Monday, October 29, 2007

Whitehead's Philosophical Theism

I didn’t mention this in my post on panentheism, but prominent among theologians who endorse a form of panentheism are the process theists, such as John Cobb and David Ray Griffin (co-directors of the Center for Process Studies) and their influential predecessor, the late Charles Hartshorne. These theologians take as a starting point the work of Alfred North Whitehead, specifically the speculative metaphysics presented in his late work: Process and Reality, written in 1927-28. Whitehead himself was not a theologian -- originally a mathematician, he was for years a leading logician and philosopher of science. However, at the end of his career, when it came to fashioning his grand system of process philosophy, he did assign a role to God in his scheme. The result, as A.D. Irvine explains in his SEP article on Whitehead, was a skewed legacy: “Thus although not especially influential among contemporary Anglo-American secular philosophers, (Whitehead’s) metaphysical ideas have had significant influence among many theologians and philosophers of religion.”

I find the way things fell out here interesting. On the one hand, Whitehead’s work was eagerly received by religious thinkers who wished to fashion a theology which improved on classical theism. On the other hand, secular philosophers mostly ignored his work, a response not especially surprising given the prevailing 20th century attitudes toward metaphysics in general. But neither group’s perspective seems to do justice to Whitehead’s own situation: a non-theologian who found that following through on the development of an innovative philosophy led to the inclusion of God in the system.

The late Victor Lowe, who wrote a biography on Whitehead, wrote here about what he learned about Whitehead’s attitude toward God and religion. According to Lowe, Whitehead (1861-1947) started his life as a believer, but became an outspoken agnostic, and remained so through much of his philosophical career. Lowe cites the reports of family members, however, that later he may have begun to turn back toward theism, possibly in reaction to the tragic events of World War I, including the death of his younger son. Lowe also cites evidence, though, of an ongoing ambivalence toward God throughout the rest of his life. In any case, however, given the paucity of evidence about Whitehead’s thinking outside his published work (he left no pertinent letters, diaries, etc.), the hard evidence for a turn toward theism must be derived from his late metaphysical writings. As discussed below, the “theism” found there comes in a purely philosophical context, not from any appeals to experience or authority. And it remained pretty clear from this work that Whitehead, as Donald Viney puts it here, “had little truck with organized religion.(p.7)” (please note Viney also wrote the comprehensive SEP entry on Process Theism.)

Looking at Whitehead’s own words in P&R (Part V, Ch. II, Section I), he dismisses the traditional concepts of God as imperial ruler, personification of morality, or unmoved mover. He says “Hume’s Dialogues criticize unanswerably these modes of explaining the system of the world (p.343).” Whitehead wants to dispassionately analyze what his metaphysics requires God’s nature to be. He also says: “There is nothing here in the nature of proof.” His says his efforts can be thought as “an attempt to add another speaker” to the Dialogues (p.343).

The scheme in P&R (to be brutally brief and imprecise) involves re-describing the world in terms of a new elementary constituent -- an extended event or process -- called an actual occasion. Each actual occasion begins with a subjective perception (a “prehension”) of prior or adjacent events, and then proceeds to a completion of the process via a creative or spontaneous choice among available possibilities. The completed occasion then becomes the objective input for new occasions. The ontology of actual occasions offered a novel way for making sense of how mind fits into a thoroughly experiential world and how a theory of “real” causation might work. God serves three roles in the system. First, God is the principle of creativity which participates in all events. Second, his “primordial nature” provides a ground for eternal objects – the abstract entities which serve as examples or goals for events. Finally, his “consequent nature” is as a home in which completed events reside. Later in the chapter quoted from above, Whitehead discusses these attributes and makes some comparisons of this description with other conceptions of God.

Now I’m no expert, and it has been a few years since I struggled through all of P&R. But it seems that for the actual occasions of the world to do their job, they need the presence and the participation of God. God is the entity in the system which provides the creative impulse, the template for choices, and the ground for completed events.

Others disagree: Donald W. Sherburne, the Whitehead scholar who wrote a helpful companion volume to P&R, argued against the need for the roles played by God and he worked on a project to “naturalize” Whitehead. This is something I want to look at further. But even if the roles played by God are required, the decision to name the system’s transcendent entity “God” appears to me to be a choice rather than a requirement, given how distinct this entity is from the God of tradition.

