Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

First published in Whitehead’s View of Reality, Pilgrim Press, 1981. 

Whitehead in Historical Context

Charles Hartshorne 


I: The Basic Categories

II: Whitehead’s Philosophical Theology

III: Some Unresolved Problems in Whitehead’s Theism


I: The Basic Categories


What Whitehead called speculative philosophy, the central or noncontingent core of which he sometimes called metaphysics, is a difficult enterprise; and at most only a few crucially important individuals occur in it in a century.  Plato and Leibniz were outstanding examples in the past, and in the hundred years ending in 1970 I personally take the most important to have been Peirce, Bergson, and Whitehead.  Whitehead was deeply influenced by Plato and to some extent by Leibniz and Bergson but came to know about Peirce as philosopher too late to be influenced directly by him.  Like Whitehead, Peirce, and Leibniz, Plato took mathematics to be an important aid in philosophizing.  Plato’s Academy was supposed to be open only to those who had studied geometry.  Whitehead wrote the article on geometry for the great Eleventh Edition of the Britannica.  Leibniz, Peirce, and Whitehead, as few others in the history of philosophy, combined intensive work and competence in mathematics, formal logic, physics, and speculative philosophy.  They were well acquainted with the history of science and philosophy, as well as with the intellectual situation in their own time.

Bergson was not a mathematician or formal logician, though he did a year’s work in mathematics at the Ecole Normale Superiure and won a prize in that subject.  His theory of intuition rationalized his lack of high competence in rigorous reasoning.  Whitehead thought, as many others have, that this lack somewhat limited Bergson’s achievement.  In any case Whitehead took Bergson’s views into account, and one can claim that he assimilated much of what was best in them.

There are philosophers important for speculative philosophy who are not important in speculative philosophy.  These are the critics of speculative systems who scarcely have a system of their own, the skeptics or agnostics who point to weaknesses in systems and, in this way, enable the system-makers to do a better job.  Among these relatively nonspeculative thinkers, Hume, Kant, Russell, William James, and Wittgenstein have been important.  Except apparently for Wittgenstein, Whitehead certainly considered these thinkers with some care.

The line between system-makers and critics is not sharp.  Of the writers just listed, at least four – Hume, Kant, Russell, and James – took some steps into metaphysics.  But Hume’s metaphysical doctrine is an extreme pluralism summed up by the words, “What is distinguishable is separable,” where “separable” means that either of the two distinguished items might conceivably exist or occur without the other.  Thus, if we distinguish two events, a and b, occurring in that order, then a might conceivably occurred though b did not follow, and b might have occurred though a had not preceded it.  This doctrine of mutual independence makes causal dependence of events on previous conditions a mystery.  (Russell repeats Hume in this respect and his philosophy, apart from niceties in formal logic, adds little to the Humean paradox.)  Hume also takes a metaphysical position in defending causal determinism.  This not only does not follow from his pluralism but seems incongruous with it.  True, Hume thought that empirical science had established determinism.  However, as Kant rightly argued, no such concept as absolute and universal causal order could be justified by mere observation.

Whitehead, like Peirce, seems to have begun his philosophizing as a student of Kant but doubtless saw that Kant’s ideas of science, mathematics, and logic were partly antiquated by intellectual progress after Kant’s time.  Kant was not himself a mathematician or formal logician, though he did make some contributions to natural science.  Kant’s agnosticism, his rejection of much of what had been metaphysics, was combined not only with an acceptance of determinism but also with a concept that Hume tried to show was fallacious, that of “substance” – that meaning the idea of thing which changes through time and yet remains in an absolute sense the “same” reality.  Kant did not exactly accept Hume’s pluralism; but he avoided it only by attributing causal dependence and order, also substantiality, not to the things given in our experience but to our human way of experiencing them.  So the order we know is to be taken not as that of things as they are apart from us, but only as the order of our experiences themselves.  We know ordered appearances not ordered realities.  And we have no theoretical evidence of the existence of God or human freedom, even though for ethical reasons we need to believe in them.

Whitehead accepts from Hume his critique of substance (or of absolute genetic identity) and on this point disagrees somewhat with Kant.  But he agrees with Kant that absolute pluralism is a mistaken doctrine, not, however, because our minds force the given into some causal order but because causal dependence is in the things we experience, quite apart from our experiencing them.  Moreover, he holds (and there may be an influence of James here) that Hume and Kant are both wrong in absolutizing causal order in the deterministic fashion.  All events have necessary conditions in previous events, but they do not have strictly sufficient conditions if that means conditions strictly determining what then happens.  For Whitehead, as for Bergson and James (also Peirce, but Whitehead did not know about his views until his own were fully formed), there is always at least a bit of freedom or uncertainty in what a given situation will produce as its effect.  The past is settled and present action must “conform” to it; but always there is more than one possible way of achieving this conformation.  On the higher levels we call this indeterminacy freedom.  Peirce’s word for it was “spontaneity,” Bergson’s and Whitehead’s was “creativity.”  Berdyaev, exiled Russian thinker, had a similar view and used the same word (but also “freedom”).  Dewey too believed that indeterminacy was found in nature apart from humanity.

On one issue Whitehead agrees with all the great metaphysicians mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay.  Plato, Leibniz, Peirce, Bergson, all believed that the explanation of matter was to be sought in mind, not that of mind in matter.  Of the four, Plato was least clear on this point, but he did hold that mind (or “soul”) was “self-moved” and the source of all motion or change.  For Leibniz what we call matter is merely mind in low-grade forms and in various kinds, individual instances of each kind (atoms, cells, etc.) occurring in large numbers.  These instances are insignificant taken one by one and are therefore perceived by us only in masses, like a swarm of bees seen at a distance.  Peirce followed Leibniz in this analysis and so did Bergson.  Whitehead is in this tradition, which he developed and clarified.  He regarded the notion of mere matter, dead and without feeling or thought, as an empty abstraction, and one the usefulness of which in science had been steadily diminishing in recent decades.  On this issue three great mathematician-logician-philosophers agree.  There is also some agreement on this topic between the three Western philosophers and the Buddhist tradition in Asia.  A Buddhist slogan was “mind only.”

