The Problem of God in Whitehead’s System

by Ivor Leclerc

Ivor Leclerc is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, having previously taught at Glasgow.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 301-315, Vol. 14, Number 4, Winter, 1985. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Whitehead was the scientist who in the twentieth century most clearly perceived the fundamental unsatisfactoriness of the scheme of materialist mechanism and who develops an alternative philosophical basis.


When in the seventeenth century the revolutionary new metaphysics of materialist mechanism was introduced, it retained two most significant features from the Thomistic Aristotelianism which it replaced, namely the doctrine of God as prime mover, and the doctrine of locomotion as the fundamental motion. Indeed in the new metaphysics of the physical as matter, it itself utterly devoid of any principle of change, God was all the more necessary for the locomotion of matter, that being the only motion or change possible in that scheme. Further, although later in the century the Newtonian system was hailed as the full and final triumph of the doctrine of mechanism, perturbations in the orbit of the planet Mercury were discovered which were inexplicable in terms of Newton’s system, Newton himself maintaining the necessity for the occasional direct intervention of God to correct these.

In the eighteenth century thinkers became increasingly sensible of the philosophical unsatisfactoriness of a deus ex machina, and by the end of the century a solution was found through very considerable advances in mathematics by a number of great mathematicians and natural philosophers -- Maupertius, d’Alembert, Lagrange, Laplace, Fourier in France, and the Bernoulli brothers and Leonard Euler in Switzerland -- leading to a perfection of the system of mechanics, especially by Laplace, whereby the anomalies in Newton’s cosmology were eliminated, thus rendering unnecessary any divine intervention in the celestial motions. This triumph of mechanism, particularly in regard to its implications with respect to the role of God, was expressed in the celebrated reply by Laplace in response to Napoleon’s observation about the absence of God in his system, that he, Laplace, had no need for that hypothesis.

By the end of the nineteenth century the doctrine of materialist mechanism reached its full development with Kirchhof, Hertz, Mach and Poincaré. Physics was conceived as the "science of mechanics" -- the title of Mach’s most influential book -- and this was the fundamental natural science to which all others were reducible. With the work of Darwin this doctrine had also become basic to biology, and was soon to be extended to the study of man. Further, with thinkers such as Mach and Poincaré the philosophical implication of their materialist mechanism also became clear, namely that it is only "science," thus conceived, which gives "positive" (i.e., genuine, certain) knowledge. Therewith all "metaphysics" was repudiated -- excepting, of course, only that of materialist mechanism (which was no longer thought of as "metaphysics") -- this repudiation also extending to theology. In the twentieth century this positivism came largely to dominate academic philosophy, especially British and American.

But in the nineteenth century, particularly during the second half, and then increasingly in this century, advances occurred in scientific thinking itself which were to undermine the doctrine of materialist mechanism, although for a long time this was not evident because those developments continued, indeed to the present day, to be interpreted in terms of the presuppositions of that doctrine.

Whitehead was the scientist who in the twentieth century most clearly perceived the fundamental unsatisfactoriness of the scheme of materialist mechanism -- he was singular among scientists in having a peculiarly philosophical intellect, i.e., one penetrating to the greater generalities, ultimately to metaphysics. In Science and the Modern World he engaged in a review of the advance of modern science from the seventeenth century, bringing out "the present confusion as to the foundational concepts of physical science" (SMW 128), as a background to his development of an alternative philosophical basis.

From the philosophical point of view, Whitehead brought out, the most significant scientific developments were those which had in the nineteenth century led to the introduction of the concept of "energy" on the one hand, and on the other those comprising the introduction of the undulatory theory of light, and to the theory of electromagnetism and their unification by Clerk Maxwell, in whose theory, as Whitehead put it, "the waves of light were merely waves of his electromagnetic occurrences" (SMW 123). The philosophical significance of this is, first, as Whitehead stated it, that electromagnetic theory "in Maxwell’s hands, assumed a shape in which it demanded that there should be electromagnetic occurrences throughout all space" (SMW 124); and secondly, that this entailed the introduction of the presupposition that continuity was basic, for "electromagnetic occurrences were conceived as arising from a continuous field" (SMW 124). This implication is most important because in the reigning doctrine of material mechanism the concept of "atomism" was fundamental in the physical, matter being conceived as essentially discrete and thus discontinuous.

