What is Wrong with the Mirror Image? A Brief Reply to Simoni-Wastila on the Problem of Radical Parti

by Donald Wayne Viney

Donald Wayne Viney is Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Social Science Department at Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, KS 66762. He is the author of Charles Hartshorne and the Existence of God (SUNY Press, 1985).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 365-367, Vol. 29, Number 2, Fall- Winter, 2000. 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.


Henry Simoni-Wastila’s preferred way of expressing the problem of radical particularity is by thinking of God’s experience as a mirror image of the universe. Dr. Viney sees this as misrepresenting the relation of prehension, of “feeling of feeling.” See Is Divine Relativity Possible? Charles Hartshorne on God’s Sympathy with the World by Henry Simoni-Wastila at www.religion-online.org.

Henry Simoni-Wastila argues in a recent issue of this journal (28.1-2) that Charles Hartshorne’s dipolar theism is plagued by inconsistencies that Hartshorne himself obliquely recognizes but which he has never successfully resolved. According to Hartshorne, God has direct experiential acquaintance with the feelings of every actuality. Yet, as Simoni-Wastila points out, there is a "radical particularity" about creaturely experiences that seems to make a fully sympathetic divine grasp of them impossible. For example, he asks what "could the passing of time or death mean for an eternal being?" (99). Or again, how could God "totally empathize with me in my joy and at the same time with others in their pain?" (101).

Simoni-Wastila’s preferred way of expressing the problem of radical particularity is to think of God’s experience as a mirror image of the universe (98,99,100,101,107,110,112). He asks "[Does the divine] level of compassion imply that God also feels exactly as we feel so that there exists an identical moment of the contingent within Divinity? Is God a mirror to the world?" (109). The dilemma suggested in these questions is this: If God is not a mirror of the world then God is not omniscient; if God is a mirror of the world then the glass shatters into as many fragments as the world contains -- creaturely experiences are so radically particular that no individual, including a divine one, could have them all as his or her own.

Simoni-Wastila concedes in an endnote that the mirror metaphor is not Hartshorne’s, but he maintains that the image "helps identify the specific claims included within the theory of divine relativity" as well as to "aid in locating problems" (115). The question, however, is whether the metaphor does justice to Hartshorne’s theological reflections. It is possible to recognize that there are unresolved tensions in Hartshorne’s metaphysics but still object that Simoni-Wastila’s metaphor gives rise to or at least aggravates the problem of radical particularity, as a carnival mirror can exaggerate one’s bulges.

What is wrong with the mirror image? The basic problem is that it misrepresents the relation of prehension, of "feeling of feeling." Hartshorne characterizes the relation this way: "In ‘feeling of feeling’ the subject of the first feeling is not identical with the subject (or subjects) of the second feeling. A feels how B feels. A’s feeling of B’s feeling has its own "how" or "subjective form," which is not that of B’s feeling" (Insights 344). Hartshorne is clear that A’s feeling is not a mere replica or reflection of B’s feeling. There is the added element of A’s reaction upon the feeling of B, A’s subjective form. For this reason, Hartshorne can say, "I feel how the other felt, I do not feel as the other felt. I see no contradiction here" (Creativity 199). It often happens, for example, that a scent -- like that of honeysuckle -- will bring back a vivid memory from ones childhood. The memory is colored by the response of the adult (the subjective form). Thus, the adult recalls how the child felt, but the adult recalls as an adult. Hartshorne would say that the adult-self feels the feelings of the child-self without thereby becoming identical to the child. This sort of example is à propos, for Hartshorne insists on the primacy of memory in perception (cf. Insights 355-57) and he models God’s knowledge of the world on our own knowledge of our own bodies and our past selves (cf. Omnipotence 134-35).

It is clear how Hartshorne would answer Simoni-Wastila’s questions quoted above. The divine level of compassion does not imply that God feels exactly as we feel. God is not a mirror -- that is to say, an exact reflection -- to the world. These answers allow Hartshorne to claim, without contradiction, that God can fully sympathize with our anxiety in the face of death without feeling fear for Him-Herself (Creative 263). Moreover, Hartshorne does not believe that his understanding of God’s experiential knowledge compromises omniscience. Nor would such an admission make any logical sense. It would have as a consequence that God could be all-knowing only by experiencing the world as an ignorant person does. It is not necessary that there be an identical moment of contingent ignorance within Divinity in order for God to fully sympathize with the experiences of the ignorant.

A non-theological example may help to make this point more forcefully. Suppose a little Japanese girl is separated from her parents while the family is vacationing in Paris. The girl speaks no French. A gendarme, who speaks no Japanese, guesses her plight and escorts her to help to locate her parents. Simoni-Wastila’s metaphor entails that one condition for the gendarme approaching the ideal of commiserating with the child -- the "identical moment" of feeling as the child feels -- is the extent to which he "mirrors" her ignorance of French. Put differently, the policeman’s fluency in French is one of the factors that prevent him from fully sympathizing with the lost child. Surely this is mistaken. There are lots of reasons why the officer might fail to be sympathetic, but knowledge of French is not necessarily one of them. Indeed, appreciating the language barrier between them could make him even more sympathetic, a sympathy he could eloquently express en français.

By parity of reasoning with the example of the gendarme and the Japanese girl, it is not necessary for God to share all creaturely defects in order to sympathize fully with the creatures. The differences between God and the creatures, themselves fully appreciated by God, may even increase the divine sympathy. There is much more that needs to be said about Simoni-Wastila’s interpretations of Hartshorne and about the resources within the Hartshorean corpus for addressing the problem of radical particularity Perhaps I have said enough to raise serious doubts about the mirror metaphor and its use in identifying problems in Hartshorne’s theology


Works Cited

Hartshorne, Charles. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1970.

___Creativity in American Philosophy. Albany: State U of New York P, 1984.

___Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers. An Evaluation of Western Philosophy. Albany: State U of New York P, 1983.

___Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Albany: State U of New York P, 1984.

Simoni-Wastila, Henry "Is Divine Relativity Possible? Charles Hartshorne on God’s Sympathy with the World." Process Studies 28.1-2 (1999): 98-116.