Causality in Whitehead’s Panentheism

Plasticbodies has posted another volley in the theism-nihilism discussion, this time drawing attention to causality.

He asks:

What does process theology give us that a (process) naturalism cannot? Or, put otherwise, how does one get from nature to divinity without begging the question?

I’ll paste my comments in response here:

I have written quite a bit about what you could call naturalistic process panentheism.

I think you’ve uncovered the real issue underlying this “theism-nihilism tango” (as Tim Morton called it): causality. Atheistic naturalism (which we might also call “scientific materialism,” after Whitehead) almost always entails a denial of formal and final causes. I think it still holds on to a version of Aristotle’s material cause, even if “substance” is no longer an adequate concept in physics. The material cause has become the randomness of quantum fluctuation, which is at the root of some variations of the Big Bang theory. I remain unconvinced that this “reason” actually explains the “What” of this Universe, since randomness seems to me to be the exact opposite of a reason. Scientific materialism becomes nihilistic only if it overcomes the correlational dualism implicit in its perspective that otherwise allows it to maintain formal and final causality in humans while denying it to everything else. If the metaphysical first principles of atheistic naturalism are carried to their logical conclusions, the reality of ideas (formal causes) and of meanings (final causes) must be denied out right to humans and nature alike. I think something like this is what Ray Brassier is up to, since for him, the illusion of human freedom provides ideological support for the continuance of capitalist social relations. I have argued that mechanistic biology and scientific materialism generally, because of their implicit correlationism and “bifurcationism,” provide ideological support to capitalism (or at least fail to provide adequate and convincing critiques of it): On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics.

I think chapters 2-6 are most relevant to the discussion surrounding causality. I’ve drawn heavily on the work of biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela in these chapters, wherein I give a brief history of biology from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant, Darwin and Paley, and on to Monod, Mayr, and Dawkins. Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter 5:

“To speak of [autopoiesis] thus directly links the biological sphere with a teleological account of ontology. On a material, concrete level we can observe in the organism the flip side of mechanical causality, a final causality as the basic process of life itself—the establishment of an identity. But this happens not by revising physical laws for particle-interactions in special application to organisms, nor by imposing an extra-mechanical entelechy. It is rather the ‘subject-pole’ that is the organism in its autonomy, which changes linear causality by structuring matter in the process of self-realization to maintain itself as this very process” (p. 119, 2002).

Exploring this process of the formation of a “subject-pole” (or mental-pole) requires connecting Varela’s biology to Whitehead’s metaphysics, where an analysis of the general character of experience in terms of concrescence provides us with the conceptual platform necessary to understand how organisms don’t need to “transcend the neutrality of pure physics” (p. 118, Varela, 2002) because there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with.”

This last sentence (“…there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with…”) is where Whitehead’s God comes in. The Universe has the character it does “because” God values certain creative possibilities over others; but at the same time, only the actual Universe has value, which is to say that only finite actual occasions can decide what form Creativity takes in any given instance. God has a polarized, dynamic nature for Whitehead: his primordial nature has a deficit of actuality, and so is complemented by his consequent nature, which becomes with the Universe, is internal to the Universe, suffering with it in order to “save” it. God “saves” the world by allowing it to hold together as a whole despite the individual freedom of its many finite occasions to decide their own fate. This is why God is necessary based on Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme for cosmology to be possible. Without God, there is no Cosmos, only Chaos. And without the possibility of cosmology, there is no possibility of rationality. As Meillassoux makes so clear in “After Finitude,” without hypostasizing the correlation as thinkers like Hegel and Whitehead do, the principal of sufficient reason goes right out the window and Chaos reigns.

Platicbodies then responds:

It seems that for God to appear in a philosophical discussion nondogmatically, he/it must be needed to explain something that cannot be explained without him. It seems like you’re saying that the what of the world is inexplicable without God. You reject the notion that the Big Bang, or presumably some other aleatory event (the Epicurean swerve, for instance) can explain the emergence of the universe. Again, that seems like a matter of assertion: either we believe in the swerve (an uncaused cause) or we don’t.

Are you saying that atheistic naturalism entails the nonexistence of ideas and meanings?

To which I responded:

Whitehead’s God is not an explanation for anything, since actual occasions are their own reasons. I don’t think allowing randomness the possibility of “swerving” explains anything, either. It just begs the question. Where does the swerve come from, and how is it capable of producing so much beauty and coherence? In Whitehead’s scheme, “explanation” takes on a novel meaning, since “to explain” cannot mean for him the reduction of one kind of society of actual occasions to a more fundamental kind (his explanations must avoid over- or undermining objects, as Harman puts it).

