Science, Art, Religion: The Role of Speculative Philosophy in the Adventure of Rationality

I’ve just completed Isabelle Stengers‘ formidable but rewarding text, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The final chapters concern the viability of Whitehead’s theology, specifically his articulation of the relationship between God and the World. Stengers’ asks the reader to go slowly while considering why a divine function became necessary in the course of Whitehead’s speculative adventure from The Concept of Nature, through Science and the Modern World, and on to Process and Reality. God is the keystone of Whitehead’s entire philosophical edifice; but even so, Stengers’ writes, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (p. 424). Stengers goes to great lengths to assure atheists who may otherwise lose interest or become dismissive that Whitehead was “perfectly explicit about the barbarous brutality of traditional religious statements, and particularly outspoken on the subject of the despotic role attributed to the monotheistic God” (p. 479). For Whitehead, religion has primarily to do with individual feeling, while philosophy is a devotion to the correction of our initial excess of subjectivity. His philosophy is “an attempt to save God himself from the role assigned to him by the theological visions that make him the respondent to the [overly subjective] religious vision” (ibid.).

“The concept of God,” write Whitehead,

“is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the contrary 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 repulsion” (Process and Reality, p. 207).

The religious feelings humanity has regarding God cannot, therefore, be evaluated outside of the demands of rational thought. Religious modes of knowing are to be held accountable to the same tests of experiential adequacy and conceptual coherence that are scientific and aesthetic modes. Whitehead insists that God’s function in the world be secularized (ibid.). This is perhaps philosophy’s most urgent task in our contemporary world: it must correct our initial excess of subjective feeling as regards the concept of God. When we at first entertain the Great Fact of the Universe, our tendency, due to the initially subjective excess of our individual perspectives, is to assert that this Universe, despite its apparent deafness to our complaints, must in the end conform with our hopes and aspirations. We expect and demand that there be some Advocate for us in the world who might correct the wrongs that have unjustly befallen us or those we love. Some psychologists have argued that the concept of God emerges naturally as the human psyche begins to consider the grave mystery of death. This is irrelevant from Whitehead’s perspective, since for him God is not first of all an emotional or psychological consolation, but rather a conceptual construct necessary for the coherence of his cosmological scheme (to employ the jargon of his system, God’s envisagement of the eternal objects is required as an explanation for their meaningful participation in the becoming of actual occasions).

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

Once Whitehead’s God has been constructed, however, it can no longer remain an abstract metaphysical technicality, since Whitehead’s real aim is not to build conceptual castles in the clouds, but to transform our experience of the actual world, to make life more interesting, more beautiful, more virtuous. The concept of God created by Whitehead’s imaginative leap must be tested on the ground of experience. As William James might ask, what does it do?, what is its cash value? Whether or not it passes the tests required of our adventure of rationality to succeed in becoming “true” for our civilization at large will only be known by future generations.

One of these tests concerns God’s relationship to Nature as it is studied by scientists. Can scientific knowledge and the divine element in the world co-exist? Many scientific materialists, including the biologist and renowned atheist PZ Myers (to whom this post is something of a reply), think not. Myers can conceive of no evidence that might persuade him of the existence of God. In the context of speculative philosophy, construing the problem of the existence of God in terms of whether or not there is “evidence” entirely misses the point, since the metaphysician is concerned with the construction of the very criteria that might determine what counts as evidence in the first place. Speculative philosophy cannot take for granted what positivistic scientists like Myers do, that our senses (and their extensions) paint a neutral picture before the Mind “in here” of Nature “out there,” and that the processes of both Mind and Nature can be explained and controlled by way of purely mechanistic models. Whitehead, a mathematician and a physicist, had already foreseen the need for philosophical re-evaluation of the basis of natural science before Gödel’s incompleteness theorem unhinged logic and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle delocalized material particle. The picture of the cosmos that had reigned since the Scientific Revolution dissolved before his eyes during the early 20th century: a Universe on the verge of being explained by the clarity of reductionistic materialism all the sudden seemed far stranger than 19th century physicists had imagined.

Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to naturalize God and to divinize Nature. Disenchantment and scientific investigation are no longer understood to go hand in hand, since for Whitehead, the Universe is ensouled. How does he know this? What is his evidence for this? Whitehead is the inheritor of James’ pragmatic philosophy, wherein the evidence of an proposition’s truth consists in the consequences of this proposition for our experience. Experience, in other words, and not the “objective world,” is the final arbiter of truth, since, as even Myers admits, the truth is what works. The evidence for Whitehead’s conception of the relationship between God and the world (which I unpack more fully in this essay on a naturalistic panentheism) is the Great Fact that the Universe continues to hold together as a whole, despite the freedom of each actual occasion to determine its own form of realization. That there is a Cosmos at all, and not just chaos, is the evidence for Whitehead’s God. God is the great unifier, that which “saves” the world from disharmony. One could deny that the Universe holds together, but this would put an end to humanity’s adventure of rationality. Reason, for Whitehead, is not an abstract ideal, but must be embodied by some actual entity: that entity is God.

