Chapter 4: Whitehead’s Doctrine of God
1. “Science and the Modern World”
Nathaniel Lawrence(Lawrence, Whitehead’s Philosophical Development, p. xix.) and William Hammerschmidt (Hammerschmidt, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Time, p.7.) agree in distinguishing three periods in Whitehead’s philosophical development, dated according to the publication of his books. In the early period, down to 1922, White-head was preoccupied with mathematics, logic, and philosophy of science. The only published indications of a wider humanistic interest in this period are a few essays on education. Even these tend to emphasize the role of mathematics and science. In the philosophy of nature developed in the closing years of this period, Whitehead attempted systematically to exclude the knower from nature and to show that nature can be coherently understood without reference to any contribution on the part of the perceiver. The ultimate philosophical problem of the relation of the knower to the world of nature, he says, is left undetermined by his philosophy of nature.(PNK vii.) Nevertheless, his work of that period left many readers with the impression that nature and its structures are ontologically autonomous and also that the knower may be understood as a part of nature.
In the transitional period from 1925 through 1927 Whitehead was working toward a comprehensive vision. He introduced the knower into the world of nature.(I have called attention to Whitehead’s lack of terminological consistency on this point. See ch. II. However, there is no substantive problem.) The knower, the percipient event, provides the clue to nature in general. The result is a position quite different from both the idealism and the naturalism current at that time, or indeed at any time. This new vision, of idealistic naturalism or naturalistic idealism, is given its full exposition in the final period.
In the transitional period, Whitehead published three major books. They are Science and the Modern World, Religion in the Making, and Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect. The two most important works of the final period are Process and Reality and Adventures of Ideas. Of these five books, by far the most significant for the study of his doctrine of God are Science and the Modern World, Religion in the Making, and Process and Reality. Although they were all published within the period 1925 to 1929, still there are significant developments in the thought expressed, and these have special importance with respect to the doctrine of God. In this chapter, I propose to summarize Whitehead’s thought about God as it develops in these three books.
Science and the Modern World is based largely on the Lowell Institute Lectures delivered in February, 1925.(SMW x.) In these lectures as delivered, there was little to suggest that Whitehead was on the verge of devoting serious attention to the development of a doctrine of God. There were historical references to ideas of God and one passage dealing with the appeal to God on the part of thinkers who required him for the solution of the problem of the order of nature. Of this appeal he was very critical. “My point is that any summary conclusion jumping from our conviction of the existence of such an order of nature to the easy assumption that there is an ultimate reality which, in some unexplained way, is to be appealed to for the removal of the perplexity, constitutes the great refusal of rationality to assert its rights.” (SMW 134-135.) By itself this suggests a highly negative attitude toward the project of introducing God as an explanatory principle into philosophy. However, in the light of his later work, the slight qualification he makes here is highly significant. “In a sense all explanation must end in an ultimate arbitrariness. My demand is, that the ultimate arbitrariness of matter of fact from which our formulation starts should disclose the same general principles of reality, which we dimly discern as stretching away into regions beyond our explicit powers of discernment.”(SMW 135.)
One other passage in the lectures points more positively toward his later doctrine of God, although in it the word “God” does not occur. “The underlying activity, as conceived apart from the fact of realisation, has three types of envisagement. These are: first, the envisagement of eternal objects; secondly, the envisagement of possibilities of value in respect to the synthesis of eternal objects; and lastly, the envisagement of the actual matter of fact which must enter into the total situation which is achievable by the addition of the future. But in abstraction from actuality, the eternal activity is divorced from value.” (SMW 154-155.)
This passage is difficult to interpret in its context because of the obscurity of the notion of envisagement. The substantial activity here called the underlying and eternal activity Whitehead associates with Spinoza’s “one infinite substance,”(SMW 181, 255.) and value he identifies with the occurrence of actuality for itself as opposed to its effects on others.(SMW 136.) The passage seems to say that the ultimate metaphysical reality that underlies and expresses itself in every concrete occurrence of actuality or value “envisages” possibilities both in pure abstraction and in their relevance for actual entities, as well as “envisaging” the actual entities themselves. Perhaps “envisaging” means no more than taking account of. Certainly the anthropomorphic connotation is not intended, since value or actuality is specifically denied to the envisager.
Before Whitehead wrote the preface to the book in June of the same year, he had written the chapters on “Abstraction” and “God” that constitute his first systematic excursion into what he understood as metaphysics. Metaphysics he defined as “a dispassionate consideration of the nature of things, antecedently to any special investigation into their details.” (SMW 227.) In the chapter on “Abstraction,” Whitehead analyzes the way in which eternal objects are together with each other quite apart from their involvement in events. He affirms that they have both an individual essence and a relational essence.(SMW 229-230.)The individual essence is simply what that possibility for actualization is in itself, in abstraction from its relations with all other possibilities. The relational essence is the necessary interconnectedness that all eternal objects have with each other. By virtue of the relational essence of every eternal object, each actual entity in which an eternal object is ingredient is also related to all the other eternal objects. But in terms of their individual essences only a selection of eternal objects ingresses into each actual occasion.
The general realm of eternal objects expresses innumerable possibilities for actualization that are incompatible with our present world order. Whitehead writes: “The spatio-temporal relationship, in terms of which the actual course of events is to be expressed, is nothing else than a selective limitation within the general systematic relationships among eternal objects. By ‘limitation,’ as applied to the spatio-temporal continuum, I mean those matter-of-fact determinations — such as the three dimensions of space, and the four dimensions of the spatio-temporal continuum — which are inherent in the actual course of events, but which present themselves as arbitrary in respect to a more abstract possibility. The consideration of these general limitations at the base of actual things, as distinct from the limitations peculiar to each actual occasion will be more fully resumed in the chapter on ‘God.’ ” (SMW 232.) This is the first explicit indication in Whitehead’s writings that there is a place for “God” in his system.
The chapter on God begins by noting that Aristotle, the greatest of metaphysicians, introduced God into his system without reference to any religious influences.(SMW 249.) Whitehead also intends in this chapter to be moved only by metaphysical considerations. To this end, he reviews the metaphysical situation to which the discussion of abstraction, along with the book as a whole, has led him. For this purpose he adopts a terminology borrowed from the philosophy of Spinoza.
First, Whitehead agrees with Spinoza that there is some one ultimate reality actualizing itself in all the entities we can know or think. In this sense there is substance. But in Whitehead’s view this substance is not a static entity undergoing change. It is, rather, itself the active ongoingness of things. To suggest both his agreement and disagreement with Spinoza in his ultimate monism, Whitehead affirms substantial activity as the ultimate reality at the base of things.(SMW 254-255.) What this means is that the occurrence of events, the sheer fact that something happens, is not itself accidental and is not subject to explanation by anything beyond itself.
Substantial activity, as such, is totally formless and neutral with respect to form. Yet it cannot occur except in some definite way. The analysis of the world in the preceding chapters of Science and the Modern World has showed that all definite entities can be analyzed into actual entities and eternal objects. This means that substantial activity necessarily adopts these forms which are then declared, in accordance with Spinozistic terminology, to be its attributes. In concreto, substantial activity is given only in actual entities which are called its modes.(SMW 255.)
Whitehead now confronts another problem. Both substantial activity and the realm of pure possibility are entirely neutral with respect to what kinds of actual entities shall occur: for example, as to the number of dimensions they shall have. Yet with vast regularity myriads of actual entities are actualized in terms of a four-dimensional space-time continuum. How is it to be explained that what is entirely indeterminate in terms of the metaphysical principles thus far recognized is in fact, in the world we know, quite determinate? Whitehead is convinced that honesty requires us to posit an additional metaphysical principle which functions to provide the requisite determination. This metaphysical principle he calls the principle of determination,(SMW 257.) of concretion,(SMW 250.) or of limitation,(SMW 256.)and he regards this principle as a third attribute of substantial ‘activity alongside eternal objects and actual entities.(SMW 255-257.)
