The Purpose and Profundity of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (a reply to Massimo Pigliucci)

The following is a response to Massimo Pigliucci’s recent blog post about process metaphysics and Whitehead. I keep a relatively close eye on Pigliucci’s philosophical work, as there is plenty of convergence in our views on several issues, including, as he says in his title, “the promise of process metaphysics.”

Despite some convergences, I part ways with Pigliucci on the issue of the place of consciousness in the physical world. A couple of years ago, I penned a defense of panpsychism in response to an article Pigliucci published in The Side View. This divergence is also at play in the present exchange, but it is not front and center. While I have characterized Whitehead’s process-relational ontology as a species of panpsychism (or, better, “panexperientialism,” as David Ray Griffin has suggested), I’ve come to realize that there’s as much distance between his process-relational version of the doctrine and, say, Philip Goff’s substance-quality version, as there is between either and materialism or idealism (see my recent dialogue with Goff). For a recent treatment of the relevance of Whitehead’s panexperientialism to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, see this journal article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020). I won’t be dwelling on this issue here.

In his latest post, I was glad to see Pigliucci engage more deeply with some of Whitehead’s ideas, but his accounts of the motivations and key categories of Whitehead’s scheme are misleading. Whitehead a “dead weight”? I don’t think so. Sure, it is a heavy lift to study and understand his admittedly dense and complex metaphysical scheme, but this will always be true of pathbreaking philosophical work aimed at nothing short of a ground-up reconstruction of the explanatory categories of natural science, and as we’ll see, much else besides.

Pigliucci begins with Heraclitus’ line that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” which could be read as the inaugural statement of the process metaphysical project. But Pigliucci wants to make clear that he rejects the speculative arm-chair approach to metaphysics that he thinks culminated with Descartes’ foundationalist attempt to balance the entire world upon his own thinking. So far so good, as Whitehead also explicitly rejected the idea of metaphysics as a foundationalist project.

Pigliucci goes on to put forward what I think is a pretty good definition of scientism, which is the view that: “natural science [has] replaced metaphysics as the method by which we find out how things are.” Pigliucci does not provide us with an account of exactly what natural science is, which makes sense, as I suspect that would involve doing a bit of metaphysics. Whitehead’s reasons for turning to metaphysics (after a successful career as a mathematician and physicist) provides a revealing contrast to Pigliucci’s triumphalist myth about the replacement of philosophy by science. Whitehead turned to metaphysics precisely because the early 20th century revolutions in physics had revealed the complete inadequacy of the old substantivist, mechanistic ontology that modern science had been presupposing since Descartes. He wrote in 1925:

“The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. …What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? If science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations.”

Science and the Modern World, p. 25.

Whitehead was no mere critic, however. He was a profoundly constructive thinker whose “Philosophy of Organism” inherited the pluralistic, evolutionary, and radically empirical psychology of William James and systematized it with the findings of quantum and relativistic physics as part of an endeavor “to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (Process & Reality, p. 3). This is the meaning of metaphysics, for Whitehead: generality of description. The search for generalities is not a task that could be replaced by the special sciences; rather, it is an effort to bring interpretive coherence to the findings of natural science so that what we learn through its methods hangs together with the rest of the hard-core common sense presuppositions of human coexistence (e.g., that consciousness and volition are not epiphenomenal illusions).

Of course, metaphysics could not adequately engage in its task without the special sciences. Pigliucci goes on to soften his earlier “replacement thesis” by admitting that there is still a role for metaphysics in the clarification of concepts so as to fit all the scientific puzzle pieces together. He thinks process metaphysics is the best candidate for this job, and here I am in complete agreement.

“By far the most promising approach to that aim is process metaphysics, which — as German-American philosopher Nicholas Rescher put it — regards ‘reality not [as] a constellation of things at all, but one of processes. The fundamental ‘stuff’ of the world is not material substance, but volatile flux.’ This is distinct from what has been mainstream metaphysics for a long time. Another pre-Socratic, Parmenides, regarded change as entirely illusory. And the most influential metaphysicians of all time, Plato and his student Aristotle, posited that reality is timeless, made of unchanging essences.”


