You've got your telescope tonight. Gazing into the night sky, you're immersed in the vastness of billions of galaxies, each filled with billions of stars. You know that there are even more planets encircling these stars, many likely teeming with life—probably some of it intelligent. You are part of a cosmic ecology. As you look around, feet on the ground, you recognize that you're also part of a dazzling array of life forms—microscopic, cellular, vegetative, and animal—here on Earth. You are part of a terrestrial ecology, too: an organic web of life. And that's not the whole of it. You have family and friends, you are part of a culture, a nation, and a human world. You are part of many social ecologies; and within them you have ethical responsibilities and joys. You believe all these ecologies—social, terrestrial, celestial—are discrete but also woven together, part of an interconnected and creative universe, still evolving. You are a metaphysician. You believe that relations themselves form the fabric of life and that, following Whitehead, every moment of experience is a concrescence of the universe.
You wonder if the universe isn't itself evolving within a larger concrescence, a divine Consciousness, not unlike an embryo developing in a womb. This Consciousness isn't outside the universe; it is the unity of the universe. It seems to coordinate the possibilities available to the universe with the actualities of the universe, so that the actualities can, in their creativity, "actualize" them. Influenced by Whitehead, you think of this Consciousness as God. There's a religious side to all of this. You are small but included in a larger divine whole, and this whole is more like a person than a thing. You can say "you" to the whole and something, someone, is receiving the words and feelings.
What is this Consciousness like? Is it benevolent? Does it harbor desires? If so, what might they be? Does it hunger for intensity alone? Is it a cosmic aesthete, concerned primarily with the enjoyment of diversity but not with particulars? Or a cosmic egotist, concerned primarily with its own satisfaction? Or does it also seek goodness: that is, love, compassion, kindness, respect, courage, and truthfulness? Is the God of the universe really good?
These questions form the core of Andrew Davis's talk in Munich. Davis is a prominent philosopher of religion and theologian who has authored several books on Whitehead's philosophy, including "Metaphysics of Exo-Life: Toward a Constructive Whiteheadian Cosmotheology" and "Mind, Value, and Cosmos: On the Relational Nature of Ultimacy," both part of the Contemporary Whitehead Studies series. In these books and many essays, he has developed the idea, not only that God happens to do good, luring the universe toward a realization of worthy ideals and values; but that God is good, and essentially so. Goodness lies within the divine depths.
In this, Davis is aligned with many process theologians, primarily Christian, who have adapted Whitehead's ideas to develop Christian process theologies. He is a process philosopher of religion sympathetic to the Christian process tradition.
However, Davis also knows that there are some who think the Christians have wrongly commandeered and distorted Whitehead's original insights into God. They have, as it were, hijacked Whitehead. Two notable critics are Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes of the University of Exeter and Pierfrancesco Basile of the University of Bern. He finds plausibility in their critiques; he does not claim to be absolutely right about Whitehead. He generally avoids words like "absolute" and hints of finality. Still, he considers their critiques one-sided.
As Davis sees things, the Consciousness, God, is, as the critics recognize, oriented toward aesthetic experience, one kind of which is intensity of experience. In Whitehead's Process and Reality the word "intensity" is used by Whitehead to name what God always seeks. God seeks divine intensity and also, perhaps, the intensity enjoyed by momentary occasions of experience. To such intensity Whitehead adds the word "harmony," suggesting that harmonious intensity - that is, intensity enjoyed in relation with others - is God's primary aim.
Davis also believes that, with the development of more complex forms of life, the yearning for intensity becomes a yearning for goodness, including moral goodness. And he suggests that this yearning has been part of God's ongoing life from the get-go: that God is essentially (or, necessarily) good, which means that God can't be God without being good. For Davis as for Whitehead (as understood by Davis) God is a spirit of moral value that gently guides the universe toward truth, goodness, and beauty as time allows. God is the poet of the universe and a benevolent poet at that.
This divine Poet is at work in the history of life on Earth and also in the history of the galaxies. If there is life on other planets, they, too are present to the Consciousness of the universe, and they, too, are lured toward truth, goodness, and beauty, relative to what is possible and desirable in their situations. Hence the idea of a metaphysics of exo-life.
