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Home » Lectures & Sermons » A Modern View of God

A Modern View of God

A Lecture by Charles Hartshorne

The second Colloquium on God and the Modern World was delivered in 1961 at the First Church in Boston in connection with the Annual Meetings of the American Unitarian Association. One of Dr. Hartshorne’s notable books is Philosophers Speak of God. – Herbert F. Vetter

Why is the idea of religion without God so widespread today?

One reason, without a doubt, is the boost which technology has given man’s self-esteem. Instead of turning to a superhuman power to influence nature in his favor he can turn to the engineer. Man apparently needs no outside help, he can help himself. Then there is the power of the human mind shown in pure science. Instead of thinking with awe how mysterious life is, we think how, step by step, the hidden causes of all that happens to us are being unraveled. Not only can man do almost all things, but more and more seems that he can know almost all things. He is himself potentially something like what God was believed to be actually. So man begins to worship his own kind. This self-deification of man is a chief rival in our time of what I regard as true religion. For I agree with the old Greeks, who agreed with the Hebrews at this point, that one of man’s greatest enemies is his own vanity, hubris.

There are, however, several excuses for our modern falling deeply into hubris. Not only are our technology and pure science wonderful achievements, truly deserving to be glorified, but also these new powers encourage habits of thinking which in some respects make it more difficult to see grounds for belief in the superhuman. Science is our great theoretical accomplishment; yet it seems to uncover no evidence of anything divine. We have learned, or think we have learned, that what science cannot discover is very likely not there. If fairies and demons and witches were real, science would have had to invoke them to explain events. But it has no occasion to do so. Hence we cease to take such ideas seriously. The idea of God seems to many to belong in the same class, and we feel a certain obligation to be on the side of science, against fairy tales and nightmares.

Now I wish to argue that while all these reactions to the modern scene are natural enough, some of them do not withstand careful criticism and represent, indeed, aspects of a sort of fairy tale of science, not a tested scientific hypothesis.

So far as influencing nature is concerned, we have certainly immensely increased our resources. But the chief results of this change are: 1) the total number of people on earth has multiplied many times over, and has even become one of our gravest anxieties, a threat which only fatuous optimists belittle, 2) newborn babies have several times as good a chance of reaching maturity as they used to have, 3) those who reach maturity can expect to live a decade or two longer than formerly, 4) a minority of people on earth have luxuries undreamed of in older days even for kings, and 5) when things go wrong, there is usually something we can do besides pray—we can look for an expert, medical or other, and we have better reason to trust our modern experts than the primitive had to trust elders and medicine men. However, do these differences amount to anything, relative to the problem of God? I say that, relative to that problem, they are negligible. Each of us is still born and dies; each is still throughout life subject to accidental death or grievous injury and are still but a negligibly small part of a stupendous whole, which for all we know infinitely precedes and will infinitely outlast us. Though armed with atomic power, humanity is yet almost nothing in physical power compared even to the sun, and there are billions and billions of suns! On this earth now, we are powerful, but what are we in the vastness of reality? So close to nothing we can scarcely say how small, or how weak.

In what I have just said, I have employed facts of astronomy. I think, indeed, that the proper result of science is to increase human humility, to make our inveterate conceit seem even more absurd, if possible, than the Greeks and ancient Hebrews could know it to be. Think of millions of galaxies, each probably with millions of planets. Even though we do reach a few of these planets in space ships, the ones we do not reach will be practically the same in number as all those which exist. Thus the races of rational beings which, according to all reasonable probability, people the great spaces, will be virtually unknown to us forever. The Greeks could explore but a small portion of this earth; they estimated the total universe as a billion miles in diameter. We talk in billions of light-years. True, we can explore our solar system, and eventually perhaps a bit beyond, but our solar system dwarfs the area of the earth which the Greeks could reach no more than our present estimate of the universe dwarfs that of the Greeks. Understating the case, no larger part of the universe, relatively speaking, seems to astronomers today open to human exploration than ancient astronomers supposed was open to them. Our relative insignificance, therefore, according to our knowledge, has not diminished. Only human vanity has enabled us to imagine otherwise—to talk, for example, of conquering space.

