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.

Whitehead’s Experiential Universe (a response to Archive Fire)

Michael posted another fine response to me yesterday.

I have Process and Reality in hand, and will quote a bit in a minute. Alfred North Whitehead left us a cosmological scheme, not a complete system. His scheme aims for experiential coherence, not explanatory completion. “Explanation,” as modern (i.e., Cartesian) science came to understand it, is only possible of a certain kind of abstract object or system of objects, e.g., 3 dimensional elastic bodies isolated in external space with no interiority or sense of social experience. Contemporary science, hip to complex systems theory, allows for more dynamic geometries capable of modeling emergence, but still, it utilizes abstract geometrical models in an attempt to “explain” actual living presences. Is this possible? The universe of scientific materialism is as much invention, as it is discovery. There may be a universe somewhere that is explainable according to efficient causes alone, but it doesn’t seem to be ours. This actual universe sure feels like it is permeated through and through by internal (formal and final) and not just external (efficient) relations. For Whitehead, interiority goes all the way down and is as fundamental as exteriority, since exteriority has no meaning without a contrasting interior. Experience can no more be explained than Existence, since to exist is to be some definite actual occasion experiencing the universe.

Michael prefers to use the term “potency” to speak about the character of electrons, atoms, and molecules, rather than experience. Whitehead certainly agrees that the pre-biological world is lively and active, so much so that he just bites the bullet and makes biology the more general science (since self-organization [Kant’s definition of life] is found on every level, from proton to planet to galaxy). Physics then becomes a more specialized study of the statistical behavior of unorganized societies (like clouds of gas molecules). My hunch is that Michael’s difficulty with the place of experience in Whitehead’s scheme is largely semantic. There does seem to be an actual disagreement regarding eternal objects, but this is an issue that’s been explored elsewhere (HERE).

Here is Whitehead on the issue of experience in low grade actual occasions:

“…the experience of the simplest grade of actual entity is to be conceived as the unoriginative response to the datum with its simple content of sensa. The datum is simple, because it presents the objectified experiences of the past under the guise of simplicity…The experience has a vector character, a common measure of intensity, and specific forms of feelings conveying that intensity. If we substitute ‘energy’ for the concept of a quantitative emotional intensity, and the term ‘form of energy’ for the concept of ‘specific form of feeling,’ and remember that in physics ‘vector’ means definite transmission from elsewhere, we see that this metaphysical description of the simplest elements in the constitution of actual entities agrees absolutely with the general principles according to which the notions of modern physics are framed. The ‘datum’ in metaphysics is the basis of the vector-theory in physics; the quantitative satisfaction in metaphysics is the basis of the scalar localization of energy in physics; the ‘sensa’ in metaphysics are the basis of the diversity of specific forms under which energy clothes itself. Scientific descriptions are, of course, entwined with the specific details of geometry and physical laws, which arise from the special order of the cosmic epoch in which we find ourselves. But the general principles of physics are exactly what we should expect as a specific exemplification of the metaphysics required by the philosophy of organism. It has been a defect in the modern philosophies that they throw no light whatever on any scientific principles. Science should investigate particular species, and metaphysics should investigate the generic notions under which those specific principles should fall. Yet, modern realisms have had nothing to say about scientific principles; and modern idealisms have merely contributed the unhelpful suggestion that the phenomenal world is one of the inferior avocations of the Absolute…The direct perception whereby the datum in the immediate subject is inherited from the past can thus, under an abstraction be conceived as the transference of throbs of emotional energy, clothed in the specific forms provided by sensa…” (p. 115-116).

Physical science has certainly changed since the late 1920s, but relativity and quantum theories were already well in place by the time Whitehead made the above remarks. As far as I can tell, science has only moved further in the direction of Whitehead’s organismic philosophy since he made the above statement. A “datum” is my experience of another actual occasion’s experience. As an occasion of experience, I don’t infer the feelings of other occasions in my environment based on some “theory of mind”; rather, I inherit their feelings directly as a throb of emotional energy. A datum presents another occasion to me with the “guise of simplicity” since the other occasion is “really” (or also) a composite of many occasions, each prehending nearly the same local world from its own graded perspective.

 

Soul and World: Fragments written upon reading “Thinking with Whitehead” by Isabelle Stengers

Stengers has succeeded in bringing Whitehead back to life.

Whitehead’s speculative cosmology succeeds, if it does, by avoiding bifurcations between disassociated categories. Instead of placing “subjective illusion” and “objective reality” in irremediable conflict with one another; instead of separating “man” and “nature,” “mind” and “matter,” or “God” and “the World” in order to explain one as determined by the other; instead of over- or under-mining the infinite diversity of creation with a form of reductionism, Whitehead seeks out a coherent metaphysical scheme wherein such differences are made to “presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless” (Process and Reality, p. 3).