On the question of substance, or absolute identity through change, Peirce is somewhat unclear, and so, I find, is Bergson, while Leibniz was the extremest defender of strict substantial identity.  Whitehead, Hume, and the Buddhists agree that, strictly speaking, a so-called substance is a new concrete reality each moment; but it is Whitehead who, in my judgment, does the best job of retaining aspects of truth in our commonsense notions of individual things and persons.  One can read into Plato a view somewhat like Whitehead’s, and Bochenski has even hinted (in conversation) that the gulf between Whitehead and Aristotle on this point could easily be exaggerated.  The point of Whitehead’s rejection of substance in the usual meaning is not that there is no identity through change.  There is identity, but it is partial or qualified, not absolute or total.

 There is an asymmetry about genetic identity.  An adult possesses or carries its childhood with it in a sense in which a child does not carry or possess its adulthood.  Identity in its absolute meaning has no such asymmetry.  If X simply is Y, then in the same sense Y is X.  The rings of a tree enable us to inspect the tree’s past, but nothing similarly discloses its future.  Memory is the psychical analogue of the tree rings.  Remembering is experiencing our past selves.  Each of us carries throughout life a mass of mostly unconscious memories, and after early childhood this mass begins to form the central core of our sense of identity.  No one else has the same memory mass, and the longer we live the less, proportionately, does each new momentary experience add to the total.  It is also true that, even with identical twins, no one else has exactly the same bodily structure, changes in which are mostly small and gradual, especially after early adulthood.  Each of us is also the focus of various obligations and expectations coming to us from others, linked to our names or our appearances, and this, too, tells us “who” we are.

People who talk about their “search for identity” or their puzzle about their identity, are expressing in one way the truth that self-identity is not an absolute, simple affair, but a qualified, relative, partial, subtle, and complex one.  The relativity is also expressed in other ways.  We say we “identify ourselves” with our children or our spouses.  We say that someone was “not himself” or herself.  We speak of being “born anew.”  Then there are multiple personalities.  And where, in deep sleep, is one’s conscious self?

Why is it that we can scarcely recall our infancy as ours?  Show a person a picture of an infant boy or an infant girl.  Will the person recall having been that boy or girl even if this was in fact the case?  The infant had not yet acquired a memory mass sufficiently comparable, in quality and quantity, to the adult one to be recognizable.  If “I” means an individual conscious of self, then the infant scarcely had an “I” to be remembered.  Is the adult still that infant?  There is an enormous difference, like to or greater than the difference, at least in intelligence, between a cow, say, and a normal human adult.  It does not make sense to conceive the infant reality as identically the self that now has adult intelligence.  For this is to try to conceive the less as containing the more.  To say that the adult self simply is the infant self is to insult the former.

We can escape from these paradoxes if we admit, with the Buddhists and Whitehead, that concrete actualities are not in [the] last analysis enduring, changing substances, but successive momentary states of what are called substances or individuals and if we assign to these successive states or actualities certain relations, neither simply [relations] of partial similarity, nor [relations] of sheer identity, but [relations] of partial, asymmetrical identity with them.  I am now the one recalling a childhood, youth, early adulthood, and middle age not recalled, with anything like the same directness, vividness, or completeness, by any other present actuality (other than God).   To remember certain past experiences is to be partly constituted by them.  So far as remembered they are elements in oneself still.  It is quite false to suppose that a Whiteheadian must, in rejecting sheer identity, be asserting total non-identity.  Far from it.  The past selves are still in the present self.  But the present self was not in those past selves.  This is the asymmetry.

If individual self-identity is not absolute, neither is the non-identity of the selves of more than one individual.  The past selves that have entered into one’s present self are not alone those that one recalls as one’s own.  Every past self that we once experienced enters in also.  Nonidentity among individuals is thus as relative as the identity of each.  This is precisely why both Buddhism and Whitehead (and those who follow him in this) see great moral and spiritual significance in the non-substance doctrine.  It cuts the self-interest account of motivation at its root.  There is no absolute enduring self and (at least among neighbors or acquaintances) no absolute non-self either.  Almost the entire Western theory of motivation is biased or ambiguous here.  “I love myself because I am myself” has been the principle; if I love you who are not I, that is a puzzling, metaphysically ungrounded addition.  As the Buddhists all saw, there is no absolute truth in “I am myself” and equally none in “I am not you.”  Only relatively am I the identical self through change and only relatively am I not my friends and enemies.  Any other doctrine is an extreme form of monism between successive states of one individual.  What this double extremism really means if taken strictly is exactly the lesson of Leibniz’s monadology.  He actually tried to believe consistently and wholeheartedly what most individualists only half or confusedly believe.  And the view is not credible when put so sharply and unambiguously (or nearly so – for the idea defies complete clarity and consistency).

