Alfred North Whitehead: The World and God in Process

Alfred North Whitehead

Samuel Enoch Stumpf wrote of Whitehead,

Whitehead reacted, as Bergson had, against the analytic mode of thought, which assumed that facts exist in isolation from other facts.  His main theme was that “connectedness is the essence of all things.” What science seeks to isolate, philosophy must try to see in context; life should be viewed as an organic unity.  Thus, “the red glow of the sunset should be as much a part of nature as are the molecules and electrical waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.” The function of natural philosophy, he taught, is “to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.”

. . .  Whitehead was convinced that the “the status of life in nature . . .  Is the modern problem of philosophy and science.” Although he shared similar concerns with Bergson, Whitehead brought a different intellectual background to their solution and produced a novel, speculative metaphysics.

Philosophy – History and Problems at 395.

Whitehead would agree with Bergson that all sensation, and therefore all thought, must be model – based, or “as if” thinking.  Whitehead explores further the nature of all life as process, not as isolated moments in time.  He collaborated with Bertrand Russell to examine the extent to which reality was accessible to mathematical thinking in Principia Mathematica.  They appear to be the most unlikely of collaborators: Russell at times claiming atheism, and Whitehead professing a theism in process.  See, .

I find Whitehead’s notion of process akin to Eric Fromm’s interpretation of the meaning of “Yahweh,” the response from the burning bush to Moses’ question, “Whom shall I say sends me?”  Eric Fromm discusses the Hebrew meaning of the word, Yahweh: it is not the present tense of the verb “to be,” but the imperfect form of that verb, i.e., “I am becoming.”  Yahweh reasonably might be interpreted, “I am in process.”  Whitehead’s complaint of Newtonian physics was its “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Rather than a notion of frozen moments in time, Whitehead preferred the description “actual entities” or “actual occasions.” As Stumpf describes it at page 397,

Because an actual occasion is not a material thing, it is better understood as an experience.  These occasions do not exist, they happen.

For Whitehead, both the observer, or subject, and the object observed are forever in process.  In my music background as director, I often expressed a similar notion when I instructed my performers that a phrase must go somewhere, it must be growing or resolving; if it is not, it is dead.  What I find interesting in Process Theology is the notion that I gather from it: “something once done well is forever.” As I understand it, the traditional Jewish notion of eternity is not “dying and going to heaven,” but that the life of the individual continues in the people.

In Whitehead’s Process Theology, he also accounts for a God that is in process.  The Methodist theologian, John Cobb, developed that further within the discipline of theology.  In each of them, I find particularly interesting the notion of a God that is in process, not “yesterday, today, and tomorrow the same.” Insofar as we can comprehend the notion of the divine, we can only relate that experience to concrete life.  I do not mean concrete in the sense of a static object, but rather, in the experience of flesh and bones in the world that we know, yet, experiencing that there is something more than mere flesh and bones, our thoughts, our experiences, our ideas.  That, to my mind, is the essence of life.  Many Christians might object to such a dynamic notion of God as being undependable because of such a concept of change in the “absolute.  Speaking in human terms, which are the only terms to which we can relate, to have any emotion, whether anger, sympathy, pain, or joy, inherently involves change.  One cannot empathize or react without change.  The notion of Yahweh is a notion of being a live, which implicitly means that God is in process.

Similarly, for Whitehead, both God and creation are timeless.  Plato saw the Ideal as the perfect originals of what on earth are mere copies. Whitehead, on the other hand, perceives God as unlimited possibility: possibility that is connected with the past, to which we contribute the present, in which we can hope for the possibilities of the future.  When one is sensitive to the Divine, the presence of God, one is drawn to participate and to contribute to the becoming of the world, to help realize its possibilities.

As Whitehead described it,

God’s own role lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization.  He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience and beating it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness.

I think the poet, Keats, might have agreed.


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