N Whitehead (1861-1947)
Perhaps the primary importance of Alfred North Whitehead to the
contemporary era is that he attempted a comprehensive metaphysics derived
from a scientific perception of the universe as a system. It was from his
writing that some modern theologians have worked out what's generally known
as "Process Theology".
Whitehead's writings are not easy to decipher. Parts appear
comprehensible - and then he dives into verbal formulae which have
defeated most if not all his readers. Part of the problem is that in order
to give voice to his thoughts he uses common terms with sometimes entirely
Of first importance is Whitehead's earlier work, in particular
Principia Mathematica which he wrote with Bertrand Russell between
1900 and 1911. Until then, mathematics had been regarded as a discipline
which stands alone and conveys a priori truths, such as 2 + 2 = 4.
Whitehead and Russell demonstrated that language and mathematics are a
unity of meaning.
Mathematics is an extension of the rules of logic, which govern all
language. All linguistic meaning rests of the principle of contradiction -
otherwise known as the Law of the Excluded Middle. That is, if p
represents a proposition and ~p its negation, then p and ~p
can't both be true at the same moment. All formal logic extends from this
fundamental of reason. According to Russell and Whitehead, the
representational model we call algebra extends in turn seamlessly from
formal logic into complex mathematics.
Whitehead's philosophy of science has proved influential in many
spheres of thought. He held that any theory could not stand without an
empirical foundation. In thinking about reality, he says, one has to begin
with the empirical. From there one can take off into theory. But a good
theory demands that it be rooted in reality and therefore tested
For example, it doesn't take much to realise that there is no such
thing as a "point" in real life (though there is in theory) because it is
a "position in space without magnitude" - and something without magnitude
can't be empirically observed. This establishes the principle that we can
reason using something which isn't strictly speaking real. Another example
is the idea of the infinite - "that without bound or end". We can use a
mathematical symbol to represent it, but we can never know it in any real
One trick of both philosophers and scientists is to break something up
into its parts, the better to understand and describe it. That is, we
analyse the whole by studying its parts. The British philosopher David
Hume supposed that we experience reality as disparate elements. In other
words, colour is "some-thing" outside us which we experience as some-thing
(perhaps a different thing - there's no way of knowing for sure) inside
Whitehead said that, on the contrary, reality comprises continuous
events. Our experience of the colour of a motor car extends over the
period we are looking at it. Similarly, atoms are not entities occupying
space without changing, but events extending over time. The same could be
said of each of us. We are a continuous "event" extending over our entire
lives. A "point" is merely a collection of vectors (hypothetical lines)
which "overlap" in an event we call a "point". To some up: reality is
continuously in process.
To put it another way, objects are those things which display recurrent
patterns or sequences over time. A stone changes continuously - but so
slowly that we can't easily notice the change. It exists only because it
is "becoming", however slowly, in a particular process over time.
Plato took a different line. He said that objects we call "chair" are a
sort of reflection of an abstract "form" of "chairness". Whitehead was
nearer Aristotle's "seeking the form in facts".
So he thought that there are various types
of object, such as motor cars and electrons which exist (one could almost
say "live") in various "durations" (an example of his use of common
words with a new or modified sense). So a bar of iron remains
substantially the same over time (one kind of duration) while a
flash of light exists over a very short period of time (another kind of
duration). Tortoises generally exist over a longer time-span than do
It's not surprising, then, that Whitehead was unhappy with the
deterministic universe of Newtonian physics. Whitehead's objects are not
solid, unchanging, static "things" but (as it were) the transmission of
energies of certain quantity along a direction of time, ebbing and
flowing, gathering and dispersing. That is, an object's nature is
described not by linear relationships but by vectors (quantities with both
magnitude and direction).
I don't pretend to understand Whitehead's metaphysics. But to give some
idea of their scope, he appears to describe human perception by proposing
that events are mediated to our consciousness through the "organism" -
that complex system we call our body. Because reality is mediated, there
is a possibility of distortion.
Just as the universe is in the process of becoming (that is, in
continual change) so also are we. The basic categories of understanding
are a series of events (not "states"). Whether it be understanding, or
relationships or a chemical reaction, everything is becoming by relating
to each other in an ongoing process.
Heraclitus (about 500BC) had proposed that everything is in "flux".
Buddhists think that reality is a flow of experience without static
substance or essence underlying it. Hegel stressed the dynamic nature of
reality. Modern science and mathematics is now increasingly based upon a
reality which works in practice not in terms of laws but according to
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Whitehead seems always to return to
the possibility that the "becoming" universe could be related to some sort
of "God" concept. He thought that religion is concerned with stability and
permanence within change and that it helps sustain human values in
The ordering of experience was, he thought, due to God. God relates to
the universe in two ways:
- The primordial nature of God is that which gives rise to
- The consequent nature of God gives rise to entities which are
the outcome of God's initial impetus to self-creation.
These two aspects of God are in a "dipolar" relationship - they are
equal and opposite but not opposed.
God's consequent nature consists of two types of relationship to
 A temporal relationship - a stone sitting there from moment to
 a non-temporal relationship or the process of becoming - a
person's process of maturing from birth to death, for example. Thus God
has abrogated all but natural power over sentient beings. They are free
within the boundaries of natural laws to choose their own way in the
God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical
principles, evoked to save their collapse. He is [rather] their chief
To sum up:
- What is real is not static. It does not take its nature from an
underlying form or essence. Reality is in process. If there is no
process and hence no change, then a thing is either dead, in the past or
- What is actual is temporal. In exists in an arrow of time. It has a
past and contributes to a future. Although God influences entities
(which are fundamentally events in themselves) and events, as do
previous entities and events, we can't correctly talk of a deterministic
- God (as consequent nature) works "slowly and quietly in love". God
is "the great companion - the fellow-sufferer who understands".
- Thus all entities and occasions have some freedom to change and
develop within certain limits. They are subject to the "guidance" by God
as a permanent background to order (all other entities being finite).
In Christian terms, the Whitehead way of regarding the world is
probably nearest to what is usually called "deist". There is room for God
as an underlying principle and power of the universal processes of which
we are part. But there seems neither much place nor need for the
traditional person of Jesus.