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From Process Studies, Vol. 15, Number 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 83-94.

Decentering Whitehead

Donald W. Sherburne

The subtitle of this special issue of Process Studies, “Process Thought in a New Key,” derived as it was from Susanne Langer’s elegant title Philosophy in a New Key, turned out to have a commemorative significance that was not originally in the minds of those who heartily applauded George Lucas’ selection, in 1984, of that way of expressing the raison d’être for this collection of essays.  It was in the summer of 1985, when most of us I suspect were putting our contributions in order, that Professor Langer passed away.  Her crowning achievement, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, is paradigmatic of the “Post-Whiteheadian” philosophizing this volume celebrates, and it is most appropriate that her spirit, as well as her title, hover over these explorations of “Philosophy After Whitehead.”

Each of us will be suggesting a new direction or orientation for process philosophy.  The musical metaphor behind Langer’s expression “New Key” is a perfect vehicle for me to use in giving an orienting account of my own relationship to Whitehead’s thought.  One can use the expressions “Philosophy After Whitehead” or “Post-Whiteheadian philosophi-zing” to characterize the relationship of the work of some philosophers to the categoreal insights presented in Process and Reality, but in my own case I feel that these expressions connote a looser relationship than that which characterizes my own orientation.  My sense of my own place in the Post-Whiteheadian landscape is that I am closer in many respects to Whitehead’s own categories than are many contemporary process thinkers.  But just as in music relatively few modifications can transform a scale in a major mode to the same scale in a minor mode, so in my case one substantial modulation produces a process metaphysics in quite a new key.  Perhaps the most graphic way of describing the key shift I have made is to say that I have moved from a centered process perspective to a decentered process perspective.

In Whitehead’s vision of process metaphy-sics there is an overarching center, a center of value, meaning, and order in the universe—God.  In my vision of process metaphysics there is no one overarching center, no overarching center of value, meaning, and order.  Rather, there is a vast plurality of entities each of which is a center of value, meaning, and order.  In Whitehead’s vision there is one overarching entity that prehends every other entity that has concresced; in my vision there is only the plurality of actual occasions, each with a limited perspective.  My process orientation is toward a Whitehead decentered, toward a Whitehead without God, toward a neo-Whiteheadian naturalism—a process thought in quite a new key.

Interestingly, I think, my decentered process metaphysics nevertheless has a strong religious thrust to it, in precisely Whitehead’s sense of “religious.”  In Whitehead’s view there is a sharp conceptual distinction between being religious and being atheist.  As Whitehead says in Religion in the Making, the basic religious intuition is the insight that there is a “character of permanent rightness” that permeates the nature of things; as he notes, however, “There is a large concurrence in the negative doctrine that this religious experience does not include any direct intuition of a definite person, or individual” (Ch. II, Sect. II).  The challenge is to ground the intuition of a character of permanent rightness in the general categories one uses for an understanding of reality, i.e., so to relate the intuition to the structures of the real that its integration into those structures validates the intuition while giving it specific content.

Whitehead’s own personal answer to this challenge is to postulate the existence of a very special entity, a nontemporal actual entity, which he calls God and which he provides with a number of very special cosmological roles, such as prehending every other actual entity and being the source of subjective aim for every other actual entity.  These roles have the effect of making Whitehead’s God the center of meaning, order, and value in the Whiteheadian universe.  In contrast, my answer to the challenge is to point to the categoreal conditions governing the concrescence of each and every ordinary actual entity.  Each and every actual entity is a concrescence of given elements under the aegis of an aesthetic impulse toward order, meaning, and value, i.e., toward the emergence of Beauty.  This aesthetic impulse is the very heart of the becoming which is each temporal actual entity; emphasizing this characteristic of Whitehead’s conceptual scheme is not to introduce anything new.  In my vision, the fact that each actual entity, in its very nature, embodies an aesthetic impulse toward order, meaning, and value is sufficient in itself to ground the religious intuition of a character of permanent rightness permeating the nature of things.  But my vision is of a decentered process philosophy—order, value, and meaning permeate the whole of reality, but often at only minimal, trivial levels.  There emerge, however, from the “periphery” (so to speak) rather than from the center, pockets of order, meaning, and value which grow, spread, and die—that order, those values, and those meanings which gradually grew and spread until they constituted the various Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt would be an example of how order, value, and meaning emerge from the “bottom” and spread “upward” and “outwards” into dynamic pockets or aggregates of order, meaning, and value which prosper-overcoming and absorbing other pockets of order—until they no longer embody the imagination, vigor, and zest required for continued vitality and find themselves absorbed into other competing orders or gradually disintegrating into the silence of a Dark Age.  But even though particular orders falter and decay, the primordial, all-pervasive thrust toward aesthetic achievement which permeates reality is never lost; beauty, as well as hope, “springs eternal in the universal breast” (to paraphrase a line from Alexander Pope), giving the religious intuition its permanent grounding in the very nature of things.

