John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
This paper was written in August, 1990.
An analysis of Alfred North Whitehead by one of his best known disciples. While Whitehead is appreciative of the accomplishments of the modern world, he clearly recognizes its limitations, and points beyond them. Whitehead’s postmodern sensibility is highly critical of the dominant leadership of the traditional religions, insisting that religion needs to be liberated from the shackles in which it is now bound. Cobb concludes with Whitehead’s doctrine of God and understanding of the experience of “Peace.”
Although Whitehead never used the term “postmodern,” the way he spoke of the modern has a definite postmodern tone. Especially in his book, Science and the Modern World, the modern is objectified and its salient characteristics are described. Whitehead is appreciative of the accomplishments of the modern world, but he clearly recognizes its limitations as well, and he points beyond it. He sees his own time as one of new beginnings as fundamental as those that constituted the shift from the medieval to the modern worlds.
Whitehead explicitly identifies the new beginnings in two areas. First, there is physics. Both relativity and quantum theory break with the assumptions of modern physics and call for fundamental reconstruction of the scientific program. Here Whitehead, himself a mathematical physicist, undertook to make a major contribution by developing his own relativity theory. While giving Einstein full credit for his discoveries, Whitehead was dissatisfied with the conceptual foundations and implications of Einstein’s theory. From his alternative theory can be generated most, if not all, of the predictions that have been developed from the standard Einsteinian one, but he avoids some of the paradoxes that have plagued efforts to understand Einsteinian relativity.
The second area is philosophy. Whitehead identifies William James as the originator of a new type of philosophy. Whitehead’s judgment that a new age, following the modern one, has already begun is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the passage from which the following quotation is taken.
”The history of philosophy runs curiously parallel to that of science. In the case of both, the seventeenth century set the stage for its two successors. But with the twentieth century a new act commences. It is an exaggeration to attribute a general change in a climate of thought to any one piece of writing or to any one author. No doubt Descartes only expressed definitely and in decisive form what was already in the air of his period. Analogously, in attributing to William James the inauguration of a new stage in philosophy, we should be neglecting other influences of his time. But, admitting this, there still remains a certain fitness in contrasting his essay, Does Consciousness Exist?, published in 1904, with Descartes’ Discourse on Method, published in 1637. James clears the stage of the old paraphernalia; or rather he entirely alters its lighting. . . .
”The scientific materialism and the Cartesian Ego were both challenged at the same moment, one by science and the other by philosophy, as represented by William James with his psychological antecedents; and the double challenge marks the end of a period which lasted for about two hundred and fifty years.” (Science and the Modern World, NY: The Free Press, 1925. Paperback edition 1967, p. 143.)
Whitehead believed that philosophical movements typically have two key moments. There is the genius who inaugurates the movement, and the systematizer who follows. He seems to depict himself in the latter role in relation to James. He accepts and adopts many of James’ key insights, and then goes on to develop them in rich and rigorous detail.
Whitehead understands that this requires speculation, and he calls his magnum opus a work of speculative philosophy. Since the term “speculative” has been one of scorn for late modernist thinkers, it is important that we understand what Whitehead means by it. He certainly does not mean undisciplined thinking. Nevertheless, speculative philosophy is poles removed from a philosophy that limits itself to scientific method, to phenomenology, or to the analysis of language.
For Whitehead, “Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” (Process and Reality: an Essay in Cosmology, corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1978, p. 3.) This requires the search for first principles. Whitehead describes this as follows: “The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. it starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.” (Ibid., p. 5)
Clearly, speculative philosophy is a rational enterprise. There is some dispute today as to whether this commitment to rationality binds one to modernity or separates one from it. We will not pursue the methodological issues determined by the commitment to rationality, but the next section will discuss how Whitehead himself views the relation of rationality to modernity.
The remaining sections will take up some of Whitehead’s basic postmodern speculative ideas, explaining them is such a way as to show their plausibility and illuminating power.
Modernity and Rationality
The modern period is often thought of as the age of reason. It is contrasted with the medieval period which is seen as an age of faith or even superstition. From this perspective, the critique of reason initiated in philosophy by Hume and Kant brings in a new, a postmodern, age.
Whitehead’s study of the origins of modern thought led him to a quite different understanding. He came to the view that the origin of modernity was, most fundamentally, a shift from rational to historical thinking. Under the latter term he includes the empirical approach. In short, instead of seeking the ultimate reasons for things and events, the modern mind has sought to understand in more limited spheres, and it is satisfied with less ultimate answers. In particular it seeks to understand the sources of things rather than their purposes or deepest natures. If we are to distinguish what is postmodern from what carries the modern through to its consistent outcome, this point is of utmost importance, and it is worthwhile to quote Whitehead at some length.
”The Reformation and the scientific movement were two aspects of the historical revolt which was the dominant intellectual movement of the later Renaissance. The appeal to the origins of Christianity, and Francis Bacon’s appeal to efficient causes as against final causes, were two sides of one movement of thought. . . .
”It is a great mistake to conceive this historical revolt as an appeal to reason. On the contrary, it was through and through an anti-intellectualist movement. It was the return to the contemplation of brute fact; and it was based on a recoil from the inflexible rationality of medieval thought. In making this statement I am merely summarising what at the time the adherents of the old regime themselves asserted. For example, in the fourth book of Father Paul Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent, you will find that in the year 1551 the Papal legates who presided over the Council ordered: `That the Divines ought to confirm their opinions with the holy Scripture, Traditions of the Apostles, sacred and approved Councils, and by the Constitutions and Authorities of the holy Fathers; that they ought to use brevity, and avoid superfluous and unprofitable questions, and perverse contentions. . . . This order did not please the Italian Divines; who said it was a novity, and a condemning of School-Divinity, which in all difficulties, useth reason, and because it was not lawful [by the decree] to treat as St. Thomas [Aquinas], St. Bonaventura, and other famous men did.'” (SMW, pp. 8-9)
Whitehead sees this shift from reason to attention to the particularities and sources of things as a gain. Without it, science could not have entered on its great age of progress. He celebrates the seventeenth century as the age of genius, and he notes that also in the following centuries there have been enormous advances in the sciences.
Nevertheless, Whitehead believes that something of value was lost in the abandonment of the quest for reasons. The ideas underlying modern science were not vigorously probed. They worked well, and their success sufficed to guarantee their adequacy. The task of philosophy was not to critique the basic ideas about the world presupposed by science but to justify them. When Hume interpreted causality in a way that could not support its role in the natural sciences, Kant reformulated philosophy so that not only causality but all the fundamental notions of the Newtonian worldview were preserved.
Finally, the anti-rationalism of modern thought displayed its limits in physics itself. Developments within physics demonstrated that the fundamental notions built into physics could not apply in the new levels of inquiry. There was, in the early part of this century, a considerable stirring of effort to rethink nature so as to take account of this new development. Whitehead saw himself as part of this, and thus was a participant in trying to shape a postmodern science.
But Whitehead underestimated the power of the anti-intellectualism that he had identified as foundational to modern thought. While a few struggled to make sense of the non-Newtonian world that physics had brought to life, the majority turned their backs on this inquiry. They became more radically anti-rational.