Plato is perhaps the most caricatured philosopher of all time, which makes sense since he left us with only aporetic dialogues, rather than definitive doctrines. In other words, he speaks to us only through the mouths of his characters, which leaves some doubt as to what his true philosophic views are. With that caveat in mind, I’d argue that his cosmological dialogue the Timaeus was more an attempt to synthesize the Heraclitean and Parmenidean views, but that’s a topic for another post. Pigliucci goes on:

“One very strong reason to adopt process- rather than object-based metaphysics is because that’s the way science has been leaning for a while. James Ladyman and Don Ross make the most compelling empirically based case for process metaphysics in their masterpiece, Every Thing Must Go, though they call the resulting approach ‘naturalized metaphysics.’ The idea is that physicists are increasingly showing that there are no objects (i.e., particles) at the bottom of reality but rather, at best, fields, and at the most speculative not even those (Ladyman and Ross talk — provocatively — about basic reality being characterized by ‘relations without relata,’ that is points in a field where the points are not really ‘made’ of anything).”


Despite some Whiteheadian quibbles about whether a point-free mereotopology (such as that articulated in Part IV of Process & Reality) would better characterize the relational continuum underlying all apparent “things,” there is a lot of convergence here. Reality is relational all the way down. That said, Whitehead was also an atomist of sorts and did attempt to retain a process-compatible sense of individuality. Unlike Newton’s atoms, which are pushed and pulled around by external relations and transcendently imposed laws, Whitehead’s atoms are intra-dependent (that is, internally related) “drops of experience” or “actual occasions,” whose dipolar becoming can be analyzed in terms of both a physical and a mental pole, and whose sociohistorical coordinations give rise to emergent behavioral habits. Whitehead was only very marginally influenced by that other giant of American philosophy, Charles Sanders Peirce, as they seem to have independently arrived at an understanding of physical habit as a less ontotheological rendering of what classical physics defined in terms of “law.” I mention this as it is important to distinguish Whitehead’s experientially-grounded (i.e., radically empirical) process theology from the sort of ontotheology criticized by Kant and Heidegger. In his rejection of eternal “laws” in favor of evolutionarily emergent “habits,” Whitehead’s cosmology is actually a critique of the residual ontotheology of mechanistic physics, which even today unwittingly carries forward the deist assumptions that were intrinsic to Descartes’ and Newton’s conceptions of the order of nature as determined once and for all by the transcendent will of an omnipotent God.

Pigliucci next turns to Whitehead. After a few nods to the value of his “holistic” and scientifically-informed approach to metaphysics, and a dismissive quip about the supposedly anti-scientific basis of panpsychism (which is a total misunderstanding), the criticisms begin. Overall, Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s influence has spoiled process metaphysics.

After introducing Whitehead’s key category—the actual entity or actual occasion—Pigliucci’s first criticism concerns the way Whitehead supposedly divides up nature into artificial levels:

“I don’t think there is any reason to retain this kind of obfuscatory language. … From a scientific perspective, all these levels are part of a continuum, possibly characterized by emergent properties.”


This punch totally misses its target, as Whitehead’s is clearly a “flat ontology,” in that it aims to describe all levels of emergent complexity in nature in the same general metaphysical terms as the “concrescence” (another key category) of actual occasions (here is a timestamped video link of my latest attempt to explain “concrescence” using a cartoon). I am not sure what Pigliucci may have read to give him his mistaken assumptions here. In his various metaphysical texts, Whitehead offers different rough sketches of emergent levels in nature (just as natural science does when it speaks the special languages of particle physics, astrophysics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, etc.), but always explicitly acknowledges “the aspect of continuity between these different modes,” the way they “shade off into each other” (Modes of Thought, p. 157). Indeed, Whitehead’s critique of what he termed “the bifurcation of nature” makes his holistic cosmological view even more continuous than a still implicitly dualistic scientific materialism (which places our first-person conscious experience distinctly outside and epiphenomenal to an otherwise merely material nature). Whitehead was led to a variety of panexperientialist ontology precisely because he is committed to a continuity between mind and nature:

“Scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the presupposition that mental functionings are not properly part of nature. Accordingly it disregards all those mental antecedents which mankind habitually presupposes as effective in guiding cosmological functionings. As a method this procedure is entirely justifiable, provided that we recognize the limitations involved. These limitations are both obvious and undefined. The gradual eliciting of their definition is the hope of philosophy… [This] sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. We find ourselves living within nature. [Thus,] we should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature. … [We] should reject the notion of idle wheels in the process of nature. Every factor which emerges makes a difference, and that difference can only be expressed in terms of the individual character of that factor. … [We] have now the task of defining natural facts, so as to understand how mental occurrences are operative in conditioning the subsequent course of nature.

Modes of Thought, p. 156

Note that Whitehead admits the erasure of mental functionings from nature is entirely justifiable as a method. The problem is when this useful methodological short-cut slides into a metaphysical presupposition. Whitehead’s mature metaphysical view as articulated in Process & Reality broadly distinguishes between two types of analysis: 1) genetic analysis of the becoming of actual occasions (a concrete view of the universe from within, as it were), and 2) coordinate analysis of the extensive continuum characterizing the relations among these occasions. The latter mode of analysis considers the universe from the outside, as natura naturata (to use the classical Latin terminology for “nature-as-product”), thus bracketing the mental functionings (the natura naturans, or “nature-as-process”) so as to abstractly characterize the behavior of entities in relativistic spacetime. Coordinate division is what makes scientific measurement possible, but in Whitehead’s view, this is only half the story. The universe is a creative advance into novelty, not the mere re-arrangement of pre-existing particles. Thus, his philosophy includes the elaboration of a genetic account of how actual occasions of experience arise out of their past, enjoy themselves in the present, and perish so as to contribute their experiential perspective to the future. A philosophy of nature that considers only the coordinate division of simply located objects in spacetime commits the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” writ large. Not only does it ignore the role of quantum potentia and discreteness in the becoming of nature, it makes of our human mental functions a monstrous aberration in an otherwise well-behaved cosmos. A fully concrete and metaphysically coherent account of the cosmos must make room for mentality, even if the function of mind in the inorganic realm studied by physics and chemistry is nascent enough to be mostly negligible. I say “mostly” because even in particle and astro-physics there’s already plenty of evidence of the creative realization of potentia (i.e., quantum decisions) and a pronounced tilt toward the self-organization of higher and higher grades of complexity (e.g., emergent evolution of protons out of quarks, of atoms out of protons and electrons, of stars and galaxies out of atoms, etc.). The physical world is not a billiard table engaged in the mere rearrangement of pre-existing parts. It is rather an open-ended process of emergence of wholes nested within wholes at every scale, a process that Whitehead characterizes in terms of “societies” of actual occasions. The most widespread such society in our cosmic epoch Whitehead calls the “electromagnetic society,” and its established habits provide a background of order that shelters all the more complex activity taking place among and within us here on Earth. This brief account obviously does not do justice to the intricacy of Whitehead’s scheme, but I’ve tried to outline the main points so as to make clear what Pigliucci’s characterization has badly muddled. For more on the two types of analysis introduced above, check out my lecture on Part IV of Process & Reality.

Next on Pigliucci’s list of criticisms is, unsurprisingly, Whitehead’s concept of God. I’ll quote Pigliucci below and then respond at length to each sentence:

“Unfortunately, Whitehead makes one gigantic exception to his rule that all actual entities are occasions of experience: god. The deity is understood by Whitehead as being both temporal and atemporal, leading to something called process theology. Setting aside that this raises the possibility of logical contradiction, I just don’t think there is any reason at all — and certainly no empirically, science informed reason — to think that any gods exist,  so process metaphysics in the hands of Whitehead here takes a decidedly wrong turn.” 


