International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
131-151, 2001. Eugene T. Long (ed.), Issues in Contemporary Philosophy
of Religion © 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Process Philosophy of Religion
David Ray Griffin
1. Pragmatic Metaphysics
2. Panentheism and Evil
3. Science and Religion
nature of the apparent conflict between science and religion
Scientific categories: Time, causation, and actual
Mathematical and moral objects
Consciousness, mental action, and freedom
Parapsychology and life after death
philosophy” here refers to the movement that has Alfred North Whitehead at
its center, with William James and Charles Hartshorne as the main
predecessor and successor, respectively. It is a philosophy of religion
primarily by virtue of seeking to show how religion and science can be
fused “into one rational scheme of thought.”1
Process philosophy of religion is often called “process theology,” but
this latter term can also refer to the use of Whiteheadian categories for
articulating the doctrines of a particular religion.
To speak of
process philosophy of religion is to refer to process theology insofar as
it is a “natural theology” discussing general ideas that could in
principle be employed by the theologians of all religions. To make this
distinction does not imply, however, that process philosophy is a
“natural” theology in the sense of occupying a neutral standpoint superior
to the standpoints of all the particular religious traditions. When this
question is in view, process philosophy must be called a Christian
to acknowledge the vision of reality by which it is shaped. It is,
nevertheless, a philosophy, or a natural theology, because
it bases its truth-claims not on the authority of any putative revelation
but solely on the general philosophical criteria of adequacy and
To provide a
historical discussion of process philosophy of religion from 1970 to 2000
would mean treating the thought of a great number of thinkers. Given the
constraints of both time and space, I decided that I could write a
coherent essay only by summarizing the main ways in which I myself have
employed the Whiteheadian position to address two central topics: the
problem of evil and the relation between science and religion. Prior to
these substantive topics, I discuss the sense in which process philosophy
is a type of “metaphysics.”
The debate about
metaphysics is greatly confused by the existence of widely disparate
conceptions of what metaphysics is. Those who denounce metaphysics
as impossible, unnecessary, or undesirable usually mean by it something
very different from what Whitehead means. Many critics, for example,
presuppose a Kantian conception, according to which metaphysics is the
attempt to talk about things beyond the limits of possible experience, but
Whitehead understands it as the endeavour to construct a coherent scheme
of ideas “in terms of which every element of our experience can be
interpreted,” adding that the “elucidation of immediate experience is the
sole justification for any thought.”3
Sometimes metaphysics is understood as an approach that necessarily does
violence to experience for the sake of a tidy system, but Whitehead, who
praises the intellectual life of William James for being one long “protest
against the dismissal of experience in the interest of system,”4
insists repeatedly on the need to consider the “whole of the evidence,”
adding that: “We must be systematic; but we should keep our systems open.5
reject metaphysical systems on the grounds that they arrogantly claim to
attain certainty, but Whitehead regards a metaphysical system as a
tentative hypothesis, an “experimental adventure,” adding that “the merest
hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of
Closely related is the widespread assumption that metaphysics is
necessarily “foundationalist” in the sense now widely discredited,
according to which the philosopher begins with a few indubitable basic
beliefs, from which all other beliefs are deduced. But Whitehead
explicitly rejected the idea “that metaphysical thought started from
principles which were individually clear, distinct, and certain.”7
inapplicable is the rejection of metaphysics in the name of pragmatism.
The classical pragmatists—Peirce, James, and Dewey—did, to be sure,
reject a certain type of metaphysics. As Hilary Putnam has recently said,
they denied "that there is a “first philosophy’ higher than the practice
that we take most seriously when the chips are down. There is no
Archimedean point from which we can argue that what is indispensable in
life gilt nicht in der Philosophie.”8
enterprise called metaphysics, however, need not make such a claim.
Hartshorne, for example, endorses the “pragmatic principle” that “what we
have to be guided by in our decision-making, we should not pretend to
Whitehead even said that no philosophical dogma should be allowed to
overcome “the metaphysical rule of evidence: that we must bow to those
presumptions, which, in despite of criticism, we still employ for the
regulation of our lives.”10
Implicit in this
statement is a criticism of Hume’s fateful dualism between theory and
practice, which allowed him to rest content with a philosophical theory
that had no room for several “natural beliefs” that, Hume admitted, he
necessarily presupposed in his practical life, such as his beliefs in a
real world and in causation as the real influence of one thing on another.
Whitehead, in fact, makes this criticism explicit, saying:
Whatever is found in
“practice” must lie within the scope of the metaphysical description. When
the description fails to include the “practice,” the metaphysics is
inadequate and requires revision. There can be no appeal to practice to
supplement metaphysics . . . . Metaphysics is nothing but the description
of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice.11
In light of Putnam’s
statement, we can say that Whitehead has produced a pragmatic
metaphysics. In the remainder of this essay, I will show how this
conception of metaphysics is central to process philosophy of religion.
First, however, I
must respond to the question of why the inevitable presuppositions of
practice, which I have come to call our “hard-core commonsense notions,”12
should be taken as criteria of truth, in the negative sense that any
position rejecting them can be assumed to be false. Could one not claim,
in Humean or neo-Darwinian fashion, that they may simply be, in Kant’s
phrase, “metaphysical illusions,” perhaps programmed into us by Nature
because believing them increases our chances of survival? The problem
with any such argument is that the denial of any of our hardcore
commonsense beliefs involves one in self-contradiction. If I verbally
deny causation, freedom, or an external world, I am explicitly denying
while implicitly affirming one and the same idea. Karl-Otto Apel and
Jürgen Habermas make this point in terms of the concept of a “performative
contradiction,” which occurs, in Martin Jay’s words, “when whatever is
being claimed is at odds with the presuppositions or implications of the
act of claiming it.”13
One is thereby violating the law of noncontradiction, which is the first
rule of reason.
