john buchanan
We've made numerous references to Alfred North Whitehead and process philosophy on MindMatters, but who was Whitehead, and what makes his philosophy so interesting, and relevant? Today on the show, we are joined by John Buchanan, co-editor of the recently released volume Rethinking Consciousness, in which he has a paper highlighting the similarities between Jim Carpenter's first sight theory and Whitehead's process philosophy.

In our discussion with John we discuss Whitehead, some of the things that made his philosophy so revolutionary, why he isn't more well known today, and why he should be. His philosophy rejects the atheism and materialism of the current 'scientific' worldview, making room for the entire range of human experience. Another advantage is that Whitehead as a mathematician was well versed in the relativity and quantum theories that have come to characterize our contemporary science and technology, and his philosophy accounts for them too. We also discuss the intriguing parallels with first sight theory and its implications for a philosophy of perception and consciousness, and the nature of reality.

Running Time: 01:34:03

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Here's the transcript:

Harrison: Welcome back to Mind Matters everyone. Today on the show we have John Buchanan. I'll introduce him after I say welcome to the show John.

John: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Harrison: John is the co-editor of this book Rethinking Consciousness. First I'll just say really quickly how I found it. Two months ago we interviewed Dr. James Carpenter about his First Sight theory and at the end of that he said, "You should check out this book that's coming out or just came out because it's got an article by John Buchanan talking about my theory from the perspective of process philosophy, the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead". So I checked it out, got the book and we are going to be talking about that today in addition to an overview of who Whitehead was.

So John has his PhD from Emory's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts and his focus is on the intersection of Whitehead's process philosophy and transpersonal psychology. Would that be a correct way of phrasing your particular speciality John?

John: Yes it would.

Harrison: Okay, great. We're going to get into transpersonal psychology because we were talking a bit before doing this interview and I mentioned to John that I was not really familiar with transpersonal psychology. In addition to getting into what might be new for a lot of people - process philosophy - maybe we will get into your specialty John, which is the intersection with transpersonal psychology.

But to back up and start from the beginning I guess we should let our listeners and viewers know who Alfred North Whitehead was because we've mentioned him on the show numerous times but mostly in passing and not really in any great depth. So could you tell us a bit about who Whitehead was?

John: Sure. He was from England, born in the mid 1860s, went to Cambridge where he majored in mathematics which was his primary field for some part of his life. For those of you who know Bertrand Russell, that used to be a good way to mention him but not so much anymore. But Bertrand Russell was one of his students and together they did a 10-year project and a three volume work called the Principia Mathematica which was an attempt to ground mathematics in basic logical language. It was an attempt to give mathematics a reason for working in the universe since otherwise it's just floating around as these numbers that seem to do interesting things.

The Principia is famous for its reputation by Gรถdel who showed that it's impossible to have a system that's complete but non-contradictory. But nonetheless it's considered one of the great intellectual feats of modern times. Whitehead then expanded his thinking into philosophy of science and philosophy of nature and mathematical physics. He was very familiar with the thinking of the time and had his own theory of relativity because he disagreed with some of Einstein's assumptions about the metaphysical nature of reality around measurement and geometry of space.

When he retired from England he went to Harvard, ran the philosophy department and wrote his deeper philosophical, metaphysical, speculative philosophy works including Process and Reality, Adventures of Idea and Science and the Modern World and really was quite a force at that time. A lot of people thought his thinking and his approach to science and religion and the nature of reality was helpful for, shall I say, combatting some of the materialistic and atheistic tendencies that were coming into dominance.

Harrison: Maybe we could get into that a little bit. The question that came up in my mind while you were giving that introduction so far is, why isn't Whitehead more of - I wouldn't say a household name because few philosophers are except for maybe Plato and Aristotle - but why isn't he more well known in mainstream philosophy these days? Any ideas?

John: I'd say for two reasons; one, his ideas are quite revolutionary and went down a very different track than philosophy took in the 1950s when analytic philosophy became a major force which is really just analyzing language and how we can think about ideas and phrase questions and phrase the issues. I think Whitehead would have thought these were very interesting questions but rather petty in the large scale.

So he attempted to do something that a lot of philosophers had decided, since Kant, was impossible. He wanted to do metaphysics. What is the nature of reality? How do we know the world? That's been on the decline since Kant decided that really was a limited project. Basically science took over from philosophy at that point. So his attempt to revive metaphysics is going against the major currents of the time.

But secondly, his philosophy is also quite novel and revolutionary and difficult.

Harrison: Yeah.

John: And his writing is not particularly easy although I think it's good. A lot of people think he's particularly opaque. I think it's just because it's new and challenging. But I think that's a second reason.

Harrison: That just reminded me of something that I find funny. We interviewed the author of The Return of Holy Russia, Gary Lachman. He wrote a book on the Russian philosophers of the silver age, the late 1800s in Russia and in his book he's got a line about Solovyov, one of these guys and he said that Solovyov is one of, if not the only readable philosopher. {laughter} Having read not a whole lot of philosophy, that's probably a true statement because most philosophers are notoriously difficult for a layman to read and understand. I remember when I was at university taking a philosophy course it was pretty difficult. It's difficult to get into it, to start into it. So probably even more so for getting into Whitehead, would you say?

John: In particular, Process and Reality. John Kopp who is one of the experts in the field once said to me that he didn't think even professional philosophers should try to read Process and Reality without someone who's familiar with this system to guide them along the way and answer questions that might come up.

Harrison: Well luckily for me and for you too in your biography, I had an introduction to Whitehead that wasn't reading Whitehead himself because I think if I had started with Whitehead I would have read a page and had no idea what was going on and just given up. I found him through David Ray Griffin's works and he's got several books on process philosophy including one on parapsychology that is referenced in Rethinking Consciousness, in this volume which I think is a great book on the subject.

So that's why whenever I talk about Whitehead to anyone I recommend checking out some of David Ray Griffin's books because he's such a clear writer and not opaque in the slightest. He's almost crystal clear in the way he writes. Refresh my memory. Was your introduction to Whitehead through David Ray Griffin too or did it just kind of coincide?

John: My introduction was with William Beardsley. I was going to send you one of his books but I'm waiting for a new book to come in.

Harrison: Okay.

