Chapter 2: The Physical and the Spiritual

Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes
by Charles Hartshorne

Chapter 2: The Physical and the Spiritual

Materialism and Dualism in Greek and Medieval Thought

until modern times had two principal views about the place of mind in the world, by 'mind' meaning such processes as feeling, thinking, remembering, experiencing, and the like. According to the dominant view, there were two basically different aspects or kinds of reality, mind and matter, or souls and bodies. (From the Greek word 'psyche' for soul comes the word 'psychology'; I shall sometimes use 'psychical,' in contrast to 'physical,' for mind in contrast to mere matter.) The general belief was that much of nature consists of mere matter, the merely physical, entirely lacking in mindunless the divine mind, said to be everywhere, ubiquitous, somehow comes in. Thus rocks, water, or air. However, in the living parts of nature there is something additional called 'soul.' In plants this is what Aristotle called vegetable soul, lacking feeling or thought but having power to preside over the growth of the organism. With animals the soul is at least sentient, able to feel; with humans it is conscious, able to think and know. This scheme may be called 'dualism.' To be sure, the two aspects, soul and body, were not merely coordinate. Body was everywhere, soul was localized (apart from God). On the other hand, in the theistic systems, which most systems were, mind or soul in supreme form, God, was creator of, or at least supreme power over, everything. To that extent, psychology rather than physics was dominant, if we include in psychology the theory of the divine nature as supreme form of the psychical or spiritual. One did not talk of a "psychology of God," but this was implied,


if God knows, thinks, or has purposes, and if we can theorize about these as divine attributes. Actually Berdyaev in this century may possibly have been the first to use the expression quoted in the previous sentence.

The harsh duality of mere body, in portions of nature, and body -with-soul in other portions was somewhat softened by a rather vague use of 'form' as found in mind and in the nonliving things. Thus a physical shape is a form, and so is a particular quality of sensation. I shall not stop to consider this complication. It tends to distract attention from the basic contrast I wish to consider, that between the supposedly merely physical and the psychical. I also will not consider the Stoic cosmology. I hold with Peirce that it was the weakest of the Greek systems.

The other view known in the West in early times, sharply formulated in Greece, was 'materialism,' accordingg to which reality consisted fundamentally and universally of atoms, infinitely hard lumps of 'matter' invisibly small, with unchanging sizes and shapes, moving about in empty space. Even a mind was but a swarm of a special kind of atom. This, taken literally, was not dualism but a materialistic or physicalistic monism. The influence of mind on matter, or vice versa, was, for this view, merely the interactions of atoms of one kind with atoms of other kinds. This was a neater theory of nature than any dualism can be. However, to mention only one difficulty, it is far from clear how mere differences of size, shape, and ways of moving about could constitute the difference between thoughts or feelings and mere insentient lumps of stuff. Greek materialistic atomism had no theology properly so called, but only a theory of immortal gods, such as Apollo or Venus, made up of special kinds of atoms whose organization into individual super-animal bodies was mysteriously indestructible and so immortal. Greek materialism seems to have had little effect on medieval theology unless it influenced Tertullian's doctrine that every individual, even God, has a physical aspect, a body. This doctrine does not seem to have influenced subsequent classical theism.

Plato's World Soul: The Mind-Body Analogy for God

Plato, the first systematic philosophical theologian in the West, perhaps in the world, was also, in the view of many, one of the


wisest and best of such theologians. He regarded the universe as a divine body, animated by a divine soul called the World Soul. Superficially interpreted, Plato had two Gods, the purely eternal God, called the Demiurge, creator of all noneternal things including the World Soul itself, which was quasi- eternal and embraced in itself all other created things. A deeper interpretation, accepted by some scholars, holds that the purely eternal God is only an abstraction, an aspect of the World Soul ("Plato's real God"Levinson), which is the concrete deity, with the Demiurge that same Soul considered merely as having an eternal ideal which it is forever engaged in realizing by a process called "a moving image of eternity." Since self-creation or self-making is a basic idea in neoclassical theism, the idea that the Soul, utilizing the partly self-created creatures, creates its own forever unfinished actualization is a tempting way to read Plato. The Soul is aware not only of the eternal ideal but of the noncosmic animals, including us, and their lesser souls. Strict omniscience in the classical sense of surveying all events, no matter how future to us, is not, I think, an idea to which Plato is committed.