Consider our relation to the future, our own and that of others.  No one who observes people can pretend that in fact they always seek anything like their own long-run advantage.  If this were the case only utter stupidity could explain how frequently and obviously they act contrary to their own long-run advantage.  People are not that stupid!  Love of our long-run good is not automatic, guaranteed by metaphysical identity, any more than is indifference to the good of others.  The truth is much more complex and qualified.  There is plenty of selfishness, tragically much, partly encouraged no doubt by metaphysical doctrines exaggerating identity and nonidentity!  But there is also a good deal of concern for the future of others.  And there is plenty of activity motivated neither by self-love nor love of others, in any reasonable sense, but by momentary or short-run feelings of weariness, boredom, desire, hostility, or fear.  The subtlety and complexity of the matter fits the Whiteheadian account better than any usual substance theory.  What human beings need is not merely to achieve “enlightened self-interest,” but to understand that the only reality worthy of our ultimate devotion is neither the one that uniquely goes with or possesses the [sic: one’s?] own body nor the ones that go with the other human bodies but a Reality beyond or inclusive of all of us, something that is immortal whereas we are mortal, and that possesses our past, not in the meager fashion in which our memories, records, and monuments preserve it for us, but fully and entirely.  Of this Reality also, as we shall see, Whitehead gives a helpful account.

We must now come closer to certain technicalities of Whitehead’s system.  These are called “actual entity,” “prehension,” and “creativity.”

An actual entity is a momentary state or single instance of process or becoming.  It is unchangeable, for change, in this scheme, is the succession of actual entities, each of which “becomes but does not change.”  It is a single creation.  First it is not, then it is.  Creativity refers to becoming, which brings actualities into being rather than changes actualities already there.  Becoming is addition, not subtraction, and change is not its final analysis.  Here Whitehead departs from Bergson (also from Peirce), who makes change the essence of becoming, while also saying it is creative.

The example of a single actual entity that we come closest to experiencing distinctly is a single human experience, such as comes to be in a small fraction of a second.  We know this example most directly in immediate, short-run memory, which is what “introspection” or self-awareness is in this philosophy.  Even this primary example is not quite distinctly experienced.  Whitehead, like Leibniz, Peirce, and Freud, holds that our introspective power is limited.  We experience, feel, sense, intuit, but have only relatively distinct awareness of what, or how, we experience, feel, or intuit.

Actual entities other than our own momentary experiences must be conceived by us as analogous to our experiences.  The analogy becomes less and less close as we pass from ourselves to other human beings, then to experiences of non-human higher animals, then lower animals, then single cells, animal or vegetable, then molecules, atoms, particles.  It is Whitehead’s doctrine that, however remote the analogy, it never totally lapses, so long as we make the distinction between single actualities (or individual sequences of them) and collectives, associations, or crowds, of such single entities.  Whitehead’s “A tree is a democracy” is his metaphorical way of saying that a cell in the tree in the individual that is to be understood by analogy with a human individual, not the whole tree, which is a colony of cells and subcells.  Botany seems to support this distinction.  The point is that the tree, lacking a nervous system, lacks the unity of action and feeling which many-celled animals have.  Aristotle said, wiser even than he knew, that a plant is “like a sleeping man who never wakes up.”  (He should have said, “Like a person in dreamless sleep.”)  In such a state the person is not acting or experiencing as one; it is the various cells which are doing whatever is done.

Pierce and Bergson view experiencing as continuous change.  In a continuum no definite single parts can be found; for a point or instant is only a conceptual ideal of an infinitely short stretch of the continuum.  It belongs to mathematics, not physics or psychology.  To have definite single actualities which are the products or instances of creativity, one must hold, with the Buddhists and Whitehead, that becoming is not strictly continuous, though to our fallible, somewhat vague introspection it appears continuous.

The actual entities are the real subjects that experience, perceive, remember, and think.  My childhood self did not, and could not now, think my philosophical thoughts.  Each new experi-ence means a new actual subject not there before.  Elements it is, my childhood selves included, were there before, but not it.

Now that we know what a single actual subject is, we may ask what it is for a subject to experience.  The basic form of experience is perception.  Whitehead is perhaps the first philosopher to interpret perception throughout as, no less than memory, experience of the past rather than of the present.  By the time we see or hear an event in the environment it has already happened.  Whitehead generalizes this retrospective structure of perception so that even when we sense or feel happenings in our bodies our feeling comes after the happenings not simultaneously with them.  Events cannot be experienced until they have already happened.  An event is an instance of becoming, and until it has effected its becoming there is no definite entity to be experienced.  As already remarked, even introspection, inspection of our own experiences, is short-run memory, is retrospective.  Thus all awareness of concrete reality is of the past.  The awareness itself occurs now, but not that of which it is aware.  In temporal structure perception is like memory.  I call perception “impersonal memory,” awareness of past events other than our own past experiences.  Ordinary memory is personal.

Memory and perception, then, are alike in being intuition of previous actualities.  White-head calls such intuition “physical prehension.” “Mental prehension” is the other kind of intuition, and it is the function of thinking, interpreting the physically prehended, and forming an idea of the future and of contem-porary actualities.  Since only past actualities are now given, the future and the contempor-aries must be known from the past.  Our past overlaps with that of our contemporaries; to this extent, and so far as there is causal order, we may be able to know what is going on now around us and is likely to occur in the future.

Whitehead’s interpretation of mental prehensions, of thinking, is rather too Platonic for my taste.  He talks of “eternal objects,” which seem a fairly extreme form of Platonic “ideas.”  I think one can do with a less realistic theory of universals.  Whitehead follows the ancient neoplatonists (and, I believe, by implication Plato himself) in holding that the eternal objects or forms are divine ideas, nothing simply by themselves.  Our physical (or “hybrid”) prehension (almost entirely noncon-scious on our part) of God as having these ideas is the key to our acquiring them, but which ideas are eternal in God and which are divinely or humanly acquired as the creative process goes on is a question deserving more careful inquiry than Whitehead ever gives it.  He never faces nominalistic arguments (explaining universals by similarities rather than vice versa).  I find more cogency in these arguments than White-head did.

