This article was last modified on April 8, 2011.


On Alfred Whitehead’s God

Alfred North Whitehead’s views of God are some of the most bizarre and difficult to understand among the entire history of philosophy. While he talks of God’s “love” and of the “kingdom of heaven”, it seems clear that he by no means is referring to God in any Christian sense at all. Therefore, his use of the term “God” does little to clarify the matter. Gary Herstein agrees, saying the term is “less than optimal” and that he would prefer “something more in the line of ‘principle of rational order and creativity'”. A. H. Johnson sums up my thoughts exactly when he says, “There is an opinion, widely held, that much of Whitehead’s philosophical language is unintelligible.” [Johnson: 160] Even Whitehead himself acknowledged in 1937 that he was “in general agreement as to the need of clarification or revision in my written works.” Johnson tries to defend Whitehead, saying criticism is “grossly unfair” and that “Whitehead’s language is difficult, but these terms are not intelligible, if a person will devote sufficient time and effort to their mastery.” [Johnson: 176] One may still wonder, if the words are not intelligible, why they are worth such time and effort — is a theory lacking clarity a good theory at all?

Johnson says that Whitehead was unmistakeably a pan-psychist, someone who holds the view that all matter has a mental aspect, or, alternatively, all objects have a unified center of experience or point of view. This is generally true, but not strictly correct. Technically, what Whitehead believed was panexperientialism, a less bold variation, which credits all entities with phenomenal consciousness but not with cognition, and therefore not necessarily with fully-fledged minds. (The term itself was first applied to Whitehead’s philosophy by professor of process theology David Ray Griffin many years later. Griffin, incidentally, has lost some credibility as a critical thinker in more recent years due to writing on and support of 9/11 conspiracy theories.)

“In the place of Aristotle’s God as Prime Mover, we require God as the Principle of Concretion.” [Whitehead 1960: 157] Richard Elfyn Jones and Ivor Leclerc point out “concretion” is used as another term for “limitation”, in that God limits what we can become by offering us only limited options for our own prehension. As Whitehead says, “God is the ultimate limitation, and His existence is the ultimate irrationality.” [Whitehead 1960: 160] And more, “God is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality. No reason can be given for the nature of God, because that nature is the ground of rationality.” [Whitehead 1960: 160-161]

We must keep in mind that “his discussion of God is not based on absolute certainty.” [Johnson: 58] But Whitehead makes many bold claims, as we shall see. For example, “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification.” [Whitehead 1978: 343]

Whitehead’s general metaphysics is a mess, claiming “actual entities are infinite in number” [Johnson: 16], and he defines them as “the sort of entity which is ordinarily called a subject or self” [Johnson: 17] All actual entities, including but not limited to God, are self-creating. Whitehead does specify that the creator is an actual entity, while creativity itself is not, which seems self-evident but may not be. The self-creating aspect is simple enough, but the infinity of actual entities makes for a rather crowded ontology. Not impossible, but interesting.

Let us look at God in his three forms.

God as Primordial (Antecedent)

  • God “is the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality.” [Whitehead 1978: 343]
  • God “is not before all creation, but with all creation.” [Whitehead 1978: 343]
  • God “is the unconditional actuality of conceptual feeling at the base of things” [Whitehead 1978: 344]

What do these claims of Whitehead’s mean? God’s primordial nature is his mental pole, “a unity of conceptual prehensions which together bring within God’s experience all eternal objects.” [Johnson: 58] God makes eternal objects “available for use by other actual entities.” [Johnson: 60] He “desires that the eternal objects be received as data by other actual entities.” [Johnson: 60]

“God provides a possible pattern (eternal object) which may serve (when exemplified in the actual entity) as the subjective aim, each actual entity is entirely responsible for the selection and use of this patter.” [Johnson: 60] Or, as I like to say, God offers a buffet, and we are free to choose as we please. Yes, there are limits, but not so constrained that free will is denied. (In a similar way, we do not say free will is denied because we do not have the option to jump ten feet vertically — not all choices must be possible to say we have the freedom of choice.)

“Since God provides some of the data used by other actual entities, in this sense, he is inescapably involved in the process of history.” [Johnson: 61] If God only provides “some” data, where does the rest come from? And if data can arise from things besides God, what need is there for him at all in Whitehead’s theory? This remains a mystery, but God “serves as a lure to which actual entities respond in various ways and hence achieve varying degrees and types of value.” [Johnson: 99]

God as Consequent

  • “The consequent nature of God is conscious” [Whitehead 1978: 345]
  • “The consequent nature of God is his judgment on the world.” [Whitehead 1978: 346]
  • “The consequent nature of God is the fluent world become ‘everlasting’ by its objective immortality in God.” [Whitehead 1978: 347]
  • “The consequent nature of God is the fulfillment of his experience by his reception of the multiple freedom of actuality into the harmony of his own actualization.” [Whitehead 1978: 349]
  • “the consequent nature of God is composed of a multiplicity of elements with individual self-realization.” [Whitehead 1978: 350]

This part of God may make even less sense, but let us try to understand.

God’s consequent nature is his physical pole, “constituted by his physical prehensions of other actual entities.” [Johnson: 59] Richard Elfyn Jones identifies Whitehead’s “prehension” with Plato’s “becoming”, as this is the stage where influences are absorbed from other entities. [Jones: 3] Prehension further leads to “concrescence”, the becoming of an entity, where characteristics are made concrete or internalized.

“God’s consequent nature is not complete. It depends on the continuous emergence of new actual entities.” [Johnson: 63] God is never satisfied, he is never concrete, but always becoming. As long as new actual entities arise in the world, God will always grow by absorbing them. “God is an entity which does not perish.” [Johnson: 64] And “God grows by taking in new content, but the content already present is retained in all its vividness.” [Johnson: 64] God could be said to be “an anti-entropic force”, in Shaviro’s words (though we must understand this is in a strictly non-physical sense).

Is God in time or not? “God is temporal in the sense that development occurs within his being. But God is non-temporal in the sense that he never perishes.” [Johnson: 64] In other words, while God exists in time, as evidenced by his changing, time is not a concern to him because he is immortal. God “is timeless in the sense that none of its components fade.” [Johnson: 137]

Johnson points out a sticky spot in Whitehead’s God theory: “God’s consequent nature can arise only after ordinary actual entities have developed to the point that they are able to provide data.” [Johnson: 188] This is not so much a problem in itself, as it is for the idea of God as eternal. And then, if the solution is simply that God’s consequent nature arose later, but his primordial nature was eternal, we are still left wondering: if God gets information from other actual entities, where do they get it from originally, if not God?

God as Superjective

“This is the phase of God’s nature whereby his concrete experiences, involved in his consequent nature, are made available to newly arising, ordinary, actual entities.” [Johnson: 68]

God “provides specific, concrete, data to be used in he self-creative process of other actual entities.” [Johnson: 59] Lansing says this nature “is God exercising his objective immortality by laying down a datum which conditions the form of all subsequent creative acts.” However, “Whitehead’s precise understanding of the superjective nature is unclear and ambiguous at best,” says Lansing. Johnson agrees, saying, “Whitehead simply does not explain how God is able to provide concrete data — i.e., data for physical prehension.” [Johnson: 68]

The God-Friendly Interpretation

Some people have tried to connect Whitehead’s God to the god of religion. Those include C. Robert Mesle, Marjorie Suchocki and John Cobb Jr. With some of Whitehead’s word choices, it is no surprise. God “is the beginning and the end.” [Whitehead 1978: 345] This should call to mind the Book of Revelation, “I am the alpha and the omega”. Others oppose this interpretation, notably Richard Ely, Donald Sherburne and George Allan. Indeed, this is not a traditional God, as Whitehead’s “God does not exercise control by brute force or by some form of predestination.” [Johnson: 196]

Anyone who connects Whitehead’s God to religion is doing so in their own theology. As Leclerc says, “Whitehead completely rejected the Judeo-Christian doctrine of God as creator of the universe” and any doctrine that may come of this. [Leclerc: 307] “Whitehead can agree with Hume that the traditional concept of God and the ‘proofs’ are untenable” [Kuntz: 140] His goal was to secularize God — as Shaviro says, Whitehead invokes God “neither out of piety and devotion, nor as a defense against nihilism and chaos, but simply because his own logic requires it.” He follows Kant, who believed “it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God”, though Whitehead does not invoke God for moral reasons, but aesthetic ones. He might have said “it is aesthetically necessary to assume the existence of God”.

Professor Randall Auxier, an expert on Whitehead, takes neither side in the debate. Says Auxier, “I think that when Whitehead is talking about religion, he is talking about the God of religion, and when he is talking about philosophy, he is talking about the God of the philosophers. The God of the philosophers, from Plato to the present, has never been too similar to the God of religion. There is no reason to expect Whitehead to be different.”

Origin of the Universe

A. H. Johnson takes Whitehead to accept an infinite universe, the idea that there was no beginning or creation. God did not create the universe. God and the universe just always existed, feeding off of each other. While this raises any number of philosophical problems, it may not be in contradiction to science — many have postulated the idea that the universe expands and contracts over and over again, and that our world is just one of many in a long — maybe endless — history.

However, for a physics that accepts a beginning, we are left with the chicken and egg problem: which came first, the world or God?

The Morality of Whitehead’s God

While it may seem strange to talk of the “morality” of a God that is not based on a religious foundation, some have ventured to do so. David Platt believes that depending on how one defines moral, Whitehead’s God could be moral, immoral or amoral. If we accept Kant’s ethics, then “moral predicates simply do not apply” and God is amoral. Platt says “this is a major criticism” from some, presumably because it is not favorable to construct a worldview with no moral grounding.

