The Unifying Moment: Toward a Theory of Complexity

What impresses one with the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead is his vision of an active universe structuring itself, rather than being determined. Although, as we will see, his break with traditional determinism, and the ideas which support it, is not clean, Whitehead nevertheless helped to point philosophy in a new direction.

1. The Responsibility of the World
for its own Order and Novelty

In doing this, Whitehead drew on a number of sources. One was the field theory of Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell had established in 1873 that the Newtonian idea of simple location, of objects which are “self-sufficient,” or which have the limited parameters of their spatial and temporal outlines, simply does not describe the physical world. Rather, Maxwell stated, objects are the loci of their electro-magnetic and gravitational fields, and integrate their entire universes in their location. Thus, new inputs into the object’s field produce novelty in the resulting integrated object.

Another important influence was William James’ description of the integration of the conscious field, a notion further refined by the American psychologist, Harry Stack Sullivan. In this mode of thinking, a threatening bear which we perceive in the woods is at the center of a conscious field which includes the bear’s surroundings, particularly highlighting our routes of escape. The idea of an integrated conscious field is clearly opposed to Locke’s isolated objects or Hume’s separate sensations.[1]

In drawing on these sources, Whitehead creates a sense of an active universe which effects its own integrations. He begins by using organisms, rather than things, or inert matter, as his basic unit, a notion suggested by Aristotle, Locke and William James. Whitehead attempts to build the physical and mental worlds out of his understanding that each such element of the world experiences itself. This is as true for the simplest element, such as an electron, as for the most complex, a human being. By ascribing experience to all being, Whitehead breaks down the metaphysical wall between the physical and biological worlds.

For Whitehead, the Platonic description of experience, with its ideas like red and round—what some contemporary philosophers call qualia—is inadequate because they are the conceptual forms which feelings take, and are thus an abstraction. The description of experience using qualia is also inadequate because it ignores the integration of the sensations or objects into larger wholes, a notion, as we have noted, that is based on field physics and on William James’ depiction of the conscious field.

For Whitehead, unlike Plato, Locke or Hume, perception is not just a mental activity, but a physical one, what Whitehead calls a “prehension,” a notion which connects his and William James’ psychology with physical field theory. For example, for Whitehead, a proposition is embedded in an “environment” out of which it comes, and to which it initially relates. However, like objects, it does not exist by itself. “All men are created equal” had an original environment, the experience of Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century, to which it initially referred, however its reference might be extended later, say, to social relations in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. It relates to this entire environment, rather than existing as a self-sufficient statement.

Perception ultimately rests on our absorbing energy, for example, photons, from another source. Expressed in field theory, that source becomes part of our physical field. In this sense, a stone which we see or prehend is both part of our field, and therefore is part of us. The percept is then not just a “representation” of the object, as Descartes maintained. The mind is not, for Whitehead, as it was for Descartes, a substance—a soul—which requires nothing but itself in order to exist, and which can then simply entertain itself with its own Platonic ideas, such as round and red. Rather, the mind consists of its physical constituencies, including neurons, blood, and, at an even more basic physical level, its electromagnetic and gravitational fields, which sometimes includes the prehended stone. In this way, Whitehead attacks the discontinuity between mind and body, and between the mental and physical worlds.

But perception, for Whitehead, is not direct, as it is for Locke and Hume. We do not directly perceive ideas like “round” or “red.” Rather, the perceiver’s body will transform the original energetic stimuli into high-level perceptions, which Locke and Hume called “simple ideas.” For Whitehead, such ideas are, then, abstractions and cannot adequately describe our full experience. Integration of the physical energetic particles constituting the active brain is reflected in our capacity to relate disparate elements into wholes, or to unite the world aesthetically.[2]

Whitehead sees the same processes involved in creating purpose as in perception. He believes that what produces the body’s purpose or subjective aim, to the extent it is centrally controlled, is a qualitative adjustment of the Platonic ideas of the impulses contributed by the cells, as mediated and re-enacted by the nerves and the brain, and of the Platonic ideas of the impulses generated by the integrating brain without direct relation to the rest of the body. The mixture of perception and purpose, as these are centralized, is the organism’s “presiding personality.” This transformation of energy into mentality and purpose is a core notion in Whitehead’s thought.

Here novelty does not require an additional outside force, a point which Whitehead himself sometimes argues, as we will see. Rather by the integration of the physical elements, a new object is produced, which has both a physical and mental aspect. In this way, novelty is created naturally by the world.

