denies some of the key attributes ascribed to God by classical theism, such as immutability and impassibility. Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) was among its chief representatives. As a Thomist, I am the opposite of sympathetic to process theism. However, I’ve always found Hartshorne an interesting thinker. Many twentieth-century philosophers had a regrettable tendency toward overspecialization, and also often ignored all but a handful of thinkers of the past. Hartshorne, by contrast, was a philosopher of the old-fashioned stripe. He addressed a wide variety of philosophical problems, was deeply read in the history of philosophy, and that history informed his work on contemporary issues. He was also old-fashioned insofar as his theism (flawed though it was from my point of view) was integral to his more general metaphysics and ethics. Like the greatest thinkers of the past, Hartshorne knew that the question of God was at the very heart of philosophy, not something that could be ignored by any serious philosopher, or at best tacked on to an otherwise complete system.
Hartshorne spells out his general approach to natural theology in his book (You can read the book online .) Naturally, he addresses the divine attributes, and on that topic and others I deeply disagree with him. But here I want to focus on some areas of agreement – particularly in his second chapter, wherein he discusses the traditional proofs of God’s existence. He begins by noting that hostility to the very idea of such proofs comes from two quarters. First, there is “the wish of some that theism should not find rational support because they prefer to go on disbelieving it” (p. 31). More on them in a moment. But second:.
[It] derives[s]… partly from the wish of others that it should not find rational support because, they think, belief should be independent of secular reason and thus remain in the hands of preachers and theologians, or to speak more generously, belief should be a matter of faith. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Never mind the reasoners, unless they too are pure in heart – and then their reason is not to the point. (Ibid.)
This fideistic attitude has been no less destructive of religious belief than the attacks of skeptics, and indeed has given aid and comfort to such attacks. As Hartshorne goes on to write:
But how many persons are so very pure that they can believe even if they are aware that no reasoner thinks that reasoning favors belief? And ought they to believe, on that supposition? I incline to think (with Freud, for example) that the impossibility of any rational argument for belief, supposing it really obtained, would be a strong and quite rational argument against belief. I suspect that most unbelievers agree with me here. And so, officially, does the Roman Catholic Church. (pp. 31-32)
What Hartshorne has in mind in that last remark are condemnations of fideism like those issued by the :
If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema…
If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men and women ought to be moved to faith only by each one's internal experience or private inspiration: let him be anathema.
If anyone says… that miracles can never be known with certainty, nor can the divine origin of the Christian religion be proved from them: let him be anathema.
End quote. The skeptic might scoff, supposing that the Magisterium of the Church is here trying to establish by fiat that God’s existence, the reality of miracles, and the like are demonstrable by reason. But the Church is not trying to convince the skeptic here. Rather, the Church is teaching the faithful that fideism is heretical. And the reason is that fideism is destructive of faith, understood as believing something because it has been revealed by God. For unless we can know by reason that God really does exist and really has revealed something, how can we, without self-deception, accept it on faith? That does not entail that every Christian, or even very many of them, have to be capable of the sophisticated philosophical argumentation that goes into establishing the rational foundations of Christianity. But some have to be able to do so.
To be sure, Hartshorne himself was not a specifically Christian philosopher, let alone a Catholic. But that theology is and ought to be no less rational an enterprise than any other field of inquiry is an important piece of common ground.
The presuppositions of skepticism
Hartshorne also has important things to say about the other sort of critic of the very idea of theistic proofs, namely the skeptic. He writes:
In considering proofs we must realize that if proofs have premises, so – unless they are purely and trivially formal – do criticisms of proofs… [S]ince divinity is not religiously conceived as a mere illustration of first principles but as somehow the first principle, the correlate of every interest and every meaning, it follows that any metaphysical assumption implicitly either expresses or contradicts theism. It cannot be neutral toward it if it is on the metaphysical level of generality. Only empirical issues are thus neutral. Hence no theistic view can be criticized without at least implicit metaphysical commitments. (p. 32)
This is a very important insight, albeit one that needs unpacking. Debate between atheism and theism often proceeds as if the burden of proof is all on the theist, and in particular as if the theist, but not the atheist, must make metaphysical presuppositions (about the nature of causation, teleology, the principle of sufficient reason, or whatever) that are likely to be as controversial as the conclusion he wishes to establish by means of them. By contrast, the atheist, many seem to assume, proceeds from neutral ground and simply finds the arguments for theism, and for the broader metaphysical theses underlying such arguments, unpersuasive in light of premises that both sides have in common.