But the question of the number of dimensions is only illustrative of a larger issue.(SMW 256-257.) Whitehead’s explanation in Science and the Modern World of the respects in which the principle of limitation limits the actual entities and of how this limitation is effected is extremely brief. Partly as a result of this brevity I find myself unsure on a number of points as to how it is to be understood. For this reason, I quote the decisive passage in full before attempting any exegesis, so that the reader may check my suggestions against Whitehead’s statements.
“In its nature each mode is limited, so as not to be other modes. But, beyond these limitations of particulars, the general modal individualisation is limited in two ways: In the first place it is an actual course of events, which might be otherwise so far as concerns eternal possibility, but is that course. This limitation takes three forms, (i) the special logical relations which all events must conform to, (ii) the selection of relationships to which the events do conform, and (iii) the particularity which infects the course even within those general relationships of logic and causation. Thus this first limitation is a limitation of antecedent selection. So far as the general metaphysical situation is concerned, there might have been an indiscriminate modal pluralism apart from logical or other limitation. But there could not then have been these modes, for each mode represents a synthesis of actualities which are limited to conform to a standard. We here come to the second way of limitation. Restriction is the price of value. There cannot be value without antecedent standards of value, to discriminate the acceptance or rejection of what is before the envisaging mode of activity. Thus there is an antecedent limitation among values, introducing contraries, grades, and oppositions.” (SMW 255-256.)
My difficulty with this passage is that I am not clear how sharply to distinguish the limitations that are required for the process as such from the limitations required for the emergence of values. In the light of other writings, it is difficult to see these as clearly distinct. Further, it is difficult to know whether all the three forms of limitation taken as needed for the process to occur are equally dependent on the principle of limitation. In the light of other writings, the influence of past occasions and the self-determination of the new occasion seem to contribute much of the limitation referred to under (ii) and (iii)
However, much is clear that is only reinforced by later writings. An actual entity cannot come into being apart from antecedent limitations. The actual entity cannot settle for itself the logical or cosmological relations to which it will conform. If this is not predetermined for it, it can have no basis for entering into those relations with the past apart from which it cannot occur at all. Further, in view of the fact that we now recognize every type of order as contingent, we must assign the occurrence of one type of order rather than another, not to the metaphysical situation as such, but to a decision which, from the metaphysical standpoint, is arbitrary.(SMW 257.) Here again the example of the number of dimensions will suffice to clarify the meaning. This decision cannot be a function of the substantial activity as such, of the eternal objects, or of the actual entities. Hence, we must posit the principle of limitation as an additional metaphysical factor.
It is also clear in this passage that Whitehead sees that such determination of the metaphysically indeterminate as is effected by individual actual entities must depend upon the aim at some value. The actual entity could make no selection of what to aim at if there were not some givenness about the value. This givenness presupposes some antecedent evaluation or ordering of values. For this ordering, likewise, the principle of limitation is required.
If Whitehead had left the situation at that point, it is doubtful that much controversy would have been raised. Some would have dismissed the whole discussion on the assumption that it is meaningless because it is metaphysical. But if we allow metaphysics at all, the introduction of a third attribute of the underlying substantial activity would have seemed a normal way to round out the system.
Whitehead, however, did not leave matters thus. He went on to call the principle of limitation or concretion “God,” and to declare that, in fact, it has been the object of man’s worship in all religions.(SMW 257. Cf. PR 47.) This means both that his argument for the existence of the third attribute of the substantial activity is an argument for the existence of God and that the God of religion is not the metaphysical ultimate or absolute, since he is only one of three attributes of the substantial activity. For the first half of this consequence of his doctrine, Whitehead has never been forgiven by those who believe that sophisticated thought has once and for all learned to do without God.(Lawrence reports the reactions of Russell, Stebbing, and Murphy For the second half, he has earned the rejection of most theologians.(William Temple, Nature, Man and God [Macmillan and Co., Ltd., London, 1934], p. 260. See also Mascall, He Who Is [Longmans, Green & Co., 1943] , pp. 150-160.)
From the perspective of traditional Western theism the identification of God with anything less than the ultimate appears paradoxical. If the principle of limitation is an attribute of substantial activity, then it would seem that substantial activity should be called God rather than one of its attributes. Whitehead invites comparison of the substantial activity with Spinoza’s one infinite substance, and in Spinoza it is that substance which is called God — certainly not one of its attributes.
Whitehead’s reason for rejecting this alternative is that he is convinced that the object of authentic religious concern is characterized more decisively by goodness than by metaphysical ultimacy. If he is regarded as “the foundation of the metaphysical situation with its ultimate activity, . . . there can be no alternative except to discern in Him the origin of all evil as well as of all good. . . . If He be conceived as the supreme ground for limitation, it stands in His very nature to divide the Good from the Evil.” (SMW 258.) It will be our special concern in studying the further development of Whitehead’s doctrine of God to see how he conceives God’s relation to the underlying activity.
2. “Religion in the Making”
Whitehead recognized, in Science and the Modern World, that metaphysics alone could not go “far towards the production of a God available for religious purposes.” (SMW 249.) Certainly this applies to his own doctrine as there developed. But Whitehead also indicated that a metaphysical doctrine is “a first step without which no evidence on a narrower experiential basis can be of much avail.” (SMW 250.) Now that he had himself taken the first step, he noted, “What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis.” (SMW 257.) This conviction on his part led quite naturally to the investigation of religion. This investigation of the evidence from religion combined with further metaphysical reflection provided the material for Whitehead’s second series of Lowell Institute Lectures, delivered the next year, and published as Religion in the Making.
A slight but significant shift takes place in Whitehead’s understanding of the relation of religion and metaphysics between the two books. In Science and the Modern World, metaphysics was to complete its work and thereby provide a first step in the knowledge of God to which additions could be made from religious experience. In Religion in the Making, however, Whitehead proposes that religion “contributes its own independent evidence which metaphysics must take account of in framing its description.”(RM 79.) This change may be largely verbal, since metaphysics may here be conceived more broadly to include the whole of speculative philosophy,(See the definition of metaphysics in the footnote, RM 84.) but the emphasis is more on reciprocity and less on the dependence of religious knowledge on prior philosophical doctrine.
Nevertheless, most of what Whitehead tells us about God in Religion in the Making is primarily based on the further development of his philosophical thought. He does not import into his philosophy any doctrines that have emerged into dominance in particular religious traditions. For example, he devotes considerable attention to rejecting the view that religious experience provides a basis for affirming that God is personal.(RM 62-66.) He does affirm that religion yields evidence “in favor of the concept of a rightness in things, partially conformed to and partially disregarded.”(RM 66.) Religion also contributes “the recognition that our existence is more than a succession of bare facts. We live in a common world of mutual adjustment, of intelligible relations, of valuations, of zest after purposes, of joy and grief, of interest concentrated on self, of interest directed beyond self, of short-time and long-time failures or successes, of different layers of feeling, of life-weariness and of life-zest.” (RM 80.) Whitehead proposes, then, that philosophy should take account of these dimensions of human experience, but it does not appear that they should be particularly restrictive or prescriptive in the further development of the doctrine of God.
