Whitehead, Eternal Objects, and God

Those who take the time to familiarize themselves with Whitehead’s philosophy are almost always lead to praise him for the originality of his thought. He dissolves many longstanding problems by rooting abstract disembodied reason in concrete feelings of inheritance. The subject-to-object vector of the Kantian school of philosophy is reversed, such that the structure of the thinking subject is understood to emerge from the past activity of the universe (i.e., object-to-subject); it is important to remember that the converse is also true, that the past activity of the objective universe is nothing other than an achievement of the purposive decisions of subjects. Past decisions achieve objective immortality as data for all future subjectivities. Such purposive decisions (and in Whitehead’s anthrodecentric cosmology, we are talking about the purposive decisions of every of subjectivity, from photons to persons) are made possible by the ingression of eternal objects in the experience of actual occasions. These eternal objects are given concrete actuality through the envisagement of an actual God. The initial aim of each subjective decision is a divine feeling, made possible by Whitehead’s dipolar deity. Whitehead’s God is the everlasting world-soul whose values erotically lure each moment of finite experience toward the ideal of beauty (which is nothing other than the true and the good). This is not an omnipotent Creator deity. If anything is omnipotent, it is Creativity; God is a creature of Creativity like every other. God is the poet of the world, “with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (346, Process and Reality). Whitehead certainly dissolves old problems, but by introducing the novel concepts of “God” and “eternal objects,” he also creates new problems for philosophy. God may be alike in kind to the finite creatures of the World, but clearly there is so much more that is ingredient in the experience of God that this difference in degree approaches a difference in kind.

Here is Victor Lowe (Understanding Whitehead, 1962), first on God:

Whitehead seems never to have considered atheism as a serious alternative in metaphysics. An atheist would naturally suggest that all the potentialities for any occasion are derived from its historical environment. A “society,” in Whitehead’s cosmology, is built on this sort of derivation. Why then need the occasion also draw upon a God? The answer is that if the past provided everything for the present, nothing new could appear. Novelty and adventure were too real to Whitehead to permit him to say, like the materialists, that the apparently new is a reconfiguration of the old. Yet his thorough going rationalism did not permit him to say that novelty just happens. His religious humility told him whence it came.

Throughout his philosophy, Whitehead contrasts the compulsion of what is with the persuasive lure of what might be. God’s action on the world is primarily persuasive: he offers to each occasion its possibilities of value. The theory that each occasion creates itself by realizing an aim internal to it, however, requires that the germ of this aim be initially established at that spot in the temporal world by God; otherwise the occasion’s self-creation could never commence, since nothing can come from nowhere. Whitehead’s position is that the initial aim partially defines the goal which is best in the given situation, and that the temporal occasion itself does the rest (47).

God is necessary, for Whitehead, not only to explain novelty, but to explain memory. The Universe as Whitehead experienced it was clearly creative, having emerged from the fertile soil of some ultimately chaotic process; but just as clearly, it evidenced the endurance of ideals like order and progress. Past accomplishments are plainly preserved, just as possibilities are envisaged in the future for decisive action in the present. How are the many finite occasions of the Universe capable of holding together as a whole so as to produce a Cosmos? There must be a primordial Occasion who values the order of this World over an infinite range of other possible worlds, and an Occasion who feels as a whole the cumulative consequence of the universal society’s decision regarding this Occasion’s cosmic values. This is Whitehead’s dipolar deity.

Consciousness, for Whitehead, is a rare form of high grade experience, closer in degree to God’s primordial valuation of eternal objects than plant sensitivity or electronic prehensivity. Most experience is not conscious, but is ruled by the emotional currents of causal efficacy. Consciousness, we are told, is most generally “the feeling of negation” (161, PR). When we perceive “this stone as grey,” the feeling of conscious negation is “in barest germ,” while when we perceive the contingency of this coloration, that it could have not been grey, “such feeling is in full development” (ibid.).

Whitehead continues:

Thus the negative perception is the triumph of consciousness. It finally rises to the peak of free imagination, in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified (ibid.).

