A. B. Kelly

 The Search for Meaning in Philosophy and Theology

Hegel to Baltazar and Beyond


Humans have always sought to find meaning in the world. In ancient times mankind accepted mythical explanations of the world. Mythical explanations were characterised by a multitude of mythical entities, which behaved in a manner similar to humans. These entities were held responsible for various features of the world. In the new mythology of Scientism, glands and selfish genes play the roles previously played by earlier mythological entities. 

Until well into the 20th Century, Religion provided meaning to the Western world. But Religion is loosing its hold on people’s minds. The Scientistic world-view, which is loosely based on Science, is partly replacing it. This Scientistic world-view has mankind`s destiny determined by sub-human agencies such as selfish genes.

The search for a more rational explanation of the world appears to have begun with the Hebrews. They found their more rational explanations in the actions of one God. The Greeks were the next people to seek rational explanations, beginning with the pre-Socratics. The pre-Socratics posed the first of the major philosophical questions: What is the world all about. Centuries later, Socrates shifted the focus from trying to explain the world to a consideration of how we should live. This is the second major philosophical question.

Of course these two questions cannot stand in isolation from each other. The answer to one question must affect the answer to the other. The Hebrews had obviously asked both of these questions prior to the Greeks, because they had provided answers to both questions. These answers were formed within the prevailing static view of the world. These two questions, about the nature of the world and our role in it, provide the core of philosophy.

Aristotle was concerned with these first-order philosophical questions. He sought to provide a complete explanation of man and the world, but his attempt was not successful. He was limited by his lack of scientific knowledge, but more importantly he was limited by his essentially static world-view. This static worldview prevailed until well into the Scientific revolution. It is still the most widely-held general view of the world. But the world is not static. The universe has a time dimension. It moves on, in process. However, very few people understand the world as process.

What is meant by process? A process is a series of changes with a unifying principle. In an automobile production line, components are manufactured or added and a vehicle comes off the end of the line. The unifying principle in this process is the idea of the finished vehicle. Every change that happens along the production line is directed towards that end. Those changes take time. Time is essential to any process, particularly to the process of history. The old static world-view left time out of consideration.

The static world-view is still prevalent in both Philosophy and Theology. This accounts for the divergence between the academic and the non-academic understanding of Philosophy. What Philosophy means, to someone who is not hindered by the possession of a Degree in Philosophy, is `the study of the meaning of existence, of the nature of reality, and of our place in it.’ (Craig,1983, 189-201) Academic philosophy seldom deals with these questions, which Mortimer Adler categorises as first-order questions. (1972,Ch.18) Solomon and Higgins in their recent Short History of Philosophy (1996) O.U.P, maintain that Philosophy, as the search for truth, no longer exists in academia. There is no longer truth, only discourses - to the detriment of such questions as the meaning of life. (1996,300-304)

This failure of academic Philosophy, and consequently of Theology, can be sourced to the failure to adopt a broad process perspective on the world. I will argue that both Philosophy and Theology have to bear part of the blame for failing to replace the old static world-view, and for failing to provide a more realistic explanation of the world.

Baltazar argues that process is the basic structure of everything which exists. A dynamic and historical process perspective has replaced the old static and timeless view of the world in Science generally. However it has not greatly affected Philosophy or Theology despite its effect on other modern thought. Baltazar argues that the time scale of our individual frame of reference is so small that we do not tend to perceive any significant change. But if we take the long view, we see that everything is change. (1965,134-150)

Evolutionary theory helps to explain the prevalence of the short term view. Our remote ancestors evolved to cope with the here and now. They did not have the ability or the opportunity for contemplation and reflection. It is only in more recent times that the process perspective has become sufficiently evident for it to begin to overthrow the grip which the static, short-term view of the world has had on our minds.

A process has two components. It is a series of changes and it has a unifying principle. So if process is the basic structure of everything which exists, we need to discover what is the unifying principle in that primary process of change which embraces everything which exists.

The first-order Philosophical questions, the nature of the world and our role in it, could never be answered adequately while the old static view of the world prevailed. Neither Philosophy nor Theology could answer these questions from within that static world-view. These first-order questions can only possibly be answered from a process perspective, a perspective that recognises that process is the basic and objective structure of being. The rejection of the static world-view, and the recognition that the world is in process, opens the possibility of our understanding the meaning and purpose of the world.