In the more purely philosophical sections of the book Whitehead repeats, supplements, and alters the position he stated in Science and the Modern World. The repetition and supplementation is illustrated in the following passage: “The universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but . . . this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God.” (RM 119-120.) Fundamentally this is a simple restatement of the argument in the earlier book. However, at one point it suggests an element that was unspecified there. God is a “completed ideal harmony.” In other passages this is stated in a variety of ways. God is said to hold “the ideal forms apart in equal, conceptual realization of knowledge,” — so that “as concepts, they are grasped together in the synthesis of omniscience.(RM 153.) God is a conceptual fusion of values, “embracing the concept of all such possibilities graded in harmonious, relative subordination.” (RM 157.) Thus, we find that the way in which God functions as the principle of limitation is by ordering the infinite possibilities of the eternal objects according to principles of value. It is by the addition of this “ideal conceptual harmony”(RM 156.) to the other antecedent circumstances out of which a new entity arises that some measure of harmony and order is maintained in the universe. Otherwise there could be no actual world.(RM 104, 157.) In these quotations we can see that the envisagement of the eternal objects, which was referred, in the first Lowell lectures, to the underlying substantial activity, (see earlier in this ch.) is here attributed to God. This envisagement is not something additional to his function as principle of limitation, but it explains how that principle operates.
In commenting earlier on the attribution of envisagement to the underlying activity, I noted that it could not be understood as having any of its usual anthropomorphic connotations. Since the underlying activity was regarded as not being actual, it was hard to understand what might be meant by its function of envisaging. Even if in the earlier book the envisaging had been attributed to God, the situation would not have been changed, since Whitehead wrote in Science and the Modern World that “God is not concrete (SMW 257.)and that certainly meant, not actual. However, in Religion in the Making a remarkable change has occurred without explanation. God is consistently referred to as an actual entity.(RM 90, 94, 98, 99, 152.) This is not a rejection of the view that he is the principle of concretion (or limitation) but the affirmation that it is an actual entity that performs the function of providing the limitations that make concretion possible. Hence, envisagement can be understood as a way in which an actual entity is conceptually related to ideal possibilities.
That God is an actual entity rather than a nonconcrete principle also allows for the attribution to him of many other characteristics which would have seemed out of place in the earlier book. Whitehead speaks of God as having purpose,(RM 100, 104, 158, 159.) knowledge,(RM 154.) vision,(RM 153.) wisdom, RM 160.) consciousness, RM 158.) and love.(RM 158.) This is remarkably personalistic language, and it is interesting to note that it all occurs in the more philosophical part of the book rather than where he is surveying the evidence of religious experience. There, as we noted, he insists that religious experience does not justify our speaking of God as person. He further criticizes the Semitic conception of God as personal creator of the world.(RM 70-71.) He even denies that religious experience provides adequate warrant for affirming the actuality of God, since “the Eastern Asiatic concept of an impersonal order to which the world conforms” is given equal status with other doctrines.(RM 68-69.) Apparently the basic reason for the change in tone and language is that the function of providing limitation to ensure order and value could be assigned only to an actual entity. Once God is regarded as an actual entity, the use of personalistic language follows naturally, for our basic clue to the nature of an actual entity is given in our own immediate human experience.(See ch. I.)
God is, however, a very special type of actual entity. He is contrasted with all others by virtue of being “nontemporal.” (RM 90.)”The definite determination which imposes ordered balance on the world requires an actual entity imposing its own unchanged consistency of character on every phase.” (RM 94.) “He must include in himself a synthesis of the total universe. There is, therefore, in God’s nature the aspect of the realm of forms as qualified by the world, and the aspect of the world as qualified by the forms. His completion, so that He is exempt from transition into something else, must mean that his nature remains self-consistent in relation to all change.”(RM 98-99.)
A problem arises when we press the nontemporality of God. Does God confront every new temporal entity with his ideal envisagement of value in just the same way? Would he confront them in the same way even in another cosmic epoch in which space-time were not a four-dimensional continuum but had three or five dimensions? If so, it is hard to see how, after all, he functions as the principle of limitation. That Whitehead seems to have recognized this is indicated by the following passage. Speaking of God, he writes:
“He is the binding element in the world. The consciousness which is individual in us, is universal in him: the love which is partial in us is all-embracing in him. Apart from him there could be no world, because there could be no adjustment of individuality. His purpose in the world is quality of attainment. His purpose is always embodied in the particular ideals relevant to the actual state of the world. Thus all attainment is immortal in that it fashions the actual ideals which are God in the world as it is now. Every act leaves the world with a deeper or a fainter impress of God. He then passes into his next relation to the world with enlarged, or diminished, presentation of ideal values.”(RM 158-159.)
This passage also points to the final new element in the doctrine of God in this book. God is understood as being affected by the world. In an earlier quotation this relation was described as including “the aspect of the world as qualified by the forms.” (See previous page.) The envisagement of the actual entities as well as of the eternal objects is now attributed to God rather than to the underlying substantial activity. There is interaction between God and the world. God makes possible order and value in the world, the world then acts upon God, and God’s new relation to the world is affected. Thus, the general principle of the interaction of actual entities is applied to God who now appears as the supreme actual entity.
In Science and the Modern World, we encountered four metaphysical principles: the underlying substantial activity and its three attributes — eternal objects, actual entities, and the principle of limitation. In Religion in the Making, subtle but important changes have occurred in the understanding of these four elements in the philosophic system. First, the underlying substantial activity is now called creativity (RM 90.) and plays so minor a role in the analysis that it has barely been mentioned in the preceding account. This in itself might be a merely verbal change or a change of emphasis. But, in fact, it is much more than that. We are no longer invited to compare Whitehead’s thought with that of Spinoza. We read no more of attributes and modes, and the tendency toward monism of the earlier book gives way to an emphatic pluralism of actual entities. Whereas substantial activity was that of which all the other three were attributes, creativity is accorded no such favored place. Complete interdependence of the four principles is stressed rather than the primacy of any one.( RM 90-93, 156-157.) Second, since God is now conceived as an actual entity, we might consider the four metaphysical principles as reduced to three: creativity, eternal objects, and actual entities including God as a special case. If we do so, however, we have to remember that there is a major philosophical difference between God and the temporal actual entities.
After Religion in the Making, nothing really new is added to the doctrine of God. He is an actual entity who envisages and orders the realm of eternal possibilities. He adds himself to the world as the vision of ideal possibility, from which every new occasion takes its rise, thereby ensuring a measure of order and value in a situation that could otherwise be only chaotic and indeed could achieve no actuality at all. The world, in its turn, reacts upon him so as to affect the way in which he, in his turn, acts upon it. All the ingredients are here. But many questions remain unanswered. What finally is the relation of God to creativity? How does God make available to each occasion its appropriate ideal? What status have the eternal objects in relation to God’s envisagement? How does the world in its turn act upon him? How can this be harmonized with the doctrine that God is nontemporal? These and other questions we can take with us to the greatest of Whitehead’s philosophical writings, Process and Reality.
3. “Process and Reality”
In 1927 and 1928, Whitehead gave the Gifford Lectures. This provided the occasion for what proved to be by far his most sustained analysis of philosophical questions. The focus of the Gifford Lectureship on natural theology rendered fully appropriate an expansion and enrichment of his previous work on the idea of God, although this remained a very small part of the total task he set himself. These lectures in expanded form were published in 1929 as Process and Reality.
In Science and the Modern World, we noted how White-head first criticized the introduction of God into philosophical systems and then himself introduced him. There was no strict contradiction. What Whitehead objected to there and again in later writings was not the introduction of God as an explanatory factor as such, but the failure to explain how God performs the requisite function.(PR 78, 219, 289; FR 24; AI 171.) Yet Whitehead’s own treatment there is highly vulnerable to that criticism, and Religion in the Making does not entirely escape the same objection. In Process and Reality, the way God functions as the principle of limitation is extensively articulated for the first time.