In its conceptual prehensions of the possibilities of the World, consciousness most nearly approaches an experience of God’s primordial nature. Consciousness begins to see what it is like to swim in the mind of God. In most cases, the abstraction inherent to such negative perception pushes God’s heart–the feeling of the warmth of God, not just the sight of God’s light–into unconsciousness. Here, Whitehead’s philosophy of religion complements his philosophy of science. Both the clear and distinct skeptical consciousness of rationalism and the vague feeling of divinity at the base of any radical empiricism are important (see Ch. 1 of Modes of Thought) in Whitehead’s scheme.

Here is Lowe, again, on eternal objects:

For Whitehead, as for Aristotle, process is the realizing of selected antecedent potentialities, or it is unexplainable. “Pure potentials for the specific determinations of fact”–that is what eternal objects are. And that is all they are. The ideal is nothing more than a possibility (good or bad) for the actual. Whitehead so emphatically repudiates the Platonic tendency to think of the realm of forms as constituting a superior, self-sufficient type of existence, that he interprets even the propositions of mathematics as statements about certain possible forms of process (43).

Whitehead did not conceive of eternal objects in abstraction from concreate occasions. These two categories are not to be conceived separately, as Cartesian substances like mind and matter; their coherence depends upon their explanatory coincidence. There can be no occasions of experience of a definite character unless there are eternal objects to so characterize them; and there can be no external objects with actual effects unless there are real creatures to value them.


22 Comments Add yours

  1. Jason Hills says:


    In addition to a fine essay, you bring up an excellent wider point.

    The notion that the “subject-to-object” vector is reversed also holds for Peirce and Dewey. It is key to understanding that strand of Americanist emergent naturalism.

  2. Mark Crosby says:

    Matt, I agree about “Purpose in Living Systems”, which goes hand-in-hand with Jason’s comment that “Efficient causality alone is insufficient”. However, I have some concerns about Victor Lowe’s 1962 UNDERSTANDING WHITEHEAD on the necessity of God. I’m much more inclined toward Justus Buchler & Robert Corrington’s critiques of Whitehead in this regard. http://users.drew.edu/rcorring/downloads/APPRAISAL%20&%20CRITIQUE%20COPYRIGHT.pdf (link thanks to Leon’s AFTER NATURE sidebar on “Process Relational Philosophy: A Guide”)

    Based just on your cite, Lowe’s claims seem to be the same old argument that “if the past provided everything for the present, nothing new could appear”. For me, this is an argument from Holism, but there is no Whole. Creativity occurs when objects attempting to withdraw encounter resistance, or find themselves thrown into relations with objects that were not previously part of their experience. Thus, the situation for those objects is entirely novel and requires creative responses. No God in the gaps, just a God in the connections and immanent choices.

    1. Jason Hills says:

      The claim looks to be a general form of an argument against efficient causality, but I’m saying this out of context. Hence, if every supposedly creative act required a determinate cause or potentiality from which it sprang, then all causes or potentialities would have to be authored at cosmogenesis. That is not what recent philosophies of creativity mean.

      Regardless, I don’t see why we should grant “creativity occurs when objects attempting to withdraw…” Accept that at face value, and a whole metaphysics can be smuggled in to the premises of an argument that is not strictly about OOO metaphysics. Even if it were granted, how is creative response required? What is creativity on that account? Why does creativity occur when objects are resisted? And so on.

      1. Mark Crosby says:

        Thanks for your reply, Jason. I think I was agreeing with you & Matt that efficient causation was necessary but insufficient. This is where “teleology” becomes a riddle rather than a proposition.

        Being a naive Peircean I provisionally adopt three causes: 1) material (origination), 2) efficient (obediance to given rules), 3) formal (sporting – as developed in Robert Innis’s CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE PLAY OF SIGNS). Perhaps the ‘final’ cause is the return of 3rdness to 1stness. This is what I aim for in suggesting that God would be in the connections and immanent choices – always somehow (re)embodied in the material. The formal cause I take to be habits & laws. Again, I’m not mounting a rigorous argument, just a guess at the riddle from a VERY amateur perspective!

