Metaphysics after the Western Wall Has Come Down

Metaphysics after the Western Wall Has Come Down

2002-06-01

Polymythic Personalistic Organicism, Biocentric Egalitarianism, and the Postmodern Return to Religion.

It was inevitable that postmodernism would return to metaphysics. After the modernists taught us that religion was dead, and after the resulting triumph of postmodernist interrogation - which convinced us that there are no trustworthy foundations for social or moral values, that all belief as well as identity is socially constructed, that there is a silent campaign to mold our intelligences and social consciousnesses by Microsoft and the Disney Corporation, and that the Western tradition of thought is defunct or should be - we sat in our Pottery Barn living rooms after Pilates with our televisions turned off and wondered what to do next. Some of us began to yearn for what we have been taught is the last gasp of the desperate: a foundational meaning for life.

What was surprisingly surprising to those who took this last route was the revelation of a metaphysical strain of thought lurking in Foucault’s historical geneologies as well as Cornell West’s liberatory rhetoric and Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive fireworks. Metaphysics has in fact become immensely more interesting after the Western wall has come down. After years of our dissection of metaphysics as politics in disguise, it has become reinvigorated by the inference that our political criticism was always already metaphysics. Thus the trend to reevaluate the hidden metaphysics in the work of the giants of late twentieth-century social or aesthetic philosophy and theory. See, for example, Jeremy R. Carette’s work on religion and Michel Foucault in Religion and Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999); John D. Caputo’s The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,1997); Brian R. Clack’s An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999); Phillip Blond, ed., Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology (London and New York: Routledge, 1998). A number of counter-traditions in theology and ethics have begun to emerge, attempts to formulate a new, postmodern metaphysics/ethics that adequately addresses the conflicting needs to find meaning of life without returning to an untheorized pre-modern religiosity or the sterile logic of a thoroughly disciplinized analytic philosophy. At least four major strains of postmodern metaphysical speculation are currently generating heated discussion: the thought of Emmanuel Levinas that includes Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo; the Radical Orthodoxy movement led by John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward; Mark C. Taylor’s postmodern anti-theology; and “constructive postmodernism” championed by David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb, Jr., and Marjorie Suchocki at the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. See, for example, The Face of the Other & the Trace of God: Essays on the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, ed. Jeffrey Bloechl (New York: Fordham UP, 2000); Radical Orthodoxy: A new theology, ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward (London and New York: Routledge, 1999); Mark C. Taylor, About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999); David Ray Griffin, God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976) and Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992).

This last is the strong arm of “process thought,” a theology informed by the naturalistic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne that reacts both to the German theological tradition growing out of Kantian idealism and to theological neo-orthodoxy of the mid-twentieth century. The “postmodernism” of this movement lies in its rejection of pre-modern epistemological foundationalism as well as the ideologically hegemonic structures of late modernity. As David Ray Griffin notes in his “Introduction to SUNY series in Constructive Postmodern Thought,” which appears in one form or another in all of the series books (currently numbering twenty-three, ten of which have been written or edited by Griffin himself),”Going beyond the modern world will involve transcending its individualism, anthropocentrism, patriarchy, economism, consumerism, nationalism, and militarism” but also salvaging “a positive meaning not only for the notions of selfhood, historical meaning, reason, and truth as correspondence…but also for notions of divinity, cosmic meaning, and an enchanted nature” (Ferré xvii-xviii).

Frederick Ferré addresses this quest in Living and Value, published in Griffin’s series. Ferré’s trilogy includes Being and Value: Toward a Constructive Postmodern Metaphysics (1996) and Knowing and Value: Toward a Constructive Postmodern Epistemology (1998), both published by SUNY Press in the Constructive Postmodernism series. The premise of this book is that the process theism of Alfred North Whitehead can formulate a postmodern ethics. (Readers are informed that Ferré’s father was a theologian and Whitehead’s graduate assistant at Harvard.) Ferré, Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia, covers much ground in this book, including an overview of the Western tradition in ethics, a full chapter discussion of religious world views versus metaphysical world views, a discussion of theological models, and three full chapters of what are essentially normative ethics examples from different segments of lived and speculative reality.

As Ferré notes, Whitehead’s philosophy is particularly suited to a postmodernist mindset, for it gets rid of a foundational, anthropomorphized godhead and replaces Him/Her with a god who is like an eternal unconscious energy force or a well disposed computer memory bank, dependent upon life for its own becoming but also the repository of life’s possibilities. Whitehead’s theism eliminates the Book and replaces its historical narratives with a narrative about universal quantum process based metaphorically on quantum mechanics. Whitehead himself was a mathematician, so this focus was natural to him. His organicist philosophy depends upon the idea of constant change (process)in place of static creation.

