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From Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 15, No. 1, July 1977, 27-35.  This is a critique of Donald W. Sherburne's “Whitehead without God,” available elsewhere on this site.


An Appraisal of 
Whiteheadian Nontheism1
Lewis S. Ford

Alfred North Whitehead’s analysis of present immediacy in terms of a succession of acts of becoming, called “actual occasions,” focusses attention on the problem of subjectivity, particularly upon the way it originates anew in every moment.  In part this is understood in terms of creativity, the ceaseless activity whereby many past occasions are unified to form one actuality, itself in turn becoming one actuality among many for the superseding occasions.  But creativity by itself is simply blind activity, supplying the drive but not the focus for such convergence.  Without an ideal possibility for the process to aim at, there is no reason why creativity would not be just as divergent as convergent, achieving unity only accidentally if at all.  Subjectivity is not merely sheer activity, for the activity must be capable of unifying itself, and for this it must be purposive to some degree.  Whitehead therefore suggests that subjectivity is this purposive process of unification guided by that ideal possibility at which it aims.  This subjective aim must be derived from somewhere, from an actuality which is not anyone of the occasions of the past.  Since it is the ultimate source of all values, and hence properly worthy of worship, Whitehead calls this nontemporal actuality “God.”

Thus Whitehead’s distinctive analysis of causation in terms of an event producing itself out of its causes, paralleled by his identification of subjectivity with present immediacy, generates a new argument of God’s existence.  This was a surprising result, for Whitehead began his reflections on the philosophy of nature and metaphysics an agnostic and in the process of introducing God into his thought alienated several enthusiastic early supporters.  In some ways it has been most unfortunate, for the easiest way to evade this argument is to reject its premises, and this has prevented many in this present nontheisitic climate of opinion from examining those premises independently on their own merits.

This melancholy result has led a number of critics to propose a nontheistic version of Whitehead’s philosophy.  If successful, such an attempt could commend process philosophy to a wider hearing among contemporary philosophers.  The effort should also be encouraged as a way of providing a test case between theism and nontheism.  Usually these two alternatives are posed either in ways divorced from experience or in differing philosophies disagreeing in many other respects as well.  Given the internal relatedness of Whitehead’s basic principles, we should expect that a nontheistic version, if done sensitively, would differ from Whitehead’s own theory only in terms of those features absolutely required by theism, and that these differences would lead to a somewhat different account of our immediate human experience.  This would provide an excellent way of determining the “cash value” of the theistic nontheistic alternatives.

The success of the venture has yet to be demonstrated, however.  One of the ways we might show just how integral theism is to process philosophy would be to examine the difficulties confronting Whiteheadian nontheism.  Here we shall consider the most ambitious attempt to date, Donald W. Sherburne’s “Whitehead without God.”2

Sherburne outlines three main functions of the concept of God within Whitehead’s system: God preserves the past, he provides the ontological ground for the forms or eternal objects, and he is the source for the subjective aims of temporal occasions.  “A naturalistic [i.e., nontheistic] reinterpretation of Whitehead’s scheme has to show (1) that in some one at least, of these roles the concept ‘God’ violates the fundamental metaphysical principles of the system, and thereby introduces incoherence into the scheme, and (2) that the system can be so interpreted and modified that each of these roles is superfluous.”3  Actually, only the second of these tasks is really necessary, for if it can be shown that the appeal to God is metaphysically superfluous, then we may well ask why there need be God in addition to the world.  Then there would be incoherence in Whitehead’s sense of the word, which is not inconsistency, but “the arbitrary disconnection of first principles.”4  The first, though, engages Sherburne’s primary interest, for he sees contradictions in God’s role in preserving the past, whether in Whitehead’s original formulation or in the revisions proposed by Charles Hartshorne and John B. Cobb, Jr.  Most of the debate about the “Whitehead without God” proposal has centered upon issues generated by Cobb’s revisions, but the whole matter is beside the point should it turn out that such revisions are unnecessary.  Thus our primary attention must be directed to Whitehead’s own account, particularly concerning the givenness of the past.

Christian argues that since actual occasions perish before new occasions arise, they are no longer actual and hence cannot be prehended as causally efficacious by the new generation of occasions, simply because they are not there to be prehended.  He argues that God, as the everlasting concrescence, must be the ground for the givenness of the past, and that present occasions prehend past occasions as these are preserved in the divine experience.  Here Sherburne sees a contradiction, for if God truly exemplifies the general metaphysical principles, even God could not prehend the past occasion before it perished, for up to that instant it was still coming into being and hence was not prehensible.

