Whitehead and Bell's Inequality

Introduction | Quantum Mechanics | Whitehead and Bell's Inequality | Whitehead and the Copenhagen Interpretation
Conclusion | Footnotes | Bibliography

How would Whitehead respond to Aspect's experiment and the violation of Bell's Inequality? At first it would appear that Whitehead's theory of actual entities (I will refer to them as actual occasions from here on, as 'occasion' is more accurate than 'entity' in nearly all senses) is doomed to failure because of its inherent realism, and its seeming inability to account for the strange quantum effects that are observed in modern experiments. But the problem of bringing Whitehead up to date with the modern physical situation may really be more a question of adapting our own understanding to that of Whitehead's in order to see how his metaphysics might apply.

One of the central problems that physicists deal with is the temptation to hold onto a view of the world that can be squared with our common sense perception of it. Therefore it seems reasonable, for example, to attribute definite properties to objects even while they are unobserved. One way in which physicists are able to explain the strange quantum correlations is to say that there is some way in which the two correlated measurements had a certain cause in their past which brought about the effect of a correlation (essentially saying that the photons were correlated before the measurements). Most physicists will agree that this is a possible explanation--that the rules of the universe as we know them do not prohibit this type of phenomenon. However, it appears that if this explanation is taken, the result is that science itself becomes impossible.

This is so because the explanation that the state of a phenomenon can be explained by a common cause somewhere in the past (however distant) seems to say that we cannot fully explain a phenomenon by examining only its immediate past. It is as if we must give up all certainty in science in order to explain a few details (interpretational details at that!) of quantum mechanics, because we could never know for sure what distant cause could be producing this particular present phenomenon. For this reason, physicists reject this explanation out of hand as quite absurd.

If we take into account Whitehead's view of physics, however, this view deserves a second glance. The important point to consider is what Whitehead calls the "Ontological Principle", which merely states that all phenomena can be traced back to actual occasions themselves and no further--any reason for anything must ultimately and finally rest upon actual occasions and the interactions between them (which is really just to say the actual occasions themselves, since an actual occasion consists almost entirely of relations).

As a result of the Ontological Principle, we must radically change our common conception that space and time are separate, objective 'dimensions' in which all events take place. Rather, space and time are properties of the relations between actual occasions. This is point is absolutely crucial. For Whitehead, the past is defined relatively for every actual occasion and is not defined by a blind linear progression through time from the past, through the present, to the future. The past for this actual occasion is just those actual occasions that contribute to its process of concrescence. Thus, the resulting objective datum that is positively prehended from each already satisfied actual occasion in the initial datum by a particular actual occasion becomes the past for that actual occasion.12 Similarly, the future is defined as just those actual occasions that will prehend this concrescing actual occasion. Time in this sense can be seen as the result of a type of causal link between individual actual occasions. Thus, there is no past that is more or less distant, because the past arises relatively for each actual occasion in its process of concrescence.

In Aspect's experiment, the photons would be considered enduring objects (objects consisting of actual occasions that exist in a particular type of simple relationship). They would be enduring objects that, although spatially separated, were part of a larger society. Following from the Copenhagen interpretation, the society in which the enduring objects exist as a sub-society is the 'measurement situation' itself, where it would be incorrect to abstract the particular photons from the entire society in which they are a part. (To assume that these particular photons will behave exactly like every other photon, even like ones not in the experiment, is a good example of what Whitehead calls the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness'.)

Saying that the photons are part of a larger society is actually to say nothing other than that the past for each actual occasion in each enduring object is similar, to the point at which there exists a common cause for the particular behaviour of the photons. This common cause is just the fact that the photons are part of the society of the measurement situation from which they cannot be isolated. The past, being just those prehensions that contribute to the satisfaction of an actual occasion, is highly influential upon the final outcome of that actual occasion. By looking at an actual occasion's past, we examine reasons for why that actual occasion came to its particular satisfaction. An enduring object, because it has very little freedom, is extremely influenced by its past, to the point at which it seems to act in a determinate manner (more on this below). Thus the past for an enduring object (the photon) that is part of a larger society (the measurement situation) is intimately entangled with the past of the entire society itself. The actual occasions of the enduring object take into account (prehend) an objective datum consisting mostly of other satisfied actual occasions which are part of the larger society, whose influence causes the enduring objects to behave in a correlated manner. The correlations occur because of laws internal to the society, which arise from the relations between the actual occasions in the society itself.