        Deleuze may not be your forte, but his theses are all heavily indebted to Gabriel Tarde (promoted by Latour, and also by CS Peirce in one of his reviews for THE NATION) and Samuel Butler (of EREWHON fame). When this whole line-in-the-sand teleology debate began a week or so ago? I adopted this quote from Butler’s LIFE & HABIT as my motto in defense of teleology. Note that Levi Bryant would definitely consider this an insidious support for Intelligent Design! Butler writes: “if the differences between an elephant and a tadpole … have arisen from the accumulation of small variations that have had no direction given them by intelligence and sense of needs, then no time conceivable by man would suffice for their development”.

  3. Jason Hills says:


    I was just explaining my thinking on the matter, which as I wrote was somewhat out of context from Lowe and your point. I also suggested one of the problems; in what sense are possibilities or potentialities (existentially actualized possibilities) authored at cosmogenesis? I’m not sufficiently informed on Peirce or Whitehead to pace through their answers, but Matt has much to say and has said it previously. I like reading Hartshorne on the issue myself.

    I offer this thought about teleology. Why does the cosmos come to form habits and have law-like behavior? Why come to form habits at all? If there is no direction to becoming, no tendency, then nothing would ever come to be anything. I suspect that what I call “teleology’ you place within “formal” cause and that there isn’t a difference between what we would say on the matter. At least at that level. Innis’ book has been on my reading list for far too long…..

    I would note that if I take what you say as written, then you have not distinguished between “formal cause” or “habit” in general vs. a particular thing realizing that habit. “Teleology” just describes that realization as a temporal/historical matter, and that’s how I’d phrase “return of 3rdness to 1stness.” How does a return occur? In and through time.

    Given all this, Mark, what else would you say on the matter of teleology? Matt and I have written quite a bit about it, but I have seen only this from you.

    1. Mark Crosby says:

      Jason, I have written consistently, but I do not have a blog, so my comments are scattered, mostly between IMMANENCE, LARVAL SUBJECTS, KNOWLEDGE ECOLOGY and FOOTNOTES TO PLATO. Attempted comments to Blogger sites are impossible, because Blogger does not recognize my existence! (What an utterly fascist piece of software !(

      I am, probably, too sloppy in distinguishing between formal cause and efficient cause, as habit. I really don’t have much use for Aristotle, other than as an obligatory reference point – Very little that Aristotle says (Jon Aubrey to the contrary) strikes me as relevant to modern discussions of self-organization, etc. I would suggest that possibilities are NOT authored at cosmogenesis – and any sense of Bayesian prior probabilities must be constantly changing, more or less. What’s constant, for me, is the broad sense of conforming to the ontology of 1stness, 2ndness & 3rdness; but, no other specifics are authored at cosmogenesis.

      I agree that “If there is no direction to becoming, no tendency, then nothing would ever come to be anything”. This is why I don’t quite understand the autism of “alien phenomenology” and evolution without direction. To me, NIHILISM UNBOUND is just a Johnny-Come-Lately addition to the old Ayn-Randian Objectivism that has been positing code-without-teleology (which amounts to meaningless operations and withdrawn objects) for decades. Innis is not that important, just the idea that semiosis being open goes hand-in-hand with continual decisions regarding meaning: immanent axiology.

      1. Jason Hills says:

        I am delighted at your comments and amused that you know Jon Aubry, who haunts the Peirce list. I will have more to say later, but I do want to invite you by.

        When I use the word “teleology,” it has relatively little to do with the historic Aristotle other than to borrow the general idea of teleology, potency, dynamis, entelechies, etc., but with a radically different and incomensurable background. I think the vocabulary useful for describing temporal-historical development, i.e., what a thing might become as of right now, but not useful for describing what something *is* or will be in any absolute or final sense. This is also why I never write “final causation.”

  4. Leon says:

    Can you point me in a direction to find Peirce’s mention of Tarde in that Nation review? It sounds interesting.


