitehead says: “divest consciousness of its ideality, such as its logical, emotional, aesthetic, and moral apprehensions, and what is left is sense-awareness.” What is particularly important about this distinction in our current context is that, according to Whitehead, nature is “the system of factors apprehended in sense-awareness.”67 As we shall see, there is a distinction between ‘nature’ and the physical world.68 There is an important sense in which the physical world is less that the system of factors apprehended in sense-awareness, and this qualification will prove of decisive importance to our understanding of the subtle worlds. Nonetheless, this definition is an important step.

We have seen that Fact is stratified, as it were, into awareness, thought, and perception. But, as common sense tells us, the physical world is first and foremost that element of what is real that is disclosed through the physical senses. This idea is not only enshrined in common sense, but is fundamental to the scientific method, which insists that all scientific hypotheses must, ultimately, be verified by experiment; that all experiments must culminate in operations of measurement; and that the act of measurement is always grounded in awareness, by some scientist, of factors disclosed in through the physical senses. If, then, we are going to come to a further understanding of the place of the physical world in Fact, we must look more closely at the operations of sense-awareness.

Events and Objects

What science and philosophy deal with is not so much sense-awareness, as sense-perception. Sense awareness, in its purity, is incommunicable. “[T]he factors discriminated in sense awareness cannot be explained, since thought follows awareness. They seem to be given and ineffable; given because thought arises from them and ineffable because they cannot be explained.”69 Our awareness of any given factor is, as we shall see more fully later on, part of a complex of interrelated factors which includes quite prominently our own awareness. It is this which makes our perceptions private, and it is precisely this private particularity that is dropped in the transition from awareness to thought.70 Sense perception is a hybrid of sense-awareness and thought. The element of thought in sense perception brings a degree of abstraction that makes communication, and thus science and philosophy, possible. Thus, while the physical world is “a certain definite assemblage of factors within fact,”71 what science and philosophy actually deal with is the system of entities disclosed in sense-perception.

Thought, attending to the entities disclosed for it by sense-perception, further factors those entities into events and objects.72 This factorization is another of the unique and decisively important features of Whitehead’s analysis of Fact.

Remember that we began with a short description of the scientific understanding of the physical world, and that understanding was framed in terms of space-time and materiality. Now neither space-time, as that is understood by science, nor materiality, is disclosed in sense-awareness. Scientific space-time is a measurable, smooth, continuum – whereas, as inspection will easily verify, “sense-time and sense-space are discontinuous and fragmentary.”73 And the difficulties involved in finding anything like objectively existing material in the field of perception have driven generations of philosophers to wildly counter-intuitive theories of actuality. So if we are to account for the physical world from within Fact, we cannot begin our reasoning from these categories.

Whitehead suggests rather that we begin by factoring entities into events and objects. Events are the fullest, most concrete factors that are disclosed in sense-awareness. They are happenings. Nature, as Whitehead tells us, “presents itself to us as essentially a becoming, and any limited portion of nature which preserves most completely such concreteness as attaches to nature itself is also a becoming and is what I call an event.”74 Events happen only once, and the relationship that they each have to the totality of other events disclosed in sense-awareness are unique and fixed.

This morning, I picked a flower in my backyard. That particular picking of that particular flower in that particular place is an event. Like all other events, it happens only once. Events, however, need be neither of short duration nor of small extent. The life of the Earth, for example, from its initial formation to its final extinction, is an event. Events ‘extend over’ one another. Thus the life of the Earth extends over any particular century of that life. Any given century extends over the life of any individual living in that century. The life of the planet on this particular day extends over this particular moment. The life of this particular moment extends over the event that is my body, over the event that is my computer, and over the event that is my typing of this sentence.

Nature is the system of factors disclosed in sense-awareness. Perception reveals these factors to thought as a system of events – as full, concrete, unique happenings which have the property of extending over, or of including, one another. Those factors of Fact by virtue of which events can be discriminated one from one another are called ‘objects’. The particular adjective involved in any ‘awareness by adjective’ is an object. Whereas events take place only once, and are spoken of as being ‘apprehended’, objects are such that they can take place more than once, they can ‘be again’, and are spoken of as being ‘recognized.’75 Thus this red flower, which I picked this morning, is a unique event and can never be repeated. But the red, which characterizes the event of this flower, is such that it can be again in any number of flowers, or in any number of other events.

The relationship between events and objects is termed ‘ingression.’ When an event is characterized by a certain object, we say that that object is ingredient in, or has ingressed into, that event. Events are the expression of the primordial factor which we identified as force. Objects are the expression of the primordial factor which we identified as determinate possibility. Ingression involves an interaction of all three of the primordial factors. We will explore this interaction in more detail later.

In our everyday thinking, we have a tendency to conflate events and objects. I might say “I see a cup sitting on my desk.” But what I actually see is an event, lasting for the duration of the that particular perception. Ingredient in that event is a particular object – the cup – which I can, in subsequent glances, perceive again. The particular event which figured in my ‘cup perception’ a few moments ago will never be repeated. Nonetheless, I can see ‘the cup’ again and again.

This distinction is not one that we generally make. “Objects and events are only waveringly discriminated in common thought. Whatever is purely matter of fact is an event. Whenever the concept of possibility can apply to a natural element, that element is an object.”76

It is important to note that Whitehead is not pointing to some transcendent realm of forms which exist on their own, outside of reality. He is rather pointing to objects as those factors of Fact that endure through time, which can be repeated, to which the concept of possibility can apply, and which we can, without undue difficulty, discriminate in our own experience.

Sense-awareness, then, reveals itself to perception and to thought as a complex texture of events and objects. Events and objects are factors of Fact, elements of experience. If we can succeed in accounting for the physical world, as that world is known by common sense and by science, in terms of events and of objects, we will have demonstrated the fruitfulness of this mode of “explanation from the concrete” that we are exploring, we will have laid bare the roots of scientific knowledge in actual experience, and we will have built a significant bridge between Western scientific knowledge and the meditative wisdom of the East.

Time, Space, and the Structure of Events

Common sense presents us with the vague intuition that time and space are a kind of neutral container within which the play of events unfolds. But, as we have seen, both perception and what is perceived are events; events are fully concrete slices of nature; and no event can be construed as a mere “neutral container.” Thus there is no way that this neutral container can be experienced, and so it cannot be a factor of Fact. The question before us is this: what are the factors of Fact in terms of which we can account for time and space as those entities function in common sense and in scientific work.

Let us begin our exploration of this question by noting that within Fact, “there are happenings, and apart from happenings there is nothing.”77 The name that we have given to these happenings is “events.” We will see that space and time, when considered as factors of Fact, reveal themselves to be abstractions which can be derived from an examination of the structure of events.

Nature, the system of factors revealed in sense-awareness, can be factored into the ‘discernable’ and the ‘discerned.’ As Whitehead tells us, “The discerned is comprised of those elements of the general fact which are discriminated with their own individual peculiarities. It is the field directly perceived. But the entities of this field have relations to other entities which are not particularly discriminated in this individual way. These other entities are known merely as the relata in relation to the entities of the discerned field.”78 The discerned, as the immediate presentation of sense-awareness, always discloses itself as only a part of the discernable. As Whitehead says “nature as perceived always has a ragged edge.”79

At this moment, my visual awareness is confined to the room in which I am writing, and yet I know that this room is part of this house, and the entities which I perceive within this room would be unintelligible if it were not for their implicit reference to entities completing the entire world around me. That larger system of factors impinges on the world in this room in the form of subtle factors such as sounds, smells, and the faint pressure of breezes, each of which refers beyond the immediately discerned to the vast reaches of the discernable.