Ethics and Physics, or Religion and Science, need not be opposed modes of thought, where one battles the other for explanatory ultimacy. Is not the human activity of physics in some sense for the universe? Is not the scientific endeavor an effort of nature itself to rise up to the level of theory?, to explain and control its own creation?, to storm heaven and steal the vision and power of eternity for the betterment of the present?

“Mankind and the animals with analogous abilities are distinguished by their capacity for the introduction of novelty [in contrast to the givenness of the past]. This requires a conceptual power which can imagine, and a practical power which can effect. The role of sense experiences consists in the fact that they are manageable. The animals evolved and emphasized the superficial aspects of their connexity with nature, and thus obtained a manageable grip upon the world. The central organism which is the soul of a man is mainly concerned with the trivialities of human existence. It does not easily meditate upon the activities of fundamental bodily functions. Instead of fixing attention on the bodily digestion of vegetable food, it catches the gleam of the sunlight as it falls on the foliage. It nurtures poetry. Men are the children of the Universe, with foolish enterprises and irrational hopes. A tree sticks to its business of mere survival; and so does an oyster with some minor divergencies. In this way, the life aim at survival is modified into the human aim at survival for diversified worthwhile experience. The pitfall of philosophy is exclusive concentration on these manageable relations, to the neglect of the underlying necessities of nature,” Modes of Thought, p. 30.

Whitehead here suggests that philosophy, to the extent that it focuses narrowly on the logical necessities of thought alone, risks forgetting the physical conditions (“underlying necessities”) of these thoughts. Whitehead would agree with the materialist that the soul is inextricably bound up with nature, and is an inevitable consequence of the causal efficacy of the complex social organism through which it is actualized. But Whitehead would not agree that the soul is therefore explainable in reference to physical activity, in itself. In a complex organism, the physical activity of hydrogen atoms reflects the inherited values of a somatic environment distinguished from “nature” at large. Inside a living animal, atoms no longer behave in a way relevant to physicists, since they have become conditioned by a local ethos within which they play roles distinct from their activity in stars, galaxies, or laboratory experiments.

The ethical responsibilities of the soul and the physical necessities of nature are not in conflict with one another; rather, the soul’s desires exist by virtue of the universe’s lures. Ethics is not a consequence of Physics, if the physical be conceived abstractly as though made up of vacuous actualities devoid of experience and self-enjoyment. But Ethics may be conceived as conditioned and so implied by Physics if the physical is imagined concretely as a creative rush of subjectivities seeking more beautiful, more virtuous intensity of experience. The Good Life, for Whitehead, is not simply to survive, but to thrive.

Teilhard de Chardin, who never tired of contemplating the physics of the soul, here expresses his intuitions about the soul’s relation to digestion:

“The highest speculation and the most burning love are coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of a color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration. There is no doubt that material energy and spiritual energy hold together and are prolonged by something. Ultimately, somehow or other there must be only a single energy at play in the world. And the first idea that comes to mind is to see the “soul” as a center of transmutation, where through all the avenues of nature the power of bodies converges in order to become interiorized and sublimated in beauty and truth,” The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30.

I believe Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity, provides the “something,” and the process of concresence the “somehow or other,” that Teilhard leaves unpronounced. Teilhard was a scientist (at least in this book), and left such speculative statements to the metaphysician. Whitehead was compelled to unmask the general character of the energy at play in the world, and at the end of his imaginative leap into speculative cosmology, he discovered not the transcendent ground of some theory of everything, but a more noble and enjoyable way of envisaging actuality.

Why did Whitehead find it so important to avoid the bifurcation of nature in his speculative scheme? Why was he so careful to avoid creating modes of thought that re-inscribe a dissociation between our experience of subject and object, psyche and cosmos? It seems he was simply seeking coherence, since it is only when life is able to “hold together” despite the continual threat of contradiction and extinction that it becomes beautiful and good. Living actuality is not a given, but an achievement won at the cost of alternatives, and maintained at the cost of the robbery of other actualities of their life. In our contemporary context, where an ecological crisis conditions our every move, enacting modes of thought that hold the Living Earth together are becoming of more than just aesthetic or ethical value. The living existence of our species (and many others) depends upon our coming to think the Living Earth in a more durable and resilient way, since in thinking it we live in it, with it, and upon it.

Scientific Materialism and Consumer Capitalism think and produce nature hastily, with little care for its non-human achievements of community (i.e., its ethical activity). These modes of thought exaggerate a basic truth while forgetting an essential exception: they engage nature as valueless and determined, except for the human, who is free to know and control its processes. Such materialist modes must become imaginative enough to conceive of freedom and matter, the human knower and the thing known, in a more coherent way.

Whitehead provides a template for such a new mode of thought, but its actualization requires a miracle. The propositional feelings buried in his written words must be resurrected and brought into novel contrast with the spirit of the present. His logos must be given life.