Hartshorne’s point is that the dispute is not really like this at all. Objections to first cause arguments like Aquinas’s first two Ways typically presuppose, either explicitly or implicitly, views about the metaphysics of causation that are no less challengeable than Aquinas’s own. Objections to arguments from contingency like Leibniz’s commonly make assumptions about the metaphysics of necessity, or about the nature and limits of explanation, that are no less contentious than the arguments themselves. And so on. Precisely because theism, properly understood, entails claims about ultimate explanation and the fundamental structure of reality, it is inevitable that the dispute between theism and atheism is going to entail broader metaphysical differences. The dispute cannot be bracketed off from these broader questions, and the skeptic can no more pretend that his position is neutral about them than the theist can.
Hence, as Hartshorne points out, Hume’s and Kant’s influential objections to the traditional theistic proofs each rest on broader metaphysical assumptions that are no less open to question than the proofs themselves are. The same is true of contemporary objections that take for granted the metaphysical and methodological assumptions of scientism or naturalism. As Hartshorne writes: “Thus the procedure does what the proofs are accused of doing. It reaches a controversial conclusion by reasoning from premises equally controversial… it is as question-begging as it well could be” (p. 33).
Reasoning about God
A third theme in Hartshorne that is at least somewhat congenial from the Thomist point of view is his insistence on the need to avoid two extremes where reasoning about the existence and nature of God is concerned. On the one hand, we must avoid speaking of God in a way that essentially reduces him to one entity alongside the others in creation, even if a very impressive one. Here Hartshorne is deeply influenced by St. Anselm’s conception of God as that than which no greater can be conceived. “God,” says Hartshorne, “must not be a mere, even the greatest, individual being; rather, he must also in some fashion coincide with being or reality as such or in general” (p. 34).
On the other hand, insists Hartshorne, though God is more than merely one individual entity alongside others, he is at least an individual, as opposed to an abstract universal. And since “all rational argument presupposes rules, universal principles” under which the things being reasoned about fall as specific cases, “God must… be a case under [these] rules, he must be an individual being” (pp. 33-34). Otherwise we couldn’t say anything about him at all. So, while we must avoid the one extreme of implicitly reducing God to a creature by supposing that whatever is true of creaturely perfections must be true of him, we must also avoid the other extreme of putting God so far beyond what can be expressed in human language that we can know and say nothing about him at all.
The Thomist would, of course, make similar points. On the one hand, for Aquinas God is not merely a being alongside others – something which merely participates in being, as all created things do – but is Subsistent Being Itself, precisely that in which all created beings participate. God can also not be defined in the strictest sense in which other things can be, viz. by identifying a genus under which they fall and a differentia which distinguishes them from other species in the genus. For as Being Itself, he falls under no genus. In other ways too, God is radically unlike any created thing – he is pure actuality rather than a mixture of actual and potential, is absolutely simple or non-composite, and so on.
On the other hand, we can certainly explain what we mean when we use the word “God” and when we ascribe various attributes to him (omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, and all the rest). We can demonstrate his existence in a manner consistent with canons of logical inference. And once having done so, we can validly draw further conclusions about the divine nature. For the Thomist, the key to understanding how it is possible to speak of God in these ways despite his being so radically unlike the things of our experience is in the analogical use of language, as Aquinas and his followers understand that.