The question I wish to raise in this paper is whether there are good reasons for preferring my decentered version of process philosophy over Whitehead’s centered version.  Such reasons could be of two types.  In the first instance there could be reasons of a rational logical sort, reasons which challenge the coherence of the concept of God as that concept lies among the other concepts central to Whitehead’s speculative scheme.  I have already raised the issue of the coherence of the concept God in process metaphysics in a number of articles, so I shall not go over that ground again here.  I will turn, rather, to the second sort of reasons, reasons which rest on an empirical examination of experience and the world, reasons which test the adequacy of the implications of each of the two versions of process metaphysics—the centered and the decentered—to our world as we experience it.  This sort of empirical testing is very tricky indeed, which undoubtedly explains why so little work has been done in just this area.  Even the classic essay by Daniel Day Williams, titled “How Does God Act?: An Essay in Whitehead’s Metaphysics,” does not bring the Whiteheadian account of deity into direct contact with particular, concrete historical or individual experience.1  Williams affirms that the specific metaphysical functions ascribed to God by Whitehead “involve the assertion that God makes a specific and observable difference in the behavior of things” (page 178) and goes on to remark that “Verification [of God’s specific causality] must take the form of observable results in cosmic history, in human history, and in personal experience” (page 179).  But Williams does not give us examples, he merely ends his essay by cautioning (quite rightly) that “to assign any particular historical event to God’s specific action in the world” is a very risky business, though “Faith leads us to take that risk” (page 180).  In this essay I want to begin the empirical examination toward which Williams’ essay points.


In this comparison of Whitehead’s centered vision (with God) and my own decentered vision (without God), I will start with a brief recapitulation of Whitehead’s account of how God functions in the world.  In Whitehead’s centered universe, God affects the world by providing each emerging actual occasion with its subjective aim.  What exactly is a subjective aim?  As we learn in the last chapter of Process and Reality, God prehends a given generation of actual entities, absorbs those entities into his consequent nature, “weaves” the resulting consequent nature “upon his primordial concepts,” and from the resulting contrast discovers those possibilities for the next generation of actual entities which, were they to be actualized in that next generation, would be the best in the sense that when God came to absorb that generation into his consequent nature his experience would be the richest possible.  God then proceeds to offer each emerging actual entity of that next generation that program for its own becoming which, if accepted and realized, would lead it to make the maximal contribution to the best new generation of actual entities possible given the limitations of the actual world from which it arises.  That proffered program is the emerging occasion s subjective aim.

With this rather abstract description before us, we will consider a concrete example of how the divine subjective aim might be thought of as working in particular circumstances.  God is conceived of as omnipotent [omniscient?—AF] in the sense that he knows everything that can be known.  That means that he prehends all finished facts as they become finished.  Certain structures of finished fact will determine aspects of the future, so God will know certain things about the future; if a grand piano has just fallen off the top of the Empire State Building, God—along with any person who has seen the piano slide over the railing—knows that in just a very few seconds the piano will smash into the sidewalk below.  But when we speak of the future, we, as Whiteheadians, are convinced that there are aspects of the future that even God cannot know, for in addition to finished features of the future, there are also as yet unfinished features of the future which we can refer to as finishable fact.  So as the piano teeters over the edge, a young woman taking a stroll on lunch break approaches the spot where the piano will strike the pavement.  Will she be hit?  We do not know yet, nor does God.  She is window shopping.  Something she does not see clearly at first glance in a window catches her eye as she passes.  Will she decide to stop and step back, or will she decide to go on?  Will the man right behind her, who has just glanced up and seen the piano hurtling down, have the collected presence of mind and the courage to grab the woman and shove her out of danger, or will he choose just to save himself, avoiding some extra risk?  And where does God and subjective aim fit into all this?