On the charge of theological exceptionalism, I’ll begin by letting Whitehead speak for himself: “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process & Reality, p. 343). As was mentioned earlier, Whitehead’s is a flat ontology, wherein everything is to be describable in the same categoreal terms. It follows that “God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process & Reality, p. 18). Clearly, Whitehead’s intention was not to make reference to God as a “gigantic exception,” but rather as the “chief exemplification” of an actual entity. To be fair to Pigliucci, this is a matter of some dispute among process theologians, since there are some significant differences in Whitehead’s characterization of the divine entity—the primordial creature of Creativity—as compared to other experient creatures. God’s concrescence unfolds in reverse order to that of finite creatures: God’s mental pole (logically) precedes God’s physical pole. In the case of finite occasions, which always already find their (co)existence amidst that of others,—emerging out of the perished occasions of their past into the subjective immediacy of their present before launching themselves into objective immortality in the hopes of influencing the occasions of the future,—their origination is in the physical pole while their satisfaction is achieved in the mental pole. God’s concrescence begins with the private satisfaction of the mental pole, as “the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality” (Process & Reality, p. 343). In other words, as the first creature of Creativity (which is the ultimate category in Whitehead’s scheme, roughly equivalent to what contemporary physicists refer to as the quantum vacuum), God’s function is to give some definite value or character to the otherwise indefinite field of unrealized logical possibilities that go into shaping an actual world. God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of pure potentials (or “eternal objects”) does not determine precisely how the world comes to be; rather, God’s primordial values function as an erotic lure within the world, a goad to finite occasions of experience so as to tilt cosmic becoming toward the emergence of complexity. Finite actual occasions must decide how to become for themselves, but God’s “initial aim” is inherited in their physical poles as a mirror disclosing to each occasion its own potential for greatness (Religion in the Making, p. 139). God’s physical pole, then, is the divine reception of how each and every occasion of experience decides to actualize itself, in light of its unique situation. God’s primordial mental pole is thus complemented by a consequent physical pole, whereby God functions in the role of “a fellow-sufferer” (Process & Reality, p. 351).

Whitehead insists that his process God is one God, not two. The distinction between primordial and consequent natures, as too the distinction between the mental and physical poles of any occasion, is an exercise in rational abstraction in an effort to better understand the necessary ingredients of concrete reality. Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s attempt to hold together the eternal and the temporal in one creature “raises the possibility of logical contradiction.” Indeed, it is not just in God that Whitehead tries to turn these apparently contradictory notions into a dynamic complementarity: every occasion of experience is said to participate in both concrete actuality (via what he calls “prehension”) and eternal possibility (via what he calls “ingression”). Here we have to address Whitehead’s process-relational critique of Aristotelian substance-property logic, including the sacrosanct rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. Whitehead praises and indeed inherits Aristotle’s “masterly analysis of the notion of ‘generation'” (Process & Reality, p. 209), and admits that “probably Aristotle was not an Aristotelian” (ibid., p. 51). But in light of contemporary physics, with its emphasis upon agitations of energy and spatiotemporal events, the old Scholastic logic which sought to attach essential or accidental properties to substances has become entirely inadequate. Physics makes no reference to some passive underlying material substance; rather, all is now accounted for in terms of formal relations of relations (as Ladyman and Ross argue). So far so good (I think Pigliucci is on board thus far). Now, when it comes to the logical laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, it is not that Whitehead simply sought to do away with them. This would contradict, as it were, one of his rational criteria for sound metaphysics (i.e., that such a scheme be logical; he also enumerated empirical criteria of adequacy and applicability to experience). To return to the distinction above between a genetic and a coordinate analysis of the universe, Whitehead was perfectly willing to accept that coordinate analysis of the entities of spatiotemporal nature required adherence to the classical laws of logic (else an entity could be said to exist in two places at once, or to exemplify two contradictory predicates, etc.). However, in analyzing the genetic process of an actual occasion’s concrescence, these laws must be held in suspension. This is because the factors that grow together into a concrete entity begin as indeterminate prehensions or feelings, akin to the way quantum potentia exist in a state of superposition prior to the collapse of the wave-function. In this state of suspended decision in the genetic analysis of an occasion, a multiplicity of contradictory elements may coexist. Only once an occasion has achieved its “satisfaction” do the incompatibilities get worked, such that “the actual entity terminates its becoming in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe” (Process & Reality, p. 44). In the case of God, the process of concrescence is said to be “everlasting,” such that the indetermination is ongoing. The creative advance of the universe thus unfolds within the eternal process of divine indetermination. Not even God knows where we are going, in other words. Still, God’s everlasting concrescence expresses a yearning for ideal satisfaction, realizing an aesthetic harmony of harmonies, which the universe of finite occasions can only ever incompletely realize.