Creativity Whitehead calls the “category of the ultimate.”  The other categories are only aspects of what is implied by this one.  In each instance of creativity “the many become one, and are increased by one.”  The act of “becoming one” is termed a “creative synthesis.”  This synthesis is the ultimate emer-gence.  The “many” going into the synthesis are the previous actualities, the actor or agent is the new “one,” the new actuality.  This creation is thus self-creation; for an actuality comes to be as a free act.  (Language tends to mislead here, as though actor were one thing and act simply another.)  The many become one in the sense of being prehended by a single new partly self-determined actuality.  The oneness is synthetic but it just as genuine as that of any previous actuality, which was itself such a synthesis, though not of entirely the same “many.” The key to creative synthesis is prehension.  An actual entity comes to be as a single though complex act of prehending its pre-decessors, most of them with negligible distinctness.  (Indistinctness is a pervasive feature of all prehending save that of God.)



II: Whitehead’s Philosophical Theology


If all prehension whatsoever were indistinct, it would be problematic what could be meant by “indistinct,” since there would, it seems, be no standard of distinctness. This is indeed one of Whitehead’s reasons for introducing God into his system.  He had a predecessor at this point, for Spinoza said that “unclear” ideas in us are unclear in comparison with the divine ideas, which are wholly clear.  “The truth itself” wrote Whitehead, “is only the way all things are together in the consequent nature of God.”  The consequent nature is God as prehending the world, rather than simply contemplating his own eternal reality.  Physical prehension, being an inherent aspect of creativity, cannot be lacking even in God, for creativity is ultimate.  As all creativity is self-creative, though influenced by other previous cases of creativity, God, too, is self-creative, and the divine acts of self-creation are prehending or emergent syntheses of all that has already occurred in the world or in God.  It follows that God is not in every respect immutable or independent; rather the divine reality perpetually enriches itself by prehending new actualities in the world.

To give Whitehead’s thought about God its historical setting is a special problem.  He knew fairly well what the Church Fathers had had to say on the subject; he was also acquainted with Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas of deity, and the views of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, and Bradley.  He had some knowledge of Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese religious thought.  as a son of a Church of England clergyman (and brother of a bishop) he doubtless knew what “God” usually meant to churchgoers and was familiar with the Scriptures.  He had done some reading in the anthropology of religion.  Beyond this it is hard to know what close philosophical precedents for his thinking he was aware of.  And there were such precedents, most of which, I would guess, he knew little or nothing of.  Thus he was to a considerable extent on his own in working out an alternative to the standard metaphysical concept of deity as it had prevailed for about 18 centuries, to some extent since Aristotle.

In addition Whitehead, as he once told, thought that the full elaboration of a philosophical theology was not his primary task, which was to overcome in principle the divorce between natural science (with its bias toward materialism and abstraction from values, including religious values) and the ideals of civilized humanity.  He thought that the full working out of the theological aspect could be left to others.  (I think he was at that time aware that I was one of the others engaged in that very task.)  So we find that, apart from an obscure and clearly provisional chapter in Science and the Modern World, some cryptic remarks here and there in Process and Reality (and a few even more cryptic ones in Religion in the Making, Adventures of Ideas, Modes of Thought, and the much earlier Function of Reason), Whitehead’s account of his theology consists only of the not very long though superb final chapter of Process and Reality, with its sublime poetry and partial technical clarity.  In my opinion (and – oddly enough – that of an able young philosopher I know who, when I last was in touch with him, was an agnostic in religion) this essay is the greatest that has been written on the philosophical idea of God “since Plato’s Timaeus.”  And I have heard Whitehead quoted as having said that it was the most important thing he had written.  But to fully appreciate it one may need to know more of the historical background than appears in Whitehead’s writing and perhaps more than was in his mind.

Classical theism, in outline well known to Whitehead, was in important respects an amazingly definite and persistent element in Western metaphysics.  It identified the God of religion with what philosophers sometimes call “the absolute,” meaning by “absolute” totally independent of all else, entirely without change, and a sum of all possible perfections – the actuality, without remainder, or all possible real value.  God was the world’s “unmoved mover” (Aristotle), First Cause, or Creator, in no way influenced by the creatures’ existence.  Aristotle deduced from the divine unchangeabilty and independence the conclusion that God does not know or love the individuals in the world. Rather they know and love God.  The key to medieval theology, which was for so long an unchallenged standard, remarkably similar in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is the attempt to retain Aristotle’s denial that God is influenced or in any way changed by what occurs in the world, while rejecting the Aristotelian deduction that this means God does not know worldly occurrences.  Rather God knows and indeed loves creatures, though without being moved by them.  In ordinary language to be “moved” by the joy or sorrow of another creature is to sympathize with that creature, to love it, but for medieval theology there is no theological analogy for this.  And Aquinas says that relations between God and the creatures are relations for the creatures, but not for God.”

What the love of God for creatures can be in God if not a relation is, some of us think we see clearly, entirely beyond intelligible account.  And Aquinas admits, in agreement with Aristotle, that in all other cases, S knows Y implies S is influenced by Y.  Only in application to God does he reverse the relation, to read, Y is influenced by S.  Aquinas says that God knows you or me simply in knowing his own eternal and immutable essence, which is the cause of all things, therefore of you and me. In knowing this cause of you and me God ipso facto knows you and me.

It seems perfectly clear that for Aristotle this doctrine would not make sense, any more than it has to many, if not most, modern philosophers.  For, if knowledge of something (the divine essence) is knowledge of all things, and the something is eternal and without contingency, then so are all things.  (In something necessary and changeless there can be no implication as to any contingent existent and its changes.  What the eternal and necessary implies can only be itself eternal and necessary.)  Aquinas is trying, in defiance of logic, to have the eternal and necessary include or entail non-eternal and contingent items.