God certainly cannot be neutral in terms of how he would like to have events in this situation work themselves out.  The woman has two small children at home, a doting husband, and aged parents for whom she lights up the world.  As God prehends the universe at the instant the piano teeters, he sees the various possible ways this little drama could be played out, sees all the ramifications of the possible scenarios, and realizes that some ways the action might unfold are better than others, that is, some outcomes would produce a future which when he, God, prehended it would make his experience more rich, more harmonious, more beautiful than his experience would be were alternative outcomes to produce quite different futures.  Now it is exactly in situations like this—according to the standard account of orthodox Whiteheadians—that God is supposed to lure the world, by means of what he proffers to actual occasions via subjective aims, toward that falling out of events which will make his future experience most positive.  In this situation how could we give meaningful content to the idea that God extends subjective aims to the various actors in the little drama we have constructed, that is, provides subjective aims which have the potential, at least, to affect the outcome of events, and have, therefore, the potential to affect the character of God’s future experience?

My answer to this question is that I find it impossible to give meaningful content to the idea of a subjective aim derived from God which will function in the specified way.  Let us ask ourselves how God could become an actor in this situation in such a way as to affect the outcome.  If we turn our attention to the piano, I think we get nowhere.  The idea of a swerve in the downward path of the piano makes no sense in the context of Whitehead’s metaphysics.  It makes no sense because the very primitive actual occasions constitutive of the piano and of its immediate physical environment have a capacity for novel adjustment of feeling which is virtually nil, which is, for all practical purposes, nil.

In order to explicate this last point it is necessary to interrupt the unfolding drama and introduce a general principle.  The principle is that in regard to the presentation of subjective aims, God has to “speak” to each actual occasion in its own “language,” that is, at its own level, in a manner harmonious with the character of the sort of data which are in general operative in the aesthetic synthesis which is the concrescence of the actual occasion in question.  It makes no sense in a Whiteheadian context to suggest that God could proffer subjective aims such that, were they heeded, the piano would swerve out of its path in order to avoid pedestrians below.  The contrasts that would have to be positively prehended in order to bring about such macro adjustments are far, far beyond the ken of piano occasions.  Those Whiteheadians who, like Charles Hartshorne, give God a role in the unfolding of the universe, see God’s role at this level as the role of holding in check a tendency toward miniscule deviations from past order, a tendency which crops up in primitive occasions.  By holding this tendency toward miniscule deviations in check, God is, Hartshorne would maintain, preserving the uniformity of the laws of nature.  (But, it is worth noting, this is a role for God that would seem to conflict with Whitehead’s claim that the laws of nature evolve, for if God were really effective in checking such miniscule deviations, then it is difficult to see how the laws of nature could ever evolve.)

I would just point out in passing that the analysis so far would suggest that the ordinary, garden-variety notion of a miracle does not seem to have any meaning in the context of a theological version of process thought.  Such a miracle would involve the suspension of the laws of nature at the level of primitive actual occasions, but if we accept the principle that God “speaks” to a given actual occasion in its own “language,” and if the “language” of primitive actual occasions in nature is such that the character of the data available for aesthetic synthesis in the concrescence of such occasions admits only of absolutely miniscule contrasts with the givenness of the character of the past, then God has no leverage via subjective aims to introduce shifts in the social structures conditioning the possibilities available for aesthetic synthesis in the concrescences of such primitive actual occasions.  Such actual occasions are, as Whitehead says at PR 269/ 177, “vehicles for receiving, for storing in a napkin, and for restoring without loss or gain.”  We can safely conclude that if God is going to affect our unfolding drama at the foot of the Empire State Building by means of proffered subjective aims, he will not do so as a result of subjective aims extended to occasions in the falling piano.