Further, those factors disclosed by any particular sense refer to possible factors disclosed by other senses. For example, I see the chair across the room, and I wonder what it would feel like if I were to touch it. That is, I know from the visual disclosure that there is something ‘there’ for touch, even though I do not know what that particular tactile feeling might be.

Thus events are significant of other events, even when those other events are not directly discerned.80 Events are not only significant of other events spatially, but also temporally. That is, the events which I discern in this room at this moment are significant of events which happened in the immediate past (when I arranged the furniture, for example), in the more distant past (when the furniture was manufactured), and in the various ranges of the future.

The point is that those events that we discern immediately disclose themselves as significant of other events in a larger system of events (the ‘discernable’). The most important relationship among events constituting this systematic structure is ‘extension.’ That is, every event includes, or extends over, other events and is, in turn, extended over, or included in still other events. Thus our common sense intuition of a containing spatio-temporal framework can be understood not so much as a neutral, pre-existing container in which events unfold, but rather as an embracing texture of events out of which the immediately discerned arises.

Common sense demands that every event should be contained in a larger context. Under the influence of several centuries of classical science, we imagine that context to be a neutral container. But this common sense intuition is entirely satisfied if the larger context is not a neutral container, but rather an indefinitely extended structure of containing events, stretching off to the limits of what can be discerned.

Time and space, however, though related, are not the same thing. Thus, we introduce another factorization of Fact, that which identifies those events that “share the immediacy of the immediately present discerned events. These are the events whose characters together with those of the discerned events comprise all nature present for discernment. They form the complete general fact which is all nature now present as disclosed in that sense-awareness.”81 In other words, although events disclosed in sense-awareness are implicated in an indefinite system of events stretching off into the past and the future, we recognize that those events of which we have awareness by adjective have a particular immediacy, and we recognize, too, that there is a set of events which, though not themselves discerned by adjective, shares immediacy with those that are. Whitehead calls that system of factors which shares immediacy with those that are disclosed by adjective a duration. “A duration is discriminated as a complex of partial events, and the natural entities which are components of this complex are thereby said to be ‘simultaneous with this duration’. Also in a derivative sense they are simultaneous with each other in respect of this duration. . . A duration is a concrete slab of nature limited by simultaneity which is an essential factor disclosed in sense-awareness.”82

This notion of a duration is another important way in which Whitehead’s empiricism differs from that of his predecessors. A duration is not a mere instant. It is rather a ‘specious present’. It is an event, which is to say that it is extended both in space and in time. A duration retains temporal thickness, and thus it comprises within itself other durations.

It is in the recognition of durations that we introduce the distinction between time and space. Space grows out of the mutual relations of events within a given duration. The relations of other events to this duration form the texture of time.

We have now shown that the systematic relation of events is adequate to account for our common sense intuition of space and time as an environment, and also for our common sense distinction between time and space. In order to account for the demands of science, however, we will have also to show that we can meaningfully speak not just about durations, but about instants, and that we can account for the relationship between space as it is experienced and space as it is theoretically depicted in geometry and theoretical physics.

The importance of this requirement deserves some discussion. I have more than once referred to the type of scientific reasoning that begins with some notion of space, time, and material ‘out there’, and then proceeds to account for experience on that basis. The space and time that are ‘out there’ is invariably described in terms of its geometry. So, for example, Newtonian space is a three-dimensional Euclidean space, and Newtonian time is one dimensional. The space-time depicted in Einstein’s version of relativity theory is curved, and assimilates time and space into a unified, four-dimensional continuum. Nonetheless, it is described according to the axioms of geometry. Now the axioms of geometry are a logical specification of the relations between ‘points’ and ‘lines.’ But points and lines are not among the factors of Fact that are disclosed in sense-awareness.

In fact, one of the main reasons that we consider space to be ‘out there’ is that the space of science, which we imagine to be the ‘real’ space, is a smooth geometrical manifold, while the space that we actually experience in sense-awareness is confused, fragmentary, and discontinuous. There is no obvious way to connect the two spaces.

The problem of connecting these two spaces is closely related to the problem of correlating the wisdom of the East with the wisdom of the West. Both the East and the West have been concerned to explore, in their own ways, the intrinsic coherence of Fact. But they have gone about this exploration in very different ways. F. S. C. Northrop, in The Meeting of East and West,83 characterizes these two approaches by suggesting that the East has tended to work in terms of “concepts by intuition”84 – i.e., in terms of concepts which are immediately discernable factors of Fact, (e.g., green, cool, soft) – whereas the West has tended to work in terms of “concepts by postulation”85 – i.e., concepts which are not immediately discernable factors of Fact but which take their meaning from the system of concepts in terms of which they are defined (e.g., point, atom).

The meaning of this distinction becomes immediately clear if we look at Euclid’s Elements. The significance of that work for the Western tradition can hardly be overestimated. And yet the most basic entities treated in that work – points and lines – are abstract entities that are never, in their abstract purity, observed in sense-awareness. Thus, in the system of the Elements, points and lines are concepts by postulation. But there is no attempt in that work to find concepts by intuition that correspond to points and lines as they are postulated.

Whitehead is not directly concerned with this issue of bridging East and West, but for him, the contrast between geometrical space, on one hand, and the space of experience, on the other is one of the factors which has contributed to what he calls “the bifurcation of nature.” Many modern epistemologies feature a distinction between an abstract, more or less noumenal reality which we discover, if at all, by reason (concepts by postulation), and a subjective, phenomenal reality which is ‘in our minds’ but only imperfectly correlated with the noumenal reality of which it is an indirect expression (concepts by intuition). Whitehead is at pains to overcome this bifurcation, but in order to do so, he must, among other things, demonstrate the relevance of geometry to the structure of experienced events from which, as he holds, space and time are abstractions.

What Whitehead needs to do is to demonstrate that the notion of an instant of time and the notion of a point in space are both intelligible in terms of the actual structure of experienced events. He does this by “the method of extensive abstraction.” The details of this method are rather intricate, and they involve a number of crucial assumptions about the way in which events extend over one another. In enumerating these assumptions,86 Whitehead is essentially giving logical expression to certain, obvious features of our experience of the relationship of extension in the physical world. It will not be necessary for us to consider these assumptions in detail here, though we will return to them in Chapter Five.

Leaving aside these details for the time being, the idea of the method of extensive abstraction is quite simple. We start with a perceived event, and then we imagine a series of events nested within that event like an infinite set of Chinese boxes, one inside the other. The converging end of this series becomes arbitrarily small. The series of boxes is infinite, and thus it converges to nothing, but measurements of certain properties of the events so indicated do approach definite limits.

If, then, we apply this method of extensive abstraction to time, we begin with a duration. As we have noted, any given duration extends over other, smaller durations. We can, by suitable logical constructions, stipulate a series of smaller and smaller durations, each of which extends over the smaller members of that series. When the members of this set are sufficiently small, they approximate to an instant as that concept appears in mathematical physics. If, then, we desire to measure the properties of some system at some time t, we can identify, in Fact, a duration within which that time is included, and confine our attention to smaller and smaller durations within that original duration. Assuming we have suitably chosen the property we want to measure, the measurements will approach a definite numerical limit as the series converges. Whitehead’s contention is that this series is what we actually mean when we refer to some given system, or to the entirety of the physical world, as existing at an instant.