A further philosophical complication arose in connection with the doctrine of the conservation of energy, since this entailed the conception, in Whitehead’s words, of "a quantitative permanence underlying change" (SMW 126), for this implied that there is another kind of permanence besides that of matter which, in the material mechanistic doctrine, had been the only permanence. This not only made acute the philosophical issue of the relation between matter and energy, but it also brought crucially to the fore the entire issue of change. For in the doctrine of material mechanism the only kind of change was locomotion, i.e., change in respect of place, this being the only change possible for matter. In contrast to this, change in energy is something other than locomotive change -- change in energy might result in locomotive change occurring, but change in energy is not reducible to locomotive change. This entails that kinds of change other than locomotive must be admitted in the physical realm. This further complicated the issue of the relation between matter and energy. Is energy a kind of reality other than matter? And if so, what would be its status? If energy be subsidiary to matter, how can energy change be other than locomotive? From these and other similar considerations it was clear to Whitehead that a fundamental revision of the conception of the physical was requisite, and indeed urgent.

Basically, and most importantly, he held it to be necessary to reject the conception of the physical as "matter," in itself changeless, inert, "stuff-like." The theories of energy and electromagnetism made it evident to him that the primary physical entities must be essentially "event-like." Accordingly he proposed that "We must start with the event as the ultimate unity of natural occurrence" (SMW 129).

With this, the antithesis between "atomicity" and "continuity" could be rescued from the contradiction it had constituted in the doctrine of the physical as "matter." These two concepts of "atomicity" and "continuity" are antithetical, but they are not necessarily contradictory (SMW 124). They are not so if "events" be taken as fundamental in the physical. For "event" does not mean a mere or sheer "happening." Whitehead used the word "event" in its primary etymological sense of "to come out" (from the Latin evenire), which implies "something" which comes out. This entails that the "something" must necessarily be continuous with that out of which it comes. And it also entails that the "something" must have an essential discreteness as itself different from that out of which it comes.

Whitehead elaborated his new conception of the physical by drawing further implications of its nature as "event." First, this leads to a fundamental ontological position, namely that the physical entity as an event entails that it "comes to be," i.e., that it is subject to "becoming" -- in contrast to matter, which is in itself changeless, and thus merely "being." Further, a physical entity as "becoming" entails that it is necessarily related to that out of which it becomes, i.e., past events. As Whitehead has stated it: "The position here maintained is that the relationships of an event are internal, so far as concerns the event itself that is to say, that they are constitutive of what the event is in itself (SMW 130).

One other crucial metaphysical implication follows. This is that internal relatedness can be effected only by activity, that is, by the physical entities being essentially "acting" entities -- an "acting" which Whitehead characterized as that of "prehension." This position is to be seen in contrast to the conception of the physical as "matter," which is essentially inert, inactive. In contrast to the conception of "inert matter," the development of science in this century demands that the physical entities be conceived as "active."


It will not be necessary to elaborate Whitehead’s philosophy of the nature of the physical in more detail. I want to proceed to one most relevant implication for a cosmology based on a metaphysics of the physical as "active." Whitehead came to this topic toward the end of Science and the Modern World. He introduced it by recurring to Aristotle: "Aristotle found it necessary to complete his metaphysics by the introduction of a Prime Mover -- God (SMW 215). Whitehead himself had come to a similar position, in contrast to the position of the cosmological system of materialist mechanism, in which there is no place for God.

The reason for Whitehead’s recurrence to Aristotle is significant. It was, in the first place, to emphasize that his finding it necessary to complete his own cosmology by the introduction of God was not for religious reasons. The point is not that religion was of no importance to him; quite the contrary. But religious experience per se cannot be determinative in this context: as he has expressed it, "for nothing, within any limited type of experience, can give intelligence to shape our ideas of any entity at the base of all actual things, unless the general character of things requires that there be such an entity" (SMW 215f.). The point is that religious experience requires critical scrutiny and justification by theology, a theology moreover which is grounded in metaphysics and cosmology. Whitehead was here rejecting the long and still influential tradition of the primacy of religion to metaphysics and cosmology.

For him on the contrary it is metaphysics which has to be primary, and determinative in cosmology, and also in theology. Thus Whitehead had good reason for recurring to Aristotle as the last great European metaphysician who was entirely dispassionate in regard to the topic of God and the cosmological order; for after him, as Whitehead put it, "ethical and religious interests began to influence metaphysical conclusions" (SMW 215).

