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.