Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

[link to CV]


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 50: 131-151, 2001. Eugene T. Long (ed.), Issues in Contemporary Philosophy of Religion © 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Process Philosophy of Religion

David Ray Griffin

1. Pragmatic Metaphysics

2. Panentheism and Evil

3. Science and Religion

·         The nature of the apparent conflict between science and religion

·         Scientific categories: Time, causation, and actual existence

·         Religious experience

·         Mathematical and moral objects

·         Consciousness, mental action, and freedom

·         Theistic evolution

·         Parapsychology and life after death


“Process philosophy” here refers to the movement that has Alfred North Whitehead at its center, with William James and Charles Hartshorne as the main predecessor and successor, respectively.  It is a philosophy of religion primarily by virtue of seeking to show how religion and science can be fused “into one rational scheme of thought.”1  Process philosophy of religion is often called “process theology,” but this latter term can also refer to the use of Whiteheadian categories for articulating the doctrines of a particular religion.

To speak of process philosophy of religion is to refer to process theology insofar as it is a “natural theology” discussing general ideas that could in principle be employed by the theologians of all religions.  To make this distinction does not imply, however, that process philosophy is a “natural” theology in the sense of occupying a neutral standpoint superior to the standpoints of all the particular religious traditions.  When this question is in view, process philosophy must be called a Christian natural theology,2 to acknowledge the vision of reality by which it is shaped.  It is, nevertheless, a philosophy, or a natural theology, because it bases its truth-claims not on the authority of any putative revelation but solely on the general philosophical criteria of adequacy and self-consistency.

To provide a historical discussion of process philosophy of religion from 1970 to 2000 would mean treating the thought of a great number of thinkers.  Given the constraints of both time and space, I decided that I could write a coherent essay only by summarizing the main ways in which I myself have employed the Whiteheadian position to address two central topics: the problem of evil and the relation between science and religion. Prior to these substantive topics, I discuss the sense in which process philosophy is a type of “metaphysics.”


1. Pragmatic Metaphysics

The debate about metaphysics is greatly confused by the existence of widely disparate conceptions of what metaphysics is.  Those who denounce metaphysics as impossible, unnecessary, or undesirable usually mean by it something very different from what Whitehead means.  Many critics, for example, presuppose a Kantian conception, according to which metaphysics is the attempt to talk about things beyond the limits of possible experience, but Whitehead understands it as the endeavour to construct a coherent scheme of ideas “in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted,” adding that the “elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought.”3  Sometimes metaphysics is understood as an approach that necessarily does violence to experience for the sake of a tidy system, but Whitehead, who praises the intellectual life of William James for being one long “protest against the dismissal of experience in the interest of system,”4 insists repeatedly on the need to consider the “whole of the evidence,” adding that: “We must be systematic; but we should keep our systems open.5  Some philosophers reject metaphysical systems on the grounds that they arrogantly claim to attain certainty, but Whitehead regards a metaphysical system as a tentative hypothesis, an “experimental adventure,” adding that “the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.”6  Closely related is the widespread assumption that metaphysics is necessarily “foundationalist” in the sense now widely discredited, according to which the philosopher begins with a few indubitable basic beliefs, from which all other beliefs are deduced.  But Whitehead explicitly rejected the idea “that metaphysical thought started from principles which were individually clear, distinct, and certain.”7

Equally inapplicable is the rejection of metaphysics in the name of pragmatism.  The classical pragmatists—Peirce, James, and Dewey—did, to be sure, reject a certain type of metaphysics.  As Hilary Putnam has recently said, they denied "that there is a “first philosophy’ higher than the practice that we take most seriously when the chips are down.  There is no Archimedean point from which we can argue that what is indispensable in life gilt nicht in der Philosophie.”8  An enterprise called metaphysics, however, need not make such a claim.  Hartshorne, for example, endorses the “pragmatic principle” that “what we have to be guided by in our decision-making, we should not pretend to reject theoretically.”9  Whitehead even said that no philosophical dogma should be allowed to overcome “the metaphysical rule of evidence: that we must bow to those presumptions, which, in despite of criticism, we still employ for the regulation of our lives.”10

Implicit in this statement is a criticism of Hume’s fateful dualism between theory and practice, which allowed him to rest content with a philosophical theory that had no room for several “natural beliefs” that, Hume admitted, he necessarily presupposed in his practical life, such as his beliefs in a real world and in causation as the real influence of one thing on another. Whitehead, in fact, makes this criticism explicit, saying:

Whatever is found in “practice” must lie within the scope of the metaphysical description. When the description fails to include the “practice,” the metaphysics is inadequate and requires revision. There can be no appeal to practice to supplement metaphysics . . . . Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice.11

In light of Putnam’s statement, we can say that Whitehead has produced a pragmatic metaphysics.  In the remainder of this essay, I will show how this conception of metaphysics is central to process philosophy of religion.

First, however, I must respond to the question of why the inevitable presuppositions of practice, which I have come to call our “hard-core commonsense notions,”12 should be taken as criteria of truth, in the negative sense that any position rejecting them can be assumed to be false.  Could one not claim, in Humean or neo-Darwinian fashion, that they may simply be, in Kant’s phrase, “metaphysical illusions,” perhaps programmed into us by Nature because believing them increases our chances of survival?  The problem with any such argument is that the denial of any of our hardcore commonsense beliefs involves one in self-contradiction.  If I verbally deny causation, freedom, or an external world, I am explicitly denying while implicitly affirming one and the same idea. Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas make this point in terms of the concept of a “performative contradiction,” which occurs, in Martin Jay’s words, “when whatever is being claimed is at odds with the presuppositions or implications of the act of claiming it.”13 One is thereby violating the law of noncontradiction, which is the first rule of reason.