The general point which Whitehead was arguing was that the advance in science in the last hundred years had necessitated a fundamental revision of our metaphysical foundations, and that when this is pushed through it becomes clear that God must be readmitted to a fundamental role or function in the universe. But the conception of this role is not to be derived from religion. He maintained the contrary position:

The secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world is at least as urgent a requisite of thought as is the secularization of other elements of experience. The concept of God is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the converse is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the universe. In this respect religious literature has been sadly misleading to philosophic theory, partly by attraction and partly by revulsion. (PR 294/ 315f.)


How exactly the function of God in the universe is to be conceived is a fundamental task of metaphysics. In developing his own metaphysical thought in this respect Whitehead was most deeply influenced by Plato and Aristotle, especially so by Plato.

We have seen that his analysis of recent scientific advances had led him to the conclusion that physical entities must be conceived as essentially "active"; as he said, it is necessary to conceive of a "substantial activity" (SMW 220). Now these acting entities, as previously noted, are necessarily interrelated. Whitehead saw that the metaphysical issue raised by this is as to how that "substantial activity" is to be understood. It might be maintained that there simply and ultimately are an indefinite plurality of individual "substantial activities." But this raises the problem of how and by what they are interrelated. It could be held that they must necessarily be related by something other than their own individual "activities," this something being held, as by Leibniz, to be God -- a view which subsequently found little favor. Whitehead adopted a different approach, by noting that each of the indefinite plurality of actual acting entities is united by their having in common the general factor of "activity." But this commonness cannot be that of a "universal character," for "activity" is not per se a "character," a "definiteness," since it is acting or activity which "has" some or other definite character distinguishing it as this as opposed to that action. In other words, "activity" is not an attribute; it is rather a subject. Whitehead concluded that "the unity of all actual occasions forbids the analysis of substantial activities into independent entities" (SMW 220), for their "unity" is precisely the "substantial activity" which they share. Whitehead’s metaphysical conclusion therefore was that "Each individual activity is nothing but the mode in which the general activity is individualized" (SMW 220).

This means that Whitehead has made a metaphysical distinction between, on the one hand, the plurality of acting physical entities, and on the other, a "general activity" underlying all the occasions of individual acting, and of which each of them is an "individualization." The distinction is between actual individual physical entities and an underlying or substrate general activity upon which each individual is dependent, the latter being thus the "source" of the individual actings. This, as Whitehead recognized, is analogous to Aristotle’s individual ousiai (substances) and his hupokeimenon. substrate, which he termed hule -- which came to be rendered materia in Latin. In both these thinkers therefore we have the general metaphysical distinction between the actual individual physical entities and a general substrate underlying them and upon which they are dependent.

A main point to be emphasized is that Aristotle explicitly made a distinction between actual physical entities on the one hand, and hule, matter, on the other, which is not a physical entity but is an arche, source, principle, of physical entities. What Aristotle distinguished as being anarche, principle, source, Whitehead in Religion in the Making, termed a "formative element."

Now Whitehead, following Plato and Aristotle, distinguished another, a second, "formative element" or principle upon which the actual physical entities are dependent. His metaphysical theory was, as we have seen, that each individual activity is "nothing but the mode in which the general activity is individualized." "Mode" means a manner or state of being of a thing (cf. Shorter O.E.D., art. 6), which entails alternative possibilities of being. This entails that "what" particular mode of activity is actualized cannot be determined by the underlying general activity, by reason of its very generality. Whitehead maintained that we have therefore to conclude to the necessity of another principle or source required by the actual individual physical entities in addition to the general substrate. That is, it is necessary, as he expressed it, that "We conceive actuality as in essential relation to an unfathomable possibility" (SMW 216). This means that the second principle is an infinite plurality of abstract possibility. It was this which Plato and Aristotle had distinguished by the general term cidos or idea, which became rendered forma, "form," and which Whitehead called "eternal objects" – "eternal" because they are not subject to "becoming," and "objects" because they are "given."

Thus we have two "ultimates," Whitehead agreed with Plato and Aristotle, upon which individual physical entities are dependent. Plato and Aristotle referred to these "ultimates" as archai, principles, and Whitehead in Religion in the Making called them "formative elements," i.e., those "elements which go to the formation [of the] actual world, passing in time" (RM 77). He emphasized that "such formative elements are not themselves actual and passing; they are the factors which are either nonactual or nontemporal, disclosed in the analysis of what is both actual and temporal" (RM 77). Whitehead, in arriving at this analysis, had in fact been more particularly influenced by Plato, who had made this distinction early in his Timaeus (Tim. 27D-29D).