Whitehead further demonstrates that, with suitable logical definitions, it is possible to identify a serial order among the instants so defined.87

Having elaborated this procedure in full, he says:

What the abstractive set is in fact doing is to guide thought to the consideration of the progressive simplicity of natural relations as we progressively diminish the temporal extension of the duration considered. Now the whole point of the procedure is that the quantitative expressions of these natural properties do converge to limits though the abstractive set does not converge to any limiting duration. The laws relating these quantitative limits are the laws of nature ‘at an instant,’ although in truth there is no nature at an instant and there is only the abstractive set. Thus an abstractive set is effectively the entity meant when we consider an instant of time without temporal extension. It subserves all the necessary purposes of giving a definite meaning to the concept of the properties of nature at an instant. I fully agree that this concept is fundamental in the expression of physical science. The difficulty is to express our meaning in terms of the immediate deliverances of sense-awareness, and I offer the above explanation as a complete solution of the problem.88

He then turns his attention to space, and by a quite analogous application of the method of extensive abstraction to the events that can be discriminated within the instantaneous spaces that he has already derived, he identifies points. A small modification of the same procedure enables him also to identify lines. Thus Whitehead demonstrates that thought, operating on factors of Fact disclosed in sense-perception, can also find instants, points, and lines as factors of Fact. This does not yet tell us what, exactly, the geometrical properties of the space of the physical world are. Exactly how the points and lines that he has identified coalesce into a geometrical system remains to be discussed. Nonetheless, he has now created a firm connection between the fluid world of moment-to-moment experience, on one hand, and the smooth geometrical manifold of scientific space-time, on the other. Whitehead has demonstrated that geometrical space does not have to be conceived as a noumenal reality outside of experience, nor does it have to be conceived as a form of intuition (as Kant suggested). Rather it can be understood as a property of the system of events revealed in sense awareness, a property that can be identified in thought by a process of abstraction.


We have sketched out a way in which time and space, as they are understood by common sense and as they are understood by science, can be exhibited as factors of Fact. We turn now to a consideration of objects. Objects, as we have said, are those elements in the physical world which do not pass, which can ‘be again,’ and to which the notion of possibility has some relevance.

Whitehead makes a distinction between the “apprehension” of events and the “recognition” of objects. Recognition is “an awareness of sameness.”89 But this awareness of sameness is not an intellectual operation, not an operation involving comparison of various events in different durations. Apprehended events in the physical world are always four-dimensional –they, like the durations in which they are situated, retain temporal thickness. Events are units of process. Thus in the apprehension of even a single event, there is also recognition of factors characterizing that event which are not, themselves, passing.

The relationship between events and objects is, as we have said, termed “ingression.” This relation is a very intimate one.

“The ingression of an object into an event is the way the character of the event shapes itself in virtue of the being of the object. Namely the event is what it is, because the object is what it is; and when I am thinking of this modification of the event by the object, I call the relation between the two ‘the ingression of the object into the event.’ It is equally true to say that objects are what they are because events are what they are. Nature is such that there can be no events and no objects without the ingression of objects into events.”90

It is a mistake to imagine that an object ingresses into events in such a way that it can be said to be at a definite place at a definite time. An object ingresses into all those events whose character it shapes. So, for example, I feel the warmth of the Sun on my back. The Sun, as an object, thus has ingression in the event that is my body at this moment. The noises that I hear coming through my window are also ingressions into my bodily event of cars on the street outside. “An object is ingredient throughout its neighbourhood, and its neighbourhood is indefinite.”91 Of course, any given object may have an entirely negligible effect on some particular event, nonetheless “we are driven to admit that each object is in some sense ingredient throughout nature”92 This all-pervasiveness of objects is somewhat alien to common sense, but becomes more easily recognizable in the case of scientific objects, such as electrons, which are imagined as affecting all other electrically charged particles anywhere in their future.

However, despite the fact that every sensed object affects the entire system of events disclosed by sense-awareness, we also recognize that ingression may have “a peculiar form in the case of some events; in a sense, a more concentrated form.”93 Whitehead calls this more concentrated form of ingression “situation.” Thus a particular event can be the situation of a particular object. But this is not the same thing that we usually mean when we think of an object as being located at a certain time and place. It is important to note that different objects ingress into events in very different ways. We might note, for example, that the object “toothache” is ingressed in a particular tooth, but the object “tooth decay” might, to our surprise, be ingressed in a neighboring tooth. Thus the meaning of situation is different for each of these two objects.

Whitehead suggests that there are an indefinite number of types of object, but he invites us to consider just three types – sense objects, perceptual objects, and scientific objects.

Sense Objects

Sense objects are analogous to the ‘impressions’ spoken of by the early Empiricists. Lewis tells us that:

“The simplest kind of recognition of an object is recognition of some permanence within the specious present; of some ingredient character which characterizes both the before-part and the after-part distinguishable in even the smallest event that we can apprehend. And the simplest objects so recognized are qualia or sense-data; tastes, colors, shape-size, and so on. Whitehead calls these ‘sense-objects’”94

Whitehead gives us this technical definition:

“A sense-object is a factor of nature posited by sense-awareness which (i), in that it is an object, does not share in the passage of nature and (ii) is not a relation between other factors of nature.”95

Although these sense objects are analogous to the impressions of the Empiricists, they are, in many ways, quite different. Whereas the impressions of the early Empiricists were imagined as essentially independent of each other, these sense objects are factors of Fact. Thus they are embedded in networks of significance. They are significant of the events in which they are ingredient. Those events are significant of other events in the systematic structure of events from which time and space are abstracted, and thus these sense objects are indirectly significant of other objects in other events. Objects, too, have a certain systematic character in terms of which they are more directly significant of each other. For example when there is awareness of red by adjective, there is awareness of other colors by relation. Perception of red may lead thought to a discernment of those other colors, even when they are not directly perceived. This retention of the network of significance saves sense objects from the logical sterility that affects mere ‘impressions.’

There is another, and even more surprising way in which sense objects are distinguished from the earlier notion of impressions. Naïve realism holds that sense objects belong to things ‘out there’ in the physical world. But critical reflection, noticing such factors as illusions, individual perceptual idiosyncrasies, and the dependence of perceptible qualities on environmental influences (all cows look black at night), is quickly forced to realize that the relationship between things and their sensory appearances is not as simple as it first appears.

In fact, the ingression of a sense object into nature involves four different classes of events. Let us consider, for example, the events involved in the appearance of a yellow patch indicating the presence of a cup. There is the percipient event – the relevant bodily state of the observer. Then there is the situation. The situation is the event in which the sense object is apparently located. In this case it is the event ‘on the desk’. There are active conditioning events – those are the events “whose characters are particularly relevant for the event (which is the situation) to be the situation for that percipient event”96 – in this case those would include both the situation of the cup and the lighting in the room. Finally there are the passive conditioning events which, ultimately, include the whole of the physical world in which this room finds its place. If the perception of the cup is non-delusive, then the situation event is itself an active conditioning event for the perception. If the yellow patch were, for example, being seen in a mirror, then the situation of the cup would be ‘behind the mirror’, and the mirror itself would be one of the active conditioning events.