Modernity in the seventeenth century had turned attention from ultimate questions to penultimate ones, believing that at that level an adequate, intellectually satisfying account of nature could be found. It did not press theoretical questions about its mechanistic model, but it did assume that this model was an adequate, and even accurate, replication of the most important features of the natural world. Thus, for the founders of modern science and philosophy, the world was rational in the sense of conforming to an intelligible pattern, and thought about the world should be coherent. If the work of biologists could not yet be interpreted fully in the terms afforded by physics, this represented a gap that further research would fill. The goal was rational, not in the sense of probing the meanings of the key terms and seeking the ultimate reason for things, but in the sense of seeking a unified and accurate picture of the whole and of all the details of the natural world.
Whitehead assumed that the commitment to rationality at this secondary level was such that the breakdown of the program would lead to a deeper rationality, that is, to raising again more ultimate questions about the reality that could no longer be pictured as a machine. But the majority response went the other way. If our mechanistic picture does not fit the world, we should give up trying to picture the world at all, or, at least, we should recognize that our pictures are only that. When we acknowledge that our pictures do not represent reality, then we can also give up the quest for a coherent system of thought to describe the world. If different models work for different purposes, that suffices. Their incoherence is unimportant.
Sometimes this radical abandonment of the effort to understand a reality other than ourselves is called postmodern. If modernity is defined in terms of its optimistic belief that it had attained to an accurate and adequate picture of how things truly are, then the abandonment of the optimism and of any and all programs for understanding nature can be called postmodern. Postmodernity then begins with Hume and Kant. This continues to be a widespread view, and it is increasingly celebrated as liberating in philosophical, literary, and religious circles. It is also factually embodied in the university, where little effort is made to examine the ideas on which the several disciplines are founded or to bring their findings into any coherent relationship with one another.
If one understands modernity as Whitehead does, then a very different judgment follows. One discovers that the anti-rationalism at the heart of the modern age has become increasingly radical, that the role allowed to reason has been even more circumscribed. From this Whiteheadian point of view, Hume and Kant initiate a second phase of modern anti-rationalism. And perhaps Nietzsche and Heidegger and Derrida can be seen as carrying this anti-rationalist mood to a still further extreme.
The anti-rationalism that appears from one point of view to be postmodern appears in this perspective as carrying modernity to its logical conclusion. What appears from a Whiteheadian point of view to be truly postmodern is the emergence of new root metaphors or paradigms, radically thought through, and rigorously tested against the whole range of evidence.
Postmodernism in the Whiteheadian sense requires not only the reconstruction of individual disciplines but also the reconception of the organization of knowledge as a whole. Modernity began by dividing reality into the two worlds of mind and matter, freeing the latter from religious concern so that it could be explored by objectifying scientific methods. It then proceeded to separate the world into compartments each of which could be studied in separation from the others. If the world truly were machinelike, this might work. The working of the individual parts of a machine are not greatly affected by their role in the whole. If one examines each part of a machine separately, it is possible to think of the whole as the joint working of the parts. With this model in mind, the university divides reality into segments, and it studies each as if it existed in separation from the others and could be understood in that separation. Little attention then needs to be given to distinctive characteristics of the whole.
A Whiteheadian postmodernism begins by insisting that such bifurcation and fragmentation falsifies reality, that all things are interconnected, and that this pattern of relationships is constitutive of the relata. What is said from this perspective cannot be contained within the organization of knowledge based on modern principles.
A Whiteheadian postmodernism recovers something of the rationalism rejected by modernity. This does not mean that it returns to the mode of thought that preceded modernity. But it does find contributions in that earlier period that have been obscured by the modern polemic against it. Postmodern thought probes the fundamental assumptions of the ideas on the basis of which the vast gains of modernity were made to determine what shifts of thinking are required to expand human understanding and to do justice to the whole range of questions we confront as a world. The following sections of this essay will explore some of Whitehead’s fundamental shifts away from modern assumptions, explaining their speculative justification.
From Substances with Attributes to Events in Relation
Broadly speaking there seem to be two types of things that can be taken as examples of what is actual by philosophical realists. We can call these substances and events. Initially, we should think of these nontechnically.
By “substances” I have in mind the objects that surround us all the time — tables and chairs, rocks and sticks, plants and animals, planets and stars. These objects remain the same through considerable periods of time, although in detail they change. When changing objects are analyzed philosophically, it can be said that there are changes in their attributes, but that what underlies the attributes, what the attributes are attributes of, remains strictly the same. The color of the table may fade, or the table may be repainted, but it is the same table.
Of course, there are limits to the endurance of a substance. The wood of the table may rot or be burned. At some point what identified it as the same table or substance is destroyed. Hence substances of this sort do come into being and disappear. There is generation and decay. However, the matter itself does not cease to be. The wood ceases to be wood, but when it is burned the atoms of which it is composed are not destroyed. Indeed, until recently it was supposed that these atoms are indestructible. They were long understood to be the ultimate substances, incapable of generation or decay or any other change except locomotion. The clearest and most consistent doctrine of substances and attributes was formulated in terms of unchanging atoms and their relative motions.
Unfortunately for this doctrine, it turned out that atoms were in fact not atoms in the sense of being indivisible. Scientists have now divided them. But this in itself would not count against a metaphysical substantialism. The real problem for this view is that the entities into which the atom is divided do not behave as substances are supposed to behave. Some of their properties are intelligible from a substantialist perspective, so that they can be called “particles,” but others are not, so that for some purposes they must be viewed as waves without having a substrate that can be understood to “wave.”
A second problem for a realistic substantialism has been that it has difficulty accounting either for human thought or for the relation between human thought and the material substances. Descartes, of course, held that thinking was an attribute of mental substances, as extension was the fundamental attribute of material substances. But Descartes could not explain the relation between mental and material substances, and the modern epoch has been characterized by a series of unsatisfactory responses to this problem. Frustration with this problem is one of the reasons for the abandonment of the project of a realistic account of the world in the later modern development.
A few Western thinkers have pointed to the other option. Everyone knows that there are events as well as substances. There are meetings and games, accidents and healings, wars and conversations, births and deaths. Noone would call these substances.
In general, however, events have been subordinated metaphysically to substances. It has been assumed that events can be explained finally in terms of the substances that participate in them, together with the locomotion of these substances. It is believed that, finally, a conversation can be analyzed into the movement of atomic constituents of the people and their environment that jointly make up the event. Of course, for practical purposes the event must be treated as such, but it is assumed that, metaphysically-speaking, it has no existence in itself.
The deepseated assumption that substances in relative motion are more real than events continues to characterize most thinking in our time. But as indicated above, it does not fit with what we now know in physics. The analysis of the subatomic entities leads to quanta of energy that are much better described as energy-events than as substances. The substantial things that so profoundly shape our sense of reality are more accurately described as stable patterns of activity than as substances.
When events are taken as the ultimate units of actuality, the difficulty of relating “mind” to “matter” is reduced. “Mind” is analyzed into mental events, and “matter,” into physical ones; and mental events and physical events need not be viewed as metaphysically different. Their common character as events can be described and their differences seen more as differences of degree than of metaphysical kind.
