Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Whitehead, Blockhead, Wholehead

Having digested yesterday's post, you may ask yourself: why is Bob not -- or is he? -- a formal Whiteheadian? You know, a process philosopher, or, more to the point, a champion of process theology?

That's actually a fair question. I recently asked it of myself while tending my little amazon kindle garden and noticing the titles under the heading Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.

At the moment there are only two. One of them is The Complete Works of Dostoyevsky, an author to whom -- along with William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, and Maya Angelou -- I am often compared.

The other book is Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy: An Argument for Its Contemporary Relevance.

While that last one may or may not sound intriguing, there's a problem: David Ray Griffin -- probably the most well known process theologian -- is a Category 5 loonibrain and 7.1 assoul on the sphincter scale.

For starters, he is a 911 truther and all-purpose moonbat. He is also co-conspirator of the Center for Process Studies, where kindred spirits talk to each other about such charming subjects as divinity and diversity, the trinity from an eco-womanist perspective, Cornel West’s postmodern theology, process theodicy from an African Perspective, and post-colonial critiques of theopolitical synergies of power.

So there is something about process theology that either turns the mind to mush or attracts mush-heads. I mean, what kind of person takes Cornell West seriously? What next, Whitehead, Sharpton, and Process Poverty Pimpin' ?

Back in the day, I read a fair amount of process theology, but everything I encountered was academic, jargony, coldly technological, politically correct, and devoid of sanctity. Very insular and college campus-y, if you know what I mean, in the same way that the only place one finds Marxists is in universities. Real people don't talk, much less think, like that.

Although one of the premises of process theology is the unification of science and religion, I found that their real objection was to theology, and that they simply misused or misunderstood various scientific principles in order support a secular agenda more to their liking.

As I've said before, a leftist anything is always a leftist first, the whatever a distant second, and this applies perforce to leftist theologies, which in the end (and beginning) attempt to bend theology to the contours of their collectivism, not to derive political philosophy from transcendent truth.

This got me to thinking: surely there must be someone who has used process philosophy to illuminate traditional theology? The closest I've been able to find is a Jesuit professor of theology by the name of Joseph Bracken, but I couldn't get through the first book I tried, which mostly consisted of obvious points couched in unnecessarily technical language, mingled with other apparent points he is unable to express in plain english. Much of it sounds frankly tenured.

So I guess it's down to me again. In order to acquaint myself with the perplexing lay of the scholarly land, I read a book called Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, despite knowing in advance that the book contains some unalloyed moonbattery and theological error, such as the assertion that "process ethics" sees rights as "relational and contextual" rather than absolute or individualistic.

But why? There is nothing in process thought that mandates such a conclusion.

"Further, process theology does not privilege human experience in terms of possessing absolute value." Nor does "being human" "set us apart from from the rest of creation." Again, these erroneous conclusions in no way follow from a process-view of the cosmos.

Speaking of conflating politics and theology, consider the following gem, which is devoid of theology but full of leftist mischief: "economic decision-making must be for the sake of human beings and the whole biosphere." Nice rhetoric, but how would that work in practice? Like Stalinism, or more like Maoism?

"The goals of justice and planetary sustainability are one and the same." Really? Are you sure about that? A lot of things that sustain the planet strike me as more than a little cruel and unjust.

It indeed reminds me of Chairman Mao's excuse for starving tens of millions of peasants: there are too many people on the planet! It is somewhat appalling that any self-styled theologian would try to derive his ethics from nature, for the biosphere indeed has an ironclad will to sustain itself via death, without the slightest concern for the individual.

How do these people take a perfectly fine philosophy and arrive at such nonsense? Or am I missing something, and is the nonsense built into the philosophy? I don't think so, because it is entirely possible to derive political nonsense from sound philosophy, theology, and metaphysics, e.g., the doctrine of predestination or the divine right of kings.

Rather, it is necessary that each plane in the cosmic hierarchy be explicated separately, but in such a way that it does not contradict first principles. One cannot simply blindly apply first principles to every situation, for this ends in a dogmatic and false absolutism.

This is, for example, what creeps people out about Ron Paul. He says plenty of things -- derived from first principles embodied in the Constitution -- that make perfect sense. However, he always goes too far, in that half of what he says results from a blind application of first principles, irrespective of empirical reality.

The same moral confusion afflicts leftists who wouldn't waterboard a known terrorist with information about an imminent attack, owing to an unthinking allegiance to the principle of "non-torture" -- which any normal person shares, up to a point, the point of suicidal insanity.

So let's think through some of Whitehead's first principles, and try to understand where his wackolytes go off the rails. There is much in Epperly's book with which I am in complete sympathy. Indeed, it is because of Whitehead that I have some views -- or at least suspicions -- that would be considered quite non-traditional, more on which as we proceed.

To put it another way, there are certain principles of process theology that allow me to understand aspects of theology that I otherwise wouldn't be able to accept, because they seem to violate common sense principles I am unable to reject.