The argument is that God is amoral and prefers the maximization of value, he does not care which value is maximized. He is “beyond moral categories” because he can enjoy the beauty of a string quartet the same as he feels the enjoyment of Hitler when the Jews were being exterminated. How can any moral being accept this value maximizing as a good thing? Whitehead’s God does not accept it as “good” or “evil”, because he is amoral. Some critics see this as “immoral” because to not favor one over the other allows for evil to acceptable.

The issue of “immorality” is no more real here than it is in standard Christian theology. Just as the Christian God provides us free will to make our choices, so does Whitehead’s God offer us possibilities — it is the human, not God, that decides which possibility to follow. Merely leaving open the possibility for evil does not make God complicit. Ascribing any sort of morality to him would be like ascribing morality to a knife when it stabs someone — the knife’s edge provides this option, but it not responsible for it.

Platt also points out that God not only feels the pleasure of Hitler’s exterminations, but the suffering of those who are exterminated. If God favors any sort of view at all, he may be considered to be a utilitarian — his feeling of suffering far outweighs whatever pleasure Hitler may enjoy, and he would thus oppose the extermination of mankind (if, in fact, God care either way). This view of God caring, though, could open up a bigger question: does God care about the suffering of animals, or is his feeling merely for humankind? God may prefer we were vegetarians, but I do not personally believe that God in Whitehead’s system has a strong preference one way or the other, or even that he has much interest in what path an individual takes.

God as Entity or Society?

Leclerc argues that God in Whitehead’s system could be seen as either an actual entity (the “entitative view”) or as a society made up of a linear succession of actual entities (the “societal view”). He believes there “is no clear statement in Whitehead’s writing which can unambiguously settle the question.” [Leclerc: 314] Lansing, on the other hand, says the issue “has been generally laid to rest by Whitehead scholars.” Brown plainly states that “Whitehead did not hold to the societal view of God”, which would seem to be the end of the discussion. Lansing does, however, still wonder whether the natures can be seen as distinguishable parts.

There is the thought that if “God has a physical aspect, then he too must decay.” [Kuntz: 143] And further, if God is not a succession of entities, he can never experience full satisfaction, as he is always in a state of becoming, but never being. Perhaps this is a limitation on God.

Conclusion: Why God?

Why do we need God? “God without a world would be only a vision of possibles, the eternal objects. A world without God, hardly a world at all, would have no aims or everlastingness. God and the world need each other and would be incomplete without one another.” [Kuntz: 141]

One might wonder why Whitehead’s system needs a God at all. Clearly with some of the problems pointed out, it seems that God is either unnecessary or at the least unclear in Whitehead’s system.

Leclerc takes a less stern approach, accepting the possibility of God, but rejecting the idea that he is a sort of “being” or “actual entity”. He sees God merely as a principle (a term that Whitehead himself employs), and suggests that a principle cannot be an actual being (a claim Plato and Plotinus had made long ago) and therefore Whitehead’s view is “unacceptable”. God, to Leclerc, can be a principle of limitation, a principle of actuality, but not an actual being itself. [Leclerc: 315]

I have yet to see why God is any more necessary than the Laws of Nature, which we would hardly call an entity or being.

Sources

Auxier, Randall. E-mail to the author. March 10, 2011.

Brown, Delwin. “Freedom and Faithfulness In Whitehead’s God”, Process Studies. Voume 2, Number 2, Summer 1972.

Herstein, Gary L. E-mail to the author. March 9, 2011.

Johnson, A. H. Whitehead”s Theory of Reality.. Dover Publications, 1962.

Jones, Richard Elfyn. “Some Platonic implications of Whitehead’s concept of God”, Leeds International Classical Studies 6.3 (2007)

Kuntz, Paul Grimley. Alfred North Whitehead. G. K. Hall and Company, 1984.

Lansing, John W. “The ‘Natures’ of Whitehead’s God”, Process Studies. Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 1973.

Leclerc, Ivor. “The Problem of God in Whitehead’s System”, Process Studies. Volume 14, Number 4, Winter 1985

Platt, David. “Does Whitehead’s God Possess a Moral Will?” Process Studies. Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 1975.

Shaviro, Steven. “God, or the Body without Organs” online at shaviro.com

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Free Press, 1978

Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. Mentor Book, 1960.

Sources I Want But Can’t Find

1996 edition of “Religion in the Making”, published by Fordham University Press

Richard Ely’s “The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God”

C. Robert Mesle’s “Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead”

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “On Alfred Whitehead’s God”

  1. Peter Bogaerts Says:

    I’m sorry for addressing you mainly of topic, but Mesle’s book is easily to buy on Amazon. It’s a nice, short and easy introduction. It sometimes helps me explaining Whitehead to non-Whiteheadian readers.

    Why do you say that “Griffin has lost some credibility as a critical thinker” because of his involvement in the 9/11 business? I think Griffin shows his critical boldness and broad capacities mainly in this affair (although knowing Griffin’s other work this is not surprise). History will probably somehow show in this case how much of Griffins thoughts were right, something quite difficult to attain in theology. So as a theologian Griffin shows much courage in this engagement.

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