An Introduction to Process Philosophy
Cosmology, Ethics, and Spirituality
Note: This essay was written for an East Asian audience, but can serve
as a general introduction to Whiteheadian Process Philosophy for all.
“Process philosophy” is a name for various philosophical perspectives that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century in the West and that are indebted to the cosmology of the late philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead. Building upon Whitehead’s philosophy many “process philosophers” hold at six ideas in common. I mention them at the outset in order to set the stage for further discussions.
Six Shared Ideas
First, process philosophers envision the universe as an interconnected and evolving whole, with galactic as well as terrestrial dimensions, in which humans play a very small but creative role. Humans are a part of, not apart from, the larger web of life. Second, process philosophers emphasize that all actualities are “present in” all others, such that even as things have their own unique natures, they are inwardly composed of other things. Thus, there are no self-contained substances in the material world or skin-encapsulated egos in the human world; rather there are entities-in-relation and persons-in-community. Third, process philosophers emphasize that the universe itself is a process of becoming and change, such that all living beings, including humans, are never quite the same at any two instants. On this view, then, reality itself is more like a verb than a noun, such that even apparently solid things – mountains, for example – are changing in subtle ways, such that they are, as it were, slow verbs. Fourth, process philosophers propose that each living being – not only each human being but also each animal -- is inwardly animated by a lure to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. According to this way of thinking, reality has a subjective as well as an objective side, an invisible as well as a visible dimension; which means that the universe as a whole is a community of subjects and not simply a collection of objects. And fifth, process philosophers propose that each living being is shaped, not only by external environmental influences and chemical impulses, but also by inwardly felt goals – process thinkers call them subjective aims – to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. These subjective aims are not simply toward survival but also toward harmony and intensity in experience. They are toward beauty. These are five ideas, then, which most process philosophers share.
To these five ideas, though, we must quickly add another that is very important to religiously-inclined and spiritually-interested process philosophers. As Whitehead puts it in Adventures of Ideas, there seems to be more in the universe than entropy. There seems also to be an Eros in the universe – a tendency or desire for harmony and intensity – that is manifest in all living things and, beyond that, in the tendency of the universe to develop new wholes: molecules from atoms, living cells from molecules, and, on our small planet, tissues from cells and organs from tissues. This tendency or aim toward beauty is not supernatural but rather ultra-natural. It is the Way of the universe – the Culture of the universe -- in its deepest and most primordial dimension. We humans find our way in life, not by fighting this tendency toward beauty, but rather by awakening to it, trusting in it, and cooperating with it. Whitehead used the word “God” to name this deeper tendency toward beauty, but he also used other words such as Eros. In the context of our conference, we might also speak of it as the Tao of the universe.
What, then, are some of the implications of these six ideas for our participation in social life? Some of them are ethical. They include the idea that we humans share with other living beings a kinship that is not only biological but also, in a certain way, subjective or experiential. We truly are mammals among mammals, creatures among creatures, flesh among flesh, sentient beings among sentient beings. We are members of a larger family – a community of life -- and we become more fully human, not by denying this kinship, but by affirming it. Ultimately this community includes not only the generations living in the present, but also previous generations who are also “present in” our experience in many ways, and generations yet to come. The family is multi-generational. Given this participation in a larger family of life, we have ethical responsibilities to respect, not only other human beings, but also other living beings, not simply as objects for use but also as subjects of their own lives. In relation to other living beings, a recognition of these ethical responsibilities does not mean that we humans cannot use other living beings; but it does mean that, if our cultures and ways of living in the world are to be appropriate to the nature of things, our cultures should include a general sense of respect and care for the community of life. We must live with, not against, the deeper rhythms of the universe. Our ways need to be consonant with the ways of other creatures and with the Way of the universe.
Given such ideas it is no accident, then, that in our time some people turn to process philosophy as a helpful bridge between culture and ecology on the one hand, and between East and West on the other. My aim in the remainder of this essay is to further outline a process approach to ecology and culture, so that, at our conference, this approach might be compared and contrasted with the approaches of Culture Philosophy. I am eager to learn about Culture Philosophy, and I can only ask my reader’s indulgence if I write this essay seeking to make points of contact, when I have so much to learn about from the other side. The essay is divided into four sections: cosmology, social ethics, spirituality, and culture.
