Mapping Mind or Matter? Whitehead, Physics, and Consciousness

Final paper for “Foundations of Integral Philosophy: Alfred North Whitehead” with Professor Eric Weiss at California Institute of Integral Studies, Fall 2002


By building science from subjective experience, rather than assuming the inaccurate “objective” perspective on which science is based, Whitehead reminds science where it came from in attempts to hedge in it’s ego a bit. I believe that further strength lies in forging a connection in the opposite direction as well, not only how subjective experience explains science, but how science might be able to explain subjective experience.   In this realm, science offers up the mysteries of quantum mechanics as a gateway to the mysteries of consciousness. When you have connections running in both directions then you start to see our familiar friend, the cycle, which seems to encompass the broadest and nest right down into the smallest levels of reality. In the recognition of a cycle, one can see that all points in the cycle are equally valid and no one entry point is any more valid than another for they are all part of the cycle.   For the purposes of this paper we’ll jump in at the entry point of Alfred North Whitehead, explore the influence of quantum mechanics on his thought, follow his influence into David Bohm’s physics and right back into our own minds, premised with the idea, common to both these thinkers, that our understanding of reality will always take the form of, and be shaped by, metaphor.


Every individual is a microcosmic indicator of the times in which they live. Alfred North Whitehead is notable, in that he was able to encompass, within his microcosm, a conception of the macrocosm which was considerably larger than most of his contemporaries. Living between 1861 and 1947, Whitehead found it necessary to subvert the dominion of a narrow science empowered by the enlightenment and industrial revolution, widening the scope of knowledge to account for a greater range of human experience. He was influenced in this philosophical quest by the scientific climate of the time, in which quantum mechanics dominated the imagination. Science, in attempting to make all known, had birthed something entirely incomprehensible within its established framework, therefore requiring an enlargement of that framework for any sort of intuitively satisfying explanation of the mysteries it was revealing.

The idea of bringing separate disciplines into dialogue was not new. Western knowledge, as we know it, was birthed from an ancient world where religion, mathematics, aesthetics, science and philosophy could scarcely be delineated from one another. However, the power of science to dominate and control the external world, likewise dominated our psyche, delegitimizing other ways of knowing, rendering them largely irrelevant, invisible, and powerless in the collective culture. Subtler ways of knowing remain a part of our everyday experience, but because they evade our limiting labels of money and number, which are key to our conscious functioning, they function largely unconsciously.

The examination of personal lived experience as a basis for knowledge was not new. This is how all people come to knowledge. The intensity of focus and analysis Whitehead brought to the subtle levels of this experience, however, was new. The development of a system which could reproduce science, while simultaneously holding a way to think about personal experience and God, was also new. Thus, Whitehead is an indicator of the beginning of a shift of from an analytical phase of Western culture to an integrative phase, couched in and made up of these same cycles, in larger and smaller contexts, as his philosophy points out.

I resist the hierarchy of intellect which likes to profess so-and-so as one of the “most influential thinkers of his time…” This perspective weighs heavy on the primacy of the individual and neglects their context, the contributions of all their conversation partners, and others thinking the same thoughts though unrecorded or unpublished. To see Whitehead as an indicator, both produced by and shaping of his context, honors the context as well as the individual.

Abstraction and Concreteness

Whitehead’s philosophy was developed largely in response to advances in physics, particularly in quantum mechanics, whose interpretation required a new way of thinking. Science was producing results which contested the very assumptions on which the discovery was based. Science assumes objectivity; quantum mechanics reveals that the role of the observer is not negligible. Science assumes lack of logical contradiction; quantum mechanics yields wave/particle duality, superposition, and Heisenberg uncertainty. Science assumes causal determinacy; quantum mechanics produces non-locality and uncertainty.

Thus in one fell swoop quantum mechanics both revealed the limitations of the abstraction[1] of science and proved that the products of abstractions are not limited by the assumptions of those abstractions, but only by the reality which contains them. Not only can you get to reality via abstraction, there is really no other place it could take you. All abstractions eventually lead to self contradiction – the great truth of enantiadromia[2]. You can’t get much more basic reality than that. Abstraction provides the journey, you can make it as long and as complicated as you like. You’ll end up right where you started, but you will be different. Abstraction is the process that gets an actual occasion from infinitely many prehensions to an objectified superject. Hence, we realize that our concrete experience, which is merely the continual feeling of concrescence, is, in its most concrete form, abstraction.

