Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



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From The New Scholasticism, 45, 1971, 87-109.


Invitation to a Philosophic Revolution

James W. Felt, S.J.


The progress of philosophy does not primarily involve reactions of agreement or dissent. It essentially con-sists in the enlargement of thought, whereby contra-dictions and agreements are transformed into partial aspects of wider points of view.

Alfred North Whitehead1


Just two small clouds, Lord Kelvin noted, marred the skies of Newtonian physics in 1900: the resistance of “black-body” radiation to analysis, and the unexpected negative result of the Michelson-Morley ether detection experiments.2  These clouds, the first portents of quantum and relativity physics, were to grow into a storm which would essentially sweep away the old physics and effect the greatest scientific revolution since Galileo and Newton.

It can hardly be doubted that this conceptual revolution constituted scientific progress.  Yet it proves surprisingly difficult to specify exactly wherein scientific progress consists.  Perhaps it is even harder to define progress in philosophy.  But since, as I believe, progress in science is analogous to that in philosophy, let us initially examine the notion of progress in science.  Afterwards we can draw a parallel for philosophy, then assess in that light some aspects of the current philosophic situation.  What I shall propose is that in philosophy we are at present in a revolutionary situation.


1. Scientific Revolutions

If we accept the quantum and relativistic revo-lutions as an advance, we must recognize that prog-ress in physics consists not so much in the solution of ordinary problems within the currently accepted conceptual framework as in the transformation to a new framework better capable of interpreting scien-tific experience.  Transition to this new framework—this new “paradigm,” to use Kuhn’s terminology3—constitutes an advance because, let us tentatively say, it somehow makes sense out of more scientific experience than did the old.

Such a shift of scientific paradigms takes place in much the same way as a political revolution (Kuhn, ch. IX).  It begins with increasing dissatisfaction over crucial problems arising within the system, and with the growing realization that within that system these problems are not only intolerable but also insoluble. The old political system is then replaced by another thought to be capable of coping with these problems. Similarly, some scientific problems, instead of yield-ing to the conventional methods of solution, gradu-ally take the shape of genuine anomalies incapable of solution by the hitherto successful paradigm. The paradigm will not, however, be abandoned until the appearance of an alternative conceptual scheme equally capable of solving the old conventional problems, and of resolving the new anomalies.

Within a single political or scientific structure there is “progress,” it is true, insofar as an increasing number of problems are solved within that structure. But the sense of “progress” which most concerns us involves the shift from one system to another, as with the adoption of the Athenian or the American Constitutions, or the redefinition of physical problems in quantum and relativistic terms.  Kuhn has convincingly shown that these shifts of paradigm preclude viewing scientific progress as a linear development.  Science is not a wall to which each new theory adds its own row of bricks.  Rather, under a new paradigm the whole body of scientific facts and principles undergoes a radical transformation.  Some of the old problems simply cease to be problems, as when Aristotle’s problem of accounting for uniform motion was dissolved by Galileo’s and Newton’s substitution of the problem of accounting for accel-eration; some new problems arise; all are subtly transformed.  The Aristotelian’s problem of account-ing for the behavior of a rock swinging on a string is just not the same problem as that of the Galilean looking at the same physical situation. Similarly, mass and distance are differently understood in relativistic physics than they were before.

What then is the logical relationship of a new paradigm to the old?  Or are there a variety of possible relationships?  And how does the shift to a new paradigm constitute progress?

The possible relationships between the old and the new paradigms appear to be the following: (1) that of simple replacement of one paradigm by the other; (2) that of conventionality, the adoption of an alternative but equivalent description; (3) that of some kind of enlargement of horizon.  Clearly only the last is progressive, since the second is only a matter of redefinition, and the first could be called progress only by reference to a larger background by which the two paradigms are systematically related to one another—in other words by the third possibility, enlargement of horizon.

The logical relationship of one paradigm to a more comprehensive one has been discussed in several recent papers by Patrick A. Heelan, S.J.4 It can be shown, for instance, that a precise-position language La and a precise-momentum language Lb are subsets of a broader quantum mechanical kinematical lan-guage Lab which transcends both by making a coher-ent but non-Boolean (not simply additive) synthesis of them. Lab will be richer than La and Lb taken toge-ther, hence capable of synthesizing them coherently. To every statement in La and in Lb there will corres-pond a statement in the wider language Lab, and in this wider language the mutually inconsistent lan-guages La and Lb, are harmonized. Using this analysis Heelan is able to give a precise logical definition of the “complementarity” of La and Lb in Lab. As an obvi-ous application to philosophy he points to the com-plementarity of the Aristotelian and Augustinian-Platonic linguistic contexts within the language of Thomas Aquinas.  Their synthesis into the language of Thomas clearly can be regarded as the outcome of a kind of Hegelian dialectic.

We are still left with the question why such a synthesis constitutes progress.  Of course one can-not ignore the historical and social elements; that the broad community of physicists has accepted a new paradigm is surely significant.  But they have not accepted it simply because it solves a larger number of scientific problems, for the problems themselves are transformed with the shift of paradigm.  And if one points out, truly enough, that the community of scientists finds the new paradigm more intellectually satisfying than the old, one has still to say why it is more satisfying.  The danger is that we shall reduce the notion of “progress” to a tautological expression for whatever shifts of paradigm historically even-tuate.

