Resources and Problems in Whitehead’s Metaphysics

Resources and Problems in Whitehead’s Metaphysics

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In 1927, British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was asked to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at the University of Edinburgh.  His talks were published two years later as Process and Reality, the book that introduced Whitehead’s process philosophy to the world and secured him a place in the canon of Western metaphysics.  Today, Whitehead’s influence has not abated.  One sees this, for instance, in the reliance on Whitehead’s thought by many of the luminaries in the field of religion and science including Ian Barbour, Holmes Rolston, and John Haught.[1]  Indeed, Whitehead’s signature can even be traced in the very name of Metanexus Institute.  The key to Whitehead’s lasting consequence is that his process relational metaphysics solves many philosophical problems in understanding and interpreting contemporary science.  However, I will argue that Whitehead’s process metaphysics tends to 1) depersonalize God to the extent of rendering theism irrelevant and 2) naturalize moral evil in the service of evolution.  Once these points are established, it is then possible to seek a partial solution to these problems by synthesizing Whitehead’s thought with that of his successors.

A Review of Process and Reality

Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) created a comprehensive metaphysical system for understanding science, society, and self.[2]  Whitehead refers to this project as “speculative philosophy,” which he defines as,

the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.  By this notion of “interpretation” I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme.  Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate…(Process and Reality, 3)

An adequate metaphysics, then, must apply in general terms to the whole of reality, including all human subjective experiences.  Whitehead’s metaphysics is especially constructed with reference to the emerging objective scientific worldview, but not to the neglect of subjective human experience.  Indeed, the metaphysics is such that the normal uses of the terms subjective and objective no longer apply.  “Nothing must be omitted,” writes Whitehead, “experience drunk and experience sober” (Adventures of Ideas, 226). It is not adequate to construct a metaphysics that renders the full spectrum of the emotional and imaginative life invisible or insignificant.  Whitehead warns that “[p]hilosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world—the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross” (Process and Reality, 338). Note that while Whitehead references fantastic inventions of human imagination, his objective is objectivity.  A general description of reality is the goal.

What is fundamentally real, says Whitehead, are not things but events.  All events are relational.  They have causal antecedents and causal consequences in webs of varying complexity, significance, and intensity.  All events also exhibit some modicum of internal self-creative freedom that is not fully determined by their causal antecedents nor is it predictable in their causal consequences.

Whitehead’s process metaphysics does not rely on the usual dualisms that have vexed previous metaphysical systems.  We no longer need to be troubled about the distinctions between matter and mind, animate and inanimate, created and evolved, nature and nurture, or reductionism and emergence.  The difference between atoms, animals, artifacts, and humans is in the degrees of complexity, the intensity of causal relationships, and the extent of self-creative freedom integrated in these various phenomena.  The differences are not in any essentialized notions of natural kinds.  Most philosophical problems in the metaphysics of contemporary science disappear with Whitehead’s event-centered process philosophy.

God is a category that Whitehead feels compelled to invoke in his process philosophy of every “actual occasion,” but it is God of all past realities and all future possibilities.  The incarnate God is determined by the sum of all past actualities, and the transcendent God is limited within a matrix of future possibilities.  Whitehead’s God also functions as a persuasive telos that draws the universe toward greater complexity, greater integration of these complexities in communion, and greater co-creative freedom within those relational webs.  For Whitehead, the one become many and the many one as the universe and God evolve together.  The goal of this evolution is realized beauty.

God in Whitehead’s view can be understood as the set of all relationships and all processes.  In that sense, Whitehead’s God is radically transcendent and radically incarnate at the same time.  Indeed, we might call it “god-in-universe” or “universe-in-god,” remembering that this is a gerund and not a noun, a verb and not a thing.  God-in-universe is a complex distributed system.  The technical term used is panentheism, to be distinguished from pantheism.  Whiteheadean process metaphysics has given rise to various schools of process theology that have found devotees in numerous seminaries and departments of religion.[3]  Indeed, Whitehead can be seen as one of the patron saints of the modern dialogue between science and religion.

