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From The Thomist, 42, January 1978, 1-13.

Posted December 18, 2008


In What Sense Is God Infinite?  A Process Perspective

Lewis S. Ford

Perhaps the most persistent objection classical theists raise against the process theism espoused by such thinkers as Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne is that it conceives God to be finite.  This recurrent charge is assumed to characterize their positions fairly and to be a fatal hindrance to the entire enterprise.  Many are deterred thereby from investigating this contemporary alternative any further.

Cornelio Fabro speaks of Whitehead’s “return to the finitistic conception of God.”1  Insofar as this claim conceives his concept of God to be exclusively, or even primarily finite, we think it is utterly unfounded.  To be sure, Whitehead subjects the traditional notion as to how God is actually infinite to severe criticism, but this need not entail the finitude of God as the only alternative.  On the contrary, we wish to show that only Whitehead’s conception of God can be appropriately described as “the infinite actuality.”

There is some initial historical plausibility in ascribing the notion of a “finite God” to Whitehead, for he can be seen as heir to the thinking of John Stuart Mill, William James, William Pepperell Montague, and Edgar S. Brightman, all of whom regard God in some sense as finite.  In his posthumous work, Three Essays on Religion (1874), Mill was troubled by the existence of evil in the world, and suggested that we should conceive of a limited deity faced with the independent existence of matter and force.  James opposed the block-universe of absolute idealism, and advocated an appropriate alternative that we “be frankly pluralistic and assume that the superhuman consciousness, however vast it may be, has itself external environment, and consequently is finite.”  We should “accept, along with the superhuman consciousness, the notion that it is not all-embracing, the notion, in other words, that there is a God, but that he is finite, either in power or in knowledge, or in both at once.”2 Brightman criticized the unlimited expansion of the concept of God into an all-inclusive being, and postulated a restricting element within God as The Given, the source of evil which God constantly seeks to overcome.3

Within process theism itself, Charles Hartshorne’s position is somewhat problematic.  In Man’s Vision of God he holds that “the notion of a purely finite or imperfect deity seems to have all the weaknesses that overwhelmed primitive polytheism.”4  Later he warns that “ those who think that the modern experiments with a “finite” god have proved abortive might take heed of the radical ambiguity of all such phrases.”5  He conceives God to be both finite and infinite, the supreme instance of both these categories.  “The world memory is sufficiently conscious fully to realize forevermore all past qualities whatsoever.  In this stupendous sense God is literally infinite,” because the past world extends back infinitely in time without beginning.  This does not mean, however, that God is “infinite in the self-contradictory sense of realizing determinately all future (that is, partially undetermined) qualities as well.”6  God is not thereby limited in his omniscience, though, as if there were actual future contingents which God somehow did not know.  Rather, God is strictly omniscient as knowing all present and past actualities as determinately actual, and knowing all future possibilities as possible.

These conclusions are reiterated in his most recent study, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method.7  He recognizes that God’s experience of an inexhaustible past “implies an actual infinity of past states.  Finitism at this point I take to be incorrect. This is, I admit, not an easy assumption to justify.”8 Though he denies Whitehead’s multiplicity of eternal objects or definite atemporal forms in favor of an indeterminate qualitative continuum,9 he admits that the infinity of whole numbers must be included in the necessary aspect of deity,” together with other such abstract entities, in order to number these past states, for “God must eternally have been and be aware of an infinite number of already actualized entities.”10

Nonetheless each momentary divine state must be finite, if God is to be the “self-surpassing surpasser of all.”  God is not the infinite actualization of all possibilities, but has determinate states, each of which in turn surpasses and includes its predecessors.  Hartshorne defines the perfect individual being as that “than which no other individual being could conceivably be greater, but which itself, in another ‘state,’ could become greater.”11  Put in Whitehead’s terms, this means that God is a linearly ordered series of individual divine occasions, each prehending or including the totality of its predecessors.  If these divine occasions are conceived with strict analogy with ordinary actual occasions, they must be as finite and determinate as any others.  Besides, if each divine occasion in turn surpasses its predecessor, presumably by adding novel experiences of the on-going world to what was already experienced in the past, that predecessor must be finite in order for such surpassing to have definite meaning.  “God never has had, and never will have, to make an infinite addition to his own life [assuming with Hartshorne that spatial plurality is finite], but always a finite addition.  Moreover, the infinity of prior states is not a mere infinity of mutually independent items; for the just preceding state will have included all earlier ones in its own unity.  So in a sense God is combining finites, not an infinite and a finite.  The numerical infinity of the previous multiplicity is entirely embraced in the aesthetic unity of an experience.”12  Thus while God at any one time experiences an infinity of past states, the divine experiencer is finite and can be surpassed.  In part, this is the solution we must adopt if we are to resolve a particular problem in Whitehead’s philosophy.  On the one hand, “Every occasion of actuality is in its own nature finite;”13 on the other hand, each actuality experiences every actuality in its past, and the number of these actualities must be infinite.  For every actuality comes into being as the appropriation and integration of its causal antecedents.  Every actuality requires causal antecedents, ad infinitum.  Thus for present actualities to exist, there must be an infinite series of prior actualities.  This requires that there be a finite experience capable of synthesizing an infinity of simple physical prehensions of discrete actualities.14

