An Introduction to the Process Understanding of Science, Society and the Self
by Leslie A. Muray



As you feel the book you are reading in your hand, the pen with which you are highlighting, the ground under your feet, they all seem to be solid objects. This common sense interpretation, which I shall call the "substantialist" view of reality, has had fateful consequences in our inherited Western intellectual tradition.

In the substantialist view, reality is constituted by isolated substances. The "substance" or "essence" of a thing is what makes it what it is; and in spite of all changes in life, the underlying substance or essence that makes something what it is remains unchanged.

For the ancient Greek philosophers, if one may oversimplify, the world was governed and ordered by a cosmic principle of reason. Since there was a "seed" of this cosmic principle of reason in each and every human being, humans, through the exercise of reason, could understand the nature of reality and seek "the good life." This was an objectivist understanding; the cosmic principle of reason, the logos, was writ large in the universe, and it was up to human beings, through the exercise of their rational capacities, to discover it.

The Greek’s view was fundamentally related to their interpretation of perfection. Existence is characterized by transience and change. As I look at the mirror each morning, I see a few more hairs missing, a few more that have turned grey. As I step on the weight scale, I see evidence of losing the ongoing "battle of the bulge." To the Greeks, the transcience and change that characterize existence were marks of imperfection. That which was perfect had to be eternal, immutable, unchanging, a static view of what is really real.

In the philosophy of Plato, what is really real is the perfect realm of Eternal Ideas and Forms; the things of this world are real only to the extent that they participate and point to the Eternal Forms and Ideas. Thus, the good life is the contemplation of that which is Eternal since life in this world is merely the shadow side of reality. This dimension of Hellenism is an important source of much of our traditional dualisms, such as soul-body and the denigration of worldliness, which in part was adopted by the Christian tradition.

As far as political philosophy was concerned, justice for the Greeks was the proper, harmonious functioning of all humans. If there was an underlying substance or essence that made a thing or person what it was, he/she/it had an innate function proper to oneself. Needless to say, this was once again a static view. Thus, while all humans were to strive for fulfillment, a vital part of human fulfillment was the recognition of limits and one’s proper place in the larger whole of the harmonious scheme of things.

By the period of Enlightenment, the Western tradition took a subjectivist turn. With the philosophy of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the nature of reality was no longer seen as writ large over the universe only to be discovered by the exercise of reason but rather was what the human mind perceived, interpreted, made it to be ("Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.") Moreover, as far as existence in the world was concerned, only the human mind was real; so-called physical nature, including the human body, were seen in mechanistic terms or as appendages, extensions of the mind.

Cartesian dualism was wedded to the mechanism of Newtonian science. Newton saw the world as a marvelous, inert machine, made up of isolated substances that followed the model of a clock. God was the cosmic clockmaker who set the wonderful machine in motion, starting and following the laws of nature, only to retire in the celestial Sun City and return whenever the clock needed repair. On the one hand, God was a distant, retired deity for whom there was really no need; on the other hand, when God needed to repair the clock, God would intervene supernaturally, "from the outside," external to the ways of the universe.

Needless to say, this vision of reality has had fateful consequences for our world. There is an apocryphal story told about some of the followers of Rene Descartes, who, on the banks of the Seine River in Paris, would nail dogs to wooden boards, cut them open, and watch them bark and writhe. They would exclaim:

Isn’t this wonderful? What marvelous machines! You do something to them, and predictably they start barking and writhing, almost on cue!

If the human mind is the sole reality, and the so-called physical world unreal, an inert, lifeless machine, it is easy to see how the barking and writhing would not be seen as manifestations and responses to pain.

This treatment of dogs on the part of Descartes’ followers is paradigmatic of our rape of the non-human natural world. If the nonhuman natural world is an inert, lifeless machine, it is of instrumental value only, of value because of its use (and abuse) by human beings. This kind of attitude has also served to justify the domination of those who have traditionally been seen as close to the non-human natural world--women and indigenous people, such as native Americans, Blacks, etc. If the nonhuman natural world is of instrumental value only, those seen as closest to it are also of instrumental value only, inferior, and in need of domination.

Images are more evocative and efficacious than concepts; they touch deeper recesses in our psyches. The images of isolated substances, the supremacy of mind over lifeless matter, of a God supremely unaffected by the vicissitudes of the world yet supremely "in charge, capable of repairing any cosmic malfunction, are stereotypical male images. If the fundamental human religious motivation is the desire to be in harmony with ultimate reality, with whatever is deemed divine, and if being in harmony with the divine means to imitate it, the divine that is imitated is a Cosmic Macho Male. While I would be hard put to prove a direct causal connection, it is reasonable to surmise that the above mentioned images have been formative in the justification of the rape of the non-human natural world, the dynamic of oppression and domination, militarism, and nuclearism.