I don’t think the “What” of the world (the material cause) is inexplicable without God. The material cause becomes Creativity in a process ontology, a cause to which even God remains subject. The “How,” or efficient cause, and the “Why,” or final cause, are inexplicable without God. God, as the primordial “How,” is the agent initiating the selective valuation of certain ideals, which then seek realization in finite actual occasions (through persuasion, rather than force). God as the consequent “Why” is the enjoyer of Beauty and Goodness resulting from the ongoing concrescence of the Universe. In other words, the end of Whitehead’s Universe is to increase the intensity of divine experience: God is less interested in judging good and evil, and far more interested in transforming conflict into aesthetically pleasing contrasts. The “Who” (which includes the “When” and the “Where”), or formal cause, is the subjective form of each actual entity, its individual decision regarding how to actualize the possibilities envisioned by God.

I think many atheists are able to continue contradicting themselves by preserving ideas and meanings as human realities. But if they follow their naturalistic reductionism through to its metaphysical requirements, ideas and meanings must be erased from both human beings and nature at large, reduced to some kind of “transcendental illusion,” as Bryant put it.

Plasticbodies responds:

I completely agree that the swerve begs the question. But assuming it is just as plausible as assuming that God got things started. Astrophysicists may have more evidence for their origin story. So if Whitehead’s God doesn’t explain anything, what’s the point of it? I mean, what makes it more than a superfluous postulate if it isn’t doing any metaphysical work? If you’re implying that only a God could create so much “beauty and coherence,” I’d suggest that a tiny swerve in a complex material system is sufficient to cause unimaginable variation (think of biological evolution, computer algorithms, digital art–check out this TED Talk by Stephen Wolfram

The idea of God as subject rings contradictory to the very concept of God, I think. The rest of what this God does–enjoys, creates, selects, persuades–remains anthropomorphic and, despite its radical presentation, subject to the same criticism leveled by Spinoza in the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise. Even if he is not a judge of good and evil, God seems to do a lot of things that cannot be apprehended (at least I can’t) by the human intellect. I’m simply saying that it’s a lot to subscribe to without any evidence in support of it. I’d rather admit to the reality of Aristotle’s four causes and leave it at that.

Are you claiming that atheists cannot find meaning in the world? If so, are you saying that it is metaphysically impossible or psychologically? Perhaps your saying that atheists *believe* there is meaning in their lives, but this meaning is an illusion or *merely* psychological. Which is it? This notion really needs to be spelled out more, as it’s hard to believe that an atheist cannot have ideas (if that’s what you mean). If an atheist cannot have ideas, then they cannot have the idea that God does not exist, in which case they cannot really be an atheist. Does this mean that there are no atheists?

Let me just add that when I say that there is no ‘evidence’ for this God, I’m not saying that since I don’t see him, he’s not there. I’m saying that if you want to get people on board with this God, you don’t drag him out into plain sight, you show why he is necessary for a coherent metaphysical view of the universe. But if he does not explain anything, then he seems to be superfluous.

To which I responded:

God didn’t “get things started”; it would be more accurate to say that God actively initiates each moment of an ongoing cosmogenesis. God is both “in the beginning” and “in the end,” but in a logical, rather than a temporal sense. From Whitehead’s perspective, creation didn’t happen 14 billion years ago. Creation is still happening. God participates in, but does not determine, the ongoing process of creation. The actual world is not yet finished, though in God’s consequent nature, each actual occasion finds objective immortality.

Whitehead’s God does do metaphysical work, but for Whitehead, this is the work of producing coherence and adequacy rather than “heroic feats of explaining away.”

Your argument that attributing such characteristics to God (he enjoys, he selects, he persuades, etc) is anthropomorphic is well taken; but it could also be argued that the attribution of these characteristics to humans alone is anthropocentric. Part of the project of secularizing God is breaking down the ontological gap between humans and divinity (this would seem to be the presupposition of any object-oriented theology).

I am saying that it is psychologically possible for atheists to have ideas and make meanings (this much is obvious), but that according to their own metaphysical commitments, such higher order phenomena are epiphenomenal at best, and given enough social criticism and neurophysiological research, should be replaced by causal language scrubbed clean of “folk psychology.”

