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Whiteheadian Thought as a Basis for a Philosophy of Religion by Forrest Wood, Jr.

Forest Wood, Jr. is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg. Published in 1986 by University Press of America, Inc. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Chapter 2: A Whiteheadian View of the Nature of Reality

A. A New Way of Thinking About Things

While drinking coffee one morning, a colleague who taught political science startled me by his question, "Do you understand philosophy to be a ‘Lebenswelt’ or a ‘Weltanschauung’?" Is philosophy to be understood as the study of a (life-world) way of life? Or, on the other hand, is philosophy the study of (world-view) the nature of reality? Philosophy has been viewed from both perspectives. An example of the view of philosophy as a world view is Robert Whittemore’s argument that philosophy is cosmology. An example of philosophy as a way of life is Greek and Roman Stoicism.

My colleague’s question on the nature of philosophy is posed as an either/or question. My answer is to challenge the horns of that dilemma and say that a persons’s view of the nature of reality should be a significant factor in the development of his view of life. And more specifically, one’s view of reality is a significant factor in handling the problems of philosophy of religion. And conversely, life as we experience it (including, of course, our religious beliefs and actions) must be accounted for by one’s metaphysics.

As previously mentioned, in Process and Reality, Whitehead uses the analogy of the airplane which takes off, flies, and lands. The ground from which we begin is our experiences of life. The flight is our metaphysical or cosmological constructs. And the landing is the application of those constructs to experience. Process and Reality contains Whitehead’s cosmological view.

I would like to explore the question, "What kind of philosophy of religion is compatible with Whitehead’s cosmology?" Or "Granted Whitehead’s cosmology, how should we understand ‘God’?" Or "If Whitehead is correct, what do we make of immortality?"

Before we discuss the implications of Whitehead’s cosmology for a philosophy of religion, however, it will be necessary to present simply and clearly as possible an outline of Whitehead’s philosophy. Whitehead’s philosophy may be summarized as:

Events: The basic units of reality are events, not things.

Atomism: An event is an indivisible unit.

Creativity: Present events create themselves out of passive past causes.

Bipolar: All events have both physical and mental aspects.

Internal Relations: Events are internally related to each other.

The Greek philosopher Parmenides, one of the earliest writers in the history of philosophy, considered being and becoming. His thought might best be understood as a discussion of the nature of a thing. What is a thing? What is nothing (no thing)? This is easy to ask, but most difficult to answer.

The world is often thought of as consisting of things. But what are things? Philosophers have said that things are atoms, substances, minds, thoughts, matter, etc.

Aristotle developed the idea that things were substances. At the beginning of modern thought (about 1600), Descartes said that there were two basic substances: extended substance (material things) and mental substance (minds and ideas). John Locke argued that things were substances that had qualities. A chair was a substance (that which) which has qualities. The qualities are brown, hard, etc. But what is substance? (What is thingness?) Locke confessed, "I know not what."

Hume’s philosophy suggests that if it is a "I know not what," why not just eliminate it? So Hume argues that there is no substance, just impressions. Such a position leads Hume into skepticism.

Thus considering the world as composed of things and these things as being substances ultimately leads to skepticism. Philosophers since Hume have offered different remedies to this impasse. How can being (substance) be understood so as not to end in skepticism?

Whitehead’s solution is not to get on the train with Parmenides. The way out of the impasse is to conceive the world as composed not of things (beings) but as composed of events (becomings). The basic units of reality are events, not things. People are not so much things as they are events or a particular kind of series of events. The elementary particles of physics (insofar as they are concrete and not mental constructs) are "fields of energy," "happenings," or ‘‘energy events".

The nineteenth-century view of the nature of physical reality was that the world was composed of particles (tiny things) which reacted to each other according to scientific laws. In the early twentieth century, the particles were understood as atoms. Today atoms are understood not as tiny things but as structured units with a nucleus and protons, electrons, etc. This structured unit holds within it enormous energy that would be released if the unit is broken up. So it is conceived of less as a thing and more as a field of energy, an event.