To be sure, some extremists, in their rejection of any universal principles of reason, have denied the necessary validity of even this principle.  But any such rejection is self-defeating, as Putnam has realized.  Having at one time joined Willard van Quine in denying that there are any a priori truths different in kind from empirical truths, thereby suggesting that even the most fundamental laws of logic are in principle revisable, Putnam has more recently argued, in “there is at least one a priori truth,”14 that the principle of noncontradiction is an absolutely un-revisable a priori truth.  To violate it, even implicitly, is to renounce the basic principle of rational criticism.  By acknowledging both the law of noncontradiction and the existence of a set of hard-core commonsense notions, which cannot be denied without self-contradiction, we are led to see that these notions must be employed as ultimate criteria for judging any philosophical position, so that any metaphysics, to be rational, must be a pragmatic metaphysics.


2. Panentheism and Evil

Perhaps the topic on which the position of process philosophy of religion is best known is the problem of evil.  John Hick, for example, has called process theodicy one of the “three main Christian responses to the problem of evil,” with the other two being the Augustinian and Irenaean.  Barry Whitney, in his bibliography of recent theodicies, ranks process theodicy, along with the theodicies of Hick and Alvin Plantinga, as among the most important ones in the twentieth century.15  I will here summarize its main points.

The crucial difference between it and theodicies based on traditional theism—whether of the all-determining type, exemplified by Augustine and Calvin, or of the free-will type, exemplified by Hick and Plantinga—lies in process philosophy’s panentheism, which combines features of pantheism and traditional theism.  Like pantheism, it holds that the existence of God necessarily involves the existence of the world.  Like traditional theism, it holds that God is distinct from the world, able to act in it, and that our particular world (which evidently came into existence some 10 to 15 billion years ago) exists contingently, being rooted in a free divine decision.  What exists necessarily, in other words, is not simply God but God-and-a-world, and yet the “world” that exists necessarily is not our particular world, with its electrons, neutrons, and inverse square law of gravitation, but simply some world or other.  The idea that a realm of finite actualities has always existed means that our particular world was not created ex nihilo in the strict sense, meaning out of a situation with a complete absence of finite actualities.

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in this strict sense has always been connected with the idea that none of the principles exemplified in our world, whether called “natural laws” or “metaphysical principles,” are really “natural” in the sense of existing naturally or really “metaphysical” in the sense of obtaining necessarily.  Rather, they are all “arbitrary” in the sense of being rooted in the divine will.  Having been freely created, furthermore, they can be freely interrupted.  These ideas are part and parcel of the traditional doctrine of omnipotence, which led to the traditional problem of evil, with its questions:  If God is truly good, why did God make the world such that so much evil is possible?  And, having done so, why does God, who could unilaterally prevent any particular tragic event, permit so much unbearable suffering?

Process philosophy returns to the Platonic view according to which our world was created in time but the world, in the sense of a multiplicity of finite actualities, has always existed.  This position provides the basis for a distinction between cosmological principles, which are distinctive of our particular cosmos, and metaphysical principles, which would necessarily be embodied in any world that God could create.  According to process philosophy, one of these metaphysical principles is that the actualities making up a world have their own power.  This is because the formless stuff of which all finite actualities are composed is not passive “matter,” as Plato said, but active “creativity,” which means the twofold power of self-determination and efficient causation.

The doctrine, more precisely, is that any actual entity is a momentary “actual occasion,” which first exercises a degree of self-determination in creating itself out of the causal influences it has received from prior actual occasions, then exerts efficient causation on future occasions.  This twofold creativity of each actual occasion can be influenced but not completely determined by divine power, this being the principle that lies behind process philosophy’s well-known dictum that divine power is persuasive, not coercive.  Whereas traditional theism says that all creative power belongs essentially to God alone, so that any creative power in the world is a loan that could be withdrawn at any time, process philosophy says that creative power is inherent in the world as well as in God.

This idea, which means that God is not omnipotent in the traditional sense, provides the first element in a process theodicy.  It implies that God simply cannot occasionally interrupt the basic causal principles by which the world usually operates.  Because traditional theism says that God could interrupt these principles, it is rightly called “supernaturalism.”  Process theism, by rejecting this supernaturalism, is a form of naturalistic theism.  God is “all-powerful” in the sense of having all the power that one being could possibly have, but not in the sense of essentially having literally all the power, because that is (by hypothesis) impossible.  To ask why God does not (unilaterally) prevent various evils implies, therefore, a false metaphysics.

Another metaphysical principle, besides the necessary existence of a word with partially self-determining creatures, is that any such world would embody a set of variables of power and value that are positively correlated such that if any of them increases, the remainder of them must increase proportionately.  These variables are: the capacity to experience intrinsic good; the capacity to experience intrinsic evil; the power to the extrinsically good—that is, to contribute positively to the experience of others; the power to be extrinsically evil; and the power of self-determination, which in its higher forms we call “freedom.”

