Web         Gaudiya Discussions
Gaudiya Discussions Archive » ACADEMIC, CONTROVERSIAL
Academic views, controversies, liberal views, eclectic discussions and so forth. Also, extended debates may be moved here. May contain discussion on views that a devotee may find objectionable.

Alfred North Whitehead, Philosopher Of Science - nature: evolving processes: primordial God

nabadip - Sun, 21 Mar 2004 00:47:36 +0530
Jagat said: It is sometimes said (Kant I think) that Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato.

It was Alfred North Whitehead who said this (he included Aristotle). Here some info on Whitehead who was a great logician and later philosopher of science of the 20th century. For those impatient to wade thru philosophical terminology, here the concluding remarks first:

Whitehead's ultimate attempt to develop a metaphysical unification of space, time, matter, events and teleology has proved to be controversial. In part, this may be because of the connections Whitehead saw between his metaphysics and traditional theism. According to Whitehead, religion is concerned with permanence amid change, and can be found in the ordering we find within nature, something he sometimes called the "primordial nature of God." Thus although not especially influential among contemporary Anglo-American secular philosophers, his metaphysical ideas have had significant influence among many theologians and philosophers of religion.

At the University of London, Whitehead turned his attention to issues in the philosophy of science. Of particular note was his rejection of the idea that each object has a simple spatial or temporal location. Instead, Whitehead advocated the view that all objects should be understood as fields having both temporal and spatial extensions. For example, just as we cannot perceive a Euclidean point that has position but no magnitude, or a line that has length but no breadth, it is impossible, says Whitehead, to conceive of a simple spatial or temporal location. To think that we can do so involves what he called "The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness," the error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.

As Whitehead explains, it is his view "that among the primary elements of nature as apprehended in our immediate experience, there is no element whatever which possesses this character of simple location. [Instead,] I hold that by a process of constructive abstraction we can arrive at abstractions which are the simply located bits of material, and at other abstractions which are the minds included in the scientific scheme."

Whitehead's basic idea was that we obtain the abstract idea of a spatial point by considering the limit of a real-life series of volumes extending over each other, for example, a nested series of Russian dolls or a nested series of pots and pans. However, it would be a mistake to think of a spatial point as being anything more than an abstraction; instead, real positions involve the entire series of extended volumes. As Whitehead himself puts it, "In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.

Further, according to Whitehead, every real-life object may be understood as a similarly constructed series of events and processes. It is this latter idea that Whitehead later systematically elaborates in his imposing Process and Reality (1929), going so far as to suggest that process, rather than substance, should be taken as the fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world. Underlying this work was also the basic idea that, if philosophy is to be successful, it must explain the connection between objective, scientific and logical descriptions of the world and the more everyday world of subjective experience.

While at London, Whitehead also became involved in many practical aspects of tertiary education, serving as Dean of the Faculty of Science and holding several other senior administrative posts. Many of the essays in his The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929) date from this time. It was also during his time in London that Whitehead published several less well known books, including An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), and The Principle of Relativity (1922).

Upon being offered an appointment at Harvard, Whitehead moved to the United States in 1924. Given his prior training in mathematics and in the physical sciences, it was sometimes joked that the first philosophy lectures he ever attended were those that he himself delivered at Harvard in his new role as Professor of Philosophy. A year later he also delivered Harvard's prestigious Lowell Lectures which formed the basis for his first primarily metaphysical book, Science and the Modern World (1925). In it, he introduces several themes that later found fuller expression in Process and Reality. The same is true of the 1927/28 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh on which Process and Reality eventually came to be based.

In Process and Reality, rather than assuming substance as the basic metaphysical category, Whitehead introduces a new metaphysically primitive notion which he calls an actual occasion. On Whitehead's view, an actual occasion is not an enduring substance, but a process of becoming. As Donald Sherburne points out, "It is customary to compare an actual occasion with a Leibnizian monad, with the caveat that whereas a monad is windowless, an actual occasion is 'all window.' It is as though one were to take Aristotle's system of categories and ask what would result if the category of substance were displaced from its preeminence by the category of relation ."[5] As Whitehead himself explains, his "philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant's philosophy For Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world."

Significantly, this view runs counter to more traditional views associated with material substance: "There persists," says Whitehead, "[a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call 'scientific materialism.' Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived."

The assumption of scientific materialism is effective in many contexts, says Whitehead, only because it directs our attention to a certain class of problems that lend themselves to analysis within this framework. However, scientific materialism is less successful when addressing issues of teleology and when trying to develop a comprehensive, intergrated picture of the universe as a whole. According to Whitehead, recognition that the world is organic rather than materialistic is therefore essential, and this change in viewpoint can result as easily from attempts to understand modern physics as from attempts to understand human psychology and teleology. Says Whitehead, "Mathematical physics presumes in the first place an electromagnetic field of activity pervading space and time. The laws which condition this field are nothing else than the conditions observed by the general activity of the flux of the world, as it individualises itself in the events."

The end result is that Whitehead concludes that "nature is a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process."

Whitehead's ultimate attempt to develop a metaphysical unification of space, time, matter, events and teleology has proved to be controversial. In part, this may be because of the connections Whitehead saw between his metaphysics and traditional theism. According to Whitehead, religion is concerned with permanence amid change, and can be found in the ordering we find within nature, something he sometimes called the "primordial nature of God." Thus although not especially influential among contemporary Anglo-American secular philosophers, his metaphysical ideas have had significant influence among many theologians and philosophers of religion.
nabadip - Sun, 21 Mar 2004 17:31:50 +0530
Process Philosophy

The philosophy of process is a venture in metaphysics, the general theory of reality. Its concern is with what exists in the world and with the terms of reference in which this reality is to be understood and explained. The task of metaphysics is, after all, to provide a cogent and plausible account of the nature of reality at the broadest, most synoptic and comprehensive level. And it is to this mission of enabling us to characterize, describe, clarify and explain the most general features of the real that process philosophy addresses itself in its own characteristic way. The guiding idea of its approach is that natural existence consists in and is best understood in terms of processes rather than things -- of modes of change rather than fixed stabilities. For processists, change of every sort -- physical, organic, psychological -- is the pervasive and predominant feature of the real.

Process philosophy diametrically opposes the view -- as old as Parmenides and Zeno and the Atomists of Pre-Socratic Greece -- that denies processes or downgrades them in the order of being or of understanding by subordinating them to substantial things. By contrast, process philosophy pivots on the thesis that the processual nature of existence is a fundamental fact with which any adequate metaphysic must come to terms.

Process philosophy puts processes at the forefront of philosophical and specifically of ontological concern. Process should here be construed in pretty much the usual way -- as a sequentially structured sequence of successive stages or phases. Three factors accordingly come to the fore:

1. That a process is a complex -- a unity of distinct stages or phases. A process is always a matter of now this, now that.
2. That this complex has a certain temporal coherence and unity, and that processes accordingly have an ineliminably temporal dimension.
3. That a process has a structure, a formal generic format in virtue of which every concrete process is equipped with a shape or format.

From the time of Aristotle, Western metaphysics has had a marked bias in favor of things or substances. However, another variant line of thought was also current from the earliest times onward. After all, the concentration on perduring physical things as existents in nature slights the equally good claims of another ontological category, namely processes, events, occurrences -- items better indicated by verbs than nouns. And, clearly, storms and heat-waves are every bit as real as dogs and oranges.

What is characteristically definitive of process philosophizing as a distinctive sector of philosophical tradition is not simply the commonplace recognition of natural process as the active initiator of what exists in nature, but an insistence on seeing process as constituting an essential aspect of everything that exists -- a commitment to the fundamentally processual nature of the real. For the process philosopher is, effectively by definition, one who holds that what exists in nature is not just originated and sustained by processes but is in fact ongoingly and inexorably characterized by them. On such a view, process is both pervasive in nature and fundamental for its understanding.
nabadip - Tue, 23 Mar 2004 00:08:49 +0530

Process Theology

The God of scholastic Christian theology, like the deity of Aristotle on whose model this conception was in part based, is an immaterial individual, located outside of time -- entirely external to the realm of change and process. By contrast, process theologians, however much they may disagree on other matters, take the radical (but surely not heretical) step of according God an active role also within the natural world's spatio-temporal frame. They envision a foothold for God within the overall processual order of the reality that is supposed to be his creation. After all, active participation in the world's processual commerce need not necessarily make God into a physical or material object. (While the world indeed contains various physical processes like the evolution of galaxies, it also contains immaterial processes such as the diffusion of knowledge or the emergence of order.)

For process theology, then, God does not constitute part of the world's making of physical processes, but nevertheless in some fashion or other participates in it. Clearly no ready analogy-model for this mode of participation (spectator, witness, judge, etc.) can begin to do full justice to the situation. But what matters first and foremost to the angle of process theology is the fact that God and his world are processually inter-connected -- the issue of the manner how is something secondary that can be left open for further reflection. So conceived, God is not exactly of the world of physical reality, but does indeed participate in it processually -- everywhere touching, affecting, and informing its operations. Thus while not emplaced in the world, the processists' God is nevertheless bound up with it in an experiential process of interaction with it. In general, process theists do not believe that God actually controls the world. The process God makes an impact persuasively, influencing but never unilaterally imposing the world's process.

Process theology accordingly invites us to think of God's relationship to the world in terms of a process of influence like "the spread of Greek learning in medieval Islam." Greek learning did not become literally internal to the Islamic world, but exerted a substantial and extensive influence upon and within it. Analogously, God is not of the world but exerts and extends an all-pervasive influence upon and within it. After all, processes need not themselves be spatial to have an impact upon things in space (think of a price inflation on the economy of a country.) The idea of process provides a category for conceptualizing God's relation to the world that averts many of the difficulties and perplexities of the traditional substance paradigm.

Even apart from process philosophy, various influential theologians have in recent years urged the necessity and desirability of seeing God not through the lens of unchanging stability but with reference to movement, change, development, and process. But, the process theorists among theologians want to go beyond this. For them, God is not only to be related to the world's processes in a productive manner, but must himself be regarded in terms of process -- as encompassing processuality as a salient aspect of the divine nature.

To be sure, process theologians differ among themselves in various matters of emphasis. Whitehead sees God in cosmological terms as an "actual occasion" functioning within nature, reflective of "the eternal urge of desire" that works "strongly and quietly by love," to guide the course of things within the world into "the creative advance into novelty." For Hartshorne, by contrast, God is less an active force within the world's processual commerce than an intelligent being or mind that interacts with it. His God is less a force of some sort than a personal being who interacts with the other mind-endowed agents through personal contact and love. Hartshorne wants neither to separate God from the world too sharply nor yet to have him be pantheistically immanent in nature. He views God as an intelligent world-separated being who participates experientially in everything that occurs in nature and resonates with it in experiential participation.

Such differences of approach, however, are only of secondary importance. The crucial fact is that the stratagem of conceiving of God in terms of a process that is at work in and beyond the world makes it possible to overcome a whole host of substance-geared difficulties at one blow. For it now becomes far easier to understand how God can be and be operative. To be sure, the processual view of God involves a recourse to processes of a very special kind. But extraordinary (or even supra-natural) processes pose far fewer difficulties than extraordinary (let alone supra-natural) substances, seeing that process is an inherently more flexible conception. After all, many sorts of processes are in their own way unique -- or, at any rate, radically different from all others. Clearly, processes like the creation of a world or the inauguration of its lawful order are by their very nature bound to be unusual, but much the same can be said of any particular type of process. Moreover, through its recourse to the idea of a mega-process that embraces and encompasses a variety of subordinate processes, process theology is able to provide a conceptual rationale for reconciling the idea of an all-pervasive and omnitemporal mode of reality with that of a manifold of finitely temporalized constituents.

The processist view of nature as a spatiotemporal whole constituting one vast, all-embracing cosmic process unfolding under the directive aegis of a benign intelligence is in various ways in harmony with the Judeo-Christian view of things. For this tradition has always seen God as active within the historical process which, in consequence, represents not only a causal but also a purposive order. After all, the only sort of God who can have meaning and significance for us is one who stands in some active interrelationship with ourselves and our world. (Think here of the Nicene creed's phraseology: "the maker of all things who for us men and for our salvation ".) But of course such an "active interrelationship" is a matter of the processes that constitute the participation and entry of the divine into the world's scheme of things -- and conversely.

And of course not only is it feasible and potentially constructive for the relation of God to the world and its creatures to be conceived of in terms of processes, but it is so also with the relationship of people to God. Here too process theology sees such a relationship as thoroughly processual because it rests on a potentially interactive communion established in contemplation, worship, prayer, etc.

In particular, for processists there is little difficulty in conceiving God as a person. For once we have an account of personhood in general in process terms as a systemic complex of characteristic activities, it is no longer all that strange to see God in these terms as well. If we processify the human person, then we can more readily conceive of the divine person as the focal source of a creative intelligence that engenders and sustains the world and endows it with law, beauty (harmony and order), value and meaning.

Then too there is the problem of the Trinity with its mystery of fitting three persons into one being or substance, which has always been a stumbling block for the substantialism of the Church Fathers. A process approach makes it possible to bypass this perplexity. For processes can interact and interpenetrate one another. With the laying of a single branch a woodsman can be building a wall, erecting a house, and extending a village. One act, many processes; one mode of activity many sorts of agency.

For process theology, then, God is active in relation to the world, and the world's people can and should be active in relation to God. People's relationship to the divine is a two-way street, providing for a benevolent God's care for the world's creatures and allowing those intelligent beings capable of realizing this to establish contact with God through prayer, worship, and spiritual communion. Process theology accordingly contemplates a wider realm of processes that embrace both the natural and the spiritual realms and interconnect God with the vast community of worshippers in one communal state of macroprocess that encompasses and gives embodiment to such a comprehensive whole.

To be sure, process theologians usually see the divine as one power among others and view God's role in relation to the world as rather diffused and indirect and limited. But this seems to be more because a novel perspective appeals to those of theologically liberal and unorthodox orientation than to the inherent demands of a process appraisal. In theory a process theology could take a more theologically conservative form than has been the case.

Subal - Mon, 12 Apr 2004 00:52:36 +0530

Thank you for these posts. I have been an adherent of the liberal form of process theology you mention for quite some time now. This may shed some light on where I am coming from in my other posts. We and all creation are constantly in process. God is also in process. God is not static but dynamic. Our relationship to God is also dynamic and in process. We do not have to do things today as they were done yesterday because everything is changing. To resist change is to stagnate and die. To try and discern God's will and follow that in the midst of change is life. That is why I am a strong advocate of allowing the Gaudiya tradition to change, evolve, adapt and breathe with new life rather than being stifled by the past.

Jai Radhe!