Alas, Plato's wisdom was only partly taken advantage of in later developments. If he perhaps influenced Tertullian in that writer's assertion of a divine body, later thinkers for two thousand years seem mostly not to have taken the hint. Nor did they appreciate Plato's discretion in viewing God's power as that of "persuading" the creatures, who do not completely enact into concrete actuality the divine ideal. Plato seems uncertain whether the incomplete control of things by God arises from "matter" or from the freedom ("self-motion") of created souls (the latter being the neoclassical view). In any case Plato was not burdened with the most egregious form of the problem of evil. The medieval theologians were less judicious. They made God a disembodied spirit with power to determine all becoming, or at least failed to make clear how they avoided this catastrophic conception.

It is fairly obvious that Plato's "two Gods" doctrine in some degree anticipated Whitehead's "primordial" and "consequent" natures of God and my principle of dual transcendence. The twentieth-century "process theology" is in some respects a return to Plato, after a very long detour.


To appreciate the idea of a divine body, we need to remind ourselves that any idea of God must in some way make use of analogies, or at least metaphors, in attempting to show how our idea of the radically superhuman can nevertheless be our human idea. We have no alternative to the use of comparisons with phenomena in our experience. These fall basically, for theological purposes, into two kinds or classes. There is the class of interpersonal relations. Thus God is thought of as related to a creature as a parent to its child or as a ruler to a subject or citizen of a country. Other variations are the teacher-pupil relation, or a writer and director of plays as related to the actors and actresses who perform the plays, or a musical composer-conductor as related to the musicians performing the music. In Judaea only the interpersonal analogy seems to have been actually used. In Greece Plato offered a very different one, the relation of a person as soul or conscious individual to the physical body of that individual. His suggestion was largely ignored, for instance by his disciple Aristotle, and by the scholastics generally. I think that in this they were sadly mistaken. I shall now explain why.

Interpersonal relations, whether those of parent to child or of ruler to ruled, have two serious limitations as bases for a divine-human analogy. As soon as a child is born, it begins a long process of separation from its mother, and it has always, even in the womb, been separated from its father. But the divine is that which is "nearer to us than breathing and closer than hand or foot." The intimate sustaining presence of deity is very feebly suggested by the parent-child relationship. The other limitation of interpersonal relations for theological purposes is that the radical inferiority of human beings in comparison with deity is only weakly or misleadingly modeled by that of a child in comparison with its parent. True, the child at birth, or as a mere infant, still more before birth (pace prolifers) is indeed far from equal, in intelligence or according to any standard measure of value, such as moral goodness, to a normal parent. But a healthy child talking with some fluency, showing kindness and sympathy with other children or its parents, is already beginning almost to rival adults in some virtues, values, or powers.


To furnish anything like an analogy to the vast contrast, and the impossibility of rivalry, between a human person and deity, one must follow the production of the child all the way down to the fertilized egg cell. A person or higher animal is at least a (very complex) multicellular creature, a metazoan. The egg cells is so only in potentiality. Actually it is no metazoan, and the facts that it was produced by metazoan animals and could be enabled, with a vast deal of help, to become such an animal, cannot with intellectual honesty be equated with simply being such an animal. As the Buddhists for two thousand years have seen, "A can turn into B" is one thing, "A is B" is another. (So long as pro-lifers persist in denying this distinction, than which none could be much plainer, my conclusion must be that they are trying to prove their case by verbal ambiguity.) Even a small child is enormously superior to a fertilized egg or any single cell whatever, for the child is many billions of such cells, a substantial portion of them organized into a nervous system, the most complex, subtly integrated natural system we know about, short of God as the integrated cosmos!

Inferior as the early pre-child stage of a human offspring is to its parent, it is still not by itself an adequate basis for trying to conceive our relation to deity. The fetus is radically separate from its male parent, and even in relation to its mother it is to a considerable extent on its own. In later stages it could conceivably be in an incubator and still grow into a child, physically regarded.

