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 4: A Whiteheadian Concept of God: God in Science and the Modern World and in Religion in the Making
B. The Development of the Concept of God in Science and the Modern World and in Religion in the Making
The concept of God emerges in the middle of Whitehead’s writings and he transforms it as he develops his philosophy. One can trace this development of his concept of God through several of his writings. There are four reasons for tracing this development. First, his different comments about God cannot be put on the same level. Not all of these express his mature judgement on the topic. If we are to interpret each text correctly, we must neither read latter insights into earlier thought nor try to make earlier comments consistent with latter judgements.
Second, many commentators give little notice to the development and therefore they tend to gloss over it or only admit it as possible. Hartshorne’s article on "Whitehead’s Idea of God" suggests a more fruitful approach: "We must.. . .emphasize the fact that it is in Whitehead’s three most recent books that the temporal aspect of God is most clearly and vigorously affirmed, so that there may have been a change in Whitehead’s belief since he wrote Science and Religion, a change in the direction of greater consistency with the Principle of Process."1 As usual Hartshorne’s insights are fruitful.
Third, it is well-known that Whitehead made changes both in his terms and in his system, especially in Process and Reality. One late change occurs when he abolishes the Category of Reversion and replaces it with ". . .the recognition of God’s characterization of the creative act." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 250) The recognition of the role of God as conceptually ordering the relevance of eternal objects to actual entities may have been foreshadowed in some of his earlier writings, but it is clear that Whitehead did not see that connection until after he had written a large part of Process and Reality.
Fourth, Whitehead’s writing is itself an instance of a creative process into novelty. Concepts are not static. Insights emerge. This recognition will give us a more accurate understanding of Whitehead’s thought.
Lewis Ford has done the most extensive work of anyone in tracing the development of Whitehead’s thought. He has published articles and a book arguing in great detail concerning the construction of Whitehead’s books. In The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, l925-l929,2 Ford presents a detailed, scholarly account of these changes. This book, a landmark in Whiteheadian studies, presumes a thorough understanding of Whiteheadian thought. Ford presents technical arguments for scholars to use in interpreting particular passages in Whitehead’s books.
The line of argumentation in this chapter largely follows Ford’s analyses. There are two major differences in what he does and what I do. I do not presume that the reader already understands Whitehead’s thought and his vocabulary. Ford’s book is for Whiteheadian scholars — mine is for readers who need a clear, concise account of Whitehead’s ideas. Also I am only presenting the development of Whitehead’s concept of God as a way of showing how unique and how significant as a source of religious insight is his final view.
In order to understand how Whitehead developed the concept of God, one may begin by comparing his earlier works such as The Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and The Concept of Nature (1920) with his later works such as Science and the Modern World (1925), Religion in the Making (1926) and Process and Reality (1929). In the former, he expressed no philosophical theism. We know from biographical information that Whitehead was an atheist or at least an agnostic at one time in his life. When he introduced God’s existence and nature as essential aspects of his metaphysics, ". . .many of his early admirers were shocked by this turn of events, for they had supposed him to be a "tough-minded" empiricist who was done with religious views."3
Ford argues that the Lowell Lectures, prior to the additions, ". . .present a self-contained metaphysical synthesis which has no need of God."4 Ford calls this Whitehead’s "First Metaphysical Synthesis" and says that it is continuous with Whitehead’s earlier philosophy of nature.5 But when Whitehead adds the concept of "temporal atomicity" (elementary events cannot be subdivided into subevents which are fully actual), this provokes a ". . .subjectivism of actual occasions open to the real influence of possibility," and ". . .generates an unexpected role for God as the antecedent limitation of this possibility."6
Whitehead’s philosophical theism appears for the first time in Science and the Modern World in a chapter entitled, "God." However, there is an important earlier passage in the same book that is the best starting point for understanding how the concept of God entered Whitehead’s philosophical scheme. This passage, named by Lewis Ford the "Triple Envisagement" addition, is one of three that Ford takes to be additions to the Lowell Lectures which comprise most of the material for the book. Victor Lowe challenges Ford’s thesis that the passage is an addition.7 Regardless of who is correct about this passage, we do know that Whitehead added the chapters, "Abstraction" and "God" because he tells us this in the preface. Hence, we can identify a narrow band of time (the year of 1925) during which Whitehead introduced philosophical theism into his thought. The lectures were given in February, 1925, and Whitehead’s preface to the book is dated June 29, 1925. So between February and June of 1925 Whitehead recognized that the concept of God must be a part of his view of the nature of reality.8
The triple envisagement passage is significant because in it Whitehead formulates his concept of the nature of reality. Later in Religion in the Making he will present a different formulation. The part of the triple envisagement passage that is relevant to the present discussion says: ". . .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."(Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 105)
While Ford says that Whitehead’s philosophical theism appears for the first time in the triple envisagement passage he later qualifies this claim by saying that Whitehead "obliquely introduces him" here. Ford says, "God’s role. . .is. . .to be found in the second envisagement."9 His role may be found here but the concept of God is introduced in the later chapter on God.