Hartshorne appeals to the “aesthetic unity of an experience,” which we may understand in terms of the Whiteheadian category of transmutation.  By this category the many simple physical feelings of individual actualities are felt as one single feeling, provided there is a common characteristic derivable from them all whereby the entire nexus can be felt.15 In other words, the class is grasped as a whole by virtue of its common class characteristic, provided individual differences can be ignored.  These differences fade away so that the many actualities may form a common uniform background from which particularly relevant actualities of the immediate past may stand forth with greater emphasis.  Since those actualities felt as a nexus are not individually discriminated, but are felt only in terms of their common features, there may equally well be an infinite as a finite number of them.  In either case they are felt as a particular expanse characterized by some common feature.

Unfortunately we cannot apply this category of transmutation to God, and thus resolve Hartshorne’s problem.  Transmutation requires the ignoring of individual differences, as one of the ways in which the past fades, whereby objectification involves elimination.16  God’s cherishing of the past within his living immediacy requires that he preserve its differences as well as its commonality.  Instead of a few transmuted feelings of nexus whose infinite gradations are neglected, God must actively synthesize an infinity of individual differences.  This, we submit, is impossible for a finite actuality to accomplish.

In Whitehead’s philosophy, however, there is a systematic contrast between the many, finite, temporal actual occasions of the world and the one, infinite, nontemporal actual entity which is God.17  As long as actualization begins with the “physical pole,” as a determinate synthesis of the causal past, this temporal integration can be finite and temporal.  In contrast, there can only be one synthesis of pure possibility which initiates from “mental pole”: “unfettered conceptual valuation, ‘infinite’ in Spinoza’s sense of that term, is only possible once in the universe.”18  Any other actuality will be influenced by its character, and thus cannot be absolutely unlimited.  Instead of there being an infinite series of finite states of God, each synthesizing the infinity which has gone before, God is conceived as an infinite actuality capable of absorbing into his non-temporal unity whatever multiplicity temporally arises.

In what sense, then, is God conceived as both infinite and actual?  On the one hand, we must recognize that Whitehead characteristically limits actualization to its determinate, physical instances as, for example, in his claim that “all actualization is finite” as “the exclusion of alternative possibility.”19 While “it belongs to the nature of physical experience that it is finite,” he recognizes that “conceptual experience can be infinite.”20  On the other hand, although determinateness is ordinarily the essential mark of actuality [as excluding alternatives], it is not so for Whitehead.  Instead, it is “decision” which “constitutes the very meaning of actuality. . . . ‘Actuality’ is the decision amid ‘potentiality.’  It represents stubborn fact which cannot be evaded.”21 Then determinateness is not the mark of actuality per se, but the outcome of finite, temporal decision, in contrast to definiteness, which is the outcome of infinite, non-temporal decision.  The contrast between “actuality” and “potentiality” is thus relativized, for what is actual in itself (the decision) belongs (as outcome) to the potentiality of that which succeeds it.22  The many existent actualities furnish the potentiality for the actualization of the present occasion.  Both the finite, determinate actualities of the past and the one infinite, definite actuality provide the world with potentiality, but infinite actuality in the guise of potentiality is simply possibility.23

We must recognize that the one primordial (i.e., non-temporal) envisagement of all eternal objects or timeless forms is at once an actual decision and the creation of possibility.  Earlier Whitehead had described God as “the principle of limitation,” apart from which “there might have been an indiscriminate modal pluralism.”24  Apart from God’s decision, the sheer, unorganized timeless forms would be haphazardly related to one another, exhibiting all sorts of “possibilities” and “impossibilities.”  They require a cosmic ordering whereby metaphysical generalities are established, making the boundaries between what is possible and what is impossible.  A possibility is not simply a sheer, atemporal quality. It is internally related to others forming a coherent world of possibility with its own metaphysical order. The primordial decision whereby possibility is created by demarcating it from impossibility is the infinite, nontemporal act whereby God creates himself.  As the one infinite actuality, he is the ever-present source of possibility to the world.

