Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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From Process Studies, Vol. 19, Number 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 116-135.  Text taken from Religion-Online. From the concluding section: “The basic task of philo-sophical theology in our time, I agree with Harts-horne, is to discover, through cooperation, ‘what the bottom layer of our common human thought really is.’  I have suggested . . . that this method, instead of ‘a priori’ and ‘nonempirical,’ could better be called ‘deep empiricism,’ because it seeks the universal features at the depths of every experience, beneath the fleeting superficialities.”

Posted November 4, 2009


Process Theology as Empirical, Rational, and Speculative: Some Reflections on Method

David Ray Griffin 


The primary purpose of this essay is to defend the “s” word—speculation.  My thesis is that for Christian theology to do its job in our day it must not only seek to be both fully empirical and fully rational, but that it must also be speculative, partly because speculation is inherent to Christian theology as such (in any day), and partly because speculation is necessary if the ideals of being fully empirical and fully rational are to be conjoined.

By “fully empirical” I mean being adequate to all the facts of experience.  By “fully rational” I mean achieving coherence or self-consistency (which, for the purposes of this essay, I equate), having no beliefs that contradict other beliefs or logical deduc-tions therefrom.  (The terms “empiricism” and “ra-tionalism” both have other connotations.  One can speak of genetic, conceptual, and justificatory empi-ricism, for example, and rationalism can be under-stood as the search for a system that is necessary as well as self-consistent.  I address these issues in section VII.)  Combining these two ideals, into rational empiricism or empirical rationalism, means that one cannot achieve rational coherence by simply denying or ignoring some facts of experience, and that one cannot achieve empirical adequacy by being inconsistent (even if inconsistency is re-labeled paradox, mystery, or ambiguity, and referred to in hallowed tones).  By being “speculative” I mean forming hypotheses about what things are in them-selves (including how they are related to other things), in distinction from how they appear to us. Speculative thought thereby stands in contrast with purely positivistic and phenomenological approach-es.  I will first explain why theology today must be fully empirical and fully rational, then come to the question of why it must also be speculative.


I. Why Theology Today Must Be Fully Empirical and Rational

The theological task today involves (among other things—see section VIII) trying to develop a self-consistent worldview that is adequate to all the facts of experience.  Theology today must make this attempt in order to fulfill its task of defending the truth of the beliefs involved in Christian faith.  I take for granted here the notion that Christian faith involves cognitive content—meaning propositions capable of being true—and that Christian theology involves the defense of their truth.

The former point, that Christian faith involves cognitive propositions, does not imply that any particular doctrines, meaning verbal formulations, belong to a self-identical essence of Christian faith that has endured for twenty centuries.  It does not even imply the same for any propositions, that is, the meanings which verbal statements seek to express and evoke, except for a few highly vague, abstract ones. The point is that Christian faith is not reducible to a noncognitive “blik,” or to a subjective form (fides qua creditur) alone.  Beneath the various attempts to articulate the content of Christian faith lies a “vision of reality” with implications for beliefs about God, the world in general, human existence in particular, and even some historical events, especially about Jesus.  Any attempt to “explicate” Christian faith must, to be adequate to it, contain doctrines about these realities.

The reason that theology must develop a worldview intended to pass the tests of adequacy and consistency is that the method of authority is no longer tenable.

Under the method of authority, the theologian argued that the content of Christian theology was true because it was guaranteed extrinsically.  We could believe Christian doctrines because they came in undistorted form from God, through divinely inspired prophets and the Son of God himself, and then (to us) through infallibly inspired scriptures and possibly an infallibly inspired church.  The truth of all this was usually argued through proofs from prophecy and miracles, sometimes in conjunction with other evidences.  In any case, because the truth of Christian doctrines was vouchsafed extrinsically, they did not have to prove themselves by their intrinsic convincingness.  The Christian story, with its worldview, did not have to be, in Plato’s sense, the intrinsically most likely tale to be worthy of belief.  It could contain doctrines that were not inherently understandable (such as the doctrine of the trinity), or that seemed to be self-contradictory (such as the full humanity and deity of Jesus), or that were contradicted by other doctrines (as, for example, human freedom by divine predestination, or God’s omnipotent goodness by human sin).  The Christian story and worldview could also include assertions that went against ideas that otherwise seemed very probably true (such as that the sun cannot “stand still,” or that this is not “the best of all possible worlds”).  Christian beliefs, in other words, were not to be believed because of their adequacy to all the facts of experience and their self-consistency; indeed, the fact that Christian faith included “mysteries” which soared above human reason, or even ran counter to it, was usually counted as a strength, showing that it was more than merely human wisdom.  This is not to say that Christianity was not in fact accepted in part because of its intrinsic convincingness; after all, Christian theology from the beginning was always adequate to many facts of experience, and was always formulated in a somewhat coherent way.  But it ultimately rested its case not on intrinsic convincingness but on extrinsic authority.  Christian theology was true because it was revealed by God.

Because the method of authority is no longer tenable, theology must now rest its claim to truth on its intrinsic convincingness.  This means that to be acceptable it must seem to be more (or at least not less) self-consistent and adequate to all the recognized facts of experience than any rival hypothesis.

A third criterion, distinguishable from what is often meant by adequacy and coherence, is illuminating power.  This is the power of a hypothesis to illuminate previously unrecognized facts of experi-ence and/or to show how seemingly contradictory facts are compatible.  In science this criterion is referred to by such terms as predictive power, fecundity, or fertility.  In philosophy, theology, and ordinary life we speak of “revelation,” “insight,” and the “aha” or “eureka” experience. Theories that first led to new discoveries are usually favored over subsequent theories that can give an equally coherent account of the same facts, which is why this criterion is usually distinguished from the other two. But in reality a theory’s predictive power is no more evidence of its truth than its retrodictive power. Accordingly, illuminating power can either be considered a distinct criterion, or it can be subsumed under adequacy and coherence taken together and comprehensively.  I will accordingly sometimes mention it but not treat it as a fully distinct criterion. In any case, the main point is that theology now must rest its case for the truth of the Christian faith upon the intrinsic convincingness of a Christian worldview, and this requires fulfilling the criteria of adequacy and coherence.


II. Adequacy to the Facts and Hard-Core Commonsense Ideas

Before coming to the question of the necessity for speculation, I must deal with the fact (!) that the criterion of “adequacy to the facts of experience” is a problematic notion.  In philosophical circles today, it is often dismissed as a false or even meaningless ideal.  It is widely claimed that this criterion is purely circular, because what the so-called facts of experience are is entirely a function of one’s theory. All observational facts are theory-dependent, it is said; they therefore do not provide an independent criterion with which to adjudicate between theories. The fact that my theory takes account of my facts in a coherent way cuts no ice in relation to a theory that cannot deal with some of my facts, because for that theory they are not facts.  Another way of formulating this theory about the relation between theory and facts is to speak of “the myth of the given.”  This phrase uses “myth” to mean an illusion, a false idea.  Experience includes no “given” element, it is claimed, meaning an element that is received or encountered prior to interpretation.  On the basis of the recognition that a language embodies interpretations, philosophers often make this point by denying the existence of any prelinguis-tic experience.  In any case, on this theory it makes no sense to speak of one’s theory or interpretation as being adequate to some “facts of experience” as if experience included some pre-interpreted facts.  The notion of truth as “correspondence of (interpreta-tive) idea to (pre-interpreted, given) reality” there-fore makes no sense.  Truth must mean coherence, at best, or what our peers will let us get away with, at worst.  But whatever it means, it cannot mean correspondence of theory to fact.