Briefly summarized, Whitehead’s theory posits that events be substituted for entities in theistic imagination; these events (forming all aspects of creation) are comprised of past potentialities (a repository of past choices) and possible creative deviational choices (present creativity). As Ferré notes, for Whitehead there were three “formative elements” metaphysically necessary to the world of events: creativity, eternal objects (possibilities for becoming), and God, which can be only good. Tiny units called “actual occasions” or “events” make up all of creation; they interact with and combine with one another in infinitely small processes of becoming (human souls are vast collections of such occasions) through a selection of past and present creative possibilities, at a moment of “concrescence.” In his Process and Reality, Whitehead argued that God was both the sole nontemporal actual entity and a changing process relative to finite occasions. God has a Primordial Nature, as the repository of all potentialities and creative choices inherent in actual occasions: “He is the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire” and “He is the principle of concretion - the principle whereby there is initiated a definite outcome from a situation otherwise riddled with ambiguity.” But he also has a Consequent Nature: “God’s conceptual nature is unchanged, by reason of its final completeness. But his derivative nature is consequent upon the creative advance of the world” (Process and Reality 344-45). God offers positive creative options in each moment of event concrescence, not determining reality but mutually determining and determined by it. I am basing my summary here on my own reading of Whitehead in Process and Reality, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978) and on a few succinct summaries of his philosophy, including Ferre’s own excellent recapitulation in Living and Value, pages 191-202; John B. Cobb, Jr., “Process Theology and the Present Church Struggle” in Introduction to Christian Theology, ed. Roger A. Badham (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 154-66; Hans Küng, Does God Exist? (New York: Crossroad, 1978), 176-81. Longer studies I consulted included Robert Neville, Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology, 2nd ed. (SUNY Press, 1995); John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology, based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia: Westminster P, 1965); Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: 1941).

Though he bases his ideas on Whitehead’s metaphysics, Ferré actually is not a Whiteheadian, for he believes in a “vibratory universe” but “is less convinced of the additional need for God or a god, a single unified cosmic entity in constant relationship with the world, to complete the cosmic picture” (Ferré 191). To eliminate God/god from Whitehead’s metaphysical system, I would argue, is to change it into something else altogether. But Ferré’s proposed ethics is closely linked to Whiteheadian metaphysics. This is Ferré’s “Polymythic Personalistic Organicism” (PMPO), a new ecumenical “religious” world view advocating a limited pluralism that encompasses the insights of Edgar S. Brightmen’s Personalism and Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organicism. Such a pluralism would allow Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, and “religious atheists” to come together in a general way as they “struggle to deal with the issues of ugliness and evil” (230).

PMPO, notes Ferré, would be a “kalogenic (beauty-creating) naturalism, so named because in my view the fundamental value born in the self-actualization of each momentary entity is beauty, defined as intrinsically satisfactory experience” (190). This is not as touchy-feely as it sounds, for Ferré spends much of the first half of the book carefully defining key terms like “satisfactory experience” in relation to previous ethical and epistemological theories. His conclusion is that “moral evil is a special kind of ugliness” that takes forms of Philistinism, “a violation of the principle of beneficence” and Vandalism, “a breakdown of the principle of nonmaleficence” (215-16).

This is a conflation of ethics and aesthetics, the idea that evil and ugliness are the same thing. Ferré places himself in an Augustinian tradition of understanding evil as the “failure of a positive norm,” but goes further to equate evil and ugliness. Ferré’s ethics follow from the principle that “active engagement against ugliness and evil is the point of living” and consists of four principles: (1) do no harm; (2) protect existing good; (3) create new good; (4) be fair (236-37). While to me an impoverishment of traditional theistic ethical values such as selflessness, humility, piety, generosity, and love, Ferré’s ethics certainly have successful historical precedents in other theistic and atheistic systems.

He complicates this quadriform schema by adding that any religious or metaphysical world view depends upon the criteria of adequacy (richness or fullness of life), coherence (wholeness or integrity in life), and effectiveness (163).

Ferré begins by making a case that ethical reasoning is in fact reasoning, contesting a separation of ethics as “feeling” or outside the realm of epistemological investigation. Arguing that feelings, emotions, and nonlogical predispositions are embedded in all thinking, including scientific logic, he equates “ethical intuition” with mathematical intuition and sensory intuition. This intuition leads in complex beings to reasoning about the good and combines with basic animal survival demands for coordination between different members of a species; this combination leads to an ethics that supports pluralism and recognizes itself as a natural outgrowth of both biological evolution and epistemological inquiry. From this conclusion, Ferré goes on to show, through an historical outline of major thinkers’ works, how ethics has gone wrong in an interesting twenty-seven-page overview from Plato to Ayer. It’s a tour de force opener, followed by an argument for ethics as a way of experiencing, thinking, and knowing that introduces Whitehead’s thought. This is followed by a discussion of ethics as being that develops this Whiteheadian focus in much more detail. In Part Two, Ferré tackles the problem of religion in the same manner, overviewing prominent theological models, addressing the question of God, and then presenting a PMPO model. Part Three of the book is a kind of application section, where Ferré views what he calls natural, technological, and political values through the lens afforded by PMPO.

