nature includes our inner lives

(posted in Montreal)

For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick up and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.

Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920), pp. 28-9

Here are three widely-held presumptions:

  1. All truth is scientific truth. Any claim that isn’t scientific is an opinion.
  2. Nature is everything that science investigates, including the human or social world.
  3. Science means a suite of methods that strive to represent nature without influence from the observer. A scientific truth is one that would obtain even if there were no scientist. This is an aspiration; any given scientific claim is actually subject to bias. But the goal is to remove subjectivity to understand nature.

Whitehead disputes these assumptions (as have many since him). I came across the quoted sentence in an article by Bruno Latour entitled, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.”* Latour’s provocative article sent me to Whitehead’s original text, which elaborates his argument. A little later in The Concept of Nature, Whitehead writes:

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.

Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. The meeting point of these two natures is the mind, the causal nature being influent and the apparent nature being effluent

I acknowledge that we have often made progress in understanding specific phenomena (in the social world as well as what we call “nature”) by employing techniques that isolate the object from the perceiving human subject. An astronomer wants to know how the universe works regardless of how people perceive it, uncovering truths that would apply even if there were no sentient observers at all. Many methods that we label scientific aim for that kind of understanding. Quantification and blind experiments are two rather different examples.

Meanwhile, we have learned about human beings’ subjectivity. We have studied people’s experiences, their causes, and how they differ. Sometimes we treat subjectivity as another phenomenon that we can study objectively. And sometimes we express or convey our own subjectivity in first-person terms.

The problem that Whitehead decries is the bifurcation. When the earth rotates so that the line of sight between a human observer and the sun becomes partially obscured, molecules and waves are involved in the process. But you, the human observer, also truly see something that you call a “red sunset.” It has formal qualities and significance, even symbolism, for you as a human observer. It is not true that only the molecules and waves are “nature,” hence that only they can be understood using science. Your reaction to the sun’s setting is also part of reality, even if you phrase it as idiosyncratically as Edith Wharton did:

Leaguered in fire
The wild black promontories of the coast extend
Their savage silhouettes;
The sun in universal carnage sets ...

-- Wharton, "An Autumn Sunset"

*Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 2004), pp. 225-248. See also introspect to reenchant the inner life and is all truth scientific truth?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.