Whitehead, Eternal Objects, and God

Those who take the time to familiarize themselves with Whitehead’s philosophy are almost always lead to praise him for the originality of his thought. He dissolves many longstanding problems by rooting abstract disembodied reason in concrete feelings of inheritance. The subject-to-object vector of the Kantian school of philosophy is reversed, such that the structure of the thinking subject is understood to emerge from the past activity of the universe (i.e., object-to-subject); it is important to remember that the converse is also true, that the past activity of the objective universe is nothing other than an achievement of the purposive decisions of subjects. Past decisions achieve objective immortality as data for all future subjectivities. Such purposive decisions (and in Whitehead’s anthrodecentric cosmology, we are talking about the purposive decisions of every of subjectivity, from photons to persons) are made possible by the ingression of eternal objects in the experience of actual occasions. These eternal objects are given concrete actuality through the envisagement of an actual God. The initial aim of each subjective decision is a divine feeling, made possible by Whitehead’s dipolar deity. Whitehead’s God is the everlasting world-soul whose values erotically lure each moment of finite experience toward the ideal of beauty (which is nothing other than the true and the good). This is not an omnipotent Creator deity. If anything is omnipotent, it is Creativity; God is a creature of Creativity like every other. God is the poet of the world, “with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (346, Process and Reality). Whitehead certainly dissolves old problems, but by introducing the novel concepts of “God” and “eternal objects,” he also creates new problems for philosophy. God may be alike in kind to the finite creatures of the World, but clearly there is so much more that is ingredient in the experience of God that this difference in degree approaches a difference in kind.

Here is Victor Lowe (Understanding Whitehead, 1962), first on God:

Whitehead seems never to have considered atheism as a serious alternative in metaphysics. An atheist would naturally suggest that all the potentialities for any occasion are derived from its historical environment. A “society,” in Whitehead’s cosmology, is built on this sort of derivation. Why then need the occasion also draw upon a God? The answer is that if the past provided everything for the present, nothing new could appear. Novelty and adventure were too real to Whitehead to permit him to say, like the materialists, that the apparently new is a reconfiguration of the old. Yet his thorough going rationalism did not permit him to say that novelty just happens. His religious humility told him whence it came.

Throughout his philosophy, Whitehead contrasts the compulsion of what is with the persuasive lure of what might be. God’s action on the world is primarily persuasive: he offers to each occasion its possibilities of value. The theory that each occasion creates itself by realizing an aim internal to it, however, requires that the germ of this aim be initially established at that spot in the temporal world by God; otherwise the occasion’s self-creation could never commence, since nothing can come from nowhere. Whitehead’s position is that the initial aim partially defines the goal which is best in the given situation, and that the temporal occasion itself does the rest (47).

God is necessary, for Whitehead, not only to explain novelty, but to explain memory. The Universe as Whitehead experienced it was clearly creative, having emerged from the fertile soil of some ultimately chaotic process; but just as clearly, it evidenced the endurance of ideals like order and progress. Past accomplishments are plainly preserved, just as possibilities are envisaged in the future for decisive action in the present. How are the many finite occasions of the Universe capable of holding together as a whole so as to produce a Cosmos? There must be a primordial Occasion who values the order of this World over an infinite range of other possible worlds, and an Occasion who feels as a whole the cumulative consequence of the universal society’s decision regarding this Occasion’s cosmic values. This is Whitehead’s dipolar deity.

Consciousness, for Whitehead, is a rare form of high grade experience, closer in degree to God’s primordial valuation of eternal objects than plant sensitivity or electronic prehensivity. Most experience is not conscious, but is ruled by the emotional currents of causal efficacy. Consciousness, we are told, is most generally “the feeling of negation” (161, PR). When we perceive “this stone as grey,” the feeling of conscious negation is “in barest germ,” while when we perceive the contingency of this coloration, that it could have not been grey, “such feeling is in full development” (ibid.).

Whitehead continues:

Thus the negative perception is the triumph of consciousness. It finally rises to the peak of free imagination, in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified (ibid.).

In its conceptual prehensions of the possibilities of the World, consciousness most nearly approaches an experience of God’s primordial nature. Consciousness begins to see what it is like to swim in the mind of God. In most cases, the abstraction inherent to such negative perception pushes God’s heart–the feeling of the warmth of God, not just the sight of God’s light–into unconsciousness. Here, Whitehead’s philosophy of religion complements his philosophy of science. Both the clear and distinct skeptical consciousness of rationalism and the vague feeling of divinity at the base of any radical empiricism are important (see Ch. 1 of Modes of Thought) in Whitehead’s scheme.

Here is Lowe, again, on eternal objects:

For Whitehead, as for Aristotle, process is the realizing of selected antecedent potentialities, or it is unexplainable. “Pure potentials for the specific determinations of fact”–that is what eternal objects are. And that is all they are. The ideal is nothing more than a possibility (good or bad) for the actual. Whitehead so emphatically repudiates the Platonic tendency to think of the realm of forms as constituting a superior, self-sufficient type of existence, that he interprets even the propositions of mathematics as statements about certain possible forms of process (43).

Whitehead did not conceive of eternal objects in abstraction from concreate occasions. These two categories are not to be conceived separately, as Cartesian substances like mind and matter; their coherence depends upon their explanatory coincidence. There can be no occasions of experience of a definite character unless there are eternal objects to so characterize them; and there can be no external objects with actual effects unless there are real creatures to value them.