One of the most interesting aspects of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead is his notion of God. Sometimes obscure, his conception of a supreme being does not seem to perfectly fit into any traditional theistic or philosophical beliefs on the nature of such a being. The most startling fact about Whitehead’s God to anyone approaching it for the first time is that it is not omnipotent. Whitehead referred to God as a mere “accident of creativity. For Whitehead the ultimately real, that beyond which we can go no further in our investigation, which just is, is the reality of Creativity. From this conception all else flows, even God. To some, however, the idea of God is so tied to omnipotence that conceiving of him without this trait is not possible – God is either omnipotent and omniscient or he is not God. Thus, some have claimed Whitehead was mistaken in naming his supreme being God at all. I disagree. These people are still looking at Whitehead’s God through the lens of the traditional western philosophy, deeply tied to the legacy of Aristotle.
According to Whitehead, expanding on a concept from Plato, being is equated to power, and power comes from the ability to act and be acted upon. Thus, the greatest being would be one which has the greatest possible relation and interconnection to all actual entities. Aristotle’s unmoved mover, which sets the world in motion and watch it unfold, is inferior to the process God, which holds ultimate creativity, being interrelated to every actual entity and influencing their action with the intent of realising objectively good ‘subjective aims’. Of course, actual entities retain their own creativity, and are thus free to disobey God and not pursue their divinely imbued subjective aim.
This seems to reflect the traditional theistic answer to the problem of evil. Evil exists because beings are free to disobey God and pursue selfish aims. In this traditional solution however, we seem to lack an explanation of ‘natural’ evils, such as the existence of debilitating physical diseases which seem to afflict without prejudice, inflicting suffering on everyone including the virtuous and children. “Bone cancer in children, how do you explain that one?” the atheist demands of the believer. Whitehead’s metaphysics gives us a more satisfactory answer. All of reality is the interplay of actual entities, which each contain a smidgen of creativity and free will. The lion that attacks the village, the cancer cells that refuse to obey orders and thus cause their holder, the water in the flood, all contain a freedom which cannot be wholly made subject to God’s will.
Whitehead’s God is both immanent and transcendent. Thus, Whitehead has been described as a panentheist, as his God is present everywhere in the world but is not limited to it. God has an immanent nature, dubbed by Whitehead as his ‘consequent nature’. This is the aspect of God just spoken of, which ‘prehends’ all actual entities and engages in a continual process of communication with and attempted influence of each actual entity. God, through his consequent nature, strives to draw all actual entities closer to him, in a process similar to how the Hindus describe each soul being reborn until it eventually achieves union with it’s source, the Godhead. However, the qualities of God are not exhausted by his consequent nature, he also has a ‘primordial nature’, which would traditionally be termed his transcendent quality.
The primordial nature of God is especially improtant in Whitehead’s organic philosophy, as it contains the ‘Eternal Objects’, Whitehead’s conception of platonic ideas, objects which exist irregardless of their actualisation in the actual world. Thus Whitehead echoes the Neo Platonists, who place all platonic ideas as ultimately being contained in ‘The One’. The primordial nature of God is understood by it’s intimate relation with the idea of potential. It contains the envisagement of all possibilities, all possible worlds, and holds in being the eternal objects of which the actual entities which make those possibilities take their being. However, were the primordial nature of God his only nature, he would be static, perfect, unchangeable being which is not actualised. It is only by the action of his consequent nature, working in process with actual entities, that God’s primordial nature is actualised and turned into real being, which is only possible in a state of process.
Thus, the consequent and primordial nature of God are intimately linked and ultimately inseparable, without the primordial nature there would be no ‘being’ for the ‘becoming’ of actual entities to enter into. Likewise, without the consequent nature there would be no ‘becoming’ to give the conceptual realities of eternal objects an actualised reality. This sentiment of being and becoming’s interdependence is echoed by Whitehead, when he writes
“It is as true to say that God is permanent and the world fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent.
It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many.
It is as true to say that, in comparison with the World, God is actual eminently, as that, in comparison with God, the World is actual eminently.
It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World.
It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God.
It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.”
Thus, God is not, as in Neo Platonism, perfect being which corrupts itself by entering into imperfect process. Rather, God maximises his being by sharing in creativity with a multitude of actual entities.
Whitehead never offers an argument for the existence of God. Like much of his metaphysics, it is not supported by any logical deductions or philosophical arguments. Rather, Whitehead presents God as a necessary aspect to his metaphysics. Whitehead presents his speculative view of reality, which conforms to all known fact, then let’s the readers decide for themselves if it offers a better understanding of reality than all other available options. If one is to accept his viewpoint, God is a necessary addition. Whitehead’s God is necessary for without him their would be no order to reality, and in a sense one could extract an altered version of the design argument from Whitehead. Actual Entities require an ordering power to structure their interactions, while ‘Eternal Objects’ require an ontological ground, which is offered by God’s primordial nature. Thus, God offers order amid what would otherwise be a well of chaos, in which any actualised state of being is impossible.
Perhaps Whitehead, through his abstract and at times obscure cosmology, sought to defend ‘the God of the poets’ against a sustained attack from the impersonal and wholly abstract ‘God of the philosophers’. Though Whitehead’s God completes his complex conception of reality, he is more in line with the layman’s understanding of God than the likes of Spinoza or Bradley. God is not some impersonal absolute which simply is, but never becomes, which is every action, but doesn’t act. Rather, God is an intimate, immediate reality, present in every being, attempting to influence them in a loving way, but never through force or coercion. There is a place for mystical experience, as mystics enter into a loving relationship with the equally loving God. There is also a place for free will, as described above, and even prayer, as subjects enter into communication with the ever present consequent nature of God, petitioning a positive influence on their lives, which can be influenced through the subjective aims given by God. However, our aims and the objectively good aims sought by God are often mutually exclusive, and so the role of God in aiding us could better be understood as influencing us to see the good, and deal with whatever sturggles we may face along the way. Of course, Whitehead never expresses these sentiments, but the important point is that Whitehead rebels against the philosophical abstraction of God and returns to a loving, action oriented being.