By “cosmology” I do not mean a specific sub-discipline within physics, but rather a more general philosophy of nature. From a process perspective such a philosophy is properly informed not only by insights from the natural sciences but also by human experiences of awe and wonder, amazement and humility, as they experience the felt presences of the natural world. Often these experiences are better expressed in music and art, poetry and literature, than in science. Thus process philosophy aims to offer an approach to nature – a cosmology -- that bridges the gap between the natural sciences and the humanities, articulating the wisdom of both points of view. Whitehead’s book Science and the Modern World is a vivid example of drawing from these two sources, as evidenced in his own drawing from early quantum theory on the one hand, but also the nature poetry of the British poet William Wordsworth on the other.
At the level of cosmology, then, process philosophy advocates twelve ideas concerning nature, many of which bear affinities with East Asian points of view even as these have been used by members of Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) and Western traditions to interpret their own core teachings. I have stated some of them above in a general way, but here let me be more specific.
Nature as Creative. The first is that nature is a continuously creative process, with galactic as well as terrestrial dimensions, of which humans are an integral part. In process philosophy this continuous creativity is the ultimate reality of the universe. Whitehead called it Creativity, and it seems analogous to the ch’i of which all things, organic and inorganic, visible or invisible, are expressions.
Nature as Visible and Invisible. The second is that nature includes invisible as well as visible dimensions, as exemplified in feelings and other conscious states of mammals (invisible) and the human brain (visible), and that both of these dimensions are expressions of the same kind of creative energy and in this sense “natural.”
Intrinsic Value and Pan-Experientialism. The third idea is that each living being on earth (and anywhere else) is a subject for itself not just an object for others, such that the living being has intrinsic value and some capacity for experiencing its environment (consciously or unconsciously) from its own unique point of view. Here the word “living” includes the divine reality (see below) and carbon-based forms of life such as single-celled organisms and animals. “Living” more generally means any being of any sort that has subjectivity of any kind, on the basis of which it can take into account its surrounding environment in a conscious or non-conscious way, creatively responding in novel ways. When combined with Whitehead’s view that nature includes many planes of existence, not just the three dimensional plane of space as evident to the vision, this understanding of “living” opens up the possibility, characteristic of many indigenous societies, that there are forms of actuality (spirits, living ancestors) that are part of the larger ecology of a community. It also widens a sense of “ecology” in a way that resembles Confucian emphases on an ecological trinity of heaven-earth-human relations.
Two kinds of Wholes. The fourth idea is the view that inorganic materials – mountains, for example – are aggregate expressions of subatomic forms of energy that are, if not living in a biological sense, then at least possessive of some capacity for non-conscious prehending of their immediate environments. The idea that all actual entities have capacities for taking into account their environments, either consciously or non-consciously, is called pan-experientialism or pan-psychism. In order to avoid the idea that this implies that macroscopic entities (rocks, for example) are experiencing subjects in their own right, process philosophers draw a distinction between two kinds of natural wholes: wholes that have unified subjectivity on the basis of which they have reality for themselves (living cells, animals) and wholes that are aggregrate-expressions of energetic phenomena with non-conscious prehending capacities, but that lack unified subjectivity (rocks).
Interconnectedness. The fifth idea is that all living beings have their existence and identities in relation to, not apart from, all other living beings, which means that the very identity of a living being, including each plant and animal, is partly determined by the material and cultural environment in which it is situated. Process philosophy goes further, in a sense reminiscent of Buddhism, to say that each entity is “present in” every other entity, such that interconnectedness implies inter-being or inter-containment. This means that all entities are thoroughly ecological in nature, and that human beings are themselves ecological in being persons-in-community, not persons-in-isolation. In a process context “community” includes the entire web of life in which a human (or other living being) is nested. The means that respect for the intrinsic value of individual living beings cannot be separated from considerations of the instrumental value, positive or negative, that these beings have for others in their biotic communities.
Teleology. The sixth idea is that the universe as a whole, over vast periods of time, has evolved toward heightened degrees of intrinsic value, which are equated with heightened capacities for richness of experience, as evident in the capacities of animals (humans included) to respond to new situations in unpredictable and creative ways, experiencing both the joys and sorrows of mortal existence.
The Divine Reality in Nature. The seventh idea is that the whole of nature is embraced by a divine reality – a One-embracing-many variously named God, Allah, Amida, Heaven – who is influential throughout nature in a continuous way as an indwelling lure toward satisfactory survival within individual living beings, and as a more generalized lure toward new forms of order and novelty within evolution as a whole. In the final section of this essay I will suggest that this divine reality can also be called the Culture of the universe or the Way of the universe, within which all other ways unfold, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes otherwise. For the time being, though, I will simply speak of the divine reality as God.