Thus, as Whitehead aimed at a system grounded in the most concrete[3] reality he could postulate, he was simultaneously establishing the broadest abstraction set he could think of. Actual occasions are very high abstractions. An abstraction set based in our most basic experience, prevents its own limitation by excluding only that which cannot be experienced. Thus it is a higher abstraction because it tries to include more than lower abstractions, and at the same time it claims to be more concrete because of the bulk of the multiplicity included.

One value of abstraction is its simplicity of expression. Whitehead finds it necessary to make his abstraction set obscure and hard to follow. Thus, for me, while the impetus for a more inclusive abstraction was helpful, the set of abstractions and the process itself requires more work in deciphering than the rewards are worth. Whitehead’s basic concepts are helpful, just hard to get at. An interesting addition to Whitehead’s work is that of David Bohm. Bohm takes Whitehead’s theoretical concepts and maps them onto physical processes, illuminating quantum mechanics in a new way. Let’s explore the quantum mechanics that sparked Whitehead and then through to Bohm’s interpretation.

Quantum Mechanics

Einstein and Planck found experimentally that energy transfers between matter and light, not continuously as previously thought, but in packages of a specific size, E=hv. Here E is energy, v is the frequency of the light and h is Planck’s constant[4]. Thus the quanta was born. Later energy was proved to travel in wave form as well. This set up the lovely paradox of wave particle duality.

The continuity of energy’s wave form, perhaps, seems intuitive. But why would energy come in discreet units and what determines the size of those units? We see similar relations in the world of classical mechanics in the form of nonlinear[5] oscillating systems which produce discreet frequencies of oscillation like that of E=hv.   The tricky part is we can’t identify these nonlinear equations because of certain other tricks of nature which say, “You have come far enough on your journey. Turn back now.”


One of the mysteries of quantum mechanics is the measurement problem. Whenever we observe/measure a system, we alter it simply by making the observation. We can never know how a system would act independent of an observation.

This imprecision is best illustrated in Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle. The more precisely we know the position of a particle, the less precisely we know its momentum and visa versa.[6] P is the change in momentum between two points. We want to know the momentum at a specific point between the known two, therefore the narrower we make the range the closer we get to the value we’re looking for. So we would like for, thereby knowing it’s exacte momentum. The same applies for position, X. To know either exactly would yield a zero product, but we find that the product of these values can never fall below h/2 . The relationship of the energy of a particle to its lifetime is the same as that of position and momentum.

So what questions of meaning might this principle of uncertainty generate?   Does a particle have exact values of these properties? It is hard to imagine that it would not. But just because something is hard to imagine doesn’t mean we can rule it out. Much of what physics teaches us is hard to imagine. It requires learning a new language and looking from a new perspective. And we do it because it works. If we assume the equation to be representative of reality and that the particle ceased to have an exact momentum when we knew its position pretty well, then we must recognize that our observation has a very real effect on the external world. The very act of measuring alters that which is measured.

So much for objectivity in science. The ball gets tossed back into the philosophical court and Whitehead makes a go of it, working from the certainty of basic experience of reality, assuming that this will not also crumble in his hands as science did. But it seems that the crumbling is the essential nature of anything sought with a heavy hand like logic. And although Whitehead bounces back and forth between hard logic and vibrant emotionality the connecting tethers are not yet secure enough for another reader to follow.

Or perhaps this uncertainty of physics is merely an indication of a glitch in the matrix, a flaw in our epistemology or method of knowing, which requires a larger perspective to have it make sense. What could it be about our observation that alters an external system? Perhaps the reason our knowledge is limited has to do with looking from an inappropriate perspective. Perhaps our notion of momentum, position or particle itself ought to be reevaluated. Perhaps our notion of continuous space-time needs to be reevaluated, as this principle implies quantum

fluctuation in the very fabric. Whichever path of inquiry you prefer, the question must be answered by enlarging the scope of science, in a reevaluation of reality and our way of knowing. The quantum gatekeeper stands in our path. In order to proceed externally, we must look internally. Interestingly enough, the mind, as an object of observation, responds in a manner similar to that of a particle.