Just as substances like chairs and tables can be analyzed into component substances such as atoms; so also events like wars and conversations can be analyzed into the component events that make them up. Since both of these examples are human events, the most salient units are human experiences. The conversation between two people includes as major components the flow of experience of these two people. The flow of experience of one of them, Ms. Smith, can in turn be analyzed into the momentary successive experiences that make it up. The analysis of Ms. Smith’s experience during a conversation into the successive momentary experiences of which it was constituted corresponds in an event metaphysics to the analysis of chairs into the atoms of which they are constituted in classical substantialist thought. These momentary experiences, too, may be called “atomic” in the philosophical sense, in that they cannot be divided into more basic units that have full actuality.
But these atomic “occasions of experience,” to use Whitehead’s term, are very different from material atoms. First, they are four-dimensional, whereas material atoms are conceived to be three-dimensional. That is, the classical atom did not require any lapse of time in order to be what it is. It endured through time, but its locus and extent in time did not enter into its definition or affect it in any way. It was supposed to exist fully in an instant or in any infinitesimal period. The atomic event, on the other hand, is necessarily located exactly where it is in space and time. Further, its extensiveness builds up temporal duration just as it provides the basis for spatial spread.
Second, the atomic occasions of experience are analyzable primarily not into attributes but into relations. Consider one occasion of experience of Ms. Smith. That experience is constituted very largely by a continuation of her experience a moment earlier. Perhaps in that moment she was hearing the beginning of a word spoken by Ms. Brown; now she is hearing the end of that word. The fact that she hears it as the end of that word indicates that the previous moment is still alive in the present. This is a very intimate relation indeed! To describe the present occasion of experience apart from this relation would be to falsify it drastically. It is not as though there were a present experience of hearing the end of the word that then, subsequently, relates itself to the previous one in which the beginning of the word was heard. On the contrary, the influence of the previous occasion of experience is fundamentally constitutive of the present. What she hears now is precisely the ending of the word, not a sound subsequently interpreted in that way by relating it to what was heard earlier. This immediate inflowing of the past into the occasion of experience is what Whitehead calls a physical feeling or prehension.
Still, Ms. Smith is in fact hearing a sound in this moment that she had not heard in the preceding moment. She hears the end of Ms. Brown’s word. This sound is mediated to her through her body. Thus not only are her own past experiences flowing into her present, but also there is the inflowing or prehension of bodily events, in this case events in the ears. Her present experience is the integration of this new sound with the ones she has heard before.
Obviously, this is still an extreme oversimplification. Ms. Smith is also having visual and tactile experiences. Further, her ability to understand what she hears as a word that is a part of a sentence entails relations to many other people and past experiences. The way she feels about what she is hearing, what Whitehead calls “the subjective form” of the prehension, is affected by her tiredness and the soreness of some of her muscles as well as by vague and half-conscious hopes and fears. The analysis goes on and on. The point is that this analysis is into physical feelings or prehensions: that is, into the internal relations of the event to other events, the way the other events participate in constituting the new one. The occasion of experience is a unification of its feelings or prehensions of the world out of which it arises.
For the most part the emotional tone of its feeling conforms to the world that it feels. For example, if Ms. Smith is pleased by what she hears from Ms. Brown, that pleasurable feeling will tend to persists after Ms. Brown has stopped speaking and Ms. Smith has begun to reply. In more technical terms, the subjective form of the prehension of the earlier occasions of experience tends to conform to the subjective form of those occasions.
That an occasion of human experience is a synthesis of prehensions is fairly clear to anyone who attempts to describe what is happening. But what about unitary nonhuman events, for example, those at the subatomic level? Obviously we cannot analyze them phenomenologically as we do our own experience. Nevertheless, Whitehead believes that these events, too, are what they are because of their pattern of relationships to other events. What is happening in one part of a field cannot be understood in abstraction from the field as a whole. Rather it is better thought of as what that field is at that point. These subatomic events, too, can be better viewed as syntheses of prehensions of other events than as substances with attributes.
If both human occasions of experience and subatomic events are best understood as syntheses of prehensions of other events, then their relation to one another is not as puzzling as has been supposed in the modern epoch. Instead, we may suppose that among the events to which an occasion of human experience is related are numerous subatomic ones. They, too, enter into the constitution of a moment of human experience. We may suppose also that among the internal relations or prehensions synthesized in the subatomic events are those to human occasions of experience. Hence the effect of the physical world on the mental one is not the mystery that Descartes faced but is to be expected, and similarly the effect of the mental world on the physical one, assumed in all our actions, is what we would, and should expect.
From Subjects and Objects to Subject/Objects
Even more fundamental to modern thought than substantialist metaphysics is the epistemological starting point. Descartes began with the analysis of immediate experience and how it provided evidence of a world beyond itself. This starting point has continued to characterize modern philosophy even when Descartes’ realism is abandoned. This starting point almost inevitably divides the world into subjects and objects. The subjects are those whose experience is being examined. The objects are whatever is experienced.
This subject-object dualism is, in Descartes, much the same as the mind-matter one discussed above. But in other philosophers, the metaphysical dualism may be abandoned without disturbing the epistemological dualism. The objects of experience might be simply phenomena or sense-data. What remains the same in this analysis is that the kinds of things that are subjects always remain subjects, whereas the kinds of things that are objects always remain objects.
Whitehead is among those who retain the distinction of subject and object while rejecting the accompanying epistemological and metaphysical dualisms. For him, all objects were once subjects, and all subjects become objects. Subjects and objects are not two types of entities, but the same entities considered in different ways.
To understand this, return to Ms. Smith. Whitehead, no less than modern philosophers generally, focuses attention on what is going on in Ms. Smith’s experience. But whereas most modern philosophers have taken as their paradigm case Ms. Smith’s visual experience of a physical object, Whitehead takes as the paradigm case the causal efficacy of Ms. Smith’s immediately past occasion of experience in the present one, or Ms. Smith’s present prehension of that past occasion. The present occasion of experience is the subject of this prehension. The immediately past occasion is the datum of this prehension. A datum is an object for the subject for which it is given. In this way the subject-object structure of experience is reaffirmed.
But notice that the object of the experience is itself an occasion of experience that came into being as a subject of prehensions of other occasions. What is felt in the present occasion are the feelings of the past occasion. Those feelings or prehensions are its objects, but as feelings they have not lost their subjective forms. The difference is only that they are now completed and finished — in short, past. The world of objects is the world of past subjects.
This sweeping generalization from Ms. Smith’s prehension of her past experience is based on the speculation that the relations that constitute all atomic events can also be understood as prehensions. That means that all such events are subjects appropriating from objects which are past subjects. This goes against the grain for those whose sense of reality has been shaped in the modern era.
Part of the problem is that the dualistic thinking that radically separates human beings from the physical world is deeply ingrained. Postmodern thinking must engage in a sustained effort to overcome this habit of mind. But part of the resistance comes from the real difference between ourselves and such objects as tables. Whereas we experience ourselves as subjects and do not find it difficult to attribute subjectivity to our pets, we are clear that tables and rocks are very different indeed. To say that they are subjects, like us and our pets, is profoundly counterintuitive. This natural resistance must be taken seriously.
The reason that tables seem so very different from cats is that the latter move about on their own and appear to be doing so purposefully. They seem to sense danger, to be attracted to food, and to react appropriately. In short they display intelligent purposiveness. When they make certain sounds we hear them as cries of pain, and we notice that the circumstances in which they cry out are analogous to those in which we feel pain. To deny all subjectivity to cats, as Descartes did, is just as counterintuitive as to attribute such subjectivity to objects that have none of these characteristics.