Let us move now to consider options for understanding how God might exert influence at the other end of the spectrum of actual occasions, namely, by proffering subject aims to those actual occasions that constitute moments in the regnant nexus of the human beings involved.  My conclusion here will be that if there were a God and if he were viewed as having the power to influence events at this level at all, then we would have to conclude that the world ought to be a very different place than it in fact is.  I will try to show how this is so.

What is the cash value of the claim that God provides subjective aims to the initial phases of actual entities of the sophisticated sort found in the regnant nexus of human beings?  Here we are dealing with actual entities that synthesize a vast range of materials in their concrescences, that entertain data that have gone through the transforming synthesis brought about by transmutations introduced along the routes of inheritance flowing through the complex bodily systems which support these sophisticated regnant occasions.  If God is going to “speak” to such occasions, our general principle about God’s “speaking” suggests that he must address them in the “language” of their experiences.  How, given the Whiteheadian account of subjective aims adumbrated above, would God operate in the context of our little drama playing itself out at the foot of the Empire State Building?

God is conceived of as having prehended all the past occasions in the universe at the time the piano is sliding over the railing.  He weaves that complex portrait of matters of fact onto his primordial conceptual grasp of pure possibility.  The resulting contrasts reveal to him the various real possibilities for this unfolding situation.  In all those possible worlds which might result, the piano will fall to the sidewalk—there is no possibility of a swerve, as we have seen, and there is no awning or abutment on the building strong enough or wide enough to impede its fall.  But what about the young woman on her lunch break?  Human beings are free agents.  Human beings constantly face choices between two or more genuine possibilities in the Whiteheadian universe—William James may walk home by way of Divinity Avenue or by way of Oxford Street.  The Whiteheadian universe is not a block universe; there is free play at those joints in the universe where higher level organisms make choices as between or among alternatives.  Were the young woman warned of the hurtling projectile above her, there would be no violation of natural laws were she to step back rather than forward.  The question is, how can we make it intelligible to say that the young woman is warned of the hurtling projectile, and warned by God?  If the man behind her sees the falling piano and shouts to warn her, we understand that.  His shout is part of her experience of her past world, and her action of jumping back is her free, calculated way of responding to her prehension of her past.  The hybrid physical feeling of God, which is (on the traditional Whiteheadian account) the subjective aim for any particular occasion of the young woman s experience, is also a prehension of the past from which she inherits—it is, after all, a physical feeling.  What is the character of the content of this hybrid physical feeling of God?

In the first instance one could suggest that God is the agent who passes on to the woman dimensions of her past, relevant to her future, of which she is not aware from any other source.  In this case one would be saying that God acts in the world by revealing to an agent things about the past world of the agent of which he or she is unaware, but which may have an impact on the agent’s future.  This is an interpretation of the Whiteheadian scheme which has quite unacceptable consequences, but it may also turn out to be the only meaningful interpretation of the scheme in the sense that it is the only interpretation in any way distinguishable from the situation that would obtain if there were no God.  This is in fact the dilemma I wish to push upon theistic Whiteheadians.

If God does reveal “new” information via subjective aims, then one can clearly see how God could orchestrate the unfolding process of the universe so that there would be an enhanced chance that his own experience in the future would be at, or near, the maximum achievable.  If the young woman on lunch break is not killed by the falling piano, then she will continue to provide joy to her children, husband, and parents, with the further result that that joy will also be experienced by God in his unfolding consequent nature.  Fine.  But here is the rub.  Is a God who acts on the world in this way compatible with a world that runs in the way our world runs?  I think not, and will lay out some considerations that move me to this conclusion.