Without pretending to resolve this complex and difficult problem I must agree with that vast majority of scientists who, as I believe, are persuaded that by the adoption of a new paradigm they are in some way getting closer to an understanding of Nature itself.  (This as distinguished from a pure conventionalism in which scientific paradigms are merely inference-tickets, recipes leading from one set of data to another.)  Yet scientists have long since abandoned the idea that scientific theories depict the structure of the real in the direct sort of way that a blueprint reveals the structure of a house.  The abstractions of the conceptual scheme help us understand Nature only in an indirect way.5 Furthermore, there is doubtless a strong element of subjectivity even in the communal decision of scientists to adopt a new paradigm, and this reliance on a kind of scientific instinct for progress is inevitable in principle: the only non-subjective norm by which two theories could be compared would be that ultimate paradigm which is the goal, not the possession, of science at any given time.  Speaking roughly, then, scientific progress chiefly consists in improving our understanding of Nature by transformation to wider conceptual schemes or paradigms, even though these paradigms never exactly depict for us the structure of the real and are chosen partly in virtue of the subjective but communal decision of scientists.


2. Philosophic Revolutions

I propose that progress in philosophy, much like that in science, consists not so much in the solution of ordinary problems arising within a particular metaphysics as in making increasing sense out of our total experience through the framing of wider and more effective conceptual frameworks, with an ensuing enlargement of viewpoint.6

If this thesis appears uncontroversial, the view of metaphysics which it implies is not widely accepted, judging at least by philosophic practice.  For a meta-physics, like a scientific paradigm, is an abstractive scheme which sheds light on experience but is not to be mistaken for an exact dissection of that experience.  Yet we naturally tend to commit what Whitehead called the Fallacy of Misplaced Concrete-ness to mistake the abstract for the concrete.  It is easy, at least unconsciously, to get to regard such metaphysical abstractions as substance accident matter form, cogitative sense, imagination, or will as if they constituted the real in much the same way that bread, butter, and jelly constitute a sandwich.7 But I shall rather assume with Whitehead that a meta-physics is not so much a direct dissection of the real as a way of understanding it.  It attempts, it is true, to illuminate experience in terms of its own deepest underlying principles.  But these principles as universalized are abstractions, and in any case we never attain to a clear or comprehensive under-standing of them.  No metaphysics can be regarded as final.  Experience always bursts the conceptual nets we lay for it, and every metaphysics appeals to a leap of imaginative insight transcending it.8

I suggest therefore that important progress in philosophy takes place in much the same way as it does in science.  The metaphysical scheme gradually displays itself as powerless to render intelligible cer-tain elements in experience.9  As the explication of these facts of experience appears increasingly impossible, it may happen—I do not here inquire how—that a new outlook suggests itself, a new conceptual framework able to deal with these problems in a more satisfactory manner.  From this new point of view the difficulties become not merely problems unsolved by the old system but counter-instances which tell against it.  The old system is not thereby refuted, logically speaking, but is simply abandoned in favor of the new metaphysics which yields a more intelligible account of experience. Furthermore the accompanying transformation of thought enlarges the philosopher’s outlook; it emphasizes to him the final importance of living experience itself, whose explication is the goal of any metaphysics.

What is needed, then, for philosophic progress is constant reference to the fullness of concrete experience, coupled with a search for newer and better ways of understanding it.  Otherwise we become bewitched by the inevitable shortcomings of our own conceptual formulae.10  A value is realized, therefore, by the very discordance of conflicting philosophic schemes.  It jogs us out of stereotyped ways of thinking and helps us keep in mind the inevitable limitations of any metaphysics.  Whitehead writes:

We cannot produce that final adjustment of well-defined generalities which constitute a complete metaphysics.  But we can produce a variety of partial systems of limited generality. The concordance of ideas within anyone such system shows the scope and virility of the basic notions of that scheme of thought.  Also the discordance of system with system, and success of each system as a partial mode of illumination, warns us of the limitations within which our intuitions are hedged.  These undiscovered limitations are the topics for philosophic research (AI, 185-86).

If we examine the present situation in philosophy we are struck by a certain polar discordance between the various schools of thought: the methodic discordance between analysis and phenomenology, or the discordance of ontic assertions between sub-stance and process philosophies, to name only two. Philosophers, it seems, find themselves in a position similar to that of physicists at the beginning of the quantum mechanical revolution.  One inevitably wonders whether these divergent philosophic views might not be found complementary rather than antithetical within some wider viewpoint. The discovery and adoption of such a viewpoint would amount to a philosophic revolution.

It is not feasible within the space of this article to examine carefully more than one potential case of complementarity.  I propose to consider the discor-dance of interpretation between modern Thomism and the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.  The particular anomalies within Thomism which, as I think, most unfavorably contrast with a Whiteheadian viewpoint concern the philosophic description of our relationship with God.  I shall not contend that Whitehead’s philosophy, as it stands, constitutes that wider viewpoint of which we are in search, since from the Christian standpoint Whitehead’s system proves, in my opinion, inadequate. Both Thomas and Whitehead say much which rings true, and I do not see how their viewpoints can be reconciled as they now stand. I suggest therefore that we are in need of a wider viewpoint under which they may be found to be mutually complementary. This is the philosophic revolution to which this article is an invitation.