To be sure, some
extremists, in their rejection of any universal principles of reason, have
denied the necessary validity of even this principle. But any such
rejection is self-defeating, as Putnam has realized. Having at one time
joined Willard van Quine in denying that there are any a priori truths
different in kind from empirical truths, thereby suggesting that even the
most fundamental laws of logic are in principle revisable, Putnam has more
recently argued, in “there is at least one a priori truth,”14
that the principle of noncontradiction is an absolutely un-revisable a
priori truth. To violate it, even implicitly, is to renounce the basic
principle of rational criticism. By acknowledging both the law of
noncontradiction and the existence of a set of hard-core commonsense
notions, which cannot be denied without self-contradiction, we are led to
see that these notions must be employed as ultimate criteria for judging
any philosophical position, so that any metaphysics, to be rational, must
be a pragmatic metaphysics.
Panentheism and Evil
Perhaps the topic
on which the position of process philosophy of religion is best known is
the problem of evil. John Hick, for example, has called process theodicy
one of the “three main Christian responses to the problem of evil,” with
the other two being the Augustinian and Irenaean. Barry Whitney, in his
bibliography of recent theodicies, ranks process theodicy, along with the
theodicies of Hick and Alvin Plantinga, as among the most important ones
in the twentieth century.15
I will here summarize its main points.
difference between it and theodicies based on traditional theism—whether
of the all-determining type, exemplified by Augustine and Calvin, or of
the free-will type, exemplified by Hick and Plantinga—lies in process
philosophy’s panentheism, which combines features of pantheism and
traditional theism. Like pantheism, it holds that the existence of God
necessarily involves the existence of the world. Like traditional theism,
it holds that God is distinct from the world, able to act in it, and that
our particular world (which evidently came into existence some 10 to 15
billion years ago) exists contingently, being rooted in a free divine
decision. What exists necessarily, in other words, is not simply God but
God-and-a-world, and yet the “world” that exists necessarily is not our
particular world, with its electrons, neutrons, and inverse square law of
gravitation, but simply some world or other. The idea that a realm of
finite actualities has always existed means that our particular world was
not created ex nihilo in the strict sense, meaning out of a
situation with a complete absence of finite actualities.
The doctrine of
creatio ex nihilo in this strict sense has always been connected
with the idea that none of the principles exemplified in our world,
whether called “natural laws” or “metaphysical principles,” are really
“natural” in the sense of existing naturally or really “metaphysical” in
the sense of obtaining necessarily. Rather, they are all “arbitrary” in
the sense of being rooted in the divine will. Having been freely created,
furthermore, they can be freely interrupted. These ideas are part and
parcel of the traditional doctrine of omnipotence, which led to the
traditional problem of evil, with its questions: If God is truly good,
why did God make the world such that so much evil is possible? And,
having done so, why does God, who could unilaterally prevent any
particular tragic event, permit so much unbearable suffering?
philosophy returns to the Platonic view according to which our world was
created in time but the world, in the sense of a multiplicity of finite
actualities, has always existed. This position provides the basis for a
distinction between cosmological principles, which are distinctive of our
particular cosmos, and metaphysical principles, which would necessarily be
embodied in any world that God could create. According to process
philosophy, one of these metaphysical principles is that the actualities
making up a world have their own power. This is because the formless
stuff of which all finite actualities are composed is not passive
“matter,” as Plato said, but active “creativity,” which means the twofold
power of self-determination and efficient causation.
more precisely, is that any actual entity is a momentary “actual
occasion,” which first exercises a degree of self-determination in
creating itself out of the causal influences it has received from prior
actual occasions, then exerts efficient causation on future occasions.
This twofold creativity of each actual occasion can be influenced but not
completely determined by divine power, this being the principle that lies
behind process philosophy’s well-known dictum that divine power is
persuasive, not coercive. Whereas traditional theism says that all
creative power belongs essentially to God alone, so that any creative
power in the world is a loan that could be withdrawn at any time, process
philosophy says that creative power is inherent in the world as well as in
This idea, which
means that God is not omnipotent in the traditional sense, provides the
first element in a process theodicy. It implies that God simply cannot
occasionally interrupt the basic causal principles by which the world
usually operates. Because traditional theism says that God could
interrupt these principles, it is rightly called “supernaturalism.”
Process theism, by rejecting this supernaturalism, is a form of
naturalistic theism. God is “all-powerful” in the sense of having all the
power that one being could possibly have, but not in the sense of
essentially having literally all the power, because that is (by
hypothesis) impossible. To ask why God does not (unilaterally) prevent
various evils implies, therefore, a false metaphysics.
metaphysical principle, besides the necessary existence of a word with
partially self-determining creatures, is that any such world would embody
a set of variables of power and value that are positively correlated such
that if any of them increases, the remainder of them must increase
proportionately. These variables are: the capacity to experience
intrinsic good; the capacity to experience intrinsic evil; the power to
the extrinsically good—that is, to contribute positively to the experience
of others; the power to be extrinsically evil; and the power of
self-determination, which in its higher forms we call “freedom.”
