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Whitehead famously picked out the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, also called the Fallacy of Reification, of Hypostatization, or of Concretism. It is committed “when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity.” Popular discourse is rife with such fallacies: as, e.g., treating terrorism, racism, hate, anthropogenic global warming, patriarchy, and so forth as if they were concrete reals.
I’ve always cordially disliked those terms for the phenomenon. I like better the Fallacy of Inapt Concretion. That’s just me. But this is my essay, so I’m going to use it hereinafter.
On the walk from my office to the train a week ago last Monday, I reflected on the fact that I had all day been curiously alive to moments from my past. In part this was due to the fact that it was my birthday, and people from every era of my life were reaching out to wish my happiness. But other factors were at work, too. I ran into a blog post that linked to a recording of Allegri’s Miserere Mei – one of the most sublime works ever written – and vividly remembered singing it as a boy, and so enacting Heaven. A story I had told my little granddaughter the day before, about the time when I was only four, and went camping with my Dad, and woke up unable to find my way out of the mummy sleeping bag, so that I tried to stand up and get his help, in the process falling down the steps out of the open forest shelter (and almost into the fire he had started), made me chuckle again. So did the memory of her reaction: “Silly Poppy!” I began to remember lots and lots of things from long and not so long ago – some of them tagged (oops!) for later use in the confessional – and suddenly as I walked the moments all crowded in upon me at once. Not in a chaos or a hurry, but as it were quietly, softly.
It was no stampede. Rather, it was a stately pavane.
Suddenly I staggered, thunderstruck by a completely unexpected notion: what if those moments *really were* immediately present to this one? What if I could feel that moment of suffocated terror in the mummy bag as if it were still happening? Clearly, I could: all that I had to do, in order to make that happen, was simply attend to it carefully enough, and without distraction. It might take a few moments of concentration, but if I wanted to I could, I knew, bring back any moment I wanted with as much clarity and intensity as I wished.
Then – this was the strike of the thunder – I thought: “That’s what dreams are like; and it is the way things really are; for, in Eternity, and to Eternity, everything (whether actual or not) is all at once together.”
How do things change, yet remain themselves? It’s one of the basic philosophical problems. Things that can be discerned from each other on account of their differences are simply not the same thing. If you can’t tell two things apart no matter how closely you examine them, well then they are just the same thing. But if you can tell them apart even the least little bit, then they are just not identical: they simply *can’t* be the same thing.
Yet our experience of what it is like to be, and to become, includes the experience of changing while remaining ourselves. How?
The Trinity is confusing and confounding to many because almost no one who talks about it remembers to point out that persons are not entities. If you treat persons as things, then the Trinity cannot possibly make any sense. It seems to say that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. That’s nuts. Yet that’s how almost everyone talks about the Trinity.
I learned (from Whitehead) that persons are not concrete entities, but rather characters of concrete entities. When I much later figured out that the Persons of the Trinity are not different things, but rather characters of a single thing, the logical difficulties that had bedeviled me melted away, and I worried a lot less about it.
Not, “how I became religious,” but “how I came to understand religion.”
It is extremely difficult for most moderns to negotiate the passage to the fundamentally spiritual perspective that all humans shared before the Enlightenment. At least, I found it so, for the longest time. Despite a number of spiritual experiences that I could nowise gainsay, I could make no philosophical sense of spiritual realities using the intellectual tool kit my Modern education had provided me. I got a lot of training in how to think about the physical, but I didn’t know how to think about the spiritual (or, for that matter, anything not physical). That made the spiritual somewhat incredible, and indeed somewhat scandalous. And this made it quite difficult to be wholeheartedly religious – to worship or say the Credo without invoking a string of philosophical hedges and equivocations that rather emptied the whole liturgical procedure of its numinous, compelling quality, and thus of its point.
Having no way to comprehend spiritual realities, I could not even understand quite exactly what the articles of the Credo properly mean, or what I was meant to be doing in worship. I now realize that I often encounter that same incapacity in atheist interlocutors. They don’t seem to have a way of understanding what it is that theists are talking about. So their arguments often miss the point entirely, and when theists point this out to them they simply can’t see that they are fundamentally misunderstanding the terms of the dialogue.
Modernity’s inadequacy to spiritual realities is echoed in its incomprehension of consciousness, agency, meaning, value, morality, and in the limit truth, beauty, and virtue – or their antipodes. Under its own terms, Modernism cannot account for these things, and must if it is to discuss them at all resort to unprincipled exceptions. This renders it incapable of coherent treatment of any of the basic aspects of life as it is actually lived and experienced. It is, in a word, unable to understand minds, or therefore persons, or a fortiori their lives.