John: He was a new testament scholar and a process theology at Emory. I caught him just before he retired and then I did take a class with David Griffin out in Claremont on Whitehead which was very helpful because he's extremely clear and he was one of the co-editors of the revised edition of Process and Reality so he knows it well. I believe in that class he said something to the effect that he was working through Process and Reality for the seventh or eighth time and he thought he was finally beginning to get what Whitehead was saying {laughter}. A little bit of humour but each reading does give a deeper appreciation.

Harrison: Which is what makes an introductory show into Whitehead so difficult of course. So we're going to try to crack that nut and then get everything possible out of it I suppose, but that would be impossible.

So maybe to get into some of the actual ideas, you mentioned that process philosophy is a radical, revolutionary philosophy. While it has influences from the past 2,000-plus years of the history of philosophy, there is so much that's new and revolutionary in it and part of that is because one of Whitehead's goals was to make a modern philosophy that could account for what we were learning from science at the time; so relativity and quantum theory.

So I'd say his is a modern or even postmodern if you count modernism as the previous philosophies, either dualistic or mechanistic that were common in the 1800s and now currently in the 2000s as well. But that was his goal, to create a philosophy for our times and those are pretty much still the basic physical concepts that we operate under today in our mechanistic, materialistic philosophy, those scientific concepts. But, his philosophy actually arguably accounts for those and was designed to account for them so in that sense I guess you could say that his philosophy was as revolutionary as quantum theory because it was a philosophy that subsumed or took quantum theory into account. Do you have any comments on that and how that played out and if not we'll go to something else.

John: I think that's vitally important, the fact that his philosophy is, I would say, congruent with modern science, not all of it's metaphysical assumptions which a lot of scientists pretend they don't have, but tend to appear in their thinking when they argue against certain ideas such as 'telepathy is impossible because action at a distance is impossible'. Well why is action at a distance impossible? Well of course it is, but that's where the assumption is that makes defending parapsychology and other areas of experience difficult.

But Whitehead's probably most famous quote is something to the effect that philosophy in the last two thousand years is all a footnote to Plato. He incorporates most of the history of philosophy, a lot of the major figures in his thinking and in a way just revises certain aspects of each of them. He draws on what he thinks each of the strengths were and then points out areas where he thinks they went awry which puts him right in the philosophical tradition. What he does with Kant, for example, puts him out of synch with where philosophy has gone since Kant. They assume Descartes. They assume Hume, Locke and Kant and he wants to go in a different direction. I believe he says he turns Kant on his head, that he had the great insight that all experience is integrative but that he thinks that the unity of that perception starts experience rather than is the conclusion of experience.

So Whitehead sees, as with a quantum event, all of the past events flowing into the new event and forming new unification rather than in Kant's idea there's this unconscious process that creates a unification of the data.

Corey: I just have a question then since we're talking about these processes going on. Could you situate Whitehead's process philosophy in the tradition of process philosophy and distinguish it from the more static kinds of philosophies? I know that's not a very good...

Harrison: Like why process?

Corey: Yeah. Why process philosophy?

John: You know one other interesting way to get a bearing on his thinking is from Liebniz who had these monads that were these atomic entities. For anyone that knows Liebniz, he added windows. Maybe that's not the best way to go. Probably everyone doesn't know Liebniz. {laughter}

Harrison: Yeah.

John: What's kind of funny is that I would say the way science operates and the way most of us think in the world is in process terms. The world seems alive to us. Biologists studying cellular activities find all kinds of activity. There's synthetic, there's creativity going on everywhere yet when science begins to talk about how we see the world somehow this idea of billiard balls running into each other is the way things interact. Do you know how long it took to think that animals might actually think and have emotion? Well that was impossible because Descartes said that they don't, only humans have souls.

So these things hang on for so long. To add subjectivity to the world at large is one of the important things that Whitehead does. The way he does it is by saying everything is made up of these momentary events. I think that's a somewhat misleading term because what he's talking about are momentary bursts of feeling or primitive experience and conscious experience. For those who have taken psychedelics and suddenly the world seems alive and everything is moving and everything's happening, that's kind of what he's talking about. {laughter} That things are flowing, things are interacting, things are interconnected. And what I like about Whitehead is he gives what I would say is a coherent and deep way of understanding what interconnection and interflowing means and the implications of that for science, religion and how we live.

Harrison: That's one of the things that is so amazing to me whenever I read Whitehead. I get the impression from the little I've read about the history and the influence, that his thinking that led to Process and Reality was primarily based on his thinking on science and his thinking on nature and that that was the primary data that went into the creation of his metaphysics. Short answer, would you say that probably correct or not correct?

John: I would say that's the thinking that went into his philosophy of nature and philosophy of science as he was developing those in England. However when he wanted to expand that into his speculative philosophy which is his mature metaphysical system, then he wanted to encounter the philosophical tradition and work those ideas in. But he was atheistic and agnostic most of his life so he wasn't looking for a way to find spirituality in nature. That came in as he worked through these ideas. I think the main reasons he included in some of his final thinking, a central intelligence or presence was because he felt that order in the universe was not explainable without some kind of guiding force that was pushing towards order to counteract the natural dissolution and chaos that happens.

He found things from religion to be significant but I don't think he would have found that definitive because his experience is a little vague for scientists. I believe his father was a minister and his father's father was a minister so he wasn't ignorant of the religious dimensions of life.

Harrison: Okay, that clears that up for me. So that makes it a little less surprising that his philosophy would then account for so much and have so many implications because that built into it, like you say in your paper - and I know that David Ray Griffin says this - it's that one of the goals of philosophy according to Whitehead and what he tried to accomplish in his works, was to account for all the data, everything within experience, everything that you can experience because a philosophy that brackets off a certain chunk of reality and can't explain everything outside of those brackets can't be said to be a comprehensive and true philosophy really if it can't account for a whole chunk of reality.

So there are implications for religion and psychology and even for the further development of the understanding of our science.

Corey: I just want to interject too. I think there's a general tendency to think that philosophy is just silly wiseacring, philosophizing. But one of my favourite books that I read in the past couple of years was David Berlinski's The Advent of the Algorithm and he goes deep into the philosophy of mathematics, Liebniz and the history of philosophical thought that led to the advent of the algorithm which is responsible mainly, for the world that we live in today, for us being able to have this conversation and for us to be able to employ a lot of the technologies that we have.