There are important differences between the triple envisagement passage and the chapter on God. First, God is not mentioned in the former. Rather Whitehead refers to (a) the underlying activity (b) the envisagement of eternal objects (c) the envisagement of possibilities of value and (d) the envisagement of the actual matter of fact. Second, in the former, it is the nature of the underlying activity to envisage both the eternal objects and the possibilities of value. In the larger passage (not quoted above), Whitehead attributes the envisagement of eternal objects and the envisagement of possibilities of value to the nature of the underlying activity (also called underlying eternal energy and eternal activity), not to God. Later in the chapter on God, Whitehead attributes the envisagement of the possibilities of value to the principle of limitation which is identified as God.
In the chapter, "God," Whitehead introduces God as the Principle of Concretion or, alternately stated, the Principle of Limitation. (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 174 & 178) He comments, "This position can be substantiated only by the discussion of the general implication of the course of actual occasions — that is to say, of the process of realisation." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 174) Then he explains that limitation occurs in two ways. First, there is an actual course of events, which might be otherwise; hence there is ".. .a limitation of antecedent selection." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 177) Second, there is an antecedent limitation among values and "There cannot be value without antecedent standards of value. . ." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 178) Limitation in both these ways is necessary so, "...there is required a principle of limitation." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 178) Whitehead identifies God with this principle of limitation and then says, "What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 178) As he closes the chapter Whitehead specifically denies the conception of God as the ". . .foundation of the metaphysical situation with its ultimate activity." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 179) That is, he rejects the identification of God with the underlying activity or the underlying eternal energy referred to in the triple envisagement passage quoted above. He identifies God, "the supreme ground for limitation," with the function of the second envisagement, "the envisagement of possibilities of value." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 105)
In Religion in the Making, published a year later (the preface is dated March 13, 1926), Whitehead developed his philosophical theism. We can see this development by comparing the triple envisagement passage (remembering the developments that took place in the chapter on God) with a somewhat similar passage in Religion in the Making. This latter passage is Whitehead’s restatement of the formative elements. He says,
"These formative elements are:
1. The creativity whereby the actual world has its character of temporal passage to novelty.
2. The realm of ideal entities, or forms, which are in themselves not actual, but are such that they are exemplified in everything that is actual, according to some proportion of relevance.
3. The actual but non-temporal entity whereby the indetermination of mere creativity is transmuted into a determinate freedom. This non-temporal actual entity is what men call God — the supreme God of rationalized religion." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 88)
In this passage and in the triple envisagement passage Whitehead, considering the general flux of events, sees three aspects of the world, any world whatever. The aspects are (1) an underlying eternal energy producing activities or events, (2) the possibilities of activities that might occur (the different forms that activities might take), and (3) a principle of limitation that affects, but does not determine, what activities occur (the valuing of the possibilities). The result of these aspects are the definite activities themselves which Whitehead calls actual occasions.