This clearly follows from Sherburne’s assumption that the being of an actual occasion is its becoming, such that the coming into full being and the perishing of an occasion paradoxically coincide.  The issue is somewhat more complicated on Christian’s interpretation, which sharply distinguishes between the concrescence or coming into being of an actual occasion and its subjective enjoyment of that completed being in the satisfaction.  This satisfaction is not the instantaneous completion of one act of becoming before creativity supersedes that occasion in the initiation of the next, as I would interpret it; rather it has temporal thickness, or duration.  “Indeed the satisfaction contains, one might say,, the whole of the temporal duration of the occasion.  For the genetic process that produces the satisfaction is not itself in physical time.”6  Since in the satisfaction the occasion has achieved determinate unity, presumably God could prehend it during this duration.  This would mean, however, that in the satisfaction the occasion would he both subjective and objective at the same time, undercutting Whitehead’s double identification of this contrast with present and past and with becoming and being.

Only the instant of transition can be both the termination of present subjective immediacy and the initiation of the objective past, just as there is only an instant of transition wherein becoming or unification completes itself in being.  By assuming that the occasion subjectively enjoys its satisfaction for a duration after it has fully come into being, Christian cannot identify becoming with subjectivity nor avail himself of the interpretation of the perishing of subjective immediacy as the termination of becoming in being.  Rather the perishing of immediacy must mean the termination of this being as subjectively felt satisfaction.  Yet if this satisfaction can endure for awhile, what prevents it from just continuing to endure?  Christian offers no reason why the satisfaction must necessarily perish, but if it does, it must be the perishing of the occasion’s being, and not just of its becoming.  Thus while it is doubtful that Christian could accept Sherburne’s identification of being and becoming in the light of his sharp distinction between concrescence and satisfaction, nevertheless by another route he comes to the same conclusion, that with the perishing of subjective immediacy the actual occasion perishes completely and passes out of being.6A

Were that true, of course, we would have to invoke some sort of deus ex machina to explain how the past can causally influence the present, but we do not need to suppose that this is entailed by Whiteheadian theory.  If the perishing of subjective immediacy is simply the completion of subjective becoming in objective being, then the perishing of becoming is precisely the coming into being of being, and it is just this being persisting into its future which is prehended as causally efficacious by succeeding occasions.  According to the rhythm of creativity, the many become one, and are increased by one.7  The many “perish” by becoming one, but that one is now an item in a new many in process of becoming one.  If the one also ceased to be in the perishing of the many, there could be no new many emerging from these new ones, and creativity would cease.  The ongoingness of time and creativity, and the real causal efficacy of the past are strong reasons for supposing that the past continues to persist into the present so as to be available for present prehension, and only an unnecessarily severe interpretation of the perishing of subjective immediacy prevents Whiteheadians from asserting this.  If one argues that the past does not persist in the present but merely lasts long enough to leave its impress on the present before expiring, then we may wonder whether there is any genuine many requiring unification.  Many impressions on a single actual occasion are not the same as many real beings, each possessing its own intrinsic unity derived from its previous activity, and do not call forth the need for creative unification.

For these reasons we see no need to invoke God as the ground of the givenness of the past, and hence the difficulties Sherburne discerns in Christian’s analysis apply to a pseudo-problem common to the two of them, and not in any way to Whitehead’s own account.  The past persists as long as it is causally efficacious.  God is invoked by Whitehead to preserve everlastingly in His consequent experience the achievements of all actualities, but this is to preserve the being of the past which fades insofar as it is no longer causally efficacious, not to provide the basis for that causal efficacy.