Philosophical reflection on the fact that the ingression of a sense object involves all of these different classes of events often leads to the idea that the sense objects are not actually part of the physical world, but are rather ‘in our minds.’ Whitehead categorically rejects this interpretation.

Remember that we have begun with the tentative idea that the physical world is that system of factors disclosed in sense awareness. Thus sense objects are not merely subjective impressions, but are actual constituents of the physical world. To understand what Whitehead means, we must first look more deeply at the structure of durations, and then look carefully at the way in which sense objects ingress into events.

Remember that what sense awareness discloses are durations. A duration is all of nature that is available for discernment in a specious present. It is the most concrete whole of nature of which we are aware. All other events and objects that are disclosed by sense awareness are differentiations of durations. Every duration has one special event as part of its structure – this is what Whitehead calls the percipient event. The percipient event is, in broad terms, the event which is the bodily state of the perceiver in that duration. What is important to note at this point is that any sense awareness, no matter what it discloses by adjective, always discloses a duration by relation, and every duration is defined by a percipient event.

Philosophical discourse has, not infrequently, gotten tied up in an analysis of experience which imagines ‘impressions’ as being presented to a ‘mind.’ Whitehead is reminding us that sense awareness is invariably associated with sense organs. The operation of a sense organ is an event, and that event is invariably a crucial part of a duration within which the events apprehended and the objects recognized are situated. Thus we cannot hope to understand the recognition of sense objects unless we place that recognition within the concrete whole of the durations in which they invariably occur.

Sense objects ingress into durations, and in order to understand this ingression we must understand it in terms of multiple relations. That is, in order to understand the ingression of any particular sense object, we must take into account the particular event which is its situation, the percipient event defining the duration, and all of the other events constituting that duration as well. This multiple termed, or polyadic logic might seem simple on the face of it, but it has been the source of endless confusions in earlier Empirical philosophies.

The difficulty, as Whitehead spells out frequently in his writings, is that there has been a habit of assuming that reality must be characterized by a two termed logic relating substances to attributes, or universals to particulars.97 So, for example, we assume that the green which we see in the physical world is a characteristic of some particular blade of grass. But that green is always contextualized by the duration in which it appears. Thus its ingression can only be adequately accounted for by reference to the event which is the bodily life of the observer (the percipient event), the event in which the blade of grass is ingressed which is the situation of the green at the time of observation, and the time of observation itself, which, as the whole duration, is the rest of the nature at that time.

Now the only way we can account for this situation in terms of substances and attributes is to bracket out any reference to the percipient event. It is this bracketing that leads to a naively realistic position. Then, subsequently, with critical reflection, we note that this relation only holds for a particular observer in a particular situation. We then conclude that the original green does not belong to the physical world itself, but rather to the mind of the observer, and that the observer’s mind is in some mysterious relation to an objective reality which is outside of experience altogether. But once we have made this move, we lose any access to that external reality, and thus we are landed in solipsism. This is the bifurcation of nature which Whitehead finds to be so destructive to natural philosophy.

The only way out of this dilemma is to abandon the two termed, substance-attribute logic with which it begins, and to recognize that the ingression of sense objects into the physical world is always the result of a complex interrelation of multiple events. Once we do this, we have no need to bracket out the percipient event, and thus the whole confusion is avoided. The sense object is not an attribute of a substance, it is an object ingressing into the complex of events comprising a duration. Whitehead has shown us a way in which we can understand sense objects to be actual features of the natural world without having to interpret them as attributes of substances.

In this new way of seeing, however, the physical world is no longer a collection of things in a container. It is rather a system of durations, each of which is differentiated into various component events, one of which, in each case, is a percipient event. Sense objects are neither characteristics of things nor characteristics of minds, but rather characteristics of durations, which are more concrete than either things or minds. It is a significant challenge for us to imagine a universe in which durations, rather than things, are the most concrete elements. To do so, however, is an immense liberation. With this multiple termed logic, Whitehead frees us from the sterile dichotomy of naïve realism vs. idealism, and ushers us into a new understanding of the universe.

Perceptual Objects

We now pass to a consideration of perceptual objects – objects such as cups, flowers, and desks, that so prominently characterize our experience of physical reality. “A perceptual object is recognized as an association of sense-objects in the same situation. The permanence of the association is the object which is recognized.”98 The process of recognizing a perceptual object is more complex than the process of recognizing a sense object. It involves three stages.

The first stage of the process is “the primary recognition of one or more sense-objects in the same situation.”99 The second stage of the process is “the conveyance of other sense-objects by these primary recognitions”100 This notion of conveyance involves two components. One component is knowledge by relatedness of other events that are in determinate space-time relations to the event in which the perceptual object is situated.101 For example, I know, by relation, that the cup out of which I am drinking has a back side, which I could see if I turned it around. Another component of this primary recognition involves a kind of relatedness among sense objects such that the quality of yellow characterizing the cup ‘conveys’ an impression of hardness,102 and also a certain ‘habit of experience’ which associates sense objects with those with which they are customarily associated.103 All of these relations figure in the recognition of perceptual objects. The third stage of recognition is a “perceptual judgement as to the character of the perceptual object which in its turn influences the character of the sense-objects conveyed. There are two kinds of perceptual objects – delusive perceptual objects and physical objects. An important function of the perceptual judgement is to discriminate between these two cases. A perceptual object is judged to be non-delusive, or ‘physical’, if it leads to the ingression of analogous sets of sensory objects for other percipient events, and if it is an active condition for those ingressions. The situation of a delusive perceptual object (for example, the space before the eyes in which a hallucination appears to be taking place) is a passive condition for the ingression of the relevant sense objects, and the delusion takes place only for one given percipient event.

The situations of physical objects differ from those of sense objects in that they are unique and continuous.104 Sense objects – say yellow – can occupy any number of situations in any given duration. A perceptual object – say a particular cup – occupies a unique situation in a given duration. That is to say, perceptual objects are generally held to be in one and only one place at a time. Note, however, that if a duration is sufficiently long, the perceptual object may, within the duration, move through a whole set of related events, each of which has its own place and time. Thus this uniqueness “is an ideal limit to which we approximate as we proceed in thought along an abstractive set of durations in the approach to the ideal limit of the moment of time.”105 Further, when we consider perceptual objects that move within a single duration, or that we perceive across several durations, we expect to be able to identify a continuous passage of events such that each of them is a situation of the object in question. Within a single duration this passage may be directly perceived. Across durations, it must be inferred.

The main point of this discussion is to establish the fact that we do not have to regard the physical world as a big container (space-time) in which physical objects or physical energies carry out their individual adventures. We can, rather, account for the physical world as a “continuum of happenings in their total relatedness, within which objects present themselves as lesser and included continuities, elicited by their relative preservation of continuing characters, in patterns the interconnections of which constitute their intelligible relationships.”106

C. I. Lewis provides us with this memorable metaphor:

…events in their all-pervading continuity constitute that ocean of nature in which perceptual and physical objects are waves which we may discern. If there were no recognizable shapes and high-lights (sense objects) here and there, then the whole ocean would be characterless and could not be marked off into distinguishable parts (separate events). And if there were no waves, recognizable as propagated continuities of these sensible characters, then there would be no relatively permanent objects at all. The permanence of the association of sense-objects is the perceptible object which is recognized.107

This is what the common sense world looks like when seen from the point of view of Fact.