Now turn back to the mind-body analogy. Here indeed we have something like what we need. Each cell in our body is almost as nothing in comparison with ourselves as conscious individuals. Yet each may contribute something directly to our awareness, at least each cell in our brain's cortex may do so. The brain, or perhaps the central nervous system, is a sort of body within the body, the quintessential body. Between our experiences and our central nervous systems (or, if you will, our brains) there is no further mediating mechanism. How we feel, and how certain nerve cells act, depend somehow directly on each other. If we think or feel in wrong ways, bodily ills may quickly follow; if our cells internally function badly, we feel the harm as our own. What is pain, some of us wonder, if not our participation in cellular damage or discomfort? As David Hume rightly remarked, if anywhere in our world mind acts directly


on body (and vice versa) it is in nervous systems. God must act directly on each creature, not merely via other creatures. The mind-body, or mind-nerve-cell, analogy is all we have for this, apart from rare and controversial cases of table rapping and the like. How can theology justify neglecting this unique form of creature-creator analogy?

Male Bias in Theology

Theologians thought that the mind-body analogy implied a degrading view of deity. They forgot (when so thinking) that the father analogy can similarly be regarded as degrading. Does God have a male sex organ? Yet without that organ what is left of the idea that, as God causes the world, so the father causes the child. The grim joke of the matter is that our forefathers were under the utterly wrong conviction that the physical origin or "seed" which is the beginning of the offspring is solely from the father. Their excuse, but not by any means justification, was their ignorance of the female egg cell, without which no child comes to be. Each child comes from two seeds, one from father and the other from mother. Male chauvinism has, as one origin, the sheer mistake of denying the female egg cell! The theory (one finds it in Aristotle) was that the mother furnishes merely the soil in which the seed is planted. The father furnishes the "form," the mother the mere "matter." The father is thus the real cause of the child, not the mother. I say that this is only excused, not justified, by ignorance. For there was not a scintilla of evidence that the mother's ovaries and egg cells and their functions did not exist. Sheer ignorance was turned into a theory insulting to women. My sex cannot justify this procedure. At best it can ask to be excused.

I have even understated the case against the traditional view of the father as sole origin of the offspring. All experience shows that in form children are as likely to resemble mothers as fathers. Aristotle's theory is against the evidence, not merely unsupported by it. Why was Aristotle so sure of his father -favoring theory?

Had the male half of the species made somewhat more use than it seems to have of its vaunted capacity for rational objectivity, a


capacity it has sometimes accused women of lacking, it might have realized that at least a partial, and for all anyone can easily prove, fairly complete explanation of the fact that women have not been close rivals to men in most of the arts and sciences of civilization is not something women are born without and men with but the opposite, something men are born without and women with. This is the capacity and hence obligation to assume 99 percent of the not-light task of reproducing the species, plus the more arbitrary cultural imposition of tasks that the men and women are born equally capable of, such as preparing food and spinning, weaving, and sewing garments. When we find the sainted Thomas Aquinas saying, "What makes a woman a woman is her inability to produce semen," we see what the medieval score is in this matter of sexism.

A few menRalph Waldo Emerson, a hero of my youth, John Stuart Mill, and some male playwrights and novelistsstand out as exhibiting in the last century the disinterested rationality about the division of labor between the sexes that most men and all too many women have long lacked and, alas, some still have not yet acquired. How much more reasonable it would have been had Aquinas said that what makes a man a man is his physiological inability to bear and by his own bodily product nourish children!

In fairness it should be said that so long as the medical and hygienic knowledge and technical resources needed to lower the death rate, and therefore the desirable birth rate, were lacking, and women were forced to bear and care for, on the average, a large number of children and to spend most of their adult lives doing that, it was not in human weakness to see what a difference it would make to the lives of women when the death rate of the young was drastically lowered, and in addition women's longevity greatly extended. These and other quantitative changes resulting from applied science have qualitative implications. This is what the feminist movement of recent times is all about. Like other movements, it has its share of fanatics. But the changed basic conditions are realities and must be faced, well or ill. Women must still perform the primary part of the bearing of children; but they no longer need to see this task as their only important adult function. Indeed, it is not in the interest of men any longer that they should do so. The world does not suffer from a dearth of babies, and women


cannot give men the companionship they need if being mothers is alone on their mindsthat and being men's mistresses.

The mind-body analogy is not degrading if the father (or parental) analogy is not. And without either analogy there is no good basis for the idea of God as causative of creatures.

