Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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A 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 new meanings.

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 empirically.

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 sense.

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 us. 

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 humans.

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 statistical probability.

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 society.

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 natural  processes.
  • 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 reality:

[1] A temporal relationship - a stone sitting there from moment to moment; and

[2] 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 universe.

He wrote: 

God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, evoked to save their collapse. He is [rather] their chief exemplification.

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 abstract.
  • 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 universe.
  • 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.

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