Scientific Objects

We are often interested in knowing the character of those events which condition the ingression of particular sense objects. In fact, all of our practical knowledge of the physical world is just such knowledge.

To the extent that physical objects are recognizable permanences of association among sense objects, they express those characters of events which are, therefore, of most interest to us. But physical objects are also conditions for sense objects other than those that are its components. Two examples: a telescope is a condition for a particular kind of transmission of light; the atmosphere “causes the events which are its situations to be active conditioning events in the transmission of sound.”108 Thus, “the origin of scientific knowledge is the endeavor to express in terms of physical objects the various roles of events as active conditions in the ingression of sense-objects”109 in the physical world.

It turns out, however, that physical objects are not entirely suited to this task. They suffer from several problems. First, not all sense objects can be construed as belonging to perceptual objects. “Sights lend themselves easily to this construction, but sight can be baffled: for example, consider reflections in looking-glasses, apparently bent sticks half in and half out of water, rainbows, brilliant patches of light which conceal the object from which they emanate, and many analogous phenomena. Sound is more difficult; it tends largely to disengage itself from any such object. . . Illustrations to the same effect can be accumulated from every type of sensation.”110 Thus ordinary perceptual objects cannot account for the ingression of many sense objects.

A second difficulty with the explanatory use of perceptual objects is the problem of change. We stipulate that perceptual objects are recognizable permanences of association among sense objects, and yet this permanence is always a matter of more or less. When a sock is repaired to the point that all of the original material has been replaced, is it still the same sock? At what point in its decomposition does a old chair cease to be a chair and become a pile of sticks? While perceptual objects function with entire adequacy in the domain of everyday life, it is impossible to submit “the group of associations, forming the object, to any process of determination with a progressive approximation to precision.”111 What is needed, then, is a new type of object – scientific objects.

Scientific objects are discerned by systematic application of a principle of thought which Whitehead calls the principle of “convergence to simplicity with diminution of extent” – or, for short, the “principle of convergence.”112 It is typical of Whitehead’s metaphysical genius that he could articulate this principle which is so important in our everyday thinking that it usually fades into the inarticulate background of thought.

What Whitehead is here pointing out is that the relations among the events that we actually perceive in our experience of the physical world are confused, fluctuating, imprecise,113 and phenomenally complex. In order to make sense of our perceptions, we need some way of “confining our attention to such parts as possess mutual relations sufficiently simple for our intellects to consider.”114 The principle of convergence is one of the most important ways in which we effect the requisite simplification.

We have already met two applications of this principle. First, the method of extensive abstraction by means of which Whitehead identifies geometrical elements as factors of Fact is an application of the principle of convergence. Secondly, the very recognition of perceptual objects is an application of this principle as well.115 We effect our initial identification of perceptual objects amidst the fluid and fragmentary presentations of sense by confining our attention to sufficiently small regions of time and space. As we move beyond common sense perceptual objects into the domain of science, we attempt to remove the vagueness of the perceptual objects by applying the principle of convergence to them in a way that breaks them down into smaller and smaller components. Whitehead provides a memorable example:116 We generally think of the Sphinx in Egypt as a permanent object. Nonetheless, over time, it does change. The nose, for example may be chipped, “but by proper inquiry we could find the missing part in some private house of Europe or North America. Thus either part, the rest of the Sphinx, or the chip, regains its permanence.”

We are wont to carry this search for smaller and smaller parts to the point at which the parts for which we are searching “can only be observed under the most favourable circumstances.”117 For example, in modern times, we account for the bodies of living things in terms of cells which can only be observed under a microscope. A cell, however, remains a perceptual object. Thus change in perceptual objects is largely explained in terms of a disintegration into smaller parts which are, themselves, perceptual objects.

All perceptual objects have, as was earlier observed, a partially hypothetical character. That is, we cannot form a full idea of a perceptual object without imagining various possible perceptions of it by various possible percipient events. As we continue to apply the principle of convergence in a search for smaller and smaller objects, there is a point at which the objects in terms of which we are generating our explanations become quite imperceptible, and thus entirely hypothetical. By this route, we reach a kind of pre-scientific atomism. In terms of such an atomic theory, we may be able to explain some of the sense objects in the physical world which are not expressions of the usual sorts of perceptual objects. Light, for example, may be explained as a stream of luminous particles.

The explanatory power of these wholly hypothetical perceptual objects, however, leaves much to be desired. A decisive change in the procedure comes with a new category of objects – scientific objects.

These new objects are different in that they are not only pragmatically imperceptible, rather their characteristics cannot be represented in consciousness by sense objects at all. We know them only by virtue of our sense awareness of those events in which they happen to be ingredient. We imagine, for example, that electromagnetic waves are, through the elaborate mediation of the percipient events of our own bodies, the causes of visual impressions. But we cannot see electromagnetic waves themselves.

We search for scientific objects by looking for “those aspects of the situations of the physical objects which are most permanent.”118 In accordance with the general principle of convergence to simplicity with diminution of extent, we are looking for objects the relations among which are characterized by a maximum of simplicity and uniformity. Finally, we are looking for objects in terms of which the observed characters of perceptual objects and sense objects can be expressed.

These first scientific objects in the modern sense are molecules and atoms. These objects are not, of course, held to be ultimate. While atoms are still understood to be the principal permanences in terms of which perceptual and sense objects can be expressed, they themselves are held to ingress into systems, or societies, of sub-atomic events. Atoms are the permanent objects in perceptual and sense objects. The permanent objects in atoms are now believed to be even more abstract objects such as mass-energy, spin, charge, and momentum.

Partial Summary

We have been attempting to identify those factors of Fact which constitute the physical world. At this point it will be helpful to review the progress that we have made in this endeavor.

Granted that this analysis of the field of experience is adequate, we have now, following Whitehead, managed to describe an empiricism which is adequate to the task of grounding science. Granted, also, that what Whitehead calls “Fact” is equivalent to what Eastern thought calls, in F. S. C. Northrop’s terms “the differentiated aesthetic continuum,”119 Whitehead has inadvertently produced an important bridge linking the Wisdom of the East with the scientific knowledge of the West.

There is, however, a difficulty we still have to face before we can entirely accept these accomplishments. We have to look more carefully at the transition between perceptual objects and scientific objects.

The Problem of Measurement

As we saw, scientific objects first enter into thought through a particularly insistent application of the principle of convergence to simplicity with diminution of extent. The discovery of the atomic structure of matter was such a triumph of modernism that people sometimes wonder how an ancient thinker like Democritus could possibly have come up with it. But when we realize that the principle of convergence is one of the primary tools of common sense, one that we use whenever we try to understand something by taking it apart, the early articulation of an atomic theory seems quite natural.

Obviously, however, modern scientific objects differ significantly from the atoms of Democritus and the Stoics. What intervenes between the ancient theories and the modern theories is the scientific method. The scientific method is, in terms of the understanding of nature that we are here exploring, a method for identifying scientific objects.

Scientific method can be understood as having two components. The first component is its reliance on experiments. The experimental method – the systematic development of repeatable sets of circumstances for the identification of interesting phenomena – can be seen as a radical refinement of the principle of convergence. The second component is its reliance on measurement.