Returning to Myers and his championing of scientific fact as the antidote to religious belief, he recently posted a blog in defense of the Nobel Laureate chemist Harold Kroto’s understanding of science. Kroto was criticized by journalist Andrew Brown for suggesting that “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Kroto went on to say that society has an ethical obligation to teach children the scientific method in order to assure they have a way to determine what is true based on evidence, because, says Kroto, “without evidence, anything goes!”

Whitehead was also an educator, and so certainly would have had an opinion on this matter. For him, education was about more than training in the scientific method, however. It was about the enrichment of the soul, awakening the student to their own potential for creatively re-imagining the cultural habits they have inherited.

As Stengers’ suggests,

“For Whitehead, thinking about what social progress requires designates education as a crucial site, in which an epoch judges itself on the basis of the way it fashions those who will prolong its choices, strengths, and weaknesses. Education can create the habit of appreciating concrete facts, complete facts. It can also create the opposite habit, as is the case with the education the produces professionals, the habit of yielding in the face of what is unacceptable, of adhering to what is incredible. Because for Whitehead, the link is obviously direct between the blind way in which thinkers who stuck to secure and definite habits of thought, that is, professionals, have subscribed to the concrete unacceptable consequences of industrial development, and the way in which other thinkers, just as ‘serious,’ have prolonged, in a routine way, the incredible theses that made nature birfurcate and reduced reality to the agitation of stupid, insensate matter” (p. 139-140).

Stengers’ then quotes Whitehead at length:

“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality. We want concrete fact with a high light thrown on what is relevant to its preciousness. What I mean is art and aesthetic education […] ‘art’ in the general sense that I require is any selection by which the concrete facts are so arranged as to elicit attention to particular values which are realizable by them. For example, the mere disposing of the human body and the eyesight so as to get a good view of the sunset is a simple form of artistic selection. The habit of art is the habit of enjoying vivid values” (Science and the Modern World, p. 199).

Myers’ asks in his defense of Kroto for someone to give an example of something about which we can have reliable knowledge that is not determined by science. The Beautiful and the Good come to mind. We can know these ideals, and be educated in their creation and appraisal, but we do so with methods other than science proper, like artistic and ethical practice. Science, Art, and Religion are different ways of engaging with reality, each equally important in its own context. I think Whitehead’s cosmology allows us to conceive of their proper relation to one another in a way that avoids the self-righteous positivism of those who think like Kroto and Myers. Science is not the cure to all of society’s ills. We have quite enough scientific specialists. What we need is a form of education that allows for the kind of imaginative generalization necessary for a coherent picture of the world, one which avoids bifurcations between “Mind” and “Nature,” or “subjective fantasy” and “objective fact.” Science, religion, and art can retain their unique differences, but Wisdom requires their integration into a unified image of the cosmos. Contradictions must be made into contrasts. The university must educate human beings to live in the Universe, not in a disinfected caricature produced by specialists.

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19 thoughts on “Science, Art, Religion: The Role of Speculative Philosophy in the Adventure of Rationality

      • Thanks, I guess.

        “Religion in the Modern World” brings no hits here, but I guess your category-tagged posts give me a fairly clear indication.


        Where did the idea of “God” come from?
        29Nov10
        God is not (or at least was not originally) a (bad) scientific hypothesis meant to explain some natural phenomenon, but a symbol of the human psyche’s need for and experience of transcendence. God is a word which today might be said to represent the object of the ecstatic experience of a few mystics, but which originally was the common experience of all primal peoples.

        Belief in a Personal God
        21Oct10
        The notion of our relationship to God being only interior feels lacking to me. My relationship to the exterior cosmos as God incarnate is no less revelatory (indeed, perhaps it is more so).

      • What is your concept of Nature, John? Tell me how you think of the relationship between the reality of Nature and the subjectivity of knowing scientists… What is Nature doing to itself inside the skull of a scientific materialist?

      • My concept of Nature?
        The physical universe.

        The relationship between the reality of Nature and the subjectivity of knowing scientists?
        Subjectivity comes from Nature, rather than the other way around.

        What is Nature doing to itself inside the skull of a scientific materialist?
        I don’t reify Nature, so I consider the concept of it “doing to itself” a category error.

