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A New World and New World View

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A New World and New World View

by Charles Hartshorne

In the last hundred years a philosophical and theological change has occurred, but it is one you will not read about in the newspapers or even in most textbooks and histories of philosophy. Nature includes two extremes: one is the inanimate aspect, studied in physics, astronomy, and similar sciences; the other, the human aspect, is studied in psychology, history, and the humanities. Between these extremes are many degrees of the animate in plants and the subhuman animal species. For philosophy, the question has been which extreme exhibits more clearly the general principles of nature. The first option is to take inanimate nature, so far is it is known to common sense or to science before quantum physics, as the model of reality in general and assimilate the animate and even the human to this model. Materialism and mechanism represent this option. Even human freedom is viewed as a special, complicated case of deterministic causality. People are analyzed as complex machines. A second option is to view the inanimate world as in the first case—that is, purely materialistically and mechanistically—but to make an exception at least of human species and perhaps of all animals, admitting that they are not mere machines but more or less conscious organisms, which at least in the higher forms, partially transcend strict causal determinism in their behavior. This second, or dualistic, option is really a cop-out, since it gives up the search for general principles of nature.

There is a third option, the last to be adequately worked out. It takes the human end of the scale of natural things as the model, since it is the one we know best, and views the degrees of animation from single cells to increasingly complex forms of multicellular animals as stages in the development from low to high degrees of awareness and freedom. To complete this view, one must see not single cells or viruses as the lowest level of awareness and freedom but the very molecules, atoms, and particles of so-called inanimate nature. In quantum theory, these entities appear as lively and organized creatures. The seeming lack of animation and organization in earth, air, liquids, and metals is, as Leibniz guessed long ago, an illusion of our senses. Furthermore, the strict determinism of classical physics is now seriously challenged or rejected by many, perhaps most, physicists. For all we can know, when an atom of uranium turns into an atom of lead, it may be a spontaneous act of the atom. No law determines when it happens.

The way is now open to try to understand molecules as simpler versions of what a cell is, and the cell as a vastly simpler version of what even a human animal is. As for plants, those large enough to be visible are, for botanists, colonies of cells. In this respect they are like animal embryos before the formation of a functioning nervous system. They are also somewhat like you or me when we are in dreamless sleep. Thus, all of nature is covered by our third option. Any insentient thing such as a cloud, a rock or river, or even a tree, is a crowd or swarm of invisibly small constituents that are very unlike what we know as rocks, rivers, clouds or trees; rather, on a vastly more primitive level, they resemble us in having their own self-activity. This activity is the external sign of mind and freedom, however humble or trifling in degree or quality.

There remains the question of God. As atoms are akin to us but unimaginably simpler and inferior, so God is like us but unimaginably superior and more complex. The crucial theological problem is whether we can reconcile the likeness and the difference. The God that Nietzsche declared dead had never really been alive because the reconciliation of these two requirements—likeness to life as we know it and superiority to all other living forms, actual or possible—had not been achieved. For nearly two millennia, God was thought of as an unmoved mover, wholly self-sufficient and uninfluenced by the world. Somehow this being was supposed by most theologians to act freely, rather than in a causally determined way. Causal laws were themselves taken to be free acts of God. In addition, God was supposed to love the creatures. Many theologians denied that human beings, at least since the Fall, had even the least spark of the freedom of action attributed to God, yet humanity was also said to be an image of God. Even those who allowed some human freedom did not allow our actions to have any influence on God.

This theology seems to many of us now to be riddled with absurdities. It made the problem of evil desperate indeed since it either deprived us of any creative power or it made us, along with God, exceptions to otherwise supposedly valid principles of intelligibility.

The alternative, now more clearly formulated than ever before, is to view mind and freedom as matters of degree, supreme in God, very slight in particles and atoms, gradually increasing through molecules and cells to the higher animals and ourselves. Contemporary physics fits this view far better than did the physics known to Leibniz, the grandfather of this third option.

The kind of philosophy I am talking about is shared, with secondary differences, by the Frenchman Henri Bergson, by the American Charles Peirce, by the Anglo-American Alfred North Whitehead, and in varying degrees, by others. In principle, it preceded quantum physics. Some call it “process philosophy.” It changes everything. For example, it gives a new answer to the old question, “Why does God not prevent suffering and evil?” and also to the question, “Why do animals all die?” It gives a new meaning to the old formula that the proper aim of rational beings is to serve God. This statement used to mean one should obey a being for whom one could do nothing since the being is wholly self-sufficient and immutable. Now it can mean that one should make one’s life as valuable a contribution as one can to the supreme or divine life, in somewhat the same way as the health of one’s bodily cells contributes to one’s well-being.