So having a philosophy that is objectively true, especially based in a worldview that isn't materialistic - they say a change in worldview could change the world viewed - I just wanted to interject that really quickly.

John: I like that turn of phrase.

Corey: Me too.

John: I'll maybe use it some day.

Corey: I can't remember who said it but it was me. {laughter}

John: Yes. Whitehead is explicit in his descriptions of wanting to account for all experience. He has some wonderful quotes like, experience awake, experience asleep, experience drunk, experience sober. He goes through this long list that's all part of our encounter with the world and with reality and it all needs to be taken into account as you say, when we build a system that supposedly is explaining what the fundamental reality underlying all of these experiences are. He also says in Process and Reality that he believes the central goal of speculative philosophy is to fuse religion and science into one coherent picture, which is an interesting thing to say for a philosopher, a scientist and someone who had been atheistic most of his life.

It might be helpful to talk about David Griffin's differentiation between a naturalismsam and naturalismppp, sort of a fundamental difference. I was going to say that I guess since Descartes, science has tended to rely on sensory information as the only reliable evidence we have about the nature of the world. And by sensory I mean basically visual sensory information. So what we see is the data that we can use for science because that's what's dependable and that's what's real in Descartes' description of the external world and its extension.

If that's all that counts as evidence then we end up with the materialistic science that developed out of it. Now the three points, what David Griffin calls naturalismsam is it has sensationalism, which is that only evidence from visual perception is counted as the data that science considers. It's atheistic, which has an interesting account of how that developed out of a science that originally was designed to protect Christianity anyway and it's materialistic, that matter is devoid of activity, subjectivity.

So he said that isn't what naturalism needs to be. There can be a scientific naturalism that doesn't have quite that picture. So he has naturalismppp, which is prehensive prehension which we should probably go into at some point, as an alternative mode of perception that provides data that we maybe want to take into account. Let's see. The other two are panentheism versus atheism which is the notion that it's not the same as pantheism, which is that god is everything, but it's panentheism which is that god is in everything and everything is in god but everything also has its own reality. It's not completely absorbed. Neither one absorbs the other. It's not just that god is in our unconscious, part of our unconscious and it's not that we're just somehow a manifestation of god, but that god flows into us and we flow into god but each of those movements have their own reality which I think is wonderful.

I think that fits the way a lot of people think about it and it helps allow for freedom for how things interconnect. I think that alone needs to be developed a lot more, perhaps by me some day and obviously a lot of process theologians have already gone that route. I think it's very rich, sort of a way of clarifying a lot of the new age intuitions.

And the third dimension is panexperientialism which is another key feature of Whitehead's thought which is that everything is essentially made of primitive experience by which he means it's an active integration of the past into a new moment of reality. And that's done by the direct incorporation of past events.

Elan: On that subject John, I found myself thinking about my experiences with some of these ideas, how information or knowledge may have in fact come to me out of nowhere and even contradicted some of my conscious thought processes but that nonetheless proved to be valid or correct, that there were these prehensions or unconscious bits of knowledge that made their way into my awareness on some level. I was trying to understand how that worked for myself, how these ideas are borne out in my own experience because there's all this theoretical understanding but to make sense of it or to create an analogy with one's own experience of life, for instance - a moment ago you spoke about the inflow and the outflow where god is a part of us and we're a part of it but we're also separate.

So I guess the question I'm trying to formulate is in writing particularly your chapter in the book, are there any experiences that you've had or realizations where the validity of prehension or Psi knowledge was something that became evident to you, that you would follow this line of thought to explain it in terms of Whitehead, for instance?

John: More generally, I think this idea, at least the way I would understand the Whiteheadian notion of how the human mind works, is that there's a flow of moments of experience, most of which are unconscious but which also have a conscious element as the integration completes, and these are in very close interaction with the neurons in the brain, flow back and forth, and the body in general, so the flow of information and sensation and unconscious processing is flowing into these moments which also have their own unconscious processing.

But what makes this even different than most accounts that include and element of mind that's in some way independent of the brain, is that at the beginning of each of these moments of experience, not only is the data and feeling from the body and the brain flowing in with information but also these psyche level moments are also open to the entire past events that are flowing in. So the universe in general is flowing in also.

Most of our awareness tends to be of the sensory data and the data from our own past moments, memories and general thoughts that flow through from something we were thinking about yesterday. But the potential is there for mystical experiences of a higher power, of the parapsychological. I'm open to your thoughts. At a fundamental level my unconscious is being flooded by events from your brain and from your experience.

So this offers unlimited potential for transpersonal and mystical phenomena to occur, potentially. So that's the general reason I thought it was of interest. The particular reason I got fascinated with and looked into transpersonal psychology was taking psychedelics. I'd already been interested in hypnosis and some eastern thought but when I tried psychedelics I thought, 'something really different is going on here'.

I had one particular experience which - I don't know how full blown - but I would call a powerful mystical experience where it felt like some larger entity, along with a lot of archetypal experience, I was encountering some entity of great power flowing into me from outside as it were. This motivated me even more to find a theological dimension to things. Before that it was more just like, 'there's a mystical notion. Things are alive. Things are happening. There's something going on.' But this added on to the spiritual dimension, added a more theological dimension.

That was the most powerful experience I had of things flowing in of that nature. There's always stuff like I wake up in the morning and three seconds later I get a text from my girlfriend or I'm thinking about my sister and the phone rings and it's her. Everyone has a lot of these experiences I think. My mother dreamed that her brother in WWII had died and his plane had been shot down and a few weeks later they found out his plane had been shot down over the Pacific on that day. If everything is material then these are impossible and they get ruled out automatically and it's just coincidence.

But if there's a way that this information could be flowing into our experience then, I don't say I take them seriously, but we could add them to our picture of how the universe really works.

Harrison: Last week we interviewed Ken Pedersen about his book on what he calls the information system world view. His goal wasn't as, I'd say, expansive as Whitehead, but still he wanted to account for as much of what he knows about science and what modern science says is possible and the conclusion that he came to as a systems engineer was that on every level there's information processing and information processors. The way that a lot of engineers and physicists and other scientists think about things such as an atom or the quantum process or cells or molecules is as information processors of some sort, as these computational units that take in information from the world and even a wide segment of the world and then somehow incorporate that information into themselves, whatever they themselves are, and then transform that information somehow to then respond to it and create something potentially new and that newness can be as simple as a repetition of a past newness so it's not really new.

