[Conclusion] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Conclusion: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead239

 “The religious insight is the grasp of this truth: That the order of the world, the depth of reality of the world, the value of the world in its whole and in its parts, the beauty of the world, the zest of life, the peace of life, and the mastery of evil, are all bound together–not accidentally, but by reason of this truth: that the universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but that this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God.” -Whitehead240

“This, then, in keeping with our likely account, is how we must say divine providence generated the actual world as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence.” -Plato241

Whitehead suggests that Newton’s Scholium and Plato’s Timaeus “are the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought.”242 Although the Scholium provides “an immensely able statement of details” applicable to the deduction of truths within a specific domain of physical activity, its deductive prowess “conveys no hint of the limits of its own application.”243 Newton’s abstract conceptions of space, time, and matter as ready-made, and of eternal laws imposed by a transcendent designer, were undeniably useful, in that they provided the paradigmatic basis for two centuries of scientific progress. But the tremendous instrumental success of the Newtonian scheme had the practical effect of leading many to fall into the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by overgeneralizing its simplified abstractions as if they could explain the full complexity of concrete reality. “The Scholium betrays its abstractness,” writes Whitehead,

by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of generation, of φύσις, of natura naturans, which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely, and completely, there, externally designed and obedient.244

As was discussed in the prior section, Whitehead’s generalization of evolutionary theory requires that both potentiality and actuality be ingredient in any concrete depiction of nature. Nature as already produced, as natura naturata, as simply there and entirely actualized, provides only half the picture. Unlike the static cosmos of Newton, who Whitehead believes would have been confused by the modern doctrine of evolution, Plato articulated a cosmological scheme involving the emergence of order out of an original chaos, an account which already implicitly suggests an evolutionary process.245 There are aspects of Plato’s Timaeus that may seem foolish today, but “what it lacks in superficial detail,” according to Whitehead, “it makes up for by its philosophic depth.”246 This depth has allowed Plato’s speculative cosmology to outlast Newton’s more arbitrary construction. The theory of cosmogenesis offered by the latter, involving “a wholly transcendent God creating out of nothing an accidental universe,” has been abandoned by contemporary physicists and process theologians alike as gratuitous.

Plato’s account of cosmogenesis, in contrast, avoids the Newtonian theory of creatio ex nihilo. Instead, the cosmos is said to emerge from the interplay of divine intelligence (νοῦς) and physical necessity (ἀνάγκη), such that the divine cannot violently command but must erotically persuade the cosmos to take shape out of chaos.247 The Greek word ἀνάγκη means not only “necessity,” but also connotes “need” or “urge”: apropos Whitehead’s creative retrieval of Plato’s scheme, this suggests that God, whose primordial conceptual pole is itself deficient in actuality, necessarily experiences a yearning after concrete fact.248 This yearning is productive of the consequent physical pole of God, which lovingly receives the freely actualized decisions of every finite occasion, no matter how discordant, into the harmony of its completed nature.249 “The action of God is its relation,” writes process theologian Catherine Keller,

–by feeling and so being felt, the divine invites the becoming of the other; by feeling the becoming of the other, the divine itself becomes…[affirming] an oscillation between divine attraction and divine reception, invitation and sabbath.250

Their are many other parallels to Whitehead’s cosmotheogony in Timaeus. The usual translation of one particularly relevant passage is as follows:

The god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as was possible, and so he took over (παραλαμβάνω) all that was visible–not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion–and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order…251

The phrase “took over” (παραλαμβάνω) is misleading if interpreted only actively and not also passively: in this case, as both taking over responsibility for forming, and at the same time receiving the givenness of chaos.252 This double sense of παραλαμβάνω mirrors Whitehead’s dipolar conception of divinity as both conceptually active in envisaging the abstractive hierarchy of eternal objects and physically passive in receiving the multiplicity of finite concrescent occasions into its everlasting concrescence. The divine, for both Whitehead and Plato, is not an all-powerful creator, but an all-preserving co-creator:

He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.253

Although Plato attempts in Timaeus, and Whitehead in Process and Reality, to articulate the most rational account possible of the genesis of the universe, in the end they found it necessary, due to the obscurity of their topic, to speak mythically by telling a “likely story” (εικώς μύθος). The Greek word εικώς is sometimes translated as “probable,” meaning likely but not entirely certain (“it goes something like this…”). As with the translations above, this choice can be misleading. The translation of εικώς as “likely” conveys the superficial meaning of “probable,” but this rendering should not obscure the subtler meaning of “likeness,” closely associated with the Greek word for “icon” or “image” (εἰκών). In Plato’s cosmogenic myth, the universe is said to be the most beautiful image that it was possible for the divine to co-create. The beauty of a thing being a result of the noetic order and harmony it radiates, it follows that the divine had to find some way to imbue the cosmic image with intelligence. Because “νοῦς [intelligence] cannot be present in anything without soul [ψυχή],” the God made the universe as a living creature or animal (ζῷον), a being endowed with soul.254

It is at this point that a tension emerges in Plato’s story. Although not all-powerful, the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus is described as a maker, or artisan. It is strange that the Cosmic Animal, or World-Soul, is said to have been made by the Demiurge, since normally living creatures are not fabricated by an artisan, they are born. This raises questions about how Plato conceives of divinity. “To find the maker and father of this universe is hard enough,” writes Plato, “and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.”255 There has been much commentary over the ages concerning the meaning of this double designation of the Platonic God as both “maker” and “father.” Plutarch’s interpretation is helpful, if not entirely elucidatory:

[In] the case of a maker, his work, when done, is separated from him, whereas the origination and force emanating from the parent is blended in the offspring…which is a…part of the procreator…[The] cosmos is not like products that have been molded and fitted together but has in it a large portion of vitality and divinity, which god sowed from himself in the matter and mixed with it.256

The Demiurge, then, is a maker, but a fatherly maker whose life force is wedded with that which has been brought to birth. Still, it seems awkward, to say the least, that the cosmos is said to have been born from a single male parent. Plato resolves this tension by introducing another cast member into his cosmogonic drama: the Receptacle (ὑποδοχή), or “wetnurse of all becoming.”257 Whereas the fatherly Demiurge is said to beget the beautiful form of the cosmos, the motherly Receptacle is said to bear it.258 Plato’s account of the Receptacle is meant to be an accessible image for a closely related, but far more obscure concept, that of the Khora (Χώρα). The Khora is described as the “third kind” mediating between the eternal being of the Ideas and the becoming of the cosmic image. “Its nature,” writes Plato,

is to be available for anything to make its impression upon, and it is modified, shaped and reshaped by the things that enter it…The things that enter and leave it are images of those things that always are [Ideas/ειδών], imprinted after their likeness in a marvelous way that is hard to describe…It is in fact appropriate to compare the receiving thing to a mother, the source to a father, and the nature [physis/φύσις] between them to their offspring.259

The Cosmic Animal or World-Soul, then, is the offspring of the khoric mother and eidetic father. While standard readings of Plato’s written corpus tend to fall into a two-world interpretation, where physical becoming is said to poorly imitate perfect metaphysical being, ambiguities in Plato’s account make it difficult to determine whether, in generating an ensouled cosmos, the separation between the eternal Ideas and the becoming of the physical cosmos is canceled.260 From Whitehead’s perspective, this ambiguity can be hermeneutically massaged to save Plato from the incoherence of dualism. After all, Plato himself explicitly disclaimed “the possibility of an adequate philosophical system” that might permit the “variousness of the Universe…to be fathomed by our intellects.”261 Whitehead’s reformed Platonism insists upon the worldly immanence of the divine, thereby erasing any ultimate separation between the Demiurge and the Receptacle. Instead, their supposed offspring, the World-Soul, is said to supply the universe’s harmonious tendencies through the dipolarity of its own nature. Conceiving of the World-Soul as an emanation issuing from a transcendent deity, as some Platonic interpreters have done, “obscures the ultimate question of the relation of reality as permanent with reality as fluent”; the coherence of Whitehead’s scheme requires, in contrast, that the Cosmic Animal be understood as a mediator, sharing in the natures of eternity and time alike.262 The Cosmic Animal is not a free creation of an acosmic divine architect, but a creature of Creativity.