It is obvious
that these variables are positively correlated in our world: Creatures
with more capacity for intrinsic value, such as human beings, also have
more freedom and more power to influence others, for both good and ill,
than lower-level creatures, such as organelles, mice, or even
chimpanzees. Process theodicy is based on the idea that these
correlations are not merely empirical but also metaphysical, so that they
would necessarily obtain in any world that God could have created. We do
not need to ask, accordingly, various standard questions, such as why God
did not create human beings as “rational saints,” meaning beings with all
the capacities we have for realizing values but guaranteed not to sin, or
why God did not make us much less capable of inflicting suffering on
others. Process theodicy maintains that to ask these questions is like
asking why God did not make round squares. This process view leads to the
conclusion that the only way God could have guaranteed the absence of the
kinds of evils created by human beings would have been not to have created
human-like beings at all. From this perspective, one could indict God for
the evils of human history only if one could honestly say that these evils
are so great that God should have rested content with creatures at the
level of dolphins and chimpanzees.16
It is widely
recognized that a position such as that of process philosophy can avoid
the traditional problem of evil. For example, John Mackie, in his
well-known argument that the world’s evil makes the existence of God
highly improbable, adds that theists who believe in a deity who is “though
powerful, not quite omnipotent, will not be embarrassed by this
Those who make such admissions, however, usually add the caveat that such
doctrines “are not really theism” because the putative deity is not worthy
of the name “God.”
give three rebuttals. The first rebuttal is that we do not affirm the
idea, suggested by Mackie’s phrase “not quite omnipotent,” that God has
less power than some conceivable being might have. We hold that power is
a relational concept, so that the traditional doctrine of omnipotence,
according to which all power essentially belongs to God alone, is
incoherent, which means that it provides no standard by which to regard
the deity of process theism as imperfect in power.
rebuttal involves pointing out that process theism affirms all the
elements in what can be called “the generic idea of God in Western
civilization,” namely, a personal, purposive, holy being who is perfect in
love, goodness, beauty, wisdom, knowledge, and power; who is creator and
sustainer of our universe, providentially active in nature and history,
and experienced by human beings; who exists necessarily, everlastingly,
and all-pervasively; and who is the ultimate source of moral norms, the
ultimate guarantee of the meaning of life, and the ground of hope for the
victory of good over evil. It would be strange to claim that an actuality
with all of these characteristics would not be worthy of the name “God.”
Some critics do,
nevertheless, make this claim, because they hold that process theism
denies one of the most important ingredients in the meaning of “God” in
all biblically-based religions, which is the kind of omnipotence
correlative with creatio ex nihilo. A third rebuttal by process
theists, made in response to this claim, involves pointing out that
historical scholars have now shown the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo
to be post-biblical: Besides not being present in the Hebrew Bible, it
is also not present in inter-testamental literature (including 2 Maccabees),
a fact that undermines the old argument that it would have been
presupposed by the authors of those ambiguous New Testament passages that
have often been said to imply it. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo
in the strict sense was first articulated by Christian theologians, in
response to Marcion’s gnostic theology, in the latter part of the second
century. Prior to that time, Christian as well as Jewish theologians had
accepted the idea, suggested by both the Bible and Plato, that our world
was created out of a primordial chaos.18
accordingly, involves a return to the biblical idea of creation.19
preceding discussion simply presupposed process philosophy’s idea of God,
I have also argued that natural theology in the sense of “arguments
for the existence of God” can be much more convincing within the context
of naturalistic theism than it can when philosophers are trying to
prove the existence of the God of traditional theism. For example,
Richard Swinburne suggests that a number of arguments constitute a
cumulative case showing theism to be somewhat more probable than not and
that with the addition of the argument from religious experience it
becomes “significantly more probable than not.”20
But there is also a cumulative case against (traditional) theism, as
Caroline Franks Davis points out, and John Hick concludes, largely because
of the problem of evil, that the world is religiously “ambiguous,” meaning
that theism cannot be “shown to be in any objective sense more
probable than not.”21
Presupposing instead the God of process theism, I argue that there are
many reasons to affirm the existence of a deity something like this and
no evidence against it, so that the truth of (naturalistic) theism is
“overwhelmingly more probable than the truth of atheism.”22
The arguments, of course, have their full force only within the framework
of process philosophy’s ontology and epistemology—which brings us to the
relation between science and religion.
Science and Religion
At the very heart
of process philosophy of religion is its way of overcoming the conflict
that has been widely perceived to exist, especially since the middle of
the nineteenth century, between science and religion. This solution
involves three points:
realization that the conflict is not between science as such and religion
as such but between the supernaturalism with which religion is often
associated and the form of naturalism with which science has been
realization that this form of naturalism is less adequate for science than
is the kind of naturalism provided by process philosophy; and
realization that religion does not need supernaturalism and is, in fact,
better supported by the theistic naturalism supplied by process
I begin with a
discussion of the first point. The second point will then be illustrated
in terms of a number of hard-core commonsense assumptions to which the
currently dominant kind of naturalism cannot do justice. The direction
the argument for the third point would take is illustrated in terms of
some ways in which this position can affirm ideas usually assumed to
nature of the apparent conflict between science and religion
so-called rise of modem science in the seventeenth century was associated
with a supernaturalistic worldview, the scientific community quickly moved
in a naturalistic direction—toward, that is, the denial of any
supernatural interventions in the world. This complete denial was
achieved in the middle of the nineteenth century, most notably in David
Friedrich Strauss in biblical criticism and Charles Darwin in evolutionary
theory. While affirming naturalism in this sense, however, Strauss and
Darwin both retained belief in a divine reality—a Hegelian Geist
for Strauss, a deistic creator for Darwin. In the following decades, the
naturalism of the scientific community came increasingly to be framed
within an atheistic, materialistic worldview. The term “naturalism” is,
in fact, now widely used to designate a world view that, besides accepting
the sensationist doctrine of perception formulated by early modem
empiricists such as Locke, rejects Locke’s theism and mind-matter dualism
in favor of atheism and materialism.
It is important
to see, however, that two distinguishable meanings are involved. The
basic, minimal meaning of naturalism, which is simply the denial of
supernatural interruptions, can be called “naturalismns”
(for “nonsupernaturalistic”). Natural-ism in this minimal sense is now one
of the scientific community’s most fundamental ontological assumptions,
which it is unlikely to relinquish. The present conflict between the
worldviews of the religious and the scientific communities cannot be
overcome unless the religious communities relinquish supernaturalism in
favor of a worldview embodying naturalismns.