That many modern philosophers of our time have come to this conclusion should be no surprise to anyone who has studied Whitehead.  The quintessen-tial feature of distinctively modern philosophy is, for him, the subjectivist analysis of the datum of experi-ence, according to which it contains nothing but one’s own ideas, nothing but universals, qualities. According to this analysis, in other words, no actualities are given to experience.  Taken to its logical conclusion, as it was by Santayana, this view means that we are locked up in “solipsism of the present moment.”  Why we all inevitably interpret some of our ideas as having referents, as deriving from and pointing to actualities beyond our experience, is therefore a big mystery.  Instead of assuming that some of our ideas are symbols, pointing to actualities beyond ourselves, why do we not assume that they point, if point they must, only to other symbols?  That is, of course, the conclusion to which many deconstructionists have come.  Signs point only to other signs.  Reference is deconstruct-ed.  Truth can therefore at best be the coherence among signs.

Whitehead surely devotes more of his philoso-phical writing to this issue than to any other. The source of the problem, as he sees it, is this set of assumptions: that those elements that are prior (clearest) in consciousness are genetically primitive, that sensory data are the most primitive data of experience, that the elements of experience most clearly expressed by language are the most primi-tive, and that conscious introspection is the best way to identify the most fundamental elements of experience.  On the basis of these assumptions, he says, it is no surprise that philosophers cannot find any “given” elements.  Although experience begins with given data, it is an extremely complex process of self-construction, in which these given data are overlaid, in fact virtually swamped, by partially auto-nomous valuations, supplementations, modifications, integrations, interpretations, accentuations, and diminutions.  This is especially the case in high-level experience, such as moments of human experience in which consciousness arises. And when this consciousness does arise it tends to light up the later products of this constructive process most clearly, such as sensory data, which are “secondary qualities,” being produced by experience more than given to it. Consciousness tends to leave the earliest phases of experience, with its given elements, largely in the dark.  Because of this, and because human experience is so complex, conscious introspection is not the best way to examine experience for its most fundamental elements.  Assuming that experience does have given, universal dimensions, a better way to identify them is to look for elements that seem to be presupposed in all human practice.

Whitehead believes that such elements can be identified, and that they should constitute the ultimate criteria against which all philosophical construction is to be checked (PR 13/19, 151/229). These presuppositions of practice are the most fundamental of the “facts” to which systematic theory should be adequate.  I have come to call these presuppositions of practice “hard-core commonsense ideas.”  I use “common sense,” as did the commonsense philosophers, to mean that sense common to all humanity.  But the term nowaways usually connotes, in the words of my dictionary, a “set of general unexamined assumptions,” and these are for the most part simply the parochial prejudices of one’s time and place.  It was once common sense that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth, and it is now common sense that molecules do not have feelings and that a healthy economic system requires continual growth. Accordingly I refer to this kind of common sense as “soft-core,” because it can be changed, and the kind in which I am interested as “hard-core,” because it cannot.  Of course, hard-core commonsense truths can be denied verbally, but they will nevertheless continue to be presupposed in practice.  For example, the idea that our present actions are partly free, not being wholly determined by causes external to the person at that moment, is often denied in theory; determinists are legion.  But all determinists reveal that they presuppose, in the practice of living—including the practice of espousing their determinism—that they and other people are partially free.  It is because these hard-core commonsense notions cannot consistently be denied that they should be considered the ultimate “facts” to which theory should be conformed, and in terms of which the conflicts between competing theories should be adjudicated.  Although various theories may be in some respects incommensurate, the various theorists will all in practice share these presuppositions, so they can and should provide a common standard of measurement.

What are some of these universal presuppositions of practice?  I have already mentioned freedom.  A complementary presupposition is causation, meaning the real influence of one thing upon another.  Anyone attempting to persuade others that we have no knowledge of causality would show in that very act that this knowledge was being presupposed.  An adequate philosophy, then, can neither deny causal influence nor consider it all-determining, at least on human experience.  Another idea always presup-posed in practice is the reality of time, meaning the distinction between a settled past, a settling present, and a partly unsettled future.  (Time thus understood is in fact implied in the above notions of causality and freedom.)  Any worldview that denies the ultimate reality of time, or that contains a doctrine implying this unreality (such as a doctrine of determinism, or of immutable omniscience), is ipso facto in tension with something we all inevitably presuppose in practice.  Another presupposition is the reality of an actual world beyond ourselves; no adequate philosophy can deny or even doubt this fact.  (The silliness of solipsism is revealed by the story of the professor who, after announcing that he was a solipsist, heard a member of the audience say, “Thank God, I was afraid I was the only one!”)  Closely related to the notion of an actual world beyond our present experience is the notion of truth as correspondence between our ideas of the world and that world itself.  Every attempt to deny that truth in this sense is meaningful presupposes this notion; for example, the denial that there is a given element in experience is a claim that this description of our experience somehow corresponds, more closely than competing accounts, to the true nature of our experience.  Also closely related to the notion of actuality, in fact correlative with it, is the notion of possibility.  We all presuppose that at least some events could have turned out differently than they did, which means that other possibilities could have been actualized.  (This presupposition is contained in the presupposition of freedom.)  Closely related to this notion of alternative possibilities is the distinction between better and worse possibilities. The universal emotions of shame, guilt, anger, resentment, and regret presuppose that something worse than the best real possibility is often brought about.  Included in this distinction is the awareness that our world is not, at least in its concrete details, the best of all possible worlds.  Also related to better and worse, in turn, is the notion of importance—the assumption that some things are important, and some things more important than others.  Also related are the twin notions of intrinsic value, meaning that which is good in and for itself, and instrumental value, meaning that which is good insofar as it contributes to intrinsic value.  The idea of the holy and of ultimate meaning comprise another set of closely related presuppositions.  By the holy I mean an intrinsic value that is ultimate and nonderivative.  The presupposition of ultimate mean-ing is the presupposition that what we do and experi-ence somehow makes an ultimate, permanent difference.

Whitehead’s strategy against relativistic subjec-tivism seems to consist of two mutually reinforcing elements.  One is the analysis of normal human per-ception, called symbolic reference, into the two pri-mary modes of presentational immediacy and causal efficacy.  The latter mode, which constitutes the “given” element in human experience, occurs prior to the rise of the interpretative element, and is therefore not culturally conditioned.  We in fact share this mode of perception with nonhuman occasions of experience. This feature of Whitehead’s epistemolo-gy constitutes the reformation involved in his “reformed subjectivist principle.”  This epistemolo-gical analysis shows how it is possible that we could have a direct, culture-free perception of some primordial truths about the nature of existence.  (No moment of experience is culture-free, of course, but every moment has abstracted factors that are culture-free, being common to people of all cultures.) This first element in Whitehead’s response to radical relativism is therefore supportive of the second element, which is the focus on those presuppositions of practice that do indeed seem to be culture-free in the sense of being common to all people.  If we come to agree that such a set of common presuppositions does underlie the various worldviews of humankind, we need an explanation for this fact.  The notion of a preconceptual, prelinguistic, preinterpretative per-ception provides such an explanation.  The presuppo-sitions of a presymbolic perception and of a set of hard-core commonsense notions thus mutually reinforce each other.