The first step toward such a revolution is dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, and since I take it that many readers of this journal are in some sense Thomists, I wish to examine some of those problems within Thomism which, in my opinion, are genuine anomalies or counter-instances against it.11


3. Anomalies within Thomism

God knows me with perfect knowledge.  No one else knows me with such intimacy.  But all our exper-ience attests that knowledge relates the knower to the known: the more intimate the knowledge, the closer the relationship.  The sea urchin relates itself to the sea washing over it more closely than does the rock to which it clings.  The deer, taut in listening and scenting, relates itself even more intimately to surrounding nature.  Man, whose mind reaches past the stars, thereby relates himself in a superior way to the whole universe. Knowledge, simply speaking, makes a difference to the knower; insofar as I know, I relate myself to that which I know, and it is just this self-relation which constitutes my superiority to the stone which has no comparable knowledge.  One would suppose, therefore—and revelation apparently confirms this—that by the perfection of His knowledge God would relate himself most perfectly and intimately to His creation.

Shall we not say the same with regard to love? What more evident than that love relates the lover to the beloved?  It was Romeo, not the balcony, who was intimately self-related to Juliet.  The balcony was related little because it loved little, neither did it understand.  Yet if there is any message which stands out clearly in revelation it is the depth of God’s love for us.  But since knowledge and love, as we experience them, are constitutive of knower and lover, should we not expect that the utter perfection of God’s love would relate Him to us most com-pletely?  The quasi-dependence which this relation-ship entails would in fact be the hall-mark of love’s self-giving and superiority.  Love is love precisely insofar as it gives itself away.

Another aspect of God’s revelation of Himself is his concern for us.  He seriously wills the salvation of all men.  He was so concerned about our salvation that He accomplished the Incarnation and Redemp-tion.12  What more striking depictions of this concern than the parables of the lost sheep and of the prodigal son?  What can these mean if not that our welfare makes a difference to God?  If He is truly concerned about us, if He has deliberately become our friend and companion as well as our lord, must He not share our happiness and our sorrows?  “Compas-sion” sums it up in a single word.  “Jesus wept” (John 11:36).

Now traditional Thomism cannot, I submit, give a satisfactory philosophic account of these facts.  It is instead compelled in effect to deny them philoso-phically while admitting them theologically. For according to the usual interpretation God cannot be related to creatures in any way that makes a difference to God.13  Thus, God can be related only by a relation of reason to His creatures, and that without any foundation in God for that relation.14  For if God were related to creatures by a “real” relation, He would, as so related, not be identical with God as not so related.  This would imply at the very least that God the Creator is intrinsically distinct from God apart from, or “antecedent” to, His free decision to create. Furthermore, such a real relationship would, in the view of Thomas, set up a certain dependence of God upon the creature, since the creature is essential to the existence of the relation.

But such a relation of God to creatures is impos-sible, according to Thomas, for the following correla-tive reasons: it would violate the traditional notion of God’s perfection and immutability; it also would amount to denying that God is pure actuality, with no limitation of potentiality.  God’s perfection, as usually understood, entails His immutability, and both are entailed by His nature as pure act.  Thus God can in no way be dependent upon creatures; in no way can God change.

How then are we to understand the facts of reve-lation sketched above?  First, Thomas acknowledges that knowledge relates the knower to the known with a real relation (Summa Theol., I, 13, 7), and does so hierarchically: the fuller the knowledge, the closer the relationship.  The fuller, that is, until we get to God whose knowledge is perfect.  At this point Thomas is compelled to deny any such relationship to God.15  The same astonishing conclusion follows with respect to God’s infinite love.  It alone, of all loves, fails to relate the lover to the beloved.

A similar conclusion must evidently be reached with regard to God’s concern for His creatures.  This concern cannot be such as to involve the least change or dependence in God, regardless of the fate of the creature.  Whether we rejoice or sorrow, are saved or are damned, it must literally be all the same to God.  In that case it is difficult to understand what is left of “concern.”18

If it is hard to reconcile a divine concern for creatures with this Thomistic necessity of an intrinsic divine indifference, it is equally hard to reconcile it with Thomas’ position on divine reprobation.  This latter doctrine is necessitated by Thomas’ view on divine omnipotence, just as the former was necessitated by his view on divine immutabilty.  For given the supposition that all evils could, absolutely speaking, be prevented by God, one has to allow that God deliberately permits some evils in order to achieve some more universal good.  As Thomas says:

To providence . . . it belongs to permit certain defects in those things which are subject to providence. . . . Thus, as men are ordained to eternal life through the providence of God, it likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away from that end; this is called reprobation. . . . As predestination includes the will to confer grace and glory; so also reprobation includes the will to permit a person to fall into sin, and to impose the punishment of damnation on account of sin.17

I confess I am unable to understand how such a view escapes making God choose evil and thus contradict His revealed love and concern.  Is Thomas’ strange conclusion necessitated only by an exaggerated notion of the nature of divine providence and the extent of God’s power?

Possibly the most telling instance of the failure of the traditional scholastic viewpoint concerns God’s compassion for His creatures.  Here is how St. Anselm, for instance, addresses God:

But how art thou compassionate, and, at the same time, passionless?  For, if thou art passionless, thou dost not feel sympathy, and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched; but this it is to be compassionate . . . how, then, art thou compassionate and not compas-sionate, O Lord, unless because thou art compassionate in terms of our experience, and not compassionate in terms of thy being. Truly, thou art so in terms of our experience, but thou art not so in terms of thine own.  For, when thou beholdest us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but thou dost not experience the feeling. Therefore, thou art both compassionate, because thou dost save the wretched, and spare those who sin against thee; and not compassionate, because thou art affected by no sympathy for wretehedness.18

To this, Hartshorne replies:

Anselm’s God can give us everything, everything except the right to believe that there is one who, with infinitely subtle and appropriate sensitivity, rejoices in all our joys and sorrows in all our sorrows.  But this benefit which Anselm will not allow God to bestow upon us is the supreme benefit which God and only God could give us . . . . To say, “all the effects of compassion, only not the compas-sion itself,” is to mock us.19

There is another crucial anomaly to which I would draw your attention.  Reverting to the question of God’s knowledge of creatures, we note that according to the traditional Thomistic doctrine God does not know creatures in themselves but only in Himself.20 The key to the sense of this distinction is that God, unlike creatures, must in His knowing in no way depend upon or be conditioned by what He knows. Thus, it is held, God does not know creatures because they are present to Him in their finite existence; rather, they exist because He knows them.  He recognizes within His own essence all the possibilities for existence; and He also, by the same act, is aware of His own creative decrees.  This is conjectured since God’s creative participation of existence, His knowing, and His willing, are all thought identical with His own existing.  God thus knows actual, contingent events, as distinguished from pure possibles, entirely by being aware of His own nature, including His creative decisions.

This solution, I am persuaded, is ingenious, sys-tematically logical, and unbelievable.  One is re-minded of Koko’s explanation to the Mikado of why he signed Nanki-Poo’s death certificate even though Nanki-Poo had not in fact been executed.  For it was the Mikado’s command that someone be executed, and since when the Mikado gives an order, it is as good as done, why not say so?  “Nothing,” said the Mikado, “could possibly be more satisfactory” than this explanation.  Yet what Thomas seems to offer me is the assurance that God does not know this con-tingent “me” in my factual existence, but only “me” as a possibility which He has decreed should be ful-filled.  George Washington never really slept here; he just liked the blueprints and ordered the house built.21

Doubtless Thomas is correct as usual in deducing this conclusion from his metaphysical premises. Rutherford was right, too, in deducing from Thom-son’s atomic model a certain behavior of alpha par-ticles.  When the particles failed to behave as ex-pected, Rutherford revised the model.  Perhaps it is time to revise our traditional metaphysics.

Consider one final peculiarity of Thomas’ theory. How on this account are we to reconcile the contin-gency of creatures with the necessity and immuta-bility of God?  It is traditionally maintained that al-though God was free to create or not to create, His nature as Creator-God is no different than if He had chosen not to create; the only difference is to be found in the creation itself.  Also, God’s knowledge of His creation is held to be similarly immutable and therefore absolute.  Thus, God has immutably known “from all eternity” that He would create.  Similarly, He has eternally known all contingent events which are to take place in time, but without being in any way conditioned by this knowledge.

There are two difficulties with this.  First, know-ledge of a fact cannot be the same as knowledge of its contradictory.  How can God-knowing-His-will-to-create be identical with God-knowing-His-will-not-to-create?  It is unreasonable to maintain that Creator-God could be intrinsically identical with Non-Creator-God. How then can it be held both that God was free in His eternal decision to create, and that His nature is in every respect absolute and immutable?22

Second, this view, in my opinion, logically elim-inates contingency from the world.  For it holds, for instance, that God knew from eternity that Aaron Burr would shoot Alexander Hamilton; it also holds that there is nothing contingent in God, not even His knowledge of contingent events.  But if this knowledge that Burr would shoot Hamilton is not contingent in God, how could Burr have missed?23

Putting it another way, the knowledge that Burr would shoot Hamilton is certainly distinct from the knowledge that Burr would miss.  Now if in fact God has eternally known that Burr would hit Hamilton rather than miss, and if this knowledge enjoys the non-contingency of the divine essence, then God must have that particular bit of knowledge by virtue of His eternal awareness either of the fact itself in its contingency, or of His own nature taken in itself.  If of the fact, then God’s knowledge would in some sense be dependent upon contingent events, as Thomas realized, and thus ultimately contradict Thomas’ metaphysics.  If of His own nature, then there can be no real contingency in the world, but all events (including the occurrence of moral evil) must be dictated by God’s ineluctable, eternal decrees.24 How then save freedom, how save novelty, and how acquit God of being the author of evil?  What I propose is to accept the former alternative (granting the dilemma) and to revise the metaphysics.25

What finally are we to conclude?  We may recall Bergson’s remark about the power of negation proper to the dominating intuition of a philosophy.  “Faced,” he says, “with currently accepted ideas, theses which seemed evident, affirmations which had up to that time passed as scientific, it whispers into the philosopher’s ear the word: Impossible!26  Impossible that the traditional Thomistic account is adequate to the facts—facts it should explain, not explain away! Here we have genuine anomalies, crucial issues which traditional Thomism must deny rather than illuminate.  We may particularly notice that the principles underlying the philosophic system responsible for such conclusions are essentially Greek and do not form a privileged matrix for interpreting the Judaeo-Christian revelation.  The Greek notion of perfection involved the idea of absolute immutability, of the eternal changelessness of a necessary being.  But the Hebrew saw God not as immutable but as steadfast.  And if the Greek notions of act and potency stand in the way of admitting that God relates Himself to us in knowledge, love, and compassion, then should we not look for more adequate metaphysical principles?  Is it not time for a metaphysical revolution?