Now Whitehead further agreed with Plato, and Aristotle, that a third "formative element" or principle, source, of physical actuality is necessary. Whitehead’s argument is as follows: "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" (SMW 221). That is, given the indefinite plurality of possibilities, in order for there to be individual actuality entails a definite limitation of possibility to "a this," which entails a standard in terms of which that limitation is effected. Thus, as Whitehead stated it, "as a further element in the metaphysical situation, there is required a principle of limitation" (SMW 221). This third formative element, Whitehead maintained, in agreement with Plato and Aristotle, is "what men call God" (RM 78; cf. SMW 221f.).

Thus for Whitehead the role of God in the universe is that of the "principle of limitation," or as he has alternatively expressed it, the "principle of concretion" (cf. RM 80; also PR 345/ 374). Whitehead completely rejected the Judeo-Christian doctrine of God as creator of the universe, as well as the conception of God in the seventeenth century, namely of God as the prime mover. His conception is closer to that of Aristotle, of God as the teleological principle, i.e., the source of ends -- it is this which is essentially entailed in God as the principle of concretion.


Now there is one feature of Whitehead’s doctrine which merits special attention. When in Religion in the Making he elaborated his conception of the three "formative elements" (RM 76-81), Whitehead characterized the third of these elements, God, as "the actual but non-temporal entity" (RM 78), and he maintained this characterization of God as an "actual entity" throughout the systematic elaboration of his metaphysics and cosmology in Process and Reality, as well as in his subsequent works.

A further point relevant here is that in Process and Reality Whitehead developed an elaborate system of categories as fundamental. The first of these is "The Category of the Ultimate." It is to be noted, however, that icontrary to his formulation of his metaphysics and cosmology in Process and Reality, as well as in his subsequent works, there is an underlying general activity, which he had called "Creativity", a term which he continued to use. Does this signify his abandonment of the conception of three "formative elements," of three ultimates?

The second of his "formative elements," namely "eternal objects, appears in Process and Reality listed fifth among his "Categories of Existence," the first of these being "actual entities." At the end of this list Whitehead stated that: "Among these eight categories of existence, actual entities and eternal objects stand out with a certain extreme finality. The other types of existence have a certain intermediate character" (PR 29/ 33). The third "formative element," God, is listed nowhere in the entire scheme of categories. God appears only in the following chapter, entitled "Some Derivative Notions." It there becomes evident that Whitehead had subsumed God under the general category of "actual entity," and that actual entities were thus divided into the plurality of temporal actual entities, and one nontemporal actual entity, God.

However, from a careful study of the entire text of Process and Reality it becomes clear that although Whitehead did not use his earlier designation of "formative elements," in fact the earlier position had essentially continued unmodified in the scheme of Process and Reality. That is, Creativity, Eternal Objects, and God continue to constitute the three ultimates of his system. As far as his Categories are concerned, he should have listed three "Categories of the Ultimate" -- i.e., in addition to Creativity, he should have included eternal objects and God. And in respect of the Categories of Existence, in fact he has only one which is eminent and primary, namely actual entities, the others in the list being either ingredients in actual entities (prehensions, subjective forms), or actual entities in various fundamental modes of relation (nexus, propositions, multiplicities, contrasts -- to which he might consistently have added societies).

But the crucial issue to be raised here, and which needs close examination, is respecting Whitehead’s conception of God as an "actual entity." In this he is of course in a long tradition. This is usually thought to go back to Plato, but that is questionable. Plato, in his Timaeus -- which must be taken as the decisively relevant work, and which was indeed subsequently the most influential in respect of this topic -- starts by making a fundamental distinction between "what always is" (ti to on aei) and what is always in becoming (ti to gignomenon aei) (Tim. 27D-28A). The former is constituted by, first, the eide (forms), secondly, the divine demiourgos (craftsman), and thirdly, the hupodoche (receptable). That which is always in becoming is the entire heaven or cosmos (pas ouranos he kosmos) (Tim. 28B), in which he included all physical beings. The former three are the ultimate sources, archai (Tim. 28B-C) of the latter -- Plato used the word arche here.