Pigliucci then regresses to a rather tired scientistic argument against belief in “gods.” I say it is “tired” because it totally fails to address the argument underlying Whitehead’s process theology (or that of most philosophically-informed theologians, for that matter). It is just cheap rhetoric meant to reduce the alternative metaphysical approaches of those not seduced by scientism to supernaturalist superstition. Pigliucci pluralizes “gods” because he is imagining that theologians conceive of God as just another stick of furniture within the world, a thing among things (albeit a very big, important, and powerful thing!). While it may be meaningfully addressed to literalist religious believers who idolatrously imagine God as a thunder-wielding sky-father, his is not a fair characterization of how most theological traditions have sought to approach the divine as, e.g., the infinite ground of being (rather than a being among beings). It is no surprise that experimental tests focused on the behavior of beings would turn up no evidence of Being as such. Being is grounding condition or necessary precondition of beings. Now, needless to say, much of this traditional theological language is construed in substantialist terms that have no place in Whitehead’s process-relational scheme. I quote Whitehead’s opinion of traditional theology at length as I think it conveys the extent to which he and Pigliucci may actually share non-belief in the popular image of deity:

“The notion of God as the ‘unmoved mover’ is derived from Aristotle, at least so far as Western thought is concerned. The notion of God as ’eminently real’ is a favourite doctrine of Christian theology. The combination of the two into the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys, is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and of Mahometanism.

When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. The code of Justinian and the theology of Justinian are two volumes expressing one movement of the human spirit. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”

Process & Reality, p. 342

Whitehead had no patience for the traditional image of God as an imperial ruler, by whose dictates the lawful order of the world was established. In relation to this God, Whitehead was a proud atheist.

“There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the [other main strands of theological] thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.”

Process & Reality, p. 343

Elsewhere in Process & Reality (p. 207), Whitehead remarks on the urgent importance of secularizing the divine function in the world, by which he meant distinguishing God’s metaphysical import as a cosmological factor from the emotions that characterize human religious life, which have often misled philosophy. The Love exemplified in Jesus is metaphysically repurposed by Whitehead into the divine function’s mode of participation in the world, where it works to persuade (rather than coerce) finite actual occasions toward the most beauty that is possible for them in their temporal situations.

So why does Whitehead find it necessary to make reference to a divine function in his cosmological scheme? It has nothing to do with any religious desire to believe in God. This sort of belief, though it may be of tremendous sociological importance (e.g., as a form of group selection among humans), is not what motivates Whitehead’s theological innovations.

The Whiteheadian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers (former collaborator of Nobel laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine) argues in her book Thinking With Whitehead that, while God is the keystone of his entire cosmological scheme (i.e., the chief exemplar of his categories), he nonetheless remained unsatisfied with his own thinking concerning the nature of the divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent or finally complete (indeed, he was well aware of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and so approached “system” asymptotically as a form of philosophic “assemblage” [see Modes of Thought, p. 2]). His understanding of divinity was always an open-ended work in progress meant to be picked up and re-worked by inheritors of his thought who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating the divine ground of existence matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God (or his soul’s God-feeling). It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of or lack of evidence for a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy—psychological and societal—of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the intuition of holiness by human hearts (which some call “God,” others “Buddha-nature,” “Allah,” “Brahman,” etc.) implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But as a matter of anthropological fact it must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God (etc.) was not merely a scientific hypothesis meant to explain the causal nexus of worldly events, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially). It is only after the Scientific Revolution and the entrance of “modernity” that religion began to be construed as a distinct domain of human existence, and that God came to be construed as a thing to be believed in, or not.