The notion that the world is made up of isolated substances has had consequences for our political life. The Newtonian worldview was foundational for the "social contract theory" of John Locke. Self-sufficient human beings, reasonable and capable of acting in their own interests, living in a "state of nature," band together to form a government to protect their property and interests. The relationship between the government and the governed is one of mutual contractual obligation; the government will protect the life and property of the governed; the governed will obey, as long as the majority consents; the government rules only with the consent of the governed. Whatever the intent of John Locke’s vision, the ideal of isolated, self-sufficient individuals running their own lives, alongside the advent of a technological society, has contributed to a narcissistic individualism that leaves little room for any notion of the common good or a shared vision of public life.

If reality is constituted by isolated substances, reality is fragmented. Symptomatic and symbolic of this fragmentation is the modern university. I am currently Chaplain to the Episcopal Ministry at Michigan State University, a huge, sprawling university with a student body of over 41,000, fairly typical among today’s North American universities. The way the university is constructed is indicative of its fragmentation: many first year students live in one part of the campus, virtually devoid of contact with the rest of the student population; some the colleges within the university have their own dormitories, which also contain classrooms and faculty offices; many of the dormitories house only students with certain majors and contain the classrooms and faculty offices of those disciplines. Furthermore, the various disciplines have virtually no contact with each other. Even within departments, sub-fields are so specialized that there is virtually no dialogue or overlapping interest with one’s colleagues in the same general field. When human and non-human organisms are studied, it is usually in isolation from the environments in which they live and with which they interact. It would be more accurate to call the modern university "the multiversity."


There are no areas of life unaffected by the substantialist view, with adverse effects. However, we might very well ask whether this is an accurate and adequate understanding of reality.

To get a handle on the issues involved, I want to return to my examples of the book in your hand, the pen used for highlighting, and the floor under your feet. Although they seem like solid objects, are they really? Through the findings of modern science, we know that they are not. What appear to us to be solid objects are really made up of molecules and atoms extended in space and time. The atoms and molecules are in turn constituted by tiny ‘energy events," invisible even under the most powerful microscope. What appear to be solid objects are made up of myriads of these energy events, throbbing, dynamic, interrelated and interacting, extended in space and time, with varying degrees of complexity of organization. Here we have the foundational elements of process thought, which I prefer to call the process-relational vision. One of the basic tenets of process-relational thought is that reality is fundamentally social or relational. Everything is dynamically interrelated to and with everything else in the universe. This is the doctrine of universal relativity, which maintains that anything that is is what it is on account of its relationships. Lest this be taken in a mechanistic, totally deterministic fashion, I need to point out that another cardinal tenet of process-relational thought is creative freedom.

We might get a handle on all of this by analyzing our experience of time. It needs to be stated first that human beings are highly complex psycho-physical organisms with literally thousands of energy events interacting with each other and with and under the dominance of an "organizing center of experience" (the brain), also present in animals with central nervous systems. As I analyze the human experience of time, the past flows into the present, not only our own but the past of the whole universe. This sounds like a mind-boggling assertion. However, if the theory of relativity has any validity, the birth of a star light years away has an effect on my present moment of becoming.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the seminal figure in process thought, coined the words "to prehend" or "prehension," meaning to take into account, to appropriate, or, to use a good psychological term, to internalize. Thus, any momentary experience in its becoming cannot help but prehend data from the past. I shall call this the receptive side of a momentary experience.

Any momentary experience is internally related to its past, that is to say the past is constitutive of the present moment of becoming. However, the reverse is not true; I cannot influence the past. I cannot help but prehend the past, but its subjective immediacy is gone. To be sure, I "feel" the "feelings" of the past, but without the immediacy it had then and with increasing vagueness. The past cannot prehend the present and the future.

Moreover, contemporaries cannot prehend each other. Put differently, I cannot in my present moment of experience appropriate your present. Let me illustrate.

Being in my eighth year of teaching on the college/university level, I take pride in being responsive to my students, being able to read and interpret their non-verbal communications and responding appropriately. As I am presenting some rather difficult material on process thought, I may notice the eyes of some students wandering, a few yawns, signs that they may be tired, in need of a break, or bored. I realize that I need to shift gears quickly and do my presentation in a different, more interesting way that communicates effectively. Even though my interpretations of their non-verbal signals appear simultaneous with their expressions and behavior, they are not. While it may be only a fraction of a second, my students’ wandering eyes and yawns are already in the past by the time I have perceived them. Thus, a momentary experience has its own moment of privacy, in a manner of speaking, then perishes ("perpetual perishing," Whitehead calls it). However, there is no absolute privacy. Once any momentary experience perishes and loses its subjective immediacy, it becomes an object, a datum to be prehended by other momentary experiences of becoming, in fact for all such momentary experiences in the universe. This is an illustration of process thought’s rejection of all dualism, here the traditional Western subject-object dualism.