Let us take each of the three formative elements and see the changes he made between the two passages. The first element is barely mentioned in the first passage as it is referred to as the "underlying activity," "the eternal activity," or "an underlying eternal energy." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 105) In Religion in the Making it is identified as "creativity." Specifically it is ". . .the creativity whereby the actual world has its character of temporal passage to novelty." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 88) It is also referred to as "a creativity with infinite freedom." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 115) But an important change has occurred: while in the former passage the underlying activity is the basic aspect, which has three types of envisagement (a monism), in the latter passage creativity is just one of the three formative elements in the becoming of actual entities (a pluralism). Ford comments, "Instead of an underlying substantial activity and three metaphysical attributes, Whitehead now has the temporal world of actual occasions with three formative elements which jointly constitute its character: creativity, the ideal entities and God (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 88)."10 This constitutes a major shift in Whitehead’s thought: he moves from a monistic to a pluralistic view of the universe. Another change has occurred is that the term, "envisagement," has disappeared, even though it will reappear in Process and Reality in connection with God and the eternal objects (See Process and Reality, 34, 44 and 189).
This first formative element becomes the Category of the Ultimate in Process and Reality. There we read, "‘Creativity,’ ‘many,’ ‘ones are the ultimate notions involved in the meaning of the synonymous terms ‘thing,’ ‘being,’ ‘entity."’ (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 21) He adds, "‘Creativity’ . . . is that ultimate principle by which the many. . .become the one actual occasion. . . This Category of the Ultimate replaces Aristotle’s category of ‘primary substance."’ (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 21) So, creativity, an underlying eternal energy, is the ultimate category rather than the concept of substance.
The second formative element, the realm of eternal objects, in itself, is the same in these passages. However, in the former passage the eternal objects are envisaged by the underlying activity. In the latter passage no envisagement is mentioned, but in Religion in the Making God is "the completed ideal harmony." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960,115) "He is complete in the sense that his vision determines every possibility of value." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 147) "This ideal world of conceptual harmonization is merely a description of God himself. Thus the nature of God is the complete conceptual realization of the realm of ideal forms." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 148) So now God, not the underlying activity, is conceived as envisaging the eternal objects.
As we noted above, in the chapter on God in Science and the Modern World, Whitehead presents God as envisaging the possibilities of value as the principle of limitation but he makes no mention of God’s envisaging the eternal objects. Are these two envisagements two different things? John Cobb, one of the leading process theologians of today, says, "No." Cobb says, ". . .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."11 "This envisagement ((of eternal objects)) is not something additional to his function as principle of limitation, but it explains how that principle operates."12 This position is essentially correct assuming Whitehead’s more mature thought in Religion in the Making. But one must remember that in the triple envisagement passage in Science and the Modern World, Whitehead did present the two as distinct functions: Whitehead developed his philosophical theism between the two writings.
Lewis Ford agrees: "In Science and the Modern World the eternal objects are ordered independently of God. For Whitehead, God first functioned as ‘the principle of limitation,’. . . In Process and Reality, the eternal objects are organized together and given their respective ‘relational essences’ by the primordial or non-temporal activity of God."13 So Ford agrees with the argument that the concept of God undergoes development in Whitehead’s writings. The argument presented above is a more detailed analysis of the possible steps in that development.
Whitehead’s creativity has infinite possibilities of definiteness. These possibilities or potentials for realization he calls eternal objects. They are analogous to the Platonic forms or the medieval universals and are such items as color, shape, etc.
But creative energy does not actualize all possibilities at an instant. If so, the ideal would be the real; the potential would be the actual; all possibility would be realized; and time and change would be illusions. These theoretical possibilities have been considered as possible philosophical positions. The concept of God as actus purus means that God has (i.e., eternally) actualized all possibilities. But if this were so, no entity would be free, and our moral struggles in decision-making would not be genuine but determined. Hence possibilities would not be genuinely open to us. This fails to do justice to our experience of an open world of ongoing events. So, there must be a principle of limitation. Whitehead says, "Some particular how is necessary, and some particularization in the what of matter of fact is necessary." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 178)
Whitehead notes that Aristotle needed a Prime Mover for his system. And Whitehead needs a principle of limitation for creativity to become realized. Since this process is the abstract becoming concrete, Whitehead also calls this the Principle of Concretion. He identifies this principle as God, but as a principle, God is "not concrete." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 178) At that point his development (the writing of Science and the Modern World), he felt he had said what one could say about God from a metaphysical point of view. He comments, "What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 178) And he notes, "In respect to the interpretation of these experiences, mankind have differed profoundly." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 178-179)
But he could not help but draw two further conclusions from the perception of God as the principle of limitation. As the supreme ground of limitation, "it stands in His very nature to divide Good from Evil, and to establish Reason ‘within her dominions supreme." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 179) Although the principle of limitation is a valuing principle in that there is an aim at strength in beauty, Whitehead’s additional conclusions can hardly be justified on the basis of the principle of limitation alone. They are consistent with it but not required by it.