In Philosophy the modern turn towards process began with Hegel (1770-1831). It has been said that Hegel’s philosophy is essentially the philosophical expression of the essence of Christianity. (Hirschberger 1976,156) Hegel brought to light the process perspective inherent in Christianity. This process perspective had been submerged by the dominant static world-view. Hegel rejected the static concept of the world as permanent and substantial. He denied the ultimate validity of everyday experience, which is convinced that things are substantial and more or less permanent. Hegel understood that everything was in motion as part of a continual flux.

Philosophy makes no new discoveries. Its role is to find the pattern and coherence of reality. Since Hegel, the unreflective and static world-view is gradually being replaced by a more dynamic understanding of the world. This can be seen in the philosophical insights of a number of modern philosophers. Their diverse contributions can be drawn together, along with scientific Cosmology, to provide an explanation of the process of the Cosmos. These insights provide the milestones in the search for meaning.

Hegel’s rejection of the view of the world as permanent and substantial, and his understanding that everything is in motion as part of a continual flux, was confirmed in part by Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Darwin showed that animals, which had seemed to be permanent features of the world, had in fact evolved over time. We now know that the whole Universe has evolved since the Big Bang.

After Hegel, the next important milestone was provided by Henri Bergson (1859-1941). He published his Creative Evolution in 1907. Bergson was influenced by Darwin, but he realised that evolution could not just be the result of the random activities of matter. There had to be an inner sphere, which shaped the outer. This inner sphere, he argued, grows with the subject. Nothing simply `is’, everything `becomes’ through creative freedom and Creative Evolution. To ask what it is that becomes is to miss the point. Bergson sought to get away from such questions, which imply the permanence that he was denying. He was the first to emphasise the importance of the time dimension in evolution. His milestone is his idea of Creative Evolution.

Early in the 20th Century the question was asked how life could emerge from inanimate matter. This is the problem of Emergent Evolution. Samuel Alexander (1859-1938) was the first Philosopher of Emergent Evolution. He published his Space Time and Deity in 1920. Alexander saw the Universe as a process evolving from level to level, always moving towards an unknown higher level, a spiritual level which he characterised as Deity. He postulated a nisus in Space-time, an impulse which drove it forward to produce new levels of reality, eventually bringing Deity to birth.

Alexander was the first to recognise that each new emergent level was accompanied by new laws of nature. He postulated four Emergent levels, Matter, Life, Mind and Moral Personality. Alexander’s most important insight was that evolution was a development towards a more spiritual entity. This development is his milestone. 

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) published his Process and Reality in 1929. He argued that Science could treat entities in isolation but that Philosophy had to see the unities and connections between entities and to recognise that everything was connected.

Science could abstract from reality for its own purposes, and deal with instants of time, points in space or particles of matter, but these remain only abstractions and are not what is ultimately real. Whitehead argued that the world was comprised of events rather than of things. Everything was in a process of becoming, and was involved in an ongoing process of self-creation. 

The static model of reality, which characterised thought prior to the realisation that the world was in process, is based on categories such as substances, essences and objects. Its unit is the lifeless atom. Its ideals are permanence and logical necessity. Whitehead rejected the concept of the lifeless atom. He called his self-creative units of reality `actual occasions’. These units of reality are always involved in a self-creative process of becoming, a creative advance into novelty. They relate to other units of reality, by `prehending’ them. Prehension can be understood as a limited form of awareness.

Whitehead’s name is almost synonymous with Process Philosophy. Unfortunately his convoluted expression and multiple neologisms have ensured that Process Philosophy stagnates as a philosophical backwater. Few philosophers today take any interest in Process Philosophy. Those who do seem to spend most of their time trying to work out just what Whitehead meant. However his most important insight is clear, and it provides a further milestone in the search for meaning. This is his recognition that the universe advances into novelty, by the self-creative activity of the units of reality.

While we can see the influence of Hegel and Darwin on Alexander and on Whitehead, Nicolai Hartmann (1882-1950) stands more independently. He published his Ethics in 1932 and his New Ways of Ontology in 1953. He was a phenomenologist, concerned to investigate and to make clear the actual state of affairs. His major concerns were the nature of humans, and the ontological structure of reality. 

Hartmann argued that the world could not be understood until it was recognised that it comprised a series of strata, which rested one upon the other. His four strata were the physical, the biological, the conscious and the moral or spiritual. These strata are parallel to Samuel Alexander's Emergent levels of matter, life, mind and moral personality. 

Like Alexander before him, Hartmann also recognised that the laws of nature were different at each of the strata of reality. His most significant insight was the realisation that these laws permitted a greater degree of freedom at each successive stratum, ultimately providing total freedom at the moral or spiritual stratum. This is his milestone.

Hartmann contrasted the deterministic laws of the physical level with the total lack of determination of the moral law. The moral law tells us what to do but it is a matter for us, for our will, whether we do it or not.

