The British philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, is generally considered the ‘father of process philosophy’. Although Whitehead’s ‘philosophy of organism’ permeates all his later works, one book specifically stands out as process philosophy’s sacred scripture: Process and Reality (PR), published in 1929 and confounding intellectuals ever since.

In most editions, the book runs just over 400 pages; trust me, they are densely packed! Recognized scholars have called the work incomprehensible; but Richard Feynman did cite it in one of his lectures…albeit incorrectly.

Early on in PR, Whitehead boils his complex ‘scheme’ down to a mere 45 propositions. Whitehead divides these 45 propositions into 4 “categories”:

  • The Category of the Ultimate (1)
  • Categories of Existence (8)
  • Categories of Explanation (27)
  • Categoreal Obligations (9)

How hard can it be to master 45 propositions? Plenty hard!

The Category of the Ultimate

The Category of the Ultimate consists of just three ‘undefined terms’; they form the foundation of Whitehead’s vast and beautiful system:

  • Creativity
  • Many
  • One

“These ultimate notions of ‘production of novelty’ and of ‘concrete togetherness’ are inexplicable either in terms of higher universals or in terms of the components participating in the concrescence (i.e. elements of the actual world )…the sole appeal is to intuition.” Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

No surprise here! Systematic philosophy always begins with undefined terms and PR is systematic philosophy at its best.

Whitehead writes: “Creativity…is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively… The ultimate metaphysical principle is the advance from disjunction to conjunction.” (PR)

Note the symmetry between Whitehead’s undefined terms and the Persons of the Holy Trinity. (Note also that Whitehead considers these three undefined terms as a single category.) While the mapping of concepts is never precise, and alternative mappings are certainly possible, it seems to make sense to ‘map’ the Category of the Ultimate onto the Trinity as follows:

  • Creativity = Holy Spirit
  • Many = Son (logos)
  • One = Father

It is worth noting that Whitehead incidentally orders the three terms in a way that is precisely opposite to the traditional ordering: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

This ordering does not necessarily have any theological implications but it does show how process (creativity) enjoys primacy of place in Whitehead’s ontology. In this he parallels the Jewish scholar and existentialist theologian, Martin Buber, who wrote: “At the foundation is relationship.” (I and Thou)

Whitehead was a philosopher, not a theologian. Nonetheless, theological concepts permeate his work. Much of PR focuses on the nature and function of God, specifically “the Primordial Nature of God” (PN), “the Consequent Nature of God” (CN), and later, God’s “Superject” (SJ). Process Theology is the attempt to turn Whitehead’s theocentric philosophy into a full blown theology.

Yet unbeknownst to Whitehead and most process theologians, someone else already did this…in the 15th century! Meet Nicholas of Cusa.

“Ernst Cassirer calls him ‘the first modern philosopher’…and Karl Jaspers names him ‘one of the original metaphysicians’…” Introduction by H. Lawrence Bond (HLB)

Consider Nicholas’ treatment of Trinity:

“Unity, in fact, is only trinity, for it signifies indivision, distinction, and connection…The maximum unity, therefore, is not other than indivision, distinction, and connection.“ Learned Ignorance (LI)

Indivision, of course, corresponds to Whitehead’s One, distinction to his Many, and connection to Creativity. The maximum unity, aka God, corresponds to the Category of the Ultimate per se.

“…Unity itself is a trinity. Therefore, each of the persons is the unity, and because the unity is a trinity, one person is not another…The Son and the Holy Spirit are actually in the Father; the Son and the Father actually in the Holy Spirit; and the Father and the Holy Spirit actually in the Son…There is one universe, which without this trinity could not be one.” (LI)

Whether you call it the ‘Category of the Ultimate’ or ‘God’, the Universe owes its existence to Trinitarian relations and that existence in turn is evidence of the Trinitarian process that is its foundation.