    Leon / after nature

    1. Mark Crosby says:

      Well, I’ll have to search ancient emails. IIRC, this was something mentioned by Gary Richmond on the Peirce list YEARS ago (Jason I’ve subscribed to that list for over a decade ; ) Peirce’s reviews for the NATION are available on CD from the same company that provides the COLLECTED PAPERS on CD, but I don’t have them. Again, my vague recollection is that Peirce was somewhat critical of Tarde, but not in a line-in-the-sand / this-shall-not-pass manner!

    2. Mark Crosby says:

      Leon, here’s what I could find in searching my Peirce-L email archives:
      1) On June 22, 2003, in response to a discussion of Neoplatonism with Clark Goble I cited the following: “NOMINALISM is the doctrine according to which individuals are the sole realities which count … REALISM, on the contrary, considers worthy of attention … only those characteristics by which [the individual] resembles other individuals” (cited from Gabriel Tardes’ 1902 _Laws of Imitation_ by the late Gerard Deledalle in an essay on American Philosophy posted to Peirce-L 2 years ago, 2001-06-29).
      2) On June 4, 2002: — Kenneth Ketner wrote:
      > Mark, that reference to Tarde is definitely in the third volume of Peirce’s Contributions to The Nation, pages 68-70. It goes on for about a paragraph with more examples. In case you don’t have access to Peirce’s Nation reviews, recently a stash of them was found and they are now available – contact Scott Cunningham (email above) for help with that if need be.
      3) Instead of Gary Richmond, it now apprears that it was Tom Gollier who provided the Peirce citation on Gabriel Tarde. Unfortunately, I cannot find any actual citations from Peirce on Tarde.

      1. Mark Crosby says:

        However, with a little help from the Cyclonopedia of GOOGLE, I can impute Peirce’s comments on Gabriel Tarde: Cite #2 in a search on “Peirce Gabriel Tarde” says that “Both Peirce and Dewey were highly critical of the unrestrained pursuit of [‘free-market’ will-to-power – as found in] Gabriel Tarde, “Psychologie economique”, in the Journal of Political Economy”. Peirce made explicit reference to his favorite economist, Thorstein Veblen. I think Peirce was a nascent socialist, but couldn’t admit it given his dire circumstances (reliant on the Harvard establishment for an annual lecture fee !( Peirce had tried to make a living by selling his mail-order courses in Logic for Everyman, but this didn’t work any better then that it would now! In short, Peirce was dismayed by the Robber-Baronism of his last decades. Peirce didn’t like Bernard Mandeville’s FABLE OF THE BEES, perhaps the founding fable of today’s Free-Market Tea Party. For a recent discussion see Mark Stahlman’s (NEWMEDIA) March 1 discussion on NETTIME: http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-1203/msg00005.html. While I think that Peirce was too much of a 19th-c Rationalist to anticipate many of the Problems of Socialism that would become apparent in the 20th century, it’s clear to me that he took a process-relational view of these matters, rather than an object-oriented view, based on Deledalle’s NOMINALISM / REALISM distinctions cited above.

        – Mark (hoping this archaeological digression contributes to, rather than distracts from, Matt’s intentions in this thriving thread ; )

      2. Mark Crosby says:

        Please forgive me one more fable found in the Wayback machine: “On the direction of evidence”, Thursday, September 27, 2001 6:38 PM
        From:”Mark Crosby”
        To :”Peirce Discussion Forum”

        This makes good sense to me, Joe, and I can’t help but compare it to some excerpts from an essay I was just reading; namely, Bruno Latour’s “Gabriel Tarde and the End of the Social”, prepared for a Routledge volume on _The Social and its Problems_, edited by
        Patrick Joyce and accessible at

        Latour adds: “Tarde sends both materialists and
        spiritualists [back] to the drawing board, since they
        both make the distinction between the actions of the
        agent and the laws that act on those agents. To speak
        of laws of nature that would preside over the activity
        of blind atoms, is even more spiritualist than to
        endow those atoms with some will and purposes …
        Materialists believe in ‘mystical commandment’ because
        their epistemology divorces science from what actants
        themselves do when they try to make sense of their own

  5. Leon says:

    Thanks for this research, Mark. I’ll look into some of this.

    Leon/after nature

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