Hartmann considered himself an atheist. He argued that if a free human moral consciousness existed then God had to be an illusion. This argument, that the freedom of human moral consciousness was inconsistent with the existence of God, could only prevail if the Divine finalism was a perfect determination, which would necessarily exclude any human finalism.

If everything that happened was determined by God, Hartmann’s argument would seem to prevail. But if God had initiated a process of free self-creation, rather than a determined process leading to an inevitable outcome, Hartmann’s argument would have no force. His argument would only prevail against a deterministic understanding of God, an understanding which had grown out of the old static world-view. Hartmann’s study of man’s spiritual nature convinced him of the freedom of the human will in relation to the operation of the moral law, and he could not reconcile that freedom with an understanding of God which proposed that everything that happened was God’s will.

Like Hartmann, Teilhard de Chardin was a phenomenologist. He was also a Palaeontologist. While Hartmann examined the nature of humans, Teilhard was more concerned with the development of humanity. He recognised that there was an increase in freedom throughout the emergent stages, but he did not analyse the increase in freedom from stage to stage. He initiated the concept of Cosmogenesis, the idea that the whole Cosmos is an evolutionary process.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) published his The Phenomenon of Man in 1955. Teilhard was the first to show that the idea of evolution was not incompatible with Christianity. He understood the universe as an evolutionary process of ever increasing complexity and ever increasing consciousness. Many Christians considered evolution to be antagonistic to the heart of their philosophy. This was partly because the theory of evolution attacked the static world-view, in which terms Christianity had found its initial expression.

Teilhard’s vision of the Cosmos is dynamic rather than static. As he says, the very concept of cosmogenesis is `opposed to the ancient and medieval concept of a static cosmos’ (1974,18) Despite this recognition, he was still affected by the static world-view in which Christianity was expressed. This led him to see evolution as a process determined by God, rather than as a free, self-creating process.

While Process philosophy was developing, Science was also discovering more about the universe. These discoveries had a bearing on some of the ideas of the philosophers who have been mentioned. Alexander had postulated Space-time as the initial force driving everything towards a more spiritual level, but Cosmology showed that space and time did not exist before the Big Bang which initiated the Universe. Whitehead had believed that matter was eternal, but this view was also contradicted by Cosmology. However, Alexander’s fundamental insight that evolution was a progress towards a more spiritual stage, and Whitehead’s insight concerning the self-creative nature of the process of becoming, remain valid.

Let me now summarise the milestones in the search for meaning provided by these philosophers. Initially there is Hegel’s rejection of the static view of the world as permanent and substantial.  Hegel perceived that everything was in motion as part of a continual flux. His denial that things are permanent and substantial would later be supported by the theory of evolution and by scientific Cosmology.

While Hegel attributed the changes to the operation of an historical spirit, Bergson saw that the process of evolution involved creativity and freedom.

Alexander then recognised that the direction of evolution was towards a more spiritual reality, which he called Deity. He was the first to recognise that each new emergent level was accompanied by new laws of nature.

Alexander was followed by Whitehead, whose most important insight was that the creative advance of the universe into novelty involved a process of self-creation. Whitehead saw that evolution is driven from within. The units of reality are always involved in a self-creative process of becoming. In this process they are in touch with other units of reality.

Hartmann was the first to realise the significance of freedom in the overall process. He saw that the laws of nature permitted a greater degree of freedom at each successive stratum, the physical, the biological, the conscious and the moral or spiritual stratum. This process culminated in the total freedom of humans in relation to the moral law.

Finally, Teilhard de Chardin gained legitimacy for evolutionary views among many Christians by showing that such views were not incompatible with Christianity. He also brought to our notice the process of Cosmogenesis and the concentration and acceleration of evolutionary development in the anthropoid branch of the vertebrates. This development is seen in the rapid cephalisation of hominids, and the consequent development of the noosphere.

These milestones in the search for meaning can lead us to understand the purpose of the cosmos. They may provide the basis for the restoration of meaning and purpose in Western culture and in our lives.

The failure of Philosophy to adopt a process perspective provides the reason for its failure to provide answers to the first-order philosophical questions concerning the meaning of existence,  the nature of reality, and our place in it. The quest for such answers has been largely abandoned by academic Philosophy, and left to Theologians and Physical Cosmologists. Let us pursue the quest further.

If process is the basic structure of everything that exists, we need to discover just what is the unifying principle in the overall process of the cosmos. In the case of an automobile production line the unifying principle is the idea of the finished vehicle. The idea of the finished vehicle is the Telos, or end, of the process. Every change that occurs within a process is directed towards that end. If we are to identify the unifying principle of any process we have to discover the Telos of the process.

In Theology, there are different alternatives conceptions involving process. The best known is commonly called Process Theology, based on Whitehead and Hartshorne. This view turns aside from the concept of God as all knowing and all powerful. It proposes a developing God who acts persuasively. This view appears to be an attempt to resolve the problem presented by the conflict between a strictly determinative will of God and a free human will, which Hartmann has identified. This form of Process Theology seeks to resolve this conflict by reducing God. While it maintains that the whole of reality is a self-creative process, it does not provide the unifying principle or Telos of this process.

The next most widely held view is based on the work of Teilhard de Chardin. It retains the determinative will of God but argues that God works towards a determined objective by means of evolutionary processes. Its Telos is Point Omega.

Our alternative is the most recent proposal, called here “the Kelly Thesis”. This thesis, published as The Process of the Cosmos: Philosophical Theology and Cosmology (1999), argues that the cosmos is a process of self-creation through successive stages, with increasing freedom of self-creation available at each successive stage. This view utilises Hartmann’s analysis of the increasing freedom which is found at successive strata of reality, in particular the total freedom of humans with regard to the moral law.

The Kelly Thesis does not seek to reduce the traditional concept of God’s power, but argues that with the Big Bang, God initiates a process of self-creation. This process proceeds through a series of stages of increasing freedom, until it reaches a stage which is totally free in relation to the law of that stage, the moral law.  The motive for this Divine action is to open the possibility of there resulting a communal entity which is both freely self-created and good. Such an entity would be similar to God, who is self-existent and good. It would be appropriate for God to love this self-created entity.

The achievement of this self-created and good entity would usher in the next emergent stage in the process of Emergent Evolution. As with all previous emergent stages, the laws of nature of this new emergent stage could be expected to differ from the laws of nature of the previous stages. The Telos of the Kelly Thesis is this self-created and good spiritual entity.

A process which was intended to make possible the self-creation of such a spiritual entity would have to be initiated at a level lower than Spirit, hence the necessity for the process to begin with the initiation of sub-spiritual matter in the Big Bang. Matter has to be provided with the potential to freely develop, although the possibilities of development are limited by the laws of physics and chemistry. Matter is initiated in its simplest possible form in the Big Bang, but it has the potential to develop into forms which at some stage could provide a platform, or platforms, for the development of life.

Once life is initiated, also in the simplest possible form, it has the potential to freely evolve until forms of life can support consciousness. The conscious stage then freely evolves in numerous animal forms, many of which become locked into particular environmental niches. The anthropoid species freely evolve both physically and culturally until Homo Sapiens, through cultural self-creation, is able to support a spiritual or moral consciousness. 

The Kelly Thesis provides the basis for the restoration of meaning and purpose in Western culture and in our lives. It proposes direct answers the questions as to why the universe exists and what is the nature of our role in the world.

That role is one that many of us already pursue in our lives and our work, without really knowing why. It is to complete the creation of the world by making it better in every way. It is to know and to realise, in the sense of making real, the application of the moral law. In pursuit of this objective humans have to realise their spiritual nature.



 Adler Mortimer (1972) How to Read a Book Touchstone

 Alexander S.   (1920) Space Time and Deity London, Macmillan

 Baltazar E.R.  (1965) `Teilhard de Chardin: A Philosophy of Procession’ in: New Theology No. 2, Macmillan.

 Bergson H.  (1907) Creative Evolution

Craig E.J.     (1983) `Philosophy and Philosophies’ in: Philosophy, Vol 58, April 1983. 

Darwin C.      (1859) The Origin of Species

Hartmann N.    (1932) Ethics, London, Geo. Allen & Unwin

Hartmann N.    (1953) New Ways of Ontology, Chicago, Henry Regnery Co.

Hirschberger J.(1976) A Short History of Western Philosophy, London, Lutterworth Press.

Kelly A.B.     (1999) The Process of the Cosmos: Philosophical Theology and Cosmology, USA, Dissertation.com

Kelly A.B.     (1999) `Rethinking Christianity’ In: Quodlibet, July 1999

Kelly A.B.     (2000) `Aristotle, Teilhard de Chardin and The Explanation of the World’ in: Quodlibet, January 2000.

Teilhard de Chardin P. (1955) (1959) The Phenomenon of Man

Teilhard de Chardin P. (1974) Let Me Explain Fontana

Solomon R.& Higgins K. (1996) A Short History of Philosophy, N.Y. Oxford University Press

Whitehead A.N. (1929) Process and Reality