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Process, Insight, and Empirical Method 

An Argument for the Compatibility of the Philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Bernard J. F. Lonergan and Its Implications for Foundational Theology.

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Divinity School, The University of Chicago, for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

December 1983

Thomas Hosinski, C.S.C.


Empirical science has had a profound effect on the culture and thought of the West since the eighteenth century.  Technological developments and the products of science and industry have changed radically the way we live; and the success of empirical science has changed radically the way we think.  Particularly since the nineteenth century, empirical science has been experienced as presenting a fundamental challenge to religious consciousness.  Science called into question a way of looking at and understanding the world that had been dominant for millennia, and eventually it made that world view untenable.  Scientific thought, specifically its empirical method of discovery, seemed to undercut religious modes of thought and religious claims.  Even without fully intending to, science posed a thoroughgoing challenge to theology. Theology found itself lacking a convincing way of relating the claims of religion to the view of the world unfolding through scientific theories and discoveries. As a result, in recent times there has been a marked limitation to what Christian theology dares to say about the physical world.  There has been a continuing problem in justifying the use of religious and theological language because of the difficulty of establishing the meaning of such language for an empirically-minded culture.  Furthermore, as a narrow understanding of the empirical method of scientific discovery became the paradigm for how to go about knowing, theology found itself facing an implicit challenge to the legitimacy of religious knowledge and the validity of theologyís own claim to be an authentic mode of the search for understanding.

There have been a number of creative theological responses to this intellectual, cultural, and spiritual situation in our century.  Among them are the two traditions widely known as ďprocess theologyĒ and ďtranscendental Thomism.Ē  Process theology depends to a great extent on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, though Charles Hartshorne is a stronger influence on some representatives of this tradition.  From its beginnings in Whiteheadís philosophy, process theology has had an intense interest in addressing and responding to the challenge posed by modern science.  Likewise, transcendental Thomism has addressed and responded to this challenge, especially (and perhaps most directly) in the philosophy of Bernard Lonergan, its major Anglo-American representative.  Many theologians in the United States and Canada today employ the philosophies of Whitehead or Lonergan, but there has been a lack of constructive discussion between them.  Indeed most of the encounters between theologians employing the thought of Whitehead or Lonergan have been contentious, and the interaction between them thus far has been characterized largely by mutual misunderstanding. Given the importance of the common theological task, this mutual misunderstanding and contention between two major Anglo-American traditions is, to say the least, unfortunate.  It is also, in my judgment, unnecessary.

When I first studied the philosophies of Whitehead and Lonergan, I was struck by two aspects of their thought that seemed to bespeak the possibility of a fundamental compatibility between them.  First, both of them pay a good deal of attention to the empirical sciences, and it seemed to me that their descriptive analyses of empirical scientific method are virtually identical.  Second, I noted that both Whitehead and Lonergan claim to operate, as philosophers, by means of a generalized empirical method.  Despite the apparently serious differences between their philosophies, these two observations began functioning as clues for me, suggesting that due to the role and influence of empirical method in their philosophies, there might in fact be further similarities, even compatibilities, between them. Given the importance of Whitehead and Lonergan in contemporary American theology, and given the contentious nature of the interaction between theologians employing their philosophies, the possibility of some ground of compatibility between Whitehead and Lonergan seemed worth pursuing.  My dissertation is the pursuit of this possibility, using empirical method as the basic clue.  The inquiry has some rather surprising results.

The first chapter summarizes Whiteheadís, and Lonerganís interpretations of empirical scientific method and how each of them conceives of the relation between scientific and philosophical method. It then compares the results of the two independent studies, and surveys the similarities and differences that emerge from the comparison.  The discovered similarities are significant enough to cause the inquiry to continue, despite the apparently serious differences between them.