Non-Supernaturalism. The eighth is that this divine lure does not interrupt the causal operations of nature as understood in physics and chemistry, which means, among other things, that it is best understood as ultra-natural rather than super-natural. This leads some process philosophers to speak of process philosophy as a form of naturalistic theism.
Divine Empathy. The ninth idea is that the One-embracing-many is not only influential throughout nature in a non-coercive way, but also acted upon by nature in a continuous way, such that it empathically shares in the experiences of all forms of existence and in the joys and sufferings of all living beings.
Tragedy in God. The tenth idea is that, by virtue of this empathy, the One-embracing-many is enriched not only by the experiences of individual living beings, but also by the diverse kinds of lives that inhabit the planet, such that an unnecessary depletion of biological diversity is a tragedy, not only for the earth, but also for the divine life itself.
Sin as Unnecessary Violence against creation. The eleventh idea is that, because nature is itself creative at all levels, there are things that happen in evolution itself, and in human interactions with other living beings and forms of existence, that are tragic, even for God. This leads process philosophers to define sin as unnecessary violence against creation, from which even God suffers.
Co-creativity. The twelfth idea is that human beings, as creatures among creatures can help prevent these tragedies by cooperating with the divine lure toward the fullness of life, and that this kind of response is their true vocation in life. In process philosophy the whole of nature is historical or evolutionary, and the future is not pre-ordained, not even by God. What happens in the future depends on decisions made in the present by human beings and other living beings, moment by moment.
All twelve ideas have implications for ecological ethics. The idea that all living beings have intrinsic value entails the view that humans have moral obligations to other creatures – animals, for example – under human domestication and in the wild. It simultaneously means that economic institutions and policies ought to take as their aim the promotion of human well-being in an ecologically responsible context, rather than economic growth for its own sake, and that human communities reach fruition with they live in fruitful cooperation with other forms of life and natural systems, and when they are limited in scope, making space for the habitats of other living beings. This does not imply that any living being, including even human beings, have absolute rights to life; but it does imply that respect and care for the community of life is the defining characteristic of healthy human community. The idea that there are degrees of intrinsic value entails the view that it is more morally problematic to inflict violence on a gazelle than to take the life of a bacterium, even though both the gazelle and the bacterium possess subjectivity. The idea that God is enriched by biological diversity, and harmed by violence against creation, means that ethical relations with non-human forms of life cannot be separated from faithful relations to God. And the idea that humans are co-creative with God means that the very will of God, that nature itself flourish in its fullness, depends for its realization on human responsiveness.
At a practical level, all of this suggests various guidelines by which human beings can be guided as they develop their communities. For some process thinkers, one of the best statements of these guidelines comes from a document called the Earth Charter, which is an international document that emerged out of discussions within the United Nations in the latter decades of the twentieth century. A Mandarin translation of the Earth Charter can be found at: <http://www.earthcharter.org/files/charter/charter_ch.pdf >. The guidelines concerning ecological integrity – reproduced in English as an Appendix to this essay -- can be found in Mandarin at that site.
Process philosophy recognizes, though, that human life is more than philosophy and ethics; understanding and moral behavior. It includes spiritual states of awareness that are sensitive to the intrinsic value of each living being; forms of ritual that help awaken people to the mystery and grandeur of landscapes, waterways, and galactic vistas; inner journeys toward integration between consciousness and the energies and archetypes that well within the unconscious, some of which are encoded within human genes; and humble acknowledgment that humans are small but included in larger wholes that far transcend their finite concerns. In process philosophy, all of these forms of spirituality are natural and part of nature understood in general terms.
Moreover, the philosophy of Whitehead is open to the possibility that there can be forms of empathic connection, not only between humans and other humans, but between humans and non-human forms of life; and that the very journey toward peaceable selfhood, toward which all living beings strive in their own unique ways, may well continue after death, until wholeness is realized. Should such connections and continuation prove to be true, they, too, would be part of nature broadly understood.
Finally and importantly, from a process perspective it is wrong to think that spirituality as such begins with human beings. Each living being has its own unique relationship to the divine reality, and all living beings, indeed the whole of the cosmos, are embraced within the larger and divine whole. How other living beings experience this embrace is a mystery to humans. But that they are part of this embrace is central to process philosophy. Spirituality begins, not with formal belief or even with social ethics, but with non-verbal attunements to the divine embrace. This embrace takes the form of an indwelling call to survive with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. For many creatures in nature, humans much included, the simple desire to survive with satisfaction, even amid sometimes insurmountable odds, is a form of spirituality.