Aquinas’s own language makes this clear enough.  For he says that the divine essence is the “cause of all possible things,” hence of you and me.  but you and I are not merely possible things, we are actual things.  And if God knows only that we could exist (and no more can be implied by the essence as possibility of things) he does not know that we do exist.  The distinction between what could be and what is constitutes the very meaning of the “contingency of the world” of which classical theism made much!

Beginning in the time of Spinoza, philosophers and theologians began to rebel against the doctrine whose acute paradox I have just outlined.  I have taken Aquinas as my example; but on the points at issue dozens of others would have served, except that the Thomistic version was at least as explicit and clear as any.

Spinoza’s solution to the problem of divine knowledge was to deny the contingency of the world.  He strongly hints, at least, that the world in its reality is as necessary and even as unchangeable as God.  What human “imagination” takes as change or becoming is really, “from the standpoint of eternity,” i.e., the divine standpoint, an immutable array of items each having relations of effect to its predecessors and of cause to its successors, but all eternally definite and determined between possible and actual things.  All really possible things are, he held, in their time and place, necessarily actual.  There is no contingency.

The Spinozistic solution removes the Thomistic paradox but introduces others, including the clear denial of human freedom in any reasonably normal sense.  It also violates the “principle of contrast,” the logical truth that to say “everything has the predicate p” adds nothing to the mere tautology that everything is something.  (The point of terms like “necessary” is that some things are not necessary.)  And most theologians have seen that Spinozism is not an acceptable interpretation of the God of religion.  If each actual thing has to be actual because of the divine essence, then it is meaningless to say that the essence is independent of actual things.  What something necessitates is what it depends upon, could not be without.  True, Spinoza could say that God is eternal while ordinary things are actual only in their time and place; still, by hypothesis, God could not be without them as in that time and place, and this is dependence if anything is.

A little before Spinoza was born a neglected theologian had proposed a very different solution to the central paradox of classical theism.  Although a wholly eternal and necessary being cannot know or love the contingent and changeable, there is no reason why a being that is eternal and necessary in its essence should not have changeable accidents, nonnecessary qualities, as it is aware of contingent occurrences in the world.  There is no logical rule that says a being eternal and necessary in some respects (constituting its essence, or what makes it always itself) cannot also be temporal and contingent in other respects, constituting its accidents.

The whole point of speaking of an individual’s “essence” is the contrast between this and the accidental qualities of the individual.  If I happen to see a certain insect, does my being myself depend on this circumstance?  We do not ordinarily assume so.  Still more relevant, if I make a certain decision tomorrow, does my being myself require that decision, so that any other decision would have to be made by someone else?  In that case what becomes of individual freedom?  After all, my being myself goes back to what I was at, or before, or soon after birth, and this was dependent on my parents or on God.  Is everything I ever do in effect decided as soon as I come to exist?  Then in a real sense I decide nothing and am but a wheel in the cosmic machinery.

The first theologians to see the foregoing issue sharply were the Socinians, beginning with Fausto Socinus of Italy.  His disciples in Poland and Transylvania carried on and developed the tradition.  They took the idea of human decision-making seriously and rejected the notion that divine omnipotence determines human decisions.  Not God but we decide what we do.  They saw that this has implications for divine knowledge.  God can know that you or I decide to do X only if we do so decide.  If we decide to Y instead of X, then that is what God knows us as deciding.  Thus in determining how to act we determine something of God’s knowledge.  Moreover, God cannot know eternally how we decide, for our decisions do not exist eternally; until a decision is made there is no such thing for God or anyone to know.  Thus there must be a temporal aspect of God’s knowing.  He comes to know actions only as and after they come to be.  Hence the immutability of God requires qualification.  In thinking in this way the Socinians were very serious people who risked and incurred persecution for their beliefs.  They said what they meant and they meant what they said.  They knew quite well that they were breaking with a venerable and very formidable tradition.  And, some of us believe, they were quite right in doing so.

To the obvious objection that Socinianism “limits” God’s knowledge  and is incompatible with the divine cognitive perfection or “omniscience,” the Socinians had a definite and clear reply.  It was that perfect knowledge knows things correctly; but, if decisions do not exist eternally, a knowledge which had them as items in an eternal – meaning timeless or un-changeable – reality would know them as they are not, that is, falsely.  A not-yet-made decision is no definite entity, but a more or less indefinite one.  To know it as that is to know it correctly.  God knows definite (past) actions as they are, definite entities, and God knows partly indefinite, not yet determined (future) actions as they are, i.e., in just the indefiniteness which belongs to them.  So Socinianism does not limit God’s knowledge; rather it alone avoids implying error in that knowledge.

If this reasoning has been refuted I do not know by whom.  The astonishing fact is that it was not refuted but ignored or dogmatically dismissed by every important later theologian and philosopher who was presented in standard histories of philosophy or encyclopedias down to the present century.  To this very day one cannot find the Socinian view of the partial mutability of God referred to in standard reference works.  I regard this as a revealing instance of how false it is that the basic possibilities for speculative philosophy and theology have been exhausted long ago by the well-known figures reported upon in the histories and compendia of knowledge.  The French movement called existentialism rests essentially upon this false supposition, as one can see by reading Sartre or Camus.  They call existence “absurd,” largely on the ground that there is no escape from the dilemma: either omnipotent divine power settles everything and so is responsible for every evil as well as every good and we human beings have no genuine freedom, or we have freedom and there is no God, at least none worth worshipping.  It is precisely the Socinian God that is worth worshipping, and that is the one most scholars know nothing about.

