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Some Basic Whiteheadian Notions

To explain the Whiteheadian position on these issues, I will need to presuppose many of the fundamental ideas in the system. Unfortunately, to explain these ideas would take several hours, if not days. All I can do here is briefly sketch them, hoping that this sketch will be sufficient to make the ensuing discussion at least somewhat intelligible. Another problem for my assignment arises from the fact that Whitehead’s position involves a rejection of many of the ideas of modern philosophy, some of which have been widespread in scientific circles, so that Whitehead’s alternative notions may strike many of you as implausible, if not outrageous. Unfortunately, to defend these notions would take days, if not weeks. So, although I have argued elsewhere that all of these ideas can be defended as more plausible than their alternatives,For my most extensive recent defenses, see Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998); Religion and...I can here only ask you suspend incredulity, granting these basic Whiteheadian notions as premises for the sake of discussion. I will briefly discuss fourteen of these notions.

1. The most fundamental units of which the universe is composed are momentary spatiotemporal events, rather than enduring things. This notion, which Whitehead shares with Buddhism, fits with the discovery that some of the so-called elementary particles exist on the order of a billionth of a second, so would more appropriately be called events.

2. Each momentary event is an embodiment of creativity, from which the physicist’s energy is an abstraction. By enlarging the notion of energy to include all that Whitehead meant by “creativity,” we could say that the universe is made up of energetic events. This is true even of so-called empty space, which means that Whitehead’s ideas here are consonant with recent thinking about the (“virtual” or “false”) vacuum.

3. One respect in which this more inclusive energy, this creativity, goes beyond energy as usually conceived in physics is that it includes an element of internal determination, or self-determination, so that no energetic event is wholly determined by the forces acting upon it from without. The epistemic indeterminacy of the world at the quantum level reflects an element of ontological self-determinacy.

4. The energetic events are, of course, not simply embodiments of raw, unformed energy, but of in-formed energy, with the different types of things being different because they contain different forms, different in-formation.

5. Each event prehends aspects of prior events, and thereby aspects of their informed energy, into itself. The term “prehend” is simply “apprehend” without the prefix, meant to indicate that this response to other things need not be a conscious process. The crucial point here is that each event is internally related to prior events. That is, rather than being a solid piece of stuff, or a Leibnizian monad devoid of windows, each event is internally constituted by its relations to prior events. Here his view seems virtually identical with some Buddhist understandings of the “dependent origination” of all things.

6. Enduring things, such as electrons, protons, and photons, exist because a particular form of energy is repeated by a long series of energetic events, perhaps dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of times per second. That is, although each event is influenced by all prior events to at least some slight degree, an event in an enduring individual is primarily constituted by its prehension and thereby internalization of the form of energy that was embodied by its predecessors in the enduring individual to which it belongs. The proton endures, in other words, because each of its protonic events essentially repeats the form of its predecessors, with this repetition going on, not quite endlessly, but for many billions of years. (I illustrated this point with protons, because they seem to have an especially high degree of tolerance for monotony.)

7. Low-grade enduring individuals can, in certain combinations, give rise to higher-level enduring individuals, as quarks and gluons give rise to protons, and neutrons, and these latter individuals combine with electrons to give rise to atoms and molecules, with still higher forms of enduring individuals perhaps being macromolecules, prokaryotic cells, organelles (which may be captured prokaryotic cells), eukaryotic cells, and the psyches of animals, from gnats to human beings. These higher-level enduring individuals are, by hypothesis, not simply complex arrangements of lower-level individuals. Rather, they involve higher-level energetic events, with their own unity of response to their environments. This emergence of higher-level units is possible because of internal relations. That is, because each event is internally constituted out of the things in its environment, a more complex environment can provide the basis for more complex events and thereby more complex enduring individuals.See the discussion of "compound individuals" in Ch. 9 of my Unsnarling the World-Knot.

8. The most complex enduring individuals on our planet, evidently, are the psyches of human beings. Although there is no ontological difference between the psyches of humans and those of other animals, as some dualists hold, or between animal psyches and lower-level enduring individuals, as other dualists hold, or even between living and non-living individuals, as vitalists hold, there are enormous differences of degree in terms of capacities for prehension and self-determination. Because our own existence is not entirely different from that of lower-grade enduring individuals, there are some features of our existence that can be generalized all the way down, to the simplest types of enduring individuals.