The devil is always in the details, however, and perhaps because his system depends so heavily on aesthetic values (e.g., beauty and ugliness), one might ask Ferré to consider the concept with stringent logic, if only because materialist studies, Holocaust studies, and other theoretical conversations recently have raised serious and troubling issues concerning the conflation of the ethical with the aesthetic. Yet when Ferré outlines PMPO, he tends to slip from logical proof to the declarative. In the last three chapters, for example, where readers are led to expect a full working out of this ethical schema in the natural, technological, and political worlds, they get instead very general narrative summaries about space, social problems, and issues in cultural politics with statements about how PMPO would address each. The result is a general overview of many different kinds and orders of material and ethical problems, rather than, for example, the kind of deep logical analysis characteristic of David Wiggins’s work or the deep theological analysis of John Milbank.

This levelling of natural and logical orders is both a strength and weakness in this book. Ferré knows a lot, writes clearly without jargon, and exhibits an admirable sense of fair play when discussing volatile ethical issues and theology. He has an ability to boil things down to clear examples. For example, illustrating the need for a personal organicism that “supports no blanket claims and certainly opposes human chauvinism” but that is also on track in terms of its basic values, Ferré notes that when giving his ethics classes a story problem that asks them to choose between running down a chicken or a child on the road, they now - schooled in “biocentric egalitarianism” - often seem frighteningly unable to make a choice, and he concludes that “it seems to me strange dogma to find nothing to choose…between the potential intrinsic values represented by a child and a chicken” (274). But then, fairly balancing the issue, he notes that in issues concerning global habitat interfaces, the interests of the chicken and the child should be weighed and balanced.

Yet when Ferré discusses “natural ugliness,” he gets into trouble. He claims that nature “vandalizes” beauty when volcanoes erupt because “every living blade of grass…is more complex, more intrinsically valuable, than any great pool of overheated magma” and that it is vandalizing nature that lets “A beautiful, intelligent cheetah…fall prey to a crocodile” (226). These pronouncements that some aspects of nature are more valuable or aesthetically beautiful than others are shot through with Western sentimentalism and they muddy rather than clarify the discussion. Likewise, when Ferré writes that the planets have “the alien majesty, the unmanipulated integrity, the pristine innocence for which many men and women thirst” (247), we have moved far away from ethics, into the realm of (a very Western) Romantic poetry.

A constructive postmodernism that returns to ethical inquiry in response to its own deconstructive interrogation of social forms is long overdue. Ferré’s book illustrates the difficulties of trying to build a world on the postmodern boundary between foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, diversity and identity. “In the postmodern world that I envision,” he writes, “the effort would be to press hard for education, security, and prosperity everywhere, to make obsolete current hopelessness, poverty, and desperate reproduction” (297). One should applaud this vision and the expertise Ferré brings to the task.

Thus the trend to reevaluate the hidden metaphysics in the work of the giants of late twentieth-century social or aesthetic philosophy and theory. See, for example, Jeremy R. Carette’s work on religion and Michel Foucault in Religion and Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999); John D. Caputo’s The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,1997); Brian R. Clack’s An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999); Phillip Blond, ed., Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).

See, for example, The Face of the Other & the Trace of God: Essays on the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, ed. Jeffrey Bloechl (New York: Fordham UP, 2000); Radical Orthodoxy: A new theology, ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward (London and New York: Routledge, 1999); Mark C. Taylor, About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999); David Ray Griffin, God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976) and Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992).

Ferré’s trilogy includes Being and Value: Toward a Constructive Postmodern Metaphysics (1996) and Knowing and Value: Toward a Constructive Postmodern Epistemology (1998), both published by SUNY Press in the Constructive Postmodernism series.

I am basing my summary here on my own reading of Whitehead in Process and Reality, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978) and on a few succinct summaries of his philosophy, including Ferre’s own excellent recapitulation in Living and Value, pages 191-202; John B. Cobb, Jr., “Process Theology and the Present Church Struggle” in Introduction to Christian Theology, ed. Roger A. Badham (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 154-66; Hans Küng, Does God Exist? (New York: Crossroad, 1978), 176-81. Longer studies I consulted included Robert Neville, Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology, 2nd ed. (SUNY Press, 1995); John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology, based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia: Westminster P, 1965); Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: 1941).

See Wiggins, Needs, Values Truth, 3rd ed. (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1998) or Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).