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A Review of
Science and the Modern World.
Whitehead, A. N., (1925). New York: The Free Press, Macmillan Pub.

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
[The author may be contacted via email:]
[For the Laurel Leader-Call (4/97)]

I endeavor to succinctly summarize the book but more fully exegete the chapter on "Romantic Reaction." (V). Whitehead's Science and the Modern World was taken from the 1926 Lowell lectures at Harvard University. The book is a study of certain aspects of Western culture over the past three centuries inasmuch as they have been influenced by and influence science. Brief allusions are made to non-Western cultures in this connection.

Cosmologies are influenced by science, aesthetics, ethics, and religion. With the integration of these areas in each epoch a world view can be elucidated. "Philosophy, in one of its functions, is the critic of cosmologies" (p. vii). Philosophy scrutinizes, harmonizes, and re-fashions our ideas about reality. This is one of the aspects of the intersection of philosophy and science.

The origins of modern science are to be found in Europe but its home is the whole world. It is becoming evident that what the West can give to the East is its science and its scientific outlook. "This is transferable from country to country and from race to race, wherever there is a rational society" (p. 3). The faith of an "Order of Things" is inherent to a scientific view, only what sort of order is it? On the contrary, Hume says "in a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause; and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary" (p. 4). Whitehead points out that some variant of Hume's philosophy has generally prevailed among men of science. However the scientific faith has "tacitly removed the philosophic mountain" (p. 4).

Scientific advancement is made by conceiving of things great and small exemplifying general principles. There is also an equally obvious principle: nothing ever recurs in exact detail. This accounts for Whitehead's rejection of causation. Nonetheless, the discovery of the general principles of order was not fully under taken until the close of the Middle Ages. At this time there was a revolt against the earlier intellectualism. "It is a great mistake to conceive this historical revolt as an appeal to reason. On the contrary, it was through and through an anti- intellectualist movement" (p. 8).

In the current question concerning quantum theory we find a movement away from a metaphysical mechanism cosmology. If electrons and protons do not continuously traverse a path in space a philosophical problem arises. Why is it that we seem to perceive objects in relative permanence? Whitehead answers this with the analogy of sound and light. We believe sound is successive vibrations yet we hear a continuous note from the tuba. Why could matter not be a similar kind of pulsation. The metaphor of vibration can be used to explain the relationship between our common sense perceptions and the quantum model of matter. It is not a continuing substance but vibrations, or as he would say in other places, events. This opens the door for a philosophy of organism in contradistinction to that of mechanism.

In the advancement of science Whitehead praises Da Vinci and Bacon for a legal mentality and the patient observation habits of a naturalistic artist. On the chief scientific tool, induction, Whitehead makes an interesting comment. "Induction presupposes metaphysics. In other words, it rests upon an antecedent rationalism. You cannot have a rational justification for your appeal to history till your metaphysics has assured you that there is a history to appeal to; and likewise your conjectures as to the future presuppose some basis of knowledge that there is a future already subjected to some determinations. The difficulty is to make sense of either of these ideas. But unless you have done so, you have made nonsense of induction" (p. 44). The influence of the narrow and efficient scheme of scientific concepts upon the eighteenth century was great. The Protestant Calvinism and the Catholic Jansenism viewed man as helpless to co-operate with Irresistible Grace. In the mechanistic scheme of science man is helpless to cooperate with the irresistible mechanism of nature. The mechanism of God and the mechanism of matter were problems. The seventeenth century had great intellect, and cleared the world of muddled thought. The eighteenth century continued the work of clearance. The scientific scheme has outlived its theological ancestor. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century, George Berkeley launched his philosophical criticism against the whole basis of the system. He failed to derail the dominant train of thought. In summary, Whitehead's interpretation of the history of science leads him to conclude the best relation between cosmology and metaphysics is a philosophy of organism, rejecting the philosophy of substance.


In "The Romantic Reaction" he considers the opposition to a world view of mechanism. "It is in literature that the concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression" (p. 76). Through literature the inward thoughts of a generation are disclosed. There is a fundamental inconsistency at this point in Western culture: "a scientific realism, based on mechanism is conjoined with an unwavering belief in the world of men and of the higher animals being composed of self-determining organisms" (p. 76). Whitehead finds this as the "cause" of what is half- hearted and wavering in our civilization. It enfeebles thought. It leaves us, he says, with superficial orderings from diverse arbitrary starting points. The activities of people presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which enthrones physical causation, resulting in the incongruity of physical cause from the final end. "It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved" (p. 76).

But so far as the mass of literature is concerned, science might never have been heard of. For the most part, the great literary artists were interested in neither philosophy nor science. Nevertheless, there has been an indirect influence of science on art. Whitehead illustrates this with some literary excerpts.