 If a person tries to observe what he is thinking about at the very moment that he is reflecting on a particular subject, it is generally agreed that he introduces unpredictable and uncontrollable changes in the way his thoughts proceed thereafter. (Bohm, 1951)

Spirituality yields similar findings,

as long as we try to grasp God, we shall never realize him. Life itself, as we experience it moment by moment, proceeding as it does directly from God, is the perfect analogy of this truth, for to grasp life is to kill it, or rather, to miss it, and more than ever is this true of God – the Life of life. Pluck a flower and it dies. Take up water from the stream, and it flows no longer. Pull down the blind, but the sunbeam is not trapped in the room. Snatch the wind in a bag, and you only have stagnant air. This is the root of every trouble: man loves life, but the moment he tries to hold onto it he misses it. (Watts, 1947)

Although people use metaphors to explain phenomena across disciplines quite frequently, rarely do they seek out the deeper significance of corresponding patterns, but, when they do, it often leads to a deeper understanding of the underlying reality which connects the disparate fields. Is that underlying reality external or internal? Do we find indeterminacy in our minds because they are made of the stuff of the physical world which behaves likewise. Or is it the nature of our minds which causes us to see the world in this way? We resist the notion that God would be so ill-defined, but perhaps this is the true root. Maybe there is no cause, only interconnection. This is what traditional interpretations of quantum mechanics would tell us, we can’t determine the cause, so it must not exist. One illustration of this point follows.


Interesting problem proposed by Schrodinger: You’ve got a cat in a box and no way to tell if it’s alive or dead, so the cat is both alive and dead until observed, when it becomes one or the other.

The same applies to the position and momentum of particles. Until a particle is observed there are several possible states it could be in. So, based on our new found knowledge that fundamental reality is both particles and waves depending on how you look at it, Schrodinger came up with a wave equation whose solutions correspond to wave functions which correspond to the possible states of the particle it describes. This is the Schrodinger wave equation,

An interesting property of the Schrodinger wave equation, and any linear equation, is that not only are there separate wave function solutions, but that any combination of these possible solutions is also a solution. The combination of wave functions is called superposition. Therefore before a particle is detected it exists in a superposition of states, a combination of wave functions. It is, in a sense, more than one thing, it is all possibility.

When a real particle is detected, or interacts with anything else, it is no longer infinite possibility, but now one solid reality. This process of its becoming, is referred to as the collapse of the wave function. There is no longer a wave function with a predictive probability, but a single localized particle. Fascinating, but we still have no way to know how reality decides which wave function to collapse into.

There is another process required to translate these equations into something meaningful for our macroscopic world. This other process is necessary because it yields the testable results which prove the usefulness of quantum mechanics. The wave function mentioned earlier has an amplitude, the height of the wave. When this amplitude is squared it yields the probability of a particle existing in that state. Thus while the wave function is completely determined, when translated the actual state of the particle is predictable only as a probability. Why or how this should be so is a mystery of quantum mechanics. So somehow in the translation from quantum to classical, from mathematics to experience, from theory to practicality, the exactness becomes a probability. This is also evident in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It is uncertain because it is probabilistic, it retains an element of freedom.

Philosophical Interpretation

As in the study of consciousness, quantum mechanics seems to offer us a black box. We know what goes in and comes out, but cannot penetrate its inner workings. In classical physics we thought we could know everything. Everything had a cause. Now with quantum mechanics we cannot know what the cause would be on a quantum level and therefore cannot fully ascertain that there is one. The standard interpretation of quantum mechanics accepts this indeterminacy which leads to the idea that “real and observable physical phenomena are being assumed to have no causes.” (Bohm, 1929, 87) It assumes that the indeterminacy principle has final say in what can be known and measured, leaving no room for the future possible discovery of “hidden variables” which might reveal the causes of quantum phenomena on a deeper level. Thus physics shifted from a position of complete determinism to one of pure meaningless randomness. Whitehead and Bohm, however, refuse to accept either of these stark polarities and go on to postulate something lively and interesting that might reside within the black box.

Whitehead moves the black box to the primordial mind of God, which holds the indeterminate hidden variables of his system, eternal objects. The eternal objects inform each actual occasion with novel possibility facilitating a driving impetus of creative advance rather than a heavy deterministic plodding along. For Whitehead the element of freedom retained by the uncertainty is the creativity of the concrescing actual occasion, while the determining factors are the prehensions of that actual occasion. The uncertainty, which both Bohm and Whitehead often referred to as indeterminacy, lies in the eternal objects and vanishes as the actual entity concresces. “This evaporation of indetermination is merely another way of considering the process whereby the actual entity arises from its data. Thus each actual entity includes the universe by reason of its determinate attitude toward every element in the universe.” (Whitehead, 1929, p71) In quantum mechanical terms, this is the collapse of the wave function. All the possible solutions to the Schrodinger equation are eternal objects. The wave function collapses, one solution is made manifest and the concrescence achieves its final satisfaction in an actual entity.