The philosophical description of the cosmos, i.e., his cosmology, to which he then proceeds, is cast in the form of a genetic account, i.e., a cosmogeny. This procedure of understanding by the device of a genetic account is one which Plato had adopted previously, e.g., in Book II of the Republic in explaining the nature of the polis. This procedure evidently does not constitute a literal explanation, as indeed he explicitly emphasized in the Timaeus; it is rather to be taken metaphorically, i.e., as "a likely story" (tou eikota muthon) (Tim. 29D). Plato adopted this "mythological" procedure for lack of the appropriate terminology and categoreal system for articulating the structure of the cosmos, i.e., a cosmology -- the achievement of such a cosmology was attained by Aristotle.

But in this conception of three archai, sources, of the cosmos and the entire physical realm Plato made a tremendous philosophical advance, which included also what he saw to be entailed in these three as archai. This was that none of the three is to be conceived as "actual beings." He had already come to the realization of this respecting the eide, forms, which earlier he had identified as to ontos on (beingly being) and on alethes (true being), but he had come to see the fallacy of the "third man" entailed in that view (Plato, Parmenides 131E-132B), and further in the Sophist, that the conception of the forms as themselves "beings" had to be abandoned (Plato, Sophist 249C-D). Here in the Timaeus he accorded them the different status of an arche, source, both of the being and of the knowledge of physical things. The second arche, the receptacle, is also not to be conceived as any kind of "actual being"; and, in itself devoid of all form, it cannot in the strict sense be "known" -- it is apprehendable only by "a kind of bastard reasoning" (Tim. 52B; logismo tini notho).

Plato’s term demiourgos also is not to be taken literally as "an actual being," but rather as a metaphorical designation of that which is a cause (aition) -- for, as he says, that which is in becoming "necessarily must have some cause" (hup’ aition tinos anangken) (Tim. 28C). Plato explicitly emphasized the extreme difficulty of conceiving this cause: "The maker and father of this universe (ton men oun poieten kai patera toude tou pantos) it is a hard task to find, and having found him it would be impossible to declare him to all mankind."1 For the demiourgos is distinct from the cide, and is thus not "formed," so can neither be "a being" nor "known" as beings are known.

Aristotle developed a systematic cosmology in terms of the principles (archai) which are the causes (aitiai) of the cosmos. He rejected all supposition of a literal genesis, generation, of the cosmos by or from those causes -- he held that there can be no beginning nor end to the process of the cosmos. Thus the principles are not to be conceived as transcendent in a literal sense of separately and independently existing. Rather the principles are immanent in the cosmos, though they are transcendent of the physical in not being themselves physical entities but being that which is required by the physical as its principles. These principles for Aristotle were hule (matter) -- which corresponds to Plato’s receptacle -- the eide, (forms), and Theos. The role of God in Aristotle’s system is that of the teleological cause of kinesis, motion; that is, God provides the telos, the end, i.e., the "that for the sake of which," requisite for the becoming and order of this cosmos.

But Aristotle failed fully to follow through on Plato’s highly important insight. He did indeed do so as far as hule, matter, is concerned, and also with respect to cidos, form. Regarding matter he held: "By matter I mean that which in itself is neither a particular thing nor a certain quantity not assigned to any other of the categories by which being is determined."2 And with respect to form, he completely rejected the earlier Platonic doctrine -- apparently still widely accepted -- of form as itself ousia, to on, an individual being. Instead he maintained Plato’s later position that eide are the principles, sources (archai) of the definiteness of individual beings, and are thus not themselves individual beings.

Where Aristotle significantly departed from Plato was respecting the third arche, God. This, he held, is to be conceived as an actual individual being. He did soon the basis of his metaphysics. The entire universe, he maintained, is in an interminable process of becoming, i.e., of genesis, coming-into-being, which entails that it involves kinesis (motus, motion), i.e., qualitative, quantitative, and locomotive change. Now the process of becoming is to be analyzed, he held, as the perpetual actualization of potentiality, i.e., as a perpetual transition from potentiality (dunamis) to actuality (energeia). However, in this process, although potentiality is antecedent to actuality, it cannot be ontologically antecedent, since strictly only actuality can be "a being" (ousia, to on), and a process of becoming is possible only from an actual being. In respect of the universe in becoming, this requirement, namely of the ontological priority of actuality, is fulfilled, and can only be fulfilled if the arche, principle, source, of the becoming of the cosmos, namely God, be a full actual being. His conclusion was therefore that God is "aidion (eternal), ousia, energeia" (Met. 1072a25).