Whiteheadian panenthe-ism, we saw in the previous section, provides such
meaning of naturalism can be called “naturalismsam”
(for “sensationist-atheist-material-ist”). Naturalismsam
is incompatible not only with supernaturalistic religion but with any
significantly religious outlook whatsoever. Its atheism and materialism
mean that there can be no Divine Actuality, no place for moral norms to
exist, no freedom, and no life after death, while its sensationism means
that there could be no experience of moral ideals or a Divine Reality,
even if they existed. The present conflict between the worldviews of the
religious and the scientific commumtles cannot be overcome unless the
scientific community decides that it should reject naturalismsam.
The next step in
the argument is that the scientific community should do just that, because
is far less adequate for science itself than the kind of naturalism
provided by process philosophy, which can be called “naturalismppp,”
with “ppp” standing for “prehensive-panentheist-panexperientialist.” It
replaces sensationism with a prehensive doctrine of perception,
according to which the fundamental form of perception is nonsensory
prehension; it replaces atheism with panentheism; and it replaces
materialism with panexperientialism. “Panentheism” has already been
explained; the meaning of the other two terms will be made clear in the
ensuing discussion of a number of issues for which naturalismppp
can be seen to be more adequate, for both science and religion, than
Scientific categories: Time, causation, and actual existence
Each aspect of
creates problems for science as well as for religion. The present section
deals with problems that arise from its sensationism, which is the
doctrine that perception can be exhaustively equated with sensory
perception. Although this doctrine is widely thought to be both
presupposed and confirmed by science, Whitehead argues that “science
conceived as resting on mere sense perception, with no other source of
observation, is bankrupt.”23
His contention is that although all exact observation is based on data
from our sensory organs, “[t]he scientific categories of thought are
Whitehead means categories such as actuality (traditionally called
“substance”), causation, and time.
This problem was
implicit in the earlier discussion of Hume’s dualism between theory and
practice. Hume insisted on conceptual empiricism, according to
which we allow in our theory only concepts that are based on direct
experience. According to his analysis of sensory experience, however, its
data consist exhaustively of universals, such as colors and shapes, rather
than telling us of the existence of a world of actually existing things.
Therefore, although Hume knew that in practice he inevitably presupposed
the existence of an “external world,” he in theory, qua
philosopher, had to be a solipsist, not knowing whether anything beyond
his own experience actually existed. He also argued that sensory
perception provides no knowledge of causation, in the sense of one thing
actually influencing another thing, so that there would be some necessary
connection between them. At the outset of the twentieth century, Santayana
extended Hume’s analysis to argue that the philosopher, qua philosopher,
must affirm “solipsism of the present moment,”25
because sensory perception does not reveal the existence of the past or
the future, which means that it cannot provide us with the category of
Science could not
exist without the categories of time, causation, and actual existence, and
yet the data provided by our sensory organs do not provide these
categories. It was Kant’s realization of the seriousness of this problem
that led to his empiricism-rejecting “Copernican revolution,” according to
which these (and other) categories are inherent in the mind. As a
supernaturalist, Kant could understand this inherence in terms of divine
implantation. Within a naturalistic framework, however, science is in the
awkward position of advocating empiricism while being devoid of any
empirical justification for its own basic categories.
philosophers, Whitehead believes that the empiricist ideals should be
retained. He accepts “Hume’s doctrine that nothing is to be received into
the philosophical scheme which is not discoverable as an element in
subjective experience,” which means that “Hume’s demand that causation be
describable as an element in experience is . . . entirely justifiable.”26
Whitehead is able to accept these ideals, however, only because he
rejects Hume’s own superficial empiricism, which is actually unempirical,27
in favor of what William James called radical empiricism. Although
Whitehead does not follow James’s doctrine in every respect, he does
develop James’s contentions that we have nonsensory as well as sensory
perception and that, therefore, the data of perception are not limited to
isolated sense data but include relations, especially causal relations.
Whitehead, in fact, calls the nonsensory mode of perception, which is the
more fundamental mode, “perception in the mode of causal efficacy,”
thereby emphasizing the fact that in this mode we directly perceive the
causal influence of other actualities on our own experience. I am aware,
for example, that I see the computer screen in front of me by means of
my eyes—that is, by virtue of the causal efficacy of my eyes for my
The point is that
sensory perception involves two distinct modes of perception. The mode
emphasized by Hume, which involves the perception of sense data such as
colored shapes, Whitehead calls “perception in the mode of presentational
immediacy” because, as Hume and Santayana emphasized, its data are simply
present to the mind, giving no information about the past or the future or
even about an actual world beyond the perceiver’s own present experience.
Although Humean empiricism has equated sensory perception with this mode
of perception, full-fledged sensory perception also involves “perception
in the mode of causal efficacy,” through which we derive the category of
causation. Whitehead also refers to this mode as “physical prehension”:
the term “prehension” indicates that what is involved is a real
grasping of some object, whereas the term “physical” means that
experience begins with the prehension of other actualities. It is
through this mode of perception, therefore, that we get the category of
other actual existents. And it is from this mode that we get the category
of time, because the separation of the world “into past and future lies
with the mode of causal efficacy and not with that of presentational
Thanks to what I am calling Whitehead’s prehensive doctrine of
perception, therefore, process philosophy can do justice to our hard-core
commonsense convictions about causation, the external world, the past, and
time, thereby providing a more adequate basis for philosophy of science.