For example, if theology posited that gravity doesn't exist, I could only pretend to agree with it -- just as I could only pretend to agree with any young-earth scenarios. If I were forced to choose between these two positions, I would have to reject theology in favor of science. But this is an artificial choice rooted in a false premise. Nevertheless, there's a lot of that going around, e.g., either intelligent design or evolution.

Here is an example of a principle I can wholeheadedly embrace: "Process theology describes the dynamic interplay of permanence and flux, evident in the universe and our own lives" (Epperly).

The critical subtext of this sentence is complementarity, in this case between permanence and flux, which might also be called eternity and time, implicate and explicate, potential and actual, one and many, Godhead and God, etc. I do not come down on either side of the complementarity, but rather hold the complementarity to be key.

To cite one conspicuous example, this is how I approach the Trinity, wherein it makes no sense to say that the Father is prior to, or above, the Son. Rather, there is no Father in the absence of Son, and vice versa.

Furthermore, they are, as in Whitehead's scheme, interiorly related, or intersubjective. The one is "in" the other, and vice versa. In normal logic, such an arrangement would be impossible, while in process metaphysics it is necessary, since the process is the reality.

Clearly, we must all grapple with the undeniable flux of things. This is not only an unavoidable conclusion of thought, but seems to be the very occasion for the dawning of thought (or of thinking, to be precise, since it is posterior to the thoughts it thinks).

As we have discussed before, the infant has no need of thinking so long as the mother is present and the two are merged in such a way that he needn't be aware of need or absence. (You can take this literally, figuratively, or mythopoetically.) But something changes. The Great Mother, the source of all warmth, comfort, and nourishment, is missing!

This is the First Thought. You'd be surprised how often people never get past it.

But that is only one side of the psycho-cosmic economy, for as Whitehead writes, "The other notion dwells on permanences of things -- the solid earth, the mountains, the stones [minus Brian Jones], the Egyptian pyramids, the spirit of man, God." Thus, "in the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux" (Whitehead, in Epperly).

This is one place where the above-referenced theologians go off the rails, for it seems that they embrace the flux part but cast aside the permanence part. Only in so doing could one affirm (absolutely!) that "there are no absolutes."

At long last, sir, have you no irony?

Yes, relativity is (relatively) real. But only because it is a kind of prolongation of the Absolute, a complement, not a competitor -- any more than God's transcendence competes with his immanence.

I'd better stop. To be continued, if there is sufficient interest.

Complementary -- you know, like ebony and ivory:

26 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

Dostoyevsky, an author to whom -- along with William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, and Maya Angelou -- I am often compared.

I hope this doesn't come across the wrong way, but LOL.

Also, I think there needs to be a chart developed for the Sphincter scale. You could use those vary-sized colored squares they use to show seismic activity, with a photo next to it for comparison, just so we know what we're dealing with...

Ahem. Totally sidetracked. Back to reading...

12/13/2011 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Come to think of it, I bet you could do the same with the Loonibrain scale, then graph the two together at cross-vertices and come up with one of those handy quadrant maps so you could really have an idea of what you're dealing with...

Now let me try that reading thing again...

12/13/2011 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

This is a meaty post. I’ve grappled with this also, and agree that it is more likely than not that one will either privilege the flux or the Absolute. Maybe it is the fallibility of man that we can never really dance one-pointedly on the razors edge and hold the complementarity perfectly. While I believe in the flux as a necessity for our telos, the flux must be informed by the Absolute always. While I don’t want to claim anyone has done this well, I do believe Andrew Cohen’s community is taking a legitimate stab at it (although I believe there is an emphasis on the flux there also). Process thinking always seems to fall back on pragmatism without Absolutes, and I think that problem will remain until individuals get a non-conceptual groundedness in the divine reality of the cosmos.

12/13/2011 09:05:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I'm pretty sure the proper balance is already there in orthodox Christian theology, but we shall see as we proceed...

12/13/2011 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

The one is "in" the other, and vice versa. In normal logic, such an arrangement would be impossible, while in process metaphysics it is necessary, since the process is the reality.

Bion helps with understanding this, as well. And in truth, much of the natural world expresses this arrangement, only it's almost never obvious; complementarities often masquerade as contradictions (and vice-versa, I suspect). For instance, looked at one way, white is no-color and black is all-color, but in another sense the truth is the exact opposite. Yet both are necessary.

And yes, this is interesting.

12/13/2011 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Ted,
Maybe it is the fallibility of man that we can never really dance one-pointedly on the razors edge and hold the complementarity perfectly.

True, we can never do so on our own. We must trust in grace to lift us. To the extent that any metaphysic leaves out the (⇅), no matter how carefully considered otherwise, it will fall short.

12/13/2011 09:37:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

OT, and then I'll shut up,

This kid's name is Petey. Do you know where your gnome is?

12/13/2011 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

He's nonlocal, so he could be anywhere.

12/13/2011 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"Although one of the premises of process theology is the unification of science and religion, I found that their real objection was to theology, and that they simply misused or misunderstood various scientific principles in order support a secular agenda more to their liking."

So, basically, they wanna unify science and religion by getting rid of science and religion.

I can see why this appeals to leftists.