Creation from Nothing, Magic, and the Tyrant Conception of God

There is one phenomenon that has some resemblance to what seems to be meant by the classical (but not Greek) idea that God causes the world, not out of some already existent entity but ''out of nothing." This is the phenomenon or supposed phenomenon of magic. God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. The magician says, "Abracadabra," and the genie comes out of the bottle. To be sure, the magician saying "Abracadabra" is not disembodied spirit; his speech is done by his body. However, one can think of a magician or of God producing the result by merely thinking something. What it comes to is that for the creation-out- of-nothing idea there was no noncontroversial analogous phenomenon whatsoever. It was a human concept, or supposed concept, with no basis in well-attested human experience. Yet what fateful consequences sprang from this so oddly and insecurely based idea! The matter is too important for exclusive reliance to be placed on such a semantic quicksand as the supposed occurrence of purely magical causation.

The feminists' complaint that they have been asked to worship a male deity seems pertinent and well founded. "Men are the masters" easily fits the tyrant conception of God, whose function is to command while the creatures merely obey. But how if the command is, as Berdyaev suggested, "Be creative and foster creativity in others." Then God as all-creative, all-determining Cause, effect of, influenced by, nothing, is no longer an appropriate idea. Much more appropriate is the idea of a mother, influencing, but sympathetic to and hence influenced by, her child and delighting in its growing creativity and freedom.

Lincoln said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." Is Lincoln to be considered nobler than God? Would God


be a master, in the sense some have given this term, a cosmic sovereign? Tyrannical people may worship a tyrant God, but why should the rest of us do so?

Mind or Soul as Creative of Its Body

We are now ready to go more deeply into the Platonic analogy of soul and body. What is this relationship? Here Plato was somewhat baffled. All the world was then baffled by the problem of matter, which is still a wondrous conundrum. But physics and biology have thrown some light on it which the ancient world was without. We know, for instance, that the mind-body relation is not a one-to-one relation but a one-to-many relation. The body is a society of billions of cells, each a highly organized society of molecules and particles or wavicles. At a given moment each of us, as a conscious individual, is a single reality; but our body is no such single reality. Each white blood corpuscle is a tiny animal, each nerve cell is a single individual. Similarly, God's cosmic body is a society of individuals, not a single individual. The world as an integrated individual is not a 'world' as this term is normally and properly used, but 'God.' God, the World Soul, is the individual integrity of 'the world,' which otherwise is just the myriad creatures. As each of us is the supercellular individual of the cellular society called a human body, so God is the super-creaturely individual of the inclusive creaturely society. Simply outside of this super-society and super-individual, there is nothing.

Unlike the human bodily society, the divine bodily society contains not merely multitudes of radically subpersonal entities, such as cells or molecules, but also multitudes of multicellular plants and animals, including persons and those nearly personal creatures the apes and whales, and who knows what other forms of life on the astronomically probable billions of planets? Yet God is superior to all these in a manner of which the person-to- cell analogy gives only a faint idea. It is still, in some respects, a far better idea than that given by the merely interpersonal analogy of parent or ruler.

The "divine right of kings" never was really divine. The ancient Jews knew that, bless them. A king is only another human person,


more by accident than intrinsic worth put in a position of power. But you or I as conscious individual is not just another cell in our bodily society. We do indeed rule over those cells by a sort of divine right, since it is the laws of nature, which for a theist are divinely instituted, that give us power to control our bodies, that is, power over our cells. The power of any one cell over us is as nothing compared to the power each of us has over multitudes of cells. We are quasi-deities in our bodily system. No parent has a comparable power over a child. In the womb a mother has only a vague, limited influence on the development of the fetus, compared to her influence on her own brain cells.

It is obvious enough, nevertheless, that if we take Plato's analogy seriously, and also the parent-so-child analogy, then it is the mother, not the father, who furnishes by far the best symbol of deity. The fetus-mother relationship is decidedly more intimate than the fetus-father relationship. Here, too, the male bias got things upside down.

I add with some diffidence that one reason for my hesitation to accept any of the recent (or old) theories of the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth (some of the best of these theories being formulated by careful readers of my writings) is that any such theory at least strongly suggests the idea of deity as highly spiritualized masculinity. It is a constant temptation to male chauvinism, and a temptation in historical fact not altogether resolutely resisted, to put it mildly.

We come to the question: Does human experiencing in any sense create its brain cells? Here neurophysiologists disagree somewhat; but there are experts who hold that experiences exercise a creative influence upon the development of brain cells. Our every thought and emotion does things to those cells, which at birth are far from fully developed. Hence it is that an infant cannot even begin to learn to speak or to think (in the way made possible by language) until some months have passed. The human individual to some extent presides over the coming to be of its cells. A great Platonic poet, Edmund Spenser, expressed this idea, long before modern physiology:

For the body from the soul its form doth take
For soul is form and doth the body make.