It is obvious that these variables are positively correlated in our world: Creatures with more capacity for intrinsic value, such as human beings, also have more freedom and more power to influence others, for both good and ill, than lower-level creatures, such as organelles, mice, or even chimpanzees.  Process theodicy is based on the idea that these correlations are not merely empirical but also metaphysical, so that they would necessarily obtain in any world that God could have created.  We do not need to ask, accordingly, various standard questions, such as why God did not create human beings as “rational saints,” meaning beings with all the capacities we have for realizing values but guaranteed not to sin, or why God did not make us much less capable of inflicting suffering on others.  Process theodicy maintains that to ask these questions is like asking why God did not make round squares.  This process view leads to the conclusion that the only way God could have guaranteed the absence of the kinds of evils created by human beings would have been not to have created human-like beings at all.  From this perspective, one could indict God for the evils of human history only if one could honestly say that these evils are so great that God should have rested content with creatures at the level of dolphins and chimpanzees.16  

It is widely recognized that a position such as that of process philosophy can avoid the traditional problem of evil.  For example, John Mackie, in his well-known argument that the world’s evil makes the existence of God highly improbable, adds that theists who believe in a deity who is “though powerful, not quite omnipotent, will not be embarrassed by this difficulty.”17  Those who make such admissions, however, usually add the caveat that such doctrines “are not really theism” because the putative deity is not worthy of the name “God.” 

Process theists give three rebuttals.  The first rebuttal is that we do not affirm the idea, suggested by Mackie’s phrase “not quite omnipotent,” that God has less power than some conceivable being might have.  We hold that power is a relational concept, so that the traditional doctrine of omnipotence, according to which all power essentially belongs to God alone, is incoherent, which means that it provides no standard by which to regard the deity of process theism as imperfect in power.

The second rebuttal involves pointing out that process theism affirms all the elements in what can be called “the generic idea of God in Western civilization,” namely, a personal, purposive, holy being who is perfect in love, goodness, beauty, wisdom, knowledge, and power; who is creator and sustainer of our universe, providentially active in nature and history, and experienced by human beings; who exists necessarily, everlastingly, and all-pervasively; and who is the ultimate source of moral norms, the ultimate guarantee of the meaning of life, and the ground of hope for the victory of good over evil.  It would be strange to claim that an actuality with all of these characteristics would not be worthy of the name “God.”

Some critics do, nevertheless, make this claim, because they hold that process theism denies one of the most important ingredients in the meaning of “God” in all biblically-based religions, which is the kind of omnipotence correlative with creatio ex nihilo.  A third rebuttal by process theists, made in response to this claim, involves pointing out that historical scholars have now shown the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo to be post-biblical: Besides not being present in the Hebrew Bible, it is also not present in inter-testamental literature (including 2 Maccabees), a fact that undermines the old argument that it would have been presupposed by the authors of those ambiguous New Testament passages that have often been said to imply it.  The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in the strict sense was first articulated by Christian theologians, in response to Marcion’s gnostic theology, in the latter part of the second century.  Prior to that time, Christian as well as Jewish theologians had accepted the idea, suggested by both the Bible and Plato, that our world was created out of a primordial chaos.18  Process theism, accordingly, involves a return to the biblical idea of creation.19

Although the preceding discussion simply presupposed process philosophy’s idea of God, I have also argued that natural theology in the sense of “arguments for the existence of God” can be much more convincing within the context of naturalistic theism than it can when philosophers are trying to prove the existence of the God of traditional theism.  For example, Richard Swinburne suggests that a number of arguments constitute a cumulative case showing theism to be somewhat more probable than not and that with the addition of the argument from religious experience it becomes “significantly more probable than not.”20  But there is also a cumulative case against (traditional) theism, as Caroline Franks Davis points out, and John Hick concludes, largely because of the problem of evil, that the world is religiously “ambiguous,” meaning that theism cannot be “shown to be in any objective sense more probable than not.”21  Presupposing instead the God of process theism, I argue that there are many reasons to affirm the existence of a deity something like this and no evidence against it, so that the truth of (naturalistic) theism is “overwhelmingly more probable than the truth of atheism.”22  The arguments, of course, have their full force only within the framework of process philosophy’s ontology and epistemology—which brings us to the relation between science and religion.


3. Science and Religion

At the very heart of process philosophy of religion is its way of overcoming the conflict that has been widely perceived to exist, especially since the middle of the nineteenth century, between science and religion.  This solution involves three points:

(1) the realization that the conflict is not between science as such and religion as such but between the supernaturalism with which religion is often associated and the form of naturalism with which science has been associated;

(2) the realization that this form of naturalism is less adequate for science than is the kind of naturalism provided by process philosophy; and

(3) the realization that religion does not need supernaturalism and is, in fact, better supported by the theistic naturalism supplied by process philosophy.

I begin with a discussion of the first point.  The second point will then be illustrated in terms of a number of hard-core commonsense assumptions to which the currently dominant kind of naturalism cannot do justice.  The direction the argument for the third point would take is illustrated in terms of some ways in which this position can affirm ideas usually assumed to require supernaturalism.


The nature of the apparent conflict between science and religion

Although the so-called rise of modem science in the seventeenth century was associated with a supernaturalistic worldview, the scientific community quickly moved in a naturalistic direction—toward, that is, the denial of any supernatural interventions in the world.  This complete denial was achieved in the middle of the nineteenth century, most notably in David Friedrich Strauss in biblical criticism and Charles Darwin in evolutionary theory.  While affirming naturalism in this sense, however, Strauss and Darwin both retained belief in a divine reality—a Hegelian Geist for Strauss, a deistic creator for Darwin.  In the following decades, the naturalism of the scientific community came increasingly to be framed within an atheistic, materialistic worldview.  The term “naturalism” is, in fact, now widely used to designate a world view that, besides accepting the sensationist doctrine of perception formulated by early modem empiricists such as Locke, rejects Locke’s theism and mind-matter dualism in favor of atheism and materialism.

It is important to see, however, that two distinguishable meanings are involved.  The basic, minimal meaning of naturalism, which is simply the denial of supernatural interruptions, can be called “naturalismns” (for “nonsupernaturalistic”). Natural-ism in this minimal sense is now one of the scientific community’s most fundamental ontological assumptions, which it is unlikely to relinquish.  The present conflict between the worldviews of the religious and the scientific communities cannot be overcome unless the religious communities relinquish supernaturalism in favor of a worldview embodying naturalismns.  Whiteheadian panenthe-ism, we saw in the previous section, provides such a worldview.

