An ongoing process of a diversity of opposites

Let us assume that the world consists of an incalculable number of events, which stand to each other in manifold and complex relations.

By Lars Schall

God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands. (1)

Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was a mathematician and philosopher who addressed a rather unusual question for a modern philosopher: the question of the existence of God.

To familiarize ourselves with the terrain on which Whitehead preferred to move, let us assume that the general metaphysical framework of the world consists of an incalculable number of events which stand in manifold and complex relations to each other. How in this world a given event is like depends completely on its relatiionship to other things: the predecessor events in its past, and the abstarct kinds it conforms to.“ In this world, an event „does not come into existence gradually,“ but rather, first it isn’t there, then it is, then it isn’t again. at no point is it half in existence. but its spatiotemporal locus is not a point, its physical simplicity notwithstanding. nor is it genesis featureless: what and how it is depends on those antecedents, but not necessarily deterministically: each event is something new and represents a selection from a unique field of often contrary possibilities.“ The things which exist in this world, from particles to humans to galaxies, are more or less vast chains or assemblages of chains of such events, whose kinds encapsulate the kinds of succession and aggregation required.“ And to return to our starting point, “This picture is maybe broadly familiar to two group of people whose membership barely overlaps. On the one hand we have the quantum physists. On the other hand we have the scholars and acolytes of Alfred North Whitehead.“ (2)

What does this framework of the world sound like in Whitehead’s work in concrete terms? For example, like this when he formulates:

“… Thus the universe is to be conceived as attaining the active self-expression of its own variety of opposites – of its own freedom and its own necessity, of its own multiplicity and its own unity, of its own imperfection and its own perfection. All the ‚opposites‘ are elements in the nature of things, and are incorrigibly there. The concept of ‚God‘ is the way in which we understand this incredible fact – that what cannot be, yet is.

Thus the consequent nature of God is composed of a multiplicity of elements with individual self-realization. It is just as much a multiplicity as it is a unity; it is just as much one immediate fact as it is an unresting advance beyond itself. Thus the actuality of God must also be understood as a multiplicity of actual components in process of creation. This is God in his function of the kingdom of heaven.“ (3)

Or thus, when Whitehead speaks of an ongoing process of creation:

“God is in the universe, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts. But this creation is a continuing process, and `the process is itself the actuality,’ since no sooner do you arrive than you start on a fresh journey. Insofar as we partake of this creative process do we partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is our immortality, reducing the question of whether our individuality survives death of the body to the estate of an irrelevancy. Our true destiny as cocreator in the universe is our dignity and our grandeur.“ (4)

In the world of opposites, God operates according to Whitehead “from actuality to possibility“, whereas the world conversely „goes from possibility to actuality“. (5) God is Pantocrator; he (or his primordial nature and persistent presence) creates „every worldly occasion“ – that is, God’s „act of existence“ is “the necessary condition for the worldly events to exist and to occur.“ (6) Whitehead considers God „active in all events, not occasionally but at all places and all times, not as a competing agent among others, but operative on a different level, and indispensible for the being of the world.“ (7) In this arrangement between God and the world, the Pantocrator cannot act “as an absolute Alleinmacht, because the realization of God’s vision intrinsically depends on the self-creation of the worldly events. Taken together, these two observations show that for Whitehead, the self-causality of the world and the all-pervasiveness of God’s agency are compatible and interrelated, instead of mutually exclusive.“ (8)

To be sure, in recent decades scientific theories have advanced that many other universes exist besides our universe – and in many cases philosophers have argued that these scientific models virtually argue against an existence of God. Another approach, breathing Whiteheadian spirit, would be a different assumption: If God exists, a multiverse is precisely what we should expect. (9)

(1) Alfred North Whitehead: God;

(2) Peter Simons: Processing Whitehead;

(3) Alfred North Whitehead: Process and Reality – An Essay in Cosmology; Gifford Lectures.

(4) Alfred North Whitehead: God.

(5) Cf. Palmyre M.F. Oomen:  God’s Power and Almightiness in Whitehead’s Thought. Open Theology, De Gruyter, 2015. Philip Rose assumes the primacy of possibility (the „metaphysics of possibility“) as the true reason of being. He thus stands in contrast to virtually the entire Western intellectual tradition, which regarded or regards actuality as logically prior to possibility. Rose, in the course of a review of this tradition, considers the fact that not even Whitehead escapes the „metaphysics of actuality“ – see his „Ontological Principle“. Rose contrasts the problems inherent in the traditional view with Charles Sanders Peirce’s evolutionary cosmogony, in order to emphasize that possibility, rather than actuality, should be regarded as the original / primordial reason. Cf. Philip Rose: Rethinking Whitehead’s Cosmology Through the Cosmogonic Philosophy of C.S. Peirce – Speculation on the Origins of the Actual and the Metaphysical Primacy of the Possible, in Andrew M. Davis / Maria Teresa Teixera / Wm. Andrew Schwartz: Process Cosmology – New Integrations in Science and Philosophy. Springer, 2022, pp. 247-275.

(6) Oomen:  God’s Power and Almightiness in Whitehead’s Thought.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid. Whitehead’s rejection of the notion that God is omnipotent / almighty, “has  to  a  large  extent  its  reason  in  the  problem  of  evil: ‘If  this  conception be adhered to [in which metaphysical compliments such as omnipotence are paid to God], there can be no alternative except to discern in Him the origin of all evil as well as of all good. He is then the supreme author of the play, and to Him must therefore be ascribed its shortcomings as well as its success‘.” Ibid. For Whitehead and the problem of evil, see R. Maurice Barineau: Whitehead and Genuine Evil. Process Studies, pp. 181-188, Vol. 19, Number 3, 1990, Center for Process Studies; In the context of God’s omnipotence, recall that Jacques Ellul characterized God as follows: “God is a self-limited omnipotence, not through caprice or fancy, but because anything else would be in contradiction with his very being. For beyond power, the dominant and conditioning fact is that the being of God is love.” Cf. Matthew Pattillo: Restraint of Beasts – Church and State in Ellul and Girard. Universität Innsbruck, 23. Juni 2003.

(9) In fact, Whitehead developed his own version of the multiverse theory in the 1920s, which ultimately shows a remarkable affinity to the revolutionary ideas of current cosmological speculation. He postulated his theory for some of the same reasons advanced by leading cosmologists and physicists today. Cf. Leemon B. McHenry: The Event Universe – The Revisionary Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, Edinburgh University Press, 2015, and online id.: The Multiverse Conjecture – Whitehead’s Cosmic Epochs and Contemporary Cosmology;[1].pdf. On the questions that arise regarding the existence of God in the face of a multiverse, see Klaas Kraay (ed.): God and the Multiverse – Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives. Routledge, 2017. British quantum computing pioneer David Deutsch assumes that there are „very, very many“ universes, and „(a)ll things that are physically possible happen in at least one of those universes.“ Asked if there would then also be a universe „in which Saddam Hussein is happily married to Laura Bush,“ Deutsch replied, „If we take quantum theory seriously, yes – although this marriage has probably only occurred in a tiny number of universes.“ Cf. Johann Grolle / Rafaela von Bredow: „Die Welt ist bizarr“, Der Spiegel, 11/2005;

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