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Coffee & Wisdom 02.40: It’s a Process! Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about Process Theology and Process Philosophy.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom. When we try to do some looking at some ideas that are floating around out there in religion and philosophy that coming from the past and then their impact on the present and perhaps the future. This week we’re going to be looking at “It’s a Process”. And so, first off, I have to ask you a question. What is the common philosophical underpinning of much feminist Unitarian Universalist, Christian, Jewish, black church, indigenous and Earth based theologies? Well, it’s the answers in the title. They’re a movement, engaging process, thought a movement engaging process. Thought you’re going to see that everywhere when you’re looking at theological materials these days, it is “Process Philosophy”, which is then used within “Process Theology”. And that’s what I want to take a look at this week, is how this came to be and where it kind of is what it is and then it may be heading next.

So there’s just all kinds of books out there on this subject. “Process, Philosophy and Christian thought”, “Emptiness and Becoming”, “Integrating my Heart”, my Yanique Buddhism and “Process Theology”. Who knew that was a thing, right? Everything flows toward a process of philosophy where, you know, you in this goes on and on. Just look up process and begin looking at all the books and covering. So we got everything here from Christian thought to Buddhism to biology. And how are all of these tied together and all of those things I already mentioned in terms of theologies all the way from Earth based to Judaism? Well, it’s all tied together with a very basic idea that also is a bit of a head scratcher or there wouldn’t be so many books about it being is becoming. So where does this come from? Well, first off, we have to go back to the late 19th, early 20th century and consider a book that was one of the most massive failures ever. And it was by a couple of the geniuses of the 20th century. The book was “Principia Mathematica”, and the geniuses were Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell. We’ve heard quite a bit about Bertrand Russell. He’s one of the greats in terms of humanist thought. A couple of weeks ago we were looking at his his teapot problem and he was a great logician in his time, as was Whitehead, and they were dealing with mathematics and set theory. And their idea was, how do we get to a basis of to prove that mathematics is true. And so this is a three volume set that came out over several years. And as they were working on it, they just saw more and more that they were never going to get there.

I have a little sample problem here from this proposition. It will follow when arithmetical edition has been defined that one plus one equals two. Well, you can see where this might become a problem when we have to think this much to figure that out. The fact is they never reached a place where they could show that mathematics had a an indisputable basis. And because while they were working outcomes, girls incompleteness theorems. Now don’t ask me to define them. Really, I don’t understand, except the fact that it also is dealing with a set theory. And the fact is that girl discovered that you can have a set of solutions that also have within it a set of provable solutions. So some things can be true within the set, true facts within the set that can’t be proven. There’s always going to be something that is undecidable. So the book is not going to work. Well, what to be done? Bertrand Russell goes on to other things, as a matter of fact, and we know him from early humanism, Alfred North Whitehead decided to go in a different direction. He was a Brit and he moved to the United States. He began teaching at Harvard in nineteen twenty four and in nineteen twenty nine he published his great work process and reality. Now, I’m not recommending that you read this book because I have it and I can’t read it. I don’t know.

It is usually described as one of the great. unreadable books. There are a lot of great ideas in there, but one of the things you really have to have by your side when you’re reading this is a book defining all the words that Whitehead makes up because he just couldn’t get at his point without making up word, new words. And he doesn’t often explain them as we’re going along. So it’s a very difficult book to read, but it is a basis for an entirely different and new way of seeing reality that continues to our own day. Alfred North Whitehead was not a theologian. He was a scientist, a mathematician, a logician. And so he really was doing “Process Philosophy”, not “Process Theology”. But as we will see, there are a lot of applications to his idea because at basis he’s really talking about something that’s very old. Whitehead’s question is very simply this. How might we systematically describe not only scientific knowledge, but also ethical aesthetic and religious knowledge. So after he had realized that he could not find a firm basis for mathematics, then said, yes, this is absolutely true. Instead of giving up, he goes on to say, I’m going to figure it all out, not just mathematics and not just science. Well, what does he do? He goes back to the beginnings of Greek philosophy. We’ve seen this a lot in common wisdom. And it goes back to Heraclitus, the great Greek philosopher of change, usually pictured with a frown on his face. And what he said was everything changes and nothing remains still. Yes, he is the guy that said you can’t step in the same river twice. He said this several different ways.

There’s nothing there is nothing permanent except for change. There’s nothing permanent except for change.

And he saw the greatness of the great various elements. Fire must be the real one because it changes everything. And then we’ll see about that. We’re going to skip several centuries forward to going to Hegel, as we often do when we’re talking about Western philosophy. And Hegel said truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two. This is his famous dialectic. He goes dialectic looks basically like this. This is a very simplified. But you have a thesis. You have something that you state is true. You have an antithesis, something that disagrees or disproves the thesis. And then those two intention. And that’s what the little arrows are about, those to intention create a synthesis or a new thesis. This is the basis of Marx’s philosophy, for example, Hegel’s dialectic thesis antithesis. And then there’s tension creating a new synthesis. Now, last week, I talked a lot about Edmund Husserl at roughly the same time. He’s working in roughly the same area. How do we talk about reality in a way that is different from what the ways that we have been talking about it, which don’t seem to be working out all that well? And so Husserl and Vince, the idea again from Hegel, from about phenomenology, the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness phenomenology places consciousness at the center of being, which is a conceptual flip for Western thinking.

So two founders of Western thinking in the early 20th century, who Cyril and Whitehead both saying, wait a minute, I think we need to think about these things in a new way with Serle looking at it from how does reality appear to us? How does that really look and how do we get at from a subjective reality out to some kind of objective reality? That was the subject last week of coffee and wisdom. And now Whitehead saying, hey, it’s a process. Now, one of the things we have to talk about is the difference between analytic and continental philosophy. Here’s a graphic depiction of the difference between analytic and continental philosophy. Yes, Spok with no hair on his face is analytic, and yes, that goatee makes him continental. What is the difference between those two philosophies? Well, Analytic is British and American, very pragmatic, very, very proof oriented continental philosophy, not so much. And so, for example, Simon Critchley, who is a Brit who teaches in the United States, is big on continental philosophy and trying to figure out how do we get these two ideas together.

He says this, I have argued that philosophy doesn’t begin in wonder or in the fact that things are it begins and a realization that things are not what they might be. It begins with a sense of a lack of something missing and that provokes a series of questions. And that’s exactly what Whitehead’s idea of process begins to do. It gets us to ask questions about is, is this true? How is this true? Is it is true today as it will be tomorrow or yesterday, etc.? So quickly, I have argued that philosophy doesn’t begin in wonder or in the fact that things are, but begins in a realization that things are not what they might be. It begins with a sense of a lack of something missing and that provokes a series of questions. And indeed, that is the meeting place between analytic philosophy, British and American and continental philosophy, which includes people like Sadan de Beauvoir that we were talking about last week, and Husserl and Heidegger in a very different way of seeing reality and seeing it. How can we communicate and get at the meaning of these things in a different way besides logic? And that’s why it’s called “Process Philosophy” and “Process Theology”. And that is going to be the subject for this week, getting at some of these ideas that can lead from this very academic Oxford, Don, who becomes a Harvard professor now. His ideas can underpin Earth based philosophy. It’s it’s a journey we’ll see.

And our theme for the month of March is commitment. That’s what we’re going to be talking about on Sundays this month. Commitment. Thanks a lot for looking in today. And we’ll see it tomorrow with some more about process.

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