Not only is there a receptive side to all experience, there is an active side as well. When describing the receptive aspect of experience, I was delineating the doctrine of universal relativity. The active dimension of experience is descriptive of the doctrine of universal creativity.

To understand this idea, we might look at momentary experience and the notion of prehension once again. In my present moment of becoming, I cannot help but prehend the past; it shapes who I am (becoming) in the present. But I am free as to how I prehend how I appropriate the past. A traumatic experience I may have had thirty years ago I interpret differently than I did ten years ago. The joy or surprise I experienced yesterday may have lost its immediacy, but I am appropriating the energy of that moment as I write these lines.

Not only am I free as to how I prehend the past, in my present moment of becoming I am also responding to the possibilities of the future. In process thought, the future is indeterminate and reality is characterized by the movement of possibility into actuality. What was a possibility one moment becomes actual through the exercise of creative freedom, the free decision of a momentary experience as to how it constitutes itself. As I seek to actualize potentialities in my present moment, I seek fulfillment, but not in a narcissistic sense since in a universe where everything is interrelated and interdependent, my fulfillment cannot be separated from the fulfillment of everyone and everything else.

Fulfillment entails the notion that all creatures, all actualities, drive towards the experience of beauty, richness of experience. Beauty involves two components, harmony as well as intensity. In order for there to be intensity, a pattern of contrast needs to be present. For example, the beauty of a painting manifests harmony and, through contrast, intensity. In human experience, intensity often occurs through the contrast of what is with what might be.

However, it is possible to have too much harmony and too much intensity. Whitehead commented that organisms that experience too much harmony, merely repeat the past without seeking novelty, ultimately die of fatigue. How often we hear people today complain of being bored, particularly in reference to their work!

Too much intensity can also be destructive, lessening the possibility of harmony. Since any momentary experience is a complex creative unification of data from the past and a grasping for the actualization of possibilities, there is always some degree of harmony. However, if we look at some forms of human experience, contrast and the intensity it evokes can be quite overwhelming, making life border on the chaotic. I worked as a prison chaplain for three years. Work was always exciting, unpredictable, so intense that the intensity could be addictive. However, the constantly competing stimuli, the constant atmosphere of crisis made keeping a daily schedule and routine nearly impossible. During one six month period, the staff turnover rate was over 50%.

Beauty, we might say, is a balance between harmony and intensity. In process thought, their opposite, disharmony and the trivialization of experience, are manifestations of evil. It needs to be noted that most actualities, most organisms do not have a great capacity for novelty and consequently, for the most part, repeat the past. This is to a large extent true of human experience. Nevertheless, it is a fundamental tenet of process thought that anything actual at all has some capacity for novelty, at no matter how rudimentary, even negligible, a level. The greater the degree of complexity, such as in animals with central nervous systems, the greater the capacity for novelty.

It needs to be noted that in the inherited Western tradition, creativity has been seen as an attribute of creatures with mentality, that is to say of human beings only. In process thought, anything actual at all is an instance of creativity, from the tiniest energy event to the most complex creatures we are aware of, human beings. If this is the case and if anything actual at all has an active side, some degree of mentality is present in no matter how rudimentary, even negligible, a form.

Now, let us return to the previous discussion about possibilities or potentialities. Our experience of the world is fundamentally that of order rather than chaos, otherwise we would not even be able to talk of a world or universe in an intelligible fashion. To be sure, this order is dynamic, flexible, at times seemingly chaotic. Yet the possibilities that are real for our lives are not just "out there," existing in a vacuum, but are relevant to who we have been and who we are becoming.

Let me illustrate. As an inveterate Boston Celtic fan, idolatrous in my fanatic devotion, I watched the first game of the Championship Series against the Lakers last night, overjoyed that my team had made it this far, saddened by their expected loss. As I was watching the game, I was prehending the past, remembering the first time I watched a Celtic-Laker championship twenty-five years ago as a youth of thirteen. I prehended my veneration of the legendary Celtic team of Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey. Watching the battered team of today, I certainly felt they could use me on the court.