The three sets of ideas presented above – cosmology, ethics, and spirituality – are abstract and, in a certain way, individualistic. They can be appropriated by individuals even if they are at odds with the wider culture in which they live.
In a process context the word “culture” can be defined in many different ways. In a very general sense a culture is simply a shared way of living in the world that is embodied by people who may or may not know each other in a personal way, and who may be very different from one another in numerous ways, but who nevertheless have shared ways of feeling and responding to the world, as guided by shared subjective aims and aspirations. A nation can have a culture, but so can a neighborhood, a professional organization, and a school. Many if not all world religions are, at their root, forms of culture.
What, then, are shared ways of feeling and responding? Let us begin with the word feeling. In Whiteheadian thought, the word is defined very broadly. It is a way of taking into account other things from an internal point of view. Shared ways of feeling include not only common emotional habits and subtle ways in which humans are internally affected by the feelings of others; but also common ways of thinking and imagining and perceiving. This is because in process philosophy, thinking is a form of feeling: namely a feeling of the presence of ideas. Imagining is also a form of feeling: namely a feeling of potentialities, which may or may not be actualized in the real world. And perceiving is likewise a form of feeling: that is, feeling the presence of objects accessible to the senses. In short, all activities of the human mind and heart are expressions of what Whitehead calls feeling. This is how life works for humans and all other forms of life. We feel other things and then we respond. And the “we” who thus feel “other things” are ourselves the processes of feeling.
Similar to feeling, the word responding must be defined very broadly. Responding will include not only shared internal responses to immediate circumstances, as evidenced in shared joys and sufferings; but also shared ways of doing things, as evidenced in common ways of making of tools, or constructing buildings, or preparing foods. These physical activities are forms of responding, because they are tangible and creative responses to the needs of the time and to the physical resources at people’s disposal. This means that when we see the physical artifacts of a people we are seeing ways in which they have responded to their circumstances. And it means that their culture includes the visible and the invisible, the imaginative and the sensory, the hidden and the manifest.
How, then, is a culture transmitted? Process philosophers say that a culture is transmitted through what many people call education, both formal and informal, and then add that education can occur through two forms of learning. One is learning from body-to-mind or learning-by-doing. This kind of learning occurs, for example, in meaningful rituals and forms of community engagement where people do things together and, in so doing, enter into shared forms of feeling and responding. In many societies this is the primary form of learning. People grow into (what they take to be) the wisdom of their culture, not by studying it and reflecting upon it, but rather by participating in it and learning from it. The other form of education can be called learning from mind-to-body. This involves listening to the ideas presented by others and reflecting upon them in a more conscious and distanced way. This is the kind of learning that has typically been highlighted in Western societies since the Enlightenment.
A process approach to culture is sensitive to both forms of learning. On the one hand, Whiteheadians take very seriously the idea that we can receive insights concerning the world and how we might live in it, not simply by reading about it in books, but by doing things with others, in bodily ways, that allow the insights to emerge spontaneously and serendipitously. In Whiteheadian thought, forms of experience that involve receiving influences from the world in bodily and causally efficacious ways are taken very seriously, because each moment of experience begins with an act of receiving things in the mode of causal efficacy. Feelings of causal efficacy form the experiential glue by which human communities are held together and, for that matter, by which the universe is held together. Of course, Whiteheadians also take seriously the idea that we can receive such insights by considering them in more distanced ways through the media of text and story, film and music, art and science. However culture is transmitted, though, one thing is clear. As people are educated into their cultures, they also change their cultures. From a process perspective a culture is usually a culture-in-process or a way-of-living-in-process. Indeed a culture is, most deeply, a way.
What does it mean, then, to say that a culture is a way? In order to understand what this means, it may be helpful to conceive a culture on the analogy of a process of concrescence. In Whitehead’s thought a process of concrescence is the activity by which many things are gathered into the unity of a single moment of experience. Perhaps an example from ordinary life can help. Consider walking down the street on the way to an appointment with the dentist. As we walk we will feel the presence of the ground beneath our feet and the movement of our legs as we take our steps. We will also feel the presence of other people as they walk alongside us, of certain ideas within our minds as reflect upon what concerns us, of our expected place of arrival. Of course some of these will be in the foreground of our awareness and others will be in the background. We may be much more aware of our own innermost thoughts than our moving legs. We may be, as it were, lost in our thoughts. Nevertheless, all of these various items – the pavement and the people, the ideas and the goals, the movement and the memories – will be gathered into the unity of our experience. This is part of what Whitehead means by concrescence. He means the process by which many become one.
