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.

Causality in Whitehead’s Panentheism

Plasticbodies has posted another volley in the theism-nihilism discussion, this time drawing attention to causality.

He asks:

What does process theology give us that a (process) naturalism cannot? Or, put otherwise, how does one get from nature to divinity without begging the question?

I’ll paste my comments in response here:

I have written quite a bit about what you could call naturalistic process panentheism.

I think you’ve uncovered the real issue underlying this “theism-nihilism tango” (as Tim Morton called it): causality. Atheistic naturalism (which we might also call “scientific materialism,” after Whitehead) almost always entails a denial of formal and final causes. I think it still holds on to a version of Aristotle’s material cause, even if “substance” is no longer an adequate concept in physics. The material cause has become the randomness of quantum fluctuation, which is at the root of some variations of the Big Bang theory. I remain unconvinced that this “reason” actually explains the “What” of this Universe, since randomness seems to me to be the exact opposite of a reason. Scientific materialism becomes nihilistic only if it overcomes the correlational dualism implicit in its perspective that otherwise allows it to maintain formal and final causality in humans while denying it to everything else. If the metaphysical first principles of atheistic naturalism are carried to their logical conclusions, the reality of ideas (formal causes) and of meanings (final causes) must be denied out right to humans and nature alike. I think something like this is what Ray Brassier is up to, since for him, the illusion of human freedom provides ideological support for the continuance of capitalist social relations. I have argued that mechanistic biology and scientific materialism generally, because of their implicit correlationism and “bifurcationism,” provide ideological support to capitalism (or at least fail to provide adequate and convincing critiques of it): On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics.

I think chapters 2-6 are most relevant to the discussion surrounding causality. I’ve drawn heavily on the work of biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela in these chapters, wherein I give a brief history of biology from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant, Darwin and Paley, and on to Monod, Mayr, and Dawkins. Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter 5:

“To speak of [autopoiesis] thus directly links the biological sphere with a teleological account of ontology. On a material, concrete level we can observe in the organism the flip side of mechanical causality, a final causality as the basic process of life itself—the establishment of an identity. But this happens not by revising physical laws for particle-interactions in special application to organisms, nor by imposing an extra-mechanical entelechy. It is rather the ‘subject-pole’ that is the organism in its autonomy, which changes linear causality by structuring matter in the process of self-realization to maintain itself as this very process” (p. 119, 2002).

Exploring this process of the formation of a “subject-pole” (or mental-pole) requires connecting Varela’s biology to Whitehead’s metaphysics, where an analysis of the general character of experience in terms of concrescence provides us with the conceptual platform necessary to understand how organisms don’t need to “transcend the neutrality of pure physics” (p. 118, Varela, 2002) because there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with.”

This last sentence (“…there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with…”) is where Whitehead’s God comes in. The Universe has the character it does “because” God values certain creative possibilities over others; but at the same time, only the actual Universe has value, which is to say that only finite actual occasions can decide what form Creativity takes in any given instance. God has a polarized, dynamic nature for Whitehead: his primordial nature has a deficit of actuality, and so is complemented by his consequent nature, which becomes with the Universe, is internal to the Universe, suffering with it in order to “save” it. God “saves” the world by allowing it to hold together as a whole despite the individual freedom of its many finite occasions to decide their own fate. This is why God is necessary based on Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme for cosmology to be possible. Without God, there is no Cosmos, only Chaos. And without the possibility of cosmology, there is no possibility of rationality. As Meillassoux makes so clear in “After Finitude,” without hypostasizing the correlation as thinkers like Hegel and Whitehead do, the principal of sufficient reason goes right out the window and Chaos reigns.

Platicbodies then responds:

It seems that for God to appear in a philosophical discussion nondogmatically, he/it must be needed to explain something that cannot be explained without him. It seems like you’re saying that the what of the world is inexplicable without God. You reject the notion that the Big Bang, or presumably some other aleatory event (the Epicurean swerve, for instance) can explain the emergence of the universe. Again, that seems like a matter of assertion: either we believe in the swerve (an uncaused cause) or we don’t.

Are you saying that atheistic naturalism entails the nonexistence of ideas and meanings?

To which I responded:

Whitehead’s God is not an explanation for anything, since actual occasions are their own reasons. I don’t think allowing randomness the possibility of “swerving” explains anything, either. It just begs the question. Where does the swerve come from, and how is it capable of producing so much beauty and coherence? In Whitehead’s scheme, “explanation” takes on a novel meaning, since “to explain” cannot mean for him the reduction of one kind of society of actual occasions to a more fundamental kind (his explanations must avoid over- or undermining objects, as Harman puts it).