4. The Whiteheadian Alternative

I do not claim, as I have said, that Whitehead’s philosophy satisfactorily supersedes Thomism, since it has, as I believe, deficiencies of its own.  It can, however, philosophically interpret the above-men-tioned facts of revelation in a satisfying way.  For the two systems to appear as potentially complementary within some larger viewpoint they must both be seen as enjoying a certain validity of outlook.  Though we cannot here review Whitehead’s complex meta-physics,27 we can remove some of the psychological obstacles which may stand in the way of recognizing its advantages.  We can also note some of the ways in which Whitehead’s process philosophy better handles the problems discussed above.

What, first of all, may we reasonably expect from a metaphysics?  That it should analyze and illuminate experience.  We would expect it, then, to describe God only insofar as He enters into our experience, not as He is in Himself.  Metaphysics therefore cannot describe God as totally absolute since this would amount to describing Him as totally other, totally outside human experience.

Thomas himself granted that one cannot prove by reason alone that the universe had a beginning in time.  Consequently one would not expect that a metaphysics founded on reason alone would provide for a creation, as it is usually understood.  For whatever “ creation” may mean in the Christian context, it seems necessarily to involve reference to God as He is in Himself, “antecedent to,” or at any rate apart from, His creative act or His creature.  One cannot expect that, apart from revelation, a metaphysics would describe a being which in itself stands absolute with no relationship to anything else.

On the other hand, a metaphysics should not preclude integration with divine revelation, even if this is done by way of enlargement of the scope of that metaphysics.  For the Thomist may fairly point out that divine revelation is included within the experience which the Christian metaphysician seeks to illuminate.  St. Thomas thought he was doing just that when he put so much weight on the Scriptural statement, “Ego sum, qui sum.”  The Christian, then, may object that Whitehead’s “God” does not enter freely into his relationship with other entities. Neither is there in Whitehead’s system an adequate provision for personal immortality, so that Whitehead’s description of the “kingdom of heaven” is far from the Christian vision of the final fulfillment in Christ.  Is, then, Whitehead’s metaphysics foreclosed as a living option for the convinced Christian?

What Whitehead attempted to describe is how the world given in our ordinary experience is intelligible. As a result of this analysis, based on his best insights into the general principles underlying experience, Whitehead found that at every turn he had to acknowledge the presence and efficacy of a unique, infinite entity, to whom he gave the name “God.”  I do not see why his whole system could not be regarded as an analysis of the metaphysical implica-tions of the Judaeo-Christian God’s creative decree, for what Whitehead’s metaphysics attempts to describe is the structure of the given world, including the relations which obtain among all actual entities, infinite as well as finite.  From the Christian point of view, in other words, Whiteheadian philosophy can be regarded as describing the factual embodiment of God’s creative decision.  I think Whitehead’s system is entirely neutral with regard to a description of God apart from His involvement with the world as Creator.

So much by way of forestalling the Christian philosopher’s possible objections against giving serious consideration to Whitehead’s philosophy in the first place.  Let us now turn back to the anomalies discussed earlier.  In most of these cases a supposed lack of relationship of God to creatures led to conclusions antithetical to the facts of revelation: neither God’s knowledge nor His love could be admitted to relate Him to creatures with a “real” relation (roughly, a relation which makes a difference to God); God is either concerned about us with a personal concern, nor is He interiorly compassionate. Furthermore the knowledge He has of us appears to be more a knowledge of His idea of us.  In all these cases the conclusions are reached fundamentally on the grounds that God is pure act with no potentiality, but also through consideration of God’s infinite perfection by reason of which, it is held, He cannot acquire anything or change in any way.  Similarly, God is regarded as in Himself absolute and in no way contingent—hence the problem of reconciling the absoluteness of God’s knowledge with the contin-gency of events.  Finally, tacit assumptions about God’s omnipotence grounded Thomas’ acceptance of divine reprobation.

I wish for the moment to postpone consideration of the relation of the act-potency doctrine to the above conclusions.  Let us consider instead some general notions about perfection, relativity, immuta-bility, and omnipotence.

Because we inherit our notion of perfection largely from the Greeks, and because of the scholastic tradition, we are accustomed to regard God as “perfect” in the sense that He could not possibly acquire any advantage He did not have before, nor realize any enhancement of value.  Now if this be true it is at once apparent that we cannot really “do anything for God”; our service is only a service to ourselves.  Does it not seem unfortunate that God is the one person to whom we are in principle unable to bring a gift, even the gift of our own love?  A gift is scarcely a gift unless it has value for the one receiving it.  But why, after all, should we cling to this artificial notion of perfection in the teeth of our instincts and of God’s self-revelation?  For again we are contradicting our clear insights.  No lover in human experience, however altruistic and unselfish his love, is indifferent to a return of that love.  We realize this profoundly, yet find ourselves forced by our traditional metaphysics to say that God is—let us admit it—indifferent to our return of love; otherwise our love, which only we can give, would be of some value to God!  It is not our insights that are at fault here, but our inherited notions about God’s perfection.

“Let us define perfection,” says Hartshorne, “as an excellence such that rivalry or superiority on the part of other individuals is impossible, but self-superiority is not impossible.  Or again, let us say that the perfect is the ‘self-surpassing surpasser of all’” (DR 20).  God’s perfection would still be unique to God; nor would God at any moment fall short of the greatest perfection realizable by Him in the situation, the “situation” being His interrelatedness with His creation at that moment.  Admittedly this places us in a process framework in which God Himself is in certain respects (not, it should be noticed, in every respect)28 in a self-creative process, in conjunction with the universe, by reason of which He enjoys the values being realized throughout it.29  Whatever of value that has taken place in the world is enjoyed by God, and in such a way as to preserve that value everlastingly in its freshness; what is evil or valueless is dismissed into oblivion.

