Alfred North Whitehead (February 2, 1861 – 1947) was an English mathematician, thinker, publicist, graduate of Trinity college in Cambridge, professor of applied mathematics and mechanics at London University College and professor of philosophy at the American Harvard University. He became known as co-author, with Bertrand Russell, of the Principia Mathematica, regarded by C.I. Lewis as the “intellectual equivalent of Egyptian pyramids.” Whitehead was one of few people who were simultaneously both members of English Academy and fellows of the Royal Society of London. Among his pupils was also Herbert Dingle, a philosopher and historian of science known for his criticism, published in Nature magazine, of Einstein’s theories of relativity.
In 1884 Whitehead was elected to become a member of the Cambridge Conversazione Society, known also as “Apostles”. The society organized meetings where discussions were held inter alia on various philosophical and world-view questions. According to one meeting record from 1885, when the main topic was Spencer’s version of evolutionary theory and The Second law of Thermodynamics, Whitehead was shown to have considered, at that time, that the opinion that the matter and energy within our visible universe was homogeneous was incorrect. In an other meeting held the same year, he, as the only one from nine present “Apostles”, declared his faith in God, and two years later he positively answered the question as to whether God is the sufficient explanation of the universe. In 1892 he significantly helped Bertrand Russell, later known as a militant atheist, to become a member of the same society.
Coincidentally after his wedding with devout catholic Evelyn W. Wade, Whitehead entered a period of his life when he was collecting many theological and historical writings. Nevertheless, in the second half of the eighteen-nineties he cleared the shelves of his library and openly declared himself a non-believer. This agnostic period, marked with zeal for serving the progress of society with secular characteristics, lasted for 20 years, and Whitehead later stated that his suppositions based on misperceptions with regard to the possibility of progress in science was the main reason for his abandoning his faith in God. The bizarre thing was that he felt that the new theories and situation in field of physics disqualified the absolute validity of Newtonian principles which he regarded as fundamentally supporting his theistic views.
Thus, after departing the faith in God, he started to support the Liberal Party and occasionally also the Labor Party. The next turning-point in his way of thinking was, however, taking place when World War I broke out, and lists of dead included also his university colleagues, pupils, and last but not least, his own youngest 19-year-old son Eric, who, serving the British air forces, was shot down on March 13, 1918 from the French sky. V. Lowe, based on later discussions with Whitehead’s other two war-surviving children, maintains that this tragedy in their family had a significant impact on Whitehead’s return to the path of faith in God.
- An Introduction to Mathematics
- Science and the Modern World
- The Concept of Nature
- The Principle of Relativity
- Michal Andrle. Whitheadova Filosofie Přírody (in Czech, English summary). Prague: Charles University. ISBN 978-80-87378-22-9.