The second chapter is a necessary interlude in the argumentation of my central thesis.  Because Whiteheadís and Lonerganís interpretations of empirical scientific method are so fundamental for their philosophies, it is important to ask if their interpretations are tenable.  If it could not be established that this is the case, this would seriously weaken their philosophies and, consequently, the foundations they provide for theology.  It would also make my central thesis little more than a comparison of two ill-founded views.  Thus it is necessary to evaluate their interpretations of empirical scientific method.  The second chapter thus compares Whitehead and Lonergan to two major interpretations in contemporary philosophy of science which are at some distance from each other in the spectrum of interpretation: those of Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi.  This comparison, I believe, illustrates that Whiteheadís and Lonerganís interpretations are in fact tenable, and that they do not represent extreme positions in the spectrum.  Moreover, this comparison gives further reasons to suspect that there is a heretofore unnoticed compatibility between Whiteheadís and Lonerganís philosophies.

In the third chapter I formulate and test my major thesis.  I argue that there is in fact a fundamental compatibility between the philosophies of Whitehead and Lonergan.  Because this thesis is so surprising, so contrary to the way in which those employing the thought of one or the other have perceived their relation, I prepare for this thesis by studying at some length how Whitehead and Lonergan each employ generalized empirical method in working out their philosophies.  I try to illustrate that the key to the development of both their philosophies is the analysis of human subjectivity, and I devote considerable attention to their ontologies.  In the third major section of the chapter, I compare Whiteheadís and Lonerganís cognitional theories, epistemologies and metaphysics, arguing that there is a fundamental compatibility between their positions in each of these major areas.  Unexpectedly, this compatibility is found to extend even to the functional meaning of Lonerganís metaphysical elements and a number of Whiteheadís categories.  I also argue that in two major areas of difference between them, there is a real possibility of compatibility if Lonerganís ontology were further developed, using the resources of his own metaphysics and his post-Insight thought.

There is one major topic of fundamental importance that the third chapter ignores: the philosophy of God.  The fourth chapter tests the hypothesis formulated in the third chapter against the topic of God, where the deepest differences between-Whitehead and Lonergan appear to reside. Anyone who has read both Whitehead and Lonergan knows that their concepts of God are quite different. This constitutes a serious challenge to my thesis, since in the third chapter I affirm that Whiteheadís and Lonerganís philosophic methods and their fundamental positions are in fact compatible.  If this is actually the case, then why do they arrive at such radically different concepts of God?  There is also the distinct question of whether my hypothesis of compatibility between them finally breaks down at this point, or whether it extends even to this topic in yet unrecognized ways.  I prepare to answer these questions by studying at some length  Whiteheadís and Lonerganís philosophies of God, directing attention especially to their respective procedures.  In the third major section of the chapter, I confront the originating questions.

I argue first that there is an actual, though limited, compatibility between Whiteheadís and Lonerganís stated philosophies of God.  I then try to identify the reason for the radical differences between their stated concepts of God.  And finally I argue that there is the real possibility of a virtually complete compatibility between them if both were revised in the required ways.  With this the argumentation of my major thesis is complete.

In the fifth chapter I draw out some of the more important implications of Whiteheadís and Lonerganís philosophies for understanding the relation between science and religion.  Their philosophies help to establish the grounds of integral relation between science and religion, and this, in turn, makes it possible to understand what is required for their creative interaction in our time. Thus Whiteheadís and Lonerganís philosophies help theology to meet the challenge to which I alluded at the outset, the challenge posed for religion and theology by the emergence and gradual dominance of empirical science.  The foundations they provide make it possible, in my opinion, to formulate a theology of nature and to relate such a theology coherently to the Christian faithís central concern for Godís self-revelation and saving activity in history. In conclusion, I offer a few reflections on the appropriateness of the use of generalized empirical method in theology.

It is my hope that this study of Whiteheadís and Lonerganís philosophies, and my thesis concerning their fundamental compatibility, might make some modest contribution to overcoming the mutual misunderstandings that tend to dominate many discussions between process theologians and transcendental Thomists.  It is also my hope that it might serve to promote constructive discussion and perhaps even collaboration between these two traditions as we face the common and vitally important theological tasks of our time.


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