“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Religion and Philosophy: The God Problem

The discussion continues over on Levi Bryant’s blog.

Bryant agrees with me that Whitehead’s conception of God does not fall prey to many of the ethical and epistemological criticisms he levels against traditional theism. But he fails to understand the problem that Whitehead’s God is purported to have solved.

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 don’t think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this, but he might add that the way this fact is to be integrated by philosophy is through some sort of sociological or neurological reduction (i.e., the content of religious experiences is entirely culturally or cranially constructed).

Whitehead integrates the fact of humanity’s religious inheritance (which is both experiential and scriptural–and these two sources are inextricably bound up in my opinion) in a different way. He abides by what Bruno Latour has since come to call the principle of irreduction: a phenomenon can sometimes be translated into a related phenomenon, but never explained by reference to anything other than its own internal reasons. Instead of reducing the content of religious experience to something merely cultural or merely neural that must be rejected wholesale as superstition, Whitehead accepts the cultural habits he has inherited as the “imaginative background” constituting the condition for the possibility of his own speculative flights into conceptual novelty. He sees no other choice but to think with the historical milieu in which he is embedded, even if this thinking leads eventually to a creative revisioning of his culture’s fundamental assumptions. As Latour and Stengers later articulated, Whitehead’s cosmology is not separable from his politics. Nor is his ontology separable from his sociology. Human experience is to be understood based upon the same criteria of explanation and existence as the experience of any other organism. If the vast majority of the earth’s human inhabitants currently find the concept of God meaningful in some ultimate sense, this is a cosmic fact Whitehead cannot afford to dismiss.

Bryant and other atheists may not find this at all compelling. That a majority of humanity holds certain beliefs about God is no evidence whatsoever as to the validity of those beliefs. Whitehead, however, is a pragmatist; for him, the truth of an idea is not a matter of correspondence to some pre-given reality; or at least if truth is correspondence, it is not very interesting to him. What matters to Whitehead is how our conceptual propositions create novel contrasts in our interpretation of experience in order to further the Universe’s adventure of ideas. In a Universe that relates to itself sensually (i.e., via prehensions), interesting lies are often more effective–more productive of value–than boring or obvious truths (at least if adventure is our goal).

It all comes down to how we construe the relationship between philosophy and religion. Hegel argued that the content of each was the same. Whitehead agrees. The role of philosophy is always to be the critic of abstractions, whether they be scientific or religious in origin. Scientific abstractions tend to be derived from empirico-mathematical (i.e., theoretical) cognitions, while religious abstractions tend to be derived from ethico-scriptural (i.e., practical) emotions. Philosophy’s role is to bring our thinking and our feeling into constructive harmony: the abstractions employed by science and religion are systematized by philosophy so as to presuppose one another such that in isolation they are meaningless.

It is perhaps a mistake to use the descriptor “Christianity,” since this will only invite the knee-jerk dismissal of what I am about to say; but nonetheless, I think the archetypal meaning of the Christ event is highly relevant in any discussion of the relationship between religion and philosophy. The history of Christian theology represents a sort of unhappy compromise between Hebraic eschatology and Greek cosmology. We should not underestimate the profound transformation that the God of the Old Testament had to go through in order to become the God of the Gospels. I think Christianity, whose central figure is purported to have accomplished the complete synthesis of spirit and matter, eternity and time, myth and history, creator and creation, etc., still has a significant role to play in the unfolding of our civilization. In fact, I think (like Rudolf Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin) that we’ve only just begun to feel the cosmohistorical repercussions of the Christ event.



5 responses to “Religion and Philosophy: The God Problem”

  1. larvalsubjects Avatar

    I think we can do much of what you describe here through sociological and ethnographic analysis without having to endorse any of the supernatural or divine postulations of a particular religion. In my view, Latour’s principle of irreduction is a little more nuanced than you describe here. When Latour formulates the principle he says nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else. In developing this principle, Latour does not forbid reduction but rather argues that reduction requires showing all the translations something must go through in order to be reduced to another thing. He cites Freud’s dream analyses as an excellent example of the sort of translations that need to be done to do a good reduction. Freud shows how each element of a dream is translated into the dream thought, showing how we get from the one to the other.

    I’m still not clear as to what philosophical problem Whitehead’s particular concept of god is solving. Claiming that it invites an interesting set of contrasts doesn’t do much for me as I also believe the concept is attached to a particular cultural history that we do well to move away from. Nor am I particularly persuaded by a prioristic arguments on these sorts of matters. To be clear, this is not something restricted to religion for me. Physicists have all sorts of interesting things to say about strings and these theories potentially explain all sorts of things about quantum phenomena. However, I neither reject nor accept string theory because there’s nothing testable about the theory to date. Likewise with physicists that postulate the existence of higher dimensional membranes to explain the big bang. That aside, I really don’t see the reason to multiply entities needlessly when naturalistic immanent accounts can do the job; especially when the entity being postulated has such a chequered history in social assemblages.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for your reply, Levi. I suppose our disagreement centers on the extent to which conceptual reflection (whether analytic or synthetic) can operate free of its embeddedness in history and society. Whitehead’s cosmopolitical approach requires that we understand religious experiences (including the contents of these experiences) as part of nature, internal to the cosmic process itself. His God may at first seem to be a construct invented for purely conceptual purposes; indeed, Whitehead says this in several places. But there is more to the story: like Wittgenstein’s ladder, the construct, once it has served its conceptual purpose, is to be pulled away to reveal to those who have understood it a new, more coherent perspective on the same reality. Taking God seriously in philosophy is not a matter of inventing unnecessary entities, since as I tried to suggest in my post above, the history of religious experience as such is already a fact about the world. The God concept, in whatever particular form it may take, is already part of the data taken up by philosophy. I think in our contemporary context, there is an urgent need for philosophy to secularize God, such that supernaturalism no longer seems necessary as an ethico-cosmic counter-argument to scientific materialism so far as the vast majority of human beings are concerned.

  2. Jason Hills Avatar

    Matt, (if I may)

    I have been following along, and I certainly agree with the latter view, “I suppose our disagreement centers on the extent to which conceptual reflection (whether analytic or synthetic) can operate free of its embeddedness in history and society,” wherein I do not think it can do so. Hence, for me, the “speculative” in “speculative realism.” Also, for myself at least, most of the “speculative” is understanding metaphysics as Peircean abduction to orient ourselves in the world, which requires more principles than are given in the world as such. If one were to argue that, for instance, values are “natural kinds,” then one might disagree.


  3. The New Reformation: Whitehead on the Metaphysics of Christianity « Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] Bryant has argued that, while individual religious experiences obviously do occur, the content of many of these […]

  4. refinancing Avatar

    What a frankly fun article!

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