So I am in one state. I receive some information. I process it and then I am now in this state. It's an interesting way of looking at the world because it's very modern in the sense that it's contemporary. We are in the information age. We're in the age of computation and information processors and looking toward quantum computing and things like that. So his worldview, the information system worldview has got a lot more going for it than the naturalismsam that Griffin talks about.

So when I was reading his book, he doesn't get into philosophy. I wouldn't consider him a Whiteheadian at all. I'm not sure if he's even familiar with him. He starts at the tiniest level, the level of energy information and subatomic process all the way up to humans, so consciousness, perception, memory, values, morality. When he gets up to that level he calls these conscious processes, phenomena, experience, pure information processing.

So when I saw that immediately my mind went to Whitehead and to the conclusion, maybe it's the other way around, that information processing is actually pure experience, that in order for that kind of information processing to happen, the thing doing the processing must be a something, like a subject of some sort. What I was doing in my mind was trying to reconcile this information system worldview, viewing everything as information and information process with a panexperiential philosophy where it's not just information being processed by some inanimate computer, that the processing, the reception, transformation and then giving out of information is what minds do.

Maybe you can help me put that into Whiteheadian terminology. Would he say that a subatomic particle or an atom has a mind per se or how would he categorize the experience of something so simple like a proton?

John: I think it's probably safe to say that it's difficult for us to imagine what that would be like.

Harrison: For sure.

John: But he tends to use the idea of synthetic activity and he uses feeling. At that level he equates feeling with energy basically. Energy is a category of the flow of feeling between events. So he uses that as a fundamental concept. He liked the romantic poets who saw the emotional tone and throb of the universe around them. The feeling in a way another word for prehension which is grasping of past events. He talks about that as data. That's another way he phrases what you're taking from the past event, is information about what it felt or what it was experiencing.

So I think one, that's a fruitful way of thinking about things but two, I think you're correct and that's a limited picture to just see the data so that you're flattening out the experiential, looking at one dimension or one way of thinking about what their experiences are and what our experience is because a lot of what we experience is feeling and sensation and body tone. It's not that we're just getting information. There's information embedded in that but I think the experience, even at the atomic level is more complex than just a passing of information. I read that and I think it seems like something's missing, you know? Everything's just a law of information and I think what's missing is feeling and experience, as you said.

Harrison: It reminds me of Thomas Nagel's famous paper that he wrote - I can't remember because I've never read it - What Is It Like To Be A Bat or The Feeling Of Being A Bat.

John: That's as close as I could get to the title.

Harrison: Because the idea there was that he eventually came around to a pan-psychist type of philosophy, but the idea was that there must be something it is like to be a bat, as opposed to being a human. So I can't remember if he pushes it that far back then but I would push it so far as to say that there will always be something it's like to receive and process information so the information transfer when you see that kind of cold, informatic language being used for this kind of philosophy, information processing, that when there is a transfer of information, let's say at the level of an electron or a proton, it must be like something to receive that information and that's what I think Whitehead would call feeling. So that energetic transfer, what we call energy is actually the feeling of that transfer, whatever is being transferred is the transfer of a certain type of data.

The way I think about it, when we talked to Ken Pedersen we brought up the example of radiant energy and photons and the information that they carry. The photon is like this little, tightly packed bundle of energy and even though it's probably not correct, the way I feel it, it's energetic, that photon is probably really excited to be doing what it's doing. There's at least some kind of vivacity - I don't even know the right word - some type of feeling to be in that energetic state and then to smash into something and have this meaningful encounter that then transfers this information to this other being and there's an exchange, a handshake of information.

It's one of the reasons it's fun - even though it might be difficult - why it's fun to read Whitehead or to read about him, because the world that he pictures, the world that he paints is one that is alive. It is as if you were to take a romantic poet and then shove him in the brain of some stodgy, English mathematics professor and then just let him go at it and see what happens because there is this rigorous, analytical logic married with this romantic soul that see the life and the experience and the feeling and everything and it kind of blows my mind.

John: There is an assay. I think it's titled The Brain in an Ocean of Feeling which, if you picture the universe as this ocean of feeling and with each occasion as a wave coming out of it, I think it goes along with a lot of the wave/ocean descriptions that people often use of what experience or what the world is like. I wish I could say more about the subjectivity of a cell or a molecule or a photon. I like your description a lot. A photon. I think Whitehead would have loved that also, frankly. I probably should point out though, at the moment we would probably consider the experience at all of these levels as being unconscious by human standards anyway.

Harrison: Yeah.

John: Whitehead's notion of consciousness was quite tight. It was the difference between what is and what might be. If you look at a book and you think, 'That's not the book I was thinking about. It's that book,' that highlights into consciousness. With Buddhism and meditation in general, there are a lot of more subtle levels of awareness that don't really have a focus. It's more of a dissolving of awareness of a general sense of what's going on, sort of tapering off into almost subliminal perception.

So at what level a cell might be feeling things, is a fascinating question. In Stan Grof's work in transpersonal psychology when people take psychedelics or do holotropic breathwork they often report that everything's consciousness. Cells are alive and they're conscious. I'm still a little skeptical about that. I tend to think that maybe we take our consciousness of them as being alive and think that that means that they're conscious, but people report that but they can't talk to us yet, except in our unconscious so it's hard to know..

Harrison: Maybe this is a good way to segue into Carpenter's First Sight because the main thing that he's getting at in his theory, which is a psychological theory, is that there are unconscious processes and things going on in our mentation, in our experience, and that Psi is one of these things. To comment a bit on unconscious experience, first he points out that it might seem weird to say that there are such things as unconscious experiences that have some level of experience. It seems like a contradictory term to have an unconscious experience because you'd think that an experience by definition, at least as we think about it, must be conscious, but then he gives examples that make it pretty obvious that you don't have to think about it like that because we experience all sorts of things and we even make decisions that we later come to realize weren't actually conscious.

It could be a decision you make to turn away from an oncoming vehicle that you don't realize you've made until after you've made it or it could be a response that you have to the environment to something that you haven't noticed and only later do you notice that there was something that made you nervous, made you start to sweat and your heartbeat pick up it's rate of beating. So there are processes. There's the whole thing about psychological priming that provokes an actual response that seems to be one that would accompany some kind of conscious experience which doesn't.

