2.6 Consciousness and process
Even if biological evolution could be explained, there were still many questions
remaining about the nature of mind and consciousness, questions which theism once
might have been called upon to answer. There began to be much public interest in
spiritualism and psychic phenomena, and the Society for Psychical Research was founded
in 1882. These activities were not now based on theism but rather on phenomena that
were not explained by either the religious or scientific establishments. William
James (1842-1910) was not religious, for example, though from
his father he had been exposed to Swedenborg’s ideas. He wanted to know about minds,
took the question of human immortality very seriously, and published the first comprehensive
description of religious experiences. James (1898) proposed
a ‘transmission theory’ of human consciousness, contrasting it with the theory that
it is generated by the brain. He lacked, however, a theory of what might exist
to account for human consciousness or immortality, and in the end,
James (1904) even asked “Does ‘consciousness’ exist?",
seeming to reply in the negative. Unless there is some ontology, I will counter,
the possibility of a proper science fades away.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was a mathematician who
became interested in the foundations of physics. He first followed interpretations
of special relativity, in which only events existed. Then in 1929
Whitehead published a fully-fledged ‘process philosophy’.
According to this mature viewpoint, the world consists of a succession of ‘actual
occasions’ that develop and become actual by ‘perceiving’ their predecessors in
a way reminiscent of conscious perception. Within his philosophy there is also the
beginning of a ‘process theology’ whereby God is involved in creation, having both
a primordial and a consequent nature, and whereby God develops along with the world.
God’s influence on the world is first by the ‘ingress’ of forms for actuality (as
with Plato) and second as a ‘lure’ to humans for what is good. In both cases, there
are no directly causal influences. In fact, there are no active causes anywhere
in his ontology, not even in the physical world. Rather, everything, even physical
processes, is modeled on perception by organisms, resulting overall in a panpsychist
view of the entire universe.
Whitehead’s philosophy can be called theistic, but only in a weak sense because
the positive influences of God on the world are limited to those creatures with
desire and with a conscience. His ideas were developed by Charles
Hartshorne (1967) and by John
Cobb (1965) into a ‘process theology’ that has became
popular. It seems to offer consistency with modern physics. It has an emphasis on
‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’, along with explanations of how consciousness might
arise in organisms. It also has an explanation of why Darwinian natural selection
may have been necessary.