Resonance and process philosophy
The concept of resonance has become widespread in physics, biology, philosophy, and other fields. It even got the hippies excited (who are still resonating to its appeal). So how exactly do General Resonance Theory and process philosophy link up with resonance?
I’ve been developing a new theory of consciousness over the last decade (with much help and dialogue with Prof. Jonathan Schooler at UC Santa Barbara) that relies on resonance — generally synonymous with “synchronization” or “vibrations.” I’ve been asked occasionally where my suggestion, that resonance is at the heart of what makes us tick, comes from. This essay is a brief answer to why resonance is so integral to the General Resonance Theory (GRT) of consciousness and also to the nature of all physical processes.
A big inspiration for GRT was Alfred North Whitehead and David Ray Griffin’s Process Philosophy. As the name suggests, for these philosophers, process, change, must be at the heart of any good explanation of the world we find ourselves in. Why? Well, because any time we take a moment to look around ourselves, at no matter what scale we look, we see change, we see process.
For Whitehead, a British philosopher and mathematician, most famous for his work with Bertrand Russell (the three-volume Principia Mathematica) on the logical foundations of mathematics, the most basic unit of reality is an “actual entity.” An actual entity is an atom of both time and space, but it’s a more general concept than the atom of modern physics. It includes all the small things we know of in modern physics, like electrons, photons, atoms and even molecules. But it can also include larger things like a bat, rat, cat, dog and human. This wide array of things that are actual entities in Whitehead’s system can be confusing at first, but I’ll explain further below.
An actual entity, as an atom of both time and space, is an event. For this reason, process philosophy is often described as an event-based ontology, rather than a substance-based ontology as is common in modern physics and philosophy. This major difference takes a moment to get your head around, but once you do it’s a rewarding difference in perspective.
Each actual entity is a “drop of experience” (Process and Reality, p. 18). An electron, for example, which is a type of actual entity, is a drop of experience, which means even this tiny type of event has some type of subjective experience. The fact that it has some kind of subjective experience is a big part of why it is actual, that is, real and manifest. For Whitehead, nothing that is vacuous — having no subjective experience — can be actual. There are no vacuous actualities.
Why are there no vacuous actualities? Because, for Whitehead, the reality of all-pervasive change, and the facts of human consciousness, require, for a naturalistic explanation of consciousness, that experience/consciousness be there at the beginning of the ontological chain — at least in rudimentary form.
Many people intuitively balk at the notion that all matter, no matter how basic, has some associated mind/consciousness, but when we realize that the vast majority of matter has a highly rudimentary type of mind, this pill becomes much easier to swallow. It seems that only in biological structures do we achieve an interesting kind of more complex consciousness.
We never step in to the same river twice
Let’s delve a bit deeper now.
The basic idea of process philosophy, as with all Buddhist schools of thought, is that everything we experience is impermanent, flux, constant change — process. Whitehead wrote a number of books in the last phase of his career that fleshed out his incredibly rich philosophy. None is more rich — or more difficult — than his Process and Reality, which first appeared in 1929. This book presents Whitehead’s theory of everything and situates it within the Western tradition of John Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Hume, and others.
Whitehead’s system is compelling for a number of reasons, not least of which are its adequacy to the facts of human experience, its logical consistency, and the pedigree of its creator (I don’t find this last criterion necessarily compelling, but a lot of people do put stock in it, so I list it here). It’s hard to find someone more qualified than Whitehead to create a comprehensive philosophical system, due to his background in mathematics, logic and physics at the highest levels of academia.
After digging into Process and Reality and related works many years ago, I became a little infatuated with Whitehead and his intellectual successors David Ray Griffin (author of the incredibly good book, Unsnarling the World-Knot, which was my first serious introduction to Whitehead’s ideas and I highly recommend it as the starting point for those interested in learning Whitehead), John Cobb, Jr., Charles Hartshorne, etc. Here’s why.
What is matter?
One of the primary purposes of philosophy is to explain the objective world and how we fit into it. When we look around us, feel around us, sense around us, in the most general sense, we detect solidity. The chair I’m in right now stops me from falling to the ground because of its solidity. The ground more generally stops me, and you, from falling through the Earth because of its solidity. The stars in the heavens are detectable to our telescopes because of their solidity (albeit of a gaseous kind). And the microbes and electrons we see in our microscopes are detectable because of their solidity. So what is this solidity?
Physics is of course the science of solidity and “matter” is what we generally call most of the stuff that collectively comprises solidity. Most non-physicists — and perhaps many physicists also — presume that modern physics has in fact pinned down solidity. But it hasn’t. Physics still has no idea what matter really is. Many theories abound and most physicists, when pressed to really drill down deep, would suggest that matter is comprised of fields, which are themselves comprised of energy, or vice versa. Quantum field theory is one of the crown jewels in modern physics, which successfully combined quantum mechanics with special relativity. (See Max Jammer’s excellent book, Concepts of Mass).
