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

Whitehead on God and the Universe in “Modes of Thought”

It might be helpful for the last pages of Whitehead’s 5th lecture in Modes of Thought (1938), “Forms of Process,” to be available online. I’d enjoy unpacking the implications of what is said here, and so I will post them in the hopes that they be productive of further reflection on my part, as well as generative of discussion with others. Whitehead offers his testimony on many of the issues which have recently been discussed in the SR/OOO blogosphere, including the uniqueness of human beings, the function of divinity in the universe, the reality of formal and final causes, and the relationship between science and religion.

“Finally, there is deity, which is that factor in the universe whereby there is importance, value, and ideal beyond the actual. It is by reference of the spatial immediacies to the ideals of deity that the sense of worth beyond ourselves arises. The unity of a transcendent universe, and the multiplicity of realized actualities, both enter into our experience by this sense of deity. Apart from this sense of transcendent worth, the otherness of reality would not enter into our consciousness. There must be value beyond ourselves. Otherwise every thing experienced would be merely a barren detail in our own solipsist mode of existence. We owe to the sense of deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world for the preservation of the values realized and for the transition to ideals beyond realized fact.

Thus, space, time, and deity are general terms which indicate three types of reflective notions. The understanding of the nature of things in terms of such concepts is what distinguishes the human species from the other animals. The distinction is not absolute. The higher animals show every sign of understandings and of devotions which pass beyond the immediate enjoyments of immediate fact. Also the life of each human being is mainly a dumb passage from immediacy to immediacy devoid of the illumination of higher reflection. But when all analogies between animal life and human nature have been stressed, there remains the vast gap in respect to the influence of reflective experience. This reflective experience exhibits three main characteristics which require each other for their full understanding. There are the experiences of joint association, which are the spatial experiences. There are the experiences of origination from a past and of determination towards a future. These are temporal experiences.

There are experiences of ideals–of ideals entertained, of ideals aimed at, of ideals achieved, of ideals defaced. This is the experience of the deity of the universe. The intertwining of success and failure in respect to this final experience is essential. We thereby experience a relationship to a universe other than ourselves. We are essentially measuring ourselves in respect to what we are not. A solipsist experience cannot succeed or fail, for it would be all that exists. There would be no standard of comparison. Human experience explicitly relates itself to an external standard. The universe is thus understood as including a source of ideals.

The effective aspect of this source is deity as immanent in the present experience. The sense of historic importance is the intuition of the universe as everlasting process, unfading in its deistic unity of ideals.

Thus there is an essential relevance between deity and historic process. For this reason, the form of process is not wholly dependent upon derivation from the past. As epochs decay amid futility and frustration, the form of process derives other ideals involving novel forms of order.

Science investigates the past, and predicts the future in terms of the forms of past achievement. But as the present becomes self-destructive of its inherited modes of importance, then the deistic influence implants in the historic process new aims at other ideals.

Science is concerned with the fact of bygone transition. History relates the aim at ideals. And between science and history, lies the operation of the deistic impulse of energy. It is the religious impulse in the world which transforms the dead facts of science into the living drama of history. For this reason science can never foretell the perpetual novelty of history.”

[Update: I follow up on this excerpt HERE]







2 responses to “Whitehead on God and the Universe in “Modes of Thought””

  1. mary Avatar

    lectures online within “Modes of Thought”….scroll down for table of contents:


  2. Further evidence that Whitehead was already object-oriented… « Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] Whitehead on God and the Universe in “Modes of Thought” (footnotes2plato.com) […]

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