Whitehead holds that what distinguishes living things from the inert world is this working of purpose or direction. Whitehead writes: “In the case of an animal, the mental states enter into the plan of the total organism and thus modify the plans of the successive subordinate organisms until the smallest organisms, such as electrons, are reached” (SMW 111). An example is thirst. There is a physical feeling, and there is a conceptual form which the physical feeling takes. This form is an urge toward the future realization of a fact, the drinking of water, a change which, in this case, will stimulate the complex of cells, called the organism, to seek water, and will eventually involve the absorption of new elements into the organism’s constitution.

Whitehead is also concerned with how organisms respond to external stimuli with a certain originality. He explains this by saying that as the external stimuli or data come in, they are objective; when they are integrated into the organism, they are private and subjective. They can then prompt the organism to some new response. The capacity for novelty is a function of the organism’s capacity for integration into complexity. Novelty is here the integration of the novelties of the physical field, or the neural field.

A living organism may passively perceive data, for example, the organism’s realization of a “green tree out there.” Whitehead would call such a realization a “positive prehension.” But negative prehensions, that is, experiences which are instigated by but not realized directly in the data, are ways he believes the world advances into novelty.

For Whitehead, human consciousness generally involves negative prehensions which can be translated as propositions. Consciousness always includes some realization that looks beyond the body’s immediate delivery. Even a statement such as “This ball is red” carries the idea that the ball might be some other color—a notion, incidentally, which Freud also advances. Other propositions, such as “This ball is not red,” or “This ball might be blue,” or “I’d like to be a doctor,” more clearly show the relation between consciousness as mere awareness and consciousness as the vehicle of purpose, or what Whitehead calls the “subjective aim.” Again, Whitehead shows his profound debt to philosophers like William James and John Dewey who speak of the purposefulness of conscious integration, which James sums up in Pragmatism (1907).

For Whitehead, this integration of objects is built into the very nature of the world, and acts as a guiding principle. Whitehead’s explanation of the creation of novelty applies not only to appetites, intentions, and behavior, but also to the formation and evolution of organisms. Whitehead explains that a new subjective form arises to guide the composition of the organism’s felt Platonic ideas as they readjust to new inputs from the environment. Such inputs might be a high-speed particle altering a genetic molecule, or a new element in the organism’s chemical environment. This would be Whitehead’s explanation of how pleiotropic adjustment occurs, in which the total organism reconfigures itself in response to small genetic changes.

Today, scientists are increasingly using complex computer models to represent mental or organic processes. The models show how adjustments at the informational or symbolic level predict and direct adjustments or reconfigurations at the material or energetic level. If one substitutes the more modern idea of “information” for Whitehead’s Platonic ideas, and then attempts to determine how information adjusts in the organism to organize organic processes, as in the quenching of thirst, or to configure the organism, as in pleiotropy, Whitehead’s thought has a quite contemporary ring.[3]

Whitehead also suggests that the adjustments in the organism which organize organic process are essentially aesthetic. This aesthetic valuation of symbolic adjustment is what mathematicians, he tells us, frequently refer to as “beautiful” proofs.[4] He explains the world’s advance into novel complexity as aesthetic, writing that “the teleology of the world is directed to the production of Beauty” (AI 341).[5] Whitehead here suggests that there is some genuine analogy between the integration of a mathematical system, the readjustment of a biochemical balance as in the quenching of thirst, the way an organism creates a new composition as a result of slight alterations of the genes (pleiotropy), and the way an artist alters an entire painting to adjust to changes of color or shape in a small section, or creates the art work itself from paint and canvas.

Art, which, in Whitehead’s phrase, is “deficiently real,” projects the full realization of concrete fact in the physical world, just as a diagram or blueprint of a building anticipates its construction. Whitehead writes: “It requires Art to evoke into consciousness the finite perfections which lie ready for human achievement” (AI 346; cf. 271). This advances not only the organic roots of art, but also its prophetic role in the world’s historic progress. Whitehead suggests that standards of beauty may not be merely cultural, but also reflect their relation to organic integration and complexity, an idea which lifts artistic standards out of total cultural relativism.