The far more difficult task of reconciling general relativity (the prevailing theory of gravity, space and time) with quantum mechanics (the prevailing theory of matter) has yet to be achieved. String theory is the most well-known reconciliation attempt and this theory, or actually “set of theories” because there are a huge number of related theories, suggests that all matter/energy/fields are really tiny strings vibrating in many dimensions. There are many problems, however, with string theory, as described by Lee Smolin in his 2006 book, The Trouble With Physics.
My point here is not, however, to survey all the candidates for a “general unified theory.” Rather, my point is to highlight that we really don’t know — still — what the heck matter is.
But there is a solution. The solution, however, is as much philosophical as it is physical, even though there’s really not a separation between these two endeavors because philosophy’s role is to truly generalize science. We don’t need to get hung up on the terms — matter, energy, fields, strings, etc. — to get to the solution.
For example, if we consider energy to be the most fundamental reality behind the apparent solidity of matter, it becomes very difficult to define what energy “really” is, without getting involved in circular definitions. Ultimately, this discussion becomes just a word game. We can define energy by using yet more words. But what we’re trying to do is to explain the apparent solidity around us, the apparent solidity that our senses present to us. We could even label the “true” reality behind our senses “Ideas,” as Plato did and many Idealist philosophers since Plato have done. What really matters, however, is not the terminology but the conceptual placeholder. What are we trying to explain? In this case we’re trying to explain the apparent solidity of the physical world.
Philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian polymath, have realized this difficulty and have opted to use more general terms that will remain accurate and useful no matter what terms our current physical theories prefer. For Whitehead, the ultimate constituents of reality are “actual entities.” An actual entity is just another name, but it’s very different than traditional views of “matter” or “energy.” And it’s defined in a non-circular manner.
Actual entities are events, happenings in time
An actual entity is, as mentioned above, a general description for an event. An event is a happening, a process, a becoming, from the very smallest happening, like a photon or electron, to the largest, like the universe as a whole. So the actual entity is very different than the traditional notions of matter or energy. An actual entity never exists outside of time. It’s a process, not a thing. Time — duration — is built into the definition. Another term Whitehead uses for actual entity is “actual occasion” or “occasion of experience.” These all mean the same thing.
Why the focus on events and time? Well, we can conceptually freeze objects in time. We can image an arrow frozen in mid-flight, hanging in space. But this is just a reflection of our imaginations, not a reflection of reality. Similarly, modern physics often imagines that the ultimate constituents of matter could in actuality be frozen in place and given a name, independent of time. Physics takes the approach of asking the universe to “just please hold still for a second so that we can study you.” But it never does. The universe is always in motion, always becoming. Time is always proceeding forward. It is, then, a mistake to conceptually separate matter from time and to believe that this conceptual separation is indicative of reality.
Arthur Koestler coined another term that is perhaps even more general than Whitehead’s actual entities. Koestler described a “holon” as a universal unit of organization that is both a part and a whole. Koestler writes:
A part, as we generally use the word, means something fragmentary and incomplete, which by itself would have no legitimate existence. On the other hand, there is a tendency among holists to use the word ‘whole’ or ‘Gestalt’ as something complete in itself which needs no further explanation. But wholes and parts in this absolute sense do not exist anywhere, either in the domain of living organisms or of social organizations. What we find are intermediary structures on a series of levels in ascending order of complexity, each of which has two faces looking in opposite directions: the face turned toward the lower levels is that of an autonomous whole, the one turned upward that of a dependent part.
Koestler’s holon is a useful explanatory concept that can be used to describe any level of reality. It can also be used outside of physics to describe social organization or biological structures. Almost all actual entities are also holons (we needn’t go in to the rare exceptions here).
Holons and actual entities are, then, the most general of terms to explain the apparent solidity around us.
Even an electron is a drop of experience
A highly important corollary to these terms is that all actual entities and all (physical) holons have an accompanying experience, that is, at least a rudimentary consciousness/mind. This is, then, much more than a re-labeling of “matter.” Holons and actual entities do a far better job of explaining the solidity around us because they also explain our relationship, as conscious beings, to that solidity.
As mentioned, each actual entity is a “drop of experience.” If all things are actual entities (at some level of organization, which is an important consideration), then all things have experience at some level. Ergo: experience goes all the way down. Today’s prevailing physical theories have such a hard time explaining consciousness because they subscribe to a view of matter that from the outset excludes mind (a notion that I have labeled “absent-minded science” in my book Eco, Ego, Eros).
Whitehead, Koestler, Griffin and other panpsychists realized that our explanations of solidity had to be revised in order to adequately explain our place in that solidity, the universe around us. These philosophers have some good company. David Bohm, a highly influential American physicist, wrote in 1987: “Even the electron is informed with a certain level of mind.” Similarly, Freeman Dyson, another American physicist, wrote: “[T]he processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.”