      • Do you think it is necessary to ‘do philosophy’ to uncover the essence of “physical” and “universe,” as concepts, or is the scientific method sufficient for the understanding of nature? I ask since even among scientists there are many different conceptions of the universe. And across time, the meaning of these concepts has evolved. The Greeks understanding of “physis” is unlike our modern understanding, since for them physics was the study of the life of matter, its coming-into-form and its growth. Now “physical” no longer has its original meaning, but refers to the ultimately law-like motion of insensate stuff. (an essay on the history of the concept of Nature: http://footnotes2plato.com/2011/06/06/the-veil-of-isis-or-the-meaning-of-withdrawal/)

        I agree with you that subjectivity comes from Nature, and not the other way around. The properly philosophical quest is not to explain away Nature as an appearance in Mind, but to understand what must be true of Nature such that it can become Mind. (an essay on Schelling’s philosophy of nature, which has been classified by some a form of “transcendental materialism”: http://footnotes2plato.com/2011/04/03/schelling-and-the-transcendental-abyss-of-nature/)

      • Do you think it is necessary to ‘do philosophy’ to uncover the essence of “physical” and “universe,” as concepts, or is the scientific method sufficient for the understanding of nature?

        Yes.

        The properly philosophical quest is not to explain away Nature as an appearance in Mind, but to understand what must be true of Nature such that it can become Mind.

        Change “The properly […]” to “A properly […]” and I cannot dispute this.
        The endeavour is philosophical, the epistemology is scientific (i.e. grounded by empiricism).

        So — how does any of the above relate to a god-concept?

        PS I know you know I technically misused ‘reify’ above (I should have related it to volition), so thanks for understanding to what I referred).

      • How does it relate to the metaphysical necessity of a god-concept? What are you asking, exactly? I think the essay above is a description, abridged obviously, of why Whitehead’s attempt to provide a cosmological account that lined up with actual experience and scientific theory required “God.” For us to speak coherently about “the physical universe,” we have already assumed that it is a cosmos and not a chaos (i.e., that it is an ordered whole, and not an incoherent mess). If we observe this ordered wholeness, how did it come about? And if we only infer this ordered wholeness, upon what basis do we infer it? Whitehead’s god-concept is an attempt to provide answers to these questions.

  1. “truth is what works”

    A rather utilitarian idea of truth, wouldn’t you say?

    The Chinese beat a gong whenever the Moon dog would eat the Sung god during a solar eclipse, Every time they did it, it worked. The coherence theory of truth has its limitations as you can see.

    Whitehead’s or your conception, or anyone’s conception of God is always lacking in one essential ingredient. It is not God’s. So many people may give their conception of you. But have they ever questioned, what is your conception of yourself. Would that not be a more valid way to reach a proper conclusion.

    To speak of God, as if God were merely an infinitely pliable creation of our own inventions is really to ignore God and any real understanding of what God is or means. Religion accepts God as the Supreme Person, or Personality. To deny agency to God and repose it completely within ones own subjectivity is only atheism in the name of God. God means Who is giving agency to all creation and creatures, as well as all being.

    Whoever has not studied the songs of God in the Bible, the Bhagavad-gita, the Upanisads, the teachings of the Avatars. or of God’s genuine devotees — what can they know of God? Most are simply impersonalists. And they are the greatest offenders of God. Imagine if everyone were to talk of you as if you were an object of their speculation only, with no personality of your own!
    Would it not be a great offense?

    Are you smarter than a fifth grader? I think even a fifth grader would know the answers here.

    Sorry. I don’t mean to interrupt your erudite discussion. Just sayin’

    I like you Matt, and all the others here who are trying to deal with the big questions. That takes a lot of courage and dedication and real hankering after the truth — philo-sophia. I am just trying to be helpful, I guess you can say, in a down to earth way.

    • Will, James’ pragmatism is not utilitarianism. The test of experience could have been conducted on the practice of sounding the gong to show that it was not magically causing the eclipse. Pragmatism does not mean you take things for granted as true that only seem to work, it means you make sure your truths are relentlessly put on trial and forced to prove their worth in the court of everyday life.
      As for Whitehead’s theology, and my own, for that matter, my problem with the idea of a personal God is that it seems to separate divinity from creation/creatures. My experience tells me that divinity is immanent in every human being, every hawk, every worm, every tree, every cloud, every grain of sand…. Unless the “personality” of God is the Universe itself, or is the Higher Self of humanity, I find no experiential correlate or intellectual reason to believe in such a thing. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. -Matt

      • OK. Then pragmatism holds that truth is what has practical application. Does that sound like a validting concept to you? It seems to be more like technology or skill rather than knowledge of what is. It may be practical to assume we are just a bag of molecules so that doctors can treat us based on scientific analyses. Yet that does not address the question of whether that assumption is true or not.