If our world were a centered universe, a universe with an all-seeing (i.e., all-prehending) God with the ability to introduce, on his own, new information pertaining to the past into the experience of emerging actual occasions by means of their subjective aims, then our world would be a much more harmoniously ordered world than it in fact is.  People driving cars around corners at high speeds only to find locomotives bearing down on unguarded railroad crossings would be warned of how events were unfolding and be saved.  Captains piloting vessels like the Titanic would be warned when icebergs invaded sea lanes.  Women about to walk under falling pianos would jump back.  Jean Paul Sartre’s character Pablo Ibbieta, in the short story “The Wall,” would have no dramatic impact, and the story would never have been written, because persons in Ibbieta’s position would invariably have learned from God that the Ramon Grises of this world had moved back to whatever was the analogue for them of the gravedigger’s shack.  But this is ridiculous.  Sartre’s “The Wall” was written, and it was written precisely because our world is filled with the “absurdity” which Sartre and Camus trumpet to the rooftops, with the result that we find our world, and our experience in it, reflected back to us in such existentialist literature.  No, the suggestion that God works in the world by introducing through subjective aims new information about the past world not otherwise available to temporal beings just will not wash—all of us know of too many counterexamples to this way of conceiving of God’s way of acting in the world.  Is there, then, any plausible alternative account?

There is one initial move that might be made in an effort to save the view that God introduces information to a subject which is not available from any other source.  One could point out, quite accurately, that Whitehead talks about God and the world in such a way that it is very clear that while God proffers a subjective aim which, if accepted, would result in the greatest good possible under the circumstances, actual entities sophisticated enough to entertain complex contrasts of feeling also thereby have genuine freedom of choice with the result that they are free to reject the aim proffered by God, free to turn their backs on God’s lure toward the best possible tomorrow.  This point about freedom is a standard ingredient in Whitehead-ian discussions of the problem of evil.  Does this point bear at all upon the issue at hand?

I think not.  Pianos fall on people, and locomotives crush cars at railroad crossings.  To comment on such happenings by saying that God always provides the information needed to make the better outcome possible, but finite occasions willfully and freely ignore that information—to make this claim is ridiculous.  Yes, there are what we might characterize as the Willy Loman-type situations, situations where for one reason or another persons willingly and freely court disaster for what seem, to most of us, bad reasons.  And, of course, there are also, most certainly, what we could characterize as the lago-type situations, where persons of evil, malicious intent, knowing fully the potential for evil, disorder, and unhappiness which a given course of action involves, still deliberately choose that course for themselves or others.  But the newspapers are full of strolling women/falling piano-type incidents that just would not come to pass were God to operate in the world by providing information about the world, information not otherwise available, through the subjective aims he offers to finite actual occasions.  If God did operate by providing new information, then we would indeed have a centered universe, a universe with a central purpose, with a conductor orchestrating the total flow of events, a universe with an overarching meaning.

If we abandon the thesis that God provides new information about the past of the world by means of subjective aims, is there any other possible way we could conceive of the Whiteheadian God serving as a meaningful center of the universe?  My response to this question is that however we try to articulate such a conception, God turns out to be redundant, a fifth wheel, an entity without a function precisely because ordinary actual occasions are not only capable of performing the function in question, they actually do perform it.  What is it, then, that God might proffer via subjective aims if it does not seem plausible that he offers otherwise unavailable information about the past of any given presently concrescing actual entity?  And is this something else he might offer such that, because he offers it, we could reasonably regard God as a center of meaning and of value, a center directing, to some meaningful extent and in some meaningful manner, the unfolding of the universe?

If God cannot introduce data about the world not already available to actual entities, then there would seem to be only two sorts of things he could introduce: a sense of the possibilities relevant to the factual state of affairs known by each actual occasion, plus a feeling of the valuation he would prefer to have attached to each of the possibilities.  Let us look briefly at each of these two sorts of factors.