With respect to Plato’s insight concerning the ontological status of God, this was therefore lost, and remained lost for several centuries. It was recovered, however, in the third century AD. by Plotinus, the founder of what later came to be termed Neoplatonism. Plotinus accepted the growing tendency of the Platonic schools of the previous few centuries to the abandonment of the conception of Plato and Aristotle of three archai, and the acceptance instead of but one arche, principle, as the source and origin of the physical universe, that principle being God.

Plotinus was the thinker who most clearly perceived the implications, and in particular of the ontological implications, of that new position. These were, first that if God be the sole source and origin, this entailed that God is the source of all "being," which implied, secondly, that God is the source of all the "definiteness" of beings, i.e., of "what" they are, and also of all "good"; for every being necessarily has to be of some or other "kind" or "quality," and in some respect and measure "good," of some "value." Cod’s being the source of the definiteness of beings thus meant God’s being the source of eidos, form. Thirdly, since, as had been clear from Plato and Aristotle, "knowledge" of particular things consisted in the apprehension of the "forms" of those things, this implied that God is also the source of all "knowledge."

But it was what all this entailed respecting the conception of God which it was the singular merit of Plotinus to have seen. This is that, as the ultimate and sole source of all, God must be absolutely transcendent. It is what this absolute transcendence consists in which is crucially important. In his reasoning Plotinus drew on Plato’s argument in the Republic at 509B in his simile of the sun. Plotinus argued that since thought and knowledge are necessarily in terms of the forms, and since (here drawing on the "third man" argument) the source of form cannot itself be "a form" or itself "formed," therefore the source of form must transcend, i.e., be beyond (epekeina) form, and accordingly it cannot itself be known in the way in which all formed things are known. Likewise, Plotinus’ argument is, the source of "being" (ousia, to on) cannot itself be "a being." This entailed therefore that of the ultimate source there can be "no thought, no knowledge, since it is indeed beyond what we speak of as ousia, being."3 Accordingly we can strictly only think of God as the ultimate One which is the source of all.

In the next century Augustine of Hippo, the greatest of the Fathers of the Church, most fully accepted the metaphysics of Plotinus as a basis for his theology. But Augustine came to it with a strong belief in the Judeo-Christian conception of God, which predisposed him to the Parmenidean-Platonic ontology, i.e., of "being" as changeless, immutable, and he accordingly maintained that "it is only that which remains in being without change that truly is,"4 which entailed that only God could be conceived as "true being" (vere esse). The validity of Plotinus’ argument consequently escaped him, and accordingly the Christian Neoplatonic tradition stemming from Augustine differed in a fundamental respect from Plotinian Neoplatonism. In the Augustinian tradition God is emphatically "a being."

Difficulties with this doctrine began, however, to be manifested in the succeeding centuries -- these were at the root, for example, of the so-called "negative theology." But it was not until the period of Scholasticism when, after the arrival of Greco-Arabic philosophy in the West in the twelfth century, which brought a realization of the full import of metaphysics for theology, that these difficulties came to the fore.

The thinker who perceived these most clearly was Thomas Aquinas. He accepted from Augustine, and Aristotle, that God is "a being." But, he was clear, there is a fundamental difference, in respect of "being," between the being of God, the creating being, and the being of creatures. Creatures are to be understood philosophically in terms of the Aristotelian categories: quality, quantity, relation, place, time, etc. But these categories do not apply to God, for God is not at a particular time, nor in any place, nor of a certain quantity, nor of a certain quality. How, then, is God to be understood?

In answer to this problem Aquinas advanced a doctrine of "transcendental categories," developing this from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book X, Chapter 2. This doctrine cannot be treated in detail here; I shall take only some relevant features. Aristotle in that text maintained that "being" (to on) and "unity" (to hen) are special categories or predicates, ones "transcending" (from transcendere, to climb over, surmount) the division between the subject and the predicates that are asserted of the subject; that is, "being" and "unity" apply equally to the subject and to each of the predicates. Aquinas extended this notion of "transcendental category" to the distinction between the being of God and the being of the creatures. Thus the being of creatures is understood by its "essence," i.e., "what it is," which is to say its quality, this being its form. But the essence of God is not a quality, a form; the essence of God, Aquinas held, is "being itself" (ipsum esse). God is therefore to be understood in terms of "transcendental categories" which pertain to God alone. For example, he maintained that a distinction is to be made in respect of the category of "unity" -- which is convertible with "being" -- in its application respectively to God and to creatures. Each creature "is" as "one," as Aristotle, and Plato, had insisted. But, Thomas maintained, the "being" of God is not univocally "one," for Thomas accepted the trinitarian doctrine of God. That is, God is "one" not in the sense in which a creature is "one," but in a "transcendental" sense. In creatures the category of "unity" is the principle of quantity, of number; but this is not so in the case of the transcendental category of unity. There is also a similar distinction respecting the category of "relation," between relation pertaining between creatures and the transcendental category of relation pertaining to God.