The refusal to treat tables as subjects is, then, a sensible one. Tables are the sorts of things from which the idea of objective substances with attributes has arisen. For most practical purposes, this understanding makes good sense. The issue that was posed above was whether the exhaustive analysis of tables into subatomic entities yields tiny substances with attributes, or instead, events in relation. Whitehead is convinced that the latter conclusion fits the evidence much better. The issue now is whether these events in relation have a subjective aspect.
To answer this question requires rigorous reflection as to what is meant by subjectivity, especially when it is contrasted with objectivity. There are certainly some features of human subjectivity that cannot plausibly be attributed to subatomic events. For example, human subjectivity includes conscious thinking. Whitehead agrees that it is implausible to suppose that subatomic entities are conscious or that they think.
The word “subject” is ambiguous in its usage. Indeed, it seems to have two almost opposite uses. Sometimes a subject is that on which power is exercised. A king exercises power over his “subjects;” some people are “subject” to occasional seizures. At other times, especially in its contrast with an object, a “subject” is an agent, one who is not merely acted on but acts, one who takes some responsibility for the course of events.
As Whitehead uses “subject” both meanings apply. To accent the receptive aspect he sometimes adds the word superject. An occasion of experience is a “superject” of its relations to past occasions. That means that the character of those prehended “objects” largely determines the character of the new “subject.” The “subject-superject” conforms to what it feels. It is largely the result of the unification of those objects.
But the subject is also agent. Among the possible ways of responding to, or taking account of, its world, it selects one. That is, it “decides.” This decision is its act of becoming what it becomes and not something else that it might have become. By becoming just that and not anything else, it also decides how it will influence the future. Thus every event is subject to the decisions of earlier events and is a subject that decides just how to act upon subsequent events.
Does this mean that each atomic event has a subjective side? One might think of one object as affected by the motions of other objects without attributing any subjectivity to the affected object. Indeed, modernity thought in those terms until Hume showed that there is no basis in experience for positing causality of this sort. When we think of objects that are not subjects, we can speak only of regular succession of events, not of one’s actually affecting another. If we want to find an instance of actual influence in experience we must return to the way events in the body or in one’s personal past affect the present experience. There we experience influence or causality. All other meanings of causality are derivative from this experience or else vacuous. Either the relation between successive events in the subatomic world is analogous to the relations we experience, or we have no way of thinking of them at all. Whitehead proposes that before we lapse into total silence we try out the hypothesis that there are analogies among all events.
The choice of the word “decision” highlights the hypothesis that there is an aspect of subjectivity in all atomic events. Yet the usual use of the word suggests the consciousness and thought that are not attributed by Whitehead to creatures without central nervous systems. To understand the continuity that underlies the many discontinuities among creatures, it will be useful to attend to what goes on in human decision.
Usually we think of decisions only when they are major. One decides to go to one college rather than another or to take one job rather than another. One may spend days or even weeks in making such a decision. There is virtually no analogy between decisions of this sort and what Whitehead attributes to all occasions of experience.
But the use of “decision” in ordinary discourse is not limited to these protracted reflections. Consider a different example. When driving down the freeway one observes that a speeding car is suddenly cutting in front. One sees also that it is cutting too close and that if one does not act immediately there will be an accident. One must either swerve or brake to avoid this. But there is a car close behind and another in the lane into which one must swerve. If one is a skilled driver, one may yet be able to achieve just that combination of braking and swerving that will avoid an accident.
In this instance everything depends on one’s decision. But this decision cannot be reflective in the sense possible for the other examples. It must be instantaneous. Does that mean that it is a “reflex” in which “decision” is absent? No. A reflex would have been established by repeated actions, and just this situation has never occurred before for the driver in question. The driver takes in the whole situation in a moment, processes the information immediately, and “decides” what to do. The action taken was not the only possible action. It was one among the possibilities.
Is this decision conscious? The driver is highly conscious at the time it is made, but the content of that consciousness is primarily the location and relative movements of the relevant cars. None of this is linguistically processed, and there is no reflection about the need to act. There is no consciousness of making the decision at the time it is made. It is only later that one is conscious of having made it.
Once we recognize that decisions, even complex ones, can be made almost instantaneously, we can also see that, in the examples given above, many, many decisions are made during the days or weeks of uncertainty about school or job selection. One decides with whom to talk and what to say in the conversations. One decides how to weigh the advantages and disadvantages. One decides which of these to think about more. On and on. Most of these decisions are not themselves the conscious outcome of consciously spelled-out procedures and arguments. The clearly conscious decisions are largely determined by many nonconscious decisions that govern the way one reflects about the issues.
It is, of course, such subtle, nonconscious decisions, usually quite minor, that Whitehead discerns in every occasion of human experience. In his view, no human experience is totally determined by the past it prehends. There is always some element of self-determination with respect to how it processes its data. And it is this element of self-determination, however slight it may be in many occasions of human experience, that he calls its decision. It is this that provides the analogy to all elementary events. They, too, in much simpler ways, nonconsciously take account of their situation and constitute themselves in one of the ways that situation allows.
The notion that there is a subjective aspect to all atomic events is so important that it will be worthwhile to clarify it in still another respect. The idea of an object that is not a subject is the idea of an object for some subject other than itself. That is, without a subject there cannot be an object. Because the only entities acknowledged to be subjects in the modern world have been human ones, objects have been understood to be objects of human experience. Indeed, to be an object has normally meant to be an object of human sense experience, especially visual and tactile experience. The status of entities that cannot be data for human sense experience has been tenuous at best.
This limitation of objects to what functions in human sense-experience has rendered the reality of God highly problematic, and in late modernism, belief in the objective reality of God has been viewed as somewhat eccentric. The situation with respect to the entities discussed in the natural sciences has been more ambiguous. On the one side, physics commands respect and its language is taken as normative. On the other hand, the entities it talks about are not sensible. The “linguistic turn” has functioned as a resolution of this dilemma by ending reflection on the relation of language to a nonlinguistic world. But this view of language as self-contained poses many other unresolved puzzles.
Unless one gives up realistic talk of the world altogether, the limitation of objects to objects of human experience leads to many strange conclusions. For example, human experience seems to have emerged through an evolutionary process. But prior to the emergence of human experience, what evolved, according to the modern view, were purely objective entities. Yet as objects they could have no existence apart from human experiences. The implausible conclusion is that the evolutionary past came into existence only as human beings learned about it. If we are to have any realistic view of what transpired before the appearance of human beings, it seems essential to acknowledge that things other than human beings are not merely objects of human experience, that they have some reality in themselves. To have such reality is to be not mere objects, but also subjects. Whitehead’s hypothesis is that all atomic events are occasions of experience. In their moment of occurrence they are subjective and as they complete themselves they become objective data for other events. A great deal that is otherwise extremely puzzling makes sense when this hypothesis is followed.
From the Primacy of Sensation to Physical Feelings
Modern philosophy consistently begins with epistemology, and the epistemology with which it begins is based on the primacy of sense-experience. In the preceding section we nodded toward epistemology on the way to ontology. For Whitehead, as for classical and medieval thought generally, ontology and cosmology are primary. Human perceiving and knowing are among the most important things to be understood. They are real; indeed, they are very remarkable features of reality. Any ontology that does not explain sense-perception and thinking is an inadequate ontology. But this is very different from supposing that we must begin with modern epistemology and only raise questions about the reality of the world after we have explained epistemologically how those questions can be answered.