Finally, Whitehead holds that organisms create not only their own internal organization and consequent forms, but also their regular modes of interaction, which are called the natural laws. In both these ways, the world advances into novelty. That this is done spontaneously throughout the universe, what Whitehead calls the “creative advance,” is Whitehead’s supreme insight. The origin of creativity and order is implicit in the very nature of the world. Whitehead takes this idea partly from William James, partly from biology, and partly from his own work in physics, in which objects create their own ordered fields, which reflect their constituents’ interaction. Objects thus do not follow God’s laws, as Newton said they did; rather, Whitehead believes, they create them. In physics, this notion seems an enormously useful corrective to Newtonian determinism. In biology, by emphasizing the way in which an organism achieves integration in itself and with its larger environment, Whitehead points to what may be the weakness of present-day Darwinian theory.[6]

When Whitehead surveys the world, he finds evidence everywhere for the creative advance, that is, the growth of complexity or “intensity of experience.” This is, Whitehead believes, the world’s indisputable progress as it transforms chaotic nature into all its complex forms and laws. The progress toward complexity is apparent at every level, from quantum particles, through molecular structures, to biological organisms and human beings. There is no doubt that complexity is growing on this planet, if not throughout the reaches of the universe. Four billion years ago there was no life here at all; today there are highly complex organic forms. Whitehead attempts to explain this phenomenon through a philosophy based not on traditional ideas of creation or even Platonic notions of a permanent ideal order, but on self-generated process.

2. The Role of God, or the Second Explanation

At times, however, Whitehead seems to believe that this explanation of the creation of organic forms or systems does not suffice. In this “second explanation,” Whitehead believes he must go beyond the data and their interrelations to find an ultimate source for the world’s novelty. In this “second explanation,” he says that purpose, or the subjective aim, instead of emerging from an integration of feeling, and more basically from the integration of its physical constituents, guides the organism from the outset. For Whitehead, this guidance comes prefigured from the “primordial nature of God,” which contains all possible combinations of ideas. God’s “judgment” is his supplying the emerging subjective aim which is particularly relevant to that organism. Whitehead writes: “Thus an originality in the temporal world is conditioned, though not determined, by an initial subjective aim supplied by the ground of all order and of all originality” (PR 164).

In raising this second mode of explanation, Whitehead reverts to notions of order which lie at the base of Western thought from Plato to Hegel, and to the monotheistic religion of his youth. Whitehead, like many modern philosophers, as the American philosopher Joseph Margolis argues (1993), here seems simply unwilling to carry through on the primary thrust of his ideas. In many ways, Whitehead’s “primordial nature of God” looks very much like Plato’s God. It also resembles the single, unified, and absolute mathematics which began to dissolve in the nineteenth century, and which Whitehead and Bertrand Russell attempted to save through their Principia Mathematica, completed in 1910. Subsequent developments have made this unity even less persuasive.

If the unification of ideas is highly questionable in mathematics, the unification of all ideas in the world is even more so. What is the relation between 2 + 2 = 4 and Jefferson’s idea that all men are created equal, although both are ideas? Assumed coexistence or membership in the class of God’s mind does not imply a necessary relation. Our idea of integration is based on structure and limit—precisely what seems missing here. As the notion of God expands to include any possible relation, or the inclusion of any entity, it loses any semblance to this ideal. As if anticipating Whitehead’s thought, William James writes:

Yet if… we assume God to have thought in advance of every possible flight of human fancy in these directions, his mind becomes too much like a Hindoo idol with three heads, eight arms and six breasts, too much made up of superfoetation and redundancy for us to wish to copy it.[7]

For Whitehead, in his second mode of explanation, God’s nature forms the basis for all potentiality in the world, as it does for Kant and Hegel. Whitehead asks: How can novelty enter the world if it is not already somewhere? As Whitehead seems here to be denying the possibility of novelty altogether, he must find its source in the mind of God. It is God who supplies the plan or set of eternal ideas which persuades each organism to achieve what complexity or organic beauty it is capable of, and which guides the organism toward novelty. Each “judgment” of God is relevant particularly to that organism and represents a particular selection from the infinite interrelation of ideas which constitutes God’s nature. Accordingly, in Whitehead’s second mode of explanation, “proximate relevance” of eternal objects, as a guide to an organism in the process of becoming, “means relevance as in the primordial mind of God” (PR 315, 73).

At first blush, this is not how evolution proceeds, at least as Darwin explains it. Rather than a purposeful operation involving the total organism, the evolution of individuals and eventually of species proceeds by random variation of genetic material, which then produces a phenotype that is supported by the environment—that is, when the organism survives and multiplies. Purposefulness seems curiously absent, and would seem closer to what Aristotle would call accident, or randomness.