The maximal meaning of naturalism can be called “naturalismsam” (for “sensationist-atheist-material-ist”).  Naturalismsam is incompatible not only with supernaturalistic religion but with any significantly religious outlook whatsoever.  Its atheism and materialism mean that there can be no Divine Actuality, no place for moral norms to exist, no freedom, and no life after death, while its sensationism means that there could be no experience of moral ideals or a Divine Reality, even if they existed.  The present conflict between the worldviews of the religious and the scientific commumtles cannot be overcome unless the scientific community decides that it should reject naturalismsam.

The next step in the argument is that the scientific community should do just that, because naturalismsam is far less adequate for science itself than the kind of naturalism provided by process philosophy, which can be called “naturalismppp,” with “ppp” standing for “prehensive-panentheist-panexperientialist.”  It replaces sensationism with a prehensive doctrine of perception, according to which the fundamental form of perception is nonsensory prehension; it replaces atheism with panentheism; and it replaces materialism with panexperientialism.  “Panentheism” has already been explained; the meaning of the other two terms will be made clear in the ensuing discussion of a number of issues for which naturalismppp can be seen to be more adequate, for both science and religion, than naturalismsam.


Scientific categories: Time, causation, and actual existence

Each aspect of naturalismsam creates problems for science as well as for religion.  The present section deals with problems that arise from its sensationism, which is the doctrine that perception can be exhaustively equated with sensory perception.  Although this doctrine is widely thought to be both presupposed and confirmed by science, Whitehead argues that “science conceived as resting on mere sense perception, with no other source of observation, is bankrupt.”23  His contention is that although all exact observation is based on data from our sensory organs, “[t]he scientific categories of thought are obtained elsewhere.”24  Whitehead means categories such as actuality (traditionally called “substance”), causation, and time.

This problem was implicit in the earlier discussion of Hume’s dualism between theory and practice.  Hume insisted on conceptual empiricism, according to which we allow in our theory only concepts that are based on direct experience.  According to his analysis of sensory experience, however, its data consist exhaustively of universals, such as colors and shapes, rather than telling us of the existence of a world of actually existing things.  Therefore, although Hume knew that in practice he inevitably presupposed the existence of an “external world,” he in theory, qua philosopher, had to be a solipsist, not knowing whether anything beyond his own experience actually existed. He also argued that sensory perception provides no knowledge of causation, in the sense of one thing actually influencing another thing, so that there would be some necessary connection between them. At the outset of the twentieth century, Santayana extended Hume’s analysis to argue that the philosopher, qua philosopher, must affirm “solipsism of the present moment,”25 because sensory perception does not reveal the existence of the past or the future, which means that it cannot provide us with the category of time.

Science could not exist without the categories of time, causation, and actual existence, and yet the data provided by our sensory organs do not provide these categories.  It was Kant’s realization of the seriousness of this problem that led to his empiricism-rejecting “Copernican revolution,” according to which these (and other) categories are inherent in the mind.  As a supernaturalist, Kant could understand this inherence in terms of divine implantation.  Within a naturalistic framework, however, science is in the awkward position of advocating empiricism while being devoid of any empirical justification for its own basic categories.

Unlike many philosophers, Whitehead believes that the empiricist ideals should be retained.  He accepts “Hume’s doctrine that nothing is to be received into the philosophical scheme which is not discoverable as an element in subjective experience,” which means that “Hume’s demand that causation be describable as an element in experience is . . . entirely justifiable.”26  Whitehead is able to accept these ideals, however, only because he rejects Hume’s own superficial empiricism, which is actually unempirical,27 in favor of what William James called radical empiricism.  Although Whitehead does not follow James’s doctrine in every respect, he does develop James’s contentions that we have nonsensory as well as sensory perception and that, therefore, the data of perception are not limited to isolated sense data but include relations, especially causal relations.  Whitehead, in fact, calls the nonsensory mode of perception, which is the more fundamental mode, “perception in the mode of causal efficacy,” thereby emphasizing the fact that in this mode we directly perceive the causal influence of other actualities on our own experience.  I am aware, for example, that I see the computer screen in front of me by means of my eyes—that is, by virtue of the causal efficacy of my eyes for my experience.28

The point is that sensory perception involves two distinct modes of perception.  The mode emphasized by Hume, which involves the perception of sense data such as colored shapes, Whitehead calls “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy” because, as Hume and Santayana emphasized, its data are simply present to the mind, giving no information about the past or the future or even about an actual world beyond the perceiver’s own present experience.  Although Humean empiricism has equated sensory perception with this mode of perception, full-fledged sensory perception also involves “perception in the mode of causal efficacy,” through which we derive the category of causation.  Whitehead also refers to this mode as “physical prehension”: the term “prehension” indicates that what is involved is a real grasping of some object, whereas the term “physical” means that experience begins with the prehension of other actualities.  It is through this mode of perception, therefore, that we get the category of other actual existents.  And it is from this mode that we get the category of time, because the separation of the world “into past and future lies with the mode of causal efficacy and not with that of presentational immediacy.”29  Thanks to what I am calling Whitehead’s prehensive doctrine of perception, therefore, process philosophy can do justice to our hard-core commonsense convictions about causation, the external world, the past, and time, thereby providing a more adequate basis for philosophy of science.