The relevant poems are Milton's Paradise Lost, Pope's Essay on Man, Wordsworth's Excursion, Tennyson's ln Memoriam. Milton illustrates the theological aspect untouched by the influence of scientific materialism. Pope's poem represents the effect on popular thought which includes the first period of assured triumph for the scientific movement. Wordsworth expresses a conscious reaction against the mentality of the eighteenth century. Taking scientific ideas at their full face value, Wordsworth was morally repulsed since what had been left out of mechanism comprised everything that was most important. A machine cannot value. Mechanist science could not produce a poet who says,

Ye Presences of Nature in the sky

And on earth! Ye Visions of the hills!

And Souls of lonely places! can I think

A vulgar hope was yours when ye through many a year

Haunting me thus among my boyish sports,

On caves and trees, upon the woods and hills,

Impressed upon all forms the characters

Of danger or desire; and thus did make

The surface of the universal earth,

With triumph and delight, with hope and fear,Work like a sea? (p. 84)

Tennyson is the mouthpiece of the waning romantic movement in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. By this time a clear interpretation of the course of nature and the life of man was disclosed. Tennyson is appalled by the problem of mechanism.

" 'The stars,' she whispers, 'blindly run.' "

This line states starkly the whole philosophic problem implicit in the poem. Here, Whitehead gives a clear argument against mechanism. Each molecule blindly runs. The human body is a collection of molecules. Therefore, the human body blindly runs, and therefore, there can be no individual responsibility for the actions of the body. If you once accept that the molecule is definitely determined to be what it is, independently of any determination by reason of the total organism of the body, and if you further admit the general mechanical laws, this conclusion is clear. There are then two possible theories as to the mind. You either deny that it can supply for itself any experiences other than those provided for it by the body, or you can admit them. If you refuse to admit the additional experiences, then all individual moral responsibility is no more. lf you do admit additional experiences, then a human being may be responsible for the state of his mind though he has no responsibility for the actions of his body. The enfeeblement of thought in the modern world is illustrated by the way which this plain issue is avoided in Tennyson's poem. It is in the background, "a skeleton in the cupboard." Although Tennyson almost comprehensively speaks to every religious and scientific problem, he avoids this one.

This very problem was in full debate at the date of the poem. John Stuart Mill was maintaining his doctrine of determinism. In this doctrine volitions are determined by motives and motives are expressible in terms of antecedent conditions including states of mind as well as states of the body.

Mill does not escape from the dilemma presented by a thoroughgoing mechanism. "For if the volition affects the state of the body, then the molecules in the body do not blindly run. If the volition does not affect the state of the body, the mind is still left in its uncomfortable position" (p. 78). Mill's doctrine is generally accepted as though it allowed you to accept the materialistic mechanism, and yet mitigate its unbelievable consequences. Whitehead contends that it does not. "Either the bodily molecules blindly run, or they do not. If they do blindly run, the mental states are irrelevant in discussing them" (79).

"Vitalism" is one proposed solution but it is a compromise which seeks to deal with the problem by creating a dichotomy between the dead matter and that which is within living organisms. The result is an essential dualism. Whitehead's proposal is a philosophy of science based on organism which seeks the following solution. In an animal the mental states affect the total organism. In this view an electron in a body acts in accordance with it character and not simply as a dead bit of matter. The smallest uncuttable in the universe is an organism.

In conclusion, the sermon Whitehead preaches in Science and the Modern World could be entitled "Man not Machine." In particular within the chapter on "The Romantic Reaction" he illustrates the aesthetic response to the "cog in a machine" world view. Since the "elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought (Process and Reality, p. 4)," the poets express our experiences most vividly. "I hold that the ultimate appeal is to naive experience and that is why I lay such stress on the evidence of poetry" (p. 89). "The romantic reaction was a protest on behalf of value" (p. 94).


Whitehead has certainly illumined the contradiction between mechanism and humanity. However, his argument reminds me of Kant's moral proof for the existence of God. Kant, after allegedly destroying the traditional proofs in the Critique of Pure Reason, points out the necessity of God if our values are to be meaningful. The transcendental supposition for meaningful moral behavior is a Being who is able to judge and reward with the necessary attributes to do so, etc. Analogously, Whitehead argues if the universe is a big machine then we can have no values, no responsibility, and no freedom since we are part of that machine. However, just like the existentialists followed Kant, reversing the moral proof, there is no God--ERGO, no moral values; the behaviorists are turning the scientific proposition on its head and saying in effect, the universe is a machine--ERGO, we do not have freedom.

For example, the popular behaviorist, B. F. Skinner (1971), says the view that man is free to deliberate, decide, and act, possibly in original ways and is to be given credit for his successes and blamed for his failures is a prescientific view. Further, Skinner (1978) might say to Whitehead (in the context of "the elucidation of immediate experience..."), "Unfortunately the feeling of being free is not a reliable indication that we have reached such a world" (p. 198). Skinner (1978) likens a person's spontaneous or free actions to the alleged spontaneous generation of maggots in Pasteur's day--a fiction (p. 54).

Skinner, B. F. (1980). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Skinner, B. F. (1978). Reflections on behaviorism and society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.