A.N. Whitehead warns in the introduction to Process and Reality, that the “chief error” of Western philosophy is “overstatement.” He states: “the aim at generalization is sound, but the estimate of success is exaggerated” (PR, 1978, 7). Further, Whitehead is quick to point out many instances in the history of science and philosophy in which public opinion was dominated by dogmas of “misplaced concreteness,” that is abstractions or hypothetical ideas mistaken as concrete actual entities. This appears to be the common practice of scientists who believe they are on to a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or Theory of Everything (TOE), which involves equations of strong and weak nuclear force, gravity, and quantum physics. Unlike Whitehead, they claim to speak for all epochs rather than our “immediate” one.
But this ignores the problem of measurement and the qualifications that guide our observations and data—for Whitehead, the mathematical order full of genuine possibilities is subordinated to the act of measuring. He writes:
all exact measurements concern perceptions in the mode of presentational imme¬diacy [space]; and that such observations purely concern the systematic geometric forms of the environment, forms defined by projectors from the ‘seat’ of the strain and irrespective of the actualities which constitute the environment. The contemporary actualities of the world are irrelevant to these observations. All scientific measurements merely concern the sys¬tematic real potentiality out of which these actualities arise. This is the meaning of the doctrine that physical science is solely concerned with the mathematical relations of the world (PR, 326).
Whitehead has a Theory of Extension (Part IV of PR) which holds space and extension are not the same and, like Plato’s Receptacle in the Timaeus, all temporal and spatial relations depend on the “undivided divisibility” of the “extensive continuum.” The extensive continuum symbolizes the universe as such, without denying the regionalization of our experience.
Any system of measurement presupposes certain regions or “neighborhoods” of relations under the environmental conditions of the dominant nexūs of societies. Measurement is shot through with the perception of “presentational immediacy” which “depends solely on the ‘withness’ of the ‘body,’ and only exhibits the external contemporary world in respect to its systematic geometrical relationship to the ‘body’” (PR, 334). Are GUT and TOE exaggerated instances of using abstractions to explain concrete relatedness? Is Whitehead correct to suggest that “measurement is a systematic procedure dependent on the dominant so¬cieties of the cosmic epoch,” which “depend on the actual occasions which atomize the extensive con¬tinuum” (PR, 332)?