A key difference with Hartshorne is that from the Thomistic point of view, Hartshorne does not follow out the implications of the difference between God and created things with sufficient consistency. Hence he models divine goodness and personhood too closely on the case of human beings, with the result that he concludes that God suffers, changes, and so on.
From the Thomistic point of view, Hartshorne’s remarks about specific arguments for God’s existence are a mixed bag. He presents an argument from practical reason, to the effect that “the idea of God is intrinsic to rational volition as such” (p. 48). Though developed at some length, it still seems to me very sketchy and I’m not sure what to make of it. It seems to me that it might be interpreted as an “argument from desire,” and as I’ve noted elsewhere, there is something to such arguments, even though I don’t think they are the most fundamental or powerful.
Hartshorne very briefly but sympathetically discuses arguments from contingency for a divine necessary being, though his approach is marred by his process theist position that God is in part contingent as well as necessary (differing from other things in that they are merely contingent). Hartshorne is also well-known for defending a version of Anselm’s ontological proof, and in A Natural Theology for Our Time he remarks that “since God’s existence has an aspect of necessity, something like an ontological proof must be possible” (p. 50). From a Thomist point of view, there is some truth to this insofar as, if we had a penetrating enough grasp of the divine essence, we would indeed be able to infer from it that God exists. The trouble is that the human intellect does not in fact have such a grasp of the divine essence, so that God’s existence cannot be known by us by way of an ontological proof. (I’ve discussed Anselm’s ontological argument here, Plantinga’s ontological argument here, and Aquinas’s view of the argument here and here.)
Hartshorne is also sympathetic to a variation on the teleological argument, and makes the following interesting remark:
This may be thought of as a form of the design argument for theism, which Thomas Aquinas more nearly correctly stated in my judgment, than he did any of the others. (It was, as he stated it, rather far from the form of this argument which Kant refuted. Here, as at not a few points, Kant was a rather ignorant man, considering the almost unlimited scope of his ambitions and claims as a critic of natural theology.) (pp. 49-50)
Hartshorne is referring here to Aquinas’s Fifth Way, and rightly distinguishing it from the sort of “design argument” critiqued by Hume and Kant and associated with William Paley. I have discussed the differences, and the superiority of Aquinas’s argument to Paley’s, in many places, most systematically in this Nova et Vetera article.
About the more general question of how a theistic proof should proceed, Hartshorne remarks: “The bare question of the divine existence is purely nonempirical. Hence empirical existential proofs in natural theology are bound to be fallacious. Here I agree entirely with Hume and Kant” (p. 52). This may seem to put him at odds with the Thomistic approach to theistic proofs, and odd given that, as I have just indicated, Hartshorne is sympathetic to cosmological and teleological arguments. But Hartshorne makes it clear that he does not mean to rule out such arguments. For they are by his lights “nonempirical” and “a priori” – terms he does not use in quite the way contemporary philosophers tend to do.
What Hartshorne seems to have in mind is that the starting points for sound theistic proofs must lie in truths that go deeper than any that might in principle be falsified by observation or experiment. Here I think he is correct, but also that it is misleading to characterize such truths as “nonempirical” or “a priori.” Consider, for example, the proposition that change occurs, which is the starting point for the Aristotelian proof from motion for the existence of a divine unmoved mover. (This is not an argument Hartshorne himself could sympathize with given his rejection of divine immutability, but that is irrelevant to the present point.) That change occurs is not a proposition that is falsifiable by observation or experiment, because any observation or experiment would itself involve change. All the same, the proposition is known through experience, so that it is not plausibly characterized as “nonempirical” or “a priori.” (Some Aristotelian philosophers of nature have labeled experience of this kind “pre-scientific experience,” because it involves knowledge that is genuinely experiential, but deeper than the knowledge of empirically falsifiable propositions that is the hallmark of scientific investigation. I discuss this in Aristotle’s Revenge, at pp. 6-7 and 129-30.)