Bohm’s black box is the implicate order of implicit forms, the wave function collapses into a manifest form in the explicate order. He refers to this underlying implicate order as the holomovement, where all things exist as potentialities and are constantly in the process of manifestation out of or re-enfoldment into the holomovement. This cosmological perspective is similar to the dynamics of the mental experience of emerging, interaction and dissolution of thoughts, emotions and impressions. “The implicate order may serve as a means of expressing, consistently, the actual relationship between mind and matter, without introducing something like Cartesian Duality between them.” (Bohm, 1990)

It is obvious that this framework lacks significantly defined general principles to determine how and why these potentialities would actually move between the implicate and explicit orders. What facilitates the collapse? To satisfy this question, Bohm calls upon the causal interpretation of quantum theory, which came about as an explanation of the unexplainable aspects of quantum physics: wave particle duality, non-locality, and the discrete nature of energy. Without some sort of interpretation, such as that of the causal interpretation, one must subscribe to the idea that the future of quantum mechanics will be composed of mathematical formulas that do not correspond to a reality apart from their ability to produce specific experimental results.

The wave/particle duality of a photon is a phenomena illustrated by the double slit experiment. When shining a beam of monochromatic light, or electrons, (both considered to be particles) through two small slits in an opaque barrier, one sees not a two slit projection, but an interference pattern of alternating dark and light regions on the screen in front of the barrier. This implies the interaction of waves, which manifests as amplification and dampening due the crests and toughs of the waves reinforcing or negating each other. This pattern even occurs when the light source is so faint only one particle at a time is going through the barrier.

Additional complexity arises when we discover that, when projected through only one slit, the particles end up in places that they could not appear when both slits were open. So how does the particle “know” if the other slit is open or not?

Bohm evokes a quantum field similar to electromagnetic and gravitational fields. Equations describing fields tend to take the form of second order linear differential equations so it seems natural that the Schrodinger equation, which falls into this category, would describe a field as well. The Schrodinger equation describes this quantum field, like Maxwell’s wave equations describe the electromagnetic field.

This quantum field provide a mechanism by which a particle can “know” to produce an interference pattern even though it is alone. Fields can be referred to as potentials, because anything within the field has a force exerted on it. And a force is really just a potential for action, so a particle in a quantum field has a quantum potential. Unlike electromagnetic and gravitational fields quantum potential depends only on the form of the field and not the intensity. As a result the field does not lose its ability to affect particles even at great distances from the source.

The quantum potential provides a mechanism of active information to guide the particle. Active information can be thought of as radar, preceding a ship and returning with information of what lies ahead so that the ship can direct itself in an appropriate direction.   Thus the network of quantum potentials from all atoms everywhere create a quantum field which they both inform and read from. Thus any point in space holds a quantum potential based on its position in the field, but this potential is only activated in the manifestation of a particle. This occurs in the same way a radio manifests the potentiality of radio waves put out by stations.

Connective Crossovers

In Adventure of Ideas Whitehead discusses briefly the advances of modern physics as a wave theory of light which became a wave theory of matter and forced science to abandon the Newtonian notion of simple location. “With the denial of simple location we must admit that within any region of space-time the innumerable multitude of these physical things are in a sense superposed” (Whitehead, 1933). Thus establishing his connection to quantum mechanics. Whitehead’s ideas are evident in Bohm’s work through the discussion of parallel concepts if only by different names. The fact that they are both working from the shake up of common sense that quantum mechanics provided, lends that it should not be too surprising to find commonalties in their work.

