On “Goodness” in General; ANW Weights In

Philosopher and mathematician

Alfred North Whitehead taught at Cambridge for decades and then finally at Harvard. He co-wrote Principia Mathematica, published 1903-5; with Bertrand Russell, which attempted to build upward from the principles of symbolic logic all the truths of mathematics. It was a multivolume effort that Russell once quipped had been read cover to cover by about a dozen people in the entire world. Whitehead individually wrote the esoteric Process and Reality, but also the popularly successful Science and the Modern World (1923), a book still well worth reading on the origins and nature of the natural sciences. The material used in the following is from his lectures published as Religion in the Making (1926).

What Makes the Good, so Good

“The universe is through and through interdependent,” in this way A.N.W. sets the stage for his broad and basic characterization of Goodness and Evil.

In this interdependence it is both the individual things considered in themselves and all things taken together as a unit that are both valuable, determinate, and real. Goodness and evil is the interplay of this unity in difference, and this forms “the topic of Religion” in its broadest and most non-denominational sense. Religion is about “individuals in community,” he contends.

And the power of his Metaphysic comes full bore in Whitehead’s contention that, each individual is “an occasion” that “has in its nature a reference to every other member of the community…each unit is a microcosm representing in itself the entire all-inclusive universe.” Wow, how ’bout dat for a contention! It is not unique to Whitehead; it is a basic contention of all philosophical holism going back to Gottfried Leibnitz in the year 1700 with his Monadology and further back to the Greeks and Parmenides with “The One” as “the only true being.”

The interplay of Whole and Parts makes for the drama of Good and Evil. M.C. Escher drawing, Day and Night (1938).

Now a problem soon arises. This massive interconnection is a massive mess. All the individual things and all things taken together, where and how are there any boundaries? ANW contends that this unity among difference is “a boundless wealth of possibility.” So, how does one actual resolution occur? One actual world appear?

ANW contends it is “a balance” of all these factors and thus “an epochal occasion.” It has a unique character among all these possibilities and this for only as long as it actually lasts.God is the determination whereby a (single, one–GW) definite result is emergent.” “God…imposes a balance on the world,” a moral order. GOD is this one actual realization of a world and its universe among all the abstract possibilities!

“God” serves this role in Whitehead’s system. He also remarks that this kind of reasoning gives no relief to those seeking grounds for belief in a personal god. And Whitehead’s God has its limitations. The balance, that is this God, is not “a complete determinism.” The world at any one time “is not completely self-consistent; it changes; it is a “temporal world.”

Evil is this inconsistency within the world. The individual members of any actual world often suffer physically or mentally, and evil is also “the loss of the higher experience in favour of the lower experience.”

So, Change is real and vital in reality, in Whitehead’s system. Creative Change is the progressive link between the real but abstract Ideas and Possibilities and an actually existing individual world (an epochal occasion or God). Evil is a regressive link between these. Evil is the growth of suffering in some actual existing community and the loss of “higher forms of experience” replaced by lower forms.

Progress is the creation of “vivid experience;” out of all the mess and possibility; Reality seeks some “definiteness” of feeling and experience, and in this way “the mental” is of greater Value than “the physical,” though definitely emergent from it. Greatness of Quality is the contribution of “all the elements of a complex whole…to some one effect, to the exclusion of others.” One thing, one group of highly related things —a community– actually occurs. It is a unity in difference.

Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, The Thames, 1903. Monet captures the progressive change from vagueness and indetermination of character and experience to an actual determinate reality. The Good starts with an actual determination arisen from the vast and indeterminate realm of possibility.
A Unity in Difference Omnibus Est. An Actually Existing Community of Similarities evolving from, and to the exclusion of, the vast realm of remaining indeterminate Possibilities. The Tree of Life as an actual and living work of Art.


There is surely much to be said here. Is Human Experience better in some way than Canine Experience? Is it even legitimate to call it more complex? Why is Complexity an improvement over Simplicity? A great philosopher who also taught at Harvard with Whitehead, John Dewey, contended that his goal as a philosopher (in one way) was ‘to achieve a sophisticated innocence’ of character and outlook. So, isn’t the above characterization of good and evil just naïve. In what sense is it Objective and not simply biased (anthropocentric), personal and Subjective? After all, Goodness is just a Feeling (we often say)!

ANW prejudiced his metaphysic from the very beginning by declaring that All Things are Real; Feelings and Thoughts are as real as Atoms and Gravity. In fact, in his system, feelings and thoughts are more Valuable than the merely physical. All is of value, and it is of the nature of Value that it comes in degrees, I believe he contends. Some things just are Better; they possess a greater degree of Goodness! A Complex Unity like The Tree of Life becomes of a higher quality when one of its members (us) becomes Aware of Themselves as participants in that Unity of Design and Existence. A human experience can be of a higher quality than a dog’s because of our Self-Awareness of it and our abilities that arise from that, contends Whitehead.

Hand With Reflecting Sphere (1935) by M.C. Escher

——–Well, isn’t that Good! Over the years, I have often said,——— ————————–“It’s good to be good!”—————————–

OMNIBUS EST—–Logo by Marty

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