Davis begins to develop some of these ideas at the 13th annual International Whitehead Conference in Munich. He will develop a paper out of the talk, but the talk itself can be a springboard for reflections. On this page, you will find a video of his talk, followed by my study notes and a few questions to Davis.
- Jay McDaniel
On the Goodness of Whitehead's God: A Defense and Metaphysical Interpretation
A Study Guide
Notes and Questions
"His tenderness is directed towards each actual occasion, as it arises."
Whitehead offers multiple perspectives on the concept of God: a timeless mind, serving as a reservoir of pure potentialities or "eternal objects" that can be actualized by actual entities in the universe (referred to as the "primordial nature" of God); an empathic companion to the world's suffering that saves what can be saved while sharing in the suffering (known as the "consequent" nature of God); a lure within each actual entity that guides it toward maximum satisfaction in any given moment (a combination of the primordial and consequent natures); and, as Andrew Davis emphasizes, a source of value in the universe that inspires highly sentient beings, on our planet or any other planet, toward truth, goodness, and beauty. According to Davis, when we sense the presence of these ideals, we are in the presence of God, named or unnamed. The good, the true, and beauty are part of, in his words, the "axiological depths" of the divine nature.
This way of thinking about God is both conventional in some ways and unconventional in others. God is not all-powerful in the traditional sense, lacking the ability to unilaterally control universal events, nor is God all-knowing in terms of predicting actual future events. On this view, God is aware of what could potentially occur in the future but only becomes aware of what will actually occur when it is actualized by entities in the universe through their decision-making abilities. This decision-making activity, found in the subatomic (quantum) world as well as in biological and human life, is part of the "self-creativity" (Whitehead's phrase in "Process and Reality") that is among the ultimate realities of the universe.
Has Whitehead's God Been Hijacked by Christians?
Christian process theologians have adapted Whitehead's views to suit their perspectives and have highlighted them as a foundation for contemporary Christian belief, giving rise to Christian process theology. Prominent figures in this field include John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and Marjorie Suchocki, among others. However, there have been substantive criticisms of this adaptation, both from Christians who prefer a more classical understanding of God and from others who feel that Whitehead's God has been, as it were, hijacked by Christians. As noted above, two are Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes of the University of Exeter and Pierfrancesco Basile of the University of Bern.
Basile critiques Whitehead's conception of God as more demonic than loving—a cosmic egoist. He refers to a passage from Whitehead's "Process and Reality":
"He, in his primordial nature, is unmoved by love for this particular, or that particular; for in this foundational process of creativity, there are no preconstituted particulars. In the foundations of his being, God is indifferent alike to preservation and to novelty. He cares not whether an immediate occasion be old or new, so far as concerns derivation from its ancestry. His aim for it is depth of satisfaction as an intermediate step towards the fulfillment of his own being. His tenderness is directed towards each actual occasion, as it arises."
Davis notes that Basile skips the last sentence. Basile argues that a God who is unmoved and indifferent cannot be considered loving. Christian process theologians have, according to Basile, distorted Whitehead's concept of God, recasting it as "good" when it is not necessarily so. Sjöstedt-Hughes believes that pantheism offers a better way to understand Whitehead and argues that the word "God" is inappropriate. He contends that God's purpose, as described by Whitehead, is not the establishment of a moral order but rather the evocation of intensities, and that a divine reality of this sort is more Dionysian than Christian.
Andrew M. Davis Responds:
In a video on this page, Davis responds to these critiques. He acknowledges that Whitehead says many different things about God, not all consistent, and that there are indeed "dark" passages such as those highlighted by Basile and Sjöstedt-Hughes. He does not argue that there is a single, correct way to think about Whitehead's God. But he does emphasize that numerous passages in Whitehead, not only from "Process and Reality" but also throughout his work, beginning with "Science and the Modern World" and ending with Whitehead's last essay, "Immortality," emphasize the goodness of God. Basile and Sjöstedt-Hughes, he argues, are choosing rather selectively. In Davis' words, "Whitehead holds, I'd say, to the universality of a moral kind of spirit that ultimately extends from the moral nature of divinity."