Having made this correlation, I should add that the hard-core commonsense notions are not limited to elements derivable from perception in the mode of causal efficacy, or what Whitehead also calls physical feelings.  From these feelings we get the notions of actuality, causality, the past, and hence of givenness.  But the notions of freedom, possibilities, and intrinsic value, for example, evidently come more from the awareness of our own concrescence than from the prehension of the past (although we can surely get these notions from there too).  And the notion of the future, inherent in the notion of time, and the notion of ultimate meaning come primarily from the dimension of anticipation in a moment of experience.  The more complete statement, then, would be that the notion of hard-core commonsense ideas stands in a relationship of mutual reinforcement with the notion that our stream of experience is comprised of occasions of prehen-sive, self-creative, anticipatory experience.

On this basis, we can see the stance process theology should take to that movement called anti-foundationalism.  On the one hand, there is much that comes under this name with which we should agree.  In particular, the denial that epistemology is wholly prior to ontology; the denial that we can have an absolutely certain starting point; the idea that those elements of experience thought by most people to be primitive givens are in fact physio-logically, personally, and socially constructed; the idea that all of our descriptions of our observations involve culturally conditioned interpretations; the idea that our interpretations, and the focus of our conscious attention, are conditioned by our purposes; the idea that the so-called scientific method does not guarantee neutral, purely objective, truths; and the idea that most of our ideas do not correspond to things beyond ourselves in any simple, straightforward way (for example, red as we see it does not exist in the “red brick” itself).

But, on the other hand, process theology, if it is to retain any semblance of empirical adequacy, cannot go all the way with typical anti-foundational rhetoric. We may not need a foundation, as that term is currently understood, but unless we have something concrete under us we will be left hanging.  In some passages, for example, Bill Dean and Nancy Frankenberry seem to endorse the rhetoric of “the myth of the given,” and completely to relinquish the idea of any prelinguistic, preinterpretative, given element in experience (Dean, ARE 16, 80; HMH 139; Frankenberry, RRE 3-6, 31-32, 70, 83, 91, 131, 137-43).  To do so would be not only to leave James and Whitehead, with their “stubborn facts,” behind; it would also be to have a radical empiricism without empiricism.  (In other passages Dean and Franken-berry retain the element of givenness required for empiricism [ARE 2,47,94,97, 106; RRE 23, 34, 38, 83, 85-89, 91, 92, 94, 99, 105, 143-44, 158-64, 168, 171-72, 188].

A second extreme that must be resisted is the idea that there are no nonrelativistic truths in terms of which to measure competing theories.  Essential to the pragmatism of both James and Whitehead is the idea that we should not deny ideas in theory that we cannot live without in practice, and that there are some such ideas.

A third feature of the anti-foundationalist rhetoric that must be resisted is the wholesale rejection of the correspondence theory of truth (see Dean, HMH 8, 15,25, 91, 133, 141, 143; ARE 16,83).  One of the foundations of the complete rejection of this notion, the denial of a given element inexperience, has already been dealt with.  Whitehead also provides good answers to the other difficulties raised against the notion.  One objection is that an idea can correspond only to another idea; it cannot correspond to a thing.  This Berkeleian objection should not, in the first place, create any problems for talking about the correspondence between one person’s ideas and another’s, and in fact wholesale critics of the correspondence idea, such as Rorty, continue to presuppose that their accounts of other philosophers, for example, correspond to what those philosophers really said and meant.  In the second place, Whitehead’s panexperientialism, combined with his doctrine of eternal objects, shows how we can speak meaningfully of the correspondence between an idea, in the sense of a proposition (the meaning expressed or elicited by a linguistic sentence), and a nexus of actualities.  To say that there is correspondence is not to say that there is identity—a proposition and an actuality are obviously different types of existents.  What is meant by speaking of correspondence is that the same actual occasions and eternal objects that are together in the proposition are together in the nexus.  This correspondence is not identity because they are together in the nexus in the mode of realization whereas they are together in the proposition only in the mode of abstract possibility (AI 313-14).  A second objection is that an actuality is indefinitely complex, so that no proposition, even an extremely complex one, could exhaustively describe it, even in the mode of abstract possibility.  But the idea of correspondence does not require this impossible ideal.  The proposition is true if what it predicates of the actualities in question was really actualized by them, regardless of what other possibilities they realized.  One can speak of truth, therefore, without committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Yet another objection is that the correspondence theory of truth is meaningless because it requires us to compare our idea of the thing with the thing itself, but we cannot examine the thing itself, in distinction from how it appears to us.  If we have only our interpretations, it is absurd to have a theory of truth that requires us to get outside our interpretation to see if it corresponds to the thing prior to our interpretation of it.  This objection, at least in some authors, seems to presuppose the subjectivist view of perception, with its denial of the givenness of other actualities, which has already been criticized. Aside from that problem, this objection positivistically conflates meaning and verification. The correspondence theory of truth is a definition of the meaning of truth, not a statement of how truth, thus understood, is to be tested.  With regard to testing, Whitehead usually speaks of coherence and pragmatism.

In these ways, the objections to the idea of truth as correspondence can be cleared away, and we can explicitly reaffirm this notion, which we all implicitly affirm in practice, and we can therefore reaffirm that the task of the theologian involves the attempt to formulate the Christian faith in true doctrines, and to defend the truth of these doctrines by showing them to be self-consistent, adequate to the facts of experience, and illuminating.


III. Empirical Adequacy, Natural Science, and History

The “facts” to which theology must be coherently adequate are not exhausted, of course, by the hard-core commonsense ideas; these ideas only provide the ultimate criteria for testing adequacy.  Another type of facts very important in our time is the type provided by the natural sciences.  Here theologians must be very careful.  The “facts” seemingly vouchsafed by science come and go, so theologians need to try to avoid modifying doctrines on the basis of scientific ideas of today that may be rejected tomorrow.  Equally important is to avoid the appearance of resting the argument for the truth of particular doctrines upon such ideas.  Making theology “empirical” in this sense is one of the best ways to discredit it.  Newton’s argument for God’s reality and power on the basis of inadequate calculations, later corrected by Laplace, provides the best-known case of this type of empirical theology. Laplace’s undercutting of this particular argument is generally taken to mean that the entire basis for the Newtonian God was undercut.  The fact that Newton had other, more metaphysical, arguments for God is usually ignored.  This is no brief for the Newtonian God, only an emphasis on the danger of making theological doctrines appear to be dependent primarily upon features of today’s scientific consensus that are liable to be rejected tomorrow. But one should not, I think, say that contingent facts about the world seemingly vouchsafed by science, in distinction from strictly metaphysical features of reality, should never be used.  For example, I do not hesitate to appeal to the idea that our world was brought into its present form over billions of years, even though this idea could in principle be undermined.  Although we cannot be as certain of this idea as we can of a hard-core commonsense notion, we can, I believe, be much more certain of it than, say, of the neo-Darwinian theory of how evolution occurred.  This neo-Darwinian notion, in fact, provides a good example of the type of “scientific idea” to which theology, in my opinion, should not have adjusted.