However, at five feet six inches tall, having lost a step or two at age thirty-eight and after twenty years of smoking, that is not a real possibility for me. What is a real or relevant possibility is to write this book, be a good chaplain, and have some success at basketball in my backyard.

It is at this point that the doctrine of God becomes important for process thinkers, although just how vital this idea is to the system is a matter of considerable dispute. If our experience of the world is fundamentally that of order rather than chaos, it is reasonable to maintain that there is an orderer. That orderer is God.

Process thinkers believe that God is not an exception to metaphysical categories but their chief exemplification. Thus, as with anything else, God has an active and a receptive side. On the active side, God envisages, foresees all possibilities, and orders those possibilities in graded relevance to the becoming of actualities. Process thinkers have rebelled against images of God that depict the divine as a despotic tyrant or as a cosmic puppeteer pulling the strings on the creaturely puppets. God is seen as always acting persuasively, not coercively, "luring" the creatures to their fulfillment with an ideal possibility offered in each moment. However, all actualities are free as to how they respond to God’s lure, whether they actualize it, to whatever degree, reject it, or fall somewhere between those extremes. God is always luring, beckoning the creatures to become ‘more’ than what they have been, to greater realizations of value and beauty in interdependence with each other. Needless to say, as we have seen previously, the capacity for novelty is minimal, even negligible, in many actualities, thus, presumably, their responses are more in accord with the divine call than those of more complex creatures; the greater the degree of complexity, the greater the capacity to misuse freedom and refuse or diverge from God’s call.

Unlike much of the inherited tradition where God was conceived as either the retired, uninvolved clockmaker, or as so perfect, eternal, unchanging that the world had no impact on Godself, the process God has a receptive side. Just as the past of the whole universe flows into the becoming of any actuality, the whole universe flows into God. Not only do all actualities prehend the lure of God, God prehends all actualities. All experience is experienced by the divine experience. But more than that, all experience is experienced eminently and unlike in creaturely experience, characterized by the perpetual perishing of the subjective immediacy of momentary experience, all experience is preserved everlastingly, with no loss of immediacy. All experience becomes a part of the divine memory.

Needless to say, the notion that God experiences creaturely experience implies that, at least in one dimension of the divine, God changes -- a stark contrast to the Hellenistic understanding of perfection as that which is eternal, immutable, unchanging. Following the lead of Charles Hartshorne, another seminal figure, process thinkers argue for a redefinition of perfection. Adopting Anselm’s dictum that God is "that which none greater can be conceived," they maintain, first of all, that while the greatest power, God is not the only power; anything actual at all has some degree of power. Secondly, they assert that the notion of perfection refers to a being that is unsurpassable. However, they argue, that does not preclude the idea that this being cannot surpass itself. As God experiences more and more of creaturely experiences, future states of God’s being (becoming) surpass previous states in richness of experience.

Another way to make sense of this is in reference to the experience of love. If God is a God of love, one way of making this assertion intelligible is by way of analogy to human love. When we love someone, we allow that person to make a difference in our lives; that person’s life flows into ours and vice versa; we respond to the beloved’s needs as we experience with sensitivity and receptivity her/his experiences. If God is love, and that love is perfect, then, rather than detracting from the divine perfection, the changing aspect of the divine nature is the supreme instance of sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs of all creatures. In Whitehead’s words, "God is the great companion -- the fellow sufferer who understands." We might summarize the process understanding of God’s perfection as the supreme instance of creativity and relatedness.

Two of the traditional attributes of God, omnipotence and omniscience, are reinterpreted in process thought. We have already seen that while God is the greatest power, "that which none greater can be conceived," God is not the only power, and that divine power always acts persuasively. As far as God’s perfect knowledge, omniscience, is concerned, God knows possibility as possibility and actuality as actuality. That is to say, God foresees all possibilities that can occur, but he/she cannot foresee the details of what will actually happen. God can foresee the possibility that tonight I shall continue writing this book or prepare for the class I am teaching tomorrow or watch "Magnum, P.I.," but she/he cannot foresee which of these alternatives I shall choose. If God foresees the actual details of the future, events in nature-history are nothing but the unfolding of a previously written scroll negating creaturely freedom. The details of the future are chosen by actualities as they prehend the past and are lured into the future through the possibilities with which God beckons.

God’s perfect knowledge has another dimension, that of knowing actuality as actuality. In other words, God knows all actualities by experiencing them eminently, and preserving them everlastingly with no loss of immediacy. However, there is no divine foreknowledge of actuality; the perfect knowledge of actuality is as actuality, once an event has occurred.