I am not, please note, belittling science. It is one of our noblest, most glorious accomplishments. But one of the chief origins of science—Einstein has said it—is deep humility. We are the only terrestrial animal, though surely not the only animal, who can see ourselves as but an item in the scheme of things, not the center about which all must or can be made to turn.

There is another consideration. Ancient people might dream of existing forever on earth. They did not know that the sun’s fires are temporary and must eventually burn out. We do know. We also know that the sun might become unbearably hot, and destroy us in that way. We know that we have but a temporary dwelling on this earth. Of course, some of us may colonize other planets and even solar systems. But still, every such venture will be risky, many will fail; success can never be guaranteed, and certainly there is no guarantee that the successful colonists will be such as we would be able to consider in significant degree our own descendants, or even that our influence will have been helpful to them. Add to this the fact, which we know far better than ancient people, that human folly could bring human life to an end at almost any time—in the near or distant future.

We are God and are infinitely far from being so. Rather we are tiny, and for all practical purposes ultimately temporary, as well as unreliable and often very cruel, creatures. Now there are two possibilities and only two: this tiny, temporary episode of nature called humanity either exists merely for its own sake, or also for the sake of something greater than humanity. If we in our own eyes exist merely for ourselves, then so far as our valuations go, the rest of the universe exists for us. We must either serve, or be served by, the larger cosmos. We cannot but use the cosmos, so far as accessible to us, just as the cells in our bodies cannot but profit by our organic existence enclosing them, but the cells in our bodies also serve us whether or not they have any feeling of doing so. One way to put the religious question is simply: “Do we in turn stand in an analogous relation to anything greater than ourselves in space time, and can we have any awareness of this relation?”

This question has no proper analogy to that of fairies. Fairies at most were incidental conveniences, or nuisances. But the question, “Is the part for the whole, or the whole for the part?” is not an incidental question. It is the question, if we set aside our natural self-centeredness and look at life objectively, as the astronomer does. Are we to live and die merely for humanity, and are the species of rational animals on other planets to live and die merely for themselves? Or do they, and all creatures, live and die for the whole encompassing them, as our cells do for us?

Science as I view it could not possibly favor the self-centered answer to this question. Science is not anthropomorphic. It does not assume any peculiar importance of human beings. The famous “rejection of final clauses” was really, in one aspect, a rejection of human favoring causes. Nothing cosmic turns, for science, upon human values in particular. Does it follow that nothing turns upon values of any kind? I believe this is a non sequitur. The ends of nature could only be incomparably vaster than merely human ends and, therefore, we in our amazing vanity cannot easily conceive these ends. But they can be conceived, as we shall see.

Still, you may say, it remains true that science finds no evidence of anything divine, and where there is no scientific evidence, have we not learned to admit that there is no evidence at all? Here it is pertinent to inquire what it means to speak of scientific evidence. The highest, or at least, a very high authority on the scientific method, in my opinion is Karl Popper. His view is that a hypothesis is scientific if it can be observationally falsified, not, please note, if it can be verified. For it is doubtful if, strictly speaking, any scientific generalization has been verified, that is, shown to be exactly true as it stands. So-called crucial experiments are not those which have a chance of proving some theory since no experiment can wholly establish a positive theory; but rather, those which have a chance of disproving a theory. One instance clearly not in accordance with a supposed law refutes the law, but many instances in conformity with the law still do not prove it. Accepting this test of falsifiability, we may remark that the idea of God either could, or could not, be falsified by some conceivable observation. If it could not, then theism is a view which science is in no position to test; and the fact that science has not “verified” theism is irrelevant. For as, Popper persuasively argues, to confirm a view by scientific evidence is only to conceive a way of falsifying it, and then to find that the falsifying observation fails to result from the suitable experimental or observational conditions. Who, then, has told us what an observation incompatible with theism would be like? Is it the observation that there are evils? In that case, science is not needed to evaluate theism, for this fact has always been known. And theists have always denied that the existence of evils contradicted their belief. If they are right in this, then how could science find evidence against the divine existence? Is any fact, other than evil, incompatible with that existence? Is it the reign of law in nature? But theists say that the laws of nature express the divine power and consistency.