This modern program has recently, and justifiably, been criticized from within the dominant philosophical tradition. That program was motivated by the desire to gain a completely secure foundation for philosophy; accordingly, it is called “foundationalism.” The critics recognize that this program has never succeeded and cannot succeed. All discussion of epistemology has presuppositions. One cannot work out one’s epistemology in a neutral way before proceeding to other topics.
Many draw from this fact the conclusion that philosophy must be still more restricted in its topics. For Whitehead the implications are quite different. One should indeed give up any thought that certainty is accessible to human beings. But the recognition that human thought cannot attain any certain knowledge can liberate one to think freely and creatively over a wide range of questions that have often been taboo when one was supposed to limit thinking to areas in which certainty is possible.
For Whitehead, all thought has a hypothetical or speculative character. The best that human beings can ever do is to articulate the best theories they can invent, and then test them against a wide range of evidence. Theory informs the perception of the evidence to which it appeals; so there is always a circular element. Nevertheless, evidence cannot be entirely controlled by theory, and it does constitute a significant test. The task of thought is to build up a system of hypotheses that is consistent and coherent and that meets the tests of adequacy and applicability. Epistemological theories also must be set in this context and tested in these ways.
Whitehead’s speculations lead him to deconstruct ordinary sense-experience into two elements. He calls these “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy” and “perception in the mode of causal efficacy.” The former, he finds, has preoccupied philosophers and has often been taken to exhaust sense- experience. In the visual form, which has played the largest role in philosophy, it is the awareness of patches of color spread out in space. Taken by itself it is timeless in the sense that there is no reference to either past or future. Hence, when this is supposed to be the basis of all knowledge, that knowledge must be very restricted indeed!
But Whitehead points out that our ordinary language connects these sense-data with real things. We do not say that we see a patch of brown in a particular region of presented space. We say that we see a brown table. When challenged, we may have difficulty justifying what we have said, but at a deep level we remain convinced that we are seeing a real physical world and not simply colored shapes. This conviction arises, in Whitehead’s view, because that real world impinges upon us. In his terms, when we are not grossly deceived, we are having physical feelings or prehensions of the events in the immediate past in the region of space where we locate the patches of color. It is these physical feelings that make us so sure that there is a real physical world, composed first of our own bodies and then of other physical entities that act upon us. This is perception in the mode of causal efficacy.
In ordinary sense-experience, these two modes are integrated into one feeling, the feeling of the brown table. This is “perception in the mode of symbolic reference.” The brown patch given in presentational immediacy is referred to the physical entities that reflect the light that has acted on our eyes. This works well most of the time to orient us practically to our world.
But even in the best of circumstances there is a slight error. The events that affected the light that then affected our eyes are ever so slightly in the past, whereas the brown patch is in the present. When distances are great, this slight error becomes very important. The star is not now in the region where we see it. Complex calculations are required if we need to know where it now is. Further, the brown patch that we ordinarily locate in the external region because of events there happening may instead be located there because of chemical or electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain. The patch is still there, but the symbolic reference to the events in that region is now delusive.
The error involved in symbolic reference is still greater. The patch of color that we project on a region of contemporary space is quite different from the events taking place there. Except in delusive instances, it is derived from those events and in some important way continuous with them; but no event in that region is entertaining the visual experience of that color! That color as we see it cannot, therefore, be there apart from being seen.
Perception in the mode of causal efficacy is not limited to that part of the external world that acts on our sensory organs. These organs magnify particular types of influence of the world upon us and generally their data dominate our consciousness. But our whole bodies are affected by their environment in complex ways. Further, there is no ontological necessity that all external events affecting human occasions of experience be mediated through bodily events. Each occasion of experience is affected by its entire past, and some of these effects can be direct even when the occasions are not contiguous. To be more specific, the emotions of a person at some distance from us can affect our emotions even apart from sensory cues. And there is considerable evidence that the ideas of one person can have effects on another that cannot be explained by ordinary physical mediation.
Whereas modernity found any action at a distance unacceptable, Whitehead’s postmodern view of how the events in the world are interconnected renders evidence of this sort quite plausible. Even in sense-experience, perception in the mode of causal efficacy, that is, nonsensuous perception, is primary. Nonsensuous perception is certainly not limited to the causal efficacy of the world on or through the sense organs. Hence, much of the causal efficacy of the past upon human experience is extra-sensory. Whether physical feelings are only of contiguous occasions with all other causal efficacy of the past mediated through these, or there are also physical prehensions of noncontiguous occasions, is a purely empirical question. Hence, evidence for action at a distance is to be examined in the same critical spirit as any other evidence.
From Conceptual Relativism to Correspondence
Early modernism took for granted that its models of the world corresponded with the world as it is. It assumed that propositions corresponded, or failed to correspond, with the way things are. Its realism was poorly justified theoretically, especially in view of its epistemological starting point and its tendency to affirm the primacy of sensation. But it was too deeply immersed in common sense to question that there is a real world. Its anti-rationalism kept such questions at bay.
Nevertheless, the tensions between its sensationalism and its realism did become too obvious to deny. Especially in the work of Hume and Kant the old common sense approach was undercut. Both realized that while in practice we must assume a real world objective to us, the current epistemological theory provided no basis for this practice. Neither surrendered on that account the key focus on sensation that dominated the epistemonological theory.
Late modernism has followed the implications of the sensationalist theory rather than the implications of Kant’s theory of practice. It has rejected common sense views of the reality of an external world, holding that our thought and language cannot refer to such a world. The idea that our propositions correspond to some objective reality has been widely declared to be a naive error from which sophisticated reflection liberates us.
The result has been a focus of attention on the one who knows and the conditions of knowledge. This has indeed been remarkably illuminating and liberating. The early modern view of knowers as conditioned only by the known has given place to a far more insightful understanding of every act of knowledge as conditioned by the particular historical, cultural, economic, gender, and racial situation. Any claim to transcend these conditions and grasp a pure and objective truth is rightly viewed with utmost suspicion.
In late modernism this profound recognition of the conditionedness or relativity of all thought has generally led to the avowal of some form of conceptual relativism. That is, all concepts are understood to make sense within a particular culture or linguistic system. In that context one can speak of some propositions as being truer, or at least better, than others. But this does not mean that they correspond more closely with a reality that is independent of the context.
Kant and his followers assumed that there is a human world, but that there is no access to any other world in which this human world is located. If there is another world, it is wholly unknowable. This is true for them almost by definition; for what is knowable is thereby introduced into the human world.
In late modernism, the human world has turned out to be many human worlds, often defined by cultural-linguistic communities, so that in fact there is no common appeal even to a shared human world. Among those who think in this way, some advocate efforts to overcome the barriers between diverse communities by such means as the merging of horizons. But others, perhaps more consistently, question this possibility and encourage us to accept the relativity of thought to particular context as final.