But the rearrangement of the total organism following relatively minor genetic changes, or pleiotropy, suggests a drive for order which is not accidental, but which may not be inconsistent with Darwinian evolution. Equally, the organism’s choice of organic development following regular mathematical forms suggests that more than accident is involved, and that the drive for integration seems built into the system of the universe.

What does not seem evident, however, is any central direction for the universe as a whole. The sheer proliferation of forms belies any such central vision. How many different tries there have been in the biological world, how many false starts? As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould points out, whole genera have perished irrevocably in the Paleozoic past (1989). Even in Whitehead’s time, one could walk through a biological museum, with its glass cases of fossils and preserved species, from mollusks to mammals, and sense the energy and fecundity of the biological world, but also its seeming lack of unified direction. Is it meaningful, as Whitehead suggests, to think that this variety achieves unification in the mind of God?

By invoking God as the initiator of organic compositions, and the world’s aesthetic unifier, Whitehead thereby re-establishes determinism, a problem faced by philosophers from Plato to Hegel. In Whitehead’s “second explanation,” God is immanent in the world, guiding each organism. Although Whitehead says there is freedom, this mechanism for limiting it seems enormously powerful.

As God is necessarily ubiquitous, God would alsobe responsible for results which are clearly destructive, or Whitehead would be forced to parcel out good results to God and bad results to other agencies. The first position would sully Whitehead’s notion of God; the second would make attributing results to God dependent on Whitehead’s moral or aesthetic judgments. Whitehead must here deal with the problem raised by Hume, of arguing from an imperfect creation to a perfect Creator.

How does Whitehead deal with the related problem of evil? It is not reassuring. He writes:

The revolts of destructive evil, purely self-regarding, are dismissed into their triviality of merely individual facts; and yet the good they did achieve in individual joy, in individual sorrow, in the introduction of needed contrasts, is yet saved by its relation to the completed whole (PR 532).

If one thinks of evils such as the Holocaust or Rwanda, this becomes patently wishful thinking, although Whitehead is right, for example, that stealing may be satisfying for the thief, however destructive it is for the victim. Yet to say, as Whitehead seems to be doing here, that premature death, suffering, or genocide are somehow “saved” by being absorbed into God’s nature, is to argue them away.

Such salvation occurs, Whitehead says, because the world, as a completed fact, is God’s “consequent nature,” a concept close to Hegel’s. In this sense, God is the entire world, which constitutes an ultimate theory of immanence. Not only is God in everything, but everything is God. In this sense, the world is a holy place. Every effort is part of a divine effort, and nothing is lost or wasted. Here the distinction between God and the world dissolves, as do Whitehead’s arguments for God’s separate role. It then does not matter whether one sees the world’s complexity as the work of God, or of the world itself. For if the world is God, or is infused with God through and through, if it is holy and charged with divine energy, the problems for thought created by the Hebraic God who is metaphysically separate from the universe, or the distant God of Isaac Newton, do not arise.

Here we are tempted to conceive of a very different nature of God, one suggested by Gnostic thought,[8] the writings of Meister Eckhart or Jacob Boehme, suggested at times by Kant and Hegel, and stated outright by the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson; it is also a concept found in Eastern thought with the ideas of the Self or Brahmin. This is the notion of an immanent God, who is present in all creation as a well of creative energy, to be tapped by the organic world and the religiously adept.

Whitehead’s ultimate argument for God’s persuasive work in the world, like Plato’s, is the intuition which artists know as art, and moralists know as right, and workmen know as effective, and statesmen know as just, and organisms know, or feel, as healthy. All men seek the Good, Plato tells us, and all men choose it, if they know what it is, for when they find it, it is supposedly persuasive. But not all effects in the world are benign; this persuasion does not always work. However, the world’s general growth toward complexity, and the role of ideas and art in history and culture, would argue that a drive toward complexity is perhaps in the nature of things. Whether this drive comes from God or from the universe remains open in Whitehead’s thought, and continues to haunt modern religion and philosophy.

While denying a sectarian religious purpose, Whitehead’s “second explanation” seems generally to be concerned with reformulating the Judeo-Christian tradition in the light of the modern world so it can continue to deliver its principal object—an abiding sense of permanence in the midst of the world’s flux and evolution. While concerned with process, Whitehead here posits an eternal, unified set of ideas; a God who unifies these ideas and guides each occasion; a God who sanctions every aesthetic and moral act in God’s nature; and the permanent deposit of all effort in God as well.