The way in which
this nonsensationist doctrine of perception is most obviously relevant to
philosophy of religion involves the controversy about religious
experience. Sensationism has led to the widespread assumption that
religious experience could never be genuine, in the sense of really
involving a perception of a Holy Reality, at least without supernatural
intervention. For example, J. J. C. Smart, stipulating that “‘getting in
touch’ involves response to physical stimuli,” says that physics and
physiology enable us to explain “how we can get in touch with rabbits or
even with electrons” but that “no naturalistic account could be given of
mystical cognition of [a nonphysical Holy Reality],” so that “if mystical
experiences are not mere aberrations of feelings, . . . then they must be
in some way miraculous.”30
that mystical experiences, along with religious experiences more
generally, are never genuine is widely shared among social scientists. In
Explaining Religion, Samuel Preus says that the existence of
religion must be explained on the assumption that “God is not given.”31
In Explaining and Interpreting Religion, Robert Segal says that
social scientists are correct to assume that “believers never encounter
The social scientific tradition to which Preus and Segal refer, which
includes Marx, Comte, Tylor, Frazer, Durkheim, and Freud, concluded, says
Segal, that “religion is false on philosophical, not social scientific,
What kind of philosophical grounds were involved is suggested by Tylor’s
statement, quoted by Preus,34
that Hume’s Natural History of Religion “is perhaps more than any
other work the source of modem opinions as to the development of
Besides lying at
the root of this tradition, Hume’s sensationist doctrine of perception has
also exerted tremendous influence through Kant, who said that to affirm a
“feeling of the immediate presence of the Supreme Being” would be a
“fanatical religious illusion” because it would be to affirm “a
receptivity for an intuition for which there is no sensory provision in
Kant, of course, assumed that there could be no cognitive intuitions that
are not sensory. This Kantian assumption continues to influence many
philosophers of religion and theologians, such as Gordon Kaufman, who, in
response to the question as to what the word “God” might refer, replies:
“Certainly not to anything we directly experience.”36
prehensive doctrine of perception, combined with his panentheism, provides
a naturalistic account of how we could be “in touch with” a Holy Reality,
so that the term God could refer to something “we directly
experience.” It follows from panentheism, according to which the world is
in God, that God is an omnipresent actuality. As such, God would be
present to be experienced through our nonsensory mode of perception. This
perception of God requires no special faculty, as often assumed, but falls
simply under the category of “physical prehension.” Physical
prehensions, it must be remembered, are not limited to those whose objects
are “physical” in the ordinary (dualistic) sense of the term but include
all prehensions whose objects are actualities. One’s prehension of
previous moments of one’s own experience, which we call “memory,” is an
example of physical prehension. Another example is the telepathic
prehension of another person’s mind, which Whitehead, like James before
him, accepted. From the perspective of Whitehead’s naturalismppp,
accordingly, religious experience, understood as involving the direct
experience of a Holy Actuality, is completely natural. We are perceiving
God all the time. The only thing unusual about a “religious experience”
is that this perception, which usually occurs in the unconscious depths of
experience, has risen to the level of consciousness.
overcoming the presumption against the possibility of genuine religious
experience generated by naturalismsam,
Whitehead’s philosophy, with its panentheism, provides a new way to
respond to the “conflicting claims challenge” to the belief that religious
experience involves a genuine experience of ultimate reality. This
challenge is generated primarily by the fact that some people report an
experience of communion with a personal ultimate reality, whereas others
describe an experience of identity with an impersonal ultimate. John
Hick, summarizing the skeptic’s rhetorical question, asks: “If religious
experience constitutes an authentic window onto the Real, why does that
reality look so different when seen through different windows?37
Or, as Caroline Franks Davis formulates the challenge: “How can ‘ultimate
reality’ be both a personal being and an impersonal principle, identical
to our inmost self and forever ‘other,’ loving and utterly indifferent,
good and amoral. . . ?”38
Most attempts to solve this problem, such as Hick’s, have been based on
the conviction that these diverse experiences all involve experiences of
one and the same ultimate reality, with that conviction being rooted in
the assumption that, in Hick’s words, “there cannot be a plurality of
As John Cobb has
emphasized, however, Whitehead’s worldview has two ultimates: God and
creativity. They are not in competition because God is an actuality
whereas creativity is the formless reality embodied in all actualities.
God, accordingly, can be called the “personal ultimate” and creativity
the “impersonal ultimate.” We can say, accordingly, that the two basic
types of religious experience, theistic and nontheistic, are experiences
of different ultimate realities, with each description of ultimate reality
being basically correct.40
Mathematical and moral objects
created by naturalismsam
involves the fact that physics presupposes the existence of mathematical
objects and our capacity to perceive (intuit) their existence. The
traditional view, usually called “Platonic realism,” is that “mathematical
entities exist outside space and time, outside thought and matter, in an
Most mathematicians in practice, virtually all commentators agree,
presuppose this Platonic view.42
According to the sensationist doctrine of perception, however, we can
perceive things solely through our physical sense organs, which are suited
to perceive only other physical things. Reuben Hersh charges
mathematicians who accept the Platonic view with being “unscientific,”
asking rhetorically: “How does this [alleged] immaterial realm . . . make
contact with flesh and blood mathematicians?”43
mathematician and logician, Kurt Gödel, solved this problem by simply
rejecting sensationism. Arguing that “we do have something like a
perception . . . of the objects of set theory,” he added that he could not
“see any reason why we should have less confidence in this kind of
perception, i.e., in mathematical intuition, than in sense perception.”44
Most philosophers of mathematics, however, have not been able to
countenance this rejection of the sensationist doctrine of perception.
