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Home » Biographies » Charles Hartshorne: The Chicago Years, Part 2

Charles Hartshorne: The Chicago Years, Part 2

By Donald Wayne Viney

The Logic of Theism

After 1934 Hartshorne returned to metaphysics and philosophical theology, concerns he had addressed in his dissertation; but the decade of the 1930s was the heyday of the Vienna Circle and its philosophy of logical positivism, which dismissed metaphysical statements as incapable of being either true or false and, therefore, as cognitively meaningless. Hartshorne argued against the logical positivists; nevertheless, when he was secretary of the University of Chicago philosophy department in 1936—the only administrative position he ever held—he was instrumental in hiring Rudolf Carnap, the most prominent member of the Vienna Circle. In his second book Beyond Humanism (1937) Hartshorne attempts to show that humanistic philosophies, among which he numbers logical positivism, yield inadequate accounts of nature. Hartshorne’s preferred alternative is a blend of his versions of panpsychism (the claim that all concrete particulars have a mental aspect), indeterminism, and theism. Hartshorne’s views did not substantially change after Beyond Humanism; his later writings present his views more systematically and offer more thorough critiques of humanistic and non-humanistic philosophies. Most of the differences between the earlier and later works are terminological: he ceased calling his views “theistic naturalism,” “pantheism,” and “panpsychism.”

Archbishop St. Anselm

Archbishop St. Anselm of Canterbury’s
ontological argument helped Hartshorne
shape his vision of God

Hartshorne’s stated purpose in Man’s Vision of God (1941) is to add precision and logical rigor to discussions of theism. Citing the eleventh-century archbishop St. Anselm of Canterbury’s definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” Hartshorne notes that various meanings can be given to the concepts of “nothing” and “greater than.” He asks whether the statement that nothing can surpass God includes God among the things by which God cannot be surpassed. Only two possibilities exist: either God is unsurpassable by any being, including the divine self, or God is unsurpassable by any being, excluding the divine self. Hartshorne calls the first alternative “A-perfection,” for absolute perfection, and the second alternative “R-perfection,” for relative perfection. The two kinds of perfection are compatible, provided one distinguishes different respects in which God has them. For example, God could be A-perfect with respect to moral categories (that is, ethically perfect) and R-perfect with respect to aesthetic categories (that is, capable of indefinite increase in richness of experience).

Classical theists held that God is A-perfect in all respects. Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism is an extended argument for the view that God is A-perfect in some respects but R-perfect in other respects. Hartshorne calls this position “panentheism” (literally, “all-in-God”). He maintains that God includes the universe in a way analogous to that in which persons include the cells of their bodies:Hartshorne’s stated purpose in Man’s Vision of God (1941) is to add precision and logical rigor to discussions of theism. Citing the eleventh-century archbishop St. Anselm of Canterbury’s definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” Hartshorne notes that various meanings can be given to the concepts of “nothing” and “greater than.” He asks whether the statement that nothing can surpass God includes God among the things by which God cannot be surpassed. Only two possibilities exist: either God is unsurpassable by any being, including the divine self, or God is unsurpassable by any being, excluding the divine self. Hartshorne calls the first alternative “A-perfection,” for absolute perfection, and the second alternative “R-perfection,” for relative perfection. The two kinds of perfection are compatible, provided one distinguishes different respects in which God has them. For example, God could be A-perfect with respect to moral categories (that is, ethically perfect) and R-perfect with respect to aesthetic categories (that is, capable of indefinite increase in richness of experience).

God’s volition is related to the world as though every object in it were to him a nerve-muscle, and his omniscience is related to it as though every object were a muscle-nerve. A brain cell is for us, as it were a nerve-muscle and a muscle-nerve, in that its internal motions respond to our thoughts, and our thoughts to its motions. . . . God has no separate sense organs or muscles, because all parts of the world body directly perform both functions for him. In this sense the world is God’s body.

Daniel Dombrowski summarizes Hartshorne’s view in Analytic Theism, Hartshorne and the Concept of God (1996): “It makes sense to say both that the cosmos is ensouled and that God is embodied.”

Hartshorne argues that persons are not identical with their bodies, but neither can their experiences be divorced from their bodies. Similarly God is not identical with the universe—which is why Hartshorne stopped calling his view pantheism—but events in the universe have effects on God. Unlike a human body, the divine body has no external environment, only an internal one. But God’s internal environment, which is the universe, is in constant flux: time, change, and contingency are not illusions. Hence, God is, in some respects, temporal, mutable, and contingent.

Panentheism does not entail a denial of God’s power, love, knowledge, or creativity, but these attributes must be interpreted differently than classical theists understood them. Hartshorne accepts Whitehead’s view that God cannot make the creature’s decisions for them; since decision is creation, the world is a joint product of God and the creatures. If the world is God’s body, then the creature is, as far as God’s accidental qualities are concerned, “part-creator of God.” In Beyond Humanism, Hartshorne agreed with Peirce that laws of nature are habits. Here, however, he argues that God creates the laws of nature and that no creature could exist without them. Divine love is understood in terms of God’s sympathetic participation in the feelings of the creatures. This idea is foreign to classical theology, which understands God’s love as devoid of emotion.