In Whitehead’s view, all being is causally related becoming.  This does not mean all beings are equivalent in a flat, relativistic monism without significant distinctions, because being is spun within a web of asymmetrical, multivariable, hierarchically layered, and differentially valued relationships. While Whitehead does not develop an explicit epistemology to go along with his ontology, we may infer that all knowing is also causally related knowing within a web of asymmetrical, multivariable, hierarchically layered, and differentially valued relationships.

Whitehead’s process metaphysics can be understood as reviving Aristotle’s notion of natural kinds, albeit in a changing evolutionary context.  A nexus of complexity, be it a proton, a protein, or a person, has a temporal “personality” that persists and thus achieves an emergent identity, a temporary “essence.”  He combines this evolutionary Aristotelianism with a Platonic notion of an ideal horizon toward which all events tend in the complexification of the universe.  This is the persuasive telos of god-in-universe.  Finally, Whitehead adopts a Hegelian notion of history’s movement as a kind of progressive incarnation of spirit. 

While Whitehead’s metaphysics is more wholesome and more compatible with recent scientific insights than all the other leading brands, it also has some problems, to which I will now turn.

Problem 1: The Language of Whitehead

Decoding the abstract terminology of Whitehead’s metaphysics is a real challenge.  Whitehead not only uses common and philosophical language in idiosyncratic ways, but he also invents a series of neologisms, including terms like appetition, concrescence, comformal, formaliter, ingression, prehension, regnant society, and superject.  This obtuse style is frustrating to even trained philosophers, let alone the unwary graduate student.  The language is a nonstarter for most literally minded scientists, even though Whitehead aspires to a literal general description of reality.

Whitehead’s unusual nomenclature becomes a kind of secret language to those initiated in the discourse.  This creates an in-group and out-group phenomenon, which has hampered the exploration of Whitehead among philosophers, theologians, scientists, and the general public.  This is particularly tragic in the case of Process and Reality, because Whitehead’s other books and essays are generally accessible, witty, and profound.  I keep quite a file of Whitehead quotes for ready use in papers and conversations.

Problem 2: The Concept of God

The concept of God in Whitehead is also problematic. This is an extremely abstract and depersonalized God.  It is not the least bit clear why anyone would worship this God. It ends up being a turn-off to philosophers and theologians alike.

Whitehead’s God has very little traction with traditional theologies, which may or may not be a good thing depending on one’s commitments and points of view.  He does not draw on scriptural sources in theologizing about his new concept of God.  Whitehead is disconnected from his own Christian tradition in this respect and will have little appeal to scripturally oriented religious traditionalists. Whiteheadeans can seem to be a new religious movement, as witnessed in part by the secret language and the cultish behavior of many of his disciples, who tend to frame every topic in terms of “Process Philosophy and…”

An advantage of Whitehead’s concept of God is that the theodicy problem disappears because God is no longer omnipotent.  This god-in-universe suffers with the world because it is the world, marvels at its complexity, plays with us, loves with us, relates with us.  God-in-universe is a presence all the way up and down the cosmic unfolding of time and scales of emergence.  Rendering God no longer omnipotent, perhaps not even omniscient or omnibenevolent, may render God too emasculated and irrelevant for most traditionalists even to begin considering.  Whitehead’s process metaphysics tends to render God impersonal and disconnected from traditional theistic accounts of religion.

Note that it is possible to accept evolutionary Aristotelianism as “self-evident,” while rejecting the concepts of telos and progress in Whitehead.  Indeed, one could accept many of Whitehead’s insights and dispense entirely with the concept of God.

Problem 3: The Naturalization of Evil

The real problem that I want to address here is the tendency in Whitehead’s metaphysics to naturalize moral evil in the service of evolution.  Whether it be the death of a single child due to disease, starvation, or violence or something on a larger scale like the Rwanda massacre, these past actualities are just part of the unfolding of evolution.  There is no outside of history by which such pain, suffering, and death is “redeemed”.  Moral and natural evil may provoke change, adaptation, and further evolution – that is progress – but at whose expense?  Whitehead offers no salvation story outside of the hoped-for evolution of the universe toward the one, the many, and the beautiful.  Thus, Whitehead offers no real solutions to the existential angst over death and injustice that motivates much of religious adherence.