12/13/2011 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Julie said:

"Also, I think there needs to be a chart developed for the Sphincter scale. You could use those vary-sized colored squares they use to show seismic activity, with a photo next to it for comparison, just so we know what we're dealing with..."

LOL!

Or, howzabout a fruit n' vegetable porn chart?
For the Muslim eggheads with way too much time on their hands.

BTW, I wonder if nuts are also taboo for muslims women?

This would explain why most muslim men have a preference for goats and boys I suppose.

12/13/2011 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

"The Great Mother, the source of all warmth, comfort, and nourishment, is missing! This is the First Thought."

Bloody brrrrrilliant!

Interest we much, hopefully sufficient.

12/13/2011 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger John Lien said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12/13/2011 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Bob, this book was in your sidebar:

"Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross"

Have you had a chance to begin it yet?

12/13/2011 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Finished a long time ago. Didn't make a big impression, but it's more of a heartfelt devotional book, so others may differ.

12/13/2011 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

No, wait, I'm confusing that with another one. Oddly enough, same critique, though. I thought I'd like it more than I did, given Neuhaus' reputation. For whatever reason, it's always a little difficult for me to relate to the completely exoteric.

12/13/2011 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Maybe an earlier Bob would have liked it more.

Btw, The Thirteen Petalled Rose was great. You mentioned it recently. For some reason all these years I thought it was about some other religion. Or rather, viewed through a different one.

Anyway, back to the books one discovers, isn't it odd how one leads to an other but never out of order? By that I mean, one seems to find them when one is ready for them. Or maybe the word is recognize when ready. As if previous it were cloaked. May as well have been for my peepers. So the Neuhaus book, you were ready for it a long time ago. Maybe.

12/13/2011 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

"One cannot simply blindly apply first principles to every situation, for this ends in a dogmatic and false absolutism.

This is, for example, what creeps people out about Ron Paul."

At the very, very least it applies to his ardent followers... yikes. 'Liberty. Constitution. Liberty-RonPaul. I win the debate!'

12/13/2011 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Awwww...

I was about to link to a whole different pet photo, but now I almost feel bad. Almost.

Here's the link anyway (via Ace); I'll just refrain from commenting on it...

12/13/2011 05:02:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

De Montaigne was the guy who wasn't sure if he was playing with his cat or his cat was playing with him. Maya Angelou wasn't sure if she was playing with herself or herself was playing with her ...

Flux and permanence -- it all fits together. Even Einstein had to have the speed of light as a constant.

I don't find Ron Paul creepy. He has the crazy grandpa thing going, for sure, but so do I. Anyway, I have decided that I'm going to vote for him in the primary.

Obama is fully as insane in the other direction. Imagine that debate. It'll be like a matter-anti-matter engine.

Warped drive.

We can sell tickets and pay off the national debt.

12/13/2011 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Egads, Julie! Just when I thought it was safe to open my eyes again!

Ain't that one of our trolls? The one that believes everything Hitler said?

12/13/2011 06:29:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

That poor cat. He looks like he's one tofu mouse from homicide.

12/13/2011 08:36:00 PM  
Blogger ge said...

fyi: NYT article
Philosopher Sticks Up for God

12/14/2011 04:51:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Thanks, ge.

You know, speaking of the "guided evolution" vs "random change", I'm not sure most people appreciate just how random "random" tends to be. Or rather, how random random often proves to be in its natural habitat. Maybe Van and Mush cooncur. Ever get a garbled email? Like some very tiny, single character of code was left out and the whole thing is a total random, incredibly long string of useless characters is the result. Minus "that critical character" why isn't THAT the normal state of the cosmos?
Seems to me there is a greater potential for more randomness without order than we appreciate. The infinite is not as finite as we think it is.
As far as potentials go, it is almost as if there are two infinites: infinite order (language, meaning) and infinite disorder (random characters, words, sentences, etc). Yet everywhere you look in the natural world is order, order, order.

12/14/2011 05:54:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Rick,
Ever get a garbled email? Like some very tiny, single character of code was left out and the whole thing is a total random, incredibly long string of useless characters is the result.

What a perfect illustration! Or think of the static that used to show on a tv screen when there was no signal. People love to use that expression about monkeys typing Shakespeare, but I think they only believe that because they don't understand true randomness. You could randomly generate text for all of eternity, but I doubt there would ever be a coherent sentence more than a few letters long. It takes a a mind to create even the merest hint of meaning.

12/14/2011 06:36:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

That is a good analogy.

Think how a fax machine sounded when you called it. Or the handshake on a dial-up modem. Then there were the control characters we used to have to put in explicitly to get printers to act right. You see it now when you put in the HTML control characters around a link.

Why would there be any order in the universe at all? Oh, yeah, because there "laws".

The argument will run that once there is some limit or some constant then things begin to coalesce around that. Eventually, it will come down to "we are here, so it must have happened". Which is, in essence, no different than the explanations of a voodoo priest, a Keynesian economist, or the Weather Girl.

12/14/2011 07:18:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Thanks.
Yes, the monkeys-to-Mozart formula. I think computer programming may be even less forgiving.

12/14/2011 03:48:00 PM  

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