Obviously, if the past perishes immediately upon coming into being, then only immediately contiguous occasions could possibly have an causal impact, and Whitehead’s occasional talk of the experience or prehension of distantly past occasions must be revised accordingly.  But the very fact that Whitehead could entertain such ideas without any sense of conceptual difficulty indicates that he did not interpret perishing in this severe manner.  On the other hand, we must guard ourselves against the opposite error of supposing that because something once was actual, it is always available for subsequent prehension.  Sherburne’s objections to our now experiencing Cheops the pyramid builder of 2900 B.C. are well taken.8  If being depends upon the process of becoming for its existence, only that much of past being which continuously persists through successive acts of becoming is still available to be prehended.  If it does so persist, then that distantly past occasion can be prehended, and we can distinguish that prehension from the prehension of the immediately past occasion which mediated it.  The difference lies in reference.  To be sure, the present occasion is caused by the distant past only insofar as this inheres in the immediate past, and the two must be consistent with one another,9 but that should not obscure the fact that it is the persistence of that distantly past occasion that is directly causally efficacious in the present.  The restriction Sherburne proposes of limiting causal efficacy to the immediate past is unnecessary.10

We find no contradictions or difficulties in Whitehead as based upon Sherburne’s objections, but as noted above, the real question is whether God can be shown to be metaphysically superfluous.  Concerning his role as the ontological ground for unrealized eternal objects, Sherburne proposes that we return to Whitehead’s own solution in Science and the Modern World.  Since in that relatively early work God is conceived to be merely a principle of limitation, and not an actuality capable of prehending anything, Whitehead could not appeal to God to ground these unrealized eternal objects.  I think we may plausibly conjecture, however, that it was difficulties in that early solution which led Whitehead, in Religion in the Making, to reconceive God as capable of conceptually prehending all the eternal objects.

While real possibilities are temporally emergent, Whitehead conceives of pure possibilities as atemporally given, available as needed for the temporal world.  He also holds that all entities of whatever sort depend for their existence upon actualities, although this ontological principle is not explicitly stated with full rigour in Science and the Modern World.  Since for that work the only actualities are the temporal actual occasions, the question naturally arises how unrealized possibilities exist, especially those not yet relevant to the temporal course of the world.  If they do not exist at all, then they would have to emerge ex nihilo, violating the rational requirement of complete explanation.  Moreover, there is a “systematic mutual relatedness” of all eternal objects,11 which cannot be violated by the temporal emergence of anyone which might not fit this scheme.  Their existence must depend upon one or more of the actual occasions already in existence, so Whitehead suggests the view that “every occasion is a synthesis of all eternal objects under the limitation of gradations of actuality . . . .”12  To involve one eternal object or pure form in the existence of an actuality is thereby to involve them all, since they are all systematically related.

As Sherburne notes, this solution generates its own problem: “An eternal object is supposed to bestow or withhold a specific, precise form of definiteness, but how can this be if every eternal object drags along with it, so to speak, the whole choir of eternal objects in virtue of the fact that its relationships to other eternal objects are internal relations’?”13  Here Whitehead distinguishes between the individual essence of an eternal object—its own peculiar character and unique quality—and its relational essence, the way it is relating to other eternal objects.  It is the realization of an individual essence which constitutes the unique quality of a given actual occasion.  That eternal object is also internally related to all other eternal objects, but only in terms of their relational essences.  This is possible because many individual qualities can share the same relational essence for most purposes.  To use Sherburne’s example, “The relational essence of turquoise blue vis-a-vis any four-sided plane figure is not unique to turquoise blue, but is the same as that of pea green oriel black.  Thus the individual essence of turquoise blue is quite aloof from the relational essence of turquoise blue and can characterize the specific definiteness of a particular actual entity without involving necessarily the specific individual essence of any particular geometrical shape. . . .” 14  What this amounts to saying is that while the individual essence is intrinsically and internally related to its own relational essence, that relational essence is only externally related to its particular quality, since it is related to other qualities of the same sort in precisely the same way.  As Whitehead writes, “the relationships (as in possibility) do not involve the individual essences of the eternal objects; they involve any eternal objects as relata, subject to the proviso that these relata have the requisite relational essences.”15  It is this external relatedness of relational essences which makes room for abstract possibilities, for otherwise an abstract possibility would have all the qualitative specificity we assign to actualities.  Moreover, relational essences themselves form hierarchies, whereby the more specific are internally related to the more generic, but not vice versa.  Every color is necessarily a quality, but not every quality must be a color.  The relational essence for quality is externally related to color.