What are we to conclude from the apparent fact that theism, as theists understand it, is not scientifically testable at all? We might conclude that theism has no consistent meaning, and hence could not be true. Or we might conclude that it has some meaning, but of a sort whose truth is untestable by human means. Finally, we might conclude that it has meaning, and that science is not the only human means of testing truth. This last is my position. I hold that the relevant test of ideas of God is their ability to integrate, not facts of science, but the principles which all science and all life presuppose, principles without which we could not understand how there could be facts at all, or why it is worth knowing what the facts are. Not facts, but the ideas of fact, not values but the idea of value, not truths but the idea of truth, is what theism tries to elucidate. The study which investigates such questions is philosophy. To suppose that natural science can substitute for philosophy in this task is logical confusion; it is pseudo science, not science.

Are theists right, however, in holding that the facts of evil and of the orderliness of nature are consistent with theism? I hold that they are right. However, I do not think that the classical, or best known, theologians and theistic philosophers have given us a very clear and consistent account of this matter, and I cannot blame anyone who concludes that they have failed to make their case. I shall now try to show how the case can be made.

It is useless to maintain that all evil is divinely designed and is but good in disguise, for on that principle all human choice is absurd. Do as you please, the result is exactly what divine wisdom saw to be needed for the perfection of the world plan. True, it may be a part of the plan that you should be punished for what you do, but still your deed is quite as it should be, for if it were not, it would not have been included in the providential design, and would not have happened. On this view, serving God means doing whatever you happen to do. You cannot go wrong. In addition to this absurdity, is the difficulty of distinguishing between such a God and the sadist who finds evil to his or her liking. God deliberately designs the evils, for they are necessary to the world’s being pleasing to God.

It is also useless to explain evil as the result of human freedom alone, for all animate nature involves conflict and presumably suffering. Surely human choice throws no light upon this fact.

The root of the trouble is in failing to note the starting point for the problem of evil. This starting point is the notion that God creates. What is it to create? It is to determine the otherwise indeterminate. Out of the vagueness or chaos of the merely possible, comes the definiteness of the actual. There might be all sorts of worlds: yet this world came into being. Similarly, the poet might write all sorts of poems, but actually writes this poem, or this set of poems. Now suppose the divine poet includes in a poem a description of a lesser non-divine or human poet creating non-divine poetry. The divine poet can choose the description of this other and lesser poet and poetry just as is pleasing, can God not? No, this will not do, for the divine poet creates not just poems, but poets who create poems; and since to create is to decide how the vagueness of possibility is to pass into definite actuality, if the created poets really exist as poets, as creators, then they, and not the divine poet must decide in some degree what the non-divine poems are to be. I wonder if you see already how, according to this analysis, the problem of evil results from an equivocation of terms. According to the view which gives rise to the problem, God is to decide precisely what lesser agents decide; but then there can be no lesser agents, and all decisions are divine decisions. The supreme artist would thus create not lesser artists, but mere descriptions of artists, mere dreams of lesser creators. The one agent is, on that view, the only agent, but imagines others. We are these divine imaginings of lesser agents. But in that case, we could from our own experience have no concept of creation, of agency, of decision, with which to ascribe the supreme form of these powers to deity. The whole business is a play with ambiguities, and I believe it is nothing more.