If theology is to be empirical in the sense of being adequate to the data of the natural sciences, how should these data be employed?  As Hartshorne says, they can be used both negatively, as evidence against false views, and positively, to support process theology’s views.  For example, against both dualism and reductionistic determinism and in favor of the pancreationist, panexperientialist view that the actual world is made up exhaustively of partially self-determining, experiencing events, there is considerable evidence, such as the fact that a lack of complete determinism seems to hold even at the most elementary level of nature; that bacteria seem to make decisions based upon memory; that there appears to be no place to draw an absolute line between living and nonliving things, and between experiencing and nonexperiencing ones; and that physics shows nature to be most fundamentally a complex of events (not of enduring substances). Some recent developments in physics are moving toward the affirmation of the reality of irreversible time at the level of fundamental physics (PUST).  If recent evidence for Lamarckian inheritance (the inheritance of mutations induced by an organism in response to its immediate environment) holds up and is expanded, it would provide a way of showing not only the importance of self-determination and hybrid physical feelings in evolution, but also of how divinely rooted initial aims could be effective.  Another example was alluded to before: the fact that our world seems to have taken shape over a period of many billions of years, rather than having been created in essentially its present form a few thousand years ago, provides evidence against the view that the creation of our world required omnipotent coercive power; this fact is much more consistent with the view that the divine creative power is solely the power of persuasion, the kind of power we can experience working in our own lives. While these scientific ideas, insofar as they are accepted as true, disprove false metaphysical views, they cannot prove process theology’s view, but they can show that all the known empirical evidence is consistent with it.

Another kind of empirical facts is provided by historical research.  Insofar as theology makes claims about historical events, for example about Jesus, these claims must be compatible with the best historical research.  Theology cannot be historically empirical in the sense that claims about Jesus’ special relationship to God could be proved by historical evidence, for the evidence will always be consistent with various speculative hypotheses.  But any speculative hypothesis should be plausible in the light of the best historical evidence.


IV. Theology as Fully Rational

Having discussed various senses in which theology should be empirical, I turn now to the question of the role of reason, or rationality, in theological construction.  By reason as a criterion I mean primarily the principle of noncontradiction.  The rational urge is the urge to develop a consistent position.  It presupposes the desire for truth, and involves the recognition that a self-contradictory position cannot be true, in the sense of corresponding to reality, because real things cannot be self-contradictory.  This intuition I include among our hard-core commonsense truths.  This is one way in which rationalism and empiricism are in harmony rather than conflict.  An empirical survey of our fundamental intuitions, a task that Whitehead calls “assemblage” (MT, Ch. 1), reveals rationality among the deep-seated passions of humankind.

Rationalism and empiricism are not in conflict, furthermore, if we understand rationalism, as we should, as the drive, in Whitehead’s words, to “put the various elements of experience into a consistent relation to each other” (PR xi/v).  Whitehead agrees with Plato that the mark of the philosopher, as distinct from the sophist, is the “resolute attempt to reconcile conflicting doctrines, each with its own solid ground of support” (AI 153).  Hartshorne agrees with Whitehead on this point, endorsing his definition of rationalism as the “search for the coherence of the presuppositions of civilized living” (LP viii; CSPM xvi). Hartshorne makes the same point by characterizing philosophy at its best as “an agonizing struggle for balanced definiteness” (CSPM 93).  His point is that animals have the basic truths in a balanced way, but vaguely, whereas any bright person will become definite about such truths, but usually in a one-side way.  Philosophy’s task is to struggle for “the sharp vision of the whole truth” (CSPM 93).

To be sure, the desire for rational consistency for its own sake can, and often does, work contrary to the criterion of empirical adequacy.  The thinker in pursuit of rational consistency may simply deny certain facts that do not fit (PR 6/9).  Whitehead in fact says that “the chief danger in philosophy is that the dialectic deductions from inadequate formulae should exclude direct intuitions from explicit attention” (AI 177-78).  For example, the inadequate formulation of one hard-core commonsense notion, such as the intuition that all events have efficient causes, may lead to the denial of another hard-core commonsense idea, such as that human actions are partly free.  But this perversion occurs when rational consistency is sought for its own sake, apart from its place in the search for truth.  As part of this search, the desire for rational consistency is not in conflict with the desire for empirical adequacy, because it is nothing other than the desire to find a way to coordinate all of our well-grounded intuitions.

Far from being in conflict with the empirical urge, in fact, the rational urge supports it, because the drive to link up the various known facts in a self-consistent system often leads to the discovery of facts not previously known, at least not consciously. In natural science, the rational deduction that there ought to be another planet, or another subatomic particle, for example, has led to the discovery of these facts.  In philosophical theology, where the primary facts are the hard-core common-sense facts, the facts are already “known” unconsciously, in the sense of being presupposed in practice; but rational reflection can lead to the conscious knowledge of such principles.  For example, the attempt to reconcile the principle of universal causation with the experience of guilt perhaps first led to the consciousness of self-causation.  In either case, our empirical eye is rendered more acute by the rational passion in our soul, because the desire to find connecting links between presently known facts means that, in Whitehead’s words, “experience is not interrogated with the benumbing repression of common sense.”  (PR 9/13; here Whitehead uses “common sense” to refer to what I call soft-core common sense).  It is primarily at this point that the need for speculation becomes evident in relation to the drive for a rational empiricism, or empirical rationalism.  I turn now to this topic.


V. Rational Empiricism and the Need for Speculation in Philosophical Theology

I deal first with the need for speculation to fulfill the twin ideals of adequacy and coherence with regard to philosophical theology, or “natural” theology, meaning theology insofar as it deals with data that are in principle universally accessible.

Seeing how two intuitions about something are compatible with each other quite often requires a hypothesis about the nature of the thing in question. Speculation, meaning the formation of hypotheses about what things are in themselves, is therefore a necessary feature of the task of rationally coordinating all of our well-grounded beliefs.  I will provide several examples to illustrate the point.

Whitehead says that showing the relation between efficient causation and final causation (or self-determination) is one of the basic tasks of philosophy (PR 84/130).  His way of carrying out this task is to suggest, as a speculative hypothesis, that actual entities of which the world is comprised all have the character of actual occasions, that these all embody creativity, and that creativity oscillates between two modes: transition or efficient causation, and concrescence or final causation.  A further hypothesis, articulated more clearly by Hartshorne, is that some spatiotemporal societies of actual entities are “compound individuals,” in which a higher-level individual gives the society as a whole a unity of experience and action, and thereby a capacity to be directed by purposes, while other societies, such as rocks, have no dominant member, which leaves the behavior of the society as such at the mercy of efficient causation.

The intuition that I, with my conscious experience, am an actual individual with the power of self-determination, to make decisions and to cause my body to do my bidding, is reconciled with the equally strong sense that my body is real, and that it exerts powerful causation upon me, in terms of the speculative hypothesis that all actual occasions are occasions of experience, so that interaction of body and mind is not the unintelligible interaction of unlikes (the unintelligibility of which has led philosophers to deny the distinct actuality either of the mind or of the body).

The intuition that reality for human beings, and indeed for all living things, is necessarily temporal, with an irreversible distinction between past, present, and future, is difficult to reconcile with the idea, long orthodox in the physics community, that time does not exist for subatomic particles or even for single atoms.  (The idea is that “the arrow of time” is based on entropy and therefore only comes into existence when there are sufficiently organized collections of atoms.)  How could our experience, or that of the life of a cell, with its essential temporality, interact with things that are essentially nontem-poral?  Whitehead and Hartshorne overcome this conflict with the hypothesis that time is real for single atoms, electrons, and photons, because they are all temporally ordered societies of occasions of experience, different only in degree from living cells or human minds (see PUST).