I have a high regard for Whitehead’s process philosophy; it seems every time I look at his work (although it is very difficult reading) I find that many of the philosophical ideas discussed on this blog are present or suggested there. Perhaps then, I should just respect his decision to include God in his work and not try to quibble with this. But my main point in discussing the issue is to stress my view that secular “analytic” philosophy has a lot to learn from Whitehead’s metaphysics. And I would hope more can engage with his philosophy without letting God “get in the way”.

Monday, October 08, 2007


The best candidate for the “role” of God I’ve found through philosophy is that of the full expanse of metaphysical possibilities present in a theory of modal realism (this idea was previously broached in this post). If the familiar actual world is a subset of a necessarily existing modal manifold, then the theological version of this framework would be a form of panentheism. I thought I’d look into what some theologians are saying about panentheism and recently read most of the articles in a volume edited by Philip Clayton and the late Arthur Peacocke: In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World.

Several of the authors in the volume offer definitions of panentheism; the one from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church seems a good starting point: “The belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him, but (as against Pantheism) that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe.” (BTW, my post on plain old pantheism is here).

While there are strands of panentheistic thought which extend throughout history, Peacocke’s introductory essay sets out many of the reasons a contemporary theist might move toward panentheism from a starting point of classical theism. He says a variety of factors form the basis of this impetus: “Broadly they all point to the need to accentuate, in light of contemporary knowledge of the world and of humanity, a much stronger sense than in the past of the immanence of God as in some sense “in” the world (p.xix)”.

Importantly, it is the influence of the scientific account of the world as a seamless web of natural phenomena which “…has rendered it increasingly problematic to conceive of God’s action in the world as intervening in any way that involves an abrogation of the very regularities with which God’s own self is regarded, by theists, as having endowed the world (p.xx)”. Further, Peacocke points out that the scientific explication of how natural systems evolve and emerge through self-organization leads toward a reading of God’s work in the world as “…creator ‘in, with, and under’ the creative, natural processes of the world unveiled by the sciences (p.xx)”.

Another important driver is the increased implausibility of a strong mind/body dualism, given advances in cognitive science and neuroscience. This “…has inevitably reflected upon the use of traditional models of God’s relation to the world in terms of personal agency. In these models God’s actions on the world was analogous to a person’s intentions being implemented by bodily actions…much traditional theology has implicitly been based on dualistic models (p.xxi).” Again, a view of God’s action being continuously present through natural processes seems more plausible.

Still, as against pantheism, a panentheistic model also preserves the transcendence of God, preserving a distinction between God and world. Thus for most of the contributors to this volume, coming from a theistic background, panentheism offers the possibility of a middle ground.

But, what if you are approaching things from a non-theistic perspective? If our world is a subset of a larger metaphysical entity, what’s the motivation for taking a theistic perspective on this entity at all, apart from the aspect of transcendence?

Well, there are a couple of other aspects of the philosophical model I’ve been working on that might support this perspective. First, reality is inherently experiential. Our world is comprised of events which are physical when viewed from the third-person perspective, but experiential from the first-person view. Possible events which are unactualized from our local point of view are experienced from a distant point of view: the full manifold of events, we might imagine, is being experienced across the full sum of points of view. Further, I have argued that our causal contact with the larger space of possibilities may provide the grounding for our rational faculties, including our knowledge of abstract objects. Rationality is based on knowledge of logical possibilities, which is founded on our contact with real metaphysical possibilities. According to the thesis of modal rationalism, metaphysical and logical possibilities are the same. Thus, rationality maps the terrain of modal space, or alternatively, is a reflection of the “shape” of God.

On the other hand, in this conception, it still seems problematic to me that the manifold of possibilities is a “person”, even if it encompasses experience and grounds reason. In the absence of personhood, is it still God? Also, while I can summon up feelings of awe and wonder with regard to this entity, I can’t see why one would worship it. I suppose it is possible that whether or not you take a theistic or religious stance toward this entity might be a question of personal preference or psychological makeup, but I’m not sure (I ran up against this issue in an old two-part post called “The God Option”).

In any case, it’s interesting that the course of philosophical reasoning can at least move one into this terrain. It gives me some hope that a worldview which has independent motivation could also serve as a potential meeting ground for those looking to improve on both classical theism and classical materialism.