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

Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology)

Adam/Knowledge Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go that Whitehead himself acknowledged that he didn’t sufficiently work out the relationship between God and the World in Process and Reality. I approach Whitehead’s scheme, then, as a hacker might go to work on a buggy program, casting aside what doesn’t work and building on what seems most promising. I think there is something profound about his underlying intuition concerning the divine’s power as that of a persuader, rather than a coercer, even if his explicit formulations seem to fall short of a coherent description of how exactly this would play out metaphysically.

Whitehead’s dipolar deity is intended to be a derivative notion of his conceptual categories. He had far more to say about God’s primordial pole than God’s consequent pole; he mentions the latter only a handful of times, always obscurely, while the former, the primordial pole, fits relatively clearly into his conceptual apparatus as that which values a definite set of eternal objects to provide the aesthetic lures that are the condition for the possibility of a cosmos. God’s primordial nature is eternal and so conditions Creativity, translating its immensity into something that finite actual occasions can decide upon and enjoy as distinct qualitative moments of experience. God’s consequent nature, in turn, is conditioned by Creativity: despite God’s attempt to restrain its relentlessly blind rush toward novelty, Creativity nonetheless breaks through to disturb the ordered universe as the freedom of each finite actual entity to decide upon its own subjective form. Creativity is the constant disruption of the constancy that would otherwise reign over things from eternity. God isn’t just eternal, but also has a consequent pole, which is God’s passive reception of Creativity in the form of the free decisions of all actualities. In God’s consequent pole, God becomes a fellow sufferer with all other creatures in the trammels of physical time.

Perhaps “God”–a term weighed down by thousands of years of ontotheological baggge–is no longer appropriate as a descriptor. Whitehead suggests that his divinity is more like ancient conceptions of a World-Soul, or anima mundi, in that it is involved in and not external to the universe. Indeed, it is in some sense nothing other than the universe itself as a social actuality, or organismic togetherness. The divine is the cosmic animal, the universal organism.

Part of the reason Whitehead was lead to posit a divine function was that he saw no other way to coherently speak cosmologically. If there is no superordinate principle of valuation to bring all finite occasions into harmony, there is no cosmos. There is only the multitude of finite entities. Granted, the harmonious ordering of the universe so miraculously uncovered by the last several centuries of scientific investigation may be entirely contingent. Whitehead’s God is, after all, an accident of Creativity. There is nothing necessary about harmony. What, then, is responsible for an admittedly contingent harmony? Divinity cannot be marshaled as an explanation here, a move that is often and rightly criticized. There is a principle of irreducibility at work in Whitehead similar to that at work in object-oriented ontology described by Adam. For one entity or set of entities to explain another is akin to reducing the explained entity away. Whitehead’s philosophical method has nothing to do with explanation. He describes the task of philosophy as “sheer disclosure,” making it akin to poetry in the sense that its propositional expressions succeed only when they increase, rather than erase, our wonder at the astonishing fact(s) of existence.

To return to the question, then: what is responsible for the contingent order of the universe? Whitehead, like OOO, re-constructed causality in terms of aesthetics. Entities relate to one another erotically, not simply mechanically. All physical motion, active or passive, is emotion. Mechanical interaction is secondary to organic transaction, which is to say that internal relations supersede external relations. Every entity is quite literally inside of every other entity. A tension is generated within this mutual interiorization due to the desire of each entity to exist in and for itself apart from others, which is where the explosion of qualities described so beautifully by Harman (as a “sensual ether”) comes in. So, wherefrom harmony and order? From the erotic lure of beauty calling to each actuality non-coercively compelling it to dance in rhythm with its local nexus. Of course, notes of dissonance are often sounded amidst the song of the spheres, but at least (so far) on the macro scale, these dissonances have been gathered back up into a cosmic chord. For 14 billion years, cosmogenesis has remained harmonious enough to utilize disruption and chaos as an engine for the generation of higher forms of organization again and again. The dissonances erupting within the microcosm of human society are somewhat more troubling… Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil is celebrated by many process theologians, but as I continue to study Schelling (who seems to have taken the difficulty of theodicy more seriously), its becoming apparent that perhaps more needs to be said about the proclivity of humanity to swerve away so drastically from cosmic harmony.  A problem for another post, perhaps… The ontological dimension of evil is admittedly an embarrassing issue to approach in a modern age as self-consciously philanthropic as ours.