Having thus far spoken of the need to speculate about the nature of finite actualities in themselves, including their causal relations, I now move to the question of God.  Whitehead came to the conclusion that his metaphysical cosmology had a God-shaped hole in it, that speaking of “the divine immanence” in worldly occasions was “a completion required by our cosmological outlook” (AI 206).  His reasons for speaking of God’s causal presence in the world revolved primarily around the notions of order, novelty, values, and truth.  But how can one speak coherently of God’s influencing the world?  If the principle that unlikes cannot interact prevents a dualistic understanding of mind and body, must not the same principle prevent a dualism of God and the world?  Whitehead’s reconciliation involved combin-ing the earlier point, that all actualities in the world are occasions of experience, with the idea that God is the chief exemplification, not the exception to, the metaphysical principles applicable to all finite actualities.  With the hypothesis that God is not a single actual entity, but a personal society of divine occasions of experience, Hartshorne carries this suggestion through more clearly, thereby making interaction between God and worldly occasions more intelligible.

I have just spoken of (two-way) interaction between God and the world, not simply the influence of God on the world.  When Whitehead later came to see that, if God influences the world, the world must influence God in turn, he did not need to add anything to the points summarized in the previous paragraph. The same causal principles applicable in all other cases could apply.  This speculative notion of our immanence in God provided the basis for reconciling two other beliefs, namely, that our lives somehow have ultimate meaning, but that our world, meaning not only our planet but this whole universe understood as a “cosmic epoch,” will eventually pass away.  This conflict has been felt especially strongly by Whitehead and Hartshorne insofar as they have not believed that the human psyche will continue to have new experiences after bodily death.  This conflict between a hard-core commonsense idea (about ultimate meaning) and a scientifically and philosophically based idea (that our world is temporally finite) is resolved by the speculative hypothesis that God, far from being impassible, is divinely relative, cherishing all events everlastingly, so that reality as a whole will never be as if we had not been.  It does seem to be the case, incidentally, that Whitehead moved from thinking of the idea of God’s consequent nature as based purely on rational inference (if God acts, God must be an actual entity and therefore must participate in the universal relativity of things) to thinking of it (most clearly in MT 110, 116, 120) as based also upon direct experience.  The idea nevertheless remains a speculative one.  In his last essay, “Immortality,” he says: “This immortality of the World of Action, derived from its transformation in God’s nature, is beyond our imagination to conceive.  The various attempts at description are often shocking and profane.  What does haunt our imagination is that the immediate facts of present action pass into permanent significance for the Universe” (I 698).  This seems to agree with his earlier statement that the idea “God and the World” involves more interpretation than the other opposites, such as permanence and flux and good and evil, not being present with the same directness of intuition (PR 341/518).

Thus far I have discussed the need for speculation in natural theology with regard to particular doctrines; but the point can be made more globally. Christian theology must make its case, I have argued, by presenting a worldview that is intrinsically convincing to people because of its rational coherence and its adequacy to the facts of experience.  Included under the facts are the facts vouchsafed by science.  But most people still assume that science vouchsafes a worldview very different from that of process philosophy—if not a wholly deterministic, reductionist, materialistic worldview, at least a view in which “physical nature,” meaning that which is studied by physics and chemistry, is understood in materialistic terms, except for whatever modifications are thought to be required by quantum physics.  The worldview suggested by a process Christian theology cannot be considered adequate to the “facts,” let alone illuminating of them, until the connection between “science” and the materialistic view of nature is broken.  It cannot even be considered consistent, because process thought’s talk of the soul will seem dualistic as long as the modern view of nature as insentient stuff is held.  This view of nature will not be overcome simply by rejecting it, perhaps by recommending a phenomenological bracketing.  It will only be overcome when it is replaced by a more convincing view.  Speculation about what nature is in itself, backed up by rational arguments, particularly about the mind-body problem, and empirical evidence from the sciences, is therefore a necessary dimension of a process Christian theology.


VI. The Need for Speculation in Christian Theology Proper

In the previous section I dealt with doctrines that belong to philosophical (or natural) theology, to show how doctrines that may initially seem to conflict can be made compatible.  Speculation is also needed for the same reason in relation to doctrines that belong less to natural theology than to the more strictly Christian aspect of the total theological enterprise.  I believe less in a hard-and-fast line between these two aspects of the theological enterprise than in a difference of degree.  This is partly because I accept the view that even our natural theology is inevitably a Christian natural theology, in the sense suggested by John Cobb, and partly because some of the doctrines that should be placed under the more strictly Christian aspect, such as the problem of evil, are not as strictly limited to Christian theology as are some others, such as christology.  Nevertheless, a real distinction does exist, and discussing the more or less strictly Christian doctrines raises special methodological issues.

I begin with the problem of evil.  Christians (as well as many others) believe that God is both the supreme power of the universe and perfectly good. This two-fold belief seems, prima facie, to be in conflict with the evil in the world.  One solution, the most popular among traditional theologians, is to deny the ultimate reality of evil.  But this is a classic case of “boldly denying the facts,” especially because the genuineness of evil is one of our hard-core commonsense ideas which we all presuppose in practice.  As Whitehead says, against Leibniz, “the imperfection of the world is the theme of every religion which offers a way of escape” (PR 47/74). Another solution is to deny God, but then one is left without an explanation for order, value, and novelty in the world, the experience of objective values, and the locus of truth.  The solution of Whitehead and Hartshorne is to reject the speculative idea that our world was created ex nihilo in the absolute sense, which implied that God freely chose all the metaphysical principles, including the way the world is related to God.  Their alternative speculative suggestion is that a realm of finite actual occasions has always existed, that it exists as necessarily as does God, and that the basic God-world relation belongs to the very nature of things.  In Whitehead’s words, “metaphysics requires that the relationships of God to the World should lie beyond the accidents of will, and that they be founded upon the necessities of the nature of God and the nature of the World” (AI 215).  This position also entails, as Hartshorne has said more clearly, that the metaphysical principles did not derive from a decision, even a primordial one (which he takes to be self-contradictory), but are strictly necessary, belonging to the very nature of God, or God-and-a-world.  (Although Hartshorne argues that we can, at least to an extent, directly see this necessity, I am not here opening this rationalist issue, but simply speaking of the hypothesis that the principles exist necessarily.)  The upshot of all of this for the problem of evil is, more basically, that worldly occasions necessarily have their own freedom, so that God’s power in the world can only be persuasive power.  God does not work by persuasion alone only because of a divine decision to do so, as in a voluntary self-limitation, which could in principle be revoked from time to time.  We need not wonder, therefore, why God does not intervene coercively sometimes to prevent particularly horrible outcomes. I have developed, in terms of five or six variables of value and power, some more points implicit in this position.  One of these is that higher forms of actual occasions, which can enjoy greater intrinsic value (which is, by hypothesis, the divine aim), must necessarily have more freedom of self-determination, which means more power to diverge from divine aims.  Another implication is that they also must have more power of efficient causation, which can be used for evil as well as good.  Therefore a world with creatures like us is necessarily a very dangerous world.  It is by means of this very complex speculative hypothesis, involving the nature of God, creation, worldly actualities, and possibilities, that process theology can reconcile God’s goodness and providence with genuine evil.

I have also developed (in forthcoming books) the position somewhat further with regard to the notion of the demonic.  The devil in the Christian imagination seems to be both a creature and yet more than a creature.  Satan is a creature of God who exists only because of God’s creative activity, and yet, now that Satan exists, he is not simply under the divine thumb but is engaged in mortal combat with the creator for the devotion of human beings.  Traditional Christian theology, with its doctrine of divine omnipotence, could not do justice to the latter intuition.  I have suggested that worldly creativity (in distinction from creativity insofar as it is embodied in God) can be employed to reconcile these two ideas.  With the rise of human beings, in whom worldly creativity becomes self-conscious, it can become demonic, going strongly against the divine will, and with powerfully destructive consequences.  This demonic reality is a creature, because without God’s stimulation of the evolutionary process over billions of years, humanlike beings would not have arisen. On the other hand, it is more than a creature, because worldly creativity exists necessarily, not arbitrarily, and because, now that creativity at the human level exists, it cannot be unilaterally controlled.  This notion of the demonic, especially when it is developed to explain the widespread proclivity of human beings to evil (through being born into cultures more or less dominated by demonic habits, symbols, beliefs, and attitudes), provides a further basis for reconciling God’s goodness with the world’s evil.

But, one may object, this whole argument begs the question, which is whether God is perfectly good. This process theology may well render the world’s evil compatible with an antecedent belief in the perfect goodness of the world’s creator.  But why accept that belief?  It is not a hard-core commonsense idea; it is not a fact vouchsafed by science; and it certainly cannot be read off the historical record.  What basis is there for holding it? Have we not here gone beyond any empirical basis?

This question forces my methodological position to become more complex.  I will make four points, which are meant to have relevance beyond this particular issue.  First, my statement of the primary way in which theology should be empirical only talked about being adequate to all the facts of experience. It did not say that nothing was to be allowed into the theological position that was not empirically grounded and/or could not be empirically justified. To say this would be to give a more stringent meaning to “being empirical” than I had given.  I will, however, return to this issue later.

Second, as I suggested earlier, each of the various religious traditions, I maintain, is based upon a particular preconceptual “vision of reality.”  This is something like the “blik” discussed by philosophers in an earlier decade, but it is not wholly noncognitive: explicating it requires propositions capable of being true or false.  It is something like an “understanding of existence,” except that it has implications for the nature of the holy reality and the world in themselves, not simply human existence.  A vision of reality is not argued to; it is the presupposed stance from which all argument proceeds, because it lies behind the data focused on and the propositions taken to be self-evident.  This is not to say, however, that a vision of reality is like a “basic belief” as defined by Alvin Plantinga and others, meaning that it need not be justified.  A vision of reality must prove itself, once it emerges into a pluralistic, nonauthoritarian setting, by showing that it can give birth to a conceptualization of reality that is more coherent and adequate to the facts of experience than other visions can.  The notion of different visions of reality does somewhat relativize the notion of “facts of experience,” to be sure, by saying that different visions will lead people to notice different facts consciously and/or to valorize the same facts differently.  Nevertheless, this relativization is not complete, thanks to the hard-core common sense notions and to scientifically and historically estab-lished facts (which do have considerable context-independence, even if not as much as earlier thought).

To apply this discussion to the point at hand: the idea that God is a perfectly good, loving being belongs, I would say, to the Christian vision of reality. The Christian theologian therefore properly takes this belief as one of the “facts” to which a theological position should be adequate, even if it is not a fact in as strong a sense as hard-core commonsense ideas and very well-grounded scientific and historical ideas.  The attempt to be adequate to this “fact” is not a duty of Christian theologians as much as something they naturally seek to do, insofar as they share the Christian vision of reality.  Insofar as a Christian theology, with its inherent theodicy, can do justice to the more neutral facts in a more coherently adequate way than theologies (including a/theologies) starting from a different vision of reality, the idea of the perfectly good, loving nature of God is warranted.  Accordingly, the idea of God’s loving goodness might be empirically justified, in that very indirect way in which metaphysical and theological ideas can be justified, even if it is not empirically derived.

Third, we can argue that the idea has in fact been empirically (experientially) derived. From a White-headian point of view, not only the initial aim of God but God as a whole (God’s “consequent states,” in Hartshorne’s language) can be prehended.  One could thereby feel the divine subjective form. Abraham Heschel has suggested just this, that the prophets felt the divine pathos for the world.  Mystics of all ages and traditions have reported experiences that could be understood as direct experiences of the divine love or compassion.  More precisely, from a Whiteheadian standpoint, we should say that, if God is loving, then we all feel this, at some level, all the time, so that the only extraordinary feature of mystical experiences is that in them this feeling of the holy rises to the level of conscious awareness. The biblical vision of reality, which is shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, can therefore, in containing the vision of divine loving goodness, be understood as expressing an experientially derived truth about the nature of reality.  A truth of universal import can be experientially derived even if it is not in fact equally accessible to everyone because the different cultures into which people are born, with their different visions of reality, predispose them to notice some universal features of reality and not to notice others.

Fourth, a doctrine of this nature can be held with even more conviction if it can be given metaphysical support, and this is true of the doctrine of God’s goodness.  I have followed Hartshorne in pointing out that the necessary goodness, in the sense of the impartial compassion, of God follows from combining the doctrines of God’s omniscience and ubiquity (as soul of the universe) with the doctrine of the conformity of subjective forms in physical feelings. From this viewpoint, God would love the world necessarily, analogously to the way in which we naturally love our bodies, feeling their pains with compassion and their delights with sympathetic joy (GRPW, chap. 8).

In these third and fourth points, I have suggested how speculation can be used to bolster doctrines belonging to the Christian tradition, showing (in this case) how they might be more empirically rooted, and might have more rational justification, than would appear at first glance.

I move now to the question of speculation about past historical events.  The possibility of paranormal cognition aside, the data for doctrines about past events are not consciously available.  We must rely on authority.  I refer primarily to those events in the biblical record that are generally held to be especially revelatory of God.  Because for Christians Jesus is the decisive event of this nature, I will focus on him. The question I will address is whether speculation about what Jesus was in himself, especially how he was related to God (meaning how God was present in him), is an essential or at least important task for Christian theology.  I will suggest two reasons why it is.

First, Christians in the past, from theologians to preachers to ordinary believers, have engaged in such speculation—or at least accepted the specula-tions of others.  Most of this is, from a process point of view, bad speculation.  (While it may have been the best possible at the time, given the assumptions and available categories, it denies the full humanity of Jesus, does not provide a basis for understanding God’s ideal relation to us, and entails all the problems of supernaturalism, among other problems.)  And the only way to replace bad speculative ideas is with better speculative ideas.  One cannot do so simply by exhorting people to forswear all speculative ideas.