The point of this discussion is not to give a lesson in physics, but to help the reader view the universe as composed of events rather than things.

Why change our way of thinking? The view that reality is tiny inert particles following absolute laws results in a deterministic view of the universe including man. If man is determined, then he is not free to make choices and hence is morally not responsible. Life and the mind with its ideas become puzzles in a universe of particles following laws. Indeed mind is reduced to action; the self is claimed to be nothing but behavior.

Clearly something is wrong. All kinds of remedies have been proposed to get us out of these problems. Some people capitulated to this view of reality (incorrectly viewed as proven by science). Others argued that the world of science and man’s world were different worlds. Certain things, such as determinism, were true in one world but not in the other. Still others held to their religious belief and rejected science. But as long as one holds this view of reality, there is no way to deal comprehensively with the world. The solution is to adopt a new view of reality.

Whitehead’s view is that reality, the objects of our experience, is processes, events. This does not mean that the tree (a thing) is in process — acorn to tree to rotting log — not a thing in process, rather that the tree itself is a process, an event now. Not a thing.

Gravitation, atmospheric pressure, temperature and a thousand other things go into the events of the tree. Change these factors, and you change the event.

The rock is atoms, sub-atomic particles, etc. in a certain form or at a certain stage. The rock is an event (a very complex one) just like its component parts are events.

How did we ever get to thinking of trees, rocks, etc. as things? First, notice that they have not always been thought of in this way. Primitive man conceived of objects as dynamic. Often certain objects such as the mountain, the tree, the knife formed dynamic, interactive relationships with man. Objects may have originally been conceived of as events, and our view may be a much later way of looking at them.

Thinking of objects as "things" is an abstraction. When you reduce a process to a thing, you are abstracting from the concrete experience (the real).

Let’s begin with my having an experience. I am experiencing now. I can abstract or draw my attention to some aspect of this experience. I could discuss my psychological state, my physical state or I could draw attention to the focus of my perception. I’ll do the latter. One aspect of my experience of seeing something is what I am seeing. I can further draw attention to some aspects of that aspect by noting that I am seeing a piece of coal. By using the term coal, I am drawing attention to specific aspects of my experience; that is, I am abstracting from my experience. The direction of this line of thinking is extremely important. I am moving from my experiencing to focusing on one part of that experience to abstracting (giving attention to only certain aspects) from that one part.

We have been accustomed to talking about the world as if parts of experience were isolated, independent "things" which then could be conceptually put together (understood) as the experience.

For Whitehead the objects of our experience are not things nor does one correctly perceive reality by believing that reality is the result of these things being put together. If one begins with the understanding of the nature of things as isolated independent "things," one won’t be able to put them together. Zeno couldn’t put segments of a line together to get a finite space. Hume could not put a series of impressions together to have a self. And a series of things do not a world make.

Two errors have been made. The direction is wrong: Zeno can take a space and divide it into an infinite number of segments, a self can have a series of impressions, and concrete experience can be divided into its parts.

The second error is thinking that an abstraction (the "thing") is the concrete. Whitehead calls this "misplaced concreteness". (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 7) "Things" are abstractions. This is the process of considering an object of experience in an experience in a certain way. I may perceive it as if it were a thing. This is helpful because of what I want to do. In the same way, I may concentrate on certain aspects that interest me. If I am thinking of this object as a piece of coal having certain characteristics, I might be either surprised or be amused by your commenting on its beauty or its being a part of the crust of the earth or a thousand other comments, each true but not relevant to my consideration.

Perceiving an object as a thing is helpful. One should not make the mistake, however, in thinking that it is a thing.