Once the relative status of actuality and potentiality is recognized, so that the same entity can possess both modalities in different perspec-tives, we may conceive that which is infinitely actual in itself as the realm of definite possibility for others. For that which is clearly infinite is the realm of possibility with endless gradations and alternatives. This notion of “infinite actuality” is rarely considered. The notion Whitehead criticizes under this heading concerns the attempted conjunction of infinity with determinateness.  For that which is determinate is by nature finite, exclusive of alternative.  Infinite actuality cannot mean the determinate actualization of all possibilities, for some are evil, and some are incompatible with one another: if there are actually seven persons in this room now, there cannot be six or eight or fifteen.  At best what is meant by infinite actuality is the inclusion of the best actualization of every ideal, and then no allowance is made for incompatibilities among these various ideals.  For these may clash: for example, technological efficiency suggests measures at variance with ecological balance.  “There is no totality which is the harmony of all perfections.  Whatever is realized in any one occasion of experience necessarily excludes the unbounded welter of contrary possibilities.  There are always ‘others,’ which might have been and are not.”25

Leibniz’s doctrine of compossibility is relevant here.  This need not mean that God chooses the best of the compossibilities.  God can entertain an infini-tude of ideals, for “the conceptual entertainment of incompatibilities is possible, and so is their concep-tual comparison.”  They just cannot be conjointly rendered determinate by a single being, even an infinite being.  Rather, “we must conceive the Divine Eros as the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season.”26  In the end only the world can provide the determinate realization of these ideals in a plurality of finite individual instances.  They can be realized successively, in temporal sequence, by diverse hands, but not all at once by a single actuality, no matter how infinite or powerful.

Because God cannot be the determinate actualization of all possibility, Whitehead can speak of him in terms of limitation.  “The limitation of God is his goodness. . . . It is not true that God is in all respects infinite.  If He were, He would be evil as well as good.  Also this unlimited fusion of evil with good would mean mere nothingness.  He is something decided and is thereby limited.”27  If he determinately actualized all possible situations, he would create evil as well as good, but evil always involves the self-actualization of a plurality of actualities, at cross-purposes with one another and thus in conflict.

In speaking of God’s infinite self-creation, we revert to Spinoza’s doctrine of causa sui.  Like him, “agency involves both a power of acting and the expression of that power in something enacted, a doing and a deed, and in action par excellence that which is enacted is the exhaustive expression of the potency.”28  God cannot be infinitely powerful, yet only exercise a portion of that power in creating a finite world.  He must exercise his complete potency in creation; otherwise this potency cannot be known to be infinite.  “Spinoza’s philosophical intention, therefore, is to derive all things from a primordial infinite power or indeterminate potency self-actualized in an infinite and exhaustively determin-ate eternal universe.”29  We agree insofar as an infinite being in creating itself must create an infinite world.  The world of determinate actuality we dwell in, however, is a world of finitude.  It will not do to pretend that it is really an infinite world which appears as finite to our limited perspective. Spinoza’s mistake lay in identifying possibility and actuality, thus producing a causal determinism.  In creating himself God creates the only world which can be truly infinite, which is the world of possibility, not the finite world of determinate actuality.

A corollary to Spinoza’s argument is that only the finite can create itself as finite.  Finite, determinate actuality is realized by temporal, limited occasions, not by God, and there is a vast plurality of such free determinations, thus promoting contingency with its risk of evil.  If the infinite can only create that which is infinite, it must create possibility, to be determinately actualized in turn by a plurality of free, finite agents.

While God is thus conceived as the infinite actuality of inexhaustible possibility, the world may also be conceived as an infinite plurality of deter-minate individuals.  Thus the contrast between the infinity of God and the finitude of the world seems to be lost.  Are these two infinities on a par?  Also, if an infinity of time has already elapsed, an ancient horror returns to haunt us: does not this mean that in due course we shall exhaust all possibilities, so that history must be conceived as the endless recurrence of the same?

Prior to the discoveries of Georg Cantor in transfinite arithmetic, such problems remained unsolved.  Cantor was able to devise a way of counting infinite sets, however, by placing the individual members in one-one correlation with each other.  Two infinite sets are thus equivalent if a method can be arranged whereby every member of one set is placed in one-one correlation with every member of the other set.  It can be shown that there are just as many points in one side of a triangle as in the other, no matter how unequal the two sides might be, for a line intersecting a point in one side parallel to the base will uniquely specify a point of intersection in the other side, and vice versa. However, it turns out that it is possible to prove that the set of points on any line is not equivalent to the set of whole numbers.  There are more points than integers, even though these are infinite.  The denumerable infinity of integers cannot exhaust the dense continuity of the line.