Now to make the connection to Whitehead explicit. The sum of all prehensions and all possible future states (applicable eternal objects) add up to the feeling of quantum potential which motivates an actual occasion in a deterministic (from the prehensions) and free (from the possibility of eternal objects) way.   Thus we have the two categories of potentiality as delineated by Whitehead, “(a) the ‘general’ potentiality, which is the bundle of possibilities mutually consistent or alternative, provided by the multiplicity of eternal objects, and (b) the ‘real’ potentiality, which is conditioned by the data provided by the actual world.” (Sherburne, 1966)

Bohm echoes Whitehead’s multiplicity of eternal objects by claiming, “There is an infinity of implicit forms which can only unfold under certain conditions” (Bohm and Kelly, 1990)

Quantum Mechanics Whitehead Bohm Consciousness
Known world, Classical Mechanics, cause and effect Positively prehended Fact, real potentiality Explicate order Memory
Hidden Variables, Unknown world Negatively prehended Fact Implicate order Unconscious
Particle Physical pole Soma Individual / limited
Wave Mental pole Significance Relationship /interconnected
Wave function collapse Concrescence Unfolding Decision
Hidden variables Eternal Objects/

‘general’ potentiality

Implicit forms Insight
Hidden variables Subjective aim Active information Goals
superposition General potentiality Implicate order, Quantum Potential Indecision
Schrodinger equation General potentiality Quantum field Brain
Acausal Dynamic interplay of freedom and determinism Deterministic Free will

Bohm also spells out the connection with Whitehead’s concepts of physical and mental poles.

The electron, for instance, has a somatic side as a particle and a mental side as a wave of information. But this wave can in turn be taken as a more subtle form of matter. Then there’s a yet subtler form of information that organizes it, and so on. We have mind and matter interpenetrating. (Bohm and Kelly, 1990)

Rather than hash through the mirroring of a zillion Bohm quotes for Whitehead quotes lets just check out this nice chart down below for a general feeling for parallels and divergences of the two ways of thinking situated with physics and consciousness. I’ve added a column for consciousness because it tends to follow the same patterns described by the theories we’re entertaining. One might ask, “are we mapping reality or are we mapping our own minds?” I would say both, and it would do us well to realize that.


So there we have it. What do we do with it? For me the work of metaphysics is the personal recognition and facilitation of other’s recognition of the interconnectedness and basic unity of all things as the main fundamental, inescapable reality. At this point in time, where the world is so overloaded with information, what is needed is not greater analysis, specificity and new terminology but a balancing synthesis of the knowledge that is already available and the application of that knowledge to action. With this as my personal and global goal I endeavor to argue not for the primacy or inconsequence of Whitehead, but for his integration to other similar schemes of thought, primarily the work of David Bohm, quantum mechanics and the study of consciousness.

Thus the application of overlapping these theories helps us to recognize the interconnectedness of the reality in which we live and encourages the conscious reflection and action appropriate to our position of situatedness. Acknowledging the legitimacy of seemingly contradictory notions, like scientific and intuitive ways of knowing, allows space for reflection, as well as action, facilitates a more balanced, ethical lifestyle. And since it feels like we do indeed have free will and that our actions do actually cause certain things to happen, I’ll go ahead and continue to push for ethics. Even though many questions remain on the relationships between freedom, scale, power, determinism and responsibility. Those will have to wait for another paper. I’ll just leave you with this thought. If indeed there is no causality on quantum scales, is it possible for causality to emerge on macroscopic levels?


Bohm, David. (1990) “A New Theory of Mind and Matter.” Philosophical Psychology. Vol. 3 No. 2.

Bohm, David. (1957) Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bohm, David and Sean Kelly. (1990) “Dialogue on Science Society and the Generative Order.” Zygon. Vol. 25. No. 4. Dec.

Penrose, Roger. (1989) The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sherburne, Donald W. ed. (1966) A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North. (1929) Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Whitehead, Alfred North. (1933) Adventure of Ideas. New York: The Free Press.

[1]          Abstraction: process of logos, or focused thought, by which multiplicity is simplified under one unifying idea. The higher the abstraction the more inclusive it is.

[2]          Enantiadromia: Greek. Process by which something turns into or is revealed to be the same as its opposite, very yin/yang

[3]          Concrete: flip side of abstraction. That which the idea refers to.

[4]          Where h is Plank’s constant, the fundamental constant of quanta. It is the ratio of energy to frequency. The levels of angular momentum possible in an atom are all multiples of h/2 Pi. Plank’s constant provides the limits of time, energy, length and mass beyond which we can not penetrate. Suffice it to say that its tests and affirmations are many.

[5]          The solutions of nonlinear equations lack simple relationship to one another, thus making the equation much more complex and difficult to work with than a linear equation. An example of added complexity is that any sum of solutions is also a solution.

[6]          To get an exact position measurement we need to use a short wave length of light, which drastically alters the momentum. In order to measure the momentum we must use a long wavelength of light which cannot yield an accurate measure of position.


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