15 responses to “Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology)”

  1. normonics Avatar

    Could you comment about your personal religious impulse?

    I think it is interesting that both you and Adam speak in terms of aesthetics. It is always difficult to pin down what makes someone find a thing aesthetically pleasing. From my perspective, this difficulty is part of the reason I would consider some experiences more ‘aesthetic’ than others; I can’t say exactly what about them speaks to me, but I know something does. (I realize that you both are using the term in a more general way, I am using it in its more restricted sense, I suppose.)

    I feel like your drive to champion the idea of the necessity of divinity is foremost an aesthetic impulse. Would you say this is accurate?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      What sort of comment? I find certain teachings and figures from many religious traditions edifying and inspiring. Other aspects I find detestable. I used to identify as “spiritual but not religious,” but then realized how narcissistic that can be, as if “my experience” or “my realizations” are somehow more important than the thousands of years of accumulated religious wisdom.

      When Adam and I talk about the “aesthetics of causality,” we are basically offering a panexperientialist take on the nature of physical interaction. One of the implications is that there simply is no one “true” perspective on any situation; there are always a multitude of perspectives, each one different depending on structure and interests of the creature who is prehending or sensing the situation.

      As for the “necessity” of divinity, I’d want to be careful here. Metaphysically speaking, God is not necessary. God is an accident of creativity, or as Whitehead puts it, “a creature of creativity.” There is nothing necessary about God. What I am arguing, following Whitehead, is that God came to be, and that the evidence of God’s coming to be is the general mathematical order and aesthetic harmony of the universe.

      1. normonics Avatar

        ” I used to identify as “spiritual but not religious,” but then realized how narcissistic that can be, as if “my experience” or “my realizations” are somehow more important than the thousands of years of accumulated religious wisdom.”

        In at least one sense I think they are ‘more important’; in the sense that they will more directly influence your actions than any ‘words on a page’ can. I’m not denying the value of standing on the shoulder of giants, but the words on the page always have to resonate with the self to be ‘internalized’, as it were.

        I wasn’t sure what sort of comment, which is why I left it vague.

        Using ‘aesthetic’ in the more restricted and classical sense, would you agree with my assertion that yours is an aesthetic impulse? In other words, a universe with the ‘divine’ just *feels* right?

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        I wouldn’t deny the importance of direct spiritual experience, but I’ve come to see the importance of situating such experiences in the context of religious tradition. Otherwise its sometimes hard to know what the experiences might mean or what to do with them once they pass.

        As for a universe with the divine feeling right, yeah that may be. Metaphysical justification comes after the intuition.

      3. normonics Avatar

        What I am arguing, following Whitehead, is that God came to be, and that the evidence of God’s coming to be is the general mathematical order and aesthetic harmony of the universe.

        I’m still wondering how this implies finitude of forms

    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Joe: “I’m still wondering how this implies finitude of forms.”

      As I understand Whitehead, one of the functions of divinity is to give Creativity a primordial character; that is, the divine organizes and evaluates the infinite and indeterminate character of creative possibility (the eternal objects). The divine’s primordial evaluation allows the infinity of potential forms of realization to become relevant in any particular case to the concrescence of finite occasions of experience. In other words, without the divine’s evaluative mediation of the infinity of eternal objects, I (or any finite occasion of experience other than myself) would be unable to determine what forms of novelty were relevant to my given circumstances. Maybe a musical example would be helpful: Even if I were listening to the intro of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” for the first time, I’d be able to feel where the notes were going before they were actually sounded.
      This ability to anticipate the harmonious ordering of notes could be attributed to the primordial valuation of the eternal objects. Granted, sometimes notes surprise us, which still makes sense from Whitehead’s perspective, since there are always many forms of novelty relevant to any given circumstance. The divine’s function is simply to grade these forms of relevance so that finite occasions of experience are not overwhelmed by the chaos of possibilities.

      1. normonics Avatar

        I’m going to continue down the path of music as a metaphor:

        Even if I were listening to the intro of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” for the first time, I’d be able to feel where the notes were going before they were actually sounded.

        This is tricky. First, you have heard that piece before, and it is very memorable, so it is difficult to imagine what it would be like to listen to it for the first time (at least for me). I do not recall the first time I heard it, maybe in 2001: Space Odyssey.

        Second, a piece of music does not exist in a vacuum. There is a historical context (in the sense of the history of music), and a developmental context (in the sense that you’ve been hearing music your whole life, presumably). Music is a play on expectation — both confirming hunches and lending surprises. Without that balance it is boring and/or meaningless. So even if you could imagine what it was like to hear that particular song for the first time, it is difficult to imagine how accurate your prediction would be if you had never heard *music* before. I’d venture to guess your anticipation of the notes would not be so great.

        The theoretical aspect of music has long been a passion of mine, both ‘music theory’ proper, and theories having to do with the perception of music. The topic is terribly complex, I’m not at all convinced one needs to appeal to eternal forms in order to account for the quality of music experience, even where anticipation is involved (it’s always involved), and even where a particular piece is ‘new’ to the listener (where newness is very difficult to define given the context of capital M ‘Music’).

        I believe music is infinitely open. I can see no reason why it should be limited or why the possibility of infinite variation would devalue the temporally contextualized particulars. In music, old surprises become new habits, and this subsumption of surprise into habit creates the possibility for different kinds of surprises that were not accessible before the old surprises had turned habitual and could be anticipated. This process begets itself, as the surprises of today turn into the habits of tomorrow. How can we say this chain necessitates an end?

        Not all possible sonic orderings will be ‘music’, but this does not imply there cannot be an infinite variety of music.

        To my mind, a conjecture such as, “harmonious ordering of notes could be attributed to the primordial valuation of the eternal objects” is simply lazy music theory. It claims ot solve the problem without ever exploring it sufficiently.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Yeah good points. I suppose music isn’t the best example here, since we’re dealing with the creative activity of a very high grade form of occasion (humans). Humans participate more fully in the primordial nature of God, and as a result have more freedom, more of a capacity to experience the near infinite potential for novelty.

        What you said about the history of music is very true. That conditions our expectations to some extent. But in terms of music theory, why is it, exactly, that allows us to distinguish harmony from dissonance?

      3. normonics Avatar

        Harmony and dissonance appear to obey a pretty simple principle: small whole-number ratios of frequency (or approximations of them) sound more harmonious. For example 1:1 is a unison (identity), 2:1 is an octave (sounds somehow like the same quality while being different in pitch), 3:2 is perfect fifth (very harmonious, it was introduced into music accidentally by chanting monks mistaking it for a unison or octave) etc.

        An aspect that, to me, is more mysterious, is why certain harmonious orderings sound ‘happy’ while others ‘sad’. A ‘major 3rd’ with a ‘minor third’ stacked on top of it sounds happy. Conversely a ‘minor 3rd’ with a ‘major 3rd’ above it sounds sad. I have no idea why this is.

  2. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards

    Matthew: given your deep interest in whitehead et al, i recommend you metabolize deleuze.

    this week joshua ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze – Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal was published by Duke. i think you’ll find it very illuminating and extremely relevant to your overall project.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Wow! Thanks, Bobby. I’ve just read the introduction (available on scribd.com) and immediately ordered a copy. It is definitely relevant.

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