Talk about “God” makes numerous appearances in Whitehead’s metaphysical magnum opus, Process and Reality (PR hereafter), which is a source of histrionic consternation for some and febrile enthusiasm for others. I’ll not name names, but anyone familiar with the secondary literature will likely have some notion of persons fitting each description. I think it is a fair assessment to say that, within the United States, the Whitehead scholarly community is dominated by the theologians. (Very cursory and unscientific impressions of the European and Asian communities suggests the situation is quite otherwise in those regions.) This unbalanced view of things tends, I suspect, to narrow the range of application of process thought, and unduly limit its potential and legitimate influence. Also, being a process philosopher, it just kind of pisses me off. It’s like going to your favorite bar or club, and even though there are over 800 songs in the jukebox, only 12 of them are ever allowed to be played. Never mind that they might be 12 really good songs. If the only album I was ever allowed to listen to – ever again – was Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, I’d give up listening to music in pretty short order; after a while, you just want to hear something else.
Please make no mistake here: I am in no way disdaining either theology or, specifically, process theology. But philosophy is different from theology, and even when philosophers use “The G Word” they are using it differently from theologians. And Whitehead’s usage was strictly philosophical in nature. So the theological developments of Whitehead’s thoughts on the subject are just that: developments. And there is absolutely no reason why such developments should be eschewed. But neither should those developments be taken for that primary matter, either. I am not going to revisit the discussion of the G-word here, that I covered in the post hyperlinked above. But there are some specific issues relating to contemporary Whitehead scholarship in America that might, in their discussion, suggest ways in which process philosophy is relevant to a broader audience.
To begin with, while Whitehead uses the word “God” with some frequency in PR, there is almost nothing in that book that could support a religious or theological sense of the term. For Whitehead, “God” is the term that designates the rational order of the universe coupled with the font of creativity and origination. There is nothing even remotely personal about it in this usage. It is only on the basis of how people choose to interpret a few sentences in the last section of the last (and quite short) chapter of the entire book, that Whitehead’s work gets stretched into a theological thesis. And even here, there is scarcely any foundation for viewing this “God” as a person. Some of this extravagance comes from Whitehead’s previous usages of words like “experience” and “feeling” to characterize the most primitive forms of relatedness possible (more on Whitehead’s choice of terms in a moment). An electron interacting with a magnetic field “feels” that field; but there is nothing cognitive or conscious in that “feeling.” It simply indicates how the electron is embedded in the universe as an “electronic occasion.” Similar care needs to be exercised with Whitehead’s use of the word “God,” especially if one’s intention is to stay true to Whitehead’s ideas, rather than engaging in novel developments. There is nothing wrong (again!) with such novelty; one just needs to be clear about what it is one is doing.
Many people have been turned off by Whitehead’s use of the word “God.” Various scholars have argued that the entire concept can be eliminated from his metaphysics (along with his “eternal objects”) without any loss or problem. I have been personally asked why Whitehead simply didn’t use another word to cover the above mentioned issues. The Greek word “arché” (“αρχή”) could easily cover the ideas of rational order and creative advance. But here’s the thing: rumors to the contrary notwithstanding (and they are plentiful), Whitehead never used neologisms, and never used non-English words to convey his thoughts. So what other word than “God” was he supposed to use in these various metaphysical contexts?
(“Eternal objects” are essential as well to his system: this is the term Whitehead uses for pure relational structures of possibility and potentiality. They are “eternal” in the sense that temporal considerations do not enter into their consideration. You cannot do away with rational structure and possibility without doing away the the pretense of thought, never mind Whitehead’s philosophy.)
The ideas are difficult, and the terminology often obscure, but philosophy isn’t supposed to be easy. However, with the dominating influence of process theology in this country, getting people past their “atheist owies” around the G-word becomes much more difficult. And lets make no mistake here, people like Richard Dawkins and others have not improved matters by their self-righteous presumption to know all there is to know about religion (while knowing nothing at all about theology, much less philosophy) because they once watched five minutes of Jerry Falwell on the television. But understanding the abuses people have endured at the hands of religion is a responsibility as well. So making Whitehead’s philosophical concept of God accessible to everyone is a responsibility that all Whitehead scholars share – perhaps, especially, the process theologians who’ve only bothered to advance discussion of the theological ideas they have freely constructed on Whitehead’s philosophical concepts. (“Idea” stands to “concept” as “genera” to “species.” Whitehead’s discussion was much more specific than those wide-ranging generalizations that process theologians have since developed.)
So how about some of those specifically philosophical meanings?
Let’s go back to that biggie, the stuff covered by the dreaded G-word. People have occasionally tried to argue against the reality of the rational structure of the universe. They are pretty funny, twisting themselves into pretzels like that, since in order to argue for anything, one must first presuppose that rational structure. So the folks who try to make such an argument (various flavors of existentialists (not all) and certain religious fideists, for example) must take for granted that which they claim cannot possibly exist. Not the ideal strategy for making your case. That said, the hyperventilating hysterics attendant upon the philosophical usage of the G-word will continue to make it a problem that constantly needs to be re-explained.
Perhaps the most important thing that process philosophy brings to the party is a more coherent, more defensible theory of Nature. I capitalize the word deliberately, because Nature in the process sense includes robust theories of possibility and time, something that current science and naturalism thoroughly lack. Particularly at the cosmology end of physics, time is treated essentially (though arguably not identically) as a spatial dimension, in which all of time is already there. Brian Greene characterizes time as a “frozen river” in various writings. This is what is known as a Parmenidean block universe. In process philosophy, time is genuinely real and, for Whitehead, more basic than space. Temporality itself is (again, for Whitehead) not a primitive; time is a natural fact, not a metaphysical given. (Details can be found HERE.) But that natural fact is a genuinely evolving one, not a static reality that only the limits of our observational capacities prevents us from “seeing” in its “totality.”
On ethical matters, it is a little trickier to tease out a purely Whiteheadian response (though Hall has taken notable steps in this direction). Still, a few points are worth highlighting within a process philosophical perspective. First, ideals can be “real” (as in, genuine relational possibilities), without being fixed, existent “things.” Second, developing from the first, ideals can emerge as possibilities, change, and make different actualities concretely present. Thus, it arguably makes no sense to talk about a “right to privacy” or a “right to healthcare” prior to the 19th C., since the possibilities for invading the first or providing the second, in any large scale or meaningful form, simply did not exist. This last will be a topic for a later post.