Another illustration of this same view maybe drawn by contrasting process and fact. Whitehead says that his philosophy of organism is in some ways closer to some strains of Indian or Chinese thought than to European thought. He says, "One side makes process ultimate; the other side makes facts ultimate." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 7) So the choice is between process and fact. Which is most real? Which is ultimate? Which is more basic? Which of these do you need to understand the other? Is the world a world of facts in process? Or is the world a series of processes which are understood as facts? The second major position of Whitehead is that an event is a quantum (an indivisible unit). He says, ". . .actuality is incurably atomic" (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 61) "Thus the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism. The creatures are atomic." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 35)

So the events of which the universe is composed are atomic. They cannot, in reality, be subdivided. This view is the same kind of position as the argument that energy is in quantums (as in quantum mechanics). An analogous situation is when the grocery store will only sell cokes in six-packs. You can buy 6 cokes, 12 cokes, 18 cokes but not the numbers in between because they come in packs.

The Whiteheadian event cannot be divided into smaller units. However, one may be able to distinguish various aspects of the events. These aspects are not "things." They are potentialities which occur in this event and may occur in other events.

Thus to discuss, for example, the mental or physical aspects of an event is not to talk about aspects that are concrete realities apart from the event. Rather, these are potentialities for any event.

The third major component of Whitehead’s view is that of creativity. He says, "‘Creativity’ . . .is that ultimate principle by which the many. . .become the one actual occasion. . ." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 21)

Creativity refers to genuinely new events in the actual world. Creativity is more than just change — the rearrangement of things. If there were only rearrangement, eventually the process would begin repeating previous arrangements. The result would be something like the ancient belief that the world started over again every 24,000 years.

Self-production or self-creation exhibits purposeful drive toward novel intensity. Purpose is not an ad hoc addition to reality on the level of consciousness. Rather it is a basic part of the nature of things.

In Whitehead the present events create themselves out of passive past causes. This view contrasts with the more common view that the past causes the present. When Hume examined the view that past things cause present things, he found no empirical evidence for cause. It was an unnecessary concept because he could reduce events to simple sequences without needing the added idea of causation. In addition, if one pays close attention to the concept of "things" (specifically, Descartes’ material substance), it is not clear how a "thing" can cause anything. A thing just is. The ancient Greek, Epicurus, had to introduce an ad hoc concept of "swerve" to his world of atoms to make events occur. The Newtonian particle "attracts" other particles. But if so, a particle must be inherently dynamic. They did not develop the consequences of this line of thought for the nature of reality.

Instead of past things causing present things, Whitehead suggests that present events create themselves out of passive past causes. If so, the present is active, the past is passive. The effect is the agent. The cause does not produce the effect. Rather the effect (present event) produces itself out of the possibilities of the passive past causes and also out of the possibilities of eternal potentials. The result of such a change of view is the rejection of determinism and the affirmation of freedom as a fundamental aspect applicable not only to man, but also to all of reality. The degree of freedom varies among events but not its existence.

Lewis Ford, a contemporary process theologian, suggests the model of a perception as a way of understanding how reality functions. Ford says, "In perception the sensory impressions which we receive are objective causes in that they determine the character of what it is that we are perceiving. But the way in which we perceive things, the meaning we attach to them, the way we integrate these sensory impressions into a coherent whole involves, as Kant would say, the spontaneous activity of the mind organizing its sensations."1

It may be the case that the way in which one perceives the world is the clue to all relations in the world including causation. The sensory impressions are objective but are only potentials which we integrate into a coherent whole. The present acting agent (the perceiver) creates the experience of perception by unifying many potentials into a perception. Sense data by the thousands, maybe millions, are bombarding me at the present. By a complex process of selection, rejection, intensifying, and downgrading, I perceive the chair.

Suppose we take this process and generalize and say the nature of reality is events or processes which are created by the present unifying of themselves out of the possibilities of passive past causes. This process happens not just on a conscious level, but rather is the fundamental nature of reality. Now since not all of reality is conscious, Whitehead invents a new term to refer to this kind of relationship. He drops the "ap" from apprehension creating the term "prehension."

In the past when we said A causes B, we understood A as the causal agent. Whitehead suggests that we should say B prehends A. The active agent is B. B relates to A and integrates A and other things into being a part of itself. This process need not imply consciousness any more than the process, "A causes B."

Copernicus’ revolution was that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe. Kant’s revolution was that space and time were not in the world but structures of the mind. Whitehead’s revolution is that present processes are self-creative rather than that the past creates the present.