What follows is an item of Unitarian history that will be unfamiliar to many readers. Nearly four centuries ago, the Italian theologian Faustus Socinus criticized the traditional deification of Jesus of Nazareth; in addition, though scarcely any encyclopedia or history will say so, he rejected the traditional idea of God as an unmoved mover, an immutable and all-determining power. Believing that human beings have genuine freedom, Socinus denied that God either determines or eternally knows our free acts. Rather, we determine the acts, and God knows them only after the fact or as they occur.

This view implies real novelty in the divine consciousness, it means that we cause changes in God. In this bold break with tradition, Socinus anticipated our current process theology. What he chiefly lacked was the insight that the idea of creaturely freedom, which creates novelty even in God, should be generalized to apply to all creatures, even the humblest—for instance, atoms. Human creativity is then no sheer exception in an otherwise divinely determined world but is only an extremely special, high-level case of creaturely freedom. Before the physics of the late nineteenth century, this generalization could scarcely be entertained, but about a hundred years ago a number of thinkers, more or less independently, did entertain and defend it. Among them were Peirce, Boutroux and later Bergson, both in France, Varisco in Italy, and Whitehead.

Another important passage of theological history has been neglected. The father of American theology, Jonathan Edwards, was, as is well known, a theological determinist who believed divine power decides all our actions. What is less well known that the Unitarian-bred Ralph Waldo Emerson held the same belief, as his diary makes clear. I deeply admire Emerson, but in his religious metaphysics he was surprisingly close to Edwards. This is one of many instances of the sad fact that the metaphysical originality and courage of Socinus and his followers were for several centuries allowed to go for nothing. Another instance of their lying fallow is that when, some years ago, the Unitarian church of England drew up a statement of faith, God was defined as immutable in the document. Why labor the point? Three centuries were wasted by the failure of scholars to do their job in dealing the Socinianism. I had to read a little-known German work by Otto Fock entitled, Der Socinianismus, to find out what the Socinians believed about God.

I appreciate the difficulties many have with theism. As a college sophomore, I roomed with an atheistic senior, and I have associated much with nontheists ever since. Concerning difficulties with the idea of God, I ask, “Which idea? Is it the classical notion of an immutable being that decides the details of cosmic history in eternity?” Then I am an atheist. “Or is it the conception of God as supreme freedom and love responding to creatures, the least of which has some freedom of its own and at least some primitive form of what in a generalized sense could be called love—at a minimum, some spark of sympathy for others, some feeling of their feelings?” Whatever the difficulties presented by this idea, they are not the same as the problems with the more usual conception. Only this usual conception figures in the works of the great nontheistic writers from Carneades in ancient Greece to Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Russell, Dewey, Santayana, and Freud.

The phrase “free religion” ought, it seems, to mean more than mere independence from traditional or current thought; it should yield opportunity to choose the best in traditional or contemporary wisdom. To what extent is this being done?

Long ago certain truths were seen, but so were certain half-truths with which they are easily confused or which obscure their meaning. One truth seen long ago is that the only self-justifying ideal is to love others as we love ourselves. The major religions have taught this; it may be called the ultimate ideal, but other and partly incompatible ideals and beliefs have continually clouded that vision. Western philosophers, for the most part, have taught that we love ourselves because we are ourselves and love others only for our own sake. Enlightened self-interest was made the first principle, and altruism was taken as wholly derivative. This is not to love others as we love ourselves. What the ultimate ideal means is that one should love people, ourselves included, as one person among many. One should love oneself for the sake of others as truly as others for our own sakes. But few Western philosophers really understood this principle. Two who did were Peirce and Whitehead.

How can it be logical, you may ask, to love others not primarily for our own sakes but for their own? In Asia, the Buddhists saw the reason with a clarity denied to Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Immanuel Kant. David Hume perhaps came closest to seeing it before Peirce. The point is that self-identity—I with myself, you with yourselves throughout life—is a highly relative and partial identity. I am not simply and absolutely one with myself as a child and old man, asleep and awake, delirious or in my right mind. I am not simply different from other people. The truth is much subtler and more complex. Personal identity is not the key to love. Love is not something caring for itself; it is a relationship between two entities. If I love myself, then I and myself are genuinely two, not one. Thus, I, as I am right now, may love myself as I was yesterday or as I may be tomorrow. I may also feel antipathy toward my other selves. Nor is self-interest in the form of genuine care for one’s own future automatic. Immediate pleasure often blots out any regard for future consequences, even to oneself.