What can be said about God as relative or absolute?  There is no question here of suggesting that God is in every respect relative; on the contrary, both Whitehead and Hartshorne maintain that there are two aspects to God, one of which is indeed absolute and independent of relationship to other entities. But must we say that God is in no respect relative?

If so we are again contradicting the direct deliver-ances of our experience.  Thomas himself allows that the pillar is on the right of the animal because of the animal’s relation to the pillar, not because the pillar is related to the animal (Summa Theol., I, 13, 7). Furthermore, as Hartshorne points out, it is precisely the animal’s superiority to the pillar that renders the animal relative (DR 7).  Now as was illustrated earlier, in our experience the greater the love and the knowledge, the closer the relationship to that which is known and loved.  Can we abruptly deny this of the highest love and the highest knowledge, that of God Himself?30  If we do, we must seriously ask ourselves whether we are using language responsibly.  Can love-without-relation be love at all?  If, as far as we can discover, self-relatedness is essential to love, then by what right do we use the same word to designate a complete lack of self-relatedness? Should we not simply confess that we cannot philosophically allow that God loves us?

Again, what is our hesitation to posit a self-relatedness of God through love and knowledge if the world we are describing is, as we hold, precisely the working out of God’s free creative decision?  Is it not to be expected that we would then be describing a relationship into which God has freely placed Himself as Creator?

Finally, would not a complete lack of relativity on God’s part deprive me of my own creative freedom as an agent?  For if I do not by my own creative decisions decide the content of God’s knowledge of me (for instance, that I decide to sit rather than stand) thereby rendering God in some way relative, at least in His knowledge—then they are not my decisions but parts of a scenario pre-written in and by God.31

From what has been said it is also clear that God cannot be thought to be immutable in every respect, nor would there be any advantage in such a supposition.  Aristotle’s First Mover was immutable in his ceaseless contemplation of himself—not, it should be noted, of the world of other beings.  The living God, on the other hand, who knows the free creative decisions of His creatures and who is personally concerned for them, cannot be in every respect immutable precisely because of His perfection as a personal being.

What, finally, of divine omnipotence?  Are we to suppose with Thomas that God’s omnipotence is to be defined as the power to do everything which can be done absolutely (Summa Theol. I, 25, 3)?  This seems difficult to maintain, since clearly God cannot make up my mind for me or even walk down the street for me.  In any case, why should we suppose that the God’s providence requires that He be capable of arranging all events?  For then we imme-diately encounter insoluble problems concerning the existence of evil in the world.  Is it not enough to say simply that God’s power is adequate and unique?  It consists especially in this, that God alone is intimately present to all other entities, and in such a way as always to be luring them to the best possible enhancement of value in their particular situation. Whitehead’s criticism of some of the traditional philosophic doctrine is trenchant:

When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. The code of Justinian and the theology of Justinian are two volumes expressing one movement of the human spirit.  The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly.  In the official formula-tion of religion it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah.  But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the Image of the Egyptian Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained.  The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.32

Over against this view Whitehead posits one more consonant, as he believes, with the true spirit of Christianity.  There is, he says, a strain in the Galilean origin of Christianity which “does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover.  It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world” (PR (20). In virtue of his metaphysics Whitehead is able to describe a God much more like the God of revelation, I think, than the God of Pure Act described by Thomas.  Whitehead describes a God concerned with the world in such a way as to be constantly responding to each novel situation.  God feels and values each succeeding phase of the growth of the universe according to the eternal (and absolute) hierarchy of values for which He alone is responsible. For each actual entity He envisions and feels the value of the best possible issue from its given situation.  Since God, precisely with this vision and these feelings, enters into the constitution of the entity in question, He lures it by this presence to greater good. In this notion of providence God invites us to what is good; He does not nor is He able to coerce us.33

Here is how Whitehead describes this response of God to the world:

The perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience.  For the kingdom of heaven is with us today.  The action of [this] . . . phase is the love of God for the world.  It is the particular providence for particular occasions.  What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world.  In this sense, God is the great companion-the fellow-sufferer who understands (PR 532).


5. Conclusion

However plausible the above considerations may be, we must face at last the fundamental reason underlying Thomas’ conclusions on the above issues: his description of God as Pure Act.  Here we are thrown back onto a central thesis of this paper: that metaphysical conceptions are not direct revelations of the structure of the real.  If then it is impossible to reconcile necessary conclusions of Thomas’ system with known facts of experience, let us have the courage to replace that system with another more consonant with experience.  This is just what we might expect Thomas himself to do if he were with us today.

It is high time for a philosophic revolution among new scholastics.  If Whitehead’s philosophy cannot without alteration be fitted into a Christian setting, let us develop a wider viewpoint under which the fruitful conceptualizations of both Thomas and Whitehead may be found complementary rather than antithetical.  This philosophic revolution is an adven-ture of ideas to which I think the present situation challenges all of us.


1 From his letter to Schilpp in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, 2nd ed., Library of Living Philosophers (New York, 1951), p. 664.