In the case of the woman strolling beside the Empire State Building on lunch break, one might say that whereas God does not convey to her the information that there is in fact a piano falling her way, he could shoot into her consciousness via subjective aim an awareness of the possibility that a piano just might be falling her way.  That sort of suggestion is preposterous and totally at odds with our lived experience.  Assume that our woman on lunch break is a long-time New Yorker very savvy about the ways of the big city.  At crossings she always entertains the possibility that a cab could be running the light; she is constantly aware that her high heels could get caught in a sidewalk grate; she carries her purse in a defensive mode, being quite aware of the possibility of finding herself jostled in a robbery attempt; etc., etc.  Our past experience, direct and indirect, introduces us to the myriad possibilities relevant to our normal habitat—for this we do not need God.  It is precisely when we leave our normal habitat and enter a world where we are unfamiliar, directly or indirectly, with the possibilities relevant to the context that we get in trouble—the farm boy in the big city or the city slicker who visits the farm.  The farm boy gets rolled on Fifth Avenue.  God does not educate him about the possibilities; he gets educated in the school of hard knocks, by experience, by the world.  If God were in the business of revealing possibilities that run ahead of direct or indirect experience, the world would be a very different, more harmonious, much more manageable place than it in fact is.

But, it might be said, I have been looking at the wrong sorts of possibilities if I want to get into the arena of novelty, of creativity, the source of the genuinely new.  God affects the world, not by impinging upon, not by leading worldly actors to impinge upon, unfolding chains of events as they roll out of the past.  Rather, he affects the world by getting actual entities to look down the road to the future, by introducing ideals, by introducing the lure of beauty and novelty into what would otherwise be the gray, dead level, boring, uneventful, monotonous unfolding of the same, and more of the same.

Again, I think this way of trying to salvage a role in the world for the Whiteheadian God does not work.  I will bring forward one example which seems to me to make my point in a very powerful way.  My example is the ongoing speculation about who really did write the plays and poetry attributed to William Shakespeare.  The debate lunges along taking two sorts of directions, but each direction exhibits the point I wish to make.  For centuries it has been argued on the one side that someone else—Sir X or the Earl of Y—was the author, not just because of a possible anagram here or there, but basically because it is beyond belief that a simple country boy, relatively unschooled, would be capable of producing the Shakespeare corpus.  On the other side of the fence, those who are the champions of Shakespeare make their case by arguing that Shakespeare was not so simple as had been made out, and this because his schooling, and general experience, was far more sophisticated than had been generally allowed, with the consequence that it is not at all laughable to think of the real Shakespeare as author of the corpus.  Both sides in this debate argue away from the assumption that a rather rich education, and a pretty fair amount of experience in the world, would be required of anyone who might plausibly be designated author of the Shakespeare corpus.  This assumption is surely sound.  And this assumption points dramatically to our real-world conviction that great art, beautiful poetry, and inspiring ideals are all made right here on earth, not in heaven.  No reference to God is necessary to account for the magnificence of “King Lear”—Plato’s account of divine inspiration does not speak to our age, not only because nothing in our experience resonates to the vibration set up by Plato’s account, but also because our experience finds the Platonic account demeaning, destructive of a sense of both human responsibility and the openendedness of human achievement.


If one decenters Whitehead, then one replaces a cosmos with one overarching center of direction, God, with a cluttered cosmos exhibiting a vast number of centers.  In Whitehead’s own centered account, there is a unified vision of order and value directing the unfolding process.  If that account were accurate, even given all sorts of willful intransigence and rebellion on the part of the multitude of particular occasions, there still ought to be a discernable thread of central direction in the unfolding of historical events.  Ours, however, is an epoch that has enormous difficulty in discerning such threads—the age of Hegel and Marx, at least on this score, is past.  A decentered Whiteheadian vision suggests a world where larger and larger patterns of meaning and order emerge gradually, fitfully, and unevenly from the churning multiplicity of value centers constituted by the sophisticated occasions regnant in living organisms.  I can recall reading, a long time ago, Ralph Barton Perry’s account of the emergence of more and more widely integrated networks of “interest” (in his General Theory of Value)—a decentered process metaphysics has a good bit in common with Perry’s account, and both seem to me to be quite compatible with the actual flow of events we observe in the world around us.  Order, meaning, larger values do not emanate from the top down, from THE Center, in my view; rather, they gradually emerge from the bottom up, in waves of order, meaning, and value that build in power and fan out in wider and wider circles of influence with the passing of time.