Second, the Christian vision of reality includes implications not only about God, humanity, and the world, but also about a particular historical tradition, with Jesus at its center.  The vision implies that the decisive truths about God, humanity, and the world have been revealed through this tradition, especially through Jesus.  More pointedly, these events are held to involve a decisive self-revelation of God, through which we learn about God’s nature, purpose, and mode of agency, and thus about humanity and the world.  Part of the apologetic task of Christian theologians is to show the reasonableness of this belief.  This is in large part to be done, I have suggested, by conceptually explicating the Christian vision of reality in such a way that it proves its truth through the intrinsic convincingness of the worldview to which it gives birth.  But another aspect of this task is to show how it is conceivable that the truth about God, and thus about reality as a whole, could have been revealed through these events.  It is not enough simply to say that these events have in fact been taken as revelatory, and that the continued appropriateness of doing so is demonstrated by its fruitfulness.  It is also important to support the continued appropriateness of giving special attention to these events by showing how, if God, humanity, and the world are such as we say they are, these events could have been in themselves, prior to our taking them as such, special self-expressions of God, in which the divine nature, purpose, and mode of agency were especially expressed, so that they are appropriately received as special revelations of God. In other words, I take it to be implicit in the notion that Jesus is a decisive revelation of God to us that he was in himself a special self-expression of God.  If that notion is implicit, then the kind of question debated at Chalcedon is still an important question, namely, how was God related to Jesus in a special way?  The issue is not whether we can know this; we cannot have sufficient probability to speak of knowledge.  The issue is whether we can have a plausible idea of how it could have been possible, and by plausible I mean self-consistent and consistent with whatever historical facts we have.  Providing this plausibility requires speculation about Jesus in himself, including how God was present in his experience.


VII. Some Stronger Meanings of “Empirical” and “Rational”

I have argued that the ideal of a theology that is fully empirical is not in competition with the ideal of its being fully rational, and that the resulting ideal of rational empiricism does not exclude, but in fact requires, theology’s being speculative.  But it may seem that I have made the case too easy, that I guaranteed a pre-established harmony, by giving a too-limited definition of “empirical” and/or “ratio-nal,” thereby only advocating that theology be partially empirical and/or partially rational.  If I were to go beyond my limited, innocuous definitions to the really interesting ones, it could be said, then the conflicts would become apparent.  My response would be that my definitions were indeed designed to allow harmony between the empirical, rational, and speculative dimensions.  But I deny that this harmony would now be destroyed by introducing stronger meanings of empirical and/or rational, as long as these are meanings that we ought to accept.

One meaning of empirical is “conceptual empiri-cism,” which means that all concepts, to be meaningful, must be based upon direct experience. Whitehead and Hartshorne both accept this Berkeleian point.  Whitehead, for example, says that “Hume’s demand that causation be describable as an element in experience is . . . entirely justifiable” (PR 166-67/253).  And Hartshorne endorses “the whole drive of modern philosophy to relate concepts to perceptions” and the empiricist principle that all meaningful ideas are derived from experience and refer to experience (BH 229,135: MVG 79,86; RSP 44). Hartshorne even refers to “the principle of empiricism” in this sense as “the basis of intellectual integrity” (BH 321).  This conceptual empiricism, needless to say, does not equate perception with sensory perception.  The doctrine that all actual entities are to be understood by analogy with our own experience is based on this idea, as is the doctrine that God is to be conceived as the chief exemplification, rather than an exception to, the metaphysical principles.  I intend everything I say to be consistent with conceptual empiricism.

A stronger meaning of empiricism seems to be expressed by Whitehead’s statement that “the elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought” (PR 4/6).  This could be read to mean that every element in a theological position should be nothing other than an explication of ideas implicit in everyone’s experience.  This doctrine of empiricism would rule out, for example, all historical doctrines, such as assertions about Jesus’ experience in itself, as distinct from phenomenological descriptions of Jesus’ meaning for me or my community.  It would also rule out any ideas of God that went beyond some sort of God-consciousness that could be ascribed to all people.  (People could well differ on what this would allow us to say about God, with some opting, for example, for Whitehead’s primordial nature of God while rejecting the consequent, with others considering even the primordial nature too speculative and speaking only of “creative interchange” or “creative passage,” and with still others considering the consequent nature of God the most empirically grounded feature of Whitehead’s doctrine.)  But I do not believe White-head’s statement should be read so rigidly.  For a thought to “elucidate” immediate experience does not necessarily imply that the thought was already implicit in experience, perhaps down deep, merely awaiting a Socratic mid-wife.  The ideas of relativity and quantum physics, for example, which were so important to Bernard Meland as well as to Whitehead, could not be so described.  The same is true for most scientific ideas; think, for example, of the theories developed to explain the evolution of the universe and of life on our planet.  These theories do elucidate items of immediate experience, such as pointer-reading, red-shifts, and fossils.  But the ideas developed go far beyond anything implicit in every person’s immediate experience.  Theories about God’s primordial and consequent natures, and about the structure of Jesus’ experience, including God’s role therein, are not different in kind in this respect. What can be called “genetic empiricism” therefore does not rule out speculation.

The kind of empiricism that has probably been most discussed in our century in relation to theology involves the testing of conjectures.  It is now generally agreed that no conjectures can be verified in the strict sense, if this means ruling out all other possible interpretations of the experiential data.  (All interpretations are “underdetermined” by the data, in the current jargon.)  It is generally agreed that scientific theories, in distinction from metaphysical ones, are empirically falsifiable, meaning that some observations could conceivably conflict with them. And it is now generally agreed, after much spilled ink, that metaphysical theories, not being empirical in this sense, are not thereby meaningless.  But this does not mean that empirical evidence is irrelevant to them.  Indeed, if a metaphysical assertion is one that is intended to describe all beings, or all actual beings (or perhaps all individual actual beings), then a false metaphysical assertion could in principle be falsified by any instance of the category of being in question.  And any true metaphysical assertion will be exemplified by every instance of the category and therefore increasingly verified by accurate observa-tions.  This is Hartshorne’s position (BH 147,260,292, 293), and it seems to me correct with regard to the strictly metaphysical dimension of philosophical theology.

I believe it is also consistent with Hartshorne’s position to say that, although no possible and therefore truly conceivable world is incompatible with the true metaphysical position (we here touch on that side of Hartshorne’s rationalism in which the rational and the discernibly necessary are equated), many imaginable worlds are inconsistent with it.  (We can imagine all sorts of things that are probably not genuinely conceivable, such as traveling into the past or foreseeing the contingent future.)  Examples of imaginable worlds that would be incompatible with process metaphysics are: a world in which the elementary units of nature were enduring sub-stances, especially if they were inert and fully determined; a world in which space and other things existed independently of temporal processes; a world in which an absolute gap separated living and nonliving things, or sentient and insentient indivi-duals, or else a world in which there were no sentient things whatsoever.  In this sense the metaphysics of process theology is not empirically vacuous, because it does rule out many worlds that philosophers have thought to be possible, in fact actual.  With regard to process theism in particular, we can list some other imaginable worlds that are ruled out: a world that had lasted indefinitely in essentially its present form; a world that remained indefinitely in a state of chaos, in which only the most trivial forms of experience could occur; a world in which otherwise humanlike creatures never showed any interest in novelty and intensity of experience, or any passion for truth, beauty, and goodness. Through this form of imaginative contrast, process theology can be seen to make nonempty assertions about the world that can be verified by contrasting the experienced world with imagined ones.  In this sense the “method of difference” can be used, even if only one metaphysical position is possible and genuinely conceivable.