This theory solves the problem posed by the finite realization of specific qualities, but at the expense of a real ontological foundation for all the eternal objects.  To be sure, any one realized eternal object is related to all the others, but it turns out on closer inspection that it is internally related to their relational essences only, and these in turn are merely externally related to their individual essences.  Unfortunately, only full internal relatedness would be sufficient to sustain those individual essences in existence.  That qualities exist does not necessarily entail that colors also exist, let alone specific colors such as turquoise blue.  The virtue of external relatedness is precisely that the existence of one entity does not entail the existence of the other.  This is the freedom of the universe: the past does not entail the present, although the present entails the past out of which it grows.16  The relation between past and present is external with respect to the past, but internal with respect to the present.  This doctrine of asymmetrical relatedness, internal to one term but external to the other, preserves Whitehead’s pluralism, preventing it from lapsing back into the monism of absolute idealism.  Complete internal relatedness of all the eternal objects would undercut that commitment to pluralism and freedom, but in its absence there is no way that the existence of one realized eternal object can insure the existence of the rest.  Whitehead must appeal beyond the systematic mutual relatedness of the eternal objects among themselves for an ontological ground.  This he finds in a nontemporal actual entity capable of envisaging all the eternal objects apart from temporal passage.  Then, while the eternal objects may be externally related among themselves and to God, God is internally related to all of them, since they determine the character of his nontemporal envisagement.  Thus we would suggest that the very unsatisfactoriness of Whitehead’s solution to this problem in Science and the Modern World led him in later works to expand the role of God from being simply an abstract principle of limitation.

The real problem confronting the Whiteheadian nontheist, however, is how to account for the origin of subjective aim, not just for some occasions, but for all of them.  This is the distinctive Whiteheadian doctrine, one required by his reconceptualization of subjectivity and causation, and the one which calls into play Whitehead’s distinctive argument for divine existence.  Personally I am inclined to believe that a satisfactory account of the origin of subjective aim not involving God would be sufficient to establish a viable Whiteheadian nontheism, as the other issues are largely peripheral to this one.  Unfortunately Sherburne devotes only the final page of his essay to the question, and his answer remains very sketchy and tentative.  I question, however, whether any nontheistic solution is likely to be forthcoming.

Sherburne suggests that every actual occasion be understood to have one dominant occasion in its immediate past, and that “The physical prehension of the dominant past actual entity will constitute the subjective aim of the emerging entity.”17  What determines which past occasion will be the dominant one in question?  The simplest solution would be to suggest that it is the one “straight behind” it along the temporal axis, i.e., that immediately past occasion occupying exactly the same spatial coordinates as the emerging one. This assumes, however, that there is one privileged inertial frame in terms of which all the spatial coordinates of all actual occasions can be unambiguously specified relative to all the rest, but this concept of a metaphysically privileged inertial frame violates the fundamental tenets of Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

Alternatively, we might suppose that the dominant past occasion belongs to the same personally ordered society (i.e., a series of occasions perpetuating the same persistent trait) as the emerging occasion.  This would require us to reconceive all structured societies (such as molecules or cells or plants) as composed of many strands of enduring personal societies.  Moreover, these personal societies would have to be everlasting, somewhat like Leibniz’ monads, yet t capable of moving about.  (Leibniz could interpret his monads as stationary only because he did not have the special theory of relativity to worry about.)  Then, however, we would have the problem of motion in a plenum, a problem Descartes found extremely sticky.  Whitehead also asserts a plenum of actualities, but for Whitehead this is a plenum of individual events, not of enduring substances.  The notion of persistent personal societies reintroduces the problem of enduring substances under another name.  There can be motion if there is genuinely empty space, and Whitehead provides for this by the existence of random occasions of empty space, which generate empty space precisely because they belong to none of the more special societies of occasions which make up material entities.

On either of these two unsatisfactory alternatives, moreover, it is not clear how the dominant past occasion could provide for any novelty for the emergent subjective aim, especially in the absence of a satisfactory account of the internal relatedness of all eternal objects.  The aim derived from the preceding member of an inorganic personally ordered society would simply promote repetition of the past, not novelty.  One could introduce the ad hoc assumption of something like Leibniz’ internal principle unfolding itself in time, but we remember that Leibniz needed God to create these internal principles and to coordinate their preestablished harmony.