After the persecuted Socinians had been reduced to a small remnant in Hungary, views having something in common with theirs were held by Schelling and the psychologist Fechner in Germany, J. Lequier in France, J. Ward, E. S. Brightman, W. P. Montague, W. E. Hocking, and a number of other writers in England and the United States.  Whitehead seems to have known something of Schelling but probably not much.  He may have known something of Ward’s view, rather inferior to Socinus’s in clarity, and he may have known that h is Harvard colleague W. E. Hocking believed that there is an open future for God in basically the Socinian sense.  Probably he did not know about Socinus’s, Fechner’s, or Lequier’s treatment of the issue.  The critics of Whitehead have been mostly ignorant of Whitehead’s chief anticipators.  Another anticipator was Pierce, whose view of God was known, if at all, too late to influence Whitehead, or most of his critics.  Peirce’s theology was more hinted at than worked out by him.

Some of the writers discussed in the previous paragraph made an important step beyond Socinianism.  They generalized the idea of creaturely freedom (as decision-making not causally determined) so that in principle it applies to creatures generally, not just to human beings.  The latter have freedom on a  higher, more conscious level, but every truly individual or singular creature (not a mere aggregate or aspect of individuals) has at least some minimal kind or degree of the power of settling the otherwise unsettled, deciding the otherwise undecided or indeterminate.  This is quite clearly Peirce’s view, and also, as I interpret him, Fechner’s.

 On one point Lequier marked a real advance.  Like the Socinians, he is extremely lucid in denying that God either makes or in his eternal aspect knows our actions, and he explicitly asserts that we produce changes in God by these actions.  We “make a spot in the absolute” in his phrase for this.  More accurately, God is not merely or exclusively absolute or independent but is also relative and dependent.  But Lequier also says that in making our decisions we to a certain extent make ourselves.  “Thou [God] hast created me creator of myself.”  Since this ever partly new myself becomes an item in divine cognition, the individual creates something in God.  So here we have definite anticipation of the view that a creature is not merely divinely created but is also in some degree self-created and, via this self-creation, is in some degree creative of the divine reality also.  I believe that Peirce would have been open to conviction on these points, although he perhaps did not quite arrive at them.  He did strongly suggest that God was not simply immutable but somehow increased in content with the world process, each individual of which acted “spontaneously,” by which he meant undetermined (though influenced) by past events, and he nowhere asserts that events are fully determined by God.

One more step and we come closer still to Whitehead’s view.  If the worldly individuals are self-created as well as creative of those who know them (especially God as knowing them fully), what about God?  Is here merely creative of, and partly created by, others, or is he also self-created?  Unless divine self-creation is affirmed, the system is incomplete or inconsistent.  (Without some analogy between creature and creator there is no human meaning for theological terms.)  It happens that the affirmation of divine self-creation was actually made by two poets of long ago: Ikhnaton of Egypt c. 1000 B.C. and Nezahualcoyotl of Mexico before the Spanish conquest.  “With thine own hands fashioning thyself” was Ikhnaton’s formula concerning his sun-god, while the Mexican poet (in translation into English via Spanish) wrote, “The creator of all things is creator of himself.”  It is likely enough that Whitehead did not know even the Egyptian case, and surely not the Mexican.  So here, too, he had to do his own thinking, with little definite support from predecessors.

In Whitehead all the foregoing elements come together and have their place in a great system, in some ways the greatest of systems.  God for Whitehead is not entirely independent, even of the least of the creatures, nor is any single creature a wholly self-determining, self-creative power.  And god is some aspects creature as well as creator, and is self-creative.

The last point is not stated in so many words but follows manifestly from the “ultimate” category of creativity and the statement that God is the supreme exemplification of the categories, not a mere exception to them.  Creativity is always self-creative or free; it is the creative synthesis constituting an actuality, and this self-making is presupposition for nay influence upon other actualities.  God is both nontemporal and “in a sense temporal,” “always moving on” or “in flux.”

For this philosophy, God is not the actualization of all possible perfections and it is logically impossible that there should be such an actualization; for possible values are in part mutually incompatible.  God cannot have me making decision I might have made but did not make.  The classical concept of perfection lacks coherent sense.  Kant suspected this but failed to revise his idea of God to take the point into account.  Since possible values are inexhaustible by actuality, there can be no reason for becoming ever to reach a last stage, and this is one aspect of the very rationale of becoming: why there should be anything besides mere immutable being.  At last philosophy gives a reason for becoming, the lack of any such reason having been scandal in its history.

God as classically conceived does not simply happen not to exist.  No such being could exist, and its nonexistence is no cause for grief.  It was an incoherent idea and the combination of it with the belief that our existence has a meaning (adds something to the value of reality) was a further incoherence.  All possible value as fully actualized is not only not a valid concept but it makes nonsense, absurdity in Camus’s word, of our existence and the worldly process as such.  The problem of evil in classical form is an additional absurdity.  One can hardly blame existentialists for their reaction to such a tradition.  But, alas, they did not know that there was another theological tradition, by no means open to the same objections.

That God depends for some qualities on the creatures follows easily from the traditional belief that God knows and loves the creatures.  Whitehead’s view of knowledge is on this point Aristotelian just where classical theism was flatly incompatible with Aristotelian principles.  Knowledge rests on prehension, intuitive or cognitive grasp of actualities which do not prehend.  The prehended actualities are presuppositions of the particular prehension, not vice versa.  God does not make an actuality by prehending it, any more than we do.  The divine creative influence upon my present act is not a consequence of the divine prehension of the act, but rather of the divine prehension of the previous situation out of which my act arises. God interprets that previous situation in such a way as to give me my “initial subjective aim,” out of which I and I alone create my final or fully concrete subjective aim.  Only then can God prehend what I have created.

All this fits perfectly what Lequier says about the same topic.  God waits, says Lequier, to see what you or I may decide.