Consider the situation as Whitehead sees it. The actual occasions of experience exist for a moment and then perish. As they perish, they obligate their successors to take some account of them. Then there are the unchanging possibilities for realization, the pure possibilities that Whitehead calls eternal objects. Finally, there is recognized as the underlying metaphysical principle of the universe the ultimate activity, the sheer ongoingness of nature, which Whitehead now calls creativity. No one of these factors singly and no combination of them can explain the concrete particularity of what in fact becomes. Unless we affirm that this concrete particularity is an illusion, we must acknowledge that another factor is working.(SMW 256-257.)
From the richer analysis of Process and Reality, we may propose that the new occasions provide the principle of their own limitation and definiteness.(PR 75, 343, 390.) It is the nature of each actual occasion to have a subjective aim at a determinate satisfaction. It prehends both the eternal objects and the temporal entities in its past in terms of this aim, and in successive phases of its own becoming it fashions a new creative Synthesis which is itself.
The question must now be pressed a step further. How does the new subjective aim occur? Can the occasion for whose definiteness it is responsible be viewed as producing this aim out of nothing? Even if that could be meaningfully affirmed, we would still have to reckon with the randomness of its choice. Any occasion might select any aim and it might select any locus or standpoint in the extensive continuum. Order could only be sheer chance. But, in fact, the actual occasions that constitute our bodies are constantly aiming at satisfactions directed to the healthy functioning of our bodies as a whole. Some limitation is imposed upon the selection of aim by actual occasions.
The self-determination of just what an occasion shall aim to become operates within limits set for it in its initial phase. The initial phase of the subjective aim of an occasion Whitehead often calls simply the initial aim.(See Ch.III.) This aim is given to the occasion to determine its limits by the principle of limitation which transcends every temporal occasion and which Whitehead calls God. By analyzing the initial aim, first in terms of how it functions in the becoming occasion and then in terms of how it is derived from God, we will be able to understand much more clearly how God works in the world.
In ordinary language when we speak of man’s aim in life or in a particular act, we sometimes mean a pure possibility he strives to actualize. For example, an artist may have as his aim a certain type of beauty. At other times we mean by the man’s aim the actualization of a possibility. In our example this would mean the actualization of that type of beauty in a painting or piece of sculpture. At still other times, we mean by a man’s aim the act of aiming, which would be the artist’s purposeful desire to achieve the goal in question. Usually we intend all three of these meanings and have no need to discriminate them, since in fact they cannot be separated in the moment in which the aim (in any of these senses) is effective.
The same ambiguity can be found in Whitehead’s usage. He writes of the initial aim, sometimes with the eternal object as such primarily in view, sometimes with a focus upon the satisfaction aimed at, and sometimes as the act of aiming at the actualization of the possibility in that satisfaction. Again, no serious confusion need result, for the eternal object can constitute the aim only when an occasion is actively aiming at its realization; the satisfaction aimed at is always the actualization of some determinate possibility (eternal object); and the act of aiming is always directed toward such an actualization. The focus of attention in these pages will be upon the act of aiming itself.
In the first place, the initial aim so understood determines what locus or standpoint will be occupied by each occasion.(PR 195-434.) This, in turn, determines just what occasions will constitute the past of the new occasion.(PR 435-436.) Although these features of the functioning of the initial aim are not stressed by Whitehead, they have considerable systematic importance for understanding the relation of God to the occurrence of new occasions. Hence, some explanation is necessary even at the price of a short excursus.
The spatiotemporal continuum is, in fact, always actualized in a particular way. That is, every actual entity occupies a quite definite region which is its standpoint. But when we turn from the settled past to the future, we find that the continuum as such tells no tales as to how it shall be atomized.(PR 104-105.) The actual standpoints to be realized may be large or small and may have a variety of shapes. Any given region may be divided in an infinite number of ways, just as there is no limit to the number of ways in which a sheet of paper can be divided by lines drawn upon it.
If we ask how this infinitely divisible continuum comes to be divided precisely as it does so that there is a plenum of occasions, we cannot answer in terms of the efficacy of the past. Occasions now perished cannot settle just what regions shall become the standpoints of their successors. Further, one cannot appeal here to the self-determination of the occasion. The occasion that determines itself does so in terms of a perspective which is already settled for it. This settlement is given in the initial aim of the new occasion.(PR 104, 195, 434.)
It is important to emphasize that the determination of the exact locus and extent of each occasion affects not only its internal development but also its relations with other occasions. Specifically, it determines exactly which of these occasions will be contiguous to it and, of these, which will be contemporary and which past. Thus, by determining the standpoint of each occasion, God determines also just what other occasions it will prehend.( PR 435-436. This passage is exceedingly confusing, since it seems to attribute this determination to the self-determination of the occasion. But when read in conjunction with p. 434, this interpretation is excluded.)
In the second place, the initial aim also determines at what kind of satisfaction the occasion will initially aim and thereby influences, without determining, the satisfaction actually attained. What kind of satisfaction the initial aim is directed toward is determined by the relevant possibility for its actualization, as established by its past, that will give it the greatest intensity of feeling and also contribute maximally to the future of the nexus of which it is a part.
Whitehead writes of the initial aim both that it is always at the best possible actualization, given that situation, (PR 134-135, 195, 373.) and that it includes indeterminations awaiting determination by the occasion itself in subsequent phases of its inner development.(PR 74, 342-343, 375.) These statements appear to be in some tension with each other. If the initial aim is at the best possibility, must it not be quite specific and must not its development in subsequent phases be a deviation away from this specific ideal? On the other hand, if the initial aim is indeterminate, how can it be directed toward the ideal?
The solution is found in Whitehead’s idea of graded relevance.(PR 248. See also PR 315,425, 522.) Some particular possibility must be ideal, given the situation. But closely related to this possibility are others, appropriate to the situation although deviating from the ideal. The initial aim thus involves the envisagement of a set of related and relevant possibilities from among which the final satisfaction of the occasion will in fact be chosen. These are all bounded by the definite limits required for the maintenance of minimal order. Yet they allow for so large a measure of self-determination that higher levels of order are subject to destruction by occasions that reject the ideal possibilities they confront in favor of others of lesser value. Whitehead shows here the sensitive balance between the freedom and the determinism of the cosmos, and how order is sustained and enhanced while constantly threatened by the possibility of decay.
The initial aim of each occasion is derived from God.(PR 104, 343, 373, 527.) It is in this way that God plays his exceedingly important role as the principle of limitation. At this point, we shall turn our attention from the question of how the initial aim functions within the actual occasion to the question of how God functions in providing the initial aim to each occasion.
Already in the earlier books it is clear that God functions as principle of limitation by ordering the eternal objects. If these existed simply as an indifferent multiplicity, there would be no basis for selection, hence no limits, no definiteness, no order. God provides limits by ordering this indefinite multiplicity. But this account remains vague and leaves many questions unanswered. In Process and Reality, the account is carried much farther, although substantial uncertainties remain.
Whitehead gives us two principles on the basis of which any further speculation must move. First, he tells us that God’s ordering of the eternal objects is primordial, and that in a sense which clearly means eternally unchanging.(PR 46, 523-524.) Indeed, this timeless envisagement of possibilities constitutes God’s primordial nature. Second, the ordering is such as to specify the initial aim for each new occasion (PR 74, 343, 373, 527.) These principles appear at first to be in some tension with each other. If there is some one eternal ordering of possibilities, it would seem that there is only one mode of order possible for the universe. But Whitehead writes of other cosmic epochs in which completely different modes of order will prevail.(PR 139, 148, 171.) Also, it is extremely difficult to see how one unchanging order can provide a specific and novel aim to every new occasion.