So at the very beginning he establishes for the reader that unconscious experiences exist. Freud was right about this, that there does seem to be an unconscious realm to the mind that operates as if it was conscious, but that we are not conscious of. Maybe a quick comment before we get into some more of First Sight about the problem that you're having that I also share about trying to think about how aware is a cell or a simple multicellular organism or going further down than that, an organelle or an atom or a molecule?

There's a part in Process and Reality where Whitehead talks about this. I can't remember exactly how he says it but every time I read that it's never quite satisfying, right? There's always a question in my mind because - coming back to the Nagel question - there must be something it's like to be like that. Maybe it's just that for our consciousness, let's say here's all of the consciousnesses or types of awareness out of which we are composed, like our cells, our molecules and our subatomic particles and our organs and all of these things and then here's our mind, the things that we're consciously aware of. Whatever enters that thin film screen of awareness, if you were to somehow remove that thin screen, would it be possible to inhabit one of your organs or a cell and to actually have a different type of experience?

Maybe that's a question that would be best investigated by people doing psychedelics in a lab or something as opposed to trying to think about them because it's difficult to imagine one way or the other.

John: As I said, in some of Stan Grof's books where he classifies ranges of experiences that people have in non-ordinary states or holotropic states as he likes to call them, may have people with diamond consciousness or consciousness of oil. Once again, I don't quite know what to make of those things. When you were talking I was thinking of some of the examples I give of what prehensions might feel like, these basic, primary ways or how we feel them as sensations in the body. When you get goosebumps and see somebody getting cut - surgery on TV or when you're having sexual arousal, these basic body sensations seem to flow and then you feel them in your body but they also seem to almost flow into your conscious awareness. Or I would add the little rush up the spine that occurs now and then.

There I think you're coming close to what the nerves are feeling and what the body is feeling at a much more primitive level. And it's kind of thrilling. It's a little like you said about the electron being excited. Of course you've got the pain things too. These sensations are very blunt. They aren't complex but they're more powerful for that I think.

Elan: I wanted to ask something about this entire framework that's presented in the book because you're affirming a lot of ideas that acknowledge a non-physical reality, that acknowledge Psi ability and prehension and natural abilities that would expand our understanding of how consciousness works, but for which there are a whole number of people in the fields of science, psychology, sociology, that would completely dismiss these ideas out of hand. It's this classic materialist versus non-materialist conflict that we see in academia and being played out in various other areas. We understand that there is a certain orthodoxy, brainwashing, propaganda tradition in contemporary science and philosophy that seeks to dismiss a lot of these ideas, that you and the professors and the people that have contributed to this book are seeking to affirm and to conceptualize and to hopefully introduce in a way that makes it more accessible to a larger audience and make things better.

We know that a lot of the opponents of these ideas that are dismissive are the way they are because of their indoctrination into their points of view. But what I wanted to ask you is this: do you think that there are some individuals who, however intelligent in the fields of science, philosophy and academia, are constitutionally incapable of connecting to these ideas? Of affirming them in the spirit that you present them in?

John: In my endeavours I don't encounter a lot of people like that so I haven't had a lot of conversations. I tend to think that in public that might be the case but I think if you talk to people, one on one or in an informal setting, most people are going to be willing to admit that although they argue for complete determinism, 'Yeah, well I don't really believe that in my daily life', what Hume laid out, that there's really no way of knowing that there's any causality, there's any time, all these things you can't prove because of what is a sensationalist approach, but in practice all these things are true.

So I think you get that kind of divide in some people, which by the way I think is one of the more interesting things David Griffin argues for - our hard core common sense which Whitehead also says, that there's certain basic features of human experience that you have to be able to account for in a general system such as causality, that there's some kind of temporal order, that we experience some kind of freedom. If you can't account for these in the system something's missing, something's lacking. But I think there are people who are willing to say, 'Well you know that's true but for what I'm doing in science, this framework works best and I'm going to stick with it until somebody shows me something better.'

But there are some people in a formal setting who argue pretty damn hard that this is ridiculous, silly stuff, 'Get real man!'

Elan: That's exactly what I mean and not only do they say that but they are so vociferous in their points of view and they're so prejudicial and go on the offensive. Rupert Sheldrake is mentioned earlier in the book, that you have to wonder is there something more to it with them, or less to it, that there's something intrinsic to them as people that these ideas would strike them as so wrong-headed. Or is it just their conditioning as thinkers?

Corey: Maybe the closest thing we'll have to finding out what it feels like to be pure matter is to interview some of those individuals. {laughter}

John: Burn! I have to admit, as I've gotten older - and now actually relatively old, I do understand how people can get committed to a particular system and not be really open to a lot of change on that because you're worn out thinking new stuff. {laughter} What's the phrase? You don't change scientists' and philosophers' minds, you just wait until that generation dies off. {laughter} I think there's a lot of truth to that. I think that accounts for a lot of what you're talking about. People just get set in their ways and you don't want to hear you've been wrong for 40 years. That's a bit discouraging to know or to think about.

Harrison: On such a basic, fundamental level.

John: One thing that's wonderful, when Whitehead was describing speculative philosophy. I think part of the reason metaphysics fell into disrepute was that they were looking for absolute certainty, apodictic certainty as Khan called it, which is a pretty extravagant claim. So Whitehead sees speculative philosophy in the same way he sees science, as an evolving system of ideas that changes with time, gets better. You discard parts of it that are shown to not work as well and bring in new ideas that work better which is really what he did with his analysis of the history of philosophy. He drew on the ideas that he thought were great from the great philosophers and tried to correct what he saw as their weaknesses.

Charles Hartshorne, one of his students, has a great proof called Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers which I think captures that exactly. But he didn't think he'd found the final answers or that his system was perfect. It was the best that he could do at this point in time with the information available.

Harrison: Well let's get into some parapsychology, some Psi stuff because I think we've mentioned some of the important background ideas now, like prehension, like panexperientialism. By way of a bit more background, we'll link to the interview that we did with Carpenter but a quick introduction for those who haven't heard it or watched it yet, he basically proposes using the term prehension which he borrows from Whitehead but via a secondary source. So he hadn't even read Whitehead when he chose to use that idea, which is interesting as you show in your paper because there are so many other similarities between the conclusions Carpenter came to and the system that Whitehead developed.