Hilary Putnam, for example, called Gödel’s Platonism “flatly incompatible
with the simple fact that we think with our brains, and not with
immaterial souls,” adding that we “cannot envisage any kind of
neural process that could even correspond to the ‘perception of a
The atheism of
makes the problem even more severe, as illustrated by Paul Benacerraf’s
in which he argued that true beliefs can be considered knowledge only if
that which makes the belief true is causally responsible for the
belief in an appropriate way. Summarizing the resulting problem for the
Platonic view of mathematical entities, Penelope Maddy says: “But how can
entities that don’t even inhabit the physical universe take part in any
causal interaction whatsoever? Surely to be abstract is also to be
causally inert. Thus if Platonism is true, we can have no mathematical
This problem is created not simply by Platonism, however, but by
Platonism without God. As Hersh points out: “For Leibniz and Berkeley,
abstractions like numbers are thoughts in the mind of God [but] Heaven and
the Mind of God are no longer heard of in academic discourse.”48
What is the
mathematician or philosopher of mathematics to do? The most popular
solution, according to Maddy, has been to continue presupposing Platonic
realism in practice while publicly affirming “formalism,” according to
which mathematics is just a game with meaningless symbols. The
unsatisfactory nature of this solution is pointed to by Quine’s emphasis
on, in Putnam’s words, “the intellectual dishonesty of denying the
existence of what one daily presupposes.”49
But Quite adopts an equally problematic position. On the one hand, no
one has insisted on sensationism more forcibly. Quine says, for example,
that the “stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody
has to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world”50
and that “whatever evidence there is for science is sensory evidence,”
which means that “our statements about the external world face the
tribunal of sense experience.”51
On the other hand, as a “physicalist,” meaning one who takes physics to be
the arbiter of what is real, Quine affirms the existence of mathematical
entities simply on the ground that they are indispensable for physics.
This means that Quine’s physicalism “is materialism, bluntly monistic
except for the abstract objects of mathematics.”52
Putnam, who accepts Quine’s indispensability argument, says approvingly
that Quine simply “ignores the problem,” created by his sensationism, “as
to how we can know that abstract entities exist unless we can interact
with them in some way,”53
Quine and Putnam also ignore the problem of how such entities can exist in
an otherwise materialistic universe, These are examples of the
irrationalism to which naturalismsam
has led some of our prominent philosophers.
is the problem that naturalismsam
creates for moral philosophy, because moral norms are in the same boat as
mathematical objects. Given naturalismsam,
there is no place for moral norms to exist, and even if they could exist
we would not be able to perceive them, both because they could exert no
agency and because our sensory organs are equipped to perceive only
physical objects. These arguments are applied to moral objects, in fact,
by Princeton’s Gilbert Harman and Cambridge’s Bernard Williams.54
Oxford’s John Mackie, who bluntly says that “[t]here are no objective
rests part of his case on his atheism, part of it on the argument that if
we could be aware of objective moral values, “it would have to be by some
special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from
our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.”56
On the basis of these considerations, many philosophers hold that
morality is concerned, in the words of J. J. C. Smart, “with evoking
feelings and recommending actions, not with the cognition of facts.”57
The main problem
with this view is that we all presuppose in practice that there really is
a distinction between better and worse actions and states of affairs.
Whitehead, in observing that “the impact of . . . moral notions is
implies that the existence of objective moral norms is a hardcore
commonsense notion. Even Mackie points out that objectivism about values
has “a firm basis in . . . the meanings of moral terms” and that his own
denial of this objectivism “conflicts with what is sometimes called common
affirmation of the existence of God is closely related to these issues.
One important point is his rejection of the modem tendency, insofar as
Platonic entities are affirmed at all, to limit them to purely
mathematical entities. Referring to Platonic forms as “eternal objects,”
Whitehead affirms the existence not only of “eternal objects of the
objective species,” meaning “the mathematical Platonic forms,” but also
“eternal objects of the subjective species,” which include moral norms.60
The next issue is
how “eternal objects” of any sort, which are not actual entities but
merely possible ones, could exist and exert efficacy in the actual world.
The key idea here is what Whitehead calls the “ontological principle,”
which says both that only actual entities can act and that
everything nonactual, such as eternal objects, must exist in
something actual. This twofold point led Whitehead to affirm the old idea
that “the Platonic world of ideas” can exist because it “subsists” in “the
primordial mind of God.”
eternal objects can be efficacious in the world because God envisages them
with appetition that they be realized in the world.62
This appetition is
effective because creatures not only prehend the divine appetitions but do
so with initial conformation of feeling,63
so that the divine appetition for that possibility to be actualized may
become the creature’s own appetition.
Viewed from the
side of the creatures, even if a Platonic world of forms could exist on
its own, it could not be prehended, because every experience must begin
with physical prehensions of other actualities. But if the eternal
objects are in the Divine Actuality, we can prehend them by means of
prehending God. Accordingly, having said that we have “experiences of
ideals—of ideals entertained, of ideals aimed at, of ideals achieved, of
ideals defaced,” Whitehead concludes that the universe must include “a
source of ideals,” adding that” [t]he effective aspect of this source is
deity as immanent in the present experience.”64
Consciousness, mental action, and freedom
has also resulted in an insoluble mind-body problem, as I have documented
extensively in a book on the subject.65
Although the sensationism and atheism of this form of naturalism
contribute to the problem, the crucial element is its materialism, which
includes two theses:
(1) the claim
that the ultimate units of nature are what Whitehead calls “vacuous
actualities,” meaning that they are completely devoid of experience and
thereby internal spontaneity; and
(2) the claim
that the mind is somehow identical with the brain.
thesis—which constitutes material-ism’s difference from Cartesian dualism,
with which it shares the first thesis—is defended primarily on the grounds
that dualists cannot explain how mind and body can interact, at least now
that the appeal to supernatural assistance, to which Descartes,
Malebranche, and other dualists resorted, is no longer acceptable.
however, turns out to have even more problems, being unable to do justice
to at least three of our hard-core commonsense presupposi-tions:
causation, meaning that our decisions influence our bodily behavior;
meaning that our decisions are not wholly determined by antecedent factors
but involve an element of self-determination in the moment; and
With regard to
consciousness, materialists not only share with dualists the problem
of explaining how it could have emerged out of things completely devoid of
experience, but they also, assuming that conscious experience is identical
with a brain consisting of hundreds of billions of cells, have the
additional problem of explaining its unity.