The solution seems to be that the eternal ordering of the eternal objects is not one simple order but an indefinite variety of orders.(I propose this as a solution to the problem Christian by denying any eternal ordering. See Christian near the end of ch. VII.) God’s ordering of possibilities is such that every possible state of the actual world is already envisioned as possible and every possible development from that actual state of the world is already envisioned and appraised. Thus, the one primordial ordering of eternal objects is relevant to every actuality with perfect specificity.(Cf. PR 134.) God’s ordering of the eternal objects has particularized efficacy that takes account of every detail of the actual situation, but this does not mean that God successively produces a new ordering as each new occasion arises.
The question remains as to how a particular eternal object or set of eternal objects becomes effective in a novel occasion as that at whose realization it aims. We see that God’s primordial nature so orders the eternal objects that one such possibility is indeed from eternity identified as the ideal given that situation. But how does the actual occasion become privy to that fact? Whitehead tells us little more than that the initial aim is derived from God. However, a further explanation is suggested. In its less debatable aspects it will be introduced here. A fuller account of my own attempt to understand this problem in Whiteheadian terms is reserved for the next chapter.(See next ch. near the beginning.)
Whitehead speaks of God as having, like all actual entities, an aim at intensity of feeling..(PR 160-161.) In terms of the developed value theory of Adventures of Ideas, we may say his aim is at strength of beauty.(See Ch. III, sec. 2.) This aim is primordial and unchanging, and it determines the primordial ordering of eternal objects. But if this eternal ordering is to have specified efficacy for each new occasion, then the general aim by which it is determined must be specified to each occasion. That is, God must entertain for each new occasion the aim for its ideal satisfaction. Such an aim is the feeling of a proposition of which the novel occasion is the logical subject and the appropriate eternal object is the predicate. The subjective form of the propositional feeling is appetition, that is, the desire for its realization.
If God entertains such a propositional feeling, we may conjecture that the new occasion prehends God in terms of this propositional feeling about itself and does so with a subjective form of appetition conformal to that of God.(PR 37.) If so, the initial phase of the subjective aim is also the feeling of a proposition of which the occasion itself is the logical subject and the appropriate eternal object the predicate. The subjective form of this propositional feeling, like that of God from which it is derived, is appetition.(For further development of this interpretation, see Ch. V, sec.1.)
In the preceding paragraphs I have gone a little beyond the confines of description of Whitehead’s account in Process and Reality in the direction of systematization. Such systematization involves interpretation, and one interpretation can always be countered by another. What is clearly stated by Whitehead is that the initial aim is derived from God’s ordering of the eternal objects and that this aim limits the range within which the occasion can find its satisfaction. We have seen in the preceding chapter that this limitation does not constitute a strict determination.(See Ch. III, sec 1.) Each occasion has a final voice in its determination. But it is by this initial aim that the general order of the universe is sustained, and likewise all the more special societies that constitute our world. In the formulation of the problem of limitation we followed Science and the Modern World in speaking of four ultimates: actual entities, eternal objects, substantial activity, and God. In Religion in the Making, temporal occasions and God were identified as both being actual entities sharing a common ontological status. In explanation of this shift from treating God as a “principle” to treating him as an actual entity, I noted that Whitehead must have recognized that only something actual could perform the role of the principle of limitation. The underlying assumption is made clear in Process and Reality, where it is called the ontological principle. This principle states” that every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance, has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence.” (PR 36.) This means that apart from actual entities there can be nothing that is effective, nothing that acts or has an influence.(PR 254.) Since God must be effective, otherwise he could not be the principle of limitation, he must be an actual entity.
In Process and Reality, however, it becomes clear that the ontological principle also affects the status of the eternal objects.(PR 73.) They too must be effective. Indeed, the principle of limitation operates only by their graded effectiveness for new occasions. If they were not the reason for anything, there would have been no cause to introduce them into the system at all. But certainly eternal objects are not actual entities. They were distinguished from actual entities by their indifference to actualization, by their ability to be actualized indefinitely without in any way being modified in the process. They do not come to be and perish; they remain eternally what they are.
If eternal objects are effective in the becoming of actual occasions, it must be by virtue of some agency beyond themselves. That agency can only be God. It now becomes clear that God’s envisagement of the eternal objects is necessary, not only to secure definiteness of outcome in nature but to secure any agency whatsoever for them. Eternal objects can affect the course of events only through their envisagement by God. Thus God is not only the principle of limitation but the principle of potentiality as well. Apart from their envisagement by God, Whitehead writes, eternal objects are a bare multiplicity “indistinguishable from nonentity.” (PR 392. Note also PR 46: “Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question.”)
This doctrine of God’s envisagement of the eternal objects as the basis of their effective relevance to the world may seem strange to nominalistic ears. A further discussion of the problem to which this doctrine is an answer may help.
Whitehead defines an eternal object as “any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world.” (PR 70.) By this definition there can be little doubt that there are eternal objects. We do think of colors, shapes, and even qualities of feeling, not only as qualifications of particular actual entities but also apart from such qualification. We may think about the relation of two colors, for example, or of a color and a quality of feeling without any reference to particular actualizations. Still more obviously, we can think about geometrical shapes and arithmetic relations without any such reference. Whitehead as a mathematician was especially conscious of the very important role played by thought of this kind, but even common speech bears ample witness to the fact that ideas need not have concrete reference.
Now the question arises, When we think about eternal objects, what is happening? Is something objective to ourselves present to our minds? If so, what is it? The common answer is that these are mere abstractions. But that is to beg the question. What are abstractions? Are they anything at all? If they are simply nothing, then it would be impossible to think about them, hence they must be something. Perhaps they are subjective ideas and exist only in the subject entertaining them. The problem with this solution is that when I think of triangularity I do not seem to be thinking of my idea of triangularity but of a structure the properties of which may far exceed my knowledge. White-head agrees with Plato that these forms are objective to thought and determinative of it rather than produced by the thinking process.
On the other hand, Whitehead disagrees with the tendency in Plato to assign privileged ontological status to these abstractions.(Imm 687.) They exist objective to us and are effective upon us, but it is only as they are actualized in our experience that they achieve full actuality. Apart from this, they are only potentials.
Now Whitehead confronts the problem as to where such potentiality can be.(PR 73) That it exists is empirically proven by its effectiveness in experience. But how can what is merely potential have an effect upon what is actual? If it is totally separated from actuality, it cannot have any effective status. Only what 15 actual can act. This is where Whitehead’s nominalism triumphs. Abstractions can’t do anything. Yet the eternal objects do something. Hence they must participate in some way in actuality. But their effectiveness in the temporal world is not dependent on their prior actualization there. If it were, there could never be any novelty of any kind. Hence the only possible answer is that the eternal objects participate in God’s actuality. In Whitehead’s terms, they are “envisaged” by him.(PR 50.)
The general doctrine of God developed in Process and Reality was implicit in Religion in the Making, but at two points substantive changes have occurred. First, whereas in Religion in the Making, Whitehead specifically stated that God’s relation to the eternal objects is not different from that of the other actual entities, (RM 157.) in Process and Reality, Whitehead shows that the eternal objects constitute a realm only by virtue of God’s envisagement of them. God’s relation to the eternal objects is prior to and presupposed by that of all other entities.