When we move from the chapter on God in Science and the Modern World to Religion in the Making, we encounter a major change. God, the principle of limitation, has now become God, "the actual but non-temporal entity whereby the indetermination of mere creativity is transmuted into a determinate freedom. This nontemporal actual entity is what men call God — the supreme God of rationalized religion." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 88) So Whitehead now conceives of God as an actual entity who performs the function of limitation. And we must note that he calls God a non-temporal actual entity. We must address both these issues. First, why did Whitehead change his conception of God from a principle to an actual entity?
Before we answer this question, we need to note Whitehead’s warning against ". . . jumping. . .to the easy assumption that there is an ultimate reality. . ." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 92) who is the source of the order in the world. After all, he notes, nature itself might be self-explanatory. When you say that anything is self-explanatory, you introduce an ultimate arbitrariness. And all explanation finally does end in an ultimate arbitrariness. But arbitrary elements must not be introduced after the basic, fundamental starting point. And "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." (Science and the Modern World, New York: The Free Press, 1967, 93) Whitehead insists that God must not be an exception to metaphysical principles but must be the chief exemplification of them. (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 343) So the general principles of reality must apply to God.
We must answer the question, "Why did Whitehead change his conception of God to one of an actual entity?" We may first give a negative answer. Whitehead explicitly argues that basic ". . .religious experience does not include any direct intuition of a definite person, or individual. It is a character of permanent rightness. . ." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 60) So Whitehead does not move to conceiving God as an individual because of religious experience, rather he argues that there is ". . .no direct vision of a personal God" (RM 61) So, he continues, ". . .our belief is based upon inference." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 61)
Now we can give a positive answer. If Whitehead moves from God, the principle of limitation, to God, the actual entity who performs this function, he must do so because metaphysical principles require it. The answer lies in the application of the ontological principle, which says that ". . .the reasons for things are always to be found in the composite nature of definite actual entities." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 19) The reason that the underlying creative energy is actualized in some definite way must be because of an actual entity. The ontological principle requires it. So God, the principle of limitation, becomes God, the actual entity, who is the reason why actualization occurs.
This explanation for Whitehead’s change is an implicit use of the ontological principle which was later explicitly identified as such in his following book, Process and Reality. The idea expressed in the principle is part of this explanation in Religion in the Making. He writes, "Unlimited possibility and abstract creativity can procure nothing. . . Thus the whole process itself. . .requires a definite entity, already actual among the formative elements, as an antecedent ground" (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 146) Because process requires a definite entity, the principle of limitation must become an "aboriginal actuality." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 146)
In two other passages in Religion in the Making Whitehead explains the necessity of an ordering actual entity. He says, "The adjustment is the reason for the world. It is not the case that there is an actual world which accidentally happens to exhibit an order of nature. There is an actual world because there is an order in nature. If there were no order, there would be no world. Also since there is a world, we know that there is an order. The ordering entity is a necessary element in the metaphysical situation presented by the actual world." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 101) And in a passage, in which the three formative elements are presented succinctly, he says, ". . .the universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but that this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 115) These passages make it clear that Whitehead has introduced God as an actual entity because such a ordering entity is a metaphysical necessity.
Why is God conceived as a non-temporal actual entity? Whitehead gives three reasons. First, he gives a metaphysical reason. The source of order must not itself change. He says, "The definite determination which imposes ordered balance on the world requires an actual entity imposing its own unchanged consistency of character on every phase." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 92) He also argues, "The temporal world. . . exhibits an order. . .which show(s) that its creative passage is subject to the immanence of an unchanging actual entity." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 96) Second, he points out a moral requirement, "Thus if God be an actual entity which enters into every creative phase and yet is above change, He must be exempt from internal inconsistency which is the note of evil." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 95) And third, Whitehead conceives of religion as having to do with the "permanent" elements of the world. In the preface of Religion in the Making Whitehead says that his aim is ". . .to direct attention to the foundation of religion on our apprehension of those permanent elements by reason of which there is a stable order in the world. . . ." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 8) The point is that religion and God have to do with the "permanent" elements which produce "order" in the world. This is a traditional view of God. Only at the very end of Process and Reality does Whitehead modify this traditional view of God.