The shift in perspective I have made by decentering Whitehead forces our attention back upon the character of concrescence.  From this decentered perspective there is still a thrust toward order, harmony, and intensity of experience in the world except that all this occurs as a result of the very nature of temporal concrescence.  Concrescence is described by Whitehead in such a way that the passage toward satisfaction is guided by aesthetic sensitivities.  The world, in its very nature, is a struggle toward aesthetic achievement, but the struggle advances with measured step and slow, from the bottom up.

It is my perception that the events unfolding in the world around us unfold in the way that one would expect were ours a decentered Whiteheadian universe.  Leaving for a moment the imaginative experiment we have been considering—the case of the plunging piano—let us look at some actual events in our real world.  I think it is clear, as a matter of fact, that there are many plunging piano scenarios in the real world.  For example, the year 1985 was a terrible year for airplane disasters.  In several of the worst crashes, either wind shear or metal fatigue in engines has been identified as responsible for regrettable human tragedies.  If there were a Whiteheadian God, would he not have acted to save us from these tragedies?  Would not God have been aware of the shear and been able to reflect that content of his consequent nature in the subjective aim he offered to the pilot?  Would God not have been aware of the metal fatigue in the various engines and made that knowledge available to maintenance personnel?  These suggestions strike us as ridiculous—to view God as the cosmic air controller or cosmic metallurgist is to offer a position which is religiously repugnant.  And that is the point of my argument; the standard theological version of process philosophy—Whitehead with God—leads me to ask such questions, leads me to wonder why such senseless, absurd disasters have plagued us at every step of our history, and this counts strongly against the centered version of process metaphysics.  One would have thought that the famous, but failed, doctor’s plot against Hitler would have been the sort of thing that a Whiteheadian God would have had enormous interest in promoting, for example.  One wonders with Richard Rubenstein, in his 1966 book After Auschwitz, how it is possible ever again for persons to believe in a God who is supposed to have efficacy in the way events unfold in the world.


A God who is supposed to have efficacy in the way events unfold in the world—that is the sort of deity Whitehead attempted to describe.  Daniel Day Williams was clearly writing in the context of Whitehead’s intention when he titled his article “How Does God Act?”  But although Williams, like other commentators with a theological orientation, does a fine job of describing the nature of the Whiteheadian God, he—again like those other theological commentators—does a poor job, does no job at all, in facing up to the question of whether or not our experience of the world around us provides any evidence whatsoever for the Whiteheadian account of God’s nature and God’s relationship to the world.  For my part, when I look at the way events unfold in the world, I do not see any evidence there of the kind of divine activity called for by the Whiteheadian notion of God’s consequent nature weaving itself across his primordial nature and then returning the “superjective” vision back to the world in an operative, effective manner through the shaping of subjective aims.

Consequently, I am moved to modulate my process orientation into a new key, into a naturalistic key.  When one begins to hum the Whiteheadian melodies in this new key, one is freed from the theological distractions which have had the effect of cluttering the process landscape and alienating many philosophers who need Whitehead’s metaphysics but have not come close enough to his system to discover what is there for them because they are put off by its theological dimension and by the way its theological dimension has been so central to the work of such a large majority of the commentators on Whiteheadiana.  Today philosophy has backed away from the arrogant self-assuredness of positivistic dogmatism and is struggling to find a standpoint from which it can fend off a new attack on its very nature, an attack mounted by the new subjectivism spun off from the deconstructionist camp.  Process metaphysics provides the ideal perspective from which philosophy can defend itself from this new attack.  If enough of us can begin whistling our Whiteheadian tunes in the new naturalistic key, I think there is a chance that the wider philosophical community will begin to open itself to the full power of the Whiteheadian muse, naturalistically conceived. 


1 Daniel Day Williams, “How Does God Act?: An Essay in Whitehead’s Metaphysics,” pages 161-80 in Process and Divinity: The Hartshorne Festschrift (LaSalle: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1964), William L. Reese and Eugene Freeman, editors. 

Posted April 15, 2007


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