Whitehead reads Timaeus as offering an account of a World-Soul

whose active grasp of ideas conditions impartially the whole process of the Universe…[and] on whom depends that degree of orderliness which the world exhibits.263

Without this active grasp by the living intelligence of the mediating World-Soul, the ideas would remain frozen and lifeless and would have no way of characterizing actuality or partaking in the creative process of cosmogenesis. Plato further describes the way the Cosmic Animal “contains within itself all the living things whose nature it is to share its kind.”264 As Whitehead puts it, the organic process of each actual occasion “repeats in microcosm what the universe is in macrocosm.”265 It is this correspondence between the World-Soul and the varying grades of finite souls, including humans, that affirms the co-creative role of every organism, no matter how seemingly insignificant: “all [play] their part in conditioning nature by the inherent persuasiveness of ideas.”266 An erotic ferment inwardly permeates every creature, persuading all ever onward toward novel intensities of harmonic experience. In this sense, Eros, the divine element in the world, functions less to preserve stability than to evoke intensity.267 For example, even stars, our sidereal ancestors, are not everlasting: only by way of their sacrificial death could the heavier elemental creatures required for biological life have been brought forth. Similarly, the upward trend of biological evolution towards more complex species depends upon a selective process whereby the inability of an individual organism to adapt its way of life to changing circumstances “[entails] the death penalty for impertinence.”268 The cosmic desire for the intensification of experience is more powerful than the private fear of death. “It is in this way,” writes Whitehead,

that the immediacy of sorrow and pain is transformed into an element of triumph. This is the notion of redemption through suffering which haunts the world.269

Whitehead calls the process of erotic evocation of intensities by the World-Soul, whereby egoistic aims are sublimated by their inclusion in a greater whole, a “Supreme Adventure.”270 He describes the Adventure as an inverted renovation of Plato’s Receptacle, a “medium of intercommunication” necessary for the unity of all things.271 While the Receptacle is “void,” “bare of all forms,” “and abstract from all individual occasions,” the Adventure includes “the living urge towards all possibilities…[realizable by] the [actual] occasions of the advancing world each claiming its due share of attention.”272 The divine dimension of the cosmos, the World-Soul, is the “Great Fact” explicatory of our Supreme Adventure. As discussed above, the divine nature is dipolar, including a primordial and a consequent aspect, or as Whitehead also describes them, an “initial Eros” and a “final Beauty.” Whitehead’s poetic genius reaches its highest pitch when he reflects upon this Great Fact in the concluding lines of Adventures of Ideas:

It is the immanence of the Great Fact including this initial Eros and this final Beauty which constitutes the zest of self-forgetful transcendence belonging to Civilization at its height. At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps tragic Beauty. This is the secret of the union of Zest with Peace:–That the suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies…In this way the World receives its persuasion towards such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions.273

While the World-Soul’s primordial valuation of the multiplicity of eternal objects is unchanging “by reason of its final completeness,” its consequent feeling of the evolving multiplicity of actual occasions remains always incomplete.274 In this sense, although the community of finite organic occasions makes up the unity of the Cosmic Animal, the latter “is not a static organism”; rather, “[it] is an incompletion in process of production.”275 Process theologian Roland Faber has described Whitehead’s theology of becoming as an “eschatological ad-vent” wherein the divine is caught up in the always ongoing adventure of all that was, is, and will be.276 The ensouled universe is therefore best described not simply as Whole, or as One, but as an

open movement of wholeness that cannot be united by any rational account [because it] harbors the Eros of unpredictable novelty and incommensurable diversity.277

Whitehead’s emphasis on openness and diversity makes comparisons with neo-Platonist schemes of the emanation of the Cosmic Animal from the “One beyond being and non-being,” as Plotinus and Proclus often described it,278 rather troublesome. Nonetheless, physicist Simon Malin argues that Whitehead’s approach is in some ways complemented by such schemes, wherein a process of divine effulgence or “overflowing” leads to the ordered involution of a series of stages:

Thus the One produces Nous, Nous produces Soul, Soul produces nature, and nature produces the sensible world…In the case of the World Soul…it is the contemplation of the perfect intelligence and order of the Nous that gives rise, as a kind of unintentional overflow, to the order of nature.279

While some analogy can be drawn between the Nous and Whitehead’s conception of the primordial nature of God, in the emanationist scheme, the many actual occasions of the physical world are given no agency or co-creative role whatsoever, nor is God attributed with a consequent nature allowing it to become-with the many occasions of the world as our fellow-sufferer. Whitehead dismissed such overly rationalized schemes because they lack the experiential adequacy demanded by our religious intuitions of a God who feels and can be felt, and our aesthetic intuitions of a continually creative cosmos. “God is in the world, or nowhere,” writes Whitehead,

creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts…In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death…to…irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.280

The rationality of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme remains provisional, experimental, imaginative, and always pluralistic. It is an “adventure of hope,” not a search for the certainty of a final systematic theory that would “explain away” mystery.281 For Whitehead, not only does philosophy begin in wonder, “at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”282 Whiteheadian rationality is guided by a unwavering commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself.”283 To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of relationality. Instead of anxiously running from the abyssal chaos at the root of all things in search of the secure Ground offered by traditional accounts of a One beyond being, or an omnipotent Creator, Whitehead celebrates the “within-beyond” of a groundless “creative drive undermining any static dichotomy between cosmos and chaos.”284 God, a creature of Creativity like each of us, suffers and enjoys the unpredictable adventures of a chaosmos in which “everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.”285


239 Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 164.

240 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 106.

241 Plato, Timaeus, 30b-c.

242 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

243 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

244 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

245 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93, 95.

246 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

247 John Sallis, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 91.

248 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 33.

249 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 349.

250 Keller, Face of the Deep, 198.

251 Plato, Timaeus, 30a.

252 Sallis, Chorology, 57.

253 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

254 Sallis, Chorology, 57-58.

255 Plato, Timaeus, 28c.

256 Plutarch, Platonic Questions, II, 1; quoted in Sallis, Chorology, 52n7.

257 Plato, Timaeus, 49a.

258 Sallis, Chorology, 58n14.

259 Plato, Timaeus, 50c-d.

260 Sallis, Chorology, 69-70.

261 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 52. Whitehead is here referring to Plato’s discussion in his Seventh Letter written to Dion’s followers.

262 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 130.

263 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 147.

264 Plato, Timaeus, 31a.

265 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 215.

266 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 148.

267 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 105.

268 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 112.

269 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 350.

270 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 294-295.

271 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 134.

272 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 295.

273 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 296.

274 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 345.

275 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 214-215.

276 Roland Faber, “De-ontologizing God: Levinas, Deleuze, and Whitehead,” in Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms, eds. Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 222-223.

277 Roland Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos: For a More Deleuzian Whitehead,” in Secrets of Becoming: Negotiating Whitehead, Deleuze, and Butler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 158, 163.

278 Following Plato, Republic 509b and Parmenides 137cf.

279 Simon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012), 201-202.

280 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 297.

281 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42; Adventures of Ideas, 174.

282 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168.

283 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

284 Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos,” 165.

285 Borges, “Happiness,” 441.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Troublesome indeed; I wonder why I am so perturbed…

    “So Intellect, by giving something of itself to matter, made all things in unperturbed quietness; this something of itself is the rational formative principle flowing from Intellect.” (Enneads; III-2-2)

  2. bminder26 says:

    i think this is simply wonderful. i am not a scholar, but have a genuine, long-standing
    involvement in philosophical thought and the history of philosophy and so depend on ‘second’ sources within my reach. this article is a prize… as whitehead and not just plato, but plato’s timaeus have been an interest of mine for a long time. one difficult work i did manage to read this year and was deeply moved by was Professor Charles Bigger’s ‘participation: a platonic inquiry,’ which featured the timaeus. do you know this work? thank you again. bob minder

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