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  • Is a Process Form of Ecstatic Naturalism Possible? A Reading of Donald Crosby
  • Demian Wheeler (bio)

I. Introduction: The Family of Naturalisms

Robert Corrington likes to delineate “ecstatic naturalism” by comparing and contrasting it with three other naturalistic philosophies. The first is descriptive naturalism, which conceives of nature as nonconscious, utterly vast, resistant to categorial reduction, and indifferent to human needs and desires. Descriptive naturalists, from John Dewey, George Santayana, and Justus Buchler to Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, espouse a form of materialism that mitigates or repudiates religious sensibilities, puts a methodological premium on scientific inquiry, and grants material and efficient causality explanatory priority. The second mode of naturalism, the honorific, views nature differently, even oppositely, privileging formal and final causes and positing a type of “spirit” that is either conscious or is “the creative source for the latent consciousness in all orders of the world.”1 Honorific naturalists, such as Charles Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Georg W. F. Hegel, typically embrace religion and contend that the natural sphere is moving upwardly toward the personal and teleologically toward the eventual triumph of good over evil. The third variety of naturalism is process philosophy, which pictures the natural realm as a plurality of monads with windows, actual occasions that mutually transform and cumulatively enhance one another in a cosmos that is evolutionary and ever-becoming, unified by universals, and shaped by a deity. The most notable process naturalists are Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Robert Neville.2

The relationship between ecstatic naturalism and descriptive and honorific naturalisms is that of siblings. As the youngest child, ecstatic naturalism emerges from the tension, indeed the rivalry, between its more “eulogistic” honorific sister and its more “austere” descriptive brother. As Corrington notes, ecstatic naturalism is honorific “when it points toward powers of transformation and [End Page 85] renewal within the world that are themselves evocative of the primal potencies that represent the birthing ground of actuality and possibility.” On the other hand, ecstatic naturalism is descriptive when it cultivates a starker, bleaker sense of the “scope,” “indifference,” and “frequent terror” of nature, “a nature that has no obligations to any of its offspring,” including Homo sapiens.3

Where does process naturalism fit into this “family of naturalisms”? Corrington states that it is “a close cousin of the honorific form.”4 But process naturalism is, at best, a distant cousin of the ecstatic form. Whereas Corrington draws quite heavily on honorific naturalists, especially Peirce and Emerson, no process naturalist, with the possible exception of Neville,5 figures prominently in his ecstatic naturalism. I would go so far as to suggest that the outright rejection of process philosophy has become almost a defining characteristic of ecstatic naturalism. In one essay, Corrington remarks that process thought only “seems to belong to the family of naturalisms.”6

The problem is that process thought is, on Corrington’s reading, “profoundly flawed in its very foundations.”7 For starters, process naturalists champion a quasi-naturalistic panentheism, postulating a deity that is both within and slightly transcendent of nature. Even God’s immanence gets blown out of proportion. To quote Hartshorne: “The bounded, fragmentary reality of each of us is . . . a definite quantum in the [divine] Life which is all-in-all.”8 But ecstatic naturalists retort that omnipotence and omnipresence are theological mistakes; as an emergent natural complex, God is related to some, but not all, of the orders of the world.9 [End Page 86]

Process naturalism is also guilty of anthropomorphizing and sanitizing nature, according to Corrington. Whiteheadians extol “the creative advance” but fail to recognize how costly and rare creativity is in nature. In the Whiteheadian scheme, the chaos, destruction, randomness, irrationality, ugliness, waste, victimage, inertia, anguish, and “entropic violence” of nature are dulled by and replaced with a half-Darwinian “cosmology of optimism.” The actual cosmos, Corrington insists, displays no consciousness, no intentionality, no eschatology, no supertelos. The process cosmos, in contrast, teems with final causes and “magically appearing wellsprings of teleology” and continually grows in value, beauty, complexity, novelty, and wholeness. Just as palatable, pleasing, and purposive as the process cosmos is the process God, whose initial...


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