When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life, the formation of Earth, and the unfolding of the larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness. It means considering the conditions making possible a world wherein something like human thinking, feeling, and willing are possible. For Whitehead, these conditions are cosmological (not simply cognitive, as in Descartes or Kant). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology breaks free from the epistemic chains of most modern philosophy, eschewing foundations and making do instead with conceptual coherence and fallible pragmatic adequacy. His cosmological scheme makes room for both subjects and objects, giving logical nor temporal priority to either. Subject and object are to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. “Objectivity” in the sense of an unbiased scientific appraisal of reality doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether each subject is able to creatively respond to the objectified past, thus participating in the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. In such a Whiteheadian universe, truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.

This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Pigliucci, are led to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to (or worse, a “dead weight” upon) metaphysics. So far as it goes, I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the abstract possibilities of reality abstracted from any concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate category of his scheme, demoting a no longer all-powerful God to the status of its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize—that is, when I seek out participatory understanding of the order and harmony of the actual world that we inhabit.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for scientific consideration. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that our modern consciousness has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the human soul experienced no separation between the world’s Logos (=meaning) and its existence (=facticity), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.

Whitehead’s panentheistic cosmology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature, or mind separable from matter. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.

A review of Michael Hogue’s “American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World” (2018)

MICHAEL S. HOGUE, American Immanence: Democracy for An Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018: 238 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <>.] 

Michael Hogue has written a timely theopolitical intervention drawing from (and contributing to) the American stream of philosophy in service of democratic and spiritual renewal. By the time American Immanence was published in 2018, humanity’s longest running national experiment in democracy was already embroiled in what Hogue (following Robert Bellah) calls “its fourth major trial” (2). Each of the last four centuries has seen the United States thrown into an epochal crisis of identity and destiny that tests and transforms our bonds as a people. The great trial of the eighteenth century was formative: the Revolutionary War. The nineteenth century crisis, the Civil War, was seeded by the moral contradictions implicit in the first: American colonists won political freedom from the British Crown on the basis of Enlightenment values only to turn around and build a society that not only tolerated native genocide and African enslavement but actively engaged in them as a matter of official state policy. The twentieth century brought the rise of America’s nuclear powered global military empire in the wake of the world wars as well as the civil rights crisis of the 1960s, which finally gave legal and political substance to the nominal freedom won in the prior century. As America stumbles into the second decade of the twenty-first century, its citizens continue struggling to responsibly inherit the unresolved collective traumas of their history. The fourth national trial is also challenging us to develop a new consciousness of our shared future vulnerabilities. All the old moral contradictions are still making the news. But something wickedly novel has emerged that recontextualizes everything.

Hogue’s book takes a step beyond current partisan divides by reminding us of the emergent planetary context of our shared political life. Whether first marked by the appearance of symbolic consciousness, agriculture and cities, colonization, industrialization, nuclear energy, or the microchip, there can be no doubt that we now live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by human modes of production and their unintended climatic blowback. The wave of reactionary nationalism that carried Trump into office is but the latest symptom of a more all-encompassing spiritual and ecological emergency.

For Hogue, the Anthropocene brings an end to the era of human exceptionalism, as all who had been externalized (poor and marginalized people, as well as the climate, the soil, the rainforests, etc.) are now rushing back to reclaim their agency. Gaia (or the Earth System, if you prefer) is not passive before the industrial projects of global capital. The reasons and desires shaping our political and economic lives are inescapably entangled with and thus limited by the flow of energy around the Earth, such that there are thermodynamic conditions of human freedom. Humans are evolved and evolving mammals who make useful tools that remake us in turn. Our moral ideals and social order did not arise ex nihilo from Zeus’ forehead. The history of human cultural evolution cannot be told in abstraction from its energy extraction regimes (foraging, farming, fossil fuels, etc.) (70). Concomitant with the increased awareness of the material and biotic conditions making human consciousness possible, fissures in the ideological matrix of modern liberal secularism are widening. While some may feel suffocated by the deluge of dire factors weighing upon the human future[i], Hogue seeks to fill the postliberal, postsecular gaps in the social imaginary with new theopolitical possibilities (10).