But with this another problem becomes acute, namely that of how these transcendental categories are to be grasped. Aquinas’ solution to that problem was his doctrine of "analogical predication." This is that we predicate those categories to God "by analogy with" our predicating categories to creatures. This is a complex doctrine involving distinctions between kinds of analogy -- that of "proportion" and that of "proportionality" -- but for our purposes it will not be necessary to consider these.

However, there remains, it seems to me, the fundamental question whether these doctrines of Aquinas, of transcendental categories and of analogical predication, succeed in overcoming the fallacy, that of the "third man," which Plotinus had seen to be involved in ascribing predicates to God, the problem namely that if God be the source of all, God is the source not only of categories and predicates, but is the source also of "being," and that thus God must necessarily transcend "being," which entails that God is not consistently to be regarded as "a being." The position of Aquinas would be consistent if it be understood that God is analogous to "a being." But this has been all too easily lost sight of, and God is in his system conceived as "a being."


After this historical excursion we can now return to Whitehead. In Process and Reality, in his chapter on "God and the World," Whitehead maintained 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 486/521). Not to treat God as an exception to metaphysical principles is sound, and we have seen the endeavor of the greatest thinkers in the past to adhere to that. In so far as Whitehead’s statement is to be taken as a criticism, it is one which could validly be brought against those, especially in the modern period, in whose scheme God was a deus ex machina.

Whitehead’s statement, however, that "He is their chief exemplification," requires scrutiny. It is certainly to be taken as an assertion of his intent. And he has also explicitly gone to great length to put this into effect. Fundamental to his metaphysics, as we have seen, is the rejection of the conception of "being" as inherently changeless, excluding becoming -- this is the Parmenidean-Platonic heritage taken over in Neoplatonism and which became dominant from the seventeenth century. This is the position which he has emphatically repudiated: "It is fundamental to the philosophy of organism, that the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change is completely abandoned" (PR 39/ 43). His contrary view is enunciated in his Category of Explanation I that "the actual world is a process, and that process is the becoming of actual entities" (PR 30/33), and in Category of Explanation IX, in reference to an actual entity, that its "‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming’" (PR 31/ 34f.).

Since, as we have noted earlier, in his scheme God is an actual entity, Whitehead had accordingly concluded to the statement under discussion, that God must be the chief exemplification of his metaphysical principles, which is to say that God, like every other actual entity, must be in a process of becoming. Further, according to Category of Explanation X, "the first analysis of an actual entity, into its most concrete element, discloses it to be a concrescence of prehensions, which have originated in its process of becoming. All further analysis is an analysis of prehensions" (PR 311 35). "Prehensions" are the actings of an actual entity, and are of two kinds, physical prehensions which are the acts of relating to other actual entities, and "conceptual prehensions" which are the actings in reference to eternal objects or pure possibilities.5

Now in Whitehead’s scheme, as far as all temporal actual entities are concerned, physical prehensions are primary, because every actual entity arises from antecedent actual entities by its physical prehension of them; and its conceptual prehensions arise from those physical prehensions. But God is an exception to this category, in that ln God conceptual prehensions are primary. This exception is regarded as justified by virtue of the role of God in the total scheme, but it nevertheless is an exception to the metaphysical principles holding for all other actuality.

There are also other significant exceptions. The physical prehension of every actual entity necessitate its relatedness to all other actual entities in its past, i.e., those from which it has arisen, by immediate and mediate physical prehension. This entails that every actual entity necessarily has a spatiotemporal locus in reference to all other actual entities. Further, its locus is unique to each actual entity; no other can have an identical spatiotemporal locus.6 Moreover, it is accordingly possible to determine "where" and "when" each actual entity is relatively to others. But does God have a unique spatiotemporal locus? It seems clear that God is an exception to this.