It is doubtful that any of the advocates of this extreme relativity are able to think and write consistently in these terms. It is apparent that the statement that there is a plurality of cultural-linguistic systems is intended by most of them as something more than a context-dependent statement. They believe that there really is a plurality of such systems each of which provides the context for meaningful thought and discourse for some community. Hence, as part of the justification for claiming that all thought and language is meaningful only within a specified context, they make assertions that claim, at least implicitly, to correspond to the universal situation. Often they explain the history of thought and argument that has led to contextual relativism in ways that imply that their accounts correspond to important features of an actual tradition of thought.
From a Whiteheadian point of view, a position that can only be described and defended by the use of modes of reasoning that are not justified within that position is suspect. It may indeed contain a great deal of insight and wisdom, but it appears to deal with one part of the whole rather than with the totality, while claiming that the part is the totality. It seems to be only the deep-seated anti-rationalism of modernity that obscures this point.
The inconsistencies involved in the description and defense of conceptual relativism should open people to reexamination of the analyses that support it. At its foundation is the primacy of sensation with which the preceding section dealt. If all human experience arises from sensation, and if sensation is understood as what Whitehead calls “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy,” then indeed each of us is shut in to her or his immediate experience. The fully consistent implication of sensationalism seems to be solipsism, the doctrine that each person’s experience is self-enclosed and makes to reference to any wider context at all. Against that conclusion we can be grateful for Kant’s subordination of the individual to the human species or to Mind as such, and we can be grateful for the linguistic turn that locates reality in shared language. Nevertheless, these moves do not restore the reality of the physical world that is so prominent in common sense. The rejection of the correspondence theory of truth, so widespread in late modernity, is primarily the denial that our thoughts or language could correspond to something physical, lying beyond our sensory experience.
The previous section described Whitehead’s move from the primacy of sensation to physical feelings. Physical feelings are feelings of other actual occasions, and most of these occasions make up what we call the physical world. We are not shut in to our private experience, the human world in general, or to particular cultural-linguistic systems. We live in the natural world as well.
From this it follows that one main reason for rejecting the correspondence theory of truth is overcome. But there is a second objection to this theory that must still be taken quite seriously. As often formulated it seems that supporters of the correspondence theory of truth claim that there is correspondence between thoughts or verbal expressions on the one side and something nonlingustic on the other. This is inherently problematic. How can things like words correspond to things like people or natural objects. They are fundamentally different.
Usually the discussion of correspondence is in terms of propositions. The claim is that propositions correspond to states of affairs. When propositions are understood to be linguistic entities such as sentences, this leaves us with the puzzle referred to above. How can a linguistic entity correspond to a non-linguistic one?
Whitehead devotes great care and attention to this issue. The first step is to distinguish between propositions and linguistic entities such as sentences. A proposition is the way some occasion of experience, or some group of such occasions, may be. The function of sentences and other linguistic entities is to evoke in the hearer attention to this possibility. For example, the sentence, “Kant distinguished practical from theoretical reason.”, is intended to evoke attention to a great philosopher who lived around the beginning of the nineteenth century and to connect with that philosopher a particular teaching. The relation between that philosopher and that teaching is the proposition. The sentences used to evoke attention to that proposition can vary.
When propositions are understood in this way, there is no mystery about their correspondence to states of affairs. They are possible states of affairs. They may therefore be actual states of affairs. It makes sense to discuss whether they are actual or not, that is, whether that possibility was in fact actualized.
Of course, there are complexities in this discussion. There can be no direct inspection of Kant’s act in making this distinction. We must instead examine certain writings attributed to Kant. The discussion might lead to the question of their authenticity. We might also need to ask whether the meanings of words as we are accustomed to interpreting them correspond closely with Kant’s intended meanings. All of our reflection on these matters would depend on a wider context of experience. Thus our consideration would involve both other questions of correspondence and appeals to probability based on consistency and coherence as well.
To discuss at all requires that at least for the most part the participants are willing to try to avoid self-contradictions. But what we are aiming at is to be accurate about Kant, not to develop a system of consistent and coherent ideas about him. The meaning of “truth” is correspondence to actual states of affairs. Consistency and coherence of thought are required in most instances if we are to achieve truth.
There is still a problem with this formulation. If the argument in favor of the correspondence of an entertained possibility of a state of affairs to an actual state of affairs is entirely based on coherence and consistency, we seem to be left with the question as to what more is affirmed, when we claim correspondence, than that this is the most coherent and consistent belief to hold? If this is all that is intended by the claim, then the argument seems to be verbal only. The opposition to the correspondence theory of truth has been the opposition to the idea that correspondence could be anything more than the most suitable tale, with suitability determined by the context in which it is told.
If we are to have a truly distinctive correspondence theory of truth, we must discover in our immediate experience a correspondence between propositions entertained and actual states of affairs. If we can do that, then the meaning of correspondence can be decisively established independently of the usual ways of arriving at the belief that it occurs.
Consider a situation in which someone tells me that I am angry. Since my self-image is of one who is slow to wrath, my immediate tendency is to deny that I have been angry. But suppose that I am also a relatively honest person. Then the other’s statement calls my attention to a possible relation between my immediately past occasions of experience and anger. I can ask whether the possible relation was actual. In this case, I do not approach matters through a complex process of reasoning. Instead I inspect directly. I compare those occasions as now prehended by me with the proposition that I also prehend. I may well find that the two correspond, that I have been angry, even if I do not like to admit this. Of course, I may also find that they do not correspond, that the proposition is false.
If I am told that I was angry two hours earlier, the situation is more complex. As the statement elicits attention to how I was feeling then, some element of immediate inspection may be possible. But here other types of evidence may become more important and reliable than my direct memory or prehension of that past. Those who saw me may tell me that my teeth were clenched or that I was red in the face or that I spoke in a peculiarly icy way. My general beliefs about how anger expresses itself in me and my degree of confidence in the veracity of these observers will introduce complex questions of consistency and coherence that will interact with such direct memories as I can elicit. If the statement is about someone else, and especially if I was not even present at the time, then coherence and consistency hold sway in my decision as to whether to believe the statement or not. But to believe the statement is to believe that the proposition it elicits corresponds with that person’s feelings in the way that I immediately experienced in my own case. The meaning of correspondence is different from that of coherence and correspondence.
So far my examples have come from the human world, and they all refer to elements of subjectivity in that world. The opponents of correspondence theory, on the other hand, almost always take their examples from the inanimate world, which they take as purely objective. Some of them might allow that correspondence makes some sense within the world of human subjects, while continuing to deny its applicability to the inanimate, objective one.
For Whitehead this does not suffice. It assumes the dualism of subjects and objects that he opposes. Human beings are part of nature, and our relation to the remainder of nature is continuous with our relations with one another. Every atomic entity is a subject in its moment of occurrence and passes into objectivity for subsequent occasions.
Nevertheless, to assert that language can evoke propositions to attention that correspond with physical states of affairs does require further reflection. First, it is possible only under the condition that dualism is rejected. Whitehead provides this condition through his doctrine that everything that is is an occasion of experience or a grouping of such occasions. Hence, a statement about an electronic occasion of experience can evoke propositions about such an occasion in much the way that a statement about human occasions can evoke propositions about human experiences. Thus the statement that electronic occasions take account of their past and influence their future can evoke propositions that may have some correspondence to physical states of affairs. Whitehead affirms this correspondence.