While we have had occasion to discuss measurement several times in the foregoing pages, we have not yet examined measurement per se and inquired into its mode of functioning in the domain of Fact. To fully appreciate the function of measurement in the domain of fact, we must differentiate it from two other operations – classification and counting.

Measurement is a procedure for associating a number with a factor of Fact. But before we can associate a number with a factor, we must first identify that factor as an entity. Recall that we may have awareness of a factor by adjective, or awareness of a factor by relation, but a factor of which we are merely aware cannot yet figure in the operation of measurement. Before a factor can be measured, it must first be clearly distinguished from its background and identified as an entity with which a number can be associated. Measurement, thus, is an operation of thought. Now, as Whitehead points out, “it is . . . impossible to find anything finite, that is to say, any entity for [thought], which does not in its apprehension by consciousness disclose relationships to other entities, and thereby disclose some systematic structure of factors within fact.”120 Thus to identify a factor as an entity it is necessarily to place that entity in a systematic structure of other entities, and this is a kind of primitive classification. Premodern science, particularly as it is associated with the Aristotelian tradition, is primarily a science of classification.

Counting, which is the most obvious way of associating numbers with factors of Fact, is logically subsequent to the process of classification. The process of counting involves something like the following sequence of operations: First, entities have to identified; then, groups of entities belonging to the same class of entities have to be recognized as entities; those group entities have to be differentiated by relative size; numbers have to be abstracted out from those groups, and themselves identified as entities; sequential relations among numerical entities need to be identified. The point is that counting is a sophisticated operation of thought, which is logically dependent on a prior operation of classification.

Measurement is the application of counting to the analysis of spatio-temporal relationships. Measurement involves, in principle, the stipulation of a unit of measure, the division of the interval to be measured into intervals equal to that unit, and the counting of those units. Our knowledge of the world involves a complex combination of classification, counting, and measuring. But it is measurement, which allows the application of mathematics to the questions of dynamic change in time and space, which is decisive in the development of science. The question “how many” can be answered by counting. But questions such as “how big”, “how far”, “how long,” and “what rate” all involve measurement.

Measurement, of course, has been practiced since ancient times. But the combination of controlled experimentation with measurement in such a way that modern scientific objects can be identified is revolutionary. Remember that scientific objects are representations in thought of the causal properties of events. We investigate the scientific objects in events precisely because we hope to be able to predict, on the basis of our knowledge of current events, the ingressions of sensory and perceptual objects in the future. Premodern scientific objects may have satisfied a certain philosophical need to account for “vagrant” sense objects and for the conundrums of common sense around issues of change, but they had only very limited power to generate detailed predictions of future ingressions in the sphere of terrestrial events.121 Modern scientific objects have immense predictive power, and they get that power precisely from their quantitative character.

The inventors of modern science discovered that they could measure force, mass, and acceleration. They discerned systematic mathematical relations among the numbers that were the results of their measurements. They expressed that relation in the famous equation f = ma. Armed with that equation, they could measure a certain force, measure a certain mass and then, abstracting from the concrete details of the situation in which those measurements were made, they could plug the numbers derived from the measurements into the equations and thus derive a new number which, applied back in the concrete world, would predict quantity of acceleration that would result from the application of that force to that mass. This was an extraordinary accomplishment.

This method, the method of using experiments to generate measurements, studying measurements to derive the equations linking them, and then using those equations to generate numbers which will be descriptive of subsequent measurements, has turned out to have wide applicability in many fields. One of the distinguishing features of our civilization is its fascination with the act of measurement. We have extended the range of measurement from the secret recesses of the sub-atomic realm to the vast reaches of cosmic space. It is our capacity for accurate measurement (along, of course, with the mathematical developments that support it) that underlies all of our most magnificent technological achievements.

Insofar as we accept the scientific objects postulated by theoretical physics as the ultimate elements of physical reality, we are committed to the notion that what is physically real is what can be isolated in experiments and measured. Now we have been working with the idea that nature is that system of factors of Fact which is disclosed in sense awareness. But only some of the factors of Fact which are disclosed in sense awareness can be measured. Thus the physical world is something less than the totality of nature.

The extraordinary sophistication of the devices that scientists use for measurements, and the incredible precision of their results, tends to obscure the humble fact that, in the end, every measurement comes down to the recognition, in the mind of an actual scientist, of a correspondence between some phenomenon that he is measuring and some standard that he, or others, has set. In other words, no matter how complex and sophisticated a measurement may be, it has, in the end, very important formal and structural similarities with the simple act of using a ruler to measure a length.

With this in mind, let us examine which factors of Fact can be measured. To begin with, only factors of Fact that are disclosed in sense awareness can be measured. Thoughts, judgments, aesthetic appreciation, moral sentiments and the like are entirely beyond the reach of measurement. Sense objects, themselves, are only measurable in certain very specific situations. Those sense objects which are ingressed into the percipient event of a duration, sense objects such as the sensation of hunger, cannot be subjected to measurement. I can measure my caloric intake, I can measure the quantity of food that I must consume in order to survive, I can even measure chemicals in my blood which I believe to correlate with my body’s need for food, but I cannot measure the feeling of hunger itself.122 Thus only those sense objects that have their situations in events outside of the percipient event can be measured. Even those sense objects, however, cannot be directly measured. Rather, measurement, though it invariably involves sense objects, is always a relationship among perceptual objects. This relationship is one of equality, or congruence. We could say that an act of measurement is the recognition of a relationship among sense objects which is significant of a congruence between perceptual objects.

However, not just any congruence will do. If the recognition of congruence between two perceptual objects is to count as a measurement, one of those objects must be a suitable standard of measurement. In order to function as a standard of measurement in space, a perceptual object must hold its length no matter how it is moved about in space. In order to function as a standard of measurement in time, a system must continually mark off identical temporal durations. Thus, the only perceptual objects which can serve as appropriate standards are rigid rods (rulers) and regular oscillators (clocks).

Only those factors of Fact that share durations with rigid rulers and clocks can be measured. All of our technological and scientific knowledge is built on the use of scientific objects to explain the ingression of perceptual and sense objects into the domain of experience. Scientific objects are discovered by a process of experimentation that culminates in measurement. And all measurement depends on the existence of rulers and clocks.

The Conditions Under Which Rulers and Clocks Can Function as Factors of Fact

We must, therefore, investigate the conditions under which rulers and clocks can function as factors of Fact. There are three such conditions, which I will first name, and then explore in more detail. First of all, it must be possible for a percipient event to recognize, within a single duration, that the ruler is congruent in length with itself, or that the periodicity of the oscillator is regular. Second, there must a uniform structure of space and time which is characterized by a consistent metrical geometry. Third, there must be some ‘physical law’ in terms of which we can reasonably expect the length or the periodicity to remain congruent with itself across durations.

Recognition of Congruence

Measurement is a judgement of congruence. If I say that my desk is 30 inches wide, I mean that I can lay a yard-stick across the desk, and count off 30 inch long increments. In effecting this procedure, I am judging first that the yard-stick does not change in length during the process of measurement, and second, that the inch marks are equidistant from each other on the yard-stick. It is clear that sometimes my judgments on matters such as this can be wrong in detail, and we sometimes, when extreme accuracy is required, devise procedures to compensate for such factors as change of length due to change in temperature. But ultimately, even the procedures that we use to judge the adequacy of our compensations rely on our capacity to judge congruence. This is true for temporal judgments as well as for spatial judgments – i.e., my decision to use a particular physical system as a clock depends, in the end, on my judgement that the period of its oscillation is regular.