These are examples of many exceptions to his metaphysical principles which Whitehead had been compelled to make with respect to God, and these have been much discussed in the technical literature on Whitehead. Another highly important issue is whether God is one single actual entity, or whether God is to be regarded as a "society" constituted by a linear supersession of actual entities. There is no clear statement in Whitehead’s writing which can unambiguously settle the question. But either way, God is an exception to the metaphysical categories of Whitehead’s scheme.

It will not be necessary to pursue further this inquiry into exceptions. The foregoing suffice to bring into very serious question not only whether in Whitehead’s system God is consistently conceived in terms of the metaphysical categories pertaining to the world, to all physical actuality, but whether this is consistently possible at all.

If we review the historical development of metaphysics, we find, as I have sought to show above, that the endeavor to develop a consistent and coherent system has brought out the necessity for certain ultimates, or "formative elements," as required by the general character of the physical universe, and in terms of which the physical world is ultimately to be understood. By a slow, groping, difficult process of inquiry the insight had been attained, albeit uncertainly, fitfully, and been inadequately sustained, that those ultimates have of necessity to "transcend" the physical, and that they are themselves not to be grasped, understood, in terms of the categories in which the physical 1S understood. Plato’s, in the Timaeus, was the first, and possibly the greatest, insight into this. Aristotle’s tremendous achievement was to have developed this systematically, but it lacked the completeness of Plato’s insight. Whitehead, before he wrote Process and Reality, gained that insight from Plato, but, like Aristotle, did not have it adequately. This inadequacy in both of them was manifested in their regarding God as an "actual entity," to be understood in terms of the metaphysical categories applicable to all other actuality.

But Whitehead’s general system, I would aver, can attain coherence in this respect if, as I suggested earlier, he retained the three "formative elements" of Religion in the Making as three "categories of the ultimate," instead of only one as listed in Process and Reality. This, however, would entail abandoning the conception of God as an "actual entity."

It seems to me that there is no necessity that God be conceived as an "actual being," as a being, at all. Aristotle had thought this to be necessary in terms of his metaphysics because, as we have seen, the teleological "cause" requisite for the transition from potentiality to actuality had itself necessarily to be an actuality -- this is why he held God to be not only aidion, eternal, and ousia, being, but is also energeia, in-act. But the issue is whether his requirement of God as a teleological cause necessitates God’s being an "actual being." Aristotle gave an affirmative answer to this because he conceived God as able to function as a teleological cause only by being an actual being which is the archetype of perfection, the exemplar for all other actuality to aim at -- mediately or immediately.

Plato, however, had a much more profound insight (cf. Rep. 509B), that what is fundamentally necessary in respect of the teleological cause is that it be the arche, source, of "good," that is, the source of the distinction between "good" and "bad," between "better" and "worse," because it is this distinction which is indispensably necessary for there to be any selection among infinite possibilities, for there to be any "limitation" of possibility, as Whitehead expressed it.7

Whitehead too came to this insight of Plato, as we have seen. For him God is primarily the principle, i.e., source, of "limitation," and thereby God is the "principle of concretion." God as this principle, in Whitehead’s words, "constitutes the metaphysical stability whereby the actual process exemplifies general principles of metaphysics, and attains the end proper to specific types of emergent order" (PR 54/64). And, as he has alternatively put it, God is that "in the world, in virtue of which there is physical ‘law’" (PR 402/ 434).

But Whitehead, like Aristotle, thought that being this principle entailed that God had to be an "actual entity." However, if one takes into account Plato’s insight, which was also that of Plotinus, that a principle, source, of actuality cannot itself be an actual being, it is clear that Whitehead’s conception of God as an "actual entity" is unacceptable. Whitehead has correctly seen the necessity of God as the principle of limitation, of concretion, the teleological principle, the principle of good. But for that God does not have to be an actual entity. God is not an "actual entity" but a "principle of actuality."



1Tim. 28C. Tr. F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1937), p. 22.

2Aristotle, Metaphysics 1029a20-21, tr. W. D. Ross; my italics.

3Plotinus, Enneods V, 4,1: hou me logos mede episteme, to de kai epekeina legetai einai ousias.

4Augustine, Confessions, Book VII, Ch. 11.

5 PR, Category of Explanation XI, 31f.I 35.

6 Cf. Category of Explanation V PR 301 33f.

7See my paper "The Metaphysics ofthe Cood" in The Reciew of Metaphysics 35I1, especially Section VII.