Really it is strange that the point just made was not seen all along in theology.  The classical idea deprived worldly existence of all value for God.  The worldly process merely reiterated God’s eternal plan.  It had no reason for being.  The entire process throughout time was nothing but a single eternally known complex superfact into which nothing new could ever come.  This was an infinitely undramatic, unbeautiful conception.  But then Western thought has been crude in its aesthetic understanding more or less throughout.  In this respect, too, Whitehead gives us much to be grateful for.  The cosmic drama as he depicts it really is that, even for God.  The outcome is not in detail foretold, primordially stale and devoid of the unexpected, but is ever fresh and partly new.  Our little adventure is included in the “adventure of the universe as one,” or as the besouled cosmos.

The importance of each actuality being divinely prehended is that in this way the actuality achieves “objective immortality,” enters into a living treasure house where no longer “moth and rust doth corrupt and thieves break through and steal.”  And so – without positing a survival of death into some miraculous heaven and hell, either as a disembodied (and violently unnatural) soul or as a (not clearly less unnatural) soul with a numerically totally distinct body, or one assembled out of some of the same atoms in a manner entirely unconnected with any known natural laws – we deprive death of its fundamental threat, which is that what was a living, beautiful actuality becomes a heap of low-level atoms and molecules or a mass of low forms of life.  The concrete actualities are the momentary experiences and these will “live forevermore” in the Life of all lives.  We will not go on to new joys, nor will our friends; but the joys we have created in ourselves and one another can never be less than they have been.  For divine perceptual prehensions, unlike ours, are fully adequate to their objects, and what in God corresponds to personal memory in us (the other basic kind of perception) is similarly perfect.

For me this form of immortality is existentially sufficient.  I do not feel in the least cheated by it.  Our friends will never be less than they have been, for themselves or for us, and they will be infinitely more than they could be merely for themselves or for us.  (for only god can vividly intuit an entire career with full awareness of each detail and its beauty.)  In this way egocentricity can in principle be overcome.  Each moment’s experience is an offering to the future, inclusively to the divine future which cherishes all achieved value forevermore.

Classical theism cannot give us this hope of serving a cause infinitely greater than ourselves; for its God derived no benefit from our lives.  Atheism cannot give it either; for it is limited to what we can do for posterity, which will little remember us, and our effects upon which are very incompletely predictable – quite apart from the manifest impossibility of knowing that there will always be a human posterity.  The idea of objective immortality is an immense advantage of process theology over all its rivals.  It seems quite safe to anticipate that people will not soon agree in accepting either of the two rival options.  This theology seems equipped for a long future, assuming that human culture is not radically diminished by some terrible catastrophe, brought on by misuse of our human freedom, for example by grossly wasteful use of energy and other resources, overluxurious living, unconscientious sexual reproduction, lack of seriousness, emotional control, and willingness to make sacrifices to reduce injustice and avoid international warfare.

However that may be, we need not see existence as absurd.  It is dramatic and attended with risk, but so in principle is any possible existence; for risk is inherent in life and awareness is in principle creative.  Death need not be viewed as canceling out any actual achievement of concrete value, and we need not believe that God is torturing us; rather it is we ourselves and other creatures that do this, mostly unintentionally.  God’s allowing this to happen is the same as his allowing genuine self-active individuals to exist at all.  The notion of individuals wholly controlled by a supreme individual or superindividual is mere confusion.  To be is to act, to be individual is to act individually.  The Superindividual makes a reasonably ordered cosmos of self-acting and therefore more or less precariously interrelated individuals possible and immortalizes their actuality.  If this is absurd I must lack some organ for detecting that property.  And I am not persuaded that the idea of life itself being essentially absurd is anything more than an intellectual and quite human mistake.



III: Some Unresolved Problems in Whitehead’s Theism


Whitehead characterizes God as “an actuality.”  But he scarcely notices that this makes God analogous, not as in most theologies to a person or individual, but to a single, momentary state or experience of an individual.  In Whitehead’s system a person is a progressively realized “society,” an ordered but only retrospectively definite sequence of actualities.  Clearly, Whitehead does not mean that God is like a single member of such a sequence.  In that case there would be a succession of deities!  Moreover, actual entities do not change, they merely become, whereas God changes in the definite sense of acquiring new prehensions as new actualities emerge in the world.  It seems obvious that Whitehead, without very clearly recognizing it, is conceiving deity on the model of a society of actualities as much as on the model of a single actuality.  I personally would say that the latter analogy is the closer one.  Of course with either or any analogy the difference, in some sense, infinite, between God and anything else must be kept in mind.

Whitehead is aware that human thought is limited to the kinds of reality encountered in human experience and to what is conceivable by analogy with these kinds.  He knows perfectly well that describing God as “the fellow sufferer who understands” is employing analogical language.  He knows, too, that the explication of prehension as “feeling of (others’) feeling” implies an analogy between our emotional life and the inner quality of actualities generally.  Hence in talking of God as feeling our feelings (literally sympathizing with them) he is being consistent.  (Berdyaev and the English theologian Garvie – also Origen long ago – attributed sympathy in this sense to God.)  I have never been able myself to see that it makes sense to speak of God knowing our sufferings while in no sense suffering himself.  One can know about the sufferings of others by applying an abstract concept called suffering (and even this seems dependent upon having suffered oneself) in referring to the others; still, this is not knowing their suffering as theirs, as unique to them, and as concrete rather than mere instances of the universal “suffering.”  But how can a single actuality, which by the definition of an actuality does not change, be “fellow sufferer” to our successive sufferings?

