Written by John H Buchanan


Review by Steve Minett, PhD

This book is, all at once, excellent, intriguing, exciting and inspiring: John Buchanan is searching for explanations for the numerous psychedelic experiences he had with LSD, and other drugs, as a teenager and young adult. However, unlike Richard Alpert (a young, Harvard professor of psychology) thirty years earlier, he turned, not to Hindu cosmology as delivered at the feet of a guru in India, but to the ontology of Alfred North Whitehead and (to a lesser extent) the ‘holotropic’ theories of Stanislav Grof. (As a result of his sojourn in India, Alpert took the name Ram Das before returning, as a Western guru, to America.) Buchanan starts with the claim that psychedelic experience represents an intersection between psychology, philosophy and religion (p.1). Consequently, he appeals to the unifying and synthesising nature of Whitehead’s philosophy as an explanation for making it the basis for this enormous area of human thought and experience.  

Buchanan describes Whitehead’s philosophy as ‘a vision for an eco-spiritual civilisation’ (p.52): it provides (among other intellectual advantages) a coherent, unified metaphysical foundation, a single system around which to organise interpretation, experimentation, and exploration. This shared ground, argues Buchanan, enables psychology to become functionally connected to other social sciences, the physical sciences, as well as the humanities. In addition, this “unifying interpretive framework is applicable to psychological theories and concepts arising from Eastern and Western, as well as modern and premodern, cultural systems.” (p.52) Whitehead, “offers viable solutions for psychology’s critical philosophical problems – such as mind-body interaction and epistemological concerns about perception and knowledge of the world.” Plus 
Whitehead’s metaphysics, “provides a coherent philosophical underpinning for basic psychological concepts such as the unconscious, repression, memory, feeling, consciousness, and the self.” (p.52)

Not content with making these grandiose on behalf of Whitehead’s process philosophy, Buchanan goes to great lengths to explain how and why Whitehead’s thought is able to achieve these heights: Buchanan says of Whitehead, his, “… vision of reality is one of quantum (i.e., unitary) bursts of what he calls feeling, with these bursts of feeling interflowing, interconnecting, and compounding to generate the complex social order of our universe, including its spiritual dimensions.” (p.55) As to why Whitehead’s philosophy enables psychology to make fertile cross-disciplinary connections with biology, chemistry, and even physics, Buchanan argues that according to Whitehead, “… the entities they study are all of the same fundamental nature and are explicitly part of the same quantum universe. But for Whitehead, these quanta are all composed of feeling or experience – albeit extremely primitive, non-conscious experience. … Whitehead’s cosmology offers a highly complex, yet unified and coherent vision of all actuality as interflowing and interacting pulses of feeling, generating in turn the vast array of enduring objects and the larger social groupings they form—rocks, plants, animals, stars—as revealed through the ‘transmutational’ (i.e., synthetic integrational) powers of our senses, brain, and psyche.” (p.58) 

Buchanan employs some marvellous metaphors to illustrate many of Whitehead’s notoriously incomprehensible concepts. For example, he compares Whitehead’s theory of concrescence with a bursting sky rocket: it provides, “pyrotechnic representations of, the process whereby the many feelings of past events are grasped and synthesised into a new occasion.” The colourful firework explosions produce, “a central burst that is quickly surrounded by a halo of smaller flaring lights. Likewise (albeit in reverse), each new moment of experience starts by pulling in the feelings of past events (the halo of sparkling lights), generating a new event that adds its fleeting moment of creative subjectivity (the central burst). Then, this new occasion ‘perishes’ (like the fading fireworks), only to be incorporated into future moments, represented by the next explosion of fireworks that fills the sky, overlapping and subsuming the glowing remains of the previous burst.” (p.58)

In a similar search for lucidity, Buchanan also quotes the clear prose of Whitehead commentators: here’s Colin Wilson on Whitehead’s theory of perception; “Whitehead argued that we have two kinds of perception, ‘immediacy perception’ and ‘meaning perception’, which operate together just as my two eyes operate to give me depth perception. (Whitehead called them ‘presentational immediacy’ and ‘causal efficacy’.) … Meaning perception shows us what is important; immediacy perception shows us what is trivial. One is a telescope; the other, a microscope.” (C. Wilson, New Pathways in Psychology, p.56, quoted by Buchanan, p.82). Buchanan points out that Whitehead does not accept Hume’s extreme doubt that humans have any direct experience of causality or knowledge of an outside world, nor does, “he go along with Kant’s explanation that the constructive, synthetic powers of the unconscious Mind are solely responsible for the world we consciously experience in its causal, temporal, and spatial dimensions.” On the contrary Whitehead argues that, “… we have direct experience of causality through our subtle awareness of the organic derivation of vision from the eyes or of hearing with the ears: our ears tingle and our eyes vibrate with sensory feeling. And we feel pain and sexual excitement flow through our bodies, not just register abstractly in our minds.” (p.82)

The novelty of Whitehead’s theory of perception lies primarily in its underlying ontology: his general view that data are transmitted via wave-particles through the environment until received by the body and its specialised sense organs, then transmitted and augmented by the nervous system until they emerge into conscious human perception is largely shared by standard scientific theory. However, what, “remains mysterious in this standard account is howdata are transmitted to and through the human organism; even more mysterious is how data enter intohuman experience.” The mystery, according to Buchanan is caused by, “science’s ingrained metaphysical prejudice for understanding phenomena in a materialistic fashion. This bias has so far at least made it impossible to coherently connect the world of material objects with the world of human experience, or (for that matter) to account for human experience at all. Whitehead’s revolution was to devise an organic, experiential account of reality able to address just these points. … this account … does not run counter to contemporary scientific theory or empirical data, only to certain unwarranted extrapolations of these theories based on obsolete notions about the fundamental nature of things./ Whitehead’s revised metaphysical fundamentals call for a new and primary mode of perception, where the past is felt directly by subsequent events.” (p.83)

Buchanan ends the book on an encouraging note of optimistic hope, both for our world and for us as individuals: he claims, several times, that Whitehead’s vision can save the planet. (pp. 220, 223 and 224) And, for individuals, Buchanan insists that for, “Whitehead, enjoyment is essential to the nature of experience—the manifold forms of pleasure are all manifestations of a more primary value arising out of the appreciation of the feeling of sheer becoming. Whitehead calls the culmination of an occasion its satisfaction for the same reason that he refers to actual occasions and the creative advance in terms of enjoyment and adventure …” (p.248)

Cascade books, 2022, 306 pp, Paperback, ISBN 978-1666709285