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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Worship of glory arising from power is not only dangerous; it arises from a barbaric conception of God

God is the most perplexing figure in Whitehead’s metaphysics. Who is he, what does he want, and what is he doing in Process and Reality? Whitehead’s thought is entirely about process and transformation; it values becoming over being, relation over substance, and continual novelty over the perpetuation of the same. It rejects the "bifurcation of nature" (1920/2004, 30-31), or the separation of reality from appearance (1929/1978, 72). It holds that there is nothing besides "the experiences of subjects" (167); and it grants to all subjects – including inhuman and nonsentient ones – and to all their experiences – conscious or not – the same ontological status. Such a thought has no room for a specially "eminent" entity: one that would be absolute, unchanging, transcendent, and supersensible, as God is usually taken to be. Given Whitehead’s rejection of traditional metaphysics and theology, why does God remain such a "stubborn fact" throughout Process and Reality? What role does this God play in Whitehead’s cosmological system?1
Evidently, the God described by Whitehead bears little resemblance to the God of Christianity, or any other organized religion. Indeed, Whitehead is repulsed by the "Greek, Hebrew, and Christian" picture of "a static God condescending to the world" from transcendent heights (347). He deplores the way that "the vicious separation of the flux from the permanence leads to the concept of an entirely static God, with eminent reality, in relation to an entirely fluent world, with de- ficient reality" (346). He rejects what he wryly calls the "unfortunate habit. . . of paying [God] metaphysical compliments" (1925/1967, 179). He protests against the traditional adulation of God as a figure of might: the "worship of glory arising from power is not only dangerous; it arises from a barbaric conception of God" (1926/1996, 55). And he denounces "the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys," as a pernicious "fallacy which has infused tragedy" into the history of the world (1929/1978, 342). For he judges that, despite the ethical content of Jesus’ own teachings, through most of European history "the Gospel of love was turned into a Gospel of fear. The Christian world was composed of terrified populations" (1926/1996, 75).2
Whitehead rejects the more refined philosophical notions of God as much as he does the "barbaric," popular or traditional ones. For instance, despite his own affinity with Leibniz, Whitehead dismisses "the Leibnizian theory of the ‘best of possible worlds’ " as "an audacious fudge produced in order to save the face of a Creator constructed by contemporary, and antecedent, theologians" (1929/1978, 47). Leibniz’s God selects among "an infinite number of possible universes," choosing the one that is the best. He bases his choice upon these worlds’ different degrees of perfection: "each possible world [has] the right to claim existence in proportion to the perfection which it involves" (Leibniz 1973, 187). Perfection, however, has already been defined by Leibniz as "magnitude of positive reality" (185). So God chooses the world that is already, in itself, the most real. But Whitehead does not accept the Leibnizian notion of different degrees of reality.
There is no ontological preeminence. The world, as "merely ‘given’. . . does not disclose any peculiar character of ‘perfection’ " (Whitehead 1929/1978, 47). For "no reason, internal to history, can be assigned why that flux of forms, rather than another flux, should have been illustrated" (46). The world is not predetermined, but radically contingent, because it is open to the immanent "decision" of each actual entity. God cannot have the power to decide for all these entities. Hence no "possible universe" can be judged a priori to be more perfect, or more intrinsically real, than any other. If God is held to be omnipotent, and given the credit for everything good that happens, "then the evil in the world is in conformity with the nature of God" as well (1926/1996, 95).
Whitehead’s rejection of the Leibnizian God is entirely in accord with Kant’s demonstration, in the "Transcendental Dialectic" of the First Critique, of the fallacies of speculative theology. Kant distinguishes three philosophical endeavors to prove the existence of God: the ontological, cosmological, and physiotheological proofs (1996, 577). But Kant rejects all of these alleged proofs, because in all of them, "a regulative principle is transformed into a constitutive one" (599). That is to say, these ostensible proofs take relations and determinations that are valid for entities within the world, and illegitimately apply them in order to explain the "thoroughgoing determination" of the world itself as a whole and in the first place (563). They then go on to hypostasize this principle of determination in the form of a supreme "being of all beings" (569). All such attempts to prove the existence of God thus make the mistake of applying empirical principles to establish something that is supersensible and non-empirical. This can never work, because "if the empirically valid law of causality is to lead to the original being, then this being would likewise have to belong to the chain of objects of experience; but in that case this being would itself, like all appearances, be conditioned in turn" (613).
Whitehead’s own discussions of theology largely follow Kant’s logic. Thus Whitehead dismisses the "ontological proof" of God’s existence, because "any proof which commences with the consideration of the character of the actual world cannot rise above the actuality of this world. . . In other words, it may discover an immanent God, but not a God wholly transcendent" (1926/1996, 71). And he rejects the "cosmological argument," on the grounds that "our notion of causation concerns the relations of states of things within the actual world, and can only be illegitimately extended to a transcendent derivation" (1929/1978, 93).3
Any attempt to ground immanence in transcendence, or explain "stubborn fact" (the empirically given) by reference to an Absolute, would violate Whitehead’s "ontological principle," which states that "there is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere" (244), that "every explanatory fact refers to the decision and to the efficacy of an actual thing" (46), and that, therefore, "the reasons for things are always to be found in the composite nature of definite actual entities" (19)... 8:40 AM 8:13 AM 8:02 AM 9:57 AM

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