There are, however, greater difficulties with what appear to be the simplest statements about the physical world, the ones most often taken as paradigmatic by those who deny correspondence. Consider, “The stone is gray.” “The stone” refers to a large grouping of molecular occasions rather than to any single occasion of experience. The grouping as such is not a subject either in the present or in the past. The individual occasions that make up the grouping are subjects in the immediacy of their becoming, but they have had no visual experience of grayness. Hence, if “gray” means a particular datum of human visual experience, this cannot characterize either the individual stone molecules or the stone as a whole, except in its function as the object of visual experience. This means that the propositions most directly and properly evoked by the statement, “The stone is gray.”, are propositions about the visual experience of those persons who look in the direction of the stone under appropriate lighting. But that means they are propositions about human experiences rather than about natural objects, which is just the point of much of the rejection of the correspondence theory of truth.
For Whitehead, it is not necessary to hold that there is any correspondence between propositions evoked by the statement that the stone is gray and the physical world in itself. What is crucial is that there are other statements that can be made about the physical world that evoke propositions that can correspond with it. It is the world felt in perception in the mode of causal efficacy and not that felt in the mode of presentational immediacy to which humanly entertained propositions can correspond.
Nevertheless, Whitehead does not want to disconnect the two worlds. The world given in the mode of presentational immediacy derives from the world that flows in in the mode of causal efficacy. That is, the difference in the gray and blue that I perceive in presentational immediacy ordinarily derives from a difference in the physical constitution of the physical objects that I perceive as gray and blue. Whitehead describes in some detail the transformations and transmutations that are involved in the process of human experience being affected by these external physical events as transmitted through bodily ones. But he also believes that there are continuities as well as discontinuities. These are to be discerned in the subjective forms of the human feelings of gray and blue. These subjective forms are the emotional tones associated in a human experience with these colors. Whitehead believes that analogous emotional tones may be found in the molecules or cells in the physical world from which our color-experience is derived. Hence, even in this most difficult case, often taken as paradigmatic by opponents of correspondence theory, Whitehead discerns the possibility of some correspondence.
From the Segregation of Religion to its Pervasiveness
Modernity arose through a process of secularization. This was in part a continuation of the prophetic tradition within Christianity. In this tradition God is sharply distinguished from the world and the way things are. God’s transcendence is emphasized. God judges the world. God’s will calls for the transformation of the world. Thus the world as it is is not sacred. It is the creation of God but not itself divine. Human beings are free to explore it and to use it.
This note was present in medieval Christianity along with more sacramental views that connected the divine and the natural more closely. Modernity rejected these sacramental views. God was the external creator of a machine whose workings reflected infinite knowledge and control. But the machine could be examined and adjusted without involving God in any way.
Although modernity from its origins was often anti-clerical and extremely critical of Christian institutions and practices, the modern view was not, in its origins, anti-religious. It encouraged the sense of divine greatness and even omnipotence, viewing worship as an eminently appropriate response. In the sphere of morality it usually saw God as the giver of moral law and as the judge of how well individuals observed it. Rewards and punishments after death were widely affirmed. Thus religion had a place, but one that was segregated from the natural sciences.
The fuller development of modernism involved the extension of secular thought further and further. Society and morality, like nature, came to be understood as separate from God and thus freed from religion. The area in which religion had an appropriate role became smaller and smaller, and, for an increasing number of people, it vanished altogether. Whereas in early modernism it was generally supposed that a rational religion of some form is needed to maintain social order, in late modernism religion in general is typically seen as an oppressive and distorting force from which the human spirit needs to be freed.
Postmodern thought has reappraised this evaluation. It agrees about the oppressiveness of the early modern religion of radical transcendence that pictured God chiefly as lawgiver and judge. But it also sees that the role of religion in human life is multivalent. Religion cannot be identified with one ideology. It is by no means necessarily bound up with belief in a transcendent lawgiver and judge. Hence problems with that doctrine, while requiring fresh reflection for those for whom it is important, do not point to the end of religion. Even the Biblical religions, which have so often been understood in these terms, are not committed to them.
It turns out that the way in which secularism had won the day was by limiting the questions that people were allowed to ask. This is closely connected with the anti-rationalism so central to the modern spirit. If the barriers to deeper questioning are removed, then the religious issues reassert themselves. For example, to experience the world and ourselves within it as a matrix of interrelated events is religiously different from experiencing ourselves as mental substances set down in a world of material substances. To perceive the world of events as finally composed of present and past subjects rather than mere objects is also a change of religious importance. Quite different consequences follow for our relation to other animals and to the biosphere as a whole. One cannot separate the way we understand ourselves and our world from the meaning of that perception for our lives.
In his book on religion Whitehead emphasizes that religion has to do with the ordering of our internal lives as subjects. Whitehead offers a variety of definitions of religion, all of which highlight this point. For example, “Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts.” (Religion in the Making, NY: the Macmillan Company, 1927, page 15.) Or again, “Religion is the art and theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things.” (Ibid., p. 16.)
We are feeling beings, and how we feel is important. It shapes how we act and how we think, and these react upon how we feel. To understand the whole of things requires as much attention to this inwardness as to the evidence of how the world is constituted. Hence religion and science are the two basic sources for reflection. The modern world has underestimated the wisdom about the inner life gained by human beings over the centuries and embodied in the religious traditions. On the other side, most of those who speak for religion have clung to ways of thought that do not fit our best knowledge about the objective world. As a result, religion has been in a long decline that will not end until those who give it leadership are as open to learning and transformation by new knowledge as are scientists at their best. In Whitehead’s words, “Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.” (SMW, p. 189) This requires an “unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account.” (Ibid. p. 187.)
Whitehead’s postmodern sensibility is thus highly critical of the dominant leadership of the traditional religions. In contrast to the late modern sensibility, however, this criticism is fueled by the conviction that religion is of utmost importance and that it needs to be liberated from the shackles in which it is now bound. One of these is the segregation of religion in narrow compartments in which it cannot perform its proper function. It needs once again to command the attention of the most reflective and sensitive people in order to give shape and discipline to the inner life appropriate to the best understanding of the whole that is available. Even this formulation understates its task, since its own evidence must participate in shaping the understanding that it appropriates and celebrates.
Whitehead himself contributes to this task. He reflects on the global history of religion, seeing in Buddhism and Christianity the most promising sources of fresh development. He believes that as these two traditions interact each will be enriched and enabled to contribute to the needed deepening of religious thought and life. He recognizes that his own cosmological vision has more affinities with East Asian modes of thought than with those that have been dominant in the West. On the other hand, he finds in Plato (in thought) and in Jesus (in life) the deepest insight to which he himself is committed.
The details of Whitehead’s historical judgments about Buddhism and Christianity are not important here. The advance of research requires revisions even if some of his insights can still give guidance at the cutting edge of inquiry. What is more important is the re-emergence in his later thought of a kind of theism that has influenced the development of postmodern theology, especially in Christianity.
In conformity with Whitehead’s view that science and religion should jointly contribute to the overarching vision that is needed, his understanding of God grows out of both. On the scientific side, his analysis of the world into partially self-determining events leads him to acknowledge the need for some principle of order and novelty that can not be identified with the multiplicity of creatures themselves. On the religious side he sees the need for the belief that the values achieved in the world are not simply lost as they fade from human memory. The following paragraphs consider these two directions in turn, showing how, at every point in the reflection, scientific and religious concerns interact and work together.