A further consequence of Whitehead’s view is a different understanding of what objective and subjective mean. In Whitehead it is not the case that objectivity refers to the physical and subjectivity refers to the mental. Rather objectivity refers to past potentials, and subjectivity refers to what is immediately present. Whitehead calls this "presentational immediacy." So, subjectivity is not about consciousness or mentality. Subjectivity is the felt sense of present immediacy which is a feature of all events. All events have immediate presence; therefore, they have subjectivity.

When Whitehead refers to the felt sense of present immediacy, he is not referring to consciousness. All events have a felt sense of present immediacy. All events are presently making immediate (having internal relations with) the potential out of which they create themselves.

The fourth major component of Whitehead’s view is that all events have both physical and mental aspects. This view is called bipolar. (Also called dipolar by Whitehead) Whitehead understands the physical as the repetitive, the sameness, the pattern. Physical science is the study of repetitions, patterns, samenesses which are reduced to laws or expected sequences. Repetitiveness in the world promotes stability. Stability in the universe is valuable in that it contributes to endurance.

The other pole of any event is the mental. For Whitehead, the ability to modify or change, an ability which each event has in its becoming, is the definition of the mental. Insofar as the present world differs from the past world, the present events have exhibited mentality.

The present rock differs only slightly from the past rock because of the predominance of repeated patterns. But the rock does differ, and the rock is not an object which is changing. The rock is an event. The patterns (samenesses) of the rock are the subject of science (narrowly conceived).

The mentality (not consciousness) of the rock is its very limited modifications. If it is true that present events create themselves out of passive past causes, then the present rock produces itself. Self-production entails varying degrees of spontaneity, creativity, and freedom. The result is modifications.

The self-production of self-creation is the unifying process achieved through inclusion, exclusion, intensifying, or de-intensifying of all passive past causes and all possible possibilities. Possible possibilities are creative events which have never been actualized.

The fifth major component of Whitehead’s view is that events are internally related to each other. Unlike Newtonian particles which are what they are without their relations to other particles, a Whiteheadian event is what it is, in part, because of its relations to other events. If the relations were different, it would be different. That is, its being is, in part, dependent upon its relations. An event has a positive or a negative relationship with all past actual entities. These relationships constitute in part what it is.

To summarize, reality is not composed of things but of self-creative events, indivisible units, having both physical and mental aspects, and being internally related to each other. Such an event-world brings a new perspective to our attempts to understand our experiences. Each problem must be analyzed with this new perspective. Hopefully new insights will occur. No claim of finality is made for the new perspective. Its value will be determined by its effectiveness in solving dilemmas we have not been able to solve and by its fruitfulness is suggesting new approaches to old problems.

B. An Alternative to Mechanism

The thought of the Western world for the past two hundred years has been dominated by a mechanistic view of the nature of reality. The nineteenth-century scientific view presented nature (reality) as a mindless machine composed of Newtonian particles operating according to mathematical laws. This view produced tremendous results in the advancement of knowledge in the sciences. These results seem to justify the truth of that view of realty.

In human affairs such as law, morality, personal relations, politics, and religion, this world-view was either ignored or correctly seen to be contradictory to the basic assumptions of human society. People could either accept a world-view believed to have been vindicated by science or accept the fundamental assumption that people can make free, non-determined choices and are responsible for those choices.

Indeed the dilemma was worse than that. The very existence of life, mind, and consciousness was a kind of embarrassment to the mechanical view. Mind was a ghost in the machine and therefore denied. Consciousness was a side-effect of particles or atoms, like the red-glow of heated iron, and hence not basic to the nature of reality.

The easiest "solution" to such a dilemma is to be schizophrenic: accept the mechanistic view in science and to accept freedom and responsibility in personal relations, politics and religion. But this position is inconsistent because there is only one reality—the way things are. If by nature things are determined by eternal, scientific laws, then man too is determined and not free. The hard-nosed 18th-century scientific view was at least consistent. Kant’s attempts to split reality into two worlds was a repeat of Descartes’ basic error, the concept of two finite substances, mind and matter. Kant said that reality could be divided into the phenomenal world of science and the noumenal world of morality. While such divisions are useful in explanations, they fail to understand reality as a whole.