Looking inside the actual entity
Ok, so let’s turn back to resonance and why it plays such an important role in the General Resonance Theory of consciousness. This will require going a little deeper into the nature of actual entities.
We’ve already discussed that actual entities include time as part of their definition because an actual entity is an event, not just a thing. We’ve also discussed how actual entities are drops of experience in that every actual entity, no matter how small, has some kind of rudimentary subjective experience.
A passage from The Principles of Natural Knowledge describes Whitehead’s impetus for proposing the concept of actual entities (and the concrescence, or becoming concrete, of each actual entity in each moment, and the next and the next…) (PNK sec. 2.2): “The [classical physics] theory demands that there should be an instantaneous space corresponding to each instant, and provides for no correlation between these spaces; while nature has provided us with no apparatus for observing them.” So “no physical relation between nature at one instant and nature at another instant” is provided for. We need some means to connect each moment of the passage of time to the next. This is the philosophical/conceptual role that actual entities and concrescence perform. (This is explained well in Victor Lowe’s 1962 book on the development of Whitehead’s thought, p. 199).
Whitehead developed a detailed terminology to describe actual entities and how they form, interact, and perish. Each actual entity is an oscillation between subjective prehension — a generic term for perception — and objective concrescence. In other words, every actual entity goes through a process of sensing (prehension) its environment and then deciding how to manifest (concrescence) in the next moment, based on the sense data received.
Once the entity in question concresces, and thus becomes objective, it loses its subjective experience and becomes sense data for the next round of actual entities located in sufficient proximity to prehend it. So it “perishes” in that moment, but is reborn again in the next moment as prehension begins again. And so on. This process is a “perpetual perishing” but also a perpetual rebirth. Accordingly, each actual entity at every level of reality is an ongoing oscillation between prehension and concrescence.
An important consequence of this way of thinking is that an electron, for example, is not just a static thing moving through space. Rather, the electron, as an actual entity, is in constant process and is in fact a different actual entity in each moment. Whitehead calls this succession of actual entities that share a strong continuity a society of actual entities. The electron maintains its continuity over time because it has, due to its relative simplicity of structure, very little ability to deviate from how it manifested before, other than its location in space (which can change dramatically in each moment, as we know from modern physics).
A human actual entity, like me, for example, is also perishing in each moment and reborn in each next moment. This seems like a weird notion at first, but makes sense in this framework. I have a general continuity as “Tam Hunt” because the massive number of smaller actual entities that make up my body and my mind, and thus the physical substrate for my memories, perceptions, sense of self, etc., don’t generally change that much in each moment.
The difference between an electron and me, however, is that even though there is a strong continuity between each moment in both an electron and me, over time I can change dramatically. In fact, I was just a single-celled zygote not too long ago. And before too much longer I may just be dust in the wind. But the electron can continue in pretty much the same state, just in different locations, for the life of the universe.
The oscillation of actual entities is resonance and shared resonance is what results in the combination of consciousness
This oscillation in each actual entity at every organizational level throughout the universe is a type of resonance. The oscillation rates differ in each type of actual entity but when they match up we have a shared resonance. And this shared resonance, in a nested hierarchy encompassing many levels of organization, is what leads to the combination of consciousness from very simple kinds of minds like those found in electrons and atoms into the rich and varied kinds of consciousness found in humans and other animals. Shared resonance leads to combination of consciousness because shared resonance allows for far faster information flows and higher bandwidth than would otherwise be the case.
And that’s that.
Let me summarize briefly, because I realize this is complex stuff:
· All things are constantly changing
· This means that there are no static things, only processes (flux)
· Whitehead’s “atom” is an atom of both time and space, an event, and he calls this atom an “actual entity” or “actual occasion” or “occasion of experience” (they’re all synonymous)
· Each actual entity is a “drop of experience” (i.e., has some kind of consciousness, albeit highly rudimentary in most actual entities; there are no “vacuous actualities”)
· Each actual entity oscillates between prehension (a generalization of perception that applies to all actual entities) and concrescence (becoming concrete)
· This oscillation is a type of resonance
· Shared resonance, which occurs when resonating actual entities are sufficiently close in space and sufficiently close in their resonance frequency to shift toward a shared resonance, will achieve a combined consciousness/experience.
· This combination over various organizational levels, in a nested hierarchy, yields a “dominant consciousness” that is the product of its constituent conscious entities, but this combination doesn’t extinguish the lower-level entities (they continue to exist at their own organizational level)
· Shared resonance over various nested organizational levels can lead to complex consciousness like that which humans enjoy
· It seems to be only biological actual entities that have been able to leverage far faster and higher bandwidth resonance pathways to achieve complex consciousness; but this conclusion may change as our knowledge of different types of consciousness evolves.