9. The most general of these features is experience, this feature being presupposed by the two features already mentioned, namely, prehension and self-determination. I call this position, accordingly, panexperientialism. This notion is one of the features of this position that is often thought to make it self-evidently subject to one-word refutations, such as “implausible,”I have discussed the allegation that panexperientialism (usually discussed under the term "panpsychism") is implausible in Ch. 7 of Unsnarling the World-Knot. because we all know that sticks and stones have no experience and exercise no self-determination. The “pan” in panexperientialism, however, does not mean all things whatsoever but only all true individuals--the things I have been referring to as energetic events and enduring individuals. Even then, the power of the modern worldview, which was adopted in the 17th century in opposition to views suggesting that matter involves sentience and spontaneity,I have discussed the theological and sociological motives behind the modern notion of matter as inert and insentient in Ch. 5 of Religion and Scientific Naturalism.is such that most philosophers, scientists, and theologians refuse to entertain this idea seriously. One result of this refusal is that dualism and materialism, the two positions allowed by the modern worldview, have made little advance on the mind-body problem beyond the stand-off between Descartes and Hobbes three and a half centuries ago. I have recently shown that Whiteheadian panexperientialism can, at long last, resolve this problem, incorporating the strengths of dualism and materialism while avoiding their weaknesses.Unsnarling the World-Knot, especially Chs. 6, 8, and 9.

10. Another of these generalizable features, both presupposed and implied by experience, is time, or temporal process. Because each event prehends into itself aspects of prior events, irreversible time obtains even for the most elementary individuals. Time as we know it--that is, as an asymmetrical, irreversible process--did not have to wait for the emergence of human experience, as some think, or for life, as others think, or even for aggregations of atoms subject to entropy, as still others think. Rather, time is already real for individual atoms, even for their constituent electrons, protons, and quarks.On this issue, see my "Introduction: Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time," David Ray Griffin, ed., Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time: Bohm, Prigogine, and Process Philosophy...

11. Indeed, time is real even prior to the existence of enduring individuals. For Whitehead, the ancient idea that the origin of our universe involved the emergence of a particular form of order out of chaos-- an idea that was suggested by Plato, the book of Genesis,For extensive discussions of the fact that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not a biblical doctrine, see Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988),...and many other ancient cosmologies--is essentially correct. For Whitehead, the chaos would have been a situation in which extremely trivial energetic events happen at random, meaning that none of them would have been organized into enduring individuals, not even individuals as simple as quarks. Since be a “thing” we usually mean an enduring thing, which retains its identity through time, the chaos prior to the creation of our world was a state of no-thing-ness. In this sense, we can say that our world was created out of nothingness. But, as Russian Orthodox philosophical theologian Nicholas Berdyaev put it, this was a state of relative nothingness, not absolute nothingness. In any case, in this chaotic situation, there would still have been time, or temporal process, because each random event would have prehended prior events and been prehended by succeeding events. (It should not be surprising, of course, that a position known as “process theology” would consider temporal process to be ultimately real.)

12. In addition to all the local events constituting the universe, there is an enduring individual comprised of an everlasting series of nonlocal, all-inclusive events.For arguments for the existence of a divine reality as conceived by Whiteheadian process theology, see Ch. 5 of my A Process Philosophy of Religion. For the argument that this reality should be understood,... Rather than existing outside the universe, in the sense of existing independently of any realm of finite entities, this nonlocal individual is essentially the soul of the universe, providing the unity that makes it a universe. This everlasting individual is the home of all possibilities. By virtue of being prehended by all local events, it is the primary source of both order and novelty in the universe. Being good, in the twofold sense of having friendliness and compassion for all sentient creatures, as well as being ubiquitous, everlasting, and the source of the world’s order, it can be considered divine.

13. The influence of this divine individual, rather than ever involving supernatural interruptions of the world’s normal causal processes, is a natural part of these processes. The fact that process theology regards the God-world relation as a fully natural relation is due in part to its panexperientialism. One of the reasons for the decline of theism since the 17th century has been puzzlement as to how a cosmic mind could influence nature, understood in mechanistic or materialistic terms. The God-world problem was to some extent simply the mind-body problem writ large. Panexperientialism, by showing how our minds can influence our bodies, simultaneously shows how a Cosmic Mind could influence the physical world.

14. Although this divine individual, being ubiquitous, exerts influence on all finite events, it cannot fully determine either the inner constitution or the external effects of any of them. Although creative power, which is the twofold power to exercise self-determination and then to exert efficient causation on others, is embodied by this divine individual, this twofold power is also embodied by all finite events. The power of the divine individual in the world, accordingly, is the power to evoke and to persuade, never the power to coerce, in the sense of the power unilaterally to determine.

As this brief summary indicates, Whiteheadian process theology is not simple. But, as Whitehead observed, all simple theologies “are shipwrecked upon the rock of the problem of evil.”A. N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making (1926; New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), 77. I have offered a Whiteheadian solution to the problem of evil in God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia:... This point is central to our topic, because the decline in the belief that our universe is in any sense designed has surely resulted from the problem of evil as much as from any scientific developments. In any case, given these fourteen notions of process theology, I turn now to the question of whether our universe is designed. I will begin with six senses in which, from a Whiteheadian perspective, the universe is not designed.

Contributed by: David Ray Griffin

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
Is the Universe Designed? Yes and No

Some Basic Whiteheadian Notions

Six Senses in Which the Universe Is Not Designed.
Two Senses in Which the Universe Is Designed


David Ray Griffin

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