Once you admit that the supreme artist must create lesser artists, with genuine, though inferior capacities for deciding what no one else has wholly decided for them, you will see that the perfection of divine power cannot consist of a monopoly of creative freedom. However well and powerfully God may decide, God must leave something for the creatures to decide. Hence it cannot be right to attribute the details of the world to divine decree, and it need not be wrong to attribute the evils of these details to decisions other than divine. Nor is it merely human creatures who must in some measure have creative power, for what could the supreme creative agent produce but lesser forms of creativity? There is no absolute difference between human originality and that of a humble animal tracing the design of its own individual life in fine details unique and never to be repeated. The jump from infinite creativity to the creature, even the humble creature, can hardly be from the infinite to zero; it must rather be from the infinite to the finite, from supreme creative freedom to lesser creative freedom, not no freedom. Any creature is thus somewhere between the total absence of discretionary power, and its eminent or divine form. In this way creaturely freedom explains not only evils which man produces but those which animals and atoms produce. The entire world, on a consistently theistic view, is pervaded by an element of self-determination in each and every individual whatsoever. Myriads of agents other than God have had a hand in any result, and it is therefore illegitimate to ask why God made that result as it is. God did not “make” it, if that means decide it, for the creatures are all, in part, self-decided.

Does it follow that we must renounce the perfection of the divine power? Not if words are used carefully. The perfection of the divine power does not consist of the ability to make merely unilateral decisions, for this is meaningless. Every agent and every creator produces results beyond itself only by influencing the self-determination of other agents, or other creators. Decision is always shared, so far as effects upon others are concerned. The perfect form of this shared decision means, not ideal ability to decide detailed results, but ideal ability to decide general outlines. These outlines are the laws of nature. Who but God could have decided these? They set the limits within which the lesser agents can effectively work out the details of their existence. Without such limits the universal creativity would mean universal chaos and frustration. With these limits, elements of chaos and frustration remain but they are subordinate to general order and harmony.

The orderliness of nature is essential to creaturely freedom. It can then, without inconsistency, be considered providential. That some evils result is not the fault of the order, for any order must stop short of destroying freedom, and freedom means risk.

To put the matter another way, the atheistic argument from evil holds that God must be weak or wicked in not using divine freedom to maximize harmony and reduce discord to zero. This means nothing if not this, that the chances of harmony and those of discord could and should be made to vary inversely. But we can, rather clearly, understand that this is logically impossible. Harmony and discord, as values, have the very same source, freedom. Harmony in freedom is good, conflict in freedom is evil, and the greater the freedom the greater the chances of both good and of evil. God is held deficient for not doing what logically could not be done. To avoid the evil of suffering and discord, God should have a world of pure puppets, incapable of getting off their designated tracks; to avoid the evil of deadly monotony and insipidity, to make existence interesting by causing free agents able to make their own decisions to flourish, he should not have a world of puppets at all, but self-determining creatures with some faint spark at least of creativity analogous to his own supreme creativity.

I see nothing in the classic “problem of evil” but this confusion or equivocation between creatures both puppets and free, or both lesser forms and not even lesser forms of the power of decision eminently ascribed to their creator.

The ideal power and wisdom of God does not, then, imply a perfection of detailed results, for no power could guarantee the detailed actions of others but rather an optimal excess of opportunity over risk, as arising from the laws of nature.

I cannot give anything like all my reasons for accepting this conception, but I wish to return to our previous question: “Is the part for the sake of whole, or the whole merely for the sake of the part?” To me it seems wonderfully irrational to suppose that the enduring universe exists merely for its transient parts, but if the parts exist for the whole, then the whole must contain the values of the parts. Since it is unintelligible that values can exist except for some being able to value or enjoy them, the cosmos should be thought of as able to value all that falls within it. The supreme creator is then the whole, evolving and appreciating its own parts, somewhat as the human body evolves new molecules, and in many cases new cells, from time to time; but the supreme whole must have full appreciation, such as we cannot have, for the details of the parts. The idea of the cosmos as conscious and evolving its own details, subject to their proper freedom is, I believe, compatible with all the results of science. True, there are many puzzles which may arise in this connection, but it is striking how few among the skeptics see that this is the question to which theists, if they understand themselves, give an affirmative answer. Most theists are unclear about this also, and many will say that I am quite on the wrong track, but I believe I have read these people with more care than they have read me, or anyone who thinks as I do.