Religious experience

The way in which this nonsensationist doctrine of perception is most obviously relevant to philosophy of religion involves the controversy about religious experience.  Sensationism has led to the widespread assumption that religious experience could never be genuine, in the sense of really involving a perception of a Holy Reality, at least without supernatural intervention.  For example, J. J. C. Smart, stipulating that “‘getting in touch’ involves response to physical stimuli,” says that physics and physiology enable us to explain “how we can get in touch with rabbits or even with electrons” but that “no naturalistic account could be given of mystical cognition of [a nonphysical Holy Reality],” so that “if mystical experiences are not mere aberrations of feelings, . . . then they must be in some way miraculous.”30

This conviction that mystical experiences, along with religious experiences more generally, are never genuine is widely shared among social scientists.  In Explaining Religion, Samuel Preus says that the existence of religion must be explained on the assumption that “God is not given.”31  In Explaining and Interpreting Religion, Robert Segal says that social scientists are correct to assume that “believers never encounter God.”32  The social scientific tradition to which Preus and Segal refer, which includes Marx, Comte, Tylor, Frazer, Durkheim, and Freud, concluded, says Segal, that “religion is false on philosophical, not social scientific, grounds.”33  What kind of philosophical grounds were involved is suggested by Tylor’s statement, quoted by Preus,34 that Hume’s Natural History of Religion “is perhaps more than any other work the source of modem opinions as to the development of religion.”

Besides lying at the root of this tradition, Hume’s sensationist doctrine of perception has also exerted tremendous influence through Kant, who said that to affirm a “feeling of the immediate presence of the Supreme Being” would be a “fanatical religious illusion” because it would be to affirm “a receptivity for an intuition for which there is no sensory provision in man’s nature.”35  Kant, of course, assumed that there could be no cognitive intuitions that are not sensory.  This Kantian assumption continues to influence many philosophers of religion and theologians, such as Gordon Kaufman, who, in response to the question as to what the word “God” might refer, replies: “Certainly not to anything we directly experience.”36 

Whitehead’s prehensive doctrine of perception, combined with his panentheism, provides a naturalistic account of how we could be “in touch with” a Holy Reality, so that the term God could refer to something “we directly experience.”  It follows from panentheism, according to which the world is in God, that God is an omnipresent actuality.  As such, God would be present to be experienced through our nonsensory mode of perception.  This perception of God requires no special faculty, as often assumed, but falls simply under the category of “physical prehension.”  Physical prehensions, it must be remembered, are not limited to those whose objects are “physical” in the ordinary (dualistic) sense of the term but include all prehensions whose objects are actualities.  One’s prehension of previous moments of one’s own experience, which we call “memory,” is an example of physical prehension.  Another example is the telepathic prehension of another person’s mind, which Whitehead, like James before him, accepted. From the perspective of Whitehead’s naturalismppp, accordingly, religious experience, understood as involving the direct experience of a Holy Actuality, is completely natural.  We are perceiving God all the time.  The only thing unusual about a “religious experience” is that this perception, which usually occurs in the unconscious depths of experience, has risen to the level of consciousness.

Besides overcoming the presumption against the possibility of genuine religious experience generated by naturalismsam, Whitehead’s philosophy, with its panentheism, provides a new way to respond to the “conflicting claims challenge” to the belief that religious experience involves a genuine experience of ultimate reality.  This challenge is generated primarily by the fact that some people report an experience of communion with a personal ultimate reality, whereas others describe an experience of identity with an impersonal ultimate.  John Hick, summarizing the skeptic’s rhetorical question, asks:  “If religious experience constitutes an authentic window onto the Real, why does that reality look so different when seen through different windows?37  Or, as Caroline Franks Davis formulates the challenge: “How can ‘ultimate reality’ be both a personal being and an impersonal principle, identical to our inmost self and forever ‘other,’ loving and utterly indifferent, good and amoral. . . ?”38  Most attempts to solve this problem, such as Hick’s, have been based on the conviction that these diverse experiences all involve experiences of one and the same ultimate reality, with that conviction being rooted in the assumption that, in Hick’s words, “there cannot be a plurality of ultimates.”39

As John Cobb has emphasized, however, Whitehead’s worldview has two ultimates: God and creativity.  They are not in competition because God is an actuality whereas creativity is the formless reality embodied in all actualities.  God, accordingly, can be called the “personal ultimate” and creativity the “impersonal ultimate.”  We can say, accordingly, that the two basic types of religious experience, theistic and nontheistic, are experiences of different ultimate realities, with each description of ultimate reality being basically correct.40


Mathematical and moral objects

Another problem created by naturalismsam involves the fact that physics presupposes the existence of mathematical objects and our capacity to perceive (intuit) their existence.  The traditional view, usually called “Platonic realism,” is that “mathematical entities exist outside space and time, outside thought and matter, in an abstract realm.”41  Most mathematicians in practice, virtually all commentators agree, presuppose this Platonic view.42  According to the sensationist doctrine of perception, however, we can perceive things solely through our physical sense organs, which are suited to perceive only other physical things.  Reuben Hersh charges mathematicians who accept the Platonic view with being “unscientific,” asking rhetorically: “How does this [alleged] immaterial realm . . . make contact with flesh and blood mathematicians?”43

One famous mathematician and logician, Kurt Gödel, solved this problem by simply rejecting sensationism.  Arguing that “we do have something like a perception . . . of the objects of set theory,” he added that he could not “see any reason why we should have less confidence in this kind of perception, i.e., in mathematical intuition, than in sense perception.”44  Most philosophers of mathematics, however, have not been able to countenance this rejection of the sensationist doctrine of perception.  Hilary Putnam, for example, called Gödel’s Platonism “flatly incompatible with the simple fact that we think with our brains, and not with immaterial souls,” adding that we “cannot envisage any kind of neural process that could even correspond to the ‘perception of a mathematical object.’”45  