One of the merits of understanding the physical world as a system of factors of Fact is that it provides a clear basis on which we can understand the possibility of these judgments of congruence. We have defined awareness, perception, and thought as factors of Fact, and we have seen that each of these factors, in its own way, involves a recognition of objects. But a recognition of objects is precisely a recognition of invariance characterizing the play of events. Thus the recognition of congruence required for measurement is just a particular case of the general recognition involved in the discernment of objects. We can recognize the congruence of the ruler with itself during the course of a duration, we can recognize the congruence of the various inches with each other, and we can recognize the congruence of the 30 inches with the width of the desk. Furthermore, because a duration has temporal thickness, we can recognize in an immediate way, within a single duration, the regularity of oscillation that qualifies a particular physical system as a clock.

A Uniform Structure of Space and Time

If, however, measurements did not carry implications beyond the immediate circumstance of a recognition of congruence within a single duration, they would have very little use. In fact, measurements are interesting precisely because of the ways in which they can be generalized. For example, I measure my desk as being 30 inches wide. I then cross the room, and measure the width of my door to see whether or not the desk will fit through it. In this situation, I add to the congruence recognitions involved in each separate measurement a number of other assumptions. First, I assume that the length of the ruler has not changed as I crossed the room. We will deal with this assumption in a moment. But the other assumption that I make is that both my desk and the doorway are situated in a common structure of space and time with very particular geometrical properties.

The assumption that my desk and the doorway are situated in a common structure of space and time is so ingrained in common sense, that it is somewhat difficult to realize the significance of the condition. But let us say that I were to have a dream in which my desk was an enormous expanse across which I was gliding on roller skates. I must have some way to differentiate between that vision of my desk as a vast expanse, on one hand, and my vision of the desk as 30” wide, on the other. How can this be done? As Whitehead points out in his essay on “Uniformity and Contingency,” the principal way that we differentiate between dreams and waking reality – and, thus, discriminate the physical world from the larger nature in which it is embedded – is by judging that the events we experience in dreams do not find their place in the one, uniform continuum of space and time which characterizes waking life.

Whitehead says:

The fitting in of distinct apprehended processes into one dominant continuum – for example, my life in the morning with my life in the afternoon of the same day — can only mean that the apprehended process of the morning has disclosed a scheme of relations amid relata, which extends beyond itself (i.e., beyond my life of the morning), so that my experience of the afternoon is nothing else than the apprehension of a process which is included in the predetermined scheme, and it is apprehended as being thus included. The same explanation holds of the continuity of the apprehended process of my life for shorter periods, from hour to hour, from minute to minute, from second to second. If the spatio-temporal continuity does not mean this, what does it mean? Furthermore, if there be no apprehended spatio-temporal continuity of this character, how do the advocates of experience as our sole source of knowledge propose to exclude dreams from the realm of reality?123 Thus the discrimination of reality from dream requires an apprehended dominant space-time continuum determined in its totality, and this determination requires that it be uniform.”124

In other words, in my waking reality, the structure of time and space that is disclosed in any given duration is significant of the structure of time and space that is disclosed in all of the actual durations characterizing that waking reality. Any measurements that I might make in my dreams are, scientifically at least, irrelevant to the physical world because the continua in which the dreams take place are not part of the one, dominant continuum of waking life.

Earlier, when we first discussed the geometrical properties of space and time, we left the particular relations among points and lines which characterize the physical world undefined. Whitehead devotes a great deal of attention to this question.125 He is able, first of all, to demonstrate that the entire apparatus of geometry can be abstracted from the structure of durations. We need not discuss this derivation in detail, but it is important to note that in order to abstract geometrical space from the structure of durations, Whitehead has to introduce one key assumption. That assumption is that every percipient event exhibits what he calls the relation of ‘cogredience’ to the duration which it structures. Whitehead defines cogredience as follows: “when the specious present is properly limited, there is a definite univocal meaning to the relation ‘here within the duration’ of the percipient event to the duration.”126 In other words, to say that the percipient event is cogredient with its duration is to say that it is at a certain, definite, unmoving place within the duration. This assumption seems rather obvious, but its full significance will emerge when we consider subtle worlds in Chapter Five.

Once Whitehead has established that geometrical properties can be abstracted out of the structure of durations, he can then discuss what particular geometry will support the operation of measurement. Modern geometry has identified various sets of axioms which can characterize the relations among points and lines. The most general set of those axioms is that of projective geometry, but the axioms of projective geometry are not sufficiently restrictive to ensure that measurements have the necessary properties to support the existence of scientific objects. Then there are three sets of axioms in which these measurements are supported, the so-called metrical geometries – Euclidean, Riemannian, and Lobachevskian. It turns out that, among these three, the particular geometry that is used to describe the physical world is a matter of descriptive convenience. For reasons of descriptive convenience, Whitehead prefers to use Euclidean geometry. But, if measurement is to be generalizable everywhere in the physical world – that is, if I can, for example, decide on the basis of measurement whether or not my desk will fit through the door that is on the other side of the room, or if I can deduce, on the basis of measurements made here on Earth, the distances between remote galaxies – then the geometrical structure must be the same throughout the physical world. Because Einstein’s theory of relativity describes a heterogeneous space-time structure, Whitehead felt compelled to reject it and to formulate his own version of relativity theory.127

For our purposes, the important points are, first, that the scientific objects in terms of which theoretical physics defines the physical world can only be identified by processes of measurement, and second, that the act of measurement is only useful in the identification of scientific objects if the entire physical world in which that measurement takes place is a structure of events which is interrelated as a uniform, metrical, geometrical continuum.

This particular requirement for the act of measurement has profound implications in relation to our attempt to locate those factors of Fact which make up the physical world. Remember that Whitehead defines nature as that system of factors which is disclosed in sense awareness. We have been suggesting that that the physical world is a subsystem of nature. We can now see how that is the case. The point is that hallucinations of various sorts, imaginary sensations, and dreams are all factors of Fact disclosed by sense awareness. The clear separation of the physical world from dreams and from the realities disclosed through other subtle perceptions is not necessarily obvious. In fact, as we saw in earlier chapters, it is only modern Western civilization that has made this separation in this peculiarly trenchant way.

As Whitehead says, “I am inclined to believe that the majority of humankind do include dreams among the events of nature.”128 “. . . [A] delicate sense for spatio-temporal continuity, with its accompanying discrimination of reality from illusion, is the last product of a developed consciousness.”129

Notice in this quote, and in the previous long quote above, that Whitehead identifies the physical world as “reality” and associates dreams with “illusion.” We have had occasion to question that assumption. But whether or not this particular ontological judgment holds, we are now in a position, following Whitehead, to apply one crucial, missing qualifier to our definition of the physical. We can now say that the physical world is that system of factors of Fact disclosed by sense awareness which is comprised of events fitting into a “dominant” space-time continuum characterized by a uniform metrical geometry.

Physical Laws

We now turn to the third requirement, that of a ‘physical law’ in terms of which we can reasonably expect the length of our rulers or the periodicity of our clocks to remain congruent with itself across durations.