Categories of Existence

There is only one Category of the Ultimate but there are eight Categories of Existence:

  • Actual Entities (or actual occasions): Final matters of fact
  • Eternal Objects: Qualia (or values) that characterize actual entities
  • Prehensions (or Feelings): Relations that constitute actual entities
  • Contrasts: Diversities that enrich prehensions and thus actual entities
  • Subjective Forms: Ways in which prehensions constitute actual entities
  • Multiplicities: Pure disjunctions of diverse entities
  • Nexus: Facts of relatedness among actual entities
  • Propositions: Potential matters of fact

The Primordial Nature of God (PN) consists of the eternal objects (including such values as Beauty, Truth and Justice). These values are universal and unchangeable. They apply in our universe (“cosmic epoch”) and in any other possible universe. Coexisting in PN, they define what we call “good”.

The Consequent Nature of God (CN), on the other hand, consists of actual entities, actual events occurring contingently in the actual world. In CN, these actual entities are prehended in a way that harmonizes all of their conflicts into mere contrasts. As Whitehead wrote, CN is God “in his function as Kingdom of Heaven”.

Actual entities come to be via a process called ‘concrescence’. In the process of coming to be, an actual entity feels eternal objects (conceptually) and actual entities (physically).

“And so there is…the mode of being according to which we say that the world is intelligible…(and) the mode of being according to which the world is sensible.” (LI)

The prior mode, of course, corresponds to eternal objects, which are felt conceptually, while the later mode corresponds to actual entities, which are felt physically.

Creativity entails the continual emergence of new actual entities. Each of these actual entities aims to instantiate the values of the Primordial Nature (efficient cause); but each is also stirred by a desire to be incorporated in some way into the Consequent Nature (final cause).

For this to be, CN must not be merely consequent, it must also be immanent. CN, the final ‘actual entity’, must somehow also be available for ingression into every other actual entity. In Whitehead’s terms, it must exist in the actual world of every actual entity. CN is the destiny of every actual entity but it is also an actual entity among actual entities. Nicholas would probably have called this duality of function “Incarnation”.

Whitehead calls CN’s immanence God’s “Superject” (SJ). Every actual entity has its own superject but, when applied to God, the term specifically refers to CN as an immanent factor in the concrescence of every other actual entity.

Parenthetically, this means that time cannot be the linear vector we imagine it to be:  “…The now, or present, enfolds time.” (LI)

“…There is within all things a certain natural desire to exist in the best manner in which the condition of each thing’s nature permits…They also have an inborn judgment…so that their desire may not be frustrated.” (LI)

That natural desire is the felt lure of PN’s values; that inborn judgment is the judgment of CN exercised in real time by SJ. (Remember that judgment in theology is not necessarily a matter of verdicts and sentences; in the Old Testament, for example, a ‘judge’ is someone who makes things just.)

Potentiality is a crucial concept in both Nicholas and Whitehead (“propositions”). Nicholas’ God contains not only all actual entities but all potential entities as well. In this theology, God plays the role of ‘pure potentia’ that Aristotle assigned to matter.

“…God is actually all that is possible.” (LI)

‘Maximum’ is an important concept for Nicholas. God is the ‘absolute maximum’ (maximum absolutum); the universe, as a whole, is the ‘contracted maximum’ (maximum contractum). God is the maximum with respect to unity (one); universe is the maximum with respect to plurality (many).

“I call ‘maximum’ that beyond which there can be nothing greater…Thus unity, which is also being, coincides with maximumness…Accordingly, the maximum is the absolute one that is all things, and all things are in this maximum…” (LI)

“The ‘universe’ is maximum because it is the whole of things, ‘the all.” But, like the particulars that comprise it, the universe is ‘contracted’, rather than absolute…All things may be said to be differentiated or contracted within the world’s unity…” (HLB)

“…It is only in their contracted existence that the forms of things are distinct; as they exist absolutely they are one indistinct form, which is the Word of God…Therefore, God, who in one Word makes all things, however different from each other they may be, is the efficient, formal, and final cause of all things.” (LI)

“The absolute quiddity of the sun is not other than the absolute quiddity of the moon, for this is God, who is the absolute being and absolute quiddity of all things. But the contracted quiddity of the sun is other than the contracted quiddity of the moon, for whereas the absolute quiddity of a thing is not the thing, the contracted quiddity is not other than the thing…God is that which is sun and moon without plurality and difference.” (LI)

God is quiddity, being per se.