Ethics for Whitehead is a subset of aesthetics. The purpose of the universe is to realize beauty. In Religion in the Making, Whitehead writes that “[a]ll order is… aesthetic order, the moral order is merely certain aspects of aesthetic order”(105). Moral conduct is directed at achieving greater beauty.  In Adventures in Ideas, Whitehead writes “the real world is good when it is beautiful” (345). Realized beauty is the divine aim in process.

So what constitutes “beauty” becomes a critical question in evaluating Whitehead’s metaphysics and his implied ethics.  In Modes of Thought, Whitehead defines beauty as the “union of harmony, intensity, and vividness which involves the perfection of importance for that occasion” (14). Progress in evolution is increased beauty, but in Process and Reality, we learn that progress is a “venture along the borders of chaos”(168).  Apparently “intensity” and “vividness” are in tension with “harmony” and “order.”  Too much of the latter results in unchanging monotony, while too much of the former results in destructive anarchy.  So we have a kind of aesthetics and ethics of the golden mean between change and continuity, between order and novelty.  We might also derive an ethics of maximized extremes, good and evil, high culture and sadism, as a way of increasing the “intensity” and “vividness” of aesthetic experience.[5]

Already we see that Whitehead’s ethics is not deontological.  There are no universal moral laws, duties, and obligations, nor is there any essential and fixed human nature.  The human person is not an enduring substance or soul, but rather a “nexus” or “society” of relationships.  One advantage of this approach is that we can now talk of moral evolution in human history.

However, the disadvantage of Whitehead’s approach is that we lose the philosophical basis for human rights discourse upon which so much progress has been achieved in human history.  On what grounds could a Whiteheadean argue for inviolable, individual human rights?  With Whitehead, we have no fixed human nature and therefore no fixed boundaries and limitations that should restrain human behavior.  There are no real criteria for restraining human creativity and destruction, except the vague concept of maximizing aesthetic experience. If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then so too might morality be merely the opinions of the beholden. Principles of environmental ethics, bioethics, and justice are difficult to establish in the Whiteheadean framework.

Why, for instance, should we assume that the earth’s environment, as presently constituted, is somehow worthy of preservation?  Note that this is not just Whitehead’s problem, but very much a problem of any contemporary ethics and metaphysics based on modern science.  E. O. Wilson loves nature, that is clear, but he can offer nothing more than utilitarian justifications for why we should love and preserve natural kinds, as they happen to be at this moment in evolution.[6]  We might just as easily consider human destructiveness as an engine of evolutionary creativity, wiping out ecosystems and species so that something new can evolve in the long arc of evolutionary time.

Relatedness, whether in the form of biocentrism or communitarian ethics, can be antithetical to the notion of individual rights.  The Western moral tradition, encoded in the Declaration of Independence and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, considers individuals to be irreducible centers of dignity and worth.  This can be seen as an outgrowth and implication of the theological doctrine of Imago Dei.

Extreme individualism, however, is also found wanting.  First, it is counterfactual but also inherently ethically dubious.  The ethics of Ayn Rand’s libertarian objectivism, for instance, would simply not work as a system of ethics and is not an adequate description of real human nature.  So we are left ambiguously between process and relationships, on the one side, and principles and individuals, on the other.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead famously calls all life a form of “robbery” and “coercion.”  The more complex the entity is, the greater the robbery from other entities.  Here, we have a basic statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  This “robbery” can be thought of in terms of energy density flows passing through a complex system over time measured as erg per seconds per gram (erg s-1 g -1).  This turns out to be a rough measure of complexity in evolution. The earth’s climasphere, which consists of the atmosphere and oceans, has roughly a hundred times the energy density flow of a typical star or galaxy. Through photosynthesis, plants achieve an energy density flow roughly a thousand times more than that of a star. The human body is sustained by a daily food intake resulting in an energy density flow about 20,000 times more than that of a typical star. Remember that we are comparing the ratio of energy consumed to mass of the objects. So here is another way to think of this. If a human body could be scaled up to the mass of our sun, it would be 20,000 times more luminous (assuming it could obtain enough energy!). The human brain, which consumes about 20 percent of our energy intake while constituting about 2 percent of our body weight, has an energy density flow 150,000 times that of a typical star. And finally, modern human civilization has an energy density ratio some 500,000 times that of a typical star.[7]

Energy density flow turns out to be a useful way to think about emergent complexity and Whiteheadean “societies.”  In Whitehead’s words, “all [societies] require interplay with their environment; and in the case of living societies this interplay takes the form of robbery” (Process and Reality, 105). Process metaphysics captures this scientific insight perfectly, but here enters the ethical dilemma: “It is at this point that with life morals become acute,” writes Whitehead.  “The robber requires justification” (ibid.) The realization and increase of beauty in the universe are the teleological justification of this “robbery.” 

The realized evolution of God, universe, and human history, however, is not necessarily good or beautiful.  We see this in the examples of any number of natural and human tragedies.  Within a Whiteheadean – or for that matter scientific – framework, we need a way to distinguish between the “is” of nature and the “ought” of morality.  Past experience is not necessarily good or beautiful, noble or just.[8]  How do we make meaningful distinctions and apply them in our ethical debates?

A Partial Solution

I want to end by suggesting ways that process philosophy may yet offer partial solutions to these problems through (1) a new moral matrix and (2) a time-transcendent eschatology.

The new moral matrix I take from the writings of the late Thomas Berry (1914–2009), who recently passed away at the age of ninety-four.[9]   Berry was a Passionist priest and scholar, whose writings helped to inspire and guide an ecospiritual revival movement around the world.  He advocated the incorporation and interpretation of the new scientific cosmology into our religious and moral systems.  This is referred to as “the Epic of Evolution,” “the New Cosmology,” “the Great Story,” or simply “the New Story.”  Thomas Berry synthesized the insights of Alfred North Whitehead and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the prose style of Loren Eisley.[10]

In his book with Brian Swimme, The Universe Story, Berry develops the metaphysics of Whitehead and Teilhard.  The observed teleonomy of the universe is increased differentiation, increased communion, and increased autopoiesis.  Taken together, these three principles would constitute what Whitehead means by realized beauty.  Berry and Swimme explore numerous examples of these tendencies in the evolutionary narrative.  For instance, differentiation is promoted by chance and mutation in the evolution of life.  Communion is promoted by necessity and selection.  Autopoiesis is promoted by niche creation and choice.  They then move from description to prescription.  Human actions and beliefs are true, good, and beautiful when they protect and increase differentiation, when they attend to and enjoy communion, and when they foster and enhance autopoiesis, that is, self-creative freedom.  Evil is a corruption of these goods by disproportionately emphasizing one and neglecting the others.  The dynamic balance between these tripartite goods constitutes beautiful and ethical behavior.[11]

I find this moral matrix helpful.  It would be useful to explore some examples of how this might be applied in political philosophy, bioethics, and environmental ethics.  While this framework is not going to give us simple answers to culture-war debates about abortion or homosexuality, national healthcare or energy policy, it does provide a context for a common moral conversation at least partly grounded in a scientific worldview.  In the matrix itself we all see that real ethical problems are often not polar opposites but a conflict of goods that cannot all be maximized at the same time. The great philosophical and moral challenge of our time is to reconcile natural law philosophy (global ethics) with natural philosophy (contemporary science) in conversation with our received traditions (comparative religions).

The second partial solution to Whitehead’s problem with evil is in an eschatological vision that transcends time.  There is some basis for this understanding of time in contemporary physics.  The equations of the microcosmic physics all work the same backward, or forward, without respect to our common sense understanding of irreversible, linear time.  It is only in the macrocosmic laws of thermodynamics that irreversible, linear time enters the equation.  The laws of entropy need not have the last word in our metaphysics.  Whitehead writes “All past actualities and all future possibilities intersect in the present moment, and that is eternity.”12  We can call this a realized eschatology, albeit a mystical one.

And in the end, we should not expect any easy answers or final resolutions of the problem of evil in the universe or the theodicy of God.  The shift to a more mystical and less rational discourse is perhaps the best we can expect after all of our debates.  It is hoped that this mystical move will not lessen our discomfort with pain, suffering, and injustice in the world, but will rather increase our efforts “to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  This unreasonable expectation that the world should be better than it is and that we should be better people than we are is perhaps the ur-source of the religious, moral, and creative impulse of our restless species.

Let me end with another mystical quote from Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World:

[S]omething… stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest (191-192).13



[1] See for instance, Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science: The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991, vol. Volume One (San Francisco: Harper, 1990)., Holmes Rolston, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987)., and John Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000).

[2] This system is expounded in several of Whitehead’s works: Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, [1929]1978)., ———, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press, [1925] 1967)., ———, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, [1933] 1967)., ———, Modes of Thought (New York: Capricorn, [1938] 1958 )., ———, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926). I will be quoting these works and citing the references in the text. For an introduction to Whitehead, see Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962). and C. Robert Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008)..

[3] Whitehead’s process philosophy has been very influential in theology.  Claremont School of Theology, for instance, is host to the Center for Process Studies .  For an overview of process theology, go to .

[4] error

[5] In this section, I am partly following the thoughts of Henry W. Clark, “Process Thought and Justice,” in Process Philosophy and Social Thought, ed. Jr. Cobb, John B. and W. Widick Schroeder (Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1981).

[6] Edward O. Wilson, Biophillia: The Human Bond with Other Species (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[7] Eric Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 139.; ———, Epic of Evolution : Seven Ages of the Cosmos (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 293 – 96.; David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[8] For an extended discussion of Whitehead and social ethics, see the essays in John B. Cobb Jr. and W. Widick Schroeder, eds., Process Philosophy and Social Thought (Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion,1981)..

[9] Thomas Berry, “Thomas Berry Website,”

[10] This is Berry’s own description of his work in an interview I conducted with him on November 23, 1993 in Washington, D.C.

[11] Thomas and Brian Swimme Berry, Universe Story, The: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992)..  For my discussion of Berry and Swimme’s ethics see chapter five of my Ph.D. dissertation, William J. Grassie, Reinventing Nature: Science Narratives as Myths for an Endangered Planet (Philadelphia: Ph.D. Dissertation, Temple University Department of Religion, 1994).

[12] This is perhaps an apocryphal quote from Whitehead that I picked-up some twenty-years ago.  I have not been able to find the reference for it, although the quote is consistent with other statements by Whitehead.  If any one can direct me to the citation, I would be grateful.

[13] The actual quote begins “Religion is something which…”  I have edited intentionally to be ambiguous, because the “something” might just as easily refer to God or Beauty as understood by Whitehead.  The connotations of the word “religion” in our contemporary world carry too much baggage.  The citation is more accurate without a definite object.


Barbour, Ian. Religion in an Age of Science: The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991. Vol. Volume One. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.
Berry, Thomas. “Thomas Berry Website.”
Berry, Thomas and Brian Swimme. Universe Story, The: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992.
Chaisson, Eric. Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
———. Epic of Evolution : Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Clark, Henry W. “Process Thought and Justice.” In Process Philosophy and Social Thought, edited by Jr. Cobb, John B. and W. Widick Schroeder, 132-40. Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1981.
Cobb Jr., John B., and W. Widick Schroeder, eds. Process Philosophy and Social Thought. Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1981.
Grassie, William J. Reinventing Nature: Science Narratives as Myths for an Endangered Planet. Philadelphia: Ph.D. Dissertation, Temple University Department of Religion, 1994.
Haught, John. God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000.
Lowe, Victor. Understanding Whitehead. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962.
Mesle, C. Robert. Process-Relational Philosophy. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008.
Rolston, Holmes. Science and Religion: A Critical Survey. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: Free Press, [1933] 1967.
———. Modes of Thought. New York: Capricorn, [1938] 1958
———. Process and Reality. New York: Free Press, [1929]1978.
———. Religion in the Making. New York: Macmillan, 1926.
———. Science and the Modern World. New York: Free Press, [1925] 1967.
Wilson, Edward O. Biophillia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.