Now particular, determinate, individual actualities share with the integers the property of being discrete.  Between any two of them there is a definite boundary of demarcation; this distinguishes the epochal character of atomic occasions from a continuity of endlessly overlapping events.  Thus particular actualities can be put into a one-one correlation with the integers, and are denumerably infinite.  Possibilities, however, form a continuum with infinite gradations and shadings among alternatives; they are continuously infinite.  Thus, while there may be a denumerable infinity of actualizations, the continuous infinity of possibility can never be exhausted.

God is infinitely actual, yet he can be enriched by the temporal, determinate actualization of the present.  An older logic would have regarded this as impossible: nothing can be added to that which is already infinite.  Even Cantor’s trans-finite arithmetic cannot resolve this problem.  Instead the comfortable wisdom of mathematics must be directly confronted and challenged.  Mathematics is timeless, abstracting from the temporal, and therefore cannot appreciate the way in which the temporal and determinate can supplement the eternal and definite, no matter how infinite it may be.  The determinate carves out but a fragment of the range of possibility, banishing all alternatives, but it endows this one definite form with a rich concreteness derived from the integration of all the causal past with (and by means of) this form.  Since the determinate realization of all alternative possibilities at once is impossible, some of these are realized successively in time, and these in turn enrich the infinite eternality of possible forms.  Though the (continuous) infinity of divine conceptuality has already absorbed a (denumerable) infinity of discrete actualities into its nontemporal unity, it stands prepared to receive still more.  The infinity of past states of the universe does not preclude the addition of yet more, as long as there is a temporal advance concretely enriching the timelessness of mathematical contemplation.

Is the possibility within God actually infinite, or merely potentially infinite?  This distinction, we submit, properly concerns the realm of temporal application.  As temporal creatures, we can never complete an infinite series, but we can be given a rule of addition or subdivision whereby no matter what situation we confront, we can always transcend it by a further repeated application of the rule.  Such addition or subdivision is always actually finite, though potentially infinite.  The non-temporal envis-agement of all possibility lacks the temporal context within which this distinction is made, but if its infinity must be either actual or potential, we would say that it is actual.  It is essential for a potential infinity that any actual summation of it be incomplete, completable only by repeated application of the rule. Yet “the unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects”30 must be complete.  Incompleteness presupposes a standard of completion, and the notion of something missing which, when added, would complete the whole.  Such addition, however, implies temporality, for there must be a distinction between the incomplete whole present before, and the complete whole present after, such addition.  Nothing can conceivably be added to a nontemporal whole.  Thus, for example, the divine realm cannot lack any form of definiteness which may sometime be relevant to the ongoing course of the world, for then it would be finite, not infinite.  Its nontemporal completeness must include an actual infinity of possibilities.

Nevertheless there is a meaning of the potential infinite which applies to God.  Here we must distinguish between pure and real possibility.  A pure possibility pertains to an isolated form of definiteness, considered nontemporally apart from any concrete realization in the temporal world.  This same form of definiteness, when considered in relation to a given causal past as a possible way in which it could be integrated in actualization, constitutes a real possibility.31  The domain of pure possibility forms the object of the primordial envisagement, and is, as we have seen, actually finite.  But for each actual situation arising out of the temporal world God correlates those pure forms of definiteness which are relevant to any further determinate realization.  Thus God is the agency of real possibility in the world, supplying each nascent occasion with those real possibilities appropriate to its own actualization.

These real possibilities appear to be infinite, yet need not be so; it is enough if they include all relevant alternatives.  It is not the case, however, that certain are necessarily relevant, such that God supplies all of these.  Rather, God is the agency of relevance, whereby pure possibilities are rendered relevant and thereby inserted into the temporal flux as actualizable.32  From our perspective, real possi-bilities gradually shade off from the most to the least relevant.  From God’s perspective, those which are relevant are graded in importance and value, but more could always be added, depending upon God’s interest and concern, from his infinite storehouse of pure possibilities.  While this can never be definitely ascertained, the number of real possibilities provided to a given emerging occasion may at any one time be finite, though potentially infinite.

Thus, while any determinate actuality must be finite, there is room for an infinite divine actuality as the envisagement of all possibility.  God’s envisage-ment of pure possibility is actually infinite, while his envisagement of real (temporally relevant) possibili-ty is potentially infinite.  Moreover, his experience of the world includes a denumerable infinity of pre-hended past occasions.  In these senses Whitehead conceives of God as truly infinite.  The only sense of infinity excluded is the self-contradictory notion of infinite determinateness.