The atheism of naturalismsam makes the problem even more severe, as illustrated by Paul Benacerraf’s “Mathematical Truth,”46 in which he argued that true beliefs can be considered knowledge only if that which makes the belief true is causally responsible for the belief in an appropriate way.  Summarizing the resulting problem for the Platonic view of mathematical entities, Penelope Maddy says: “But how can entities that don’t even inhabit the physical universe take part in any causal interaction whatsoever?  Surely to be abstract is also to be causally inert.  Thus if Platonism is true, we can have no mathematical knowledge.”47  This problem is created not simply by Platonism, however, but by Platonism without God.  As Hersh points out: “For Leibniz and Berkeley, abstractions like numbers are thoughts in the mind of God [but] Heaven and the Mind of God are no longer heard of in academic discourse.”48

What is the mathematician or philosopher of mathematics to do?  The most popular solution, according to Maddy, has been to continue presupposing Platonic realism in practice while publicly affirming “formalism,” according to which mathematics is just a game with meaningless symbols.  The unsatisfactory nature of this solution is pointed to by Quine’s emphasis on, in Putnam’s words, “the intellectual dishonesty of denying the existence of what one daily presupposes.”49  But Quite adopts an equally problematic position.  On the one hand, no one has insisted on sensationism more forcibly.  Quine says, for example, that the “stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world”50 and that “whatever evidence there is for science is sensory evidence,” which means that “our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience.”51 On the other hand, as a “physicalist,” meaning one who takes physics to be the arbiter of what is real, Quine affirms the existence of mathematical entities simply on the ground that they are indispensable for physics.  This means that Quine’s physicalism “is materialism, bluntly monistic except for the abstract objects of mathematics.”52  Putnam, who accepts Quine’s indispensability argument, says approvingly that Quine simply “ignores the problem,” created by his sensationism, “as to how we can know that abstract entities exist unless we can interact with them in some way,”53 Quine and Putnam also ignore the problem of how such entities can exist in an otherwise materialistic universe, These are examples of the irrationalism to which naturalismsam has led some of our prominent philosophers.

Closely parallel is the problem that naturalismsam creates for moral philosophy, because moral norms are in the same boat as mathematical objects.  Given naturalismsam, there is no place for moral norms to exist, and even if they could exist we would not be able to perceive them, both because they could exert no agency and because our sensory organs are equipped to perceive only physical objects.  These arguments are applied to moral objects, in fact, by Princeton’s Gilbert Harman and Cambridge’s Bernard Williams.54  Oxford’s John Mackie, who bluntly says that “[t]here are no objective values,”55 rests part of his case on his atheism, part of it on the argument that if we could be aware of objective moral values, “it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.”56  On the basis of these considerations, many philosophers hold that morality is concerned, in the words of J. J. C. Smart, “with evoking feelings and recommending actions, not with the cognition of facts.”57

The main problem with this view is that we all presuppose in practice that there really is a distinction between better and worse actions and states of affairs.  Whitehead, in observing that “the impact of . . . moral notions is inescapable,”58 implies that the existence of objective moral norms is a hardcore commonsense notion.  Even Mackie points out that objectivism about values has “a firm basis in . . . the meanings of moral terms” and that his own denial of this objectivism “conflicts with what is sometimes called common sense.”59

Whitehead’s affirmation of the existence of God is closely related to these issues.  One important point is his rejection of the modem tendency, insofar as Platonic entities are affirmed at all, to limit them to purely mathematical entities.  Referring to Platonic forms as “eternal objects,” Whitehead affirms the existence not only of “eternal objects of the objective species,” meaning “the mathematical Platonic forms,” but also “eternal objects of the subjective species,” which include moral norms.60

The next issue is how “eternal objects” of any sort, which are not actual entities but merely possible ones, could exist and exert efficacy in the actual world.  The key idea here is what Whitehead calls the “ontological principle,” which says both that only actual entities can act and that everything nonactual, such as eternal objects, must exist in something actual.  This twofold point led Whitehead to affirm the old idea that “the Platonic world of ideas” can exist because it “subsists” in “the primordial mind of God.” 61  The eternal objects can be efficacious in the world because God envisages them with appetition that they be realized in the world.62  This appetition is effective because creatures not only prehend the divine appetitions but do so with initial conformation of feeling,63 so that the divine appetition for that possibility to be actualized may become the creature’s own appetition.

Viewed from the side of the creatures, even if a Platonic world of forms could exist on its own, it could not be prehended, because every experience must begin with physical prehensions of other actualities.  But if the eternal objects are in the Divine Actuality, we can prehend them by means of prehending God.  Accordingly, having said that we have “experiences of ideals—of ideals entertained, of ideals aimed at, of ideals achieved, of ideals defaced,” Whitehead concludes that the universe must include “a source of ideals,” adding that” [t]he effective aspect of this source is deity as immanent in the present experience.”64


Consciousness, mental action, and freedom

Naturalismsam has also resulted in an insoluble mind-body problem, as I have documented extensively in a book on the subject.65  Although the sensationism and atheism of this form of naturalism contribute to the problem, the crucial element is its materialism, which includes two theses:

(1) the claim that the ultimate units of nature are what Whitehead calls “vacuous actualities,” meaning that they are completely devoid of experience and thereby internal spontaneity; and

(2) the claim that the mind is somehow identical with the brain.

The second thesis—which constitutes material-ism’s difference from Cartesian dualism, with which it shares the first thesis—is defended primarily on the grounds that dualists cannot explain how mind and body can interact, at least now that the appeal to supernatural assistance, to which Descartes, Malebranche, and other dualists resorted, is no longer acceptable.