Davis agrees with Basile and Sjöstedt-Hughes that, in Whitehead's philosophy, aesthetic value is primary but adds (and emphasizes) that, for Whitehead, moral order is a type of, and extension of, aesthetic order. He suggests that there are phases of the universe where moral values like goodness are important, particularly among highly sentient beings on Earth and potentially on other planets, while in other stages (such as among atoms), moral values are less significant. This means that in human life there is indeed a divine lure toward truth, goodness, and beauty, and it comes from God. It is our human way of enjoying and embodying beauty.
He also argues that these properties are, of necessity, in God. The necessity at issue is not logical but rather axiological or, as he puts it, axionoetic (alternatively axianoetic.) Davis develops a metaphysic in which axiology (value and a leaning toward value) is an ontological primitive: that is, a part of the very fabric of the universe. He knows that the word "value" can itself be complexified; there are many kinds of value, rational value, moral value, and aesthetic value. Davis sees God as the ground and unsurpassable expression of these values, with rational and moral value as forms of aesthetic value.
To these different kinds of value we can add one more: the value of what Whitehead calls "self-enjoyment" of an actual entity in the process of experiencing an actual world.
"The organic philosophy interprets experience as meaning the ‘self-enjoyment of being one among many, and of being one arising out of the composition of many.'"
John Cobb and others speak of self-enjoyment as the intrinsic value of each living being: that is, its value for itself, independent of the world and of God. It may be the case that God is a lure toward self-enjoyment, but the self-enjoyment itself is not something that is assigned by or reducible to a divine lure. One question we might ask Davis is where this kind of value fits into his perspective. My own thinking is that here, for Whitehead, Creativity, not God, is the fundamental source of value.
And there's another question related to this. Recall the sentence that Basile skipped: "His tenderness is directed towards each actual occasion, as it arises." It is worth considering that the tenderness of Whitehead's God is directed toward the intensity of self-enjoyment, and thus of intrinsic value, that an entity enjoys in the moment. And that this kind of love is indeed axionoetic, but in a way that transcends preoccupations with preservation. Let me, if I might, explain what this might look like.
Imagine someone you love who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and who has been losing all kinds of cognitive, and indeed moral, capacities. What is your deepest wish for them? Is it not, perhaps, simply for them to experience, if only for a moment, the sheer joy of being? Imagine that your deepest wish is granted, and that, for some minutes, your loved one is caught up in a simple, pure enjoyment of being.
Is this not a divine grace? Could it not be said that God's tenderness was directed toward that moment, irrespective of how the moment came about? And is this not an argument for God's goodness?
For that matter, are we not all in this situation? In Whitehead's philosophy nothing that is actual endures or is preserved. Patterns endure, memories persist, but actualities are momentary. The building blocks of the universe are momentary occasions of experience, otherwise called "actual entities" or "actual occasions." Love is not about preserving things, it is about honoring and celebrating what happens in the moment. Its preservation is in the memory of God. Even God is momentary, but the duration of that moment is forever (everlasting, with no beginning or end).
The memory of God is the consequent nature. We are left with the question: What is the ontological status of the primordial nature of God? Matthew Segall, in his response to Davis, wonders if the primordial nature might be real in some way, but not entirely actual and thus relational. This, I believe, is a promising possibility. Whitehead himself says that the primordial nature is real but deficient in actuality. He does not talk as if it were "merely" an abstraction, even as it is not fully actual without the whole of the divine life and, for that matter, the whole of the universe. It is possible that there is, in God, a kind of tenderness from the very foundations of divine existence, directed toward actual entities and their moments of self-enjoyment, but not fully actual until actual entities emerge that can give it something to be tender with. The gift of each moment of experience is that it completes God's impulse to be tender. The moment can be atomic, cellular, vegetative, animal, plasmatic, or galactic. It can be small or large. It is a kind of grace: not divine grace but worldly grace.
These are directions in which, perhaps, Davis can go when he turns his talk into an essay. It is a marvelous talk; he is one of the most gifted philosophical theologians of our time. You'll sense the gift in his presentation, his writings, and his video.