I am reading the book Perspective in Whitehead's Metaphysics by Stephen David Ross. On page 182 he says, "whiteheads theory of events is atomistic-primarily to allow for self determination, but the physics of the universe are infinitely and densely divisible."

What does he mean by this? Is he saying in all non atomistic theories of time self determination is impossible? Does our current view of time make it impossible? And with what respect is he referring to self determination? As in free will, control of our lives?

Please help, getting depressed over this...

  • 4
    Good questions. Have you read any primary texts by Whitehead? His Adventure of Ideas is much more accessible than his process and reality; I'd suggest that Ross is looking at Whitehead through Lucretious (who Whitehead was very familiar with), and its quite possible to see that the clinamen or swerve in the atomic theory of antiquity being introduced to allow for self-determination. Apr 22, 2014 at 7:24
  • The description of events as 'organism' in Science and the Modern World can only be seen as atomistic if the atoms involved are required to overlap -- not a very ordinary aspect of atomisms.
    – user9166
    Jun 15, 2018 at 18:37

2 Answers 2


the physics of the universe are infinitely and densely divisible

In physics at least, that question is still a matter of some debate. In fact, it is at the heart of the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics. In my personal opinion, Loop Quantum Gravity is the way forward (and by that I mean, the best path toward unifying GR and QM), and in LQG, both time and space are quantized. In fact, the LQG guys often refer to everything as events, especially Carlo Rovelli. I really enjoyed his book, The Order of Time, in which he goes into very poetic and philosophic detail about the quantum nature of time.

Since Dr. Ross is not a physicist, I'm inclined to question how densely and infinitely he truly understands the physics of the universe.

Not to worry, your free will is intact!

  • Loop quantum gravity is not unique in positing finitely-divisible spacetime, advocates of string theory also hope for a version without continuous spacetime due to the strong theoretical arguments for the bekenstein bound, which implies the number of distinct possible physical arrangements within a finite region of space is finite. Also in string theory, there are a number of "string dualities" in which theories on different background spacetimes lead to identical predictions, leading to the search for a "background-independent" formulation.
    – Hypnosifl
    May 24, 2020 at 19:59
  • For an interesting discussion of different possible approaches to the idea of spacetime "emerging" from some discrete "pregeometric" level of reality, see this paper: philsci-archive.pitt.edu/4820/1/QGMotAlt.pdf
    – Hypnosifl
    May 24, 2020 at 20:14

I'd need more context however what i'm immediately struck by is the word atomistic. Just doing some cursory reading of Whitehead I think it follows that he would generally say self determination of the human being is all down to the inherent perceptions of that human beings reality that may be taken from causal relatedness and casual efficacy of nature. Human beings, according to Whitehead, inherently use and need symbolism or symbolic reference to discern meaning from anything.

"but the physics of the universe are infinitely and densely divisible"

I believe what this is referring to is the concept that any discerned symbolic meaning by man towards self determination is as infinite as the laws that make up the things that man perceives. I see stars in the sky (nature) and determine self from them in depictions of gods and goddesses of them but at the same time I develop a satellite to view a black hole in space. if the physics of the universe is infinitely divisible then I can infinitely take meaning from infinitely many things within it in so far as human perception, my perception, allows.

" does our current view of time make that impossible"

I think that would prove the opposite if we view time the same way. if one were to look at the universe holistically as one dimension from a fourth then yes all our perceptions and self-determination (in the sense that you're calculating self) would be superfluous? I feel like my current sense of time is atomistic in so far as I cant connect all the points of time together into a coherent body, it simply passes point by point as non divisible portions. However if I somehow were able to atomize all that time into one thing then i'd be able to discern all meaning at one point and thus realize everything making it all worthless to this dimensions self determination. There's nothing to determine. I.e., by establishing something by calculation or research. At that point all things have been realized and there is no determination? This is my amateur opinion. really good question.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whitehead/#Meta the metaphysics section is good for general explanation of what Whitehead means.


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