1 God in Exile, trans. Arthur Gibson (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1968), p. 804.  Fabro is not ordinarily a careless thinker, and has shown himself to be an eminent scholar of St. Thomas.  Apparently he was the first to discover, in 1939, even before Etienne Gilson, the dynamic character of esse in the composition of esse and essence in the finite being.  (See Helen James John, S. N. D., “The Emergence of the Act of Existing in Recent Thomism,” International Philosophical Quarterly 2/4 (1962), 595-620, at 609.)  Nevertheless he can close his discussion of Whitehead’s theism with the following quotation described as an excerpt “from a Whitehead essay [which] brings out the Whiteheadian stand with special poignancy “ (p. 835) :

If you ask me what God is, I can only answer he is a being whose body is the whole world of nature, but that world conceived as actually possessing deity, and therefore he is not actual as existent but as an ideal, and only existent in so far as the tendency towards his distinctive character is existent in the actual world.  God, you will say, is on this showing an ideal being, whose deity does not yet exist, but is the next quality due to emerge, and cannot therefore be known by us.  He exists only in the striving of the world to realize his deity, and to help it as it were to the birth.  Moreover, he is not a creator as in historical religions, but created.

Now these words sound suspiciously like Samuel Alexander’s, and so they are.  Fabro quotes correctly from Science and Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931), p. 136.  In Fabro’s bibliography, p. 1189, this book is erroneously ascribed to Whitehead, but it is a series of twelve radio talks given in Britain during December 1930 by such men as Alexander, Julian Huxley, J. S. Haldane, B. H. Streeter, Dean Inge (no editor given). Whitehead was not among them.

God in Exile is a mammoth book, and Fabro apparently got his notes mixed up.  What is more interesting is that he should have felt no difficulty in ascribing Alexander’s words to Whitehead, let alone as the epitomization of his thought.

2 A Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1909), pp. 309-312, quoted in Charles Hartshorne and William L. Reese, Philosophers Speak of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 349.

3 The Problem of God (New York: Abingdon Press, 1930).

4 Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Company, 1941) p. 5.

5 Ibid., p. 17.

6 Ibid., p. 268.

7 La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1970.

8 Ibid., p. 63.

9 I have documented this contrast further in Two Process Philosophers: Hartshorne’s Encounter with Whitehead, ed. Lewis S. Ford, (American Academy of Religion: AAR Studies in Religion, Number Five, 1973), pp. 58-65.

10 Creative Synthesis, p. 65f.

11 The Divine Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 20.

12 Creative Synthesis, p. 126.

13 Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 356 (hereafter cited as AI).

14 We cannot here appeal to a finite plurality of mediate actualities, each in turn synthesizing its own plurality of more remote actualities.  If the interven-ing syntheses unify only what is finite, the end result, no matter how large, will always be finite. Some-where along the line there must be a finite synthesis of an infinite input.

15 See Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), pp. 382-89 (hereafter cited as PR).

16 PR, p. 517.

17 This systematic contrast is explored in some detail in my “Whitehead’s Categoreal Derivation of Divine Existence,” The Monist 54/3 (July 1970), pp. 374-400.

18 PR, p. 378.

19 AI, p. 333.

20 PR, p. 524.

21 PR, p. 68.

22 This is formally expressed in terms of the “principle of relativity,” “that the potentiality for being an element is a real concrescence [or growing together] of many entities into one actuality, is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities, actual and non-actual.” PR, p. 33.

23 This relativization of actuality and potentiality, along with Whitehead’s understanding of actuality in terms of decision, is admirably brought out in Richard Rorty’s study, “Matter and Event,” pp. 497-524 in The Concept of Matter, ed. Ernan McMullin (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963).

24 Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1926), p. 256.

25 AI, p. 356.

26 AI, p. 357.

27 Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926), p. 153.

28 H. F. Hallett, Benedict de Spinoza (University of London: The Athlone Press, 1957), p. 9. Italics his.

29 Ibid.

30 PR, p. 46.

31 In Whitehead’s terms, an eternal object is ordinarily a pure possibility, while a proposition illustrated by that eternal object as its predicative pattern, having a past actual world for its logical subjects, is a real possibility.  This distinction is explored further in my essay on “The Non-Temporality of Whitehead’s God,” International Philosophical Quarterly 13/3 (September, 1973), pp. 366-368.

32 See PR, pp. 46-48.

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