I said above that science excludes not all final causes, but human favoring or anthropocentric final causes. I shall now try to explain this. One must first understand, once and for all, that no teleology can exclude unfortunate accidents and frustrations, for goals have to be reached through multiple acts of freedom, none of which can be entirely controlled, even by God. The point is not that God cannot control them, but that they cannot be controlled. It is not God’s influence which has limits, but their capacity to receive influence. Absolute control of a free being, and there can be no others, is self-contradictory. Hence exceptional monstrosities and incidental sufferings are to be attributed to the chance results of freedom, not to the teleology of nature. Only the general plan, the structure of laws, the normal pattern of nature can be wholly purposive.

If you ask, must not the laws and the antecedent conditions entirely determine the detailed phenomena, the answer is, not if law is conceived as physicists now incline to conceive it, as essentially statistical, a matter of averages in a large group of similar cases. The new outlook in physics thus fits our doctrine of pervasive freedom, as the Newtonian outlook did not.

Granting then that details are not necessarily purposive, what are the goals which nature is realizing? Here older discussions, both theistic and antitheistic, suffered from arbitrary assumption. For instance, it was thought strange that all living creatures are subject to death, that species die out, that creatures live by destroying other creatures. I find all of these things less strange than the more or less unconscious beliefs which made them appear strange. Is it desirable for an individual to live forever? If the individual has no long run memory and foresight, it cannot matter to it that it will not live forever, and if the individual does not have long range memory and foresight, then in the long run continuation within the limits of its individuality will prove increasingly monotonous, lacking in interest and zest. All young animals show more evidence of being thrilled by life, the novelty of things, than old animals. Human beings are not exceptions, in principle. They only think they are. One has but to observe life to see this. So I conclude, endless continuation of the individual is either of no value to the individual, or it is undesirable, even unendurable. That species do not last forever is even more obviously not an evil. Species other than us cannot know that they are temporary, and we can understand how our temporary existence can contribute to what is not temporary, the all-encompassing Whole.

You may suppose that even the Whole, according to the same principle of diminishing novelty, must finally grow old and tired, but the whole is the supreme reality, with no external conditions limiting it; whatever novelty it may need, it should have full power to evolve. Only ideal power, divine power, can either sustain, or make desirable, endless continuation. So I think we can, quite consistently, conceive God as immortal, without giving up the argument that mortality for creatures is an evil for them. Something in reality must be permanent, and God, I submit, is precisely that something.

But should creatures live, while they do live, by destroying others? Is this not vicious or cruel? This too I deny. Granted that creatures should not live forever, how then are they to die? The only causes must be other creatures, either within, as parts, or without as members of the external environment. What harm does it do a deer that it dies through the attack of a lion, rather than of old age? Old age is a dull mode of existence; if death generally came that way, then instead of the species being composed mostly of creatures enjoying the prime of Life, it would be more largely composed of half bored elders. The sum of intense enjoyment would be less, not more.

What, we now ask, are the overall goals of nature? We have argued that the parts live not merely for their own sakes but for that of the whole. What does the whole get from the parts? Well, what do we get from our parts, our bodily cells and molecules? We get the sensory and emotional content of our experience. When our cells thrive, we feel physical pleasure; when they are injured, we often feel physical pain. Thus their health contributes to our joy, and their ill health to our sorrow. We seem to participate in their weal and woe in whatever sense they are subject to weal and woe. Cells are living—I believe sentient—individuals. The “love of God” has often been spoken of, but we may overlook the full meaning of our own words. To love is, at least, to participate in the life of another. It may be more than that, but we should not use the word for less. We love, then, our own cells, though without distinct consciousness, so far as the single cells are concerned. We have a vague sense of good and evil enjoyed by the parts of the body. Imagine this vague sense flooded with the light of full consciousness and you have an analogy for the love of God.

It is a well-known law that the value of experience as coming to us from the body depends upon the variety and intensity of activities which can be harmonized. We know that lack of variety and contrast kills interest; we also know that variety and contrast may in some cases confuse and disturb. Harmonious variety is essential to value. What is nature if not a wondrously varied pattern of forms. Is it an harmonious pattern? Not in the sense of excluding all conflict, discord, or suffering; but this we have seen to be inherent in the pervasiveness of freedom, without which there could be no world at all. Essentially nature is harmonious, things fit together in an ecological web which naturalists admire the more they study it. The laws of nature articulate the harmony of nature. Some of the greatest scientists have tried to tell us how their more or less mystical reverence for and enjoyment of the cosmic harmony inspires their work, but we have often been too dull to believe them. I take them at their word.