Materialism, however, turns out to have even more problems, being unable to do justice to at least three of our hard-core commonsense presupposi-tions:

(1) mental causation, meaning that our decisions influence our bodily behavior;

(2) freedom, meaning that our decisions are not wholly determined by antecedent factors but involve an element of self-determination in the moment; and

(3) consciousness itself.

With regard to consciousness, materialists not only share with dualists the problem of explaining how it could have emerged out of things completely devoid of experience, but they also, assuming that conscious experience is identical with a brain consisting of hundreds of billions of cells, have the additional problem of explaining its unity.

With regard to freedom, some thinkers have assumed the problem to be mitigated by quantum physics’ denial of complete determinism.  As John Searle and others point out, however, any indetermination in the ultimate units of the world is canceled out in aggregates of such units by the “law of large numbers.”  The equation of the mind with the brain means, therefore, that the brain/mind must operate as deterministically as a rock.

Finally, mental causation, even if not assumed to involve freedom, has proved impossible to conceive, given the fact that materialism assumes “bottom-up” causation, according to which the behavior of all large things is entirely a function of the causation occurring at the micro-level.  Some philosophers use these problems to recommend a return to mind-matter dualism, but its problems are equally insoluble.

Process philosophy, with its panexperientialism, provides a third alternative.  The basic units of which the body is composed have a primitive form of experience.  All actual occasions, out of which enduring individuals such as electrons are formed, are “occasions of experience.”  Because all occasions of experience are internally related to other ones by virtue of their prehensions of them, higher-level occasions of experience can arise, with the result that lower-level individuals, such as electrons and protons, can give rise to increasingly higher-level individuals, such as atoms, molecules, macromolecules, prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells, and animals.  Rather than being mere aggregates of subatomic particles, these creatures are “compound individuals,” which means that they have a regnant or dominant member and thereby a unified experience.

According to this view, human beings and other animals do, as dualism said, have a soul or mind that is distinct from the brain.  But dualism’s problem of interaction between unlikes does not arise, because this soul is not ontologically different in kind, only greatly different in degree, from the actualities—the cells and their constituent parts—composing the brain.  Process philosophy provides, therefore, a nondualistic interactionism.  On this basis we can understand in principle not only how a mind with conscious experiences could arise out of the brain, but also how the decisions of the soul’s occasions of experience can influence the brain and thereby the rest of the body, so that the “mental causation” that we all presuppose in practice is intelligible.

This position also explains how it can be, as we constantly assume, that these decisions involve a degree of freedom, so that we are responsible for our bodily actions.  In a compound individual, the more complex experience enjoyed by the regnant member includes a greater capacity for self-determination.  Because the human being is not simply an aggregational society, but a compound individual, the spontaneity existing at the level of subatomic particles is, far from being canceled out by the law of large numbers, greatly amplified.  Our presupposed freedom is no illusion.


Theistic evolution

Running short of space, I will discuss two other issues more briefly.  For many intellectuals today, the crucial issue with regard to the relation between science and religion, especially theistic religion, is evolution.  It is widely thought that neo-Darwinism really has, as its propagandists claim, explained how we and the rest of today’s species could have evolved from inorganic matter without any theistic guidance.  Among those who do not believe that neo-Darwinism’s evolutionary naturalism provides an adequate explanation, it is widely thought that its deficiencies can only be overcome by affirming a supernatural creator.

My own reading of the literature has led me to the conclusion that neo-Darwinism is, as both “young-Earth” and “progressive” creationists claim, woefully inadequate, especially with regard to the apparent jumps in macroevolution.  The problems, however, do not require the rejection of naturalismns” given the fact that naturalismsam is not the only or even the best form in which it is today embodied.  Process philosophy’s naturalismppp provides a basis in which theistic guidance could, without any supernatural interventions, account for the developments left mysterious by neo-Darwinism.  This conclusion does not, however, mean rejecting neo-Darwinism tout court.  The position commonly referred to as Darwinian (meaning neo-Darwinian) evolution involves, I have pointed out,66 at least fourteen distinguishable dimensions, so that it need not be taken or rejected wholesale.  One can, for example, affirm the basic ideas of Darwin—that not only microevolution but also macroevolution occurs, that all complex organisms have descended from prior species, and that it all has occurred without supernatural intervention—while rejecting the more tendentious claims of neo-Darwinists, which are based more on deductions from naturalismsam than on empirical evidence and which are precisely the claims that appear to make evolutionism incompatible with any significantly religious view of the universe.


Parapsychology and life after death

Finally, part of my work as a philosopher of religion employing process philosophy has been to argue that it provides a framework that, while doing justice to what is usually understood to be normal experience and science, also allows for the “paranormal” types of occurrences studied by parapsychology.  In so doing, I mean to be carrying forward the work of William James, who said that science, so far as it denies paranormal occurrences, “lies prostrate in the dust for me,” adding that “the most urgent intellectual need which I feel at present is that science be built up again in a form in which such things may have a positive place.”67  I have argued that Whitehead’s philosophy provides the basis for such a science.68  

I have also sought to illustrate James’s conviction that radical empiricism, understood as including psychical research, can provide important support for various religious convictions.69  For example, telepathy provides an analogy for the kind of nonsensory perception that must occur if (theistic) religious experience involves a direct awareness of a Cosmic Mind.  Psychical research also provides multiple types of evidence for continued life beyond bodily death.  Although most modem philosophies, presupposing sensationism and mind-brain identism, have ruled all such evidence out of court a priori, Whitehead’s version of naturalism allows it in principle to be veridical.  And when looked at from this perspective, I have concluded, the evidence is quite strong.70  Although most philosophers have assumed that all this “evidence” could be safely ignored on the grounds that parapsychology is merely a pseudo-science, I have argued that none of the arguments for this contention hold up.71  Process philosophy is thereby able to support, and be supported by, genuinely scientific evidence.



1. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), p. 15.

2. John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965).

3. Process and Reality, pp. 3, 4.

4. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Free Press, 1968), p. 3.

5. Whitehead, Science and the Modem World (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. vii; Modes of Thought, p. 6.

6. Process and Reality, pp. 8, 9, xiv.

7. Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 49.

8. Hilary Putnam, Words and Life, edited by James Conant (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 154.

9. Charles Hartshorne, “A Reply to My Critics,” The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne (The Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 20), edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1991), pp. 569-731, at 676, 624.

10. Process and Reality, p. 151.

11. Ibid., p. 13.

12. “Introduction,” Griffin et al., Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), pp. 1-42, at 26-29; Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), Chap. 3. [The latter book's complete text is available online here.  Chapter 8, “Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” which Griffin calls “the key chapter, has been formatted for this site and is available here.--A.F.]

13. Martin Jay, “The Debate over Performative Contradiction: Habermas versus the Poststructural-ists,” Force Fields: Between Intellectual History and Cultural Critique, by Martin Jay (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 25-37, at 29.

14. Putnam, Realism and Reason (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 98-114.

15. John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983), p. 41; Barry Whitney, Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography on the Problem of Evil, 1960-1991 (Bowling Green State University, Philosophy Documentation Center, 1994), p. 135.

16. I developed this position in God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976; reprinted with a new preface, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), then clarified and modified it in Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

17. John Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 151.

18. Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988); Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought, translated by A. S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994).

19. I argue this point, employing Levenson and May, in “Creation out of Nothing, Creation out of Chaos, and the Problem of Evil,” Encountering Evil, edited by Stephen T. Davis, 2nd edn (Philadelphia: Westmin-ster/John Knox, 2001).  [See text of first edition here.—A.F.]

20. Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 138139.

21. Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 113, 140-142; John H. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 211.

22. Griffin, Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 203.

23. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 154.

24. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 225.

25. George Santayana, Scepticism and Animal Faith (New York: Dover, 1955), pp. 14-15.

26. Process and Reality, pp. 166-167.

27. Ibid., p. 316.

28. Process and Reality, pp. 118, 171; Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (New York: Capricorn, 1959), p. 51.

29. Process and Reality, p. 170.

30. J. J. C. Smart, “Religion and Science,” Philosophy of Religion: A Global Approach, edited by Stephen H. Phillips (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996), pp. 217-224, at 222-223.  (Reprinted from Paul Edwards, ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy [New York: Macmillan Press, 1967], Vol. 7.)

31. J. Samuel Preus, Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1987), p. xv.

32. Robert A. Segal, Explaining and Interpreting Religion: Essays on the Issue (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), p. 72.

33. Ibid., p. 16.

34. Preus, Explaining Religion, p. 142.

35. Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 163.

36. Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge: Harvard Univer-sity Press, 1993), p. 415.

37. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, p. 104.

38. Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience, pp. 172-173.

39. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, p. 249.

40. Cobb, Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982); Griffin, Reenchant-ment without Supernaturalism, Chap. 7, “The Two Ultimates and the Religions.”

41. Reuben Hersh, What is Mathematics, Really? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p.9.

42. Ibid., p. 7; Y. N. Moschovakis, Descriptive Set Theory (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1980), p. 605; Penelope Maddy, Realism in Mathematics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 2-3.

43. Hersh, What is Mathematics, Really?, pp. 11-12.

44. Kurt Gödel, “What is Cantor’s Continuum Problem? Supplement to the Second [1964] Edition,” Collected Works, Vol. II, edited by Solomon Feferman et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 266-269, at 268.

45. Putnam, Words and Life, p. 503 (the statement is from “Philosophy of Mathematics: Why Nothing Works,” which was originally published in 1979).

46. Paul Benacerraf, “Mathematical Truth,” Philosophy of Mathematics, edited by Paul Benacerraf and Hilary Putnam, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 403-420.

47. Maddy, Realism in Mathematics, p. 37.

48. Hersh, What is Mathematics, Really?, p. 12.

49. Putnam, Mathematics, Matter and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 347 (the statement is from “Philosophy of Logic,” originally published in 1971).

50. Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 75.

51. Ibid., p. 75; From A Logical Point of View (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), p.41.

52. Quine, From Stimulus to Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 14; emphasis added.

53. Putnam, Words and Life, p. 153.

54. Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 9-10; Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 94.

55. John Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 15.

56. Ibid., pp. 48, 38.

57. Smart, “Religion and Science,” p. 223.

58. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 19.

59. Mackie, Ethics, pp. 31, 35.

60. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 291-293.

61. Ibid., p. 46.

62. Ibid., pp. 32-33.

63. Adventures of Ideas, p. 253.

64. Modes of Thought, p. 103.

65. Unsnarling the World-Knot (see note 12, above).

66. Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), Chap. 8, “Creation and Evolution.”

67. William James, The Will to Believe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 236.

68. I have argued this most fully in “Parapsychology and Philosophy: A Whiteheadian Postmodem Perspective,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 87/3 (July 1993), pp. 217-288; see also Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977).

69. James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, edited by Ralph Barton Perry (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971), pp. 270-271.

70. Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality, Chaps. 3-8.

71. Religion and Scientific Naturalism, Chap. 7, “Parapsychology, Science, and Religion.”

Posted September 3, 2007


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