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In the introduction to Process and Reality, Whitehead criticizes the tendency to posit logical or ontological necessity as the primary modes of cosmological explanation. For Whitehead time is a contingent specification of extension. Extension is not synonymous with space, but stems from a higher level of generality as the “undivided divisibile” or “extensive continuum.” Employing a functional definition Whitehead argues we are only in a position to say that time and space should not be treated as necessary modalities despite lacking experience with any non-temporal mode of division beyond our cosmic epoch. However, the limits of experience are not exhaustive of the limits of imagination!

Knowledge is derived by contrast and the lack of contrast implies the absence of knowledge. When categorizing our experience of time and space as modes of possible divisions of the extensive continuum (receptacle of the universe), Whitehead argues we have no grounds for claiming anything more than that temporal and spatial relations are contingent. They are the modes of division in our immediate epoch--i.e. not the whole cosmic epoch, which impose conditions on the metaphysical description of the present.

As Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein argue in their forthcoming book The Quantum of Explanation, which is an intense study of Whitehead’s robust philosophy, “The absence from our experience of other equally primary modes of dividing the extensive continuum is not evidence for the necessity of time and space as its dividers (that is, ultimately, actual entities), it is rather the best reason to treat them as contingent, and to hold open the possibility of other (as yet unknown) modalities of division. Hence, we find Whitehead carefully offering conjectures about what might hold of other cosmic epochs. This process of entering conjectures is familiar to mathematicians, and it does carry with it a kind of weight of expectation, but its principal function is to remind us that the present inquiry exists in a context wider than we can expect to encompass with our hypotheses.”

The insistence upon necessity prevalent in popular science is the kind of dogmatism Whitehead insists philosophers, especially scientists, should resist. Most of the history of science and philosophy has assumed we should without questioning it accept the overstatement. But if the order of nature can change within our cosmic epoch (e.g. laws of nature evolve) then what grounds do we have for adopting the reductionist thinking which says that the conditions of our immediate order holds for all orders?

  • I assume that it is the influence of Einsteins theory of relativity that led Whitehead to declare that both space & time are both forms of extension - or does it have deeper roots? – Mozibur Ullah Jul 17 '13 at 12:25
  • Hey Mozibur! Great to hear from you. Whitehead has his own theory of relativity which you should check out. He disagreed with Einstein's General Theory and established the Principle of Relativity in his speculative metaphysics and cosmology. He also believed Einstein had a narrow conception of relationaity in his physical theory. The principle of relativity holds that every actual entity serves as potential in every becoming. Every actual entity is involved with the potentiality and concresence of every actual entity's univerese. It is the only principle relating to all entities. – AnthropoTechnics Jul 17 '13 at 12:56
  • Equally to the actual and non-actual. – AnthropoTechnics Jul 17 '13 at 12:58
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Whitehead argues we have no grounds for claiming anything more than that temporal and spatial relations are contingent. They are the modes of division in our immediate epoch--i.e. not the whole cosmic epoch, which impose conditions on the metaphysical description of the present

This is exactly what is proposed by what in physics are called effective theories - they specify a range of experience (energies) at which their description is expected to be effective - that is give good predictions. To quote from the paper Introduction to the Effective Field Theory description of Gravity by Donaghue:,

The key point of effective field theory is the separation of known physics at the scale that we are working from unknown physics at much higher energies. Experience has shown that as we go to higher energies, new degrees of freedom and new interactions come into play. We have no reason to suspect that the effects of our present theory are the whole story at the highest energies.

Highest energies means equivalently probing structures at the deepest levels of divisibility. If space & time are emergent features at the plank scale, one may ask what are exactly its constituent pieces, a fragment of space seems possible, but what is a fragment of time? Can fragments of time divide or perhaps assume new shapes? Perhaps a fragment of time has several directions of time. Perhaps a fragment of time is no time - like a fragment of a door is not a door but something else entirely. What is to say there is no new physics beyond the plank scale? Inductive experience surely veers towards asserting that this will be the case. We are far far from probing this regime. It may be millenia before we can, or perhaps never.

This is what gives us the space for speculative metaphysics, and/or speculative physics.

The insistence upon necessity prevalent in popular science is the kind of dogmatism Whitehead insists philosophers, especially scientists, should resist.

This neccessity was not apparent in the early physics of the greek atomists by positing the clinamen as the irreducible element of free will. The emphasis on this surely in modern science is due to the success of Newtonian physics and the determinism built into its fabric and remained there for the next three centuries which probably accounts for its longevity in the popular imagination. Enough, that Einstein wanted to reduce the new ontological indeterminancy to simple epistemological indeterminancy. Enough, that serious physicists, such as Arkani-Ahmed in a public lecture can state with all sincerity that 'there were no choices' in the formulation of the Higgs.

if the order of nature can change within our cosmic epoch (e.g. laws of nature evolve) then what grounds do we have for adopting the reductionist thinking which says that the conditions of our immediate order holds for all orders?

We don't. This is why we have the speculative physics of string theory, the multiverse. One can really only expect these speculative challenges to increase and multiply in the future as we increasingly become aware of the low energy levels we can probe with.

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