Not only does God enfold all possible actualities (per Nicholas) but God also enfolds all contradictions and oppositions. In the same way, Whitehead views CN, acting through SJ, as the harmonizing force in the evolution of universe from conflict to harmony.

“…Clearly the whole universe came forth into being by a simple emanation of the contracted maximum from the absolute maximum.” (LI)

Genesis is often read as creation by fiat: Let there be light! But a closer reading reveals that God creates by separating: light from darkness, earth from sky, etc… Creation is the transition from absolute unity to plurality.

“This universal unity consists in a contracted way as universe, and its unity is contracted in plurality…” (LI)

God: Unity :: Universe: Plurality.

“It (the maximum) is actually all possible being (PN)…for all things come from it.” (LI)

Recall the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God…All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (Jn. 1: 1,3)

“…Since the universe exists in plurality only in a contracted way, we will seek in the many things themselves the one maximum in which the universe actually exists most greatly and most perfectly as in its end. This maximum is united with the absolute maximum, which is the universal goal…” (LI)

Whitehead rarely quotes scripture but an exception is I Cor. (15: 24-28): “Then comes the end, when he (Christ) hands over the kingdom to his God and Father…so that God may be all in all.”

For Nicholas too, this maximum ‘in the many things themselves’ (CN) is Christ Jesus, ‘united (i.e. consubstantial) with the absolute maximum’ (God the Father).

“…The maximum that is both absolute and contracted, Jesus Christ, the ever blessed. We call on him to be the way to himself who is the truth.” (LI)

“…(Jesus) is the end of all understanding, because he is truth, and the end of all sense, because he is life, and the end, finally, of all being, because he is being itself, and the perfection of every creature because he is God and human (i.e. creature).” (LI)

The same Christ who is the source of all plurality in the world (logos) is also the unifying force that harmonizes all things (CN) so that they are ‘coincident’ with the values that constitute the essence of God the Father (PN).

Heidegger pointed out that this dual role is evident from the term ‘logos’ itself. Originally, the term referred to a net or weir. As such, it is the sieve through which being (unity) is strained (contracted) to become many entities while at the same time it is the net that gathers up those entities for God.

”And all things exist in Jesus as in the Word…which universally enfolds all creatable things, so that all fullness dwells in him.” (LI)

“Since…God is the enfolding of all things, even of contradictories, nothing is able to escape God’s providence. Whether we have done one thing or its opposite or nothing at all, everything has been enveloped in the providence of God.” (LI)

This doctrine borrows heavily from Ecclesiastes:  “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens…A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build…A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them; a time to love and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace.”

And from Wisdom: “But neither is there any god besides you who have the care of all… But as you are righteous, you govern all things righteously… Your might is the source of righteousness; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all… You taught your people by these deeds that those who are righteous must be kind.”

“Nothing, therefore, will happen except according to God’s providence…Even if what never will be should happen, nothing would be added to divine providence, because it enfolds both those things that do happen and also those that can but do not…Whatever things will not happen but can happen, if they are in the providence of God, are not there possibly but actually. Nor thereupon does it follow that these things actually exist.” (LI)

This is one of Nicholas’ most brilliant intellectual constructions. First, it reconciles the doctrine of divine providence with the doctrine of free will. Providence embraces all potentia and those potentia exist in providence actually. But only by the exercise of will are potentia actuated in universe.