Second, the ordering of the eternal objects in relation to the new occasion is seen as essential not only for their aim at a value compatible with the order of the universe but also for all realization of novelty.(PR 377, 382, 529.) It is only by virtue of God’s ordering of the eternal objects that one conceptual feeling, conformal to that of a past temporal actual occasion, can give rise to a new conceptual feeling of an eternal object not present in the prehended occasion. Apart from God, there could be no novelty in the world. Whitehead says that this is a secular function of God, not relevant to religious experience.(PR 315-316.) In any case, it constitutes a further argument for the necessity of God’s existence.
The discussion has thus far focused upon what White-head calls the primordial nature of God. This is God as the principle of limitation and the organ of novelty who achieves these ends by his ordered envisagement of the realm of eternal objects. This is the only way God was conceived in Science and the Modern World. It is the primary emphasis in Religion in the Making and in the first 522 pages of Process and Reality.(PR 523.) However, in Religion in the Making and in scattered passages in Process and Reality there is another theme. Alongside the description of God as the primordial actual entity are passages about the effect of the temporal occasions upon God. For example, in Religion in the Making, Whitehead described God as “the ideal companion who transmutes what has been lost into a living fact within his own nature.” (RM 154-155.) Now in the closing pages of Process and Reality, Whitehead returns to this theme of what he now calls the consequent nature of God.(PR 523-533.)
In the discussion of the primordial nature of God, even though Whitehead sees importance for religion, philosophical considerations alone are relevant. The survey of religious experience in Religion in the Making serves chiefly to reinforce the philosophical conclusions. In the discussion of the consequent nature, on the other hand, it is clear that philosophical and religious concerns are interrelated in Whitehead’s presentation. Here, however, we will focus on the philosophical.
The consequent nature of God is God’s physical pole, his prehension of the actual occasions constituting the temporal world. Since these occasions come to be successively, there is a successiveness in the divine nature that suggests temporality. However, the perpetual perishing that constitutes the temporality of the world is absent to God. Hence, God in his consequent nature is called everlasting.(PR 524-525.)
God’s prehension of the temporal occasions objectifies them with a completeness necessarily lacking in such prehensions within the temporal world. Furthermore, since there is no perishing in God, that completeness remains forever. This means that every achievement of value in the temporal world is preserved everlastingly in God’s consequent nature. This sense of the preservation of values in God’s memory was of great religious importance to Whitehead. Partly for this reason, some of his expressions of this preservation seem to suggest an element that the philosophical position in general does not clearly imply. That element is the living immediacy of the occasions as preserved in God.(PR 524 f., 527, 530-532.) The more normal assumption would be that just as in temporal experience only that which is past is prehended, so also in God’s experience temporal occasions are prehended only as they perish. They could no longer enjoy subjective immediacy. It is reasonable to suppose that God’s prehension would be far more inclusive of the elements in the satisfaction of the prehended occasions, but the subjective immediacy of the occasion is not one of those elements.
Perhaps Whitehead himself never meant that the occasions preserved in God retained their own immediacy.(Cf. Christian, pp. 340-342.) The relevant passages can be read to mean that the values attained continue everlastingly to contribute to the living immediacy of God’s experience. If he did mean to affirm that in God’s consequent nature temporal occasions retain their own subjective immediacy, then considerable speculative development would be required to explain it. This would involve making an exception in God’s case from the general, but not categorial, principle that contemporaries do not prehend each other. It may be argued that if human occasions of experience prehend God, and they do, they must prehend him as a contemporary, since God as actual entity is contemporary with all other occasions. This might mean, then, that God also prehends temporal occasions in their contemporaneity, and therefore shares the immediacy of every becoming Occasion. If so, then this immediacy would be retained forever in God’s consequent nature.(The change I propose in Ch. V, sec. 2, from thinking of god as an actual entity to thinking of him as a living person reduces the force of this speculation.)
Whitehead does not quite say that God’s prehension of the world includes the world completely. The general philosophical principle is that every becoming occasion objectifies every past occasion in some way. Hence, in its application to God this would mean that some aspect of every occasion is retained everlastingly in God. Of course, Whitehead means more than this. Even temporal occasions are able to reenact certain past occasions with some fullness. It is natural to assume that in God’s case the limitations imposed by men’s spatiotemporal perspectives disappear. But there remains even for God the necessity of harmonious integration of all the data in a unified satisfaction. Hence Whitehead writes, of the consequent nature of God, that “it is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved.” (PR 525.) It abstracts from the evil in the world while retaining the positive values contained even in experiences of evil.
Another important feature of God’s consequent nature is that it is conscious.(PR 524.) Whitehead does not explain this, but from his general discussion of consciousness the reason can readily be learned. God in his primordial nature alone has no consciousness because this nature consists in purely conceptual feelings, and such feelings are never conscious. (PR 521.) Consciousness requires the interweaving of the physical feelings with conceptual feelings. This involves God’s prehension of the world, his consequent nature.
A final feature of the consequent nature of God is barely treated in the last two paragraphs of the book. Like most of the rest of the ideas about God in Process and Reality, it was foreshadowed in Religion in the Making. It is demanded by the principle of universal relativity that just as God in his consequent nature prehends us, so also we prehend God’s consequent nature. This prepares the way for Whitehead’s final summary of the interactions between God and the world. “There are thus four creative phases in which the universe accomplishes its actuality. There is first the phase of conceptual origination, deficient in actuality, but infinite in its adjustment of valuation. Secondly, there is the temporal phase of physical origination, with its multiplicity of actualities. In this phase, full actuality is attained; but there is deficiency in the solidarity of individuals with each other. This phase derives its determinate conditions from the first phase. Thirdly, there is the phase of perfected actuality, in which the many are one everlastingly, without the qualification of any loss either of individual identity or of completeness of unity. In everlastingness, immediacy is reconciled with objective immortality. This phase derives the conditions of its being from the two antecedent phases. In the fourth phase, the creative action completes itself. For the perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience.” (PR 532.)
In this completed doctrine of God, Whitehead had come a long way from the first introduction of the principle of limitation as one of the three attributes of substantial activity. His warning in Science and the Modern World that metaphysics could not go far toward presenting an idea of God available for religion is less obviously relevant to the later formulations of the philosophical doctrine. Nevertheless, Whitehead emphasizes what he sees as the great difference between his doctrine and traditional theological formulations. He especially repudiates the doctrines of God as the unmoved mover and as eminent reality.(PR 519.) He rejects the attribution to God of any characteristics that make him an exception to the scheme of categories by which all other actual entities are understood. (PR 521.) He insists that God and the world each presuppose and require the other, so that neither temporal nor ontological priority can be assigned to either.
The attack upon traditional Western theism is especially clear in Whitehead’s famous antitheses:
“It is as true to say that God is permanent and the World fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent.
“It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many.
“It is as true to say that, in comparison with the World, God is actual eminently, as that, in comparison with God, the World is actual eminently.
“It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World.
“It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God.
“It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.” (PR 528.)
Lest any reader should suppose that he finally abandoned his rationalism in his attempt to state the relations of God and the world, Whitehead states immediately preceding this passage that” in each antithesis there is a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast.” (PR 528.) Furthermore, immediately after the passage, he proceeds to explain how the antitheses are to be understood in the light of the differences between the two natures of God. The main point is to underscore the contrast of the implications of his philosophy with the traditional doctrines that have insisted only on the permanence, unity, eminent actuality, transcendence, and creative power of God. All of these he affirms, but only in polar tension with ether factors usually negated of God.(The dipolar understanding of God has been brilliantly and thoroughly expounded by Hartshorne in such books as Man’s Vision of God, The Divine Relativity, and Philosophers Speak of God.)