Why should one aim at future good for anyone, even for oneself? In the long-term future, we are dead. Is it for the good of corpses that we are striving? Taking the whole future into account, the self is a wasting asset. To make it the ultimate good is to turn life into Macbeth’s “tale/Told by an idiot/full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” An elder citizen like myself sees this fact more readily than the young are likely to; yet I was twenty years old when I first saw it.

Present experience, as I then began to understand, is a contribution, a gift, to future experience; otherwise, in ultimate perspective, it is indistinguishable from nothing. The present becomes the past for an ever new present, and in this perpetually renewed contribution to the future is our only permanent reality. To make a huge fuss about whether the new present that later inherits from this one will always be a state of self—rather than of descendants, pupils, friends, strangers, or even life in nonhuman for— is to show a failure to understand our mortal existence. The final question is what we can contribute to the future of life, any life that can be supposed able to receive and adequately appropriate our contribution.

Of course, we are all more or less selfish. Any vertebrate animal sees and feels itself as the center of the world, “Here I am; there you are, background for my career.” As Reinhold Niebuhr saw so well, this feeling translates itself readily in a thinking animal into an egocentric attitude that carried to the limit, amounts to self-deification. Only a divine ego could be the real center of the world. Thus, our animal experience puts us at the center of the world, while our reason tells us that every other human person is as central as we are, so that neither is central. The other is, in principle, as permanent or impermanent as we are. As Shakespeare said, “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” Unfortunately, much Western philosophy and, to some extent, nearly all philosophy and still more nearly all religion have cheated us here. They have flattered our individual or collective conceit with theories of personal immortality and have tried in every way to explain away death, instead of helping us to accept it for what it is. The ancient Jews were the great exception, honor to them. Even when individual death has been accepted, however, the human species has often been regarded as though it were immortal. Species do last longer than individuals, but they, too, are mortal, and basically for the same reason, that they are contingent creatures of the creative process, dependent for continued existence upon circumstances.

A newspaper report credits a professor of sociology with the memorable sentence, “Life promises us nothing but experience.” In other words, all actual value is felt, enjoyed value. The rest is only the possibility of value, checks that can be cashed only in experience. Each experience is momentary; it falls into the past, where its only worth is in its value for new experience. What are my or your childhood experiences unless someone now remembers or benefits from them? At the time, we felt they were important, and so they were, but importance cannot be defined as a relation of the present to the present; it must be a relation to the future.

I call this doctrine “contributionism.” Life now contributes to life in the future; only in this way can it have meaning or importance. Consider from this point of view our environmental problems. In principle, the energy crisis is centuries old. Nonrenewable resources are nonrenewable. Is poverty of resources to be our gift to posterity? Is it not time we faced the basic environmental truth that the destruction of nonrenewable resources depends largely on two factors, the size of the population and, above all, the average amount of luxurious and wasteful practices per person? Without care and a substantial measure of economic asceticism and of modesty in our material demands (even with a stable population, which we do not have), we shall make a sadly negative contribution to the material situation of posterity.

Our notorious waste of food comes partly from our fortunate share in the world’s good agricultural land and our agricultural know-how, but there are other reasons. In pioneer times, physical exertion made more calories necessary than now, when so many of us do so little physically. In addition, although in this country we boast of our freedom, we have an odd tendency to expect individuals to differ little from one another. We do admit that smaller people need smaller suits of clothes, for instance, but furniture is made to fit a single standard sized person. Worst of all, meals are served largely in single standard sizes. You can buy a small or large glass of juice, but nearly everything else is served in a single amount that is the same for all and much beyond the needs of most people. Sometimes children’s plates are serve—to children; but age is not the point. Adults as well as children vary widely in both size and physical habits, hence in their need for food. As a result of the way food is now served, one eats too much. Obesity has become a national disease. One wastes food, or one has the courage to ask for a doggie bag. The government has asked restaurants to serve food in small as well as large portions; so far there seems to have been no response. Until this irrational way of serving food is changed, the overeating, waste, and inconvenience will go on.