The simplest way of understanding Whitehead’s systematic need for a principle of order and novelty is to reflect on the individual occasions of experience and how they come into being. The human example is the most accessible. Whitehead is convinced that Ms. Smith’s experience in each moment is not simply the product of its prehensions of past events, important and determinative as these are. If it were, then finally Ms. Smith would indeed simply be a part of the world machine. Her life in every detail could be predicted by one who knew all the features of her world. There would be no alternative responses to her situation and hence no decision.
Many philosophers operate explicitly with just those hypotheses. On the other hand, in fact, they seem to treat their own choice of hypotheses as something more than simply the outcome of determined conditions. That is, they give arguments in favor of their views as if questions of better and worse, truth or falsehood, were relevant to the outcome, as if, in other words, rational decision was possible. For this reason, it is hard to take their announced deterministic hypotheses seriously as representing their deepest assumptions.
Probably the main reason for the widespread adoption of deterministic hypotheses is that most philosophers find it difficult to see how anything else is possible. If the explanation for what is happening now is not to be found in the past, where can it be found? To posit that something comes from nowhere is unacceptable. If the past is all that is given, then the present must come from there — exhaustively.
The other line of reflection, followed by Whitehead, is that, if there is something in the present not derivative from the past, then reality is not exhausted by the past. His hypothesis is that, in addition to the past actual world, there are also possibilities not realized by that world and yet relevant to the occasion of experience as it constitutes itself in the immediate present. In the examples discussed above, it is the fact that there are plural alternatives that leads to the necessity and the actuality of decision, that is, of cutting off all but one. These alternatives are felt in a way that is somewhat analogous to the physical feelings or prehensions of the past occasions.
Still there are differences. Whitehead calls the relations to past occasions “physical feelings” or “physical prehensions.” The relations to relevant possibilities he calls “conceptual feelings” or “conceptual prehensions.” They function differently. The physical feelings are determinative. They are decided by the past occasions for the present one. They can be called “causal feelings.” But the conceptual feelings, especially as they are integrated with the physical ones, are feelings of alternative ways of responding. They constitute much of the world as “lures” for feeling, or what Whitehead also calls “propositions.” Because of them, although we cannot but be affected by the past, just how we interpret it and value it and transmit it to the future is decided in the present moment. In this way the effective presence of relevant possibilities is the principle of novelty by virtue of which decisions are real and genuinely free.
But if each occasion makes its own decision among possibilities, it would seem that chaos would ensue. And of course there are large amounts of chaos in the world. That there is not only chaos, that in fact extremely complex patterns of order have emerged and sustained themselves over eons, points to the fact that the possibilities are not ordered only in terms of immediate relevance but ordered also so that there are established limits that ensure some correlation among the many decisions that jointly make up the settled world. The principle of novelty is also a principle of order.
This argument is not independent of the deeply religious intuition that we are free and responsible beings, but, given the commitment to making sense of this, there are no further appeals to religion. Indeed, if the argument holds, then it is for religious people to adjust their understanding to this feature of reality. When they do so, the question arises as to how to identify, in religious language, the source of novelty and order that is philosophically understood as the realm of ordered possibility. Whitehead’s judgment is that this realm is properly identified as that which is to be worshipped and supremely honored. For that reason it should be called God. More specifically, Whitehead calls this the Primordial Nature of God.
The further development of the doctrine of God is jointly determined by philosophical and religious interests. Philosophically it appears that this “principle” functions causally in the world, and that to be a cause is to be something actual. Hence the principle of novelty and order should be understood to be an actual entity and, like all actual entities, to be subject as well as object. The view that God has a subjective aspect is supported by the religious traditions of the West and brings the principle of novelty and order into closer proximity to the main streams of Western religious experience. If the decision that establishes the order among possibilities makes possible the growth of value in the world, it seems to be for the benefit of the creatures, and hence to express love for them. Since it functions to free them from the necessity of sheer repetition of the past and to offer them alternative ways of constituting themselves, it is to be sharply contrasted with the coercive forces of the world. Yet the alternatives among which decision is made are not all of equal promise, and they are presented so as to encourage the better choice. Hence Whitehead thinks in terms of divine persuasion. It is this insight that he associates especially with Plato and Jesus.
The final step in Whitehead’s development of his doctrine of God is more directly shaped by religious intuitions. The ultimate evil, he believed, is that all achievements of value fade. If this is the last word, the religious impulse must be to withdraw energy from the shaping and reshaping of the course of events and to find an ahistorical fulfillment. But Whitehead saw “no reason, of any ultimate metaphysical generality, why this should be the whole story.” (PR, p. 340.) And indeed his own metaphysical ideas, developed for other purposes, provided him with another answer.
If God is an actual entity, then like all actual entities God should be di-polar, that is, God should have both conceptual feelings and physical ones. The former are entailed in the ordering of possibilities; so they have already been affirmed and identified as God’s Primordial Nature. But the latter have not been mentioned. These physical feelings are prehensions of all the creatures. Since they derive from the creatures, Whitehead calls speaks here of the Consequent Nature of God.
Among creatures it is by means of their physical prehensions that the values of the past operate in the present. But in the creaturely world these values fade rapidly. The great majority of what has been felt in the past is no longer felt; most of it is not even remembered. This is because, in the course of time, events succeed one another and none are able to encompass more than a tiny fraction of what has been.
God is quite different from the creatures even, though God, like all occasions of experience, is an actual entity. Whereas the human soul, or personality, is a succession of occasions of experience, God is one everlasting process of integrating all that happens with all possibility. God is thus always feeling directly all the creaturely feelings that have ever been. Whereas for us to feel a few of these feelings vividly means to exclude many other feelings, for God such exclusions are not necessary. In contrast to the constant replacement of one set of attainments by another, which characterizes the temporal process, God feels all that has ever been in the fullness of its immediacy. Thus what is past in the world lives everlastingly in God. What is lost in the world is alive in God.
From the creaturely perspective this establishes the real importance of all that we are and feel. What happens is not a moment of private feeling that occurs and then is forever lost. Instead it is forever a contribution to the divine life. God suffers with us in our suffering and rejoices with us in our joy. When we inflict pain on an animal, we inflict pain forever on God. When we ease the thirst of a neighbor, God’s thirst is forever eased as well. The primary understanding of God, then, is not as Lawgiver and Judge but as “the fellow sufferer who understands.” (PR, p. 351)
Whitehead knows that this vision of God is different from that dominant in the tradition. Indeed, he is quite critical of the tradition. “In the great formative period of theistic philosophy, which ended with the rise of Mahometanism, after a continuance coeval with civilization, three strains of thought emerge which, amid many variations in detail, respectively fashion God in the image of an imperial ruler, God in the image of a personification of moral energy, God in the image of an ultimate philosophical principle.” (PR. 342-43) Whitehead is deeply dissatisfied with these images, and adds: “There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the three main strands of thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved, also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does no look to the future, for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.” (PR, p. 343.) Whitehead sees his own vision of God as a more systematic articulation of this Galilean insight.
Although Whitehead is deeply interested in conceptual clarity and accuracy in thinking about the divine, the religious effects of this vision on the inner life are also of utmost importance. We will close by quoting one of the passages in which the meaning of these theological doctrