From The Thomist, 42, January 1978, 1-13.
In What Sense Is God Infinite? A Process Perspective
Lewis S. Ford
Perhaps the most persistent objection classical theists raise against
the process theism espoused by such thinkers as Alfred North Whitehead
and Charles Hartshorne is that it conceives God to be finite. This
recurrent charge is assumed to characterize their positions fairly and
to be a fatal hindrance to the entire enterprise. Many are deterred
thereby from investigating this contemporary alternative any further.
Cornelio Fabro speaks of Whitehead’s “return to the finitistic
conception of God.”1 Insofar as this claim conceives
his concept of God to be exclusively, or even primarily finite, we think
it is utterly unfounded. To be sure, Whitehead subjects the traditional
notion as to how God is actually infinite to severe criticism, but this
need not entail the finitude of God as the only alternative. On the
contrary, we wish to show that only Whitehead’s conception of God can be
appropriately described as “the infinite actuality.”
There is some initial historical plausibility in ascribing the notion of
a “finite God” to Whitehead, for he can be seen as heir to the thinking
of John Stuart Mill, William James, William Pepperell Montague, and
Edgar S. Brightman, all of whom regard God in some sense as finite. In
his posthumous work, Three Essays on Religion (1874), Mill was
troubled by the existence of evil in the world, and suggested that we
should conceive of a limited deity faced with the independent existence
of matter and force. James opposed the block-universe of absolute
idealism, and advocated an appropriate alternative that we “be frankly
pluralistic and assume that the superhuman consciousness, however vast
it may be, has itself external environment, and consequently is finite.”
We should “accept, along with the superhuman consciousness, the notion
that it is not all-embracing, the notion, in other words, that there is
a God, but that he is finite, either in power or in knowledge, or in
both at once.”2 Brightman criticized the unlimited expansion
of the concept of God into an all-inclusive being, and postulated a
restricting element within God as The Given, the source of evil which
God constantly seeks to overcome.3
Within process theism itself, Charles Hartshorne’s position is somewhat
problematic. In Man’s Vision of God he holds that “the notion of
a purely finite or imperfect deity seems to have all the weaknesses that
overwhelmed primitive polytheism.”4 Later he warns that “
those who think that the modern experiments with a “finite” god have
proved abortive might take heed of the radical ambiguity of all such
phrases.”5 He conceives God to be both finite and infinite,
the supreme instance of both these categories. “The world memory is
sufficiently conscious fully to realize forevermore all past qualities
whatsoever. In this stupendous sense God is literally infinite,”
because the past world extends back infinitely in time without
beginning. This does not mean, however, that God is “infinite in the
self-contradictory sense of realizing determinately all future (that is,
partially undetermined) qualities as well.”6 God is not
thereby limited in his omniscience, though, as if there were actual
future contingents which God somehow did not know. Rather, God is
strictly omniscient as knowing all present and past actualities as
determinately actual, and knowing all future possibilities as possible.
These conclusions are reiterated in his most recent study, Creative
Synthesis and Philosophic Method.7 He recognizes
that God’s experience of an inexhaustible past “implies an actual
infinity of past states. Finitism at this point I take to be incorrect.
This is, I admit, not an easy assumption to justify.”8 Though
he denies Whitehead’s multiplicity of eternal objects or definite
atemporal forms in favor of an indeterminate qualitative continuum,9
he admits that “the infinity of whole numbers must be included in
the necessary aspect of deity,” together with other such abstract
entities, in order to number these past states, for “God must eternally
have been and be aware of an infinite number of already actualized
Nonetheless each momentary divine state must be finite, if God is to be
the “self-surpassing surpasser of all.” God is not the infinite
actualization of all possibilities, but has determinate states, each of
which in turn surpasses and includes its predecessors. Hartshorne
defines the perfect individual being as that “than which no other
individual being could conceivably be greater, but which
itself, in another ‘state,’ could become greater.”11 Put
in Whitehead’s terms, this means that God is a linearly ordered series
of individual divine occasions, each prehending or including the
totality of its predecessors. If these divine occasions are conceived
with strict analogy with ordinary actual occasions, they must be as
finite and determinate as any others. Besides, if each divine occasion
in turn surpasses its predecessor, presumably by adding novel
experiences of the on-going world to what was already experienced in the
past, that predecessor must be finite in order for such surpassing to
have definite meaning. “God never has had, and never will have, to make
an infinite addition to his own life [assuming with Hartshorne that
spatial plurality is finite], but always a finite addition. Moreover,
the infinity of prior states is not a mere infinity of mutually
independent items; for the just preceding state will have included all
earlier ones in its own unity. So in a sense God is combining finites,
not an infinite and a finite. The numerical infinity of the previous
multiplicity is entirely embraced in the aesthetic unity of an
experience.”12 Thus while God at any one time experiences an
infinity of past states, the divine experiencer is finite and can be
surpassed. In part, this is the solution we must adopt if we are to
resolve a particular problem in Whitehead’s philosophy. On the one
hand, “Every occasion of actuality is in its own nature finite;”13
on the other hand, each actuality experiences every actuality in
its past, and the number of these actualities must be infinite. For
every actuality comes into being as the appropriation and integration of
its causal antecedents. Every actuality requires causal antecedents,
ad infinitum. Thus for present actualities to exist, there must be
an infinite series of prior actualities. This requires that there be a
finite experience capable of synthesizing an infinity of simple physical
prehensions of discrete actualities.14
Hartshorne appeals to the “aesthetic unity of an experience,” which we
may understand in terms of the Whiteheadian category of transmutation.
By this category the many simple physical feelings of individual
actualities are felt as one single feeling, provided there is a common
characteristic derivable from them all whereby the entire nexus can be
felt.15 In other words, the class is grasped as a whole by
virtue of its common class characteristic, provided individual
differences can be ignored. These differences fade away so that the
many actualities may form a common uniform background from which
particularly relevant actualities of the immediate past may stand forth
with greater emphasis. Since those actualities felt as a nexus are not
individually discriminated, but are felt only in terms of their common
features, there may equally well be an infinite as a finite number of
them. In either case they are felt as a particular expanse
characterized by some common feature.
Unfortunately we cannot apply this category of transmutation to God, and
thus resolve Hartshorne’s problem. Transmutation requires the ignoring
of individual differences, as one of the ways in which the past fades,
whereby objectification involves elimination.16 God’s
cherishing of the past within his living immediacy requires that he
preserve its differences as well as its commonality. Instead of a few
transmuted feelings of nexus whose infinite gradations are neglected,
God must actively synthesize an infinity of individual differences.
This, we submit, is impossible for a finite actuality to accomplish.
In Whitehead’s philosophy, however, there is a systematic contrast
between the many, finite, temporal actual occasions of the world and the
one, infinite, nontemporal actual entity which is God.17 As
long as actualization begins with the “physical pole,” as a determinate
synthesis of the causal past, this temporal integration can be finite
and temporal. In contrast, there can only be one synthesis of pure
possibility which initiates from “mental pole”: “unfettered conceptual
valuation, ‘infinite’ in Spinoza’s sense of that term, is only possible
once in the universe.”18 Any other actuality will be
influenced by its character, and thus cannot be absolutely unlimited.
Instead of there being an infinite series of finite states of God, each
synthesizing the infinity which has gone before, God is conceived as an
infinite actuality capable of absorbing into his non-temporal unity
whatever multiplicity temporally arises.
In what sense, then, is God conceived as both infinite and actual? On
the one hand, we must recognize that Whitehead characteristically limits
actualization to its determinate, physical instances as, for example, in
his claim that “all actualization is finite” as “the exclusion of
alternative possibility.”19 While “it belongs to the nature
of physical experience that it is finite,” he recognizes that
“conceptual experience can be infinite.”20 On the other
hand, although determinateness is ordinarily the essential mark of
actuality [as excluding alternatives], it is not so for Whitehead.
Instead, it is “decision” which “constitutes the very meaning of
actuality. . . . ‘Actuality’ is the decision amid ‘potentiality.’ It
represents stubborn fact which cannot be evaded.”21 Then
determinateness is not the mark of actuality per se, but the
outcome of finite, temporal decision, in contrast to definiteness, which
is the outcome of infinite, non-temporal decision. The contrast between
“actuality” and “potentiality” is thus relativized, for what is actual
in itself (the decision) belongs (as outcome) to the potentiality of
that which succeeds it.22 The many existent actualities
furnish the potentiality for the actualization of the present occasion.
Both the finite, determinate actualities of the past and the one
infinite, definite actuality provide the world with potentiality, but
infinite actuality in the guise of potentiality is simply possibility.23
We must recognize that the one primordial (i.e., non-temporal)
envisagement of all eternal objects or timeless forms is at once an
actual decision and the creation of possibility. Earlier Whitehead had
described God as “the principle of limitation,” apart from which “there
might have been an indiscriminate modal pluralism.”24 Apart
from God’s decision, the sheer, unorganized timeless forms would be
haphazardly related to one another, exhibiting all sorts of
“possibilities” and “impossibilities.” They require a cosmic ordering
whereby metaphysical generalities are established, making the boundaries
between what is possible and what is impossible. A possibility is not
simply a sheer, atemporal quality. It is internally related to others
forming a coherent world of possibility with its own metaphysical order.
The primordial decision whereby possibility is created by demarcating it
from impossibility is the infinite, nontemporal act whereby God creates
himself. As the one infinite actuality, he is the ever-present source
of possibility to the world.
Once the relative status of actuality and potentiality is recognized, so
that the same entity can possess both modalities in different
perspec-tives, we may conceive that which is infinitely actual in itself
as the realm of definite possibility for others. For that which is
clearly infinite is the realm of possibility with endless gradations and
alternatives. This notion of “infinite actuality” is rarely considered.
The notion Whitehead criticizes under this heading concerns the
attempted conjunction of infinity with determinateness. For that which
is determinate is by nature finite, exclusive of alternative. Infinite
actuality cannot mean the determinate actualization of all
possibilities, for some are evil, and some are incompatible with one
another: if there are actually seven persons in this room now, there
cannot be six or eight or fifteen. At best what is meant by infinite
actuality is the inclusion of the best actualization of every ideal, and
then no allowance is made for incompatibilities among these various
ideals. For these may clash: for example, technological efficiency
suggests measures at variance with ecological balance. “There is no
totality which is the harmony of all perfections. Whatever is realized
in any one occasion of experience necessarily excludes the unbounded
welter of contrary possibilities. There are always ‘others,’ which
might have been and are not.”25
Leibniz’s doctrine of compossibility is relevant here. This need not
mean that God chooses the best of the compossibilities. God can
entertain an infini-tude of ideals, for “the conceptual entertainment of
incompatibilities is possible, and so is their concep-tual comparison.”
They just cannot be conjointly rendered determinate by a single being,
even an infinite being. Rather, “we must conceive the Divine Eros as
the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite
realization, each in its due season.”26 In the end only the
world can provide the determinate realization of these ideals in a
plurality of finite individual instances. They can be realized
successively, in temporal sequence, by diverse hands, but not all at
once by a single actuality, no matter how infinite or powerful.
Because God cannot be the determinate actualization of all possibility,
Whitehead can speak of him in terms of limitation. “The limitation of
God is his goodness. . . . It is not true that God is in all respects
infinite. If He were, He would be evil as well as good. Also this
unlimited fusion of evil with good would mean mere nothingness. He is
something decided and is thereby limited.”27 If he
determinately actualized all possible situations, he would create evil
as well as good, but evil always involves the self-actualization of a
plurality of actualities, at cross-purposes with one another and thus in
In speaking of God’s infinite self-creation, we revert to Spinoza’s
doctrine of causa sui. Like him, “agency involves both a power
of acting and the expression of that power in something enacted,
a doing and a deed, and in action par excellence that which is
enacted is the exhaustive expression of the potency.”28 God
cannot be infinitely powerful, yet only exercise a portion of that power
in creating a finite world. He must exercise his complete potency in
creation; otherwise this potency cannot be known to be infinite.
“Spinoza’s philosophical intention, therefore, is to derive all things
from a primordial infinite power or indeterminate potency
self-actualized in an infinite and exhaustively determin-ate eternal
universe.”29 We agree insofar as an infinite being in
creating itself must create an infinite world. The world of determinate
actuality we dwell in, however, is a world of finitude. It will not do
to pretend that it is really an infinite world which appears as finite
to our limited perspective. Spinoza’s mistake lay in identifying
possibility and actuality, thus producing a causal determinism. In
creating himself God creates the only world which can be truly infinite,
which is the world of possibility, not the finite world of determinate
A corollary to Spinoza’s argument is that only the finite can create
itself as finite. Finite, determinate actuality is realized by
temporal, limited occasions, not by God, and there is a vast plurality
of such free determinations, thus promoting contingency with its risk of
evil. If the infinite can only create that which is infinite, it must
create possibility, to be determinately actualized in turn by a
plurality of free, finite agents.
While God is thus conceived as the infinite actuality of inexhaustible
possibility, the world may also be conceived as an infinite plurality of
deter-minate individuals. Thus the contrast between the infinity of God
and the finitude of the world seems to be lost. Are these two
infinities on a par? Also, if an infinity of time has already elapsed,
an ancient horror returns to haunt us: does not this mean that in due
course we shall exhaust all possibilities, so that history must be
conceived as the endless recurrence of the same?
Prior to the discoveries of Georg Cantor in transfinite arithmetic, such
problems remained unsolved. Cantor was able to devise a way of counting
infinite sets, however, by placing the individual members in one-one
correlation with each other. Two infinite sets are thus equivalent if a
method can be arranged whereby every member of one set is placed in
one-one correlation with every member of the other set. It can be shown
that there are just as many points in one side of a triangle as in the
other, no matter how unequal the two sides might be, for a line
intersecting a point in one side parallel to the base will uniquely
specify a point of intersection in the other side, and vice versa.
However, it turns out that it is possible to prove that the set of
points on any line is not equivalent to the set of whole numbers. There
are more points than integers, even though these are infinite. The
denumerable infinity of integers cannot exhaust the dense continuity of
Now particular, determinate, individual actualities share with the
integers the property of being discrete. Between any two of them there
is a definite boundary of demarcation; this distinguishes the epochal
character of atomic occasions from a continuity of endlessly overlapping
events. Thus particular actualities can be put into a one-one
correlation with the integers, and are denumerably infinite.
Possibilities, however, form a continuum with infinite gradations and
shadings among alternatives; they are continuously infinite. Thus,
while there may be a denumerable infinity of actualizations, the
continuous infinity of possibility can never be exhausted.
God is infinitely actual, yet he can be enriched by the temporal,
determinate actualization of the present. An older logic would have
regarded this as impossible: nothing can be added to that which is
already infinite. Even Cantor’s trans-finite arithmetic cannot resolve
this problem. Instead the comfortable wisdom of mathematics must be
directly confronted and challenged. Mathematics is timeless,
abstracting from the temporal, and therefore cannot appreciate the way
in which the temporal and determinate can supplement the eternal and
definite, no matter how infinite it may be. The determinate carves out
but a fragment of the range of possibility, banishing all alternatives,
but it endows this one definite form with a rich concreteness derived
from the integration of all the causal past with (and by means of) this
form. Since the determinate realization of all alternative
possibilities at once is impossible, some of these are realized
successively in time, and these in turn enrich the infinite eternality
of possible forms. Though the (continuous) infinity of divine
conceptuality has already absorbed a (denumerable) infinity of discrete
actualities into its nontemporal unity, it stands prepared to receive
still more. The infinity of past states of the universe does not
preclude the addition of yet more, as long as there is a temporal
advance concretely enriching the timelessness of mathematical
Is the possibility within God actually infinite, or merely potentially
infinite? This distinction, we submit, properly concerns the realm of
temporal application. As temporal creatures, we can never
complete an infinite series, but we can be given a rule of addition or
subdivision whereby no matter what situation we confront, we can
always transcend it by a further repeated application of the rule. Such
addition or subdivision is always actually finite, though potentially
infinite. The non-temporal envis-agement of all possibility lacks the
temporal context within which this distinction is made, but if its
infinity must be either actual or potential, we would say that it is
actual. It is essential for a potential infinity that any actual
summation of it be incomplete, completable only by repeated application
of the rule. Yet “the unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire
multiplicity of eternal objects”30 must be complete.
Incompleteness presupposes a standard of completion, and the notion of
something missing which, when added, would complete the whole. Such
addition, however, implies temporality, for there must be a distinction
between the incomplete whole present before, and the complete whole
present after, such addition. Nothing can conceivably be added to a
nontemporal whole. Thus, for example, the divine realm cannot lack any
form of definiteness which may sometime be relevant to the ongoing
course of the world, for then it would be finite, not infinite. Its
nontemporal completeness must include an actual infinity of
Nevertheless there is a meaning of the potential infinite which applies
to God. Here we must distinguish between pure and real possibility. A
pure possibility pertains to an isolated form of definiteness,
considered nontemporally apart from any concrete realization in the
temporal world. This same form of definiteness, when considered in
relation to a given causal past as a possible way in which it could be
integrated in actualization, constitutes a real possibility.31
The domain of pure possibility forms the object of the primordial
envisagement, and is, as we have seen, actually finite. But for each
actual situation arising out of the temporal world God correlates those
pure forms of definiteness which are relevant to any further determinate
realization. Thus God is the agency of real possibility in the world,
supplying each nascent occasion with those real possibilities
appropriate to its own actualization.
These real possibilities appear to be infinite, yet need not be so; it
is enough if they include all relevant alternatives. It is not the
case, however, that certain are necessarily relevant, such that God
supplies all of these. Rather, God is the agency of relevance, whereby
pure possibilities are rendered relevant and thereby inserted into the
temporal flux as actualizable.32 From our perspective, real
possi-bilities gradually shade off from the most to the least relevant.
From God’s perspective, those which are relevant are graded in
importance and value, but more could always be added, depending upon
God’s interest and concern, from his infinite storehouse of pure
possibilities. While this can never be definitely ascertained, the
number of real possibilities provided to a given emerging occasion may
at any one time be finite, though potentially infinite.
Thus, while any determinate actuality must be finite, there is room for
an infinite divine actuality as the envisagement of all possibility.
God’s envisage-ment of pure possibility is actually infinite, while his
envisagement of real (temporally relevant) possibili-ty is potentially
infinite. Moreover, his experience of the world includes a denumerable
infinity of pre-hended past occasions. In these senses Whitehead
conceives of God as truly infinite. The only sense of infinity excluded
is the self-contradictory notion of infinite determinateness.
God in Exile, trans. Arthur Gibson (Westminster, Md.: Newman
Press, 1968), p. 804. Fabro is not ordinarily a careless thinker, and
has shown himself to be an eminent scholar of St. Thomas. Apparently he
was the first to discover, in 1939, even before Etienne Gilson, the
dynamic character of esse in the composition of esse and
essence in the finite being. (See Helen James John, S. N. D., “The
Emergence of the Act of Existing in Recent Thomism,” International
Philosophical Quarterly 2/4 (1962), 595-620, at 609.) Nevertheless
he can close his discussion of Whitehead’s theism with the following
quotation described as an excerpt “from a Whitehead essay [which] brings
out the Whiteheadian stand with special poignancy “ (p. 835) :
If you ask me what God is, I can only answer he is a being whose body is
the whole world of nature, but that world conceived as actually
possessing deity, and therefore he is not actual as existent but as an
ideal, and only existent in so far as the tendency towards his
distinctive character is existent in the actual world. God, you will
say, is on this showing an ideal being, whose deity does not yet exist,
but is the next quality due to emerge, and cannot therefore be known by
us. He exists only in the striving of the world to realize his deity,
and to help it as it were to the birth. Moreover, he is not a creator
as in historical religions, but created.
Now these words sound suspiciously like Samuel Alexander’s, and so they
are. Fabro quotes correctly from Science and Religion (New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931), p. 136. In Fabro’s bibliography, p.
1189, this book is erroneously ascribed to Whitehead, but it is a series
of twelve radio talks given in Britain during December 1930 by such men
as Alexander, Julian Huxley, J. S. Haldane, B. H. Streeter, Dean Inge
(no editor given). Whitehead was not among them.
God in Exile
is a mammoth book, and Fabro apparently got his notes mixed up. What is
more interesting is that he should have felt no difficulty in ascribing
Alexander’s words to Whitehead, let alone as the epitomization of his
A Pluralistic Universe
(New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1909), pp. 309-312, quoted in Charles
Hartshorne and William L. Reese, Philosophers Speak of God
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 349.
The Problem of God
(New York: Abingdon Press, 1930).
Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (Chicago: Willett,
Clark & Company, 1941) p. 5.
La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1970.
Ibid., p. 63.
I have documented this contrast further in Two Process Philosophers:
Hartshorne’s Encounter with Whitehead, ed. Lewis S. Ford, (American
Academy of Religion: AAR Studies in Religion, Number Five, 1973), pp.
The Divine Relativity
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 20.
Creative Synthesis, p. 126.
Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 356
(hereafter cited as AI).
We cannot here appeal to a finite plurality of mediate actualities, each
in turn synthesizing its own plurality of more remote actualities. If
the interven-ing syntheses unify only what is finite, the end result, no
matter how large, will always be finite. Some-where along the line there
must be a finite synthesis of an infinite input.
See Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), pp. 382-89
(hereafter cited as PR).
PR, p. 517.
This systematic contrast is explored in some detail in my “Whitehead’s
Categoreal Derivation of Divine Existence,” The Monist 54/3 (July
1970), pp. 374-400.
PR, p. 378.
AI, p. 333.
PR, p. 524.
PR, p. 68.
This is formally expressed in terms of the “principle of relativity,”
“that the potentiality for being an element is a real concrescence [or
growing together] of many entities into one actuality, is the one
general metaphysical character attaching to all entities, actual and
non-actual.” PR, p. 33.
This relativization of actuality and potentiality, along with
Whitehead’s understanding of actuality in terms of decision, is
admirably brought out in Richard Rorty’s study, “Matter and Event,” pp.
497-524 in The Concept of Matter, ed. Ernan McMullin
(Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963).
Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1926), p. 256.
AI, p. 356.
AI, p. 357.
Religion in the Making
(New York: Macmillan, 1926), p. 153.
H. F. Hallett, Benedict de Spinoza (University of London: The
Athlone Press, 1957), p. 9. Italics his.
PR, p. 46.
In Whitehead’s terms, an eternal object is ordinarily a pure
possibility, while a proposition illustrated by that eternal object as
its predicative pattern, having a past actual world for its logical
subjects, is a real possibility. This distinction is explored further
in my essay on “The Non-Temporality of Whitehead’s God,”
International Philosophical Quarterly 13/3 (September, 1973), pp.
See PR, pp. 46-48.