Whitehead’s Final Interpretation of Reality: God and the World

Whitehead tells us at the start of the final part of Process & Reality (“Final Interpretation”) that the chief danger in philosophy is narrowness in the selection of evidence. For many modern, scientifically inclined philosophers, this narrowness has taken the form of an all too easy rejection of the world’s religious traditions and the religious experience which gave rise to and continues to inform them. Intellectual chauvinism has led many modern scientific materialists to claim that, given the available scientific evidence, atheism is the only rational position. From Whitehead’s point of view, the history of religious experience is part of the data that any adequate cosmological scheme must incorporate. There is something of great philosophical significance in the religious and spiritual intuitions of human beings, even if these intuitions represent “exceptional elements in our conscious experience,” as Whitehead admits (PR 343). He also reminds us that “the present level of average waking human experience was at one time exceptional” among our ancestors (AoI 294). It is the job of philosophy to elucidate the significance of these rare mystical experiences, to find a systematic place for them in the wider scheme such that the average level of our species’ waking consciousness may continue to deepen.

Philosophy has tended to collapse reality into one or the other of the “ideal opposites” explicated by Whitehead: Permanence and Flux. Plato, for example, over-emphasized the “eminent reality” of permanence by raising his Eternal Forms above the physical world of ever-shifting sensory experience. The world of Ideas was considered ultimate, while the world of physical sensations was demoted to “mere appearance,” or worse, “illusion.” On the other end of the philosophical spectrum, David Hume completely disregarded what Whitehead refers to as “the everlasting elements in the passage of fact” (PR 338). For Hume, only sensory impressions are real, while ideas are merely agglomerations of impressions. All is flux; permanence is an illusion.

Whitehead’s more integral goal is to find a way to think these ideal opposites in a complementary way, such that each is understood to require the other for its meaning. For Whitehead, “perfect realization” is not a timeless perfection (as it was for Plato); rather, perfection “implants timelessness on what in its essence is passing” (PR 338). This is another way of expressing the meaning of the ingression of eternal objects into actual occasions. Think of a sunset: its beauty is haunted by eternal values even as the sun continues to sink below the horizon into darkness. Its passing, its perpetual perishing, somehow enhances its eternal beauty, rather than subtracting from it. There is perhaps something tragic in this interplay between eternal value and temporal activity, but from Whitehead’s point of view, tragedy may indeed be the highest form of beauty that our universe is capable of realizing.

Whitehead defines the “religious problem” (i.e., the general existential issue that all religions attempt to address each in their own way) as follows: “whether the process of the temporal world passes into the formation of other actualities, bound together in an order in which novelty does not mean loss” (PR 340). One of the profound dilemmas of human experience is that, while we crave novelty, we are also haunted by the loss of the past. In Whitehead’s process theology, one source of evil arises from the fact that the past fades, that time has the nature of “perpetual perishing.” Thus, one of God’s functions in the world is to preserve the past (this is God’s consequent nature). God is not an “unmoved mover” or an “imperial ruler,” but a “fellow-sufferer who understands” (PR 351). Whitehead says that God does not create the world, he saves it: God’s infinite patience allows for the preservation of all our sufferings, sorrows, failures, and triumphs. Nothing that occurs in the universe is lost; all is taken up into God’s experience to become unified with his consequent nature. This grants all actual occasions a kind of immortality, though it is not the personal sort promised us by traditional interpretations of Christian heaven. Each actual occasion of experience, though it may be trivial in the value it achieves in itself (if it is a puff of smoke in far off empty space, for example), in perishing becomes an immortal contribution to the greater end realized in God’s ever-enriched, ever-deepening consequent nature. God prehends each finite actual occasion not only for what it is (thus, God shares in each occasion’s world view), but for what it can be within God’s perfected nature. The only immortality we enjoy comes from the sense of transcendent value we experience as we perish beyond ourselves and pass into the eternal life of God.

God’s other function in the world (God’s primordial nature) is to provide the “initial Eros” or “eternal urge of desire” that lures each finite actual occasion toward the most beautiful possibilities available to it given its local circumstances. God’s primordial nature conditions the otherwise unlimited potentialities of Creativity, ordering the realm of eternal objects so as to make this otherwise infinite sphere of potential relevant to each actual occasion’s needs. Actual occasions are not determined by the initial aim provided by God: they still have creative independence from God (God, too, is a creature of Creativity). But God assists finite occasions in their decision as to how to concresce by preventing them from being overwhelmed by the entire infinite array of possibilities all at once. The “initial aim” provided by God grades these possibilities so those that are not immediately relevant are largely negatively prehended by the occasion in question. All particular occasions of experience presuppose the conceptual order provided by God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of eternal objects. God presupposes only the general metaphysical character of the creative advance.

In the final chapters of Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead articulates the same ultimate interpretation, but now in terms like Beauty, Adventure, and Peace instead of using theological language. He tells us that the purpose of the universe is the production of beauty. He tells us that beauty is more fundamental than truth, and that truth’s importance arises because of its beauty. This is not to say that truth (or the conformation of appearance with reality) is unimportant; it is rather that truth without beauty is, in a general metaphysical sense, boring. That is, it lacks importance, it fails to increase the intensity of value realized in the universe, and instead just reiterates the obvious. Similarly, beauty without truth is shallow, since it fails to penetrate to the deeper feelings inherent in the cosmic process: “The truth of supreme beauty lies beyond the dictionary meaning of words” (AoI 267). Beauty without truth is merely pleasing appearance. True beauty is what occurs when appearance elucidates and amplifies the finer textures of reality for experience.

Whitehead defines art as the “purposeful adaptation of appearance to reality” (AoI 267). Consciousness, which results from a heightened contrast between actuality and ideality in an occasion of experience, is that factor in the universe that renders art possible. In some sense, consciousness itself is an evolutionary expression of nature’s artistry. In other words, it is via artistic expression that nature has educated itself by growing more conscious. Said otherwise, art is the appropriation by consciousness of the infinite fecundity of nature. Art, Whitehead tells us, is a little oblivious as to morals. It focuses, instead, on adventure. From the perspective of artistic creation, the Day of Judgment is always with us: art is in the business of “[rendering] the Day of Judgment a success, now” (AoI 269).

Whitehead defines Peace as a trust in the efficacy of beauty. We achieve consciousness of Peace when we rest in that “deep feeling of an aim in the Universe, winning such triumph as is possible for it” (AoI 286).  Peace requires of us that we find some balance between our stoic acceptance of the impersonal order of the cosmos and our devotion to loving relationships of a more personal sort.