I have written, and Whitehead sometimes writes, as though there were no philosophical reason for affirming the consequent nature of God other than the demand of a coherent completion of the idea of God as actual entity. This is not quite true. There are two points in Process and Reality at which he seems to give independent philosophical arguments for the existence of the consequent nature of God. The two arguments are closely related in character, and both affirm the need that there be a perspective in which what is sheer multiplicity from any temporal point of view has unity. In the first instance, Whitehead is discussing the claim of his own thought to approximate to truth. What can this mean? We all sense that there is some structure to which our formulations more or less adequately approximate. But if we are trying to speak of reality as a whole, where is this structure? Whitehead answers that it can only be in the consequent nature of God. Otherwise we would have only a multiplicity of finite and distorting perspectives that could afford no standard. (PR 18-19.)
The second argument is more obscure. It runs like this. The initial data of a complex feeling constitute a single nexus that has a pattern. But this pattern is not prehended by the members of the nexus. Is the pattern then imposed upon the nexus by the prehending occasion? Whitehead thinks not. When we perceive a pattern, we perceive something that is given to us, not something we create. But if it is given to us and is not in the data prehended, it can only be in the consequent nature of God.(PR 352-353.)
A third argument can be derived from Whitehead’s thought by implication. The evidence for it is less clearly found in Process and Reality than in Religion in the Making, yet it seems to be present in the philosophy of Whitehead in such a way that this third argument is really more fundamental than the two just summarized. If God is understood to provide different initial aims to each occasion, and in each case just that aim that is ideally suited to it, then God seems, in the provision of the initial aim, to be taking account of the world in all its change. This effect of the world upon God is an essential part of the process whereby God functions as the principle of limitation.
Whatever weight we may attach to these arguments, Whitehead’s own thought placed the burden of the argument for God’s existence upon the necessity of a principle of limitation. Further, he associated this principle with the primordial nature of God. Hence in his presentation, the consequent nature of God appears more as a speculative extension of the doctrine than as an essential part. My own position on this point will be developed in the next chapter. (Ch. V, sec. 1.)
Even where Whitehead has in view his doctrine of God as actual entity, including both a primordial and a consequent nature, there is occasional recurrence in Process and Reality of a note largely absent from Religion in the Making. There are several passages in which God seems once again, as in Science and the Modern World, to be definitely subordinated to creativity. For example, even in the last pages, from which much of this discussion of God is taken, he writes: “Neither God, nor the World, reaches static completion. Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty.” (PR 529.) Elsewhere in the book he writes of God as, like every actual entity, “a creature transcended by the creativity which it qualifies,” (PR 135. See also, PR 46.) and even as the “primordial, non-temporal accident” of creativity.”(PR 11.) Just what Whitehead is to be understood as meaning by this language, and more important, what his systematic position requires that these expressions mean, we will consider later.(See Ch. V, sec. 5.) Here they are reported for purposes of providing, somewhat comprehensively, the evidence the book gives as to his sensitivity and intention. Clearly he retained throughout his life the sense that the ultimate fact is the process itself of which God, the eternal objects, and the temporal occasions are all explanatory. (Of the later writings, only Adventures of Ideas is worth noting with regard to its treatment of the doctrine of God. Even here there is relatively little explicit discussion. A glance at the index indicates only one occurrence of the term “God,” and that one is a historical reference! And although there are indeed a number of other occurrences of the word, its relative rarity does suggest the change. However, a reading of the book quickly alters the picture. Whitehead has chosen to couch his whole philosophical discussion in the book in Platonic terms and to adopt “Eros” as the term for the primordial nature of God. Eros is the power in the universe urging toward the realization of ideals, and as such it plays a major role in Adventures of Ideas.
The consequent nature of God, here as everywhere, receives less attention. Nevertheless, it is not omitted. There is a reference to “the everlasting nature of God” that “may establish with the soul a peculiarly intense relationship of mutual immanence” (Al 267) Then there is the chapter on “Peace,” concluding the book and speaking sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, of God and of man’s apprehension of him. Here the consequent nature appears as the “Unity of Adventure” (Al 381) In many ways, Adventures of Ideas is Whitehead’s most religious book.
Whitehead’s last book, Modes of Thought, and his late lecture, “Immortality,” provide evidence that there was no significant alteration of the major doctrines of Process and Reality.)
4. The Character of the Argument
This concludes the survey of Whitehead’s statements about God. How are we to evaluate what has been done?
Has Whitehead “proved” the existence of God? Does his description of God’s nature follow in every detail from the argument for his existence? Have we here an inescapable truth that every honest mind must now accept whether or not it wishes to believe in God, and whether its own religious intuitions conform to this doctrine or militate against it? Obviously the answer to these questions is no. Nothing is proved in this sense. But in that case, what value has the discussion? Have we done nothing more than consider the private, and fundamentally arbitrary, opinions of one man?
Whitehead points out that every proof depends for its force upon the self-evidence of its premises. (MT 66-67.) There are no simply obvious premises on the basis of which one can construct an argument for the existence of God. If there were, the argument itself would hardly be needed. The primary task of philosophy is to arrive at an adequate and immediately persuasive description explanatory of the world we actually know. Once this description is accepted, certain conclusions will follow, but the real problem is to arrive at the adequate description.
Whitehead’s argument for the existence of God, insofar as there is an argument at all, is primarily the traditional one from the order of the universe to a ground of order. It is an argument that has taken many forms in the history of thought. Sometimes a particular formulation has received such heavy emphasis that when that formulation was shown inadequate, the argument itself was supposed disproved. To many, it has seemed an unedifying sight that those who defend theism on cosmological grounds have time after time given up their arguments only to come back with new ones which in turn are later surrendered. If there is truly a proof of the existence of God, why should it not be offered once for all in an irrefutable form? Does not the constant effort to find an adequate argument indicate that those who seek it are attempting to rationalize and justify beliefs that have no rational justification? Many honest and sensitive persons have been led by such questions to refuse all further attention to cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence.
I propose, in agreement with Whitehead, I believe, an alternative interpretation of this situation. There is a deep human intuition that the order of the world requires for its explanation some principle of order that cannot entirely be attributed to the entities that constitute the world. To many people, this intuition amounts to a virtual certitude. It seems incredible to them, for example, that the marvelous, intricate, and dynamic adjustments constantly made by the cells in the human body, apart from which human life is impossible, are somehow self-explanatory. They seem surely to depend upon a wisdom that cannot be attributed to the cells themselves.
But how can such conviction be expressed in an argument that will have philosophic force or carry conviction to those who see no need to appeal to a higher wisdom? The answer depends entirely upon how the science of that time — science in the broadest sense — understands the cell and its functioning. If, for example, nature is seen as a great machine made up of lesser machines ultimately composed of particles of matter in law-abiding motion, then the cell also will be understood as being a law-abiding machine. In that case, the marvelous fact that these little machines are productive of human life will be seen as pointing to the wisdom of the one who imposed upon little particles of matter so wonderful a system of laws. The argument will be the old one from the watch to an intelligent maker.
The argument is not a proof, if by a proof we mean the movement from inescapable premises by logically necessary steps to a conclusion. The argument depends entirely upon two premises neither of which is indisputable: first, that the universe and all its parts are really machine-like in character; second, that machine-like things are possible only as the expression of intelligent workmanship. Either premise may be denied. Yet if the fundamental description is accepted, the conclusion has nearly the force of self-evidence.
Unfortunately, some defenders of theism in the eighteenth century wedded themselves to this view of the complex machine and its maker and associated it with the view that such special forms of the machine as the human body came into existence fully formed in an aboriginal creation. Hence the argument was peculiarly vulnerable to the new understanding of the evolutionary processes in nature which came to dominance in the nineteenth century. Random variation and the survival of the fittest appeared to provide explanations of the emergence of new forms, including the human, on principles that removed the need for an intelligent creator and lawgiver. The scientific theory was itself attacked by religious thinkers in order to preserve the force of the old argument! Such strategy could only result in thoroughly discrediting the argument, and even the doctrine it was intended to support.