This is one of the ways in which Whitehead’s theism is somewhat incompletely worked out.  There is, besides the issue between the two analogies referred to, the difficult question of how the temporal aspect Whitehead attributes to God (who is said to be “in a sense temporal”) is compatible with the structure of space-time in Einsteinian cosmology – for he discusses neither scheme in this connection. Quantum theory complicates the matter further.  When Whitehead came to Harvard in 1924 he felt obligated to spend his time reading and teaching philosophy, rather than the theoretical physics he had been teaching in London, after mathematics at Cambridge.  Consequently his knowledge of physics began to be out of date.  Although he had seen Heisenberg’s famous article of 1927 on the Uncertainty Principle (I know because a young physicist friend showed it to me and I showed it – or the concluding passages – to Whitehead), there is no evidence that he seriously reacted to the controversy about the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum physics, not to mention Bell’s Theorem (with the physicist Stapp’s “revised Whiteheadian” interpretation of the theorem) and other later discoveries and ideas.

Criticisms of a philosophical system sometimes tell more about the critic than about the system or its maker.  Human language is not capable of infinite clarity; always there are ambiguities in a philosophical writing which, resolved in plausible ways, yield absurdities, but perhaps, as the writer intended them to be taken, or as they can be taken, make sense.  In Whitehead’s use of “perishing,” a metaphor taken from Locke, there is ambiguity, as is made clear by the last sentence of PR [Process and Reality], “they [actual entities] perish and yet live forevermore.”  Because of the indistinct or negative prehensions in all nondivine actualities much of the past is lost, no longer available in its fullness, for those actualities.  But God surpasses ordinary actualities in this as in other respects, and by the standard of the divine prehensions the partial unreality of the past is an illusion.  Also, if actual entities “become but do not change” how can they be deprived of their full reality?  This would be a change.  And we read in Whitehead’s text that for the eminent mode of prehending “there is no loss, no obstruction.”

There is some ambiguity concerning the relations of God and creativity.  I resolve this as follows.  Creativity as “form of forms” or “category of the ultimate” refers to what divine and ordinary creativity (or creative prehending) have in common, namely “decision,” making definite what was otherwise partly indefinite, thereby enriching reality. (Beauty depends on definiteness.)  But nondivine creativity cannot explain how there can be any order, any limitation to the conflicts and incongruities implicit in the idea of every actuality being self-creative.  Given creaturely or nondivine creativity there is bound to be a measure of disorder, conflict, suffering, and on the higher levels some aspects of ethical evil or wickedness.  Infallibility, whether ethical or cognitive, is a divine prerogative.  But the limitations of nondivine creativity go further.  It is already too much to say that nondivine creativity, by itself, can explain even suffering and wickedness.  For these phenomena too presuppose some degree of order, some adaptation of actualities to other actualities.  Since one cannot adapt to a mere chaos, it begs the question of order to explain it by nondivine adaptation.  Hence one of Whitehead’s principal reasons for introducing God – he has at least four, one of which, God as standard of truth, has already been mentioned – is that deity is precisely that eminent form of creativity which, by virtue of its unique excellence, can influence all other forms and inspire in them the necessary minimum of mutual adaptation without which there could be no universe, no cosmos in which coherent experiences, even painful ones, would be possible.  By all adapting to one and the same God, the creatures are enabled to adapt, at least minimally, to one another.  No other account of cosmic order can rival this one in simplicity and coherence.

Plato almost said it.  All change is explained by “self-moving” soul (Whitehead says, by creatively prehending at least sentient actualities).  The lack of complete order is explained by there being many souls.  Each is self-active or self-changed, and Plato either meant by this – though less clearly – what Whitehead means by creativity, or he meant very little.  Plato did see that a multiplicity of souls or creative agents implies indefinitely great if not complete disorder unless there is a supreme soul to “persuade” the many lesser souls to conform to a cosmic plan.  They cannot completely fit such a plan for then they would not be self-determined; or, to put it better, the plan cannot be completely definite and detailed.  But if there are only the many localized souls, imperfect in their modes of prehension, what would impose any limits on the possible disorder?  Whitehead can vastly clarify the self-changing aspect of mind or soul, can explain why much physical reality appears to our sense perceptions as insentient and uncreative, why the nondivine souls need the divine to order them, how it can do this, and why the divine soul needs many nondivine ones to furnish content for its eminent prehending.  God would simply be knowing with ideal clarity that very divine knowing – of what?  Contrast is essential to beauty, why not the supreme contrast of divine and nondivine?

I have sketched some of the ways in which Whitehead either as he left his work, or with some revisions, brings improved solutions to ancient problems.  I hope to publish at least one book, probably two, to show the extent to which this can be claimed.

Process theology is in some respects an unfinished doctrine.  This is hardly surprising.  Whitehead did not expect to achieve finality.  If I am asked, do I know that the process scheme is true?  I reply that if “know” means to have absolute, distinct, and infallible consciousness of truth, then I do not know this.  But for believing in the view as “something like the truth” (Plato) I see a reasonable case.

My own metaphysics is not entirely the same as Whitehead’s by any means. But the points I have chiefly stressed in the foregoing account are largely common to both schemes.  I am reasonably content to influence people to give primary attention to Whitehead’s thought or to mine.  Either way I feel that they will be in better touch with reality than if they rely only on other available offerings of philosophers of our century.  In third  place I would put Peirce’s philosophy, which lacked the benefit of intellectual progress after about 1905, at latest, and also suffered from the undue isolation of Peirce from other thinkers.

The century which produced some terrible things produced a scientist scarcely second in genius and character to any that ever lived, Einstein, and a philosopher who, I incline to say, is similarly second to none, unless it be Plato. To make no use of genius of this order is hardly wise; for it is indeed a rarity. A mathematician sensitive to so many of the values in our culture, so imaginative and inventive in his thinking, so eager to learn from the great minds of the past and the present, so free from any narrow partisanship, religious or irreligious, is one person in hundreds of millions.  He may be mistaken, but even his mistakes may be more instructive than most other writers’ truths.


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