Drawing upon what he calls the American immanental tradition (particularly William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and their more recent interpreters), Hogue reimagines the social and political role of theology in more pragmatic and world-loyal terms, shifting away from traditionally religious obsessions with the afterlife and more recent “death of God” theologies to focus instead on “natal concern for the complex creativity immanent within the world and emergent through nature” (14). Defining the political as the domain of ongoing, open-ended negotiations of power and value in the context of common life (15), Hogue sets to work in chapter 1 demystifying the “redeemer symbolic” that has functioned throughout American history to legitimize certain theopolitical conceptions of power and value rooted in a dual logic of exception and extraction. This moral logic is typified by the elevation of a savior (human, divine, or both) to a special ontological status exempt from the normal conditions, contingencies, and constraints of creaturely coexistence and authorized to extract value and externalize cost in service of the redemption of a chosen people (29). Hogue traces the destructive effects of this symbolic constellation through its colonial, national, imperial, and neoliberal phases. While historians may prefer thicker descriptions of the events described, Hogue’s sketch suits his insurrectionist purposes. He begins by using the political theory of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to elucidate the anti-democratic decision-making and environmental racism of former Michigan governor Rick Synder, which precipitated a still ongoing humanitarian crisis in the impoverished, mostly Black city of Flint. The tragedy in Flint provides a synecdoche for the longer historical arc of American exceptionalism, from America’s Biblically coded ex nihilo creation story (31) to Trump’s election as the “apotheosis of [neoliberalism],” such that “capitalism has become a sacred crusade, [with] the market as the model of all other social relations” (50). 

Chapter 2 unpacks the wicked entanglements characterizing the Anthropocene, detailing the intimate but until recently unacknowledged bonds between humans and the Earth. Among the most striking entanglements is that European colonization of the Americas may have left a mark on the atmospheric record: after disease ravaged and displaced indigenous populations were no longer able to manage the forests, a precipitous reforestation of the Western hemisphere concentrated enough CO2 to at least contribute to the emergence of a mini-ice age in Europe (57). Hogue favors interpretations of the Anthropocene that identify it as primarily a colonial phenomenon driven by industrial growth capitalism. Hogue amplifies scholars like Eileen Crist (61), Jason W. Moore (62), and Dipesh Chakrabarty (64) who challenge the name chosen by geologists to mark this epochal transformation. Moore’s proposal of “Capitalocene” better captures the historical reality (and is no more infelicitous than the current misnomer) (63). 

Chapters 3 and 4 are the theoretical heart of the book. Hogue brilliantly reconstructs viable concepts of power and value in the context of Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, James’ radical empiricism, and Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy. These chapters warrant deep engagement from process-oriented thinkers. I only have space to critically address one issue: Hogue’s treatment of God as both concept and symbol. While he champions Whitehead’s aesthetic and “grassroots” (97) approach to metaphysics as “a blueprint for deep social change” (99), Hogue questions whether Whitehead’s process theology obeys its stated embargo on ontological exceptionalism. While Whitehead demotes God to the status of a creature of Creativity like all others, God’s creatureliness retains a special status in the universe as the most ultimate (in its primordial role as valuer of eternal possibilities) and most intimate (in its consequent role as fellow sufferer and tragic poet). For Hogue, Whitehead’s insistence upon a God who is “constantly concrescing, never satisfied, and nonperishing” (111) raises the suspicion that he may be smuggling ontotheological contraband. But rather than offering a sustained rebuttal of the “metaphysical necessity” of Whitehead’s God concept or divine function, Hogue focuses instead on the “pragmatic religious sufficiency” of such a God symbol (112), determining that contemporary political theologians are better off inheriting “Whitehead without God” in service of “a fuller, more vital, religiously world-loyal appreciation for the creative process of reality” (113). 