Emerson was a hero of my youth. Some years ago I found a new reason to admire him. When a group of women drew up a list of rights that society owed to women, Emerson wrote in his diary, “Of course they should have these things. It is very cheap to laugh at them.” John Stuart Mill responded to the issue with his famous essay, The Subjection of Women. What did other men do at that time? Only when applied science had cut the death rate and lengthened life sufficiently to free women from having to spend most of their lives bearing and rearing children could the point be generally grasped, and there is still a long way to go.

Life is a gift from past life to future life. This simple truth goes deeper than we normally realize. The great singer Paul Robeson sang a moving song about four rivers all finding their way to the sea. To the question of questions, “Into what sea does all life pour its treasures?” I have found no nontheistic answer. Emerson’s Oversoul or Plato’s world soul is the only answer I know; but this soul, this divine life, is not to be conceived as immutable, for then our lives could not contribute to it, or as all-determining, for then all suffering and wickedness is its doing and our sense of freedom an illusion.

It is sometimes said that we are less ethical than our ancestors. Perhaps we are, but perhaps also, because of altered circumstances, what are called the same actions are not really the same because of changes in their effects. Whatever else is right, it is right to see things as they are. Our duty to love our neighbors is a duty to promote their welfare in actual situations, and technology keeps changing them. We should take these changes into account in considering our obligations. Augustine said, “Love God, and do as you please.” In other words, accept the deep truth of reality as expressive of divine love, and you will want to act in a manner appropriate to that truth.

Let us not imagine that God is only the God of biblical times, ignorant of whatever the writers of the Old or New Testaments did not know that scientists, philosophers, or theologians are now aware of. Give God credit for knowing what is true, including truths only now being discovered by human beings. Some of these truths did not obtain in biblical times, even for God, since they have resulted from human decisions then not yet made, not yet there to be known. The changes in hygiene and medicine that have altered the position of women are important examples of new truths with ethical bearings. It is time people caught up with Emerson and Mill, those pioneers in ethical thinking about human relations. They were right in principle, but the technological resources were not yet available to make application of the ideal altogether feasible. Women should not have to submit to restrictions that made some sense a hundred or two thousand years ago. This principle is what the feminist movement is all about.

Here is another example. People who became senile used, for the most part, to die fairly soon. Now human vegetables are being kept alive for years. The resources used for this unworthy purpose could be better applied. Society needs to regard as a valid contract a document, like those many have already signed, asking to be allowed to die when life on a human plane is no longer possible. A human near vegetable is not a neighbor in the ethical sense. To allow such a creature, who is no longer human, to cease to exist can be called murder only by a gross misuse of that word. Are we to treat all destruction of animal life as murder? In that case, only vegetarians escape being murderers.

Is abortion murder? It may be objectionable, certainly sad, but to call it murder merely begs the ethical question. A fetus is not actually a humanly thinking creature but only one that may become so if at least one adult makes sufficient sacrifices to bring this development about. Is it the proper business of judges or legislators to decide whether these sacrifices shall be made? A fetus is in no reasonable sense of the word a person, a citizen, or neighbor. Also, given the doctrine of the separation of church and state, we cannot expect our laws to enforce principles that have no clear relation to known facts about which we might reach a consensus.

Unwanted pregnancy is a dismal business, and both men and women have a clear duty to try to avoid it. Our society fails badly here. Of course, a case can be made for bearing a child for which one feels unable to be a good parent and giving it to foster parents, but to demand that a person who does not want to bear a child should do so on the ground that the alternative is murder is verbal cheating. We hear talk of the “rights of the unborn.” If a creature as mindless as an embryo a few weeks old has rights, why not horses? It is society, or pregnant women, or their lovers that have rights here, not embryos. Threatened with a population deficiency, a society might have a right to try to prevent abortion, but this would be not the embryo’s right but society’s, and it is doubtful if there is such a society anywhere today.

All animals have rights in the sense that it is immoral to treat them cruelly, but they do not have a right to live forever. When they shall die is a question over which the human species cannot entirely avoid exercising choice.

I have not discussed sexual ethics. This topic, if I were wise enough for it, would take up all my time. I will, however, tell you one thing that I know and hope you do, too: fidelity to one sexual partner through a lifetime can, with luck and good management, mean great happiness.

“A New World and a New World View,” The Life of Choice, ed. Clark Kucheman, Beacon Press, (1978)