But he uses this idea of prehension as a basic idea for understanding Psi because he argues that Psi is not a super ability or even an ability. You have your conscious self and then you might have this super power that allows you in certain moments to access other information or to influence physical systems or other beings that are around you in some way, not through the senses, not through physical touch of some sort and that Psi is actually like Whitehead says with prehension, it is a subconscious process. It is a more primitive, more primary process that's going on. The way Carpenter describes it is that it is the leading edge of consciousness. It's what takes place before the event is set in motion to create a conscious experience.

So it kind of flips it upside down. That's why he calls it first sight as opposed to second sight, like when you have an aunt who has the second sight, who might have certain abilities and another power, a second type of non-sensory perception. No, Carpenter says it only makes sense if you think about it as the primary mode of experience that is unconscious like subliminals.

Just as we are influenced all the time by subliminal information that causes us to react in some way, we're processing it on some level just like we are primes in a subliminal psychology experiment. Our bodies are reacting in certain ways. They're getting prepared for certain actions. Certain ideas and sets of meanings are being made more accessible to our minds so that we might, let's say, react quicker to words of one sort as opposed to words of another sort. It's like we're being prepped for something and this is just primes and what Carpenter is saying is that this is the same type of thing going on with Psi except it's even before sensory information. So Psi is what is preparing us for sensory information that will then be combined and transmuted into our conscious experience.

So that's basically what Carpenter proposes. John, could you comment on that with how Carpenter's theory of what's going on matches up with what Whitehead was talking about?

John: The basic notion of Psi - he did well to choose prehension because I believe you would envision them operating in a similar way, what Whitehead calls conscious sensory perception, a derivative mode of perception as he would, that it arises out of the unconscious processing that begins with the prehensions of the brain largely and one's own past experience. I would think that's where Psi and parapsychological phenomena would arise also in a Whiteheadian scheme. Whitehead said telepathy was possible in his scheme. That was as far as he went. You'd have to see if it was real or not but it was a possibility.

I mention in my chapter that I'm not quite sure if I would characterize mind/brain interaction as Psi interaction as he does, although in a sense, that's accurate in that the actual occasion of the psyche is feeling the neuro events of the brain but it seems to be that that's such a fundamental feature that you might not want to conflate that with Psi phenomena. I think it might be confusing to people who are trying to think of parapsychology as something different than mind/brain interaction.

I'm not quite certain how James thinks more deeply about what the events of the mind are. At times he talks about mind/brain interaction so there must be something there but I don't know quite how he conceives of the unconscious portion, how much of the unconscious is neural activity and how much is something going on in the subjective moment of the psyche. I'd be curious to find out more about how he conceives of that. I think his energies are going more into accounting for parapsychology than detailed neuropsychology or neuroscience. But I think Whitehead offers a nice way of conceiving that.

Harrison: That's an interesting point that you bring up in the paper because if there's an advantage to the whole mind/brain thing in comparison with Psi, it is showing that if the two exist in a certain philosophical system or in reality, then there's something similar between the two of them. They would operate in a similar way, even if it might not be the right idea to think about them as the same process because in Whitehead's system there's - how does he put it? A being is many plus one, so we're composed of all of the things that we are composed of whether cells, organs, neurons, everything, and then there is one unity that unifies all of those things that creates a being, a person.

So there is an interaction between that person which is the unified experience of that person and everything underneath it. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but that's the way I see process philosophy accounting for the mind/brain interaction. The mind, the psyche is that top unifying whole that encompasses all of the experiences and bits and pieces of experience underneath it. First of all, would you say that that's close to accurate?

John: Yes, I would. I may be slow but it took me quite a while to get that into my head that that's what he was talking about. I had an argument with a philosopher friend of mine - well we were having a somewhat heated discussion because he wanted to say that Whitehead thinks that the mind and the brain are two different sides, are Janus-faced, are two different sides of the same coin and we went back and forth. I said, "Well not really because the psychic occasions have their own reality and are interacting with the neuro occasions. They're closely related but they have their own thing going on."

We went back and forth and I finally said, "I don't care if you believe it. I just want you to know what Whitehead's saying." And he was somebody who taught Whitehead! {laughter} It can be a little difficult, at least I think I have the right sense there, but it can be difficult to conceive that at first because it's a really different way of thinking about it.

Harrison: Yeah, it is. It is weird too. So when you have this structure, you've got the mind that then is prehending the occasions of the neural structure of the brain, right? So we've got all this sensory data passing through the body, all these nerves and all kinds of information that are going through our spinal column into the brain and then bouncing around different parts of the brain that seem to be specialized for different types of information and different types of processing and then somehow that is all constantly and repeatedly being transformed somehow into what enters our consciousness which is excluding a whole lot of information.

So when we're experiencing something we're excluding all types of visual data, auditory data. We're focusing on attending to a very narrow sliver of even the sensory data that we're getting from the world around us, not to mention all of the data from our bodies. We're getting tons of data from our digestion, our posture, what's going on in the little toe on our right foot. Everything is being experienced on some level but it's being experienced consciously and only a certain fraction of that actually enters consciousness.

John: And I think it's important to add that not only is there all this data flowing in through the brain and the body that we aren't experiencing but also then the occasion experienced by the psyche is also almost mostly unconscious. So the consciousness is just this tiny film on top of the unconsciousness of the occasion and on top of all this stuff there's nothing to make it into the experience in the first place.

Harrison: So we've got what essentially is a non-sensory prehension or a non-sensory perception - however you want to think about it - of let's say this physical body and everything going into it. The comparison with Psi would be that there's a similar non-sensory perception or prehension going on with the world around you. So what Whitehead's philosophy is saying is that the being, the occasion of experience, the experiencer, the subject in any given case, is like you said at the beginning of the show, receiving information from the entire cosmos, the entire universe, all past occasions and all past occasions means the progressive series of who you have been for your entire existence, but everything impinging on you and everything impinging on everything else.