“…Absolute possibility is God… (but) possible being can become actual being only through actual being…” (LI)

In this, Nicholas clearly separates himself from the notion that creatures play a subordinate role in the coming of the Kingdom of God. All actual entities are fated to rest in CN but the actual content of CN is determined entirely by those actual entities (creatures). With this doctrine, Nicholas prefigures 19th and 20th century existentialism.

“…Everything that actually exists is in God, for God is the actuality of all things. Actuality is the perfection and the end of potentiality.” (LI)

Second, it bridges the gap between Schrödinger’s Indeterminacy (‘cat’) and Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. There are many worlds and those worlds are actual for God but for us such worlds are mere potentials (propositions).

The emanation of the contracted universe (plurality) from the Absolute Maximum (Unity, i.e. God) is akin to the collapse of the wave function in Quantum Mechanics. Measurement (analogous to will or act) shatters the superposition of Schrodinger’s dead-and-alive-cat and reduces it to one state or the other.

In Whitehead’s terms, all possible combinations of acts and values are realized in God as propositions but for us those ‘propositions’ are merely lures for feeling and enter into the actual world only when they become settled matters of fact, i.e. actual entities.

“…A creature first comes into being because God is Father; it is perfected because God is Son; and it is in harmony with the universal order of things because God is Holy Spirit.” (LI)

It is the Primordial Nature of God (PN) that makes all qualia (and especially God’s essential values) available for adoption by actual entities in the actual world. It is the attraction of those values that entices actual entities to come into being. Without the lure of the Primordial Nature, universe would be still born.

All actual entities ultimately contribute, positively or negatively and with varying degrees of intensity, to God’s Consequent Nature (CN). Actual entities are to CN what qualia (values) are to PN.

“Since through all things God is in all and through all things all are in God…God, while in all things, is not in them according to degrees…But none can exist without a difference of degree; for this reason all things are present in God according to themselves with a difference of degree.” (LI)

God is in every actual entity identically but each actual entity is in God uniquely.

Categories of Explanation

The Categories of Explanation are too numerous to reproduce in their entirety but here is a sample of what they say (and how Nicholas prefigures them):

“That the actual world is a process and the process is the becoming of actual entities. Thus actual entities are creatures… The potential unity of many entities – actual and non-actual – acquires the real unity of the one actual entity.” (PR)

“That the potentiality for becoming an element in a real concrescence…is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities, actual and non-actual, and that every item in its universe is involved in each concrescence…” (PR)

“…In the universe each thing is the universe, although the universe is in each thing in one way, and each thing is in the universe in a different way.” (LI)

Each actual entity includes its entire actual world. That actual world includes CN through the agency of SJ. The superject of every actual entity in turn is included in CN. Therefore, each actual entity’s superject is reflected back to it by SJ and so is included in its own concrescence. Reality is an a-temporal, non-linear feedback loop.

Every actual entity is included in the actual world of every other actual entity. As Parmenides suggested in On Nature, the universe enjoys solidarity ‘to a fault’. However, different actual entities are in the actual world of each other actual entity in different ways.

‘Prior’ actual entities are in the actual world of an emergent actual entity via their own superjects AND, as they are prehended by CN, via SJ. All other actual entities are in the actual world of an emergent actual entity only as they are prehended by CN via SJ. This is real distinction of past, present and future.

“That no two actual entities originate from an identical universe…” (PR)

To every actual entity there corresponds a unique universe (multiplicity). The lure of PN and the desire for CN combine with universal creativity to transform that multiplicity into a nexus, the actual world for an emerging actual entity.

“Individuating principles cannot come together in one individual with the same harmonious proportions as in another, so that each thing per se is one and perfect in the way possible to it.” (LI)

Every actual entity is, for itself, a unique and final judgment on the world. In this limited sense the ‘categorical imperative’ of Kant and Sartre is not nonsense.

