Of Meontic Freedom & Panexperientialism
Thomas Jay Oord: You are a, if not the, leading voice in process theology and philosophy today. Did you come to appreciate a process perspective early in life, or was process thought something you stumbled onto as an adult?
David Ray Griffin: Like the fellow who discovered he had been speaking prose his whole life, I think that I had been thinking of the divine-world relation in accordance with process theology long before I knew the name for it. When I first encountered Whitehead’s thought in a university class, I must admit, I did not immediately warm to it. But as soon as I came to see how process theology solved certainly problems with which I had been strugglingâ€”such as how one could regard Jesus as a special divine incarnation without denying the truth and value of other religionsâ€”I experienced it as a case of pre-established harmony. I came to see this thanks largely to John Cobb’s way of explaining it.
TJO: In a nutshell for readers unfamiliar with your work, what is the thesis of your increasingly influential recent work, Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts?
DRG: Stating the thesis presupposes a distinction between different meanings of “scientific naturalism.” One of these is naturalism in the minimal or generic sense, which I call “naturalism(ns),” with the “ns” standing for “nonsupernaturalist.” Naturalism in this sense is simply the denial of the existence of a being that can interrupt the world’s most fundamental causal principles. The so-called conflicts between science and religion have resulted partly from the fact that the theistic religious communities have generally presupposed the existence of such a being. But much of the conflict has also resulted from the fact that, since the 19th century, the scientific community has generally presupposed a version of generic naturalism that I call “naturalism(sam),” with “sam” standing for “sensationist-atheist-materialist.” This version of naturalism conflicts with any significantly religious worldview, even one that eschews supernatural interventions. My argument is that the apparent conflicts between science and religion can be overcome once the religious communities realize that, far from needing supernaturalism, they are better off without it, and the scientific community recognizes that, far from needing naturalism(sam), it needs a different version of naturalism(ns). My thesis is that Whitehead’s philosophy provides a version that is equally helpful for both communities.
TJO: You call this version naturalism(ppp). But this term is not nearly as prominent in Religion and Scientific Naturalism as it is in your next book, Reenchantment without Supernaturalism, which you subtitle “A Process Philosophy of Religion.”
DRG: That’s right. I developed this contrasting term only as I was writing the later book. It appears in the earlier book only in a footnote, which I was able to squeeze in while correcting proofs. In any case, the term naturalism(ppp) indicates that this type of naturalism replaces sensationism with a prehensive account of perception, atheism with a panentheistic view of the universe, and materialism with panexperientialism.
TJO: Let’s begin with the panexperientialism, which you use to address the mind-body problem, most fully in Unsnarling the World-Knot. Few thinkers involved in the science-religion discussion address this problem to the extent that you do. Why do you consider this problem so crucial and how do you regard your solution as helpful?
DRG: The mind-body problem was bequeathed to modern thought by Descartes’ dualism. The inability of dualism to solve the problem, at least without an unacceptable appeal to supernatural causation, led to materialism, with its declaration that what we call the “mind” is numerically identical with the brain. This conclusion has two major implications for the science-religion discussion. First, it not only denies the possibility of life beyond bodily death, which has historically been central to virtually all the religious traditions, but it also denies genuine freedomâ€”the freedom to have done otherwiseâ€”and hence moral responsibility. Second, because the relation between the divine reality and the world is almost always understood by analogy with the relation between the mind and the body, the equation of mind and brain leads to pantheism or atheism. Panexperientialism allows us to return to dualism’s strength, which was its recognition of the numerical distinction between mind and brain, which is a precondition for both freedom and genuine interaction. And it allows us to do this without dualism’s Achilles’ heel, which was precisely its ontological dualism between mind and brain, which made interaction inconceivable. Panexperientialism allows, in other words, for a nondualistic version of interactionism, in terms of which we can understand our presuppositions about freedom and downward (as well as upward) causation. Besides being important in itself, this understanding also provides a basis for a panentheistic understanding of the universe.
TJO: Before turning to that, let me ask you about what you call the “prehensive” doctrine of perception, which involves nonsensory experience. What is this type of experience and how is it important for the science-religion dialogue?
DRG: Whitehead shows that our sensory perception, rather than being our only mode of perception, is a very indirect type, rooted in a more fundamental, nonsensory mode of perception. I can see a tree, for example, only because Iâ€”in the sense of my unity of experience at that momentâ€”receive the data conveyed to my brain from my eyes. I do not, of course, see my brain; my perception of it involves a more fundamental type of perceptionâ€”a direct, nonsensory type. Recognizing that we have this perceptual mode is important for many reasons. The assumption that all perception is sensory has led to the conclusion that religious and moral (as well as mathematical) experience cannot be genuine, in the sense of involving genuine contact with something beyond ourselves. That same assumption also led, in Hume, to the conclusion that categories such as causation, time, and actuality (substance) are not rooted in experience. This conclusion led in turn to Kant’s disastrous decision to regard them as a priori categories of the mind and thereby to idealism’s divorce of philosophy and theology from science. Whitehead’s position helps us to see that scientific categories such as causation are grounded in our presensory mode of perceptionâ€”which he, in fact, calls “perception in the mode of causal efficacy.” This position also helps us see that there is no epistemological reason to deny the direct perception of a Divine Actuality, by means of which we have moral and mathematical as well as religious experience.
TJO: Your understanding of Divine Actuality is provided by the panentheistic dimension of your naturalism(ppp). Besides being important in other ways, this doctrine lies behind your theodicy. Many thinkers refer to your position, as developed in God, Power, and Evil and Evil Revisited, as the orthodox statement of process theodicy. How is this solution to the problem of evil relevant to those wrestling with issues in the science-religion dialogue?
DRG: Just as an insoluble mind-body problem was created by dualism, an insoluble problem of evil was created by the supernaturalistic version of theism. Although this problem is not a science-and-religion issue in the strict sense, it has played a crucial role. For one thing, lying behind the pronouncement by many prominent scientists, such as Steven Weinberg, that “science proves that God does not exist” is the conviction that evil proves it. Also Darwin’s deism, with its attempt to understand all evolution after the creation of the first molecules as explainable without further divine influence, was heavily motivated by the desire to absolve God of direct complicity in the horrors of the process. What both of these reactions have in common is the assumption that any being worthy of the name “God” would be omnipotent in the supernaturalist’s sense. From the perspective of Whitehead’s panentheistic alternative, by contrast, a world simply could not be created in any way other than through a long, slow, evolutionary process, with abundant opportunities for evil at every stage. And a world such as ours, with creatures capable of very high-level values, is necessarily a world in which horrendous evils are possible. From this perspective, one can be freed from the blinding rage that seems to prevent many thinkers from seeing the various features of the world to which atheism cannot do justice.
TJO: You have been very explicit about your rejection of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. How is that related to your view of evolution?
DRG: I think of the doctrine of creation out of nothing–in the sense of absolute nothingness–as the root of all theological evil. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but this doctrine, which even Darwin continued to presuppose, does lie behind many of our problems. Although it has been widely accepted on the assumption that it is the biblical doctrine, the Bible, like Plato, presupposed creation out of chaos. The ex nihilo doctrine was affirmed only at the end of the second Christian century. (I have summarized Jon Levenson’s and Gerhard May’s arguments for this view in the new edition of Encountering Evil, edited by Stephen Davis.) Although Hermogenes warned his fellow theologians that this innovation would lead to blaming God for evil, theologians such as Irenaeus and Tertullian went boldly–and foolishly–forward, saddling God with a kind of power that would not have required billions of years to create a universe and that could have produced all the goods of our universe without the risk of all the evils. Process theism returns to the view of Plato and the Bible–that the creation of our world is not the beginning of finite existence as such (Genesis 1 does not describe a “singularity,” in which time itself began), and that, as Plato put it, God creates as much good “as possible.” Given process philosophy’s assertion that the creatures have their own degree of power–we share Berdyaev’s view that our world was created out of relative nothingness, hence out of “meontic freedom”–we can understand why a world such as ours had to be created through a long, step-by-step process (with saltations, to be sure, but no supersaltations). We can also understand why, in spite of the perfect goodness of the creator, so much evil has been possible–especially after the emergence of human beings, whose extraordinarily high capacity for good necessarily entails an equally high capacity for evil.