Nature is a harmony in variety, ultimately for the enjoyment of the whole, but proximately for the enjoyment of each and every part, in proportion to its awareness of this harmony. Variety is in space as well as in time. That individuals and species die and others take their place is variety in time. Those who lament the passing of species want to limit the variety to be enjoyed by the whole. Truly they know not what they would have.

Can God love us if we are allowed to cease while God lives on? The answer lies in a simple ambiguity in the word “cease.” That our lives are finite in time as well as in space does not mean that at death we become nothing, or a mere corpse, for our past experiences are not canceled out. The past is indestructible, ever-living. Persons who truly love those who have died feel this vividly, though they usually, thanks to the strange blinders worn by philosophers and theologians who have taught them no better, misconceive the nature of the feeling. The past reality of the person is not dead and cannot die. It “lives forevermore,” in Whitehead’s phrase. Where? How? In the Whole, whose appreciation is infinitely tenacious of every item it once has appropriated. God forgets us never, and this is our immortality. We are imperishable items in God’s consciousness.

Our vanity is perhaps not satisfied by this. I can only speak for myself. I wish no further immortality, either for myself or for those I love. It is this earthly life which should be dear to us, for which we should be grateful, and this life is deathless, for what we and those we have influenced have done and felt cannot ever not have been done and felt, but the ultimate summing up and treasuring of this imperishable reality is not in our memory of consciousness; it is in God’s.

There will be those who say that the view I have been presenting is pantheistic, implying that this is enough to condemn it. The term “pantheism” has been used to cover doctrines as far apart from each other as from views commonly called theistic, and the habit of trying to put an end to reasonable discussion by the use of this label is on a par intellectually with terming every economic policy with which we disagree “communist.” The communism which properly deserves rejection in principle is something much more definite that those who misuse the term have in mind; so with the pantheism which deserves rejection in principle. Or, in other words, if my view is pantheistic, then perhaps so much the better for (one form of) pantheism, not necessarily so much the worse for my view.

The foregoing conception of God, or something like it, can be found, apart from my own writings, in Fechner’s Zend Avesta, written a century ago, in Berdyaev’s Destiny of Man, and in the last chapter of Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Many other writers have pointed in its direction. It is the great neglected alternative to classical theism, the stone rejected by the builders, whose ultimate destiny has by no means been decided by this rejection.

But how, you may ask, can we know any such view to be true? The answer to this question is a long story, but it can summarized in brief as follows: that philosophy is true which contains in itself the explanatory power of its rival, plus additional power of its own. The theory of pervasive freedom explains evil at least as well as any other view could do, for freedom is always risk, but the theory explains good better than the other view, provided we admit a supreme or divine level of freedom, by whose influence all lesser freedom can be benignly guided and coordinated, for freedom thus coordinated is primarily opportunity, and only secondarily risk. Thus freedom, if taken as both divine and non-divine is self-explanatory, accounting alike for its failures and its successes. It is the only self-explanatory principle. Order is due to the overruling supremacy of divine freedom, disorder to the multiplicity of lesser freedoms.

An interesting, but complicated, matter to reconsider is the historical proofs for the existence of God in the light of this modern doctrine. I find that in spite of the attacks of Hume, Kant, and others, they can all be restated so as to have a certain cogency.

These attacks rest upon assumptions incompatible with the theory of pervasive freedom, and of divine freedom as that of the all-inclusive reality. If we are not to be victimized by mistakes of our ancestors, the entire problem of God must be viewed afresh. I deeply believe that the idea of a God who determines all things is an absurdity; and I also deeply believe that religion without God is a poor second best, an irrational self-deification of humanity in our dangerous pride. Our life is on earth, not elsewhere; but the eventual importance of earthly life consists of its contribution to the cosmic Life, which alone is truly immortal, and alone deserves to be worshipped.

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