I don’t think the “What” of the world (the material cause) is inexplicable without God. The material cause becomes Creativity in a process ontology, a cause to which even God remains subject. The “How,” or efficient cause, and the “Why,” or final cause, are inexplicable without God. God, as the primordial “How,” is the agent initiating the selective valuation of certain ideals, which then seek realization in finite actual occasions (through persuasion, rather than force). God as the consequent “Why” is the enjoyer of Beauty and Goodness resulting from the ongoing concrescence of the Universe. In other words, the end of Whitehead’s Universe is to increase the intensity of divine experience: God is less interested in judging good and evil, and far more interested in transforming conflict into aesthetically pleasing contrasts. The “Who” (which includes the “When” and the “Where”), or formal cause, is the subjective form of each actual entity, its individual decision regarding how to actualize the possibilities envisioned by God.

I think many atheists are able to continue contradicting themselves by preserving ideas and meanings as human realities. But if they follow their naturalistic reductionism through to its metaphysical requirements, ideas and meanings must be erased from both human beings and nature at large, reduced to some kind of “transcendental illusion,” as Bryant put it.

Plasticbodies responds:

I completely agree that the swerve begs the question. But assuming it is just as plausible as assuming that God got things started. Astrophysicists may have more evidence for their origin story. So if Whitehead’s God doesn’t explain anything, what’s the point of it? I mean, what makes it more than a superfluous postulate if it isn’t doing any metaphysical work? If you’re implying that only a God could create so much “beauty and coherence,” I’d suggest that a tiny swerve in a complex material system is sufficient to cause unimaginable variation (think of biological evolution, computer algorithms, digital art–check out this TED Talk by Stephen Wolfram

The idea of God as subject rings contradictory to the very concept of God, I think. The rest of what this God does–enjoys, creates, selects, persuades–remains anthropomorphic and, despite its radical presentation, subject to the same criticism leveled by Spinoza in the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise. Even if he is not a judge of good and evil, God seems to do a lot of things that cannot be apprehended (at least I can’t) by the human intellect. I’m simply saying that it’s a lot to subscribe to without any evidence in support of it. I’d rather admit to the reality of Aristotle’s four causes and leave it at that.

Are you claiming that atheists cannot find meaning in the world? If so, are you saying that it is metaphysically impossible or psychologically? Perhaps your saying that atheists *believe* there is meaning in their lives, but this meaning is an illusion or *merely* psychological. Which is it? This notion really needs to be spelled out more, as it’s hard to believe that an atheist cannot have ideas (if that’s what you mean). If an atheist cannot have ideas, then they cannot have the idea that God does not exist, in which case they cannot really be an atheist. Does this mean that there are no atheists?

Let me just add that when I say that there is no ‘evidence’ for this God, I’m not saying that since I don’t see him, he’s not there. I’m saying that if you want to get people on board with this God, you don’t drag him out into plain sight, you show why he is necessary for a coherent metaphysical view of the universe. But if he does not explain anything, then he seems to be superfluous.

To which I responded:

God didn’t “get things started”; it would be more accurate to say that God actively initiates each moment of an ongoing cosmogenesis. God is both “in the beginning” and “in the end,” but in a logical, rather than a temporal sense. From Whitehead’s perspective, creation didn’t happen 14 billion years ago. Creation is still happening. God participates in, but does not determine, the ongoing process of creation. The actual world is not yet finished, though in God’s consequent nature, each actual occasion finds objective immortality.

Whitehead’s God does do metaphysical work, but for Whitehead, this is the work of producing coherence and adequacy rather than “heroic feats of explaining away.”

Your argument that attributing such characteristics to God (he enjoys, he selects, he persuades, etc) is anthropomorphic is well taken; but it could also be argued that the attribution of these characteristics to humans alone is anthropocentric. Part of the project of secularizing God is breaking down the ontological gap between humans and divinity (this would seem to be the presupposition of any object-oriented theology).

I am saying that it is psychologically possible for atheists to have ideas and make meanings (this much is obvious), but that according to their own metaphysical commitments, such higher order phenomena are epiphenomenal at best, and given enough social criticism and neurophysiological research, should be replaced by causal language scrubbed clean of “folk psychology.”

Aristotle and the historical myopia of science

Another response to PZ Myers’ blog. I’m responding to this fellow in particular:

 

Aristotle decided observation was irrelevant? Are you joking? If we are going to base physics on how nature is actually experienced, then Galileo is the one ignoring observation. Galilean physics are based on ideal geometrical models, not actual observation, where friction and resistance are impossible to do away with. Aristotle’s is precisely an experiential physics, while Galileo’s is a mathematical physics.
I find it disturbing that so many of you science geeks dismiss Aristotle as a historical curiosity. Thomas Kuhn points out that this historical ignorance is the biggest obstacle to a full understanding of what science is and how it works.
Formal causes are actually forcing their way back into physics (information theory) and biology (autopoiesis, self-organization, etc.), despite materialistic pretenses. Final causation has also been part of physics for 150 years (thermodynamic energy gradients behave teleologically, moving toward equilibrium), and is obviously a required element in any description of a living system (though biologists, after Mayr, tend to call it “teleonomy”).
Just keep in mind as you self-assuredly brush Aristotle into the dust bin of history that in 100 years time, much of what passes for science today will be similarly dismissed as superstition (at least unless scientists begin to receive better education in history).