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Alfred N. Whitehead: Religion and Science PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 05 May 2010 15:38

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) believed that the future course of world history depends upon people’s decisions as to the relation between science and religion. In fact, the force of religious intuitions and the force of scientific endeavors are the two most powerful forces in history. Whitehead’s soulutions to conflicts between science and religion was to suggest modifications in both science and religion, as each has been traditionally understood, so that an inclusive alternative world-view might be constructed. He turned to speculative philosophy for this constructive task. Whitehead proposed that philosophy attains its chief importance by fusing religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.

 

 

White head may have best summarized this overall view of the relationship between science and religion when he wrote, “you cannot shelter theology from science, or science from theology; not can you shelter either one from metaphysics, or metaphysics from either one of them. There is no shortcut to the truth”. The convictions expressed in this statement prompted Whitehead to frame a coherent and logical system of general ideas in terms of which every item of experience could be interpreted. He was insistent that an adequate metaphysics or worldview must account for whatever is found in actual practice, including scientific and religious practice.

 

Although Whitehead had chosen atheism earlier in life, his stance toward God and religion changed as he attempted to construct an adequate worldview to account for science and religion. Like Aristotle twenty-three hundred year earlier, Whitehead came to postulate the existence of God because he found that the general character of reality requires an all-embracing, purposive, and loving deity.

Whitehead departed from Aristotle, however, in his primary insight that actual existence involves a process of becoming, rather than fixes states of being. Evidently influenced by quantum physics and Buddhism, Whitehead considered these basic units of actual existence to be events or moments of experience rather than bits of unalterable matter. Although the specific makeup of these events differs radically, every event exemplifies the same metaphysical principles.

 

The process of existence, argues Whitehead, is twofold: It is the becoming of events and the transition from event to event. Each event, occasion of experience, or actual entity (he uses these terms interchangeably) exists first as a subject and then as an object. Present events (subjects) are influenced by prior events (objects), and these events, when completed, become objects that exert influence upon subsequent subjects. An enduring individual in .this process of becoming is personally ordered chain of events, rather than a single, self-contained mind.

 

The process of life in which all things flow is a person’s first vague intuition. And ‘the elucidation of meaning involved in the phrase ‘all things flow,’ Whitehead argues in light of this intuition, ‘is one chief task of metaphysics’. Because he considers the flow of events to be primary, Whitehead’s thought is often identified as process philosophy. This insight corresponds well with the general theory of evolution.

 

To say, however, that ‘all things flow’ does not mean that all features of reality are changing. The principles of the universe, for instance, are eternally binding and, therefore, never change. Some aspects of God are also unchanging. These principles and aspects, however, are not actual events.

Not only are events, the fundamental units of life, each essentially relates to others. When explaining how moments relate, Whitehead spoke of internal and external relatedness. Internal relations develop as each event arises out of its inclusion of prior events. The event begins with a “open window” to the totality of the past. Once the influence from the past has entered, the window closes and the entity forms itself in response to past influences. Whitehead calls this drawing upon the past via relational a prehension, and in this activity the production of novel togetherness occurs. The relations that an event has with part evens are its internal relations; the relations it will have with events to come are its external relations. In short, interdependence is primary, because all events relate in community.

Whitehead’s organism philosophy of life, which supposes that all events are experiential and relational, presupposes that all events perceive. Perception is not limited to receiving sensory data by means of sensory organs (i.e., eyes, ears, nose, etc.). The perception that occurs most frequently is non-sensory, because most events in the universe are not sensory organs. This emphasis upon non-sensory perception, thought Whitehead, serves as a primary basis for overcoming mechanistic and materialistic tendencies in modern science.

 

The relatedness of all things does not mean that all events are entirely determined by others. Whitehead speculates that all events posses a degree of freedom such that no can be entirely controlled by others. The fact that each moment of experience is essentially free entails that neither the atoms below nor the gods above entirely determine the state of any particular event.

By affirming the necessary freedom of every individual, Whitehead’s thought provides a basis for solving the age-old problem of evil. Free creatures, not God, are responsible for the occurrence of genuine evil. God is not culpable for failing to prevent evil because God cannot withdraw, override, or veto the freedom expressed when creatures act in evil way.

 

Although Whitehead came to speculate that God exists, the vision of God he offers, while congenial with much in sacred scriptures, differs from the vision most philosophers offer. For instance, Whitehead argues that “the divine element in the world is to be conceived as a persuasive agency and not as a coercive agency”. God’s inability to coerce, when coercion is defined as completely controlling the actions of others, is not a result of divine self-limitation or a moral inability; non-coercion is an eternal law pertaining to all life.

 

In addition to never controlling individuals entirely, the persuasive God that Whitehead envisions both influences and is influenced by the world. God “adds himself to the actual ground from which every creative act takes its rise”, speculates Whitehead, so that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself”. Then, “by the reason of the relativity of all things, there is a reaction of the world on God”. Whitehead’s explanation of God’s role in this reciprocal relation is oft-quoted: “God is the great companion --- the fellow-sufferer who understands”.

 

The essential relatedness of all actualities implies that God has never been wholly isolated. God relates everlastingly, which implies that some realm of finite actualities or another has always existed. Or, as Whitehead argues, God did not dispose “a wholly derivative world” ex nihilo. This relational hypothesis provides a framework for affirming consistently that God expresses love in relationship, while also denying that God ever creates through absolute force. Both notions support a process answer to the problem of evil.

 

Whitehead suggested a novel scheme for how God influences the world God offers an initial aim comprised of various possibilities for action to each emerging event. This aim is relevant to each events particular situation. From the various possibilities in this aim, the event freely chooses what it will be. The fact that God provides an aim to all events is one way Whitehead can speak of God as creator. He did not believe that God wholly decides each aim’s contents; however, each aim also contains influences derived from the activity of past creatures. God’s persuasive activity includes what Whitehead calls the “graded relevance” of each aim’s possibilities. Among all possibilities in an aim, one may be the ideal; the others are graded as to their relevance to that ideal. This scheme provides a basis for affirming that god cratively acts upon both simple and complex individuals: from atoms, genes, cells, and molecules to mice, whales, apes, and humans.

 

In offering an initial aim to every event, God acts, according to Whitehead, as the “goad towards novelty”. God offers new possibilities for more intense love and beauty when accounting for the part in light of the future. Because these possibilities are offered, a vision of a better way – religiously, scientifically, and aesthetically – is available. Without divine influence, says Whitehead, “the course of creation would be ad dead level of ineffectiveness, with all balance and intensity progressively excluded by the cross currents of incompatibility”. Whitehead’s belief that God interacts lovingly with creation also presents a crucial underpinning for an adequate ecological ethic.

 

“Religion and Science” discusses a controversy that was particularly apparent in society since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. The issue was relevant in the 1920s because of the celebrated Scopes “monkey Trail” in Dayton, Tennessee, which took place in 1925, testing whether or not a science teacher could teach the theory of evolution in a public school in that state. But, of course, the conflict between religion and science has a way of eruption age after age; and as Whitehead points out, the disagreements became serious as early as the seventeenth century. In the book from which the given selection is taken, Whitehead seems to be making a genuine effort to find a means of putting the conflict into perspective and of softening the disagreements. While acknowledging that religion and science appear to be in conflict, Whitehead argues that their respective truths are actually quite separate. “Science and Religion” is probably the most appreciative evaluation of religion that has been written from a non-theistic perspective.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 May 2010 15:40
 
 
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