Another alternative would be to give up the notion that anyone past occasion is uniquely specified as dominant prior to the emergence of the new occasion.  Rather, all the past occasions contribute to the formation of the new subjective aim in proportion to the dominance of their influence.  If so, the unity of the initial aim is accidentally determined by the chance confluence of these various influences, and the principle of complete casual explanation is undermined.  Again, there is no provision for genuine novelty, for any new emergent aim would simply result from a reshuffling of the eternal objects derived from the anticipatory feelings of the previous occasions.  The notion of subjective aim was introduced in the first place to account for the freedom and novelty of the occasion, and to prevent this occasion from simply being by chance the accidental unity of its past.  This alternative would simply transpose that accidental unity from the occasion as a whole to its initial aim.

We have been given no guidance by would-be Whiteheadian nontheists about how to proceed from here, and so must canvass the whole list of possible alternatives.  We might suppose that some very simple “actual occasions” have no aims, and that these aims somehow emerge when societies, or persistent temporal associations of occasions are somehow accidentally formed.  This would require a drastic overhaul of the categoreal scheme, since in that case the present scheme would no longer apply to all occasions, but only to the more complex ones.  In that case empty occasions would be our most likely candidates for these simple occasions, since they belong to none of the more specialized societies.  Nor is it evident that they really need subjective aims, since their function is simply to reproduce unchanged whatever influences they inherit.  In that case, however, it is difficult to see how any novelty could ever emerge.  In the absence of subjective aim, there would be no way that conceptual feelings of possible novelties would ever arise.  These simple occasions would be merely unifications of physical feelings, prehending past occasions.  Under these conditions the emergence of mentality, that is, the entertainment of novelty, would be as difficult to explain as on the assumption of purely material entities.  In fact, even the emergence of purely material entities, that is, the formation of some sort of enduring societies, would be inexplicable as well, just as it was for Democritus, without some such ad hoc assumption as the “Swerve.”

Finally, we might dispense with the notion of an initial subjective aim entirely.  We might suppose that each occasion spontaneously generates out of itself the particular pattern of organization whereby it will unify its past.  In effect, then, we treat at least the more complex eternal objects as temporally emergent in the creative decision of the occasions.  What is left unexplained on this alternative is how an occasion is able to perform this feat, and we are back to some very mysterious kind of subjectivity, all the more implausible since it must apply not only to human subjectivity but to the subjectivity of every actual occasion whatsoever.  Moreover, in this creative emergence something, namely that particular complex pattern of unification, has come into being ex nihilo, and no complete explanation could possibly be available.  Such an approach lacks the ideal rationality which Whitehead strives for in offering an account which will explain freedom, subjectivity, and novelty.  This is too high a price to pay simply to avoid theism.



1 An earlier draft was read to the Vanderbilt University Philosophy Club on November 4, 1973. This paper has also greatly benefited from the generous criticism of George L. Kline of Bryn Mawr.

2 Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), pp. 305-28.  This is a revised version of his original paper in The Christian Scholar, 50, 3 (Fall 1967), pp. 251-72, somewhat expanded, particularly on the points discussed in this essay.

3 Ibid., p. 306.

Process and Reality, (New York: Macmillan, 1929). p. 9.

5 William A. Christian, An Interpretation of White-head’s Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959) pp. 319-30.

Ibid., p. 30.

6A Whitehead states that the being of an actual entity is “constituted” by its becoming.  Despite Sherburne, Leclerc, Hartshorne, and others, who interpret this as an identification, Jorge Luis Nobo has shown that for Whitehead becoming produces being: “Whitehead’s Principle of Process,” Process Studies 4/4 (Winter 1974), 278-84.

Process and Reality, p. 32.

Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, p. 322.

9 This is the burden of Whitehead’s analyses in Process and Reality, pp. 345f and 435.

10 The passage in Process and Reality, p. 468f (quoted by Sherburne, p. 321) can be interpreted to mean that continuous persistence in successive acts of becoming is not necessary in all cosmic epochs in order for a past occasion to be prehended by a present one.  This would be true if Whitehead were here referring to temporal non-contiguity, whereas I hold him to he referring to spatial non-contiguity exclusively. Thus all occasions are extensively connected in temporal succession in the sense of Process and Reality, pp. 449-59.

11 Science and the Modern World (New York, Macmillan, 1926), p. 231.

12  Ibid., p. 252.

13  Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, p. 327.

14 Ibid.

15 Science and the Modern World, p. 237.

16 See Charles Hartshorne, “Creativity and the Deductive Logic of Causality,” Review of  Metaphysics 27 (September 1973), pp. 62-74.

17  Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, p. 328.


Posted April 17, 2007

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