Hartshorne considered God’s knowledge as a form of prehension—a feeling of the feelings of the creatures. Therefore, it would be impossible for God to know the future free decisions of the creatures since, before the decisions are made, they do not exist to be known. Nevertheless, Hartshorne had some doubts about how to represent the truth value of future-tense propositions. Aristotle seems to have held that propositions about future contingents (events that may or may not be) are neither true nor false, but indeterminate. Hartshorne defended the Aristotelian idea in a short article, “Are All Propositions About the Future Either True or False?” (1939). The problem with Aristotle’s theory, Hartshorne says, is that it sacrifices the logical law of excluded middle.

Charles Dickens

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
demonstrates Hartshorne’s ideas
on the indeterminacy of the future.

By 1941 Hartshorne had abandoned the Aristotelian view. Instead of speaking of a third truth value he introduced the idea of a triad of predicates that reflect temporal and causal modalities. For any event E, causal conditions either require E (definitely E), exclude E (definitely not-E), or leave E undecided (indefinite with respect to E). If any one of these is true of an event, the other two are false. Thus, no violation of the law of excluded middle occurs. These distinctions are marked in ordinary language with expressions such as “will be,” “will not be,” and “may or may not be.” For example, in Charles Dickens’A Christmas Carol (1843) Ebenezer Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be, only?” Thus, the indeterminacy of the future is represented by Hartshorne not in the truth value of propositions but in predicates pertaining to the future.

Some philosophers criticize Hartshorne’s theory on the grounds that truth is eternal and that propositions about what may or may not occur are concessions to human ignorance about the future. We speak of something’s being P as having a probability of 1, 0, or some value between 1 and 0. If truth is eternal then the way to understand these numbers is to say that they represent reality so far as we know it. From a more inclusive perspective all probabilities would reduce to 1 or 0. Hartshorne rejects this view. He says in “The Meaning of ‘Is Going to Be’” (1965), “the notion that dates can be assigned from eternity is one of the fairy tales—or controversial assumptions—which haunt this subject.” According to Hartshorne, the indeterminateness of the future is not a function of human lack of knowledge: the future really is indeterminate.By 1941 Hartshorne had abandoned the Aristotelian view. Instead of speaking of a third truth value he introduced the idea of a triad of predicates that reflect temporal and causal modalities. For any event E, causal conditions either require E (definitely E), exclude E (definitely not-E), or leave E undecided (indefinite with respect to E). If any one of these is true of an event, the other two are false. Thus, no violation of the law of excluded middle occurs. These distinctions are marked in ordinary language with expressions such as “will be,” “will not be,” and “may or may not be.” For example, in Charles Dickens’A Christmas Carol (1843) Ebenezer Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be, only?” Thus, the indeterminacy of the future is represented by Hartshorne not in the truth value of propositions but in predicates pertaining to the future.

Hartshorne also denies the traditional view that God creates the universe ex nihilo, from no pre-existing material. To be sure, God, by creating order in the cosmos, is the eminent creator; but non-divine beings also have creative power. By constantly adding new definiteness to reality, the temporal process itself is creative. Creation always presupposes a prior world out of which new definiteness arises. In Wisdom as Moderation (1987), Hartshorne argues by way of illustration,

Either my parents were genuinely causative of me, or they were not. If they were, then God plus nothing was not the cause; if my parents were not part-causes of me, then, by the same reasoning, the creatures are never causes of anything.

A consequence of Hartshorne’s view is that the universe had no beginning. He does not deny the theory, currently popular among scientists, that the present universe began with the Big Bang. Hartshorne maintains, however, that the beginning of this universe does not represent an absolute beginning.

A common objection to belief in God is the problem of evil: if God is all-good and all-powerful, then why does apparently unjustified suffering exist? God should have both the motive and the means to insure that suffering is never undeserved. In response, Hartshorne questions the ability of any being, including God, to decide the events of the world unilaterally. He says that the traditional concept of omnipotence is not even coherent enough to be false. If X and Y are two individuals making decisions, and X decides A, and Y decides B, then the combination AB is decided by neither X nor Y taken singly. The logic of the situation does not change if one of the decision makers is God. Therefore, what occurs is not wholly the result of divine decisions. Cooperation among the decision makers can eliminate some but not all of the risks of undesirable consequences. Even so, cooperation among the agents is not guaranteed. Suffering and tragedy are the inevitable consequences of multiple creativity. Because the deity is affected by creatures’ decisions, tragedy exists even for God. Hartshorne quotes Whitehead’s statement in Process and Reality (1929) that God is the fellow-sufferer who understands: because all suffering occurs within the context of divine sympathy, tragedy is never simply meaningless. The redemption of the world is in its valuation by God.

After reading Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism, Hartshorne’s father wondered why he had not written more about sin. Hartshorne pointed out that he had a paragraph on sin in the book. His father replied by slowly repeating, “A . . . paragraph.” Sin does not, in fact, play a central role in Hartshorne’s thought, largely because he denies that God is primarily concerned about moral values. Hartshorne’s God is not a cosmic judge who keeps a tally of human deeds but a cosmic artist who appreciates and contributes to the beauty of the universe. While not denying that terrible evils exist, Hartshorne cannot see how promises of rewards in heaven or threats of punishment in hell would help the situation whether at a practical or a theoretical level. He is inclined to agree with Whitehead who said, in Science and the Modern World (1925), that the power of God is the worship that God inspires. Nevertheless, much later in his career, Hartshorne writes in Wisdom as Moderation of the “truly monstrous evils” in the world and concedes at least a functional equivalent of original sin.

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