The redefinition of omnipotence and omniscience provide the groundwork for process thought’s unique treatment of theodicy, the question of how the concept of an all powerful yet loving God can be reconciled with the existence of evil in the world. In a limited sense, in foreseeing all possibilities, including the possibility of evil, God is responsible for evil. But being omnibeneficent, all good, God does not seek to bring about evil but the good of each creature. Thus, God is not indictable for evil. God cannot do other than what is God doing, experiencing all creaturely experience with supreme sensitivity and responding accordingly with the new aims offered for the fulfillment of all creatures. In a world where any actuality has some degree of freedom, pursues its own actualization of beauty and value, creatures can misuse their freedom, work at crosspurposes, and choose to actualize lesser, less inclusive values.


It is a professional hazard for a theologian to write extensively about the doctrine of God. Indeed, most of process thought has focused on its theological implications, and its most vital contributions have concerned the idea of God. That is not, however, the purpose of this book. The previous exposition was designed to describe the basic tenets of process thought and the comprehensiveness of its vision.

It goes without saying that the process-relational vision of reality is fundamentally different from the substantialist view. The fundamental character of reality, rather than being made up of isolated substances, is relational and creative; relationality is the matrix of creativity. Instead of a mechanistic view of the universe, the process-relational understanding is holistic and ecological, seeing the world as dynamic, creative, throbbing, pulsating with energy, interrelated and interdependent. Unlike advocates of the substantialist view, process thinkers see any experience as not only of instrumental value but of intrinsic value, of value in and of itself, as well. Thus, while anything actual is of instrumental value, both for its own future and those of others, as data to be prehended, nonetheless it is of intrinsic value as well. Needless to say, the relational vision provides a radically different understanding of the value of the non-human natural world from the substantialist view.

Process thought is usually defined in one of three ways: (1) as any view of reality that is dynamic and relational and based on the findings of modern science, (2) identified with "the Chicago School," the University of Chicago Divinity School, both in its earlier phase of applying evolutionary theory to historical research, seeing religion as a dynamic movement that reconstitutes itself in response to felt needs, as well as its later philosophical phase, and (3) synonymous with the philosophy of Whitehead and Hartshorne. My own preference is for number one simply because there are a number of thinkers whose ideas, though not directly influenced by the Chicago School or Whitehead and Hartshorne, yet bear such a striking family resemblance that they merit classification in the process school. However, in this work I shall be drawing on the mode exemplified by Whitehead and Hartshorne and their followers.

In describing abstract, speculative thought, Whitehead drew on the analogy of the flight of an airplane. Just as a plane starts from the ground, flies in the air, and lands on the ground, abstract thought begins with experience, reflects on it, and illuminates our experience. I hope this book is like the analogy of the plane, starting with, reflecting upon, and illuminating our common experience in today’s world.

We have seen some of the fateful consequences of the substantialist view in such areas as attitudes towards the non-human natural world, politics, education. It is to the drawing out of these implications in the understanding of the self, society, politics, psychology, the natural sciences, and education that the rest of this book is dedicated.


For Further Reading

While most of the literature in process thought is theological, some contain excellent expositions of the major tenets of the relational vision. See for example:

Cobb, John B., Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965).

Cobb, John B., Jr., and Griffin, David Ray, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976).

Gray, James R., Modern Process Thought: A Brief Ideological History (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982).

Haught, John F., The Cosmic Adventure: Science. Religion and the Quest for Purpose (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).

Mellert, Robert B., What is Process Theology? (New York: Paulist Press, 1975).

Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt, God--Christ--Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982).

The works of W. Norman Pittenger also provide an excellent and very readable introduction to process thought.

For more advanced readers, several anthologies may be useful:

Brown, Delwin, James, Ralph E., and Reeves, Gene, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971).

Cargas, Harry James, and Lee, Bernard, eds., Religious Experience and Process Theology: The Pastoral Implications of a Major Modern Movement (New York: Paulist Press, 1976).

Cousins, Ewert H., ed., Process Theology: Basic Writings (New York: Newman Press, 1971).

Sibley, Jack R., and Gunter, Peter A.Y., eds., Process Philosophy: Basic Writings (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1978).

Advanced readers are urged to read the works of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Whitehead’s seminal work is Process and Reality. For an excellent commentary with a useful glossary for the mastery of the difficult Whiteheadian vocabulary, see Sherburne, Donald W., ed. A Key to Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality,’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966). Sherburne and Cobb are the major figures in the "Whitehead without God" debate.

For a very helpful and insightful history and bibliography, see Lucas, George R., The Genesis of Modern Process Thought: A Historical Outline with Bibliography (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. and The American Theological Library Association, 1983).