With regard to
freedom, some thinkers have assumed the problem to be mitigated by
quantum physics’ denial of complete determinism. As John Searle and
others point out, however, any indetermination in the ultimate units of
the world is canceled out in aggregates of such units by the “law of large
numbers.” The equation of the mind with the brain means, therefore, that
the brain/mind must operate as deterministically as a rock.
mental causation, even if not assumed to involve freedom, has proved
impossible to conceive, given the fact that materialism assumes
“bottom-up” causation, according to which the behavior of all large things
is entirely a function of the causation occurring at the micro-level.
Some philosophers use these problems to recommend a return to mind-matter
dualism, but its problems are equally insoluble.
philosophy, with its panexperientialism, provides a third alternative.
The basic units of which the body is composed have a primitive form of
experience. All actual occasions, out of which enduring individuals such
as electrons are formed, are “occasions of experience.” Because all
occasions of experience are internally related to other ones by virtue of
their prehensions of them, higher-level occasions of experience can arise,
with the result that lower-level individuals, such as electrons and
protons, can give rise to increasingly higher-level individuals, such as
atoms, molecules, macromolecules, prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells, and
animals. Rather than being mere aggregates of subatomic particles, these
creatures are “compound individuals,” which means that they have a
regnant or dominant member and thereby a unified experience.
According to this
view, human beings and other animals do, as dualism said, have a soul or
mind that is distinct from the brain. But dualism’s problem of
interaction between unlikes does not arise, because this soul is not
ontologically different in kind, only greatly different in degree, from
the actualities—the cells and their constituent parts—composing the
brain. Process philosophy provides, therefore, a nondualistic
interactionism. On this basis we can understand in principle not only how
a mind with conscious experiences could arise out of the brain, but also
how the decisions of the soul’s occasions of experience can influence the
brain and thereby the rest of the body, so that the “mental causation”
that we all presuppose in practice is intelligible.
also explains how it can be, as we constantly assume, that these decisions
involve a degree of freedom, so that we are responsible for our bodily
actions. In a compound individual, the more complex experience enjoyed by
the regnant member includes a greater capacity for self-determination.
Because the human being is not simply an aggregational society, but a
compound individual, the spontaneity existing at the level of subatomic
particles is, far from being canceled out by the law of large numbers,
greatly amplified. Our presupposed freedom is no illusion.
Running short of
space, I will discuss two other issues more briefly. For many
intellectuals today, the crucial issue with regard to the relation between
science and religion, especially theistic religion, is evolution. It is
widely thought that neo-Darwinism really has, as its propagandists claim,
explained how we and the rest of today’s species could have evolved from
inorganic matter without any theistic guidance. Among those who do not
believe that neo-Darwinism’s evolutionary naturalism provides an adequate
explanation, it is widely thought that its deficiencies can only be
overcome by affirming a supernatural creator.
My own reading of
the literature has led me to the conclusion that neo-Darwinism is, as both
“young-Earth” and “progressive” creationists claim, woefully inadequate,
especially with regard to the apparent jumps in macroevolution. The
problems, however, do not require the rejection of naturalismns”
given the fact that naturalismsam
is not the only or even the best form in which it is today embodied.
Process philosophy’s naturalismppp
provides a basis in which theistic guidance could, without any
supernatural interventions, account for the developments left mysterious
by neo-Darwinism. This conclusion does not, however, mean rejecting
neo-Darwinism tout court. The position commonly referred to as
Darwinian (meaning neo-Darwinian) evolution involves, I
have pointed out,66
at least fourteen distinguishable dimensions, so that it need not be taken
or rejected wholesale. One can, for example, affirm the basic ideas of
Darwin—that not only microevolution but also macroevolution occurs, that
all complex organisms have descended from prior species, and that it all
has occurred without supernatural intervention—while rejecting the more
tendentious claims of neo-Darwinists, which are based more on deductions
than on empirical evidence and which are precisely the claims that appear
to make evolutionism incompatible with any significantly religious view of
Parapsychology and life after death
Finally, part of
my work as a philosopher of religion employing process philosophy has been
to argue that it provides a framework that, while doing justice to what is
usually understood to be normal experience and science, also allows
for the “paranormal” types of occurrences studied by parapsychology. In
so doing, I mean to be carrying forward the work of William James, who
said that science, so far as it denies paranormal occurrences, “lies
prostrate in the dust for me,” adding that “the most urgent intellectual
need which I feel at present is that science be built up again in a form
in which such things may have a positive place.”67
I have argued that Whitehead’s philosophy provides the basis for such a
I have also
sought to illustrate James’s conviction that radical empiricism,
understood as including psychical research, can provide important support
for various religious convictions.69
For example, telepathy provides an analogy for the kind of nonsensory
perception that must occur if (theistic) religious experience involves a
direct awareness of a Cosmic Mind. Psychical research also provides
multiple types of evidence for continued life beyond bodily death.
Although most modem philosophies, presupposing sensationism and
mind-brain identism, have ruled all such evidence out of court a priori,
Whitehead’s version of naturalism allows it in principle to be veridical.
And when looked at from this perspective, I have concluded, the evidence
is quite strong.70
Although most philosophers have assumed that all this “evidence” could be
safely ignored on the grounds that parapsychology is merely a
pseudo-science, I have argued that none of the arguments for this
contention hold up.71
Process philosophy is thereby able to support, and be supported by,
genuinely scientific evidence.
1. Alfred North
Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected edition, edited by David
Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), p. 15.
2. John B. Cobb,
Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North
Whitehead (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965).
3. Process and
Reality, pp. 3, 4.
Modes of Thought (New York: Free Press, 1968), p. 3.
Science and the Modem World (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. vii;
Modes of Thought, p. 6.
6. Process and
Reality, pp. 8, 9, xiv.
The Function of Reason
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 49.
