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Process Philosophy and the New Thought Movement

The most outstanding 20th-century development in philosophy—now recognized as an indispensable resource for New Thought


Process philosophy, or process theology, or simply process thought, is an outlook with roots that go as far back as the thought of Heraclitus in the West and Buddhism in the East; but the most prominent philosopher in developing its present form was Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Drawing on diverse sources, including quantum physics, he worked out an awe-inspiring metaphysical system. Charles Hartshorne (1897-Oct. 9, 2000) preferred to call his philosophy psychicalism, rather than the more traditional panpsychism, a philosophy holding that reality is composed of innumerable minds or experience. The terms panexperientialism, process philosophy, process theology, process thought, and the name used by Alfred North Whitehead for his philosophy, the philosophy of organism; all are used more or less synonymously for the essence of the outlook largely shared by Whitehead, Hartshorne, and many thinkers who follow their lead. There are, of course, earlier outlooks to which some of the terms apply, especially panpsychism in relation to Leibniz (1646-1716); see, for example, Hartshorne's Ch. 35, "Panpsychism," in Vergilius Ferm (ed.), A History of Philosophical Systems, (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1950 ); others also have contributed significantly to the strains of thought within process philosophy.

The difficulty of Whitehead's philosophizing is legendary, but there are some simple outcomes that may or may not adequately reflect the somewhat contrasting views of Whitehead and Hartshorne. These simple outcomes have been much of the inspiration for what recently has come to be known as Process New Thought.

Whitehead pointed out the essential incoherence of belief in a lifeless universe (see "Nature Lifeless" and "Nature Alive" in his Modes of Thought). He proposed momentarily-developing experiences as the basis of all reality. He found necessary a God who is the giver of newness, a loving leader, intimately guiding--but never dominating--every experience.

Process New Thought is a combination of (a) the broad idealistic outlines and techniques of conventional (substance-oriented) New Thought with its practical application of metaphysics to daily life, (b) the essential insights of the process-relational, panentheistic views of such thinkers as Whitehead and Hartshorne, and (c) an emphasis on the metaphysical centrality of personhood, characteristic of Borden Parker Bowne and his successors in Boston Personalism . In somewhat greater detail, Process New Thought is characterized by the following:

Characteristics of Process New Thought

1. It accepts science's discovery of a process-relational outlook, but with a Whiteheadian recognition of the creative, living nature of the pulses or bursts of energy (called occasions of experience by Whitehead), with energy recognized as what we experience as feeling. There is nothing actual (concrete) except these units of experience. There is freedom of choice in some degree at all levels of concrete existence. Process Philosophy is a panexperientialism; all concrete (actual) existence is experience, not passive stuff, whether considered matter or mind. Occasions of experience are the basic building blocks of reality.

2. Life is that in which there is (a) aim (relatively free choosing of possibilities), (b) creative activity (transforming potentiality into actuality), and (c) enjoyment of the process (of creating a new unity out of the combined many coming to an occasion from the past--which is composed of a multitude of earlier choices). Lifeless things are abstractions from (collections of) momentarily subjectively-aware, creative, living units (occasions of experience).

3. The creative process is the taking (prehending, feeling, including, absorbing) of the many units of the past and blending their influence with also-prehended divinely given possibilities, thus producing unique new creations. The job of all existence is the creation of new unities. As Whitehead said, "The many become one, and are increased by one. In their natures, entities are disjunctively 'many' in process of passage into conjunctive unity" (Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 32; corrected ed. p. 21). Unity is an ongoing process of unifying, not a static state of a changeless one.

4. As the new many new units of reality are created, they are added to God's awareness (prehension, inclusion), resulting in God's endless growth.

5. Process New Thought takes care not to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (mistaking the abstract for the concrete). The concrete, actual, is found in occasions of experience, rather than the aggregates (collections) of them that constitute physical things and ourselves as existing more than a moment. We have what I call serial selfhood. Instead of being things that have experiences, we are the experiences that, considered together, make up the things. We are successions of occasions of experience. While we exist one experience at a time, our bodies exist many experiences at a time.

6. Living in the moment is required by serial selfhood. Since concretely one has only a moment to live, one should make the most of it. Understanding that we are new creations moment by moment can provide a powerful psychological impetus to drop old limitations and to accept divinely-given opportunities for fullest living.

7. After a moment of subjective (self-aware, not necessarily conscious) existence, a subject (occasion of experience) becomes an everlasting object, which influences everything that comes later. There is preservation of all effort in objective immortality, the state of perfect preservation of each subject-become-object. Although doubted by some prominent process thinkers, there is also personal subjective immortality (which is what we generally mean by immortality), in which there is the perpetuation beyond bodily death of lines of development of personal occasions of experience (and probably less complex animal occasions) that preside over lesser occasions making up physical bodies.