The analogy between God-world and Soul-body can be carried yet further. Cells are like tiny animals; integrated individuals. Perhaps they are sentient individuals. There has long been a book (by the psychologist Binet, published in 1888) on The Psychology of Microorganisms. Why not a psychology of cells? True, apart from the white blood cells, our cells are not mobile. But it does not follow that they are inactive. They are constantly reorganizing their parts, repairing damage, andexcept the nerve cellsdividing and thus reproducing their kind. No evidence, so far as I can see, supports the idea that cells are totally without anything like feeling. The feelings would concern chiefly their internal relationships and the stimuli they receive from their neighbors (in the case of nerve cells, across synaptic connections). They would not, unless in some extremely primitive sense, think or remember, but only feel. But what could show that they do not do even that?

It is arguable that we have direct evidence that cells do feel. For what is pain, physical suffering? It is fact that we feel pain when cellular harm is done. In shaving one often feels a slight twinge of pain and yet can see no cut in the skin. But wait a second, or two or three, and blood appears. Occasionally not, but is it not reasonable to think then of imperceptibily slight skin damage? If it is fact that our suffering means cellular damage, what is the simplest explanation of our feeling of suffering? Surely the simplest explanation is that our suffering is our immediate sharing in, sympathy with, something like suffering in the cells, which can give us feeling because they themselves have a kind of feeling that, when vaguely intuited by us, in indistinct, blurred fashion (so that we cannot consciously make out the individual cells, one by one), becomes our human kind of physical pain. We know that our awareness of cells (still more of molecules or atoms) is blurred, since we cannot identify the microindividuals as such. The hypothesis that sensation is indistinct but direct sympathetic participation in cellular feeling is the simplest explanation of human (and other higher animal) sensation that has been offered. One finds it (in different words) in Bergson, Peirce, Whitehead, and a few others.

Theologically the view has great advantages. For it makes sense at last of the ancient idea of love as the principle of principles. An American psychiatrist (I believe it was Karl Menninger) has


quoted from an English author of the nineteenth century, "To sing the praises of love 'is to set a candle in the sun.'" The sun, I suggest, is the glow of that bond of sympathy which, as Plato hinted, holds the world together and relates the divine and the human. Our praise of this bond can indeed not appreciably add to its luster. But still, in the relative darkness of some theological discussions of love, the candle of our analysis may significantly increase the visibility.

Psychicalism and the Universality of Love

One more step. Even supposing that cells feel, we have the molecules, atoms, and still simpler constituents of nature to consider. Either the explanation in terms of sympathy, feeling of feeling, the root idea of love, goes to the bottom of things or it does not. If it does, then we have a coherent system of concepts applying theologically, psychologically, biologically, and physically. Otherwise we have a dualism of two ultimately different ways in which mind is related to what it experiences or knows, or in which individuals are held together to constitute a universe. This is an intellectual alternative; on one side a really thoroughgoing conceptual integration, on the other, a lack of such integration. Physicists, confronted by a dilemma of this sort, tend to favor, at least provisionally, the integral view. They tend to dislike dualisms. I recall a physicist expressing disgust for the idea that nature consists first of the merely physical, devoid utterly of life, and then of the physical plus an absolutely new principle of life. More and more, physicists dare to say that all nature is in some sense life-like, that there is no absolutely new principle of life that comes in at some point in cosmic evolution.

If this drive for conceptual integration proves irresistible, as I suspect it may, then we shall see either a universal materialism (or physicalism) or a universal psychicalism. The negative concept of mindless, insentient stuff or process (apart from special and exceptional cases) will be accepted as the universal principle of reality; or mind in a most generalized sense will be accepted as that principle. I suggest that theology must favor the second solution. Then love


will relate God not only to human beings but to all creatures, and will apply to the soul-to-bodily-cells relationship and, in its ultimate generality, to all relationships of creature to creature, creature to Creator, Creator to creature. Of the two escapes from dualism, materialism and psychicalism, the latter has clear advantages. It is the more intelligible monism.

To the six theological mistakes described in Chapter 1 we can now add a seventh: theology should not accept the idea of mere, insentient, lifeless, wholly unfree matter. Materialism and an absolute mind-matter dualism are implicitly atheistic doctrines.