“An entity is actual when it has significance for itself. By this it is meant that an actual entity functions in respect to its own determination…It is self-creative…Thus ‘becoming’ is the transformation of incoherence into coherence…This self-functioning is the real internal constitution of an actual entity. It is the ‘immediacy’ of the actual entity. An actual entity is called the ‘subject’ of its own immediacy.” (PR)

“…All things necessarily differ from one another…No one thing coincides with another…All things are what they are in the best possible way, and God is the beginning, middle, and end of the universe and of each thing, so…all things approach God. But the bond of all things is through God, so that although all things are different, they are also bound together.” (LI)

“God is…absolute unity, preceding and uniting things that are absolutely different and distant, for example, contradictories, between which there is no mean. Absolute maximumness is, in an absolute way, that which all things are; and in all things it is the absolute beginning, end, and being of things.” (LI)

“Infinite unity, therefore, is the enfolding of all things…” (LI)

“…It is because things are united that we say they are connected…Unity is the cause of connection…and so connection like unity is eternal…” (LI)

“…Connection descends from the Holy Spirit (SJ), who is the infinite connection.” (LI)

“…In God difference is identity.” (LI)

Many theologies consider God the beginning and the end of the created universe: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13)

Nicholas and Whitehead take this concept to a much higher level. For them God is not just the beginning and end of universe; God is the beginning and end of each and every actual entity within that universe.

Earlier we read, “…The now, or present, enfolds time.” (LI) Actually, there is no more important statement in the whole corpus of Western philosophy. On it hangs, literally, everything. If there is not an eternal and all-embracing now, then time, that great eraser, will ultimately wipe away everything that was, is or ever will be. What is the fate of universe and everything in it if our destiny is Heat Death or Big Crunch?

Both Nicholas and Whitehead would have been familiar with the Old Testament Book of Wisdom. Hear what Wisdom has to say on the human condition untouched by grace:

“Brief and troubled is our lifetime, there is no remedy for our dying…For by mere chance we were born, and hereafter we shall be as though we had not been; because the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason a spark from the beating of our hearts, and when this is quenched, our body will be ashes and our spirit will be poured abroad like empty air. Even our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will recall our past deeds. So our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and will be dispersed like a mist pursued by the sun’s rays and overpowered by its heat. For our lifetime is the passing of a shadow…”

Both Nicholas and Whitehead envisioned an eternal world enfolding all the temporal entities of our world. However, Whitehead did not believe that our subjectivity would survive the ‘enclosure’. For him, subjectivity only characterizes the conscrescent process. Our superject becomes part of God’s eternal consequent nature but the subjective form of consciousness that formed that superject does not. The sole eternal consciousness is God’s.

On this crucial point, Nicholas differs from Whitehead:

“…A human being is made up of senses and intellect and also reason, which stands between and binds them together…The intellect is not of time and the world but free from them…Those things that are within time and those that are beyond coincide in reason.” (LI)

A hundred years ago, Michael Marcus, a schoolmate of mine, was fond of saying, “I live by time.” Though we may not admit it, most of us do! Except we don’t. As humans, we stand with one foot in the temporal world and one foot in the eternal world. We are the intersection of the two modes of being. Ultimately, though, the eternal present enfolds time.

“God, therefore, is the enfolding of all in the sense that all are in God, and is the unfolding of all in the sense that God is in all.” (LI)

“…God is in all things in such a way that all things are in God…” (LI)

We are in God. As such, we do not necessarily contribute our consciousness to God. But God is in us and God is both eternal and conscious and therefore we are conscious, ‘powered by’ God’s consciousness.

We find this same model in Romans (8: 26-27): “…The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.  And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.”

Earlier, I wrote that reality is an a-temporal, non-linear feedback loop. There is no better illustration of that concept than these verses from Romans.

Our consciousness and God’s are inextricably connected. Through that connection, we are assured that our subjectivity will be eternal.

Alfred North Whitehead will remain known as the ‘father of process philosophy’ but those of us in the know will recognize that Nicholas of Cusa was the ‘father of process theology’… five centuries earlier!