8. Ultimate power is the lure of God's persuasive (rather than coercive) love-beauty.

9. The wisdom-love-beauty of God is the initial aim that begins each occasion's reaction to the influence of the past constituting the situation in which it comes into existence. God's love-wisdom is offered not as general possibilities available to everyone, but as specific, tailor-made plans for the particular occasion of experience, taking into account the current situation and the character of the occasions in the line of development with which the occasion in question is especially identified. The presence of God as initial aim is what New Thought calls the indwelling Christ or Christ mind. The ultimate that any occasion can accomplish is to accept completely its initial aim.

10. The self-conscious, rational, value/personality of God is the mind of the universe. See 13.

11. The hierarchy of existence is explained in terms of increasing clarity of awareness of inclusiveness; the higher the level in the hierarchy, the clearer the awareness, the more obvious the intelligence, the more fully personal; God has the utmost in clarity-intelligence-personality. There is nothing higher than the personal God.

12. Mystical experience is awareness of the larger context of existence, especially with regard to awareness of the divine love process, of providing initial aims, which is the giving activity of divine love, and the receiving of completed occasions, permanently keeping them, and making them available to all upcoming occasions--the receiving activity of divine love. The mystic leaps ahead of the usual human level of awareness in the continuum and realizes that order is an expression of love. Occasions have forward-looking poles, called mental; and backward-looking poles, called physical. The mystic is most consistently forward-looking, and universal-looking.

13. The universe is the body of God, body understood as a collection of immediate servants of a presiding mind. One's own body is the servant both of God directly and of the finite orchestrating mind that is oneself. Neither God nor the universe in some form (and perhaps many coexisting versions) had a beginning. God never was without a body (universe) of some type.

14. Mind within mind or P. P. Quimby’s "mingling minds" (by means of prehension) is the universal pattern. Each mind (occasion of experience) contains (prehends) all earlier minds. (Occasions are unaware of other occasions developing at exactly the same moment, but this is no more practically important than the fraction of a second that it takes a message to travel from toe to brain or the roughly eight minutes that it takes light from the sun to reach us. On no reasonable theory can we know anything exactly as it happens.) All is present to everything; extrasensory perception is the basic type of awareness; sensory perception is a narrowing of attention.

15. Time is real and is defined as the transition from one occasion of experience to the next. Experience is inconceivable apart from before-and-afterness. Freedom and creativity require a settled past and an open future. An "eternal now" of past, present, and future coexisting in their fullness is a denial of the reality of creative process; an "eternal now" may be an emotionally satisfying symbol of the comprehensiveness of God, but in reality there is endless development. If process is basic to any part of reality, it must be basic to all of actuality. Retrocognition is sharpened awareness of part of what is within an occasion. (It makes no difference whether one says that all the past is within God, or akashic records or oneself, for each contains all; separation is only relative.) Precognition is awareness of what is likely to occur, sharing in God's knowledge of probabilities; but the future holds surprises even for God, since freedom prevails.

16. Natural laws are abstractions that cannot act; they are changing (generally over vast periods of time) habits of interaction of occasions of experience, but there is the unchanging pattern by which creation takes place by blending of the past and the divinely presented possible.

17. Treatment (for health, happiness, or whatever) is understood as enrichment (by awareness of divinely given potential for perfection or picturing or otherwise affirming the perfection of the healee by the healer, or by more conventional methods) of the most relevant part of the past of whoever or whatever is the object of concern (one cannot directly influence a developing occasion, so one influences the past out of which it comes, regardless of whether the healer understands that this is what is being done). This minimizes contrast with the perfect possibility for new creation as offered by God in initial aim. Reduction of contrast makes it easier for the upcoming occasions of experience to accept fully their initial aims--perfect possibilities offered by God.

18. There is no unilateral creation, by God or by any other experience. All creation is co-creation. The pattern of creation by means of blending the contrasting influences of the God-given initial aim and the past is the most basic pattern of reality, that which always has been and always will be. Our task and privilege is to learn to co-create with God in the most conscious and effective ways, which New Thought has pioneered in providing.

In short, Process New Thought is a practical, applied, clarified, pluralistic, realistic idealism, in which God is recognized as utterly personal, completely impartial, totally reliable, all-inclusive, unimaginably intelligent, and completely loving. As loving, God shares perfect possibilities for realization with all occasions of experience and thereafter completely accepts and permanently preserves whatever anyone or anything makes of the divinely provided potentialities. God is fully available and all-availing. Process New Thought is New Thought minus any instances of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness such as notions of changeless (non-growing) impersonal God, enduring substance, changeless and/or active law, and with the addition of insights from such thinkers as Whitehead and Hartshorne.

Created October 14, 1995

by C. Alan Anderson