There is a hint in Religion in the Making of what will come. immediately after saying that God is "above change" (in this context meaning "exempt from internal inconsistency") Whitehead says, "Since God is actual, 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." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 95) If God is a synthesis of the total universe, then God changes as the world changes. The conception of God as above change is, in the end, only a partial truth referring to one aspect of his nature.
Whitehead’s argument in this paragraph in which he denies that God changes concerns the moral need for self-consistency. "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." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 95-96) While this argument is correct, theologians and philosophers have extended it to conclude that metaphysically God does not change. However, self-consistency does not entail that a person is above all change.
John Cobb argues that "the final new element in the doctrine of God (appears) in this book (Religion in the Making). God is understood as being affected by the world."14 Therefore, "After Religion in the Making, nothing really new is added to the doctrine of God."15 His evidence for this assertion is the passage quoted above and a passage, partially quoted here: "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 impression of God. He then passes into his next relation to the world with enlarged, or diminished, presentation of ideal values." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 152) Cobb holds that in these passages, "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."16 This latter point does express an insight of Whitehead’s, but he makes only general statements such as: "The purpose of God is the attainment of value in the temporal world." (Religion in the Making, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960, 97) But he does not tell how God relates to actual entities. And he does not express the implications of that relationship. As a matter of fact, Cobb later qualifies his statement and recognizes "substantive changes" occur between Religion in the Making and Process and Reality.17 Ford, noting Cobb’s earlier position, gives a detailed interpretation of seven passages in Religion in the Making to show that Whitehead had not yet ascribed to God physical feeling which allows the contrast between God’s temporal and non-temporal natures.18
A better interpretation of these passages might be to recognize that Whitehead is expressing flashes of insights as he thinks about the functions of God from such a metaphysical view. He is not presenting us with his final view; that must await the development of his metaphysical system. New insights will occur to him. The implications of his line of reasoning are neither given here nor even in the first part of Process and Reality. For example, Whitehead made a tremendous discovery when he spelled out the implications of his thought at the end of Process and Reality. He discovered what he called the "Consequent Nature of God." He discovered that God did change because of his interaction with the world. The basis of this discovery may lie in Religion in the Making, but the creative insights come only at the end of Process and Reality.
1. Charles Hartshorne. "Whitehead’s Idea of God" in P. A. Schilpp, The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, (La Salle, Illinois, Open Court, 1941,) p. 541.
2. Lewis S Ford, The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, 1925-1929 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984). (I have summarized Ford’s positions expressed in this book in my book review in The International Journal of Philosophy of Religion, 1986.)
3. Lewis S. Ford, "Whitehead’s First Metaphysical Synthesis," in The international Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 17, No. 3 (September, 1977), p. 253.
4. Ford, "Whitehead’s First. . .," p. 263.
5. Ford, The Emergence. . ., p. 23.
6. Ford, "Whitehead’s First. . .," p. 263.
7. Victor Lowe, "Ford’s Discovery about Whitehead," in The international Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 18, No. 2 (July, 1978), pp. 223-226.
8. Ford, "Whitehead’s First. . .," p. 253.
9. Ibid., p.265.
10. Ford, The Emergence. . ., p. 128-129.
11. John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology, (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1965), p. 145-146.
12. Ibid., p. 146.
13. Lewis S. Ford, "Afterword: A Sampling of Other Interpretations," in Explorations In Whitehead’s Philosophy, ed. by Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline, (New York: Fordham University Press, 1983), p. 322.
14. Cobb, A Christian . . ., p. 145.
15. Ibid, p. 149.
16. Ibid, p. 148.
17. Ibid, p. 160.
18. Ford, The Emergence. . ., p. 140-147.