The mechanistic view of the world was a happy accident. It was successful — beyond man’s wildest dreams. But it was false. It was not consistent with large areas of human endeavor — morality, politics, religion, etc. The remarkable achievements of science were so impressive that the mechanical world-view undermined rational defense of morality and religion. A different view of reality was demanded. The mechanistic view conceived of reality as consisting in the least common denominator — a non-living, non-valuing and non-mental particle. Whitehead and others produced the different view. He chose what he conceived to be the highest thing in the universe, creativity, and made it the ultimate principle in the nature of things. Creativity then is the highest common denominator of all things.

The basic units of reality are self-creative entities. By taking the elements of the past and possibilities inherent in the nature of things, entities create a new oneness or wholeness. The entities unify, intensify, and modify what is given. They select alternative possibilities in order to realize some particular unity.

Whitehead believed this view of reality is consistent with the new developments in 20th-century science. His book on the theory of relativity shows that Whitehead understood modern developments in science as well as philosophy.

Whitehead’s philosophy offers a unique perspective to the problem of freedom and responsibility. Whitehead’s unique perspective sees the nature of things in an entirely different way than in the traditional view.

Ancient philosophers talked about "the nature of things." The Stoics spoke of certain ways of behavior as being "natural" because they believed these activities were consistent with the nature of things. They also spoke of "natural law," which they believed to be a statement of the nature of reality.

Modern man has lost confidence that he can know the nature of reality. He has retreated to a description of things or events. No longer does he tell us why, only that B follows A. Modern science is a descriptive discipline.

Thus law reflects not the nature of things but rather reflects (in a democracy) how the people feel about something at the time. It is difficult to take the law seriously when one thinks that the law is a provisional statement rather than an expression of the nature of man and the nature of society.

Popular ethics is not based on a conception of the nature of man. The popular belief is that something is good if an individual thinks it is good. And if he does not think it is good, it is not — for him. Business decisions are made less on the moral integrity of a person than on external constraints or threats of punishment.

In the past, those who thought they knew the nature of things often went to excess. They espoused a kind of certainty that was not compatible with their tentative conclusions about the nature of reality. The certainty led to arrogance and sometimes even to fanaticism.

Despite these dangers, it is important that we seek to understand the nature of reality. It is not satisfactory for our scientific beliefs to be incompatible with our moral beliefs. Nor that our beliefs concerning the nature of mankind are incompatible with our political or social views.

We seek understanding: the understanding of ourselves. If we are to act responsibly, we must have knowledge of how the various parts of our world fit together. We need a foundation for our moral, religious, and political views. Subjective opinion is not sufficient. We need understanding based on a consistent system of thought giving us insights and appreciation for how each aspect of our lives effects us.

To understand the economic, political, social, etc. forces in our lives, we must see how they relate to a basic understanding of reality. What, then, is the nature of real things? Before we set out Whitehead’s view, it should be noted that if his view really is a different way of looking at real things, then we will need to think about freedom, human action, responsibility, the meaning of life, the self, etc. in a new way.

Whitehead fundamentally views the nature of reality as a creative advance into novelty. A real thing is a self-creating entity. Creativity is not seen as arising at the highest levels of existence nor as an occasional flash that lights up the ordinary. Rather creativity is the fundamental principle of all reality. It is fundamental to the subatomic level as well as the human level.

This creativity entails freedom. And freedom exists on every level of reality, though in varying degrees. This freedom is inherent in the universe. Conditions may limit freedom, but they never banish it. There is always a contingency left open.

One can apply the Whiteheadian view to an understanding of the adventures of the concept of freedom in human affairs. The relation of freedom to perceived necessities can be explored. Because of a misunderstanding of what was necessary, classical Western civilization believed slavery to be necessary for civilization. In what ways do we deny freedom because we perceive things to be necessary?



1. Lewis Ford, The Lure of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 5.

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