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Process Philosophy: Whitehead


Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947): Life and Works
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947): Philosophy of Organism
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947): Philosophy of Religion/Nature
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947): Influence on Christian Theology

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947): Life and Works

Note that Whitehead’s works can be divided into three periods as follows.

1861: Born Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, England and educated at the Sherborne School in Dorset

1880: Goes to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study Mathematics (beginning of Period I)

1884: Elected Fellow of Trinity

1910-1913: Principia Mathematica (with Bertrand Russell) on the logical foundations of mathematics

1910: Moves to University of London (beginning of Period II)

1914: Moves to Imperial College of Science and Technology

1919: The Principles of Natural Knowledge

1920: The Concept of Nature

1922: The Principle of Relativity

1924: Moves to Harvard University (beginning of Period III)

1925: Science and the Modern World

1926: Religion in the Making

1929: Process and Reality

1929: The Function of Reason

1933: Adventures of Ideas

1938: Modes of Thought

1947: Died

Alfred North Whitehead: Philosophy of Organism

Whitehead’s aim in the second and third periods was to produce to metaphysical system that was adequate and applicable to the modern scientific worldview—a world of relativity, quantum mechanics, and biological organisms—while also being as consistent and coherent as possible.

Whitehead’s effort at a philosophy of organism were stongly influenced by Bergson, Bradley, and James, and thus it has a strongly pragmatists feel about it. He was particularly keen to establish links among the biological, physical, and psychological sciences; he thought that any characteristic of human beings (e.g. consciousness) had to be present in incipient form at lower levels in order that it could emerge when conditions of environment and complexity of organization were appropriate.

Philosophy of organism: the view that enduring objects in nature are systems of smaller units with their own internal structure

Enduring objects of nature: a nexus of actual occasions

Actual occasion: a process of becoming that produces a unifed, concrescent synthesis of prehensions

(Note that concrescere = "to grow together"; prehendere = "to grasp.")

Prehension: the bodily, causal awareness of environment

(Perception is bodily, visceral awareness of environment; this can be generalized to understand prehension: actual occasions prehend the actual concrete elements of their environment causally.)

Concrescence: the process of becoming concrete or actual, which consists in coordinating environmental influences in an intelligible, harmonious way

Becoming is a central category in Whitehead’s philosophy. There us a clear rejection of individual essences in space-time. True to our experience of a vague awareness of whole contexts, Whitehead argues that any things we know have temporal, spatial "thickness." Time, space, and individual objects are aspects of becoming abstracted from a larger unity of development.

Alfred North Whitehead: Philosophy of Religion/Nature

God is introduced into the philosophy of organism in Process and Reality. God is an essential element in the concrescence of each actual occasion and essential for stability and law-like regularities in the wider process of becoming. The view of God and world in process metaphysics is called panentheism (though of course there are many different kinds of panentheism).

  • God provides the initial aim to every concressing occasion. This aim originates in the wealth of possibilities for nature that God envisages. The locus of this envisagement of possibilities is called promoridal nature of God.
  • The actuality of the world is objectified as God’s temporal, actual nature, which is called the consequent nature of God.

Alfred North Whitehead: Influence on Christian Theology

Whitehead’s process philosophy has been extraordinarily influential on theology in the second half of the twentieth century. Partly this has been because of the further creative development of process metaphysics by Hartshorne and partly because of the unusual fecundity of Whitehead’s own thought. Here are some of the features of process metaphysics that Christian theology has found attractive.

  • There is a ready way in process metaphysics for theology to connect up with the natural sciences, bringing greater plausibility to theological assertions as a result.
  • There is an easy solution to the sticky problem of natural-law-conforming divine action in nature and history.
  • God’s omnipotence is denied along with creation (the world and God are coeternal and mutually defining in Whitehead) yet God is always active. This permits a solution to the problem of theodicy: God is constantly trying to realize value in the cosmos but we are actually capable of frustrating divine intentions in the natural process. This solution is bought at a high price, of course, and it solves the problem of theodicy while making the problems of suffering and one-and-many more acute, but it has been attractive to some theologians.

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