So there this almost infinitude of information that any entity is being bombarded with at every given moment and just as the conscious mind excludes all kinds of information from the occasion and from all of the unconscious processes of the other occasions within it, there has to be a process going on, a massive selection process where if you were looking at a pie chart, you've got your pie chart and all of the information that's hitting you would be the chart and the amount that you actually deem relevant for every given situation is going to be just the thinnest line, a miniscule, microscopic line in this pie chart that you wouldn't be able to see on a pie chart unless the pie chart was the size of the universe.

But that's what it seems to me that both Carpenter and Whitehead are saying; at any given moment we're getting all information and for Carpenter the mind then, on an unconscious level, sorts and values all of that information. It says, "Okay, for me or for my body, for my being at this moment, all of this stuff is unimportant. It doesn't serve my purposes. It's not meaningful to me in any way. So stuff going on, on other planets, in other galaxies, stuff going on in other countries, stuff going on in other houses, stuff going on in that other room, all irrelevant for me in this moment. What's really important for me right now is just that I cook this meal and eat it because I need to survive. I need to live."

So the consciousness experienced in that moment will be limited to that tiny, tiny subset of data, mostly limited to the body and the immediate environment which is sensed via the body. But what Carpenter is saying is that all that information on some level has to be judged relevant or irrelevant, meaningful or not meaningful, useful or not useful and there are instances where that other information that's not associated with your immediate environment that can be sensed with your body, will be important, will be meaningful. Like the example you gave - was it your mother in WWI?

John: Yes and her brother.

Harrison: And her brother, right, where there is a highly meaningful event that is taking place somewhere else on the planet - we talked with Carpenter about these types of experiences - that will then impinge itself on consciousness in some way in some inadvertent, unconscious way because as far as she knew at that moment, it was just a dream. She couldn't prove that it happened. She didn't have absolute knowledge of what had happened yet. It's like when you have a dream like, what Carpenter would argue is that you can't say for sure. You can say I have a feeling that this is important. I have a feeling that this is probably true but it's only when you get the call or the letter that it becomes true. It may not be confirmed in the real world and then you think about it and say, "What might be the significance of that dream that I had? What was it trying to tell me because it wasn't telling me that my brother was killed in the theater of war. Maybe it had some other meaning."

So that meaning then is prehended on a very basic level and then comes into consciousness in this inadvertent way. At least that's the way Carpenter is presenting that type of information.

John: Does he say that Psi is guiding our experience all the time?

Harrison: Yes.

John: I'm not quite sure. In Whitehead's system in Process And Reality there's a prehension of god, of the primordial nature of god, which is god's envisagement of all possibilities. In a sense it's how things are and how god might want things to flow, what he might think would be interesting to have happen in the world and each moment at the beginning of your new occasion, that god is one of the things that's felt and that's known as the initial aim, that that gives a possible way of fulfilling something that might be fruitful. The occasion may or may not adopt it in part in or whole or it may just do whatever it happens to feel like.

Most of the time it doesn't seem as if Psi information would be all that relevant to what we're doing moment to moment. It seems like it would be more of an occasional thing than what guides every moment of experience. I'm not quite sure if I'm understanding Jim properly.

Harrison: Well maybe I'm not either. I had the same kind of thoughts that you just expressed when I first read his book, but when I was re-reading parts of it and reading his entry in here and after talking with him, the impression I got was that he was saying that the experiences we call Psi, these extraordinary or out-of-the-ordinary experiences, are actually kind of anomalous experiences of a process that is going on all of the time.

So there's a type of perception that is going on all of the time that only expresses itself as Psi in these certain occasions. Let me see if I took a note for it. My paraphrase of what I got from it was that just like primes are necessary to activate certain processes in our bodies and to prepare ourselves for doing certain things, Psi is necessary to prepare ourselves for primes. I don't know if he said this explicitly, but the impression I get just from the various things he does say about it and that it is a process going on all the time, is that Psi is, for him, on the basic, most general level is what's going on in order to connect the mind with the information in the world and that information will primarily be stuff about the body but sometimes isn't about the body. I think he gives an evolutionary argument that because we are so focused on survival and the survival of our physical body and that's the mode of our experience basically, that's why experience is so narrowly channeled to just our body as opposed to constantly being aware of everything all the time, right? It is focused and limited to our body.

So that's the information that we mostly get into our consciousness but, the way I put it, sometimes that stuff going on in the other room is just as important or more important than what's happening to our bodies now. So the impression I get is that when he's talking about Psi he's essentially saying maybe that Psi is the equivalent of something like Whitehead's most basic level of prehension-physical prehension or something like that.

John: I think that's right and I definitely think that from a Whiteheadian point of view with physical prehensions we are always feeling the entire world and taking that into account and from the way he uses it, that would also be how we're feeling our brain and neuro cells. So in that sense it would also be initiating experience in every moment. I just wasn't quite sure about how that would guide every moment of experience necessarily. It would give a general picture but I didn't know if it would give a specific direction to every moment.

Harrison: I'm going to look for something in one of his papers. Did either of you guys have a question while I look for that?

John: I did read his book but now it's been about five years since I read his whole book. That isn't a vital issue I don't think. I'll probably get a call from him tonight explaining it to me {laughter} or as soon as he sees this. {laughter}

Elan: Actually I had a quick question for you John. In your chapter you mention this idea of transmutation. Could you flesh that out a little bit?

John: Carpenter's description of the unconscious processing that goes on before our consciousness is actually shockingly similar to what Whitehead describes. In the first phase there's this general reception of data and feeling flows into the new occasion. Then certain aspects of these feelings are either heightened or diminished. Certain parts of these things are deemed relevant for how that's going to be processed in that moment. And then those elements are combined in various ways, in various complex interconnections, to create more compacted, focused experience which then ends up sometimes with the conscious experience.

But in transmutation in particular, the idea is that we experience a lot of individual data such as even just at a retinal level, we have all these different little pixels of information of colour. If you're looking at a rock you'd have billions of molecules, patches of colour and what the brain and the psyche do is pull that together, blend it all together into a unified picture. So you get a splotch of grey instead of a billion molecules floating around.

So the transmutation is a pulling together into a unified, more easily digestible picture of the universe.

Corey: Like a nice user interface. Facebook could really take a cue from whoever designed our brains. {laughter}

John: I think I use the example of painting, don't I, in my chapter?

Elan: Yeah, painting of, was it Seurat, the pointillist?

