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”.


Star Larvae said...

Steve, I too am studying Whitehead and Hartshorne as a philosophical layman.

Here's my application of the Philosophy of Organism to evolution and cosmology:

Steve said...

Thanks for your comment. I'll check out your site. - Steve

Unknown said...

Steve - fascinating post. I can't say I understand P&R, have never been able to grasp that work. I do think it's interesting though how you convey God's role in Whitehead's system.

If you are interested, I just wrote an article disputing the problem of evil as a challenge to God and monotheism for the PQs essay contest this year. Be happy to send that to you if you are interested.

I look forward to more posts from you on this subject and panentheism.

Steve said...

Thanks Michael. Yes, please do send me what you wrote, I'd like to see it. - Steve