In an earlier post I suggested that, “ideals can emerge as possibilities, change, and make different actualities concretely present.” I wish to pursue this notion further here, still staying within the explicitly philosophical perspective of Whiteheadian metaphysics. I will be discussing this in the generic context of moral/ethical ideals, though other sorts of ideals are also possible and real. First, there are some points of terminology to settle right up front: some folks make a distinction between the terms “moral” and “ethical,” and in the context of their particular discussions such a distinction will often be legitimate. Such a context, however, is not what I’ll be working with, and I will use the terms interchangeably, largely depending on my feeling for which term is being overused in the preceding text. Another terminological distinction I’ll be employing – and here, I’ll be hewing closely to Whitehead’s own technical usage of these terms – is that of “actual” and “real.” The actual will always mean a collection of concretely realized potentialities; but those potentialities would still be real, even if they weren’t concretely actual. Thus, the hand-blown, cobalt blue glass that I purchased some years ago at the Bristol Renaissance Faire (yes, I was in garb) has various whorls of white down at the base, and a very slight flaw in the glass at one point about 1 ¼ inches from the lip. These are all concretely actual facts; what is notable about them, in this context, is that they could – potentially – have been different: the white whorls could have taken a slightly different form, the little flaw in the glass might have been somewhere else or missing altogether.
And then there is the little flutter between “potentiality” and “possibility.” Here is a bit of seriously technical philosophy which, like other terms, one need not accept. But if you don’t like the terms, it is upon you to find better ones, because the distinction I am marking with these words (following Whitehead) is a real difference; it is just not a difference that can be quantified. It is “possible” that the sun will explode 37 seconds from my typing of these words … wup, too late! That possibility – absurdly remote as it was – has now passed into the realm of the purely abstract “might-have-been.” That absurd remoteness is what distinguishes a mere possibility from a potentiality. A potential is a possibility as well, but it is one that is decidedly “closer” to becoming actual than other mere possibilities. But this idea of “closeness” does not come with a “metric” – you cannot measure it with a yardstick or a stopwatch. This is a topological notion, a form of relational reasoning whose details I will not try to explain here. My best analogy, though is to appeal to sound, or perhaps smell. Imagine being in a darkened room, you are sitting in a chair with no idea how far away the walls might be, and you’re not permitted to do anything metrical like reach out to those walls or test the distance with your feet. But there are scents and there are sounds that can seem near or far. And this sense of near or far has nothing to do with how strong or loud those sensations might be. A scent or a sound can be strong but diffuse, thus still convey a notion of distance; by the same token, they can be subtle but intense (for example, a soft whisper, yet the words are clear and articulate), and thus convey a notion of nearness. Without going into the mathematics of topological neighborhoods, potencies are “near” in this latter manner. Ethical, political ideals can emerge into this kind of topological nearness, becoming so near (in fact) that the slightest change can cause them to burst into actuality. One other note here: potentialities are always embedded in time, whereas mere possibilities might be so remote from actuality as to have no meaningful temporal character.
The above indicates that such emergence is a natural phenomenon, because time and nature are coeval. Without reducing moral and political ideals to mere accidents of history and cultural relativisms, they are still knocked off of their metaphysical pedestals in terms of when and how (and if!) they become relevant to this world. The important term here is “relevant,” as opposed to “real”. In the weak sense of “possible” glossed above, all such ideals are real possibilities. But the potential for their actualization may not appear in any particular period of human culture. Since these ideals will prominently include such things as human rights, let us use these as our examples, my two favorites of these being the right to privacy and the right to health care.
Now as anyone who can read can easily discover by themselves, neither of these rights is enshrined anywhere in the Constitution. However, as the 9th Amendment makes abundantly clear, rights do not have to be explicitly enumerated in order to exist. Something like a right to health care appears in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”), article 25, paragraph 1. And here we see emergence in action. When the Framers gave us (that is, U.S.) the Constitution in 1787, the quality of medical care was scarcely better than what you could find rattling around in the gutter. Barbers were, often enough, doubling as surgeons (cut your hair, cut your … never mind … ) Especially in the case of childbirth, women had a much better chance of survival by staying at home than if they went to the hospital. (This would remain true for another century.) Arguably, the reason health care appears in the UDHR is because by 1948 (when the UDHR was composed and ratified) science based medicine had become a reality, and health care had emerged as a viable human right.
The argument for privacy is trickier, because the capacity to invade that privacy has (arguably) varied in a more complex form over history. In hunter-gatherer village life, and very early agrarian societies, persons arguably had very little in the way of privacy. But it is also unclear how this might have been a limitation on people’s lives. For example, many Native American peoples were famously open to non-binary gender roles, so hiding how one identified (keeping it private) was scarcely the matter of concern that it was with the conquering Europeans. Only as communities grew too large for everyone to know everyone else, did it become a matter of keeping one’s own private matters private. But in such communities, the potentialities for invasion of that privacy were variously limited. But by the time one has an organized secret police (say, about the time of the French Revolution), the potential for invasiveness exploded. (Such a contingency did not exist on the American continent at the time the Bill of Rights was being composed.) Now, however, with the technologies that are at individual fingertips (to say nothing of what corporate and governmental agencies can access) privacy has become a pressing issue. So while healthcare became a right when it could be meaningfully offered, privacy emerged as a right when it was meaningfully threatened.
Both of these values, these ideals, emerged in time; qua emergent, they are temporal; and qua temporal, they are natural. In a forthcoming post, I’ll have some words on the difference between “nature” and “the natural” – or, more correctly, between nature and naturalism. For now, let it suffice to observe that being part of nature and time, these emergent ideals are not themselves matters of “scientific” investigation, in any of the commonly accepted senses of “scientific.” Part of the issue here is that the accepted form of naturalism that defines our scientifically “respectable” concept of nature does not permit values and ideals to have any existence within this framework beyond the desiccated form of psychological effluvia. The problem with such mathematized abstractions as we find in contemporary physics is that they treat the mathematics as more real than the experience which those abstractions are ultimately answerable to. And that experience includes values; it includes ideals; it includes us.
We are, of course, IN time, but our reality is not exhausted by that temporality: mathematics, metaphysics, and theology (which is NOT the same as religion), all have shown paths toward ideas beyond the temporal. So where does this place our values, our ideals? Well, there are these two thoughts that I will end with, namely the “practical” and the “abstract.” The practical is in time, and can change (emerge) over time. The abstract is logically “prior” to time, and hence serves as guide post to inquiry without exercising any claim to being more than a heuristic device. Actual ideals are potentialities that emerge in actual time, and redefine the kinds of questions we ask, and the kinds of answers we’ll accept. Abstract ideals are mere possibilities lying “outside” of time, and neither emerge nor disappear. But each informs the other. The practical/temporal is concrete, while the abstract informs us of the possible.