The Philosophy of Organism Part 3: Whitehead’s God and Process Theology

The topic of God in Whitehead’s philosophy is so big and complex that it demands a post all to itself, as it may have to be revisited at some point in the future as new parts of the philosophy become relevant. As such, it has been given it’s own article that may be expanded upon later, either for reference as new concepts emerge, or if my understanding of the matter happens to change. It would be helpful to keep in mind the words of Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Firstly, It should be very clear to readers that Whitehead’s God is not a bearded man in the clouds, nor is he a vengeful pagan idol. To let the man speak for himself:

“It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operates by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present” (Process and Reality 343).

God was one of the parts of Whitehead’s philosophy that can be the most difficult to understand and to swallow. Those of you who are not religious may already be getting cold feet. My advice, which may seem a bit against your sensibilities, is this: understand first, then ask your questions. To understand his unique idea of God, and to question it if you so desire, one has to understand that, and it’s very, very difficult to understand how God operates and is justified by Whitehead without simply letting him take you along and show you, which may take many, many pages. In short until you’re certain you grasp what Whitehead is on about, roll with it and see where it takes us. It is the supreme exemplification of Whitehead’s principles that it is difficult to understand how each part of it works until you see how it functions with the other parts, and God is no different.

God’s Primordial Nature

The Key to Process and reality suggests that the simplest way to introduce the concept of God is to simply apply the ontological principle to the realm of eternal objects. So first, recall the ontological principle:

“Every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance, has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence or in the character of the caracter of the subject which is in process of concrescence… so that to search for reasons means to search for one or more actual entities” (Key 17).

Because of this, Whitehead declares that things cannot float into existence from nothing.  Everything has to be somewhere, so, the potentiality of the universe (the eternal objects) also has to all be somewhere. This is a non temporal actual-entity which is the mediation between the the eternal objects and the actual entities: God. Attentive readers likely noticed that there was something missing in the discussion of eternal objects:

“The endeavor to understand eternal objects in complete abstraction from the actual world results in reducing them to mere differentiated nonentities” (Key 26).

To avoid this, the “relevance” of eternal objects in each creative instant, their relation to each other, their diversity, pattern, and nature must already be realized conceptually in what is termed god’s “primordial nature.” Without this, the eternal objects are isolated and vanish from existence, and potentiality becomes impossible. To prevent this God in his primordial nature prehends all eternal objects. The primordial nature is then present in other actual entities as they move towards their own complete prehension of eternal objects. While the eternal objects guide how each prehension is made, the primordial nature is generating the relevance of each eternal object in the actual entity and determining how each eternal object comes into the actual entity to begin with.

The primordial nature is thus present in some respect in every concrescing entity, and is realized in the completion of each actual entity. To quote Whitehead:

“[The primordial nature of God] is the unconditioned actuality of conceptual feeling at the base of things; so that, by reason of this primordial actuality, there is an order in the relevance of eternal objects to the process of creation. He is the actual entity in virtue of which the entire multiplicity of eternal objects obtains its graded relevance to each stage of concrescence. Apart from God, there could be no relevant novelty” (Key 26-27).

Only through his valuation of each eternal object is there any order in the world. If there could be no agent of comparison for eternal objects, there would be pure chaos. There could be no potentiality, as there would be no logical manner in which the eternal enters into the temporal without his valuations of each eternal object. This agency must come from an actual entity, namely God.

Subjective Aim and the Consequent Nature

God plays a critical role in the determining of each concrescing subject’s subjective aim. This is not the subjective form, which is how a feeling is realized, but an aim which acts as a sort of lure for feelings. The subjective aim is a vision provided to an entity of what it might be. The primordial nature of God sets up each actual entity with a subjective aim through providing the basis of the valuation of eternal objects. This end is the one most in line with bringing about an intensity of feeling (as this brings things to more definiteness). The entity’s becoming is kickstarted at this moment, and it’s becoming is it’s being. The aim provided by God may be altered by the concrescing subject, being simplified or corrupted, but this is to be decided by the entity, which is now provided with the means of going about it’s own concrescence in an orderly manner.

“God is the principle of concretion; namely, he is that actual entity from which each temporal concrescence receives that initial aim from which its self-causation starts” (Key 28-29).

There is nothing forcing an actual entity to comply with the subjective aim. It is the lord of its own concrescence, and presides over it as subject. God merely provides an image of a potentiality, and the entity may accept it or alter it. This is a bit of needless anthropomorphizing of actual entities, but the point should be clear.
Remember that the specific subjective aim provided by god arises naturally. It is not conjured from nowhere, it is merely God’s own valuation from the perspective of the entity in question, like subjective forms of other datum. Remember, each entity is prehending every other entity in some manner or another, so there is nothing special about prehending god. In fact, according to Whitehead, you’re doing it at every moment.God also enters into every entity through his consequent nature. As each generation of entities passes out of existence and gives birth to new entities, they are no longer actual, so in order that the objective immortality doctrine be preserved, the consequent nature of god prehends each satisfaction and brings it into itself, preserving it relative to the actual entity which it generated and allowing for it to be carried onwards and have efficacy in the world.

“Through his valuations of the world as saved in his consequent nature he exhibits ‘the judgement of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved'[PR 525]” (Key 227).

Conclusion

There are certain terms, like valuation, which are difficult to grasp and explain in this context, and to explain them. It is very difficult to actually understand them outside of the context of the phases of concrescence, which is the subject of the next article. Unfortunately, without God in mind, it is difficult to understand things like subjective aim. The next article can be approached arm with the concept of God, and by seeing his operations in action, the unfamiliar concepts will snap into an incredible clarity that can only be described as a moment of epiphany. Until then, be content with this piece from the Key for summary:

“In his primordial nature God prehends the infinite realm of possibilities; in his consequent nature he prehends the actualities of the world; his superjective nature is a result of weaving his consequent prehensions upon his primordial vision.”

 

 

The Philosophy of Organism Part 2: Eternal Objects and Their Relation to Actual Entities

The formative elements of the Philosophy of Organism are eternal objects, God, and creativity. The interaction between these formative elements is what produces the actual entities previously discussed, hence their designation as formative.

The next few blog posts will deal entirely with these formative elements and then can move on to the actual macrocosmic universe and offer descriptions of things we perceive on a daily basis. Today, we’ll be sticking to eternal objects.

Eternal objects are a Platonic concept, similar in function and role to the forms. Examples of eternal objects are colors, geometric forms, abstract concepts, etc. These demonstrate an important distinction made by Whitehead to what is real and what is actual. Whitehead believes that eternal objects are real. This does not mean they are floating around in Platonic heaven or you can go out into the wilderness and find yourself a number. Actual things “exist” concretely (trees, rocks, etc). What is actual is what is composed of actual entities; they are determinate. But eternal objects are real as potentialities. In fact, they are potentiality.

The Satisfaction and Development of Actual Entities

It’s necessary to elucidate somewhat on the nature of actual entities here to properly understand eternal objects. To quote Whitehead:

“An actual entity is a process in the course of which many operations with incomplete subjective unity terminate in a completed unity of operation, termed the satisfaction. The actual entity terminates in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe, the bond being either positive or negative prehension. This termination is termed the ‘satisfaction’ of the actual entity. (Key 14)”

The actual entity here is the movement of indeterminacy towards complete determinacy, an integration of feelings guided by the subjective forms of feeling. Gradually an actual entity becomes completely determinate, either by excluding objects (negative prehension) or including them in itself (positive prehension). Through subjective forms, novelty is added into the feelings. It then passes into what Whitehead terms “objective immortality,” where the past of an actual entity is carried into the future by those that succeed it. The satisfaction is the final cause moving the subject, and no process can be abstracted from it. The feelings move towards integration in the satisfaction they generate, and it is only there that they gain ultimate definiteness. This definiteness is what allows for “objective immortality” and is why they cannot be abstracted from each other.

For example, the past versions of a person’s self are carried into the present. Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost. While a person changes, their past does not fully escape them. But at every moment they are transcending themselves; the past is prehended by the present and superseded at each moment, intervening in processes other than itself as it moves towards new satisfaction and itself passes on.

This self-transcendence is the character of what are termed “objects,” a satisfied process. To Whitehead, “It is the one general metaphysical character of all entities of all sorts that they function as objects (Key 15),” that is, being involved in other concrescences. This is what allows for there to be solidarity and continuity in the universe, that all entities have objective character. Actual entities become beings, but as Whitehead notes: “It belongs to the nature of every being that it is a potential for every becoming.”

Actual entities are Subjects that preside over their own becoming, but they are also superjects, atomic creatures that exercise this objective immortality and transcend themselves by acting creatively. It is at all times a subject that experiences and a superject with objective character, the collection of experience. Whitehead notes that whenever the words subject or superject are seen, they cannot be thought of separately, but considered as subject-superject. The subject is the actual entity as a mirror, the superject as a window, but each actual entity is both mirror and window. To summarize:

“The philosophy of organism presupposes a datum which is met with feelings, and progressively attains the unity of a subject… the satisfaction is the ‘superject’ rather than the ‘substance’ or the ‘subject.’ It closes up the entity; and yet is the superject adding its character to the creativity whereby there is a becoming of entities superseding the one in question. This satisfaction is the attainment of something individual to the entity in question. It cannot be construed as a component contributing to its own concrescence; it is the ultimate fact, individual to the entity.

Eternal Objects

In the whole of the above, eternal objects were underlying the entire structure. If, as Whitehead’s ontological principle proclaims, nothing can come from nothing, and that everything that arises must come from something else, how can there possibly be potentiality and novelty?

The answer is eternal objects; these are not actual, but they are real. They relate to actual entities through conceptual feelings, which are like physical feelings but in relation to an eternal object instead of another actual entity. Actualities exemplify the ingression, or participation to use a Platonic term, of these potentialities:

“The things which are temporal [actual entities] arise by their participation in the things which are eternal [eternal objects] ”

“The functioning of an eternal object in the self-creation of an actual entity is the ‘ingression’ of the eternal object in the actual entity. An eternal object can be described only in terms of its potentiality for ‘ingression’ into the becoming of actual entities…(Key 21)”

What is meant by ‘ingression’ is the way in which the potential that is an eternal object is realized in an actual entity, contributing to that entity’s definiteness. For example: the eternal object of circle ingresses into a circle you draw, as the drawn circle realizes the potentiality for there to be circles in a definite manner. It is not called into being but brought from mere indeterminate potentiality to a determinate actuality.

“An eternal object in abstraction from any one particular actuality is a potentiality for ingression into actual entities. (Key 22)”

The existence of these potentialities is what allows for novelty to exist at all and for truly new occasions to emerge from what already exists. Objects do not merely have physical prehensions; they also have conceptual prehensions, which are prehensions of which the datum of the prehension is an eternal object. It may help to refer back to the diagram in the first part of this series and replace the actual entity with an eternal object. A key difference, though, is that to Whitehead, all actual entities must relate with a causal feeling to all other actual entitiesno matter how smallwhereas these potentialities may be dismissed or excluded entirely from an actuality. They never love their ‘accent’ of potentiality, as Whitehead puts it. The physical relations of actual entities are always governed by these eternal objects. Each prehension of other entities ‘carries’ a part of the entity to become a part of another, and eternal objects are key in this ‘carrying.’

“The philosophy of organism does not hold that the ‘particular existents’ [i.e, actual entities] are prehended apart from universals [i.e., eternal objects]; on the contrary it holds that they are prehended by the mediation of universals. (Key 24)”

A simple physical feeling, in which one actual entity positively prehends another actual entity as its intial datum, involves a ‘reproduction’ of a part of the intial datum (the objective datum) as a subjective form in the object that is prehending. Eternal objects enter into this as they help determine the definiteness of the objective datum (of the ‘effect’), and eternal objects also determine the definiteness of the subjective form (of the ’cause’). To quote:

“When there is re-enaction there is one eternal object with two-way functioning, namely as a partial determinant of the objective datum, and as partial determinant of the subjective form. In this two-way role, the eternal object is functioning relationally between the initial data on the one hand and the concrescent subject on the other. (Key 25)”

The eternal object ingresses into the actual entity by making it definite, offering the potentiality for definiteness, and in this way it is involved in both the objective datum and the subjective form. Its participation or ingression in the objective form gives it the definiteness necessary to be felt and be objectified (keep the principle of relativity below in mind here) in other entities. Its ingression into the subjective form is what allows for novel feeling to be made by providing itself as a potentiality and for the objectively immortal past to be synthesized with the present.

“…The potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities… (Process and Reality 22)”

The eternal objects thus give order to feelings and allow for there to be new actual entities. This allows for what Whitehead terms a “becoming of continuity” instead of a paradoxical “continuity of becoming.” The eternal object is what allows for this solidarity and unity of relation of objects. Being involved on both sides of any feeling, “The solidarity of the universe is based on the relational functioning of eternal objects. (Key 25)”

Conclusion

Eternal objects can be a bit hard to swallow. How can these be? Clever readers might notice that there are a few problems with how eternal objects function in the system with the principles as given. To explain eternal objects, Whitehead introduces a fascinating and creative concept of God, which at first seems inelegant and shoehorned but is in fact the supreme exemplification of the principles that have been described. The next article will deal entirely with Whitehead’s conception of God.

The Philosophy of Organism Part 1: Actual Entities

“Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the Universe.” -Alfred North Whitehead

Edit: Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section!

I’m going to take a break from my regular writing to write a bit about a fascinating yet underappreciated philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. He co-authored Principia Mathematica together with Bertrand Russel and then went on to become a metaphysician of astounding quality, pioneering a field of speculative philosophy known as “process metaphysics.” His personal philosophical system was dubbed “The Philosophy of Organism.”

Process metaphysics is the inversion of “substance metaphysics,” which for the uninitiated is the view that the world is made up primarily of static substances. The primary features of an object in a substance metaphysics are the substances which compose it, whereas in a process-metaphysics such as Whitehead’s, the role of each entity is thought of in how it is becoming, or how it plays a role in becoming. Action becomes everything.

The primary books I’ll be working from are “Process and Reality” by Whitehead himself and the key to the aforementioned book by Donald W. Sherburne. If not otherwise specified, all information and quotation comes from these two books.

We will begin with a (very) quick rundown of some of the most fundamental parts of Whitehead’s metaphysical system and hopefully build up to the highest levels of abstraction. Now without further ado, let’s begin.

Actual Entities

Whitehead’s system is atomistic, in the vein of Democritus. His system has ultimate, individual parts which cannot be further divided: atoms. The atoms of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism are called “Actual Entities.” Whitehead’s ontological principle states that:

…Every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance has its reason… in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence… (Process and Reality 24)

What this essentially means is that the ultimate reason for any thing ultimately comes down to one or more actual entities, and thus anything that exerts influence on the world must be an actual entity or take part in one. A concrescence is for now best defined as a term for a process. Now examine his “principle of relativity”:

…The potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities… (Process and Reality 22).

Taken together, these two principles assert not only that all things ultimately composed actual entities, but all things only exist insofar as they are able to take part in a process. This means that all actual entities exist primarily in the way that they function in a process.

In understanding what an actual entity itself is, it can be helpful to compare with Leibniz’s Monadology. To Leibnitz, all entities were ultimately “windowless monads” which did not actually interact but were in a pre-established harmony, to quote The Monadology:

An apple falls on Alice’s head, apparently causing the experience of pain in her mind. In fact, the apple does not cause the pain—the pain is caused by some previous state of Alice’s mind. If Alice then seems to shake her hand in anger, it is not actually her mind that causes this, but some previous state of her hand.

This counterintuitive system of monads was the subject of much ridicule, but Whitehead turns this it its head. While Leibnitz’s monads are windowless and do not interact at all, Whitehead’s actual entities are all-window; they interact with everything in some way shape or form and only exist insofar as they are able to interact.

Edit:

Physical Feelings

According to Whitehead, one of the most basic ways in which actual entities interact is through what are termed simple physical feelings, diagrammed below. A simple physical feeling is a type of prehension, and actual entities are the sum of all their prehensions. Specifically, a physical feeling is a “positive” prehension. Each prehension consists of a subject that is prehending, the datum which is prehended, and the subjective form which is the way in which the datum is prehended. This is diagrammed below (taken from the key):

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In this diagram, B is the subject and A is the “initial datum.” Both are actual entities, and the sections of each pie are their prehensions. N is the prehension of A that is objectified (becomes a part of) by B by way of the feeling X. N here is called the “objective datum.” This movement represented by the vector moving from N to X. What is happening is that X is making N a part of its subject B. At the same time, negative prehensions – represented by the other pairs of letters – are eliminating parts of B from the feeling. This gives the initial datum N a subjective form, a sort of perspective, in the feeling X which objectifies it in B. If you are familiar with Hegel, it may be helpful to think of his concept of “Something” and “Other” as it is very similar to what is at play here(Ignore this, the similarity is almost completely superficial upon further reflection, and is in fact diametrically opposed to a Hegelian understanding of objects. See here for why) The following quote may shine a bit more light on the exact nature of these feelings:

“A simple physical feeling is an act of causation. The actual entity which is the initial datum [A] is the ’cause,’ the simple physical feeling [X] is the ‘effect,’ and the subject [B] entertaining the simple physical feeling is the actual entity conditioned by the effect. This ‘conditioned’ actual entity [b] will also be called the ‘effect.’ All complex causal action can be reduced to a complex of such primary components. Therefore simple physical feelings will also be called ‘causal’ feelings (Key 11).

The object in this case is acting on the subject. The objective datum N is actually reaching out and being objectified in the feeling X, not being reached out for by X. Let’s bring this away from such abstraction and use an example from experience. Looking at different parts of your screen, you are beholding the same initial datum at all times, namely the screen. However, you are feeling different objective datum depending on which part you are viewing. The subjective form, how you perceive this objective datum, arises due to the ‘ingression’ of what Whitehead terms ‘eternal objects,’ which will be explained in the next post which will specifically deal with them. They are quite similar, however, to Plato’s forms.

Actual entities showcase some of the idiosyncratic features of Whitehead’s terminology. There is a difference between “real” and “actual” to Whitehead, and he uses the term “feeling” for something that seems to lack any sort of feeling in the usual sense. He even goes so far as to term actual entities “drops of experience.” He does not mean that all actual entities literally have “experience” in the way that you and I do. Experience is truly a kind of technical term, as is feeling, meant to emphasize how actual entities objectify each other. The heavy abstraction and complex interaction of these moments of experience eventually produces the conscious. In a way, the objects truly do ‘experience’ each other; in their feelings, they reenact an aspect of the object within themselves.

This also highlights another difficulty of Whitehead: his system is not easily presented in a linear fashion. If I explain Eternal objects here, it becomes necessary to explain what God is to Whitehead, and things continue tangentially from there. This is not helped by the fact that the actual beings that we perceive are not actual entities, but “nexūs” (plural of nexus) or societies of actual entities. All of these terms will be explained in future posts, but in order to focus on Actual Entities thoroughly, they have to be passed over. Certain concepts will be retread in future posts as they are given new context and clarity by the elucidation of new concepts. Until then, you’ll have to be content with just “drops of experience.”