Whiteheadian Panentheism and Ralph Pred’s “Onflow”

I’ve just been skimming Ralph Pred’s naturalization of Whitehead’s process-experiential ontology (see Onflow: Dynamics of Consciousness and Experience, 2005). Pred attempts to naturalize Whitehead by explaining away the need for any divine function in cosmogenesis, but in critiquing Whitehead’s speculative scheme, Pred focuses exclusively on the unconscious, primordial nature of God, leaving unmentioned the conscious pole of the Universe: God’s consequent nature. Instead of placing Creativity (infinite potentiality) into relation with God (determinate actualization), Pred believes he has found a “less interpretive name for the ultimate” (p. 180): a unified stream of experiential becoming called “onflow.” For Pred, onflow “is less susceptible [than Creativity/God] to a reading in terms of divine purposiveness, or an evolutionary accrual of value” (p. 181). This is certainly true, but I wonder why –if we are indeed to adhere to a radical empiricism as articulated by Pred– “divine purposiveness” and “accrual of value” are not considered to be ingredients in the experiential habitat humanity has inherited from the prior evolution of the world. An ordered creation has emerged and continues to develop; we live in a civilized cosmos, albeit one enduring amid a background of death, chaos, and inertia. Still, these negative elements thus far remain the background. The love of life and existence continue to win out over ignorance, hatred and extinction. The present Universe appears to be in the most complex and radiant state it will ever achieve in its macrocosmic evolutionary history, coincidentally just as human consciousness is gaining the technological capacity to scientifically study it. In several billion years, according to some astrophysicists, the inflation of space between galaxies will have accelerated beyond light-speed, meaning that even if a future alien civilization becomes technologically capable, it would never see any evidence of its own intergalactic history. But entropy is more extravagant a metaphysical ultimate than Creativity given the circumstances of our current cosmic moment. Yes, human civilization is bringing about the 6th Mass Extinction Event, the first in 65 million years; even so, more biodiversity exists today than ever before in our planet’s history. We have every reason to believe, given that so many mass extinctions have occurred before on this planet, that life on earth will survive and continue to flourish.

The speculative imagination can discover the divinity at the base of actuality only if the philosopher is able to think through the grave implications of her own incarnation. Philosophy is, first and foremost, learning to die. Only after encountering the Mystery of death can the embodied soul awaken its supersensory organs of imaginative and intuitive perception, granting it participation in the everlasting World-Soul. Only then does the Universe openly display itself as an ongoing achievement of spiritual expression, a scintillating symbol of the divine mind at work in the world. My body and its ego will die, but the soul of the world will go on. This ongoingness, and the objective immortality of the experiential valuation of each and every occasion, is God’s consequent nature.

Pred maintains that human valuation and aesthetic enjoyment can be accounted for without God, solely by the “hybrid feeling of self [and] the memory and imagination, stirred by aim in the concresence in question” (p. 178). Whitehead’s panentheism, in contrast, reflects his desire to affirm the highest aspirations of the human spirit. In Process and Reality (p. 31-32), he writes:

 “[The primordial, non-temporal accident] is here termed ‘God’; because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim.”


I do think Pred argues convincingly that one need not adopt Whitehead’s fully-deployed panentheistic metaphysics to recognize the value of a “concrescual approximation.” One can remain agnostic on the issue of a divine function while still accepting the reality of meaning and purpose in human life. But I also believe the human soul is capable of directly experiencing the divine function in the world, of feeling the eternal aims of God as they embrace the process of infinite creativity and lure chaos toward cosmos.