Remember that we have defined Fact as the total field of experience, and our primordial factorization of Fact yielded three factors – consciousness, force, and determinate possibility. The further factoring of consciousness yields awareness, thought, and perception. Force is that factor by virtue of which there is process, and the further factoring of process yields events. Determinate possibility is that factor by virtue of which there are objects. Ingression is the relationship by virtue of which objects come to characterize events. As long as we remain strictly within Fact, which is to say within the field of experience, ingression is always a three-fold relationship which involves consciousness, force, and determinate possibility.

When we analyze the ingression of sense objects, this multiple termed logic of ingression is clearly demonstrated. The ingression of sense objects, as we have seen, always involves the event which is the situation of the ingression, the entire duration in which the ingression takes place, and the percipient event which is the locus of consciousness. When we come to perceptual and scientific objects, however, we begin to confront the possibility of a breakdown of this multiple termed logic or, as Whitehead says, a “breakdown of relativity.”130

Now we want to account for the physical world as a system of factors of Fact. We have seen that the physical world is that system of factors of Fact which is significant of scientific objects or, in other words, that system of factors of Fact in which measurement is possible. Measurement requires rulers and clocks. Rulers and clocks are perceptual objects. We are, therefore, very much concerned with the permanence of perceptual objects in general, and with the peculiar permanence which characterizes rigid rods and regular oscillators in particular. The question before us is whether or not this permanence can be adequately accounted for strictly within Fact.

In exploring this issue, it will be helpful to review the development of Whitehead’s thought on the subject. In his earliest treatment of this issue, in “The Anatomy of Some Scientific Ideas,” Whitehead was exploring the idea that a perceptual object is a class, or an “association” of sense objects.131 It is clear from the beginning, however, that this definition is not entirely adequate.

First of all, perceptual objects involve not only a significant element of imagination (these are clearly factors of Fact), but, more importantly, involve hypothetical perceptions by other percipient events.132 It is important to note that Whitehead cannot account for perceptual objects without at least assuming that a duration can contain more than one percipient event. On the other hand, in the ideas we have considered so far, he has not yet made it clear that the “percipience” of another percipient event is a factor of Fact.

Second, Whitehead increasingly realizes that he cannot give an entirely satisfactory accounting of “physical,” or non-delusive, perceptual objects merely as classes of sense objects. The difficulty here goes back to the problem of induction. If a physical object is nothing but a class of sense objects which we happen to find in the same situation, there is no rational basis on which we can expect an analogous class of sense objects to characterize further situations in further durations. Whitehead is clear that if induction is to be possible at all, there must be something in any given perception of a physical object which justifies it. Whitehead suggests, then, that the physical object functions as a control on the ingression of sense objects into the physical world. In order to function in this way, the physical object must be a “true Aristotelian adjective” of the event that it qualifies.133 That is, Whitehead here maintains that “every event signifies a character for itself alone, but what exactly that character may be . . . is not disclosed in our immediate consciousness of the apparent world.”134 As Whitehead himself says, this marks a “breakdown in relativity.”135

If sense objects can be held to be significant of perceptual objects; if perceptual objects mark a character that events have for themselves alone, if that character can be analyzed in terms of the properties of scientific objects, and if those properties hold constant over time, then we have secured a basis on which we can found the trust that we place in rulers and clocks. But this solution to the problem is also far from satisfactory.

Sense objects, which depend for their ingression on percipient events, are always elements of experience and thus are clearly factors of Fact. Perceptual objects, insofar as they are recognizable permanences of association among sense objects – even if the rules governing that recognizable permanence are too complex for our minds to articulate – are still, in principle, factors of Fact. But if perceptual objects are more than recognizable permanences of association among sense objects, if they are somehow janus-faced – on one hand controlling the ingression of sense objects into experience, and on the other hand being characteristics which events have for themselves alone, then in some important way they transcend experience and, to that extent, they are no longer factors of Fact.

With this solution to the problem of the relative permanence of perceptual objects Whitehead is flirting with a reintroduction of the bifurcation of nature. Here he is proposing a realm of experience in which consciousness is intrinsic and in which sense objects appear, and a purely causal realm of scientific objects which are governed by an Aristotelian logic which does not require consciousness at all. Perceptual objects here function as a kind of awkward hybrid, being signified by sense objects on one hand, and signifying scientific objects on the other. The permanence which we require of rulers and clocks must come from the scientific objects that control them, but that control comes from outside of Fact.

Whitehead ultimately realized, however, that he could solve the problem of intersubjectivity, the problem of the relative permanence of rulers and clocks, and the problem of establishing a basis for the uniformity of space and time – all without abandoning the principle of relativity – by making the following assumptions:

On the basis of these assumptions, Whitehead came to see a duration as the experience of a socially situated actual occasion.136 The percipient event is the society of occasions making up the “body” of the occasion in question, the other events in the duration are the remainder of the settled past.

In this new way of understanding durations, the intersubjectivity that is implied in the definition of perceptual objects is no longer a problem. Rather, all of the events that we recognize are already either actual occasions or societies of actual occasions – and actual occasions are all percipient. All of reality, that is to say, is intersubjective. If all events are percipient events, then all ingression is polyadic, there are no Aristotelian adjectives, and there is no breakdown of relativity.

Within this context, the problem of the relative permanence of perceptual and scientific objects is transformed. Each event comes to have the character that it does in large part because of the way that it “prehends” and interprets the other events that precede it. Each event influences the future insofar as it comes to have a character that is prehended. Continuity of character does not require some element of control that is outside of Fact, rather it becomes a problem of the propagation of character through societies of actual occasions.

Space and time, in this new context, come to be understood as the most general rules in terms of which a society of events socially structures itself. If those societies evolve in such a way that the actual occasions which belong to them are very simple, and the social rules are such as to discourage the introduction of novelty in their operations, then they will tend towards relative permanence of character. The events making up the inorganic realm are such a society, and it is these events which provide us with rulers and clocks.

This is, of course, a highly simplified accounting of ideas which Whitehead developed in exquisite detail, particularly in Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, and Adventures of Ideas. What is important for our purposes is that Whitehead did succeed in developing an adequate way of accounting both for the uniformity of space and time and for the relative permanence of rulers and clocks without having to invoke any factors outside of Fact. He did so on the assumption that the inorganic realm which, by the stability of conditions that it generates, makes measurement possible is a rigid society of events which propagate the objects ingressed in them with a minimum of creative variation.137

The Physical World in Fact

We have now secured the three conditions necessary for measurement – the recognition of congruence, a uniform structure of space-time, and a system of physical laws which support the existence of rulers and clocks. Where these conditions operate, scientific objects can be discerned. Where scientific objects can be discerned, they can, by definition, be used to account for ingressions of sense objects and perceptual objects.

We are now in a position to locate the physical world, quite precisely, in the domain of Fact. The physical is that system of factors disclosed in sense awareness which is characterized by a uniform structure of space and time, and which is dominated by societies of events that are sufficiently rigid in their behavior to support the existence of rulers and clocks. Within this system of factors, the scientific mode of explanation with which our civilization has been so preoccupied over the last few centuries is entirely justified.

However, as we shall see in the next chapter, Fact comprises much more than the physical world alone.

© 2009 Eric Weiss. All rights reserved.