8. Hilary Putnam,
Words and Life, edited by James Conant (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1994), p. 154.
Hartshorne, “A Reply to My Critics,” The Philosophy of Charles
Hartshorne (The Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 20), edited by
Lewis Edwin Hahn (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1991), pp. 569-731, at 676,
10. Process and
Reality, p. 151.
11. Ibid., p. 13.
Griffin et al., Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce,
James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1993), pp. 1-42, at 26-29; Unsnarling the World-Knot:
Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1998), Chap. 3.
[The latter book's complete text is available online
here. Chapter 8,
Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” which Griffin
calls “the key chapter,”
has been formatted for this site and is available
13. Martin Jay, “The
Debate over Performative Contradiction: Habermas versus the
Poststructural-ists,” Force Fields: Between Intellectual History and
Cultural Critique, by Martin Jay (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp.
25-37, at 29.
Realism and Reason (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp.
15. John Hick,
Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1983), p. 41;
Barry Whitney, Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography on the Problem of
Evil, 1960-1991 (Bowling Green State University, Philosophy
Documentation Center, 1994), p. 135.
16. I developed this
position in God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1976; reprinted with a new preface, Lanham, MD:
University Press of America, 1991), then clarified and modified it in
Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1991).
17. John Mackie,
The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 151.
18. Jon D. Levenson,
Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine
Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988); Gerhard May,
Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation out of Nothing” in Early
Christian Thought, translated by A. S. Worrall (Edinburgh: T. & T.
19. I argue this
point, employing Levenson and May, in “Creation out of Nothing, Creation
out of Chaos, and the Problem of Evil,” Encountering Evil, edited by
Stephen T. Davis, 2nd edn (Philadelphia: Westmin-ster/John Knox, 2001).
[See text of first edition
Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996),
21. Caroline Franks
Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 113, 140-142; John H. Hick, An
Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent
(London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 211.
Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 203.
Modes of Thought, p. 154.
Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 225.
Santayana, Scepticism and Animal Faith (New York: Dover, 1955), pp.
26. Process and
Reality, pp. 166-167.
27. Ibid., p. 316.
28. Process and
Reality, pp. 118, 171; Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (New
York: Capricorn, 1959), p. 51.
29. Process and
Reality, p. 170.
30. J. J. C. Smart,
“Religion and Science,” Philosophy of Religion: A Global Approach,
edited by Stephen H. Phillips (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996), pp.
217-224, at 222-223. (Reprinted from Paul Edwards, ed., Encyclopedia
of Philosophy [New York: Macmillan Press, 1967], Vol. 7.)
31. J. Samuel Preus,
Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud (New
Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1987), p. xv.
32. Robert A. Segal,
Explaining and Interpreting Religion: Essays on the Issue (New
York: Peter Lang, 1992), p. 72.
33. Ibid., p. 16.
Explaining Religion, p. 142.
35. Immanuel Kant,
Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by Theodore
M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 163.
36. Gordon D.
Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge:
Harvard Univer-sity Press, 1993), p. 415.
37. Hick, An
Interpretation of Religion, p. 104.
38. Davis, The
Evidential Force of Religious Experience, pp. 172-173.
39. Hick, An
Interpretation of Religion, p. 249.
40. Cobb, Beyond
Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982); Griffin, Reenchant-ment without
Supernaturalism, Chap. 7, “The Two Ultimates and the Religions.”
41. Reuben Hersh,
What is Mathematics, Really? (New York: Oxford University Press,
42. Ibid., p. 7; Y.
N. Moschovakis, Descriptive Set Theory (Amsterdam: North Holland,
1980), p. 605; Penelope Maddy, Realism in Mathematics (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 2-3.
43. Hersh, What
is Mathematics, Really?, pp. 11-12.
44. Kurt Gödel,
“What is Cantor’s Continuum Problem? Supplement to the Second 
Edition,” Collected Works, Vol. II, edited by Solomon Feferman et
al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 266-269, at 268.
45. Putnam, Words
and Life, p. 503 (the statement is from “Philosophy of Mathematics:
Why Nothing Works,” which was originally published in 1979).
46. Paul Benacerraf,
“Mathematical Truth,” Philosophy of Mathematics, edited by Paul
Benacerraf and Hilary Putnam, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1983), pp. 403-420.
Realism in Mathematics, p. 37.
48. Hersh, What
is Mathematics, Really?, p. 12.
Mathematics, Matter and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1979), p. 347 (the statement is from “Philosophy of Logic,” originally
published in 1971).
Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1969), p. 75.
51. Ibid., p. 75;
From A Logical Point of View (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
52. Quine, From
Stimulus to Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), p.
14; emphasis added.
53. Putnam, Words
and Life, p. 153.
54. Gilbert Harman,
The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1977), pp. 9-10; Bernard Williams, Ethics and the
Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p.
55. John Mackie,
Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 15.
56. Ibid., pp. 48,
57. Smart, “Religion
and Science,” p. 223.
Modes of Thought, p. 19.
Ethics, pp. 31, 35.
Process and Reality, pp. 291-293.
61. Ibid., p. 46.
62. Ibid., pp.
63. Adventures of
Ideas, p. 253.
64. Modes of
Thought, p. 103.
the World-Knot (see note 12, above).
Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 2000), Chap. 8, “Creation and
67. William James,
The Will to Believe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p.
68. I have argued
this most fully in “Parapsychology and Philosophy: A Whiteheadian
Postmodem Perspective,” Journal of the American Society for Psychical
Research 87/3 (July 1993), pp. 217-288; see also Parapsychology,
Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1977).
69. James, Essays
in Radical Empiricism, edited by Ralph Barton Perry (New York: E. P.
Dutton, 1971), pp. 270-271.
Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality, Chaps. 3-8.
71. Religion and
Scientific Naturalism, Chap. 7, “Parapsychology, Science, and
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