While pragmatic considerations of the individual and social function of religious symbolism are essential, I do not think we can so neatly divide metaphysics from social praxis. There is some risk in overapplying Deweyan instrumentalism in search of a “useful” image of God that we end up reinstituting the very anthropocentrism Hogue means to overcome. Hogue nowhere mentions the essential role of Whitehead’s divine function in granting relevant novelty to finite occasions of experience, which might otherwise be overwhelmed by the onrush of unfiltered infinite Creativity. It is not clear that Whitehead’s scheme of prehending and concrescing actual entities remains coherent if “the primordial created fact”[ii]has been excised (or misunderstood as a “metaphysical necessity”). While the contingency of cosmic and earthly evolution cannot be denied, it is just as evident that the course of nature’s creative unfurling displays a tendency toward organized complexity. Where does this tendency to self-organization originate? Surely not in human symbol systems, which are rather an expression of it. Hogue suggests the creative advance can be sustained merely by the combinatory effects of finite occasions of experience, without any need for God or eternal objects. He goes on to argue that “the potential for novelty [would then be] ontologically distributed through the cosmos rather than concentrated within God’s primordial aspect” (111); but on my reading, Whitehead’s divine function is already radically distributed in the form of an “initial Eros” providing “the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness.”[iii] It is also not clear how reference can still be made to “potential” (and in particular, relevant potentials) in a universe composed only of actual entities and sealed off from the ingression of eternal objects and divine lures.

Nor am I convinced that Hogue’s pragmatic emphasis on natality in the face of death adequately addresses the practical and existential concerns of the growing masses of people suffering through the current multiform planetary catastrophe. While it is true that some sects of Christianity verge on the status of death cults for their overemphasis on crucifixion, sin, and the need for otherworldly redemption, our religious imaginaries would be equally diminished by an exclusive focus on natality without regard for the moral import of death and the afterlife (or our images of it). Our religions must integrally address the miraculous facts of birth and death in their symbolic formations lest the encompassing divine mystery of human life be obscured. It is not clear to me that, on pragmatic grounds, belief in some kind of afterlife necessarily diminishes world-loyalty. A belief in reincarnation, for instance, can be construed as superlatively loyal. 

In the closing chapter, Hogue turns to Grace Lee Boggs in an effort to inspire a theopolitics of lasting annunciatory revolution in place of more short-lived denunciatory rebellions (153). Hogue’s book makes an important contribution to the task of disrupting and demystifying the dominant symbolic complexes that have shaped our collective emotions and habits for centuries. Whitehead warned almost a century ago that “societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows”[iv] (quoted by Hogue, 98). Hogue has deftly heeded this warning by showing how reverence and revisioning can coexist. 

[i] A team of Israeli scientists recently calculated that the total “anthropogenic mass” (overall material output of human activities) has now reached or exceeded the total living biomass of Earth at approximately 1.1 teratonnes. See Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature (2020).

[ii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

[iii] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 139. 

[iv] Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 88. 

Alchemical Consciousness After Descartes: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism as Psychedelic Realism

The following is an essay originally submitted for publication in a book on philosophy and psychedelics. After some feedback from the editors, I realized it is too long and includes too many (I hope interesting!) digressions. I’ll be thoroughly revising my submission for the book, so I figured I’d share this earlier version here. Feedback welcome!

Abstract: The study of consciousness is today’s most exciting philosophical frontier. Such an inquiry provides an obvious example of the relevance of psychedelic experience: what better way could there be for coming to terms with the intimate mystery our own consciousness than through the ingestion of psychedelic—literally, “mind-manifesting”—chemicals? In the chapter to follow, I offer a creative reading of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, reinterpreting his famous Gedankenerfahrung (“thought-experiment”) as a sort of psychedelic trip through hell and heaven and back again. I next turn to Whitehead’s process-relational reimagining of modern Cartesian philosophy, detailing how his approach more adequately incorporates the psychedelic ground of consciousness. I argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism opens up the possibility of a psychedelic realism that would allow us to take the ontologically revelatory nature of these experiences seriously. My hope is that this comparative reading of Descartes and Whitehead opens up a road not taken by modern natural science and philosophy, one leading away from the self-alienation and cosmic disenchantment that have so plagued contemporary science and society. Self-integration and world re-enchantment are possible. Ingested responsibly and in service of philosophical inquiry, psychedelics may act as alchemical catalysts providing an especially powerful medicinal aid in service of this Great Work.