2 Kelvin made his celebrated observation in a lecture at the Royal Institution on April 27, 1900, published as “Nineteenth Century Clouds Over the Dynamical Theory of Heat and Light,” Philosophical Magazine, II (1901), 1-40.  A modern writer observes: “Looking back at Kelvin’s comment, it is not easy to decide which is the more surprising—his honesty in his belief of the completeness of science, or the insight which enabled him to pinpoint the origin of the trouble even though he did not believe in it.”  And in a remark singularly appropriate to the theme of this article the author of the above statement goes on to say: “In its decline, classical physics provides the ultimate lesson that even the greatest of scientific doctrines can eventually reach the end of its concepts and experiments, so that it must be replaced by a new doctrine” (J. Andrade e Silva and G. Lochak, Quanta [New York, 1969], pp. 14-15).

3 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962).

4 “The Role of Subjectivity in Natural Science,” paper read at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, April, 1969; “Quantum Logic and Classical Logic: Their Respective Roles,” to be published in Synthese and in Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science; and Complemen-tarity, Context-dependence and Quantum Logic,” as yet unpublished.

5 For a phenomenological interpretation of the relation of scientific theory to ordinary experience, see Patrick A. Heelan, S.J., “Horizon, Objectivity and Reality in the Physical Sciences,” International Philosophical Quarterly, VII (1967), 375-412.

6 Whitehead points out these two forms of progress in his Adventures of Ideas (hereafter “AI”; New York, 1933), p. 286.

7 Here I do not point to the familiar distinction between beings and principles of beings; I refer rather to the sense in which we take these principles to be “real.”  The will, for instance, does not belong to the common-sense horizon of knowledge, hence does not enjoy the same sort of reality as the piece of bread.  I believe, therefore, that one would be making a category-mistake if one spoke of the will as if it were real in the same sense as an eye or an ear.

8 Compare in Whitehead: “The history of European thought, even to the present day, has been tainted by a fatal misunderstanding.  It may be termed the Dogmatic Fallacy.  The error consists in the persuasion that we are capable of producing notions which are adequately defined in respect to the complexity of relationship required for their illustration in the real world. Canst thou by searching describe the Universe?” (AI, 185).

9 Where these problems concern the experience which we call “revelation” it is also possible to throw in our philosophic hand altogether on the plea of “mystery.”  But mystery, like sleeping pills, is addictive and should be taken as seldom as possible.

10 “The chief danger in philosophy is that the dialectic deductions from inadequate formulae should exclude direct intuitions from explicit attentions” (AI, 171-18).

11 In making these criticisms I shall freely adapt some of the criticisms of traditional scholastic philosophy made by Whitehead and also by Charles Hartshorne, particularly in his Divine Relativity (hereafter “DR”; New Haven, 1948).  For the limited purposes of this article I shall confine myself to the problem of giving a philosophic account of some of the facts accepted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In general these are described as a variety of ways in which God has related Himself to us.

12 This of course does not contradict the traditional Franciscan view that the Incarnation would have taken place even if man had not sinned.

13 Here I readily acknowledge that the late Walter E. Stokes, S.J., has made a significant advance beyond traditional Thomism by showing how it is possible, by enlarging its principles, to posit real rather than merely rational relations of God to creatures.  He does this by considering God as “person” rather than as “nature.”  (See his paper, “Is God Really Related to this World!” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association [1965], pp. 145-51.)  As a result of his analysis he concludes: “Between a philosophy of creative act which excludes the possibility of the real relation of God to the world and a modal philosophy which demands reciprocal relations between God and the world, it is possible to posit a ‘third position’: a philosophy of creative act with real but asymmetrical relations between God and the world” (p. 151 see also his reformulation of this argument in “God for Today and Tomorrow,” The New Scholasticism, XLIII [1969],351-78).

Stokes’s discovery of a way to give the notion of person an enlarged and crucial status within Thomism constitutes genuine philosophic progress. But since it is uncertain how widely his view has been accepted by Thomists, and since it falls short of that enlarged viewpoint which would conceivably reconcile process with substance philosophy, I shall confine my succeeding remarks to the more usual understanding of Thomism.

14 The classical loci in Thomas for this point are Summa Theol., I, 13, 7; Sum. cont. Gent., II, 12; De Pot., 7, 10.  In the first of his articles cited above Stokes gives an excellent summary of Thomas’ position (see p. 147).

15 W. L. Lacy maintains that the God proved by the Five Ways need not be immutable in a sense which precludes that potentiality requisite for knowledge in conforming the knower to the known.  See his “Aquinas and God’s Knowledge of the Creature,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, II (Summer 1964), 43-48.  It seems doubtful, however, whether his view is acceptable to most Thomists.

16 Note also Hartshorne’s remark: “All the time that men were being told that their ‘end’ was God, they were also being told, in effect, that it was of no importance to God that they attain this end, but only important to them.  Thus essentially the end was humanly self-regarding—and in my opinion blas-phemous.  It made man, what he can never be, ultimate” (DR 130-31).

17 Summa Theol., I, 23, 3; see also Inid., I, 22, 2 ad 2, and I, 23, 5 ad 3.

18 Proslogium, Chap. VIII, trans. S. N. Deane, Saint Anselm: Basic Writings (La Salle, Ill., 1962), pp. 13-14.

19 DR 54-55.  It should be noted in passing that there is no escape from Anselm’s appalling conclusion by an appeal to the humanity of Christ as the locus of a divine compassion which God could not otherwise experience.  For it is not a nature which suffers but a person, one who can say “I.”  One notes, too, that the traditional view seems to entail that it made no difference to the Second Person, as a person, that He became incarnate.

20 Summa Theol., I, 14, 5: I, 14, 6 ad 1; 1,14,8 ad 1.

21 Indeed, how on this view are we to avoid the consequence that God does not really know me but only His own idea of me?  On this general point see also Hartshorne, DR 118.