This becoming one does not mean that the world disappears. The unification of the world in the act of experiencing it is not a collapsing of the world but rather a harmonization of it. As we walk down the street, for example, the pavement will still be pavement, which means that if we fall it may hurt us. Nevertheless, the pavement will also be gathered into the unity of our experience, such that the pavement is truly present in our experience even as it is outside our bodies, and how this gathering occurs becomes who we are, at least at that moment.
Thus we might say that, at any given moment, each human being has or better is a culture of sorts. Each human being has a way of living in the world, moment by moment, and this way is who he or she is. This way of experiencing is influenced both by the objective conditions of that person’s life and also by the subjective aims that guide that person’s response to those conditions. For example, if we are walking to an appointment for which we are late, then our walking may be hurried. The hurriedness does not come from the pavement but rather from our subjective aims of getting to the dentist. It is our culture for the moment.
And so it is with a collective culture, except that it is a communal act by which the many of the universe become one in the immediacy of a given historical moment. If we imagine a process of concrescence on the grammatical analogy of a first-person singular; then a culture can be imagined on the analogy of a first-person plural. It is not my way of living but rather our way of living. This should not suggest, though, that my way of living comes first and that our way of living is built from a vast aggregate of individualized ways. Our way of living is part of the many that affects my way of living. As internalized through ritual and tradition, education and upbringing, the first-person plural is part of the make-up of the first-person singular. There is no “I” without a “We.” This first-person plural can be healthy or unhealthy, constructive or destructive, creative or stagnant, harmonious or disharmonious, sustainable or unsustainable, just or unjust. In any case, the first-person plural is who “We” are at any given moment in history and it is itself a way that the universe becomes one in the immediacy of our collective moment in history.
This raises the question as to whether the universe itself might have an inclusive instance of “becoming one” that transcends the individual idiosyncrasies of individuals and local communities. If there is a way of the individual walking down the street, and a way of a people who share a set of values and aspirations, is there also a way of the universe as a whole? Earlier in this essay I suggested that, from a process point of view, the universe does indeed have a Way. In many Western traditions this Way is called God, but the word too often suggests a substance, cut off from the world, who first exists and then acts in or upon the world. Perhaps East Asian thinking offers a better and more Whiteheadian approach. After all, Whitehead himself was critical of subject-predicate ways of thinking, in which we imagine subjects as first existing and then having predicates attached to them. Far too often, Western process philosophers have fallen into just this trap. They have spoken of God as if God first exists and then enters into relations with the universe, and as if both God and the universe were nouns not verbs.
What would it be like, then, to reconceive process philosophy in East Asian terms? What would it be like to imagine the universe as consisting of verbs within verbs and then to imagine a deep Becoming – an inclusive Verb – within which all verbs have their being? And what would it be like to further imagine that this deep Becoming is itself a Way, such that the universe as a whole is, in its own way, a dynamic and ever-changing Culture? Western process philosophers are naturally drawn toward such questions as they engage in discussions with East Asian thinkers. They want to know if very traditional East Asian words – like the Tao – might better help process philosophers become less substantialistic in their thinking and thus more Whiteheadian.
In any case one thing is clear. The dominant cultural ethos in many parts of the world is neither Whiteheadian nor Taoist, Confucian nor Marxist. It is consumeristic. In the culture of consumerism social life is organized around the goal of endless economic development; people tend to measure the well being of their society in monetary terms, such that economic growth and community well-being are equated; and they measure their own “happiness” in terms of how they compare – in status and material well-being – with others. It is unclear whether this cultural ethos can co-exist with more traditional ways of being in the world or whether, by contrast, it spells their end.
The hope of process philosophy is that the culture of consumerism can be transformed into a culture of respect and care for the community of life. Toward this end process philosophy also carries the hope that the many wisdom traditions of the world – Confucianism and Taoism, Marxism and Western Enlightenment thinking, Christianity and Judaism and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – can contribute to such respect. If such cultures are to emerge, it will not be because the world has converted to process philosophy. It will be because people in different cultural milieus have uncovered inherited resources, within their milieus, for developing respect and care. A study of process philosophy can help in this development, but it best occurs in the larger context of a dialogue with many other ways of thinking, including and perhaps even especially East Asian. I hope that this essay, in some small way, opens the door for such discussions.