3. The Legacy of Whitehead

Despite these problems, Whitehead, particularly in his “first explanation,” provides a wealth of suggestion as to how the universe moves toward complexity and beauty, and thereby provides a physical-psychological model which looks surprisingly useful in reconfiguring contemporary thought. While his “second explanation” reinstalls God as the ultimate cause of the process, it is also possible to see in Whitehead’s philosophy, in his “first explanation,” how the universe itself takes responsibility for its own advance. Whether or not the universe is holy; whether it is useful to speak of the universe as divine, or its drive toward complexity and beauty as God’s, seems less important than Whitehead’s overall vision in which intelligence, embedded in all beings, drives the universe forward to whatever perfections it is capable of achieving. His awe before the universe is indeed like that of Plato or Kant. Lucien Price recorded Whitehead saying, “Here we are with our finite being and physical senses in the presence of a universe whose possibilities are infinite, and even though we may not apprehend them, those infinite possibilities are actualities” (Price 1954, 11).

It is this sense of wonder which filled the scientists of the twentieth century, and provided for many of them, and for those who read their work, the spiritual equivalent of an earlier religion. It is this legacy which we inherent today, and which, drawing upon new findings in physics and biology, only vaguely discerned by Whitehead, can form the basis of a new integration of thought.


[1] For the relation of William James to Whitehead, and a general explanation of their thought, see Eisendrath’s The Unifying Moment (1971). For James’s psychology, see his Principles of Psychology (1890) and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).James anticipated a number of developments in cognitive psychology which would not become current until the 1960s (see Neisser 1967). For the relation of Whitehead and James to more modern developments in physics and biology, see Eisendrath’s At War With Time (2003).

[2] Whitehead also asserts plainly, as did Locke, that we feel influence, or, technically, a vectorial, or directional, reference to an outside cause—e.g. a blow on the head which sends us reeling, or a candle flame which burns our hand. We should note that such direct evidence of causation contradicts Hume, and also questions Kant’s need to designate causation as a category of the mind. However, Whitehead would also say that due to the complexity of the human brain, the neurons probably mimic causality, rather than directly experience it, as lower organisms may do.

[3] For a complex discussion of these ideas, see Kauffman 1933; Prigogine 1997; and Edelman 1987, 1988, 1989 (a trilogy of works).

[4] See in particular MT.

[5] This notion also emerges in the last works of Sigmund Freud with his concept of the integrating work of Eros.

[6] For a full-scale attack on these weaknesses, see Kauffman 1933.

[7] Jottings of 1903-1904, quoted in Perry 1935, Vol. II, p. 384.

[8] See, for example, Pagels The Gnostic Gospels (1979).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Edelman, Gerald M. 1987. Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (New York, Basic Books).

Edelman, Gerald M. 1988. Topology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology (New York, Basic Books)

Edelman, Gerald M. 1989. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (New York, Basic Books).

Eisendrath, Craig R. 1971. The Unifying Moment: The Psychological Philosophy of William James and Alfred North Whitehead (Cambridge, Harvard University Press; second edition: New York, toExcel, 1999).

Eisendrath, Craig R. 2003. At War With Time: The Wisdom of Western Thought from the Sages to a New Activism for our Time (New York, Helios Press).

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1989. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York, W.W. Norton).

James, William. 1912. Essays in Radical Empiricism (New York, Longmans, Green and Co.).

James, William. 1981 [1907]. Pragmatism (Indianapolis IN, Hackett).

James, William. 1983 [New York, Henry Holt, 1890]. The Principles of Psychology, introduced by George A. Miller (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

Kauffman, Stuart A. 1933. The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Margolis, Joseph. 1993. The Flux of History and the Flux of Science (Berkeley, University of California Press).

Neisser, Ulric. 1967. Cognitive Psychology (New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts).

Pagels, Elaine. 1979. The Gnostic Gospels (New York, Random House).

Price, Lucien. 1954. Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (Boston, Little, Brown and Co.).

Prigogine, Ilya. 1997. The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature (New York, Free Press).

Author Information

Craig Eisendrath
Temple University

How to Cite this Article

Eisendrath, Craig, “The Unifying Moment: Toward a Theory of Complexity”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.