22 See Hartshorne, DR 11; also DR 75: “It is sheer contradiction to say that the knowledge that P is true is the same as the knowledge that P is not true.  He who infallibly knows P is true cannot be concretely and in all respects the same subject as he who infallibly knows P is false; indeed the existence of either subject excludes the existence of the other.  Thus an actual divine knowing cannot be exclusive of relations, cannot be wholly absolute.”

23 In dealing with this type of objection, Thomas freely grants the necessity (non-contingency) of God’s knowledge of future contingent events, but distinguishes between the events themselves, which are contingent, and the events as known by God “in their presentiality,” that is, as present to God in the eternal presence of His own existence (Summa Theol., I, 144, 13 ad 2; see also Ibid., I, 22, 4 ad 2 and ad 3). As thus present to God they enjoy that “necessity” to which Aristotle referred when he wrote: “for everything that is, while it is, must necessarily be” (Peri. Herm., i).

I do not think that Thomas’ distinction successfully meets the objection.  What sense does it make to say: “A certain event will happen contingently though it cannot fail to happen?”  Further, Thomas’ solution depends on his assumption that all events taking place in time, whether past, present, or future, are somehow eternally present to God.  The viability of this assumption is quite debatable, though it is too large a topic to take up here.

24 In this connection the reader is invited to consider the following argument framed by Hartshorne:

1.    What a necessary premise implies has the same necessity as the premise itself (self-evident principle of logic).

2.    “God know that men exist” implies “men exist” (self-evident, assuming that he “knows” infallibly).

3.    No property of God, nothing in God, could be otherwise, the whole nature of God is unconditionally necessary (traditional theological doctrine).

Conclusion: either the designation of “God knows that men exist” is in God as something unconditionally necessary—and then (by 1 and 2), “men exist” is also unconditionally necessary, has the same necessity as the nature of God—“God knows that men exist” does not describe anything in God.

. . . The argument proves, in my opinion, that one of these three must be true: (1) there is nothing whose existence is in any sense contingent; all things are necessary in the same sense; (2) God does not know the contingent as existent; or finally (3) there are contingent properties in God. This last is of course the solution accepted by surrelativism.  It is the only way to combine, without contradiction, the assertions: God knows all truth, and, not all truths are necessary (DR 117).

25 I suggest that in addition to revising the metaphysics one might also reject the dilemma itself on the grounds that God’s knowledge is not eternal in the above sense after all.  But discussion of this point must await another occasion.

26 Henri Bergson. The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L Andison (New York, 1946), p. 129.

27 For an exposition of Whitehead’s metaphysics the reader is referred principally to Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (New York, 1925), Process and Reality (New York, 1929), Adventures of Ideas (New York, 1933), and Modes of Thought (New York, 1938). These are elucidated in the following excellent commentaries: William A. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven, 1959); Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New York, 1958); and Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore, 1962).  It is to be noticed that the leading living exponent of process philosophy, Charles Hartshorne, differs importantly from Whitehead on some crucial issues, particularly on certain aspects of God.

28 In this regard Hartshorne writes: “Medieval and modern realists are right . . . in positing a one-sided relativity of subject to object; but the medieval reversal of this relativity in the case of the divine knower is unnecessary and untenable.  What is necessary is that, as subject knowing all things, and as immutable absolute, God should not, in every sense, be identically the same entity.  Rather, in conceiving God as absolute, we must recognize that we are abstracting from his actual subjectivity or knowing.  The Absolute is God with something left out of account.  God is more than his absolute character” (DR 83).

29 This is not to say that God changes.  The distinction between “process” and “change” is crucial in Whitehead’s philosophy, but it cannot be elaborated here.  For Whitehead, God never changes as do the enduring objects of our experience (shoes, ships, and sealingwax).  Hence it should not be thought that Whitehead’s God is in this respect on a par with other entities.  One should note, though, that in some respects Hartshorne disagrees with Whitehead on this point.

30 Hartshorne writes: “All our experience supports the view that cognitive relativity is a merit and possession, not a weakness or defect.  Why should we refuse to attribute an eminent form of this relativity to God?  There is but one reason: the prejudice that God must be absolute, not simply in some intelligible sense, but in every sense, intelligible or otherwise” (DR 123) .

31 Hartshorne writes: “Terms that are self-deter-mining subjects, such as man, with a spark of freedom and creativity in them, are also in part self-limiting, and in choosing their own limits they also choose what the limits of God as knowing them shall be.  In deciding to do this, not that, I decide that God shall know me as actually doing this, and not know me as actually doing that.  I decide the content of the divine knowledge.  To decide less than this is to decide nothing whatever and is not to decide.  For omniscience is the measure of reality and if it is not affected by our decision, nothing is affected” (DR.146). ‘

32 Process and Reality (hereafter “PR”; New York, 1929), pp. 519-20.

33 And since there is no coercion, there is always the possibility of failure of the finite entity to respond adequately.  God does not then choose sin, not even by way of permitting it in order to achieve a greater good.  We alone choose it.  From a Christian viewpoint we may say that in choosing to create free beings, God knew that the possibility of sin was thus opened up.  Love is not love unless it is given freely; but then we can also freely refuse to give it.  But this refusal of love, this sin, I would argue, is “foreseen,” not as a concrete fact but as an abstract possibility. In any case, God’s power, given the creation, does not include an absolute ability to prevent sin.

Posted April 12, 2009

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