But the new understanding of nature did not, any better than the old, explain the order of nature. The emergence of the living from the inorganic may be viewed as a random variation, but it certainly has nothing to do with the survival of the fittest. A stone is far more capable of survival than a plant or animal, and on the whole the lower forms of life are more readily adapted to survival than are the higher. Some other force seems to be at work in nature besides random variation and the survival of the fittest — some appetition toward more complex forms of order more difficult to sustain but more valuable in their results.
Furthermore, the understanding of all life in terms of evolution implies that the previous understanding of the inorganic was in error. From the simply material, the wholly inert, the totally passive lumps of the earlier theory, it is incredible that random variation could produce life and mind. But if the image of the purely material machine is set aside, the problem of explaining the orderliness of things reappears with intensified force.
My point is that the problem of order must recur, however we understand the nature of the world. The order is indisputably there, whether or not there may also be disorder. The order may be understood either as entirely imposed or as arising out of the nature of things themselves. Whitehead believes that elements of both are essential to an adequate analysis.(AI 146-147.) But however it is viewed, there will always remain an inexplicable factor so long as we consider only the temporal entities themselves.
We can, of course, refuse to ask those questions which lead to this final conclusion. We can limit our questions to those which fall fully within the scope of the particular sciences each of which so circumscribes its work that questions of such ultimacy cannot arise. We can declare all other questions meaningless on the grounds that they cannot be settled by empirical evidence. But if we do ask these questions, we will be led to answer in terms of some source of order that transcends the objects of scientific investigation, whether it be beyond or within the ordered world.
I am asserting this dogmatically. The evidence can only be the several attempts to formulate a comprehensive explanation. These must vary according to the description of the structures of the world in which they find their premises. No one argument formulated from any set of premises can constitute a proof of the existence of God in the usual sense. Each only displays how a more or less adequate account of the order of the world points to some principle of order.
The strength and importance of Whitehead’s argument for the existence of God, therefore, does not lie in some new and more penetrating structure of the argument. The argument is little more than a pointing to the need of a principle of limitation. The importance lies in the unusual thoroughness and adequacy of the description of the world from which the argument begins. If one is persuaded that Whitehead’s account is indeed the most penetrating that now exists, that it does justice to the complexity of the phenomena of science and of history alike, then the fact that it too leads, almost in spite of the author’s apparent intention, to a doctrine of God as the source and ground of order is an important further confirmation of the inescapability for speculative reason of some kind of belief in God.
More important than the mere fact that Whitehead too could not understand the world apart from God, is the particular form that his doctrine of God takes. This, of course, is a function of the categories in which the description of the world is developed. If the world is viewed as a complex machine, then the correlative doctrine of God is likely to be that of a creator who stands outside of his creation. But if the world is viewed in organic terms, then the principle of life, order, and growth must be immanent to the organisms. That there is something which we may properly call God is sufficiently indicated by the kind of order that is visible to all. But what that “something” is, where it is, how it functions, these questions can be reflectively considered only in the light of the categories in terms of which the world is understood.
In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead told us little except that there must be some principle of limitation that makes for the realization of value. But in Religion in the Making and Process and Reality he worked through the questions of what such a principle must be in itself and how it must function. It must be an actual entity that brings the realm of possibility into effective and limiting relation to the becoming occasions of the world. It can do this only if it functions at the outset of every new occasion to give it an aim toward that kind of self-actualization which is compatible with the larger orders of nature. Here is the essence of his philosophical doctrine of God.
But there is more that can be suggested as the reasonable and probable implication of what has been worked out with some rigor. If God is an actual entity, then it is appropriate to attribute to him the structures characteristic of other actual entities. To refuse to do this would require far more justification than to carry through the application to God of the categories. Whitehead insists that “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification.” (PR 521.) Hence, we must attribute to God not only the conceptual ordering of the eternal objects by virtue of which he lures the occasions of the world toward order and value; we must attribute to him as to all other actual entities physical feelings as well. Whitehead’s own explanation of what he is doing here and what philosophical status is to be attributed to it is a model of care and honesty.
“We must investigate dispassionately what the metaphysical principles, here developed, require on these points, as to the nature of God. There is nothing here in the nature of proof. There is merely the confrontation of the theoretic system with a certain rendering of the facts. But the unsystematized report upon the facts is itself highly controversial, and the system is confessedly inadequate. The deductions from it in this particular sphere of thought cannot be looked upon as more than suggestions as to how the problem is transformed in the light of that system.” (PR 521.)It is shortly after this passage that Whitehead introduces his major discussion of the consequent nature of God.
There is another factor involved, in Whitehead’s view, in the philosophical development of a doctrine of God. Scattered widely throughout the history of mankind there have been “somewhat exceptional elements in our conscious experience . . . which may roughly be classed together as religious and moral intuitions.” (PR 521.) The adequacy of a philosophical scheme must be tested against these intuitions just as much as against the findings of the natural sciences. And just as clues to the ultimate nature of things that arise in the sciences must be taken with great seriousness by the philosopher, so must the clues that emerge in moral and religious intuition. Hence, the suggestions that arise from the application of the general scheme of thought to this special question of the nature of God may be weakened or may gain cogency according to the reading of these great intuitions of the race by which men live. Whitehead believes, of course, that his own speculative suggestions are appropriate to these intuitions, as well as conformal with what his scheme demands. To him, the ability of his philosophy to do justice both to science and religion must be its supreme test of relevance.(PR 23.)In Chapter VI, we will consider whether his philosophic doctrine can illumine aspects of religious experience in relation to which he did not himself test it.(See Ch. VI, sec. 2.)
Key to References
Footnote references to books by or about Whitehead use the following abbreviations. Numbers after the abbreviations in the footnotes refer to pages unless otherwise indicated.
AI Adventures of Ideas. The Macmillan Company, 1933.
CN The Concept of Nature. Cambridge University Press, 1920.
Dial… Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as recorded by Lucien Price. Little, Brown and Company, 1954.
ESP…Essays in Science and Philosophy. Philosophical Library, Inc., 1,947.
FR…The Function of Reason. Princeton University Press, 1929.
Imm “Immortality,” in Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. See “Schilpp” below.
MT Modes of Thought. The Macmillan Company, 1938.
PNK An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, 1919; second ed., 1925.
PR Process and Reality. The Macmillan Company, 1929.
RM Religion in the Making. The Macmillan Company, 1926.
SMW Science and the Modern World. The Macmillan Company, 1926.
Works about Whitehead are listed in the first footnote entry by author and title. Subsequent entries are usually by author only.
Blyth John W. Blyth, Whitehead’s Theory of Knowledge. (Brown University Studies, Vol. VII.) Brown University Press, 1941.
Christian William A. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Yale University Press, 1959.
Ely Stephen Ely, The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1942.
Hammerschmidt William W. Hammerschmidt, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Time. King’s Crown Press, 1947
Johnson A. H. Johnson, Whitehead’s Theory of Reality. Beacon Press, Inc. 1952.
Kline George L. Kline, ed., Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
Lawrence Nathaniel Lawrence, Whitehead’s Philosophical Development University of California Press, 1956.
Leclerc Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition. The Macmillan Company, 1958.
Leclerc (Ed.) Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead. The Macmillan Company, 1961.
Lowe Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1962.
Palter Robert M. Palter, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science. The University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Schilpp Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.
Sherburne Donald W. Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. Yale University Press, 1961.