        Suppose for a minute your experience and knowledge is limited. It seems that this is the first thing we should know if we have had any experience. No? Outside our limited range of knowledge and experience there is the unknown and unexperienced. Newton wasn’t afraid to admit this. And Socrates went even further and said he didn’t know anything. Apparently, he may have thought that if knowledge is based on something well beyond whatever could be experienced or known then what kind of knowledge can we claim to have?

        How do we account for the possible influence in our finite lives of the unknown and unexperienced (let’s call it the Infinite, or God). It is impossible for the finite to comprehend the Infinite, so where does that leave us? On the other hand, it is quite feasable that the Infinite can be influencing us and even comprehending us. Why not? How can we limit what the Infinite can or cannot do or be. And most importantly, why can the Infinite not communicate in infinitely many ways with the finite, if it is truly infinite.

        One may believe whatever they like. But I think it is exactly at those points where our beliefs lie (we can call it the boundry conditions [and they are lies]) that we may actually come in contact with the Infinite, by grace of the Infinite alone, for our own finite efforts/work will always be insufficient. We just have to be willing to hear the song of God.

        That is my humble understanding.

  2. Mr. Segal, over all I very much like your post. However, you do make one statement that is quite demonstrably false: “Whitehead, at first a mathematician and a physicist, became a philosopher only after Gödel’s incompleteness theorem unhinged logic and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle delocalized material particle.”

    Gödel’s work did not appear until the early 1931, and it was some years after that before it became widely known. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was published only a few years earlier in 1927.

    Harvard had already hired Whitehead to work in their philosophy dept. in 1924, but Whitehead had been engaged in philosophical inquiry quite a bit longer than even that. His tryptich of works in natural philosophy/philosophy of science had already come out in 1919 — 1922. By the time of Heisenberg, his segue into metaphysics was well under way (driven, I would argue, by the failure of the scientific and philosophical communities to grasp the more epistemological orientation of the tryptich.) Whitehead is clearly operating in a scheme in which localized, punctiform material entites are at best high-abstractions — this is quite evident in the tryptich, and is formulated into the twin fallacies of simple location and misplaced concreteness by the time of Science in the Modern World, 1925. Process and Reality was not published until 1929, but the work that led up to it was clearly long underway by the time Heisenberg published his thesis.

    Moreover, Whitehead’s philosophical concerns go much deeper than what appears when one ennumerates his publications. He was a regular attendee at philosophy meetings at all of his various universities from his days as an undergraduate onward. His interests in pedagogy — among some of his earliest writings — are a continuous thread of argument all the way through to his last major publication (Modes of Thought) where he explicitly associates mathematical and philosophical thought.

    That said, this slip does not strike me as in any way undermining any of your principle arguments. With that in mind, I would just say, “trust a specialist to cavil over the details.”

  3. @Will:

    “truth is what works”

    A rather utilitarian idea of truth, wouldn’t you say?

    No. One needs to read the statement in context, and follow the full length and breadth of William James’ thinking to achieve any sort of appreciation for the meaning of that quip. But the author of The Varieties of Religioius Experience was no utilitarian.

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  7. As a recent ‘convert’ to naturalistic panentheism and new student of Whitehead’s process philosophy, I really enjoy your posts on these issues. Curiously, I was forced to abandon my previous atheism that was very much aligned with PZ, Dawkins, and the rest not out of a rejection of science and reason, but by following science and reason passed the point where most atheists stop (for what its worth, I don’t think most of what the new atheists say is wrong, it is just incomplete and misleading). You, along with Whitehead, consider this speculative philosophy, but is it any different than pushing the boundaries of natural science where the seeds of empirical truths are first planted in mental concepts, concepts which possibly seem foreign or outright hostile to the previous scientific consensus and worldview that came before them? Reading Whitehead, William James, CS Peirce, Aldous Huxley, Teilhard de Chardin, and others who were trying to grapple with the reality of the religious or spiritual impulse along scientific lines, I can’t help but feel dismayed that the current crop of atheist writers have ignored these attempts by these great thinkers and have closed off that line of inquiry completely, reducing these experiences and ideas to artifacts of faulty epistemology or spandrels of evolution that we must overcome and cast aside.

    Personally, I don’t think the process framework of god and divinity should stay purely within philosophy, if they really are true, then there should be scientific evidence for them and I think I have several routes leading up to such empirically reasoned verification.

    • I’d say there is plenty of evidence for the process panentheist position. But it all depends on how we interpret the evidence, which is where philosophy comes in. Scientists do philosophy all the time when they interpret their data, but often they deny this. Typically they have little respect for philosophy (especially the PZ Myers/Dawkins types) because they’ve never seriously studied it. Nor have they even studied the history of science. This are major gaps in science education today, which has become extremely specialized.

      I look forward to talking to you more about your “conversion.” But I have to sleep now!

      Best,
      Matt

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