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4 thoughts on “Causality in Whitehead’s Panentheism

  1. You wrote: “Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy.” I haven’t dwelled on this aspect of Whitehead’s thinking sufficiently, thanks for bringing it to my attention Matt, this is a crucial fact relevant to religious-secular discourses. I can’t see any way that religious experiences or practices can, with any requisite fullness, be explained away by cultural or psychological needs, biologically advantageous structures of belief, sociological or material circumstances, or anthropological studies of religious practices. Religious experience, whether true, false, manipulative, or constructive, is a fact of human experience that dates back at least 30,000 years (and probably much further), and requires an approach of study befitting its mode of practice. Academia in general may not be up to such a task as it is organized today, and this is something that, as academics, we should be attentive to.

    I think the discussion of religion, particularly in such academic contexts, is profoundly impoverished and often reduces religion and religious practice to a question of verifiable truth value. I suspect that this is totally the wrong methodology to approach religion with, if I may even continue to vulgarly use a term that cannot be universalized to every culture. In this sense I am a little hesitant to compare different worldviews and systems of belief under the singular banner of “religion.” Just because a view is not secular in the modern sense of the word does not imply that it is a “religious” view, as though non-secular/post-secular views imply a religious orientation that is somehow flatly comparable to christianity. The same can be said about comparing “buddhism” and “christianity”- a favorite trope of people doing the inter-religious dialogue game. It seems that we miss finer shades of detail in the rush to label something “religious” (is it not true that buddhist-scientist dialogues have to some extent had more to say to one another than buddhist-christian dialogues? Religious taxonomizing can hide these questions).

    None of this is what I hear you arguing Matt, but in the context of this larger discussion I felt it was important to raise such intercultural and intracultural issues vis-a-vis the question of religion and secularity. I would pose the question in a different way: what are we not addressing when we juxtapose religion against scientific naturalism? We can’t leave our religious commitments behind, no matter how atheist we become, because we are all immersed within an ecology of ideas. I think Foucault (who would never use the ecological language) has amply demonstrated the perseverance of the christian worldview in the face of secularization, in fact modern western secularization seems to readily spring forth from christianity (as so many philosophers and social scientists have demonstrated). Appeals to naturalism don’t overcome this just because they are stated as such, naturalism is still wedded to the legacies and histories of christianity. This is of course different than claiming some variant of christian theism, but it is nevertheless a central consideration.

    Again, I am compelled to highlight the problematics of discourses such as these since so many languages, practices, and worldviews are being decimated outright by the militarization of commerce and consumption as we speak. If we construe philosophy as that which is meant to eradicate falsity and reduce complexity so as to heighten understanding (I think this is a slightly barbaric approach to philosophy), then we must also consider the norms within which we approach and judge the multiplicity of claims we call “true” and “false.” Further, from an ecological perspective, ideas and values will always have multiple, contradictory, and emergent effects. Thus I am happy to say that religious thinking can be both “true” and “false” depending on its enaction. In my view, philosophy is thus as much about the construction of new concepts as it is about the eradication of old ones.

    Whitehead’s ability to stay with the often marginalized elements of academic discourse such as a religion only adds to my respect for him. Thinking ecologically, for me, means to attend to the factors of experience which are, and not only the ones which are true, since in the context of an ecology of ideas, it matters precious little whether something is true or false, but rather what effects a system of thought has. In this way questions of truth value are still central and meaningful, but do not provide the sufficient criteria for evaluation.

    • Thanks for bringing this nuance to the discussion, Adam. I agree that “religion,” as a category, tends to whitewash cultural differences. Similarly, categories like “Buddhism,” “Hinduism,” “Indigenous,” etc., were invented by Western, often Christian scholars and anthropologists. They refer to how ‘we’ see ‘them,’ not to how they see themselves. But I also think that, as we move further into an undeniably planetary phase of human evolution, cultural differences are becoming as constructed as they may once have been given. People are “interactive kinds” (a phrase coined by sociologist of science Ian Hacking), which means that they are aware of the fact that they have been labeled, and may begin to change their beliefs and behaviors as a result. “Indigenous” people, for example, once they begin to be visited by affluent white eco-tourists, may begin to cater to these tourist’s desire to see them perform their sacred rituals by performing them every week instead of once a year. Eventually, the rituals become more entertainment than mythic participation. A tragedy of commodifcation? Probably, but the point is that once a culture contacts “others” and becomes conscious of the way the others perceive it, it is never the same. Something new emerges. Point being, while I don’t want to whitewash, I think the various cultural expressions of “the sacred” are becoming increasingly bound together in our now global marketplace of religions. We can regret this fact as an extinction of cultural uniqueness, but it is nonetheless a fact that we all have way more in common with one another than we ever have before.

  2. Pingback: Notes from a Postsecular Swede (Me) « Knowledge Ecology

  3. Pingback: Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism « Footnotes to Plato

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