What about this aspect of Hartshornean rational-ism, according to which metaphysical truths are necessary truths—and not only ontologically but rationally, meaning that only one metaphysical position is genuinely conceivable?  Does not talk of “necessity” leave empiricism far behind? How can we have any experiential warrant for thinking that the basic principles that happen to be exemplified in our world do not just “happen” to be thus exemplified but are the only basic principles that could be exemplified, and are the only ones that are truly conceivable?  How could we possibly know this?  Has not the Hartshornean form of process theology distorted process thought, which is more empirical, more modest?  Furthermore, does not this rationalistic necessity also rule out speculative hypotheses?  To respond: In the first place, we should not exaggerate the difference between Whitehead and Hartshorne on this point, because Whitehead too speaks of “necessity” and defines metaphysical principles as those devoid of con-ceivable alternatives (PR 3/4, 4/5, 288/441; ESP 123, 124).  In the second place, Hartshorne says that certainty is not readily attained in metaphysics (CSPM 32).  In any case, it seems to me that the notion of necessity should not play much of a role methodologically.  That is, we should not seek directly to demonstrate that one and only one set of metaphysical principles is genuinely conceivable, and that this means that one and only one set of metaphysical principles is really possible.  This is quite different from the hypothesis that the most basic principles exemplified in our world are in fact metaphysical in character, meaning that they would necessarily be exemplified in any world.  As a hypothesis, this claim is to be accepted insofar as it is an essential feature of a worldview that proves itself in terms of the criteria of adequacy, coherence, and illuminating power.  Necessity in this ontological sense is not in conflict with tentativeness and speculation.

The aspect of Hartshorne’s position that is most often lifted up as illustrating his extreme rationalism, and thereby his remoteness from empiricism, is his ontological argument.  But Hartshorne’s position can be explicated quite well without reference to it.  (I have sought to do so in “Charles Hartshorne’s Postmodern Philosophy,” in Robert Kane and Stephen Phillips, Hartshorne, Process Philosophy and Theo-logy [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989], 1-33.)  In any case, this is only one argument for God’s existence among many that Hartshorne offers, and the rest of them consist of showing that belief in God is implicit in our experience, meaning that it is “required for the interpretation of some fun-damental aspect of life or experience” (CSPM 280). They are, therefore, like Whitehead’s, attempts to elucidate some aspect of immediate experience. Like the rest of his philosophy, then, Hartshorne’s theistic arguments, aside from the ontological argument, are experientially rooted.  The role of the ontological argument in Hartshorne’s philosophical theology should not be exaggerated by pointing to this argument as evidence of the anti-empirical character of Hartshorne’s position, as a whole.  In any case, I reject the ontological argument, although not because it is nonempirical, but because I do not think it works.  It may be that the reason it does not work, if it doesn’t, is because it is not empirically rooted. But if we reject the ontological argument, we should do so because it does not work, not because we have decided a priori that only empirical arguments are to be accepted.  That would seem to be the more empirical approach.


VIII. An Inclusive Program

I can perhaps make the foregoing reflections more intelligible by showing how they fit into an overall program, which has six aspects.

The basic task of philosophical theology in our time, I agree with Hartshorne, is to discover, through cooperation, “what the bottom layer of our common human thought really is” (MVG 80).  I have suggest-ed (in the essay mentioned above) that this method, instead of “a priori” and “nonempirical,” could better be called “deep empiricism,” because it seeks the universal features at the depths of every experience, beneath the fleeting superficialities.  It could also be called “deep ecumenism,” because it involves seeking out those elements that are already common to, or could become common to, all the religious traditions.  The assumption behind this statement is that each religious tradition has noticed and thematized some of the hard-core commonsense notions while ignoring many others.  Between any two traditions there will be some overlap and some divergence.  Accordingly, any two traditions will have much in common but also much to learn from each other.  This learning may often be difficult, because each tradition may have formulated its primordial truths in ways that exclude the primordial truths thematized by the other.  Some speculation will be needed to facilitate rational coordination.  This process also requires empiricism, in the sense of truly listening to each other.  This enterprise, as Hartshorne says, must be a cooperative one.  All human traditions, including modernity, are to make their contribution.  (This enterprise raises very serious methodological problems, of course.  For example, should Christian theologians try to seek a “perspectiveless perspective” or frankly recognize that their appropriation of truths and values from other traditions will be largely controlled by their Christian perspective?  But I cannot address this huge question here.)  For me, this is primarily a task for the future.

The second task of philosophical theology is that of constructing a speculative worldview in which all the discerned hard-core commonsense truths are reconciled with each other and with the data from ordinary and scientific experience.

A third task for the Christian theologian is to reinterpret and reformulate the doctrines of historic Christian faith in the light of the foregoing and following dimensions of the overall task.  A central feature of this task is to portray the “worldview” of the previous point as a “story” rooted in the creative, liberating, sanctifying love of God.

A fourth task, to be done not after the foregoing tasks as an “application” of them but as an integral dimension of theological construction from the beginning, is to relate theological insights to concrete problems of our day.  Theological truths should be presented as liberating truths.  In my own case, I have decided to focus primarily upon liberation from the inclusive problem of modernity itself, while recognizing that some of the problems, such as racism, patriarchy and anthropocentrism, run deeper.

A fifth dimension of the theological task is to present theological insights in ways that captivate the human imagination and emotions, not simply the intellect.  This can be done through use of story, poetry, ritual, metaphor, drama, and music, for example.  My own work has been weakest in this regard.

A sixth dimension, closely related to the first, third, and fourth dimensions, is grounding the theological position historically, showing the new features to be authentic developments of the Holy-Spirit-inspired trajectory of the human spirit that is recorded in the biblical tradition.  My own work has also been quite weak in this regard.

A final comment about speculation and the present context: What has come to be called “foundationalism” is the attempt, through empirical and/or rational procedures, to establish an absolutely certain starting point.  More generally, “empiricism” and “rationalism” have often been intended as methods designed to provide certainty. The belief that certainty is attainable, if only the right method can be found and consistently practiced, has fostered a climate in which “speculation” has been negatively appraised.  This climate has perhaps played a role in the development of those forms of process theology that have been labeled “empirical” and “rationalistic.”  In any case, the present recog-nition of the impossibility of an absolutely certain foundation for thought—an impossibility that White-head had recognized decades ago—should free us to engage more boldly in that speculative adventure of ideas exemplified by Whitehead’s own procedure.



ARE—William Dean. American Religious Empiricism. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1986.

BH—Charles Hartshorne. Beyond Humanism: Essays in the Philosophy of Nature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

CSPM—Charles Hartshorne. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. London: SCM Press, 1970; Lenham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983.

GRPW—David Ray Griffin. God and Religion in the Postmodern World. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989.

HMH—William Dean. History Making History: The New Historicism in American Religious Thought. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1988.

I—Alfred North Whitehead. “Immortality.” The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1941: 682-700.

LP—Charles Hartshorne. The Logic of Perfection. and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962.

MVG—Charles Hartshorne. Man’s Vision of God. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964.

PUST—Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time: Bohm, Prigogine, and Process Philosophy. Ed. David Ray Griffin. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1986.

RRE—Nancy Frankenberry. Religion and Radical Empiricism. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1987.

RSP—Charles Hartshorne. Reality as Social Process. Glencoe, ill.: The Free Press, 1953.

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