Modernity does however comprehend bodies, better by an order of magnitude than any previous age. So naturally, and like any other successful weltanschauung, it wants to interpret everything under its own terms. It wants to make bodies basic, and reduce all experience to motions of bodies.
Modernism takes bodies to be utterly dead. It wants to say that everything is motions of those dead objects. But as is obvious to the most cursory consideration, the life of the mind is not a congeries of dead things, or of their lifeless collisions. It is an active, lively process. It is a series of happenings, a temporal assemblage of occasions, each of which – whether conscious or not – is in some degree alive to its past and intends some future.
[Of such lively intensions implemented in actual transactions among entities is the causal nexus that connects and relates disparate events constituted as a coherent integral world system.]
It is furthermore transparently obvious that no configuration of dead things can be alive. Only what is alive can be alive.
As incoherent, then, the Modern project of reducing life to motions of dead bodies is, not just doomed to failure, not just impossible, but strictly meaningless, ergo unthinkable: not even wrong.
What is necessary is necessarily eternal, but the eternal is not necessarily necessary.
Time – which is to say, congeries of contingent events, that are causally related and that therefore, together, constitute worlds, extensive continua along time, space, and myriad other dimensions – occurs in eternity. It occurs eternally (and only then, and only in virtue of its eternal occurrence, temporally), but not necessarily. It occurs freely. So likewise also for God’s Act.
Eternal acts can be free. They are not necessarily necessary. Some may also be temporal, such as this moment in your life, or the Incarnation.
Necessities comprise what Whitehead called the Primordial Nature of God, and Plato the Realm of the Forms: the Nature in virtue of which there is such a thing as order in the first place, the order of all order. The free eternal Act of God, and all its derivates in his knowledge, comprise what Whitehead called the Consequent Nature of God. Both these Natures are eternal, and indeed coterminous, in that together they characterize a single Act; so that they are sections of a single Nature. But of the two, only the Primordial Nature is necessary.
NB: God’s omniscient knowledge does not continge upon creaturely acts, but vice versa. It is only in virtue of his logically prior knowledge of creaturely acts that creatures may act in the first place.
Explanations, and the understandings they mediate, must all terminate (at least in principle) upon *some singularity or other* if they are to hang together – if they are to succeed as explanations by satisfying our urge to understand. This is as true for explanations of singular phenomena as it is for explanations of regularities. Science then, of any sort, has no alternative but to adduce some singularity or other as the original fact or truth at the basis of all others. The terminus ad quem of the scientific project must be an account of the terminus a quo of all things: a terminal singularity. This, whether the posited singularity be a historical event such as the Big Bang, or a fundamental equation that can work as a Theory of Everything, or what have you.
But only one sort of terminal singularity can ultimately succeed – not at completing inquiry, for (per Gödel) that completion is not possible to finite beings, but rather at satisfying them that things cohere intelligibly. Only one sort of terminal singularity can set the scientist’s mind finally and fully at ease.
English makes it easy to refer to a whole group of things as if it were a substantial entity in its own right, whether or not it really is. It then allows us to assign such things as motives, plans, and behavior to that merely notional entity. Thus, e.g., “Baseball been very very good to me;” “The Wehrmacht has taken Paris;” “Godless Communism killed 100 million.”
It’s handy. But difficulty can ensue when we take our shorthand references to such groups as if they indicated something concretely real. The game of baseball can’t do anything, nor can the Wehrmacht, or Communism. Clemente was treated well by actual people involved in baseball, Paris was taken by German soldiers, and the victims of the Communist holocaust were destroyed by real men and women. It’s a category error to blame or credit merely notional entities. AN Whitehead called it the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. It arises when we treat ideas as if they were actual and concrete. Concrete entities do all inherit ideas from their past, embody them, and propose them to the future. But without a concrete entity to do the inheriting, embodying, and proposing, nothing happens with the ideas. Ideas don’t have themselves.
Ideas are indeed causes, to be sure; the final, formal and material causes of events are all ideas, in the final analysis. But the inputs to an event are not yet the event. Only agents can respond to the ideas that are their factors. It behooves us then to remember to assign responsibility to natural persons, rather than to movements or schools, to philosophies or merely legal persons.
When a complex orderly phenomenon such as consciousness arises in matter, it is these days often ascribed to a mysterious emergence of properties implicit in those of its material substrates. But really it goes the other way. Consciousness – ordered form in general – does not emerge from the material substrate of our world. It rather immerges thereto, from elsewhere. Novelty of all sorts is added to history from without.