John: Yeah. If you're up close and look at one of those things, it's hard to tell what it is because it's just too much individual information. So it's a summing up of information into a unified picture in fact.

Harrison: I found the quote I was thinking about but I wanted to go on what you guys were just talking about. That's one of the cool things about Whitehead. He seems to reconcile opposites or things that would seem irreconcilable, like free will and determinism. One of the things he says in, I believe, Modes of Thought is that one of the goals of philosophy should be to create a worldview or a system in which we can think about and account for both freedom and determinism, kind of like a physical causality and a final causality.

There was one more that was implicit in what you guys were saying - the subjectivity of an experience and its objectivity because that's been a debate in philosophy too. Everything is either subjective or objective but he reconciles that, that there is an objectivity to the world and there is an objective, real process that is going on when we are perceiving something, when we are sensing it because there is an actual incorporation of that data into one's self and then there is the subjective and habitual form that it takes in our actual experience of it.

Like we said earlier, his system is an attempt to account for not only all of the things in the universe, all of the stages of how those experiences are formed and all of the levels of experience that are going on in order to create that unified experience of what we experience at any given moment. And there are an infinite number of different types of experiences that we can experience at any given moment.

John: I think that is a really important feature. I think to portray objects as past completed events which are then felt as portions of them impact the new experience - so that's objective reality enters in, and then there's subjective transmutation and transformation of that. And then at the completion that experience becomes an object to be felt by future events. So you have a movement of objectivity and subjectivity and the deterministic portion is that the past impacts us but then there is the subjective transformation so there's also, especially depending on the complexity of the occasion. An atom probably doesn't do a lot of transformation. That's why they last for billions of years. They repeat. They're repetitive and a lot of humans are repetitive too, including me a lot of the time. {laughter}

But we also have subjective, creative transformation at times. I was going to add something about transmutation that I felt like I'd neglected but unfortunately the idea didn't repeat often enough. It's gone again. {laughter} But I'll let you know if it returns.

Harrison: Maybe we can jog the memory by getting into some ideas from the paper. First I'll read that paragraph that I was thinking of in what we were talking about just before, about Psi creating experience in a sense or leading to the creation of all experience. So Carpenter writes:
"Every bit of experience and behaviour has a very rapid, pre-conscious history. For example, every perception is preceded by a host of subliminal prehensions of sensory information that are unconsciously assessed and holistically combined. Subliminal prehension is itself preceded by unconscious consultation of extrasensory prehensions that are also assessed and holistically merged. Subliminal prehensions guide and orient the development of conscious experience. Similarly, extrasensory prehensions orient the appraisal and use of subliminal sensory prehensions. All of these prehensions are assessed within the context of the particular and general objectives of the person whose mind is doing this constructing. Extrasensory prehensions initiate the constructive engagement with reality. They come first, hence they are our first sight."
So one of the most important points in there for what we were just talking about is "extrasensory prehensions orient the appraisal and use of subliminal sensory prehensions." So he's basically saying that we've got conscious experience on one level, we've got our subliminal experiences which are all of the things that our senses are picking up on that we're not yet conscious of and might never become conscious of and that it is Psi that orients the mind towards those sensory data. Without the Psi in the equation, we would have no access to subliminal data to prepare ourselves for conscious experience.

So he's saying that's the most important level. It's totally unconscious, it's totally subliminal but that is the initiating stage of consciousness that then gets constructed out of subliminal perception and results in conscious experience. That's the way I read it.

John: Once again, just from this Whiteheadian perspective, I'm not sure that I would differentiate the Psi subliminal perceptions from the perceptions of the neural activity that prehend the sensory. It would seem to be flowing at the same time. If by subliminal perceptions he means later phases of unconscious processing then I would agree that the initial physical prehensions are informing that and guiding that. This is technical Whiteheadian stuff.

Harrison: Yeah.

John: It does bear on how much our extrasensory perception from the external world guides the internal processes, whether that's a constant affair or more of an occasional one I think. What I was going to say about transmutation was I think the brain may do more of the processing, especially visual and sensory images, than was known at Whitehead's time. The neurophysiology was relatively primitive then.

So I think we've discovered that there's a lot more of what you'd call transmutation probably going on in the brain cells themselves and that's then absorbed and takes a little of the pressure off of the occasions of the psyche to have to do all that work in each moment and rather draw on the power of the brain to get a lot of that done in advance, as it were.

Elan: Very good.

Harrison: Alright John. I think we're going to end it right about there. I want to read one sentence near the end of your paper, the paraphrase of Whitehead's ultimate principle and then if you have anything to say about we can go ahead, otherwise we'll just call it a day. "To paraphrase Whitehead's ultimate principle, the many become one then the new one joins that many in an everlasting process." So, anything to say about that?

John: Well I think it's quite a beautiful vision of the universe as an adventure and as a creative advance. You know the patterns on the water when there's some waves and the sun's hitting it and there's all that sparkling going on across the top of the water? That's kind of how I picture the ocean of feeling, these flashes going on and of course they combine in our universe into much more complex levels in individuals. But there is the excitement of the photons and I think we can say the excitement of the cells and the molecules and the brains. I love that.

And speaking of minds, I went to your website and saw all the interviews you're doing and it's so great to have some people who are interested in these ideas that I think are so important but a little outside the mainstream and I have to say you guys are not only extremely well informed - I was a little intimidated after hearing you've read 10 of David Griffin's books {laughter}. I really appreciate this opportunity.

Harrison: It's been a pleasure having you and it's been fun John, so thank you for joining us.

John: Thank you.

Harrison: Once again, the book is Rethinking Consciousness edited by John Buchanan and Christopher Anstuse?

John: Yes.

Harrison: Alright. Forward by Stanley Krebner. I picked it up on Amazon. It's good. It's got all kinds of cool papers including a bunch of stuff that of course we didn't talk about. But, lots of interesting stuff on consciousness and parapsychology, Whitehead and various other topics so check that one out. Is there anything else that you've written that people can get hold of John?

John: There are some chapters in books but I won't bother with that. I may have a book coming out at some point in the relatively near future but no title on that yet.

Harrison: Alright, well you'll keep us updated and when there's news we'll talk, okay?

John: Thank you.

Harrison: Alright, take care John.

Elan: It was great talking to you.

Corey: Thank you John.

John: It was a pleasure.