One reason that physicists are so worried about the possibility that there might be some sort of faster-than-light signaling taking place behind the scenes arises from an innate (and highly classical) propensity to consider the photons as separate and individual phenomenon. Given this type of conception, it appears that the photons must be 'communicating' in some way if we are to explain the correlation. Neils Bohr took a step in the right direction when he determined that the photons couldn't really be considered individual photons unless they were part of a measurement situation set up to detect this property (of individuality). As related above, Bohr noted that rather than conceiving of some sort of connection between two individual and spatially separated photons, it would be more accurate to think about the photons as part of a larger situation which included the measuring apparatus, and that no property of a quantum system was definite and real unless it was itself part of such a larger system. In this instance the possibility for faster-than-light signaling need not take place, because it is the situation of the entire measurement (including the measurement of both photons) that gives rise to the correlation. If only one photon is measured, the correlations do not occur.

Then how can Whitehead deal with the claim that to explain the correlations by attributing to them a certain type of past results in the death of all possible prediction? This critique, arising from the search for an explanation of the violation of Bell's Inequality, is also aimed at Whitehead more generally by all sciences concerned with certain prediction.

The problem arises because for Whitehead, there are no unchangeable and immutable laws of physics that must be obeyed by actual occasions. According to the Ontological Principle, it is in fact just the reverse: the laws of physics arise from the actual occasions themselves, just as space-time (and everything else) does. This in conjunction with the idea that actual occasions are not fully determinate, but have some level of freedom, results in the fact that the laws of physics are not constant but rather evolutionary, in the sense that they evolve--they are part of the changing process, which is the reality.

This fact directly results in another critique of similar spirit from a slightly different angle: in the scientific realm it is an advantage for a theory to have predictive powers. If a theory cannot add something to our knowledge of the future, then it is powerless and can serve no purpose. Yet Whitehead's metaphysical scheme is exactly that which cannot take part in the realm of prediction. For Whitehead, a metaphysical scheme must, in principle, be able to account for both all of actual experience, and all of possible experience. Because of this, and as a consequence of its very nature, a metaphysical scheme cannot be predictive, but must function only in an explanatory capacity. "Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice." (Process and Reality:13)

For those who are accustomed to the ways of methodological science, this would appear to be a grave fault. It would seem that any theory that disclaimed in principle all predictive power should be given up immediately, as it would be utterly useless--but useless only to physicists who are preoccupied with definite prediction and measurement. Metaphysics provides us with an ability to understand the physics in relation to other types of knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, other types of experience. The need for this type of relation (that metaphysics provides) is obvious today merely from the fact that the major debates surrounding quantum mechanics in the present (and for the past 50 years) are all basically metaphysical in character, if not explicitly so in substance. Even though metaphysics doesn't necessarily add anything to our knowledge of the future, it does contribute much to our knowledge of the present. Far from being vestigial, Whitehead would argue that metaphysics is actually quite necessary for a complete understanding of experience (more on this in my conclusion).

It seems then that Whitehead would give up the assumption of parameter independence, while keeping reality and a version of locality. Or rather, Whitehead never would have assumed parameter independence to begin with. Because space is a consequence of the relations between actual occasions, Whitehead is able to keep locality in the sense that in our present epoch, it just so happens that space is constructed in certain ways (i.e. has a definite relation to time, can be 'warped', etc.), and that one of the ways in which it is constructed has as a consequence a definite non-relative speed for light. In our present epoch, Bell's assumption of locality (no faster-than-light signaling) seems to be a good assumption, but due to the fact that actual occasions are not fully bound by any external environment (since they themselves create that environment), this will not always necessarily be the case.

This conclusion presents a big problem for physicists who depend upon the fact that the laws of the universe remain constant. The entire validity of scientific progress rests upon the assumption that results of a particular experiment, if set up with sufficient attention to detail, will not vary through time. This assumption is not generated from within science, but rather is a principle that allows science to exist in the first place. It arises not a priori, but from the simple observation of its truth as manifested in the actual world: if we set up an experiment to detect the speed of light today, its value will be exactly the same as it was last week, or even last century. If there is any change in physical law, it is because we become more accurate in our experiments and are able to see reality more clearly, not because the laws themselves are subject to change.

Yet if Whitehead's scheme were correct, it would seem plausible that we could, by performing an experiment at t1, and later at t2, detect some difference that would correspond to the change in physical law over (Deltat. Yet it seems to be a fact of nature that whenever we perform the same experiments, no matter when or where (again provided we set up the experiment with sufficient attention to each of its elements), the same results occur. Whitehead, however, does appear to be able to deal with this dilemma.

Physical laws are a consequence of the interactions between actual occasions, which is to say that they are a consequence of the prehensions of actual occasions. Whitehead would argue that what we observe to be physical laws are almost entirely due to the way in which certain actual occasions which form enduring objects prehend each other. The mode of the prehension in these instances can be characterized by an inertial power, in fact a tradition,13 from one actual occasion to another. The propensity for any actual entity to either follow the tradition or not is directly proportional to its level of freedom (here referring to the occasion's propensity or ability for novelty). In the case of systems with very low levels of complexity, such as enduring objects, this freedom is negligible. For this reason, the tradition is almost always accepted, as there is insufficient complexity in the string of actual occasions that constitute the enduring object to allow for the realization of possibilities outside of those presented by the actual occasion's objective datum.

For example, an electron (an enduring object) always has a negative charge which is quite invariant. The actual occasions that constitute the electron are in a sense overwhelmed by the sheer inertial power of the particular objective datum (which can be characterized as electronic in the present epoch) which it prehends, and is essentially forced to follow the rules of the tradition that already exists.

Subatomic particles, like electrons, have as constituents only actual occasions that are already easily subject to traditional forms (in the sense of electronic or protonic forms of behaviour--particular types of physical law). A highly complex actual occasion would almost never become part of a traditional chain (an enduring object), because it is, by the fact of its complexity, not as impressionable as actual occasions of a more simple type, and therefore not as subject to the certain laws which pervade such traditions. The majority of actual occasions are of the simple, traditional type, and thus obey the laws of physics--although it is more correct to say that enduring objects are just those in which the laws of the tradition are realized.

Of course the laws of the tradition need not always be obeyed. If an actual occasion in an enduring object broke the tradition, some sort of radical change in the enduring object could be expected. In modern high-energy physics this might be analogous to particle creation and destruction.

Supplementally, Whitehead relates that God's placement of the subjective aim into each actual occasion is a principled one. Novelty arises principally in organisms of high complexity, which have as constituents sub-societies and sub-sub-societies, all the way down to the simple enduring objects. Such complexity is built from the bottom up, in the sense that complex organisms presuppose the existence of the simpler societies (the reverse is not true, however). Because God has as a goal the expansion of novelty, and because novelty has a much higher possibility for realization in complex organisms that require the existence of simple societies and enduring objects, it seems reasonable to assume that God would willingly place into simpler actual occasions (like the kind that form enduring objects) subjective aims that were designed not for the maximization of novelty on the simple level, but rather for the maximization of novelty on more complex levels. It is a question of harmony: in order to have intense forms of novelty and experience on one level, such novelty must be sacrificed on another level. Thus there would be an advantage for God to place subjective aims into certain actual occasions such that something like 'laws of the universe' exist and exhibit the seemingly immutable character presently observed.

It is clear that for Whitehead the laws of physics are not constant, but the relative degree and severity of their change remains undefined. It is quite possible that the basic laws of physics change only very slowly, as they can be seen to be more 'entrenched', while, for example, biological laws would have a tendency to shift more readily, as they exist only in reference to more complex systems which are more capable of novelty and freedom. And because the Ontological Principle states that all things, including such laws, are due to actual occasions and their interactions, a derivative statement results to the effect that when laws exist for certain types of systems of actual occasions, the degree of constancy in the particular tradition (the sheer inertial power of the objective datum) decreases in proportion to the level of complexity (and hence propensity for novelty) achieved in that particular system of actual occasions.

On to Whitehead and the Copenhagen Interpretation.