Discontinuities

Brian Pippard

  • Science and the Modern World by A.N. Whitehead
    Free Association, 265 pp, £11.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 946960 14 3

Sixty years ago, when Alfred North Whitehead delivered the lectures that were published as Science and the Modern World, he was famous as a penetrating philosopher of mathematics, the teacher and later the colleague of Russell, a man of wide learning who had turned to metaphysics and developed a new system so profound that few dared criticise it; he was also an educational reformer and an upright man loved by his many friends. All in all, the very model of a Philosopher, academic indeed, but one for whom the epithet could only be a mark of the highest praise. This book was reprinted 11 times up to 1953, and at least twice since then. There can never have been such a tribute to pure thought. I won it as a school prize and was utterly defeated by it; 45 years later I find the argument difficult at all times, and in several chapters impenetrable by reason of its technical abstruseness. Apart from these, which I cannot judge, the fault does not lie in Whitehead’s style, which is lucid and sensitive – it is the density of the argument that makes demands on the reader. Of all those copies that were sold before, and doubtless will continue to be sold, very few can have been studied with such painstaking attention and pencilled emphasis as the copy of the 1953 reprint I have borrowed from the Cambridge University Library, and even in this case the original owner has faltered one-third of the way through and is lost without trace.

It should already be clear that this is no exposition of the wonders of science, nor is the ‘modern world’ the highly industrialised world of the present. For Whitehead the modern world started with Copernicus, Vesalius, Bacon and Descartes and started, moreover, on the wrong foot. This is the thesis that runs through his historical chapters; the squalor of the post-industrial revolution is in part attributable to lack of principle which allowed the search for knowledge to be divorced from ethical considerations. The materialism so wholeheartedly embraced by physicists from Newton onwards utterly excluded the operations of mind from the processes of science, to the grave detriment of human society. It would be unjust, however, to suggest that Whitehead blames science for everything that has gone amiss, or merely yearns for a lost Arcadia. For one thing, no sooner does he seem to be falling into this trap than he pulls himself up to admit the danger of his adopted position. This is the work of a man who writes nothing without thinking through the consequences, and it is enormously worth reading if only to experience the mind of a master. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, I find I cannot accept his central thesis, not because the analysis is demonstrably faulty, but because it is sterile.

Likely enough, if he were writing now, Whitehead would not be so perturbed as he was then about the state of science. He could not have chosen a worse moment to talk of the imminent break-up of the physical world-picture. The discoveries in quantum theory did indeed seem to threaten the comfortable old post-Newtonian materialism which was based on bodies moving comprehensibly under the influence of their mutual interactions. Perhaps this was illusory and all processes were, on the atomic scale, discontinuous – the particle disappearing here and reappearing there with no intervening existence. This was, to him, both a threat to the magnificent edifice built on Newton’s foundations and at the same time a faint source of hope that a new outlook, preferably his own, might offer an escape from incomprehension. What he could not have known was that at the very time he was writing Heisenberg and Schrödinger and Bohr were cooking up one of the greatest of all revolutions in thought. The deterministic materialism of Victorian science was wholly overthrown by the new quantum mechanics. Before 1900 an unsophisticated physicist, if he had permitted himself belief in God, could have imagined that God’s view of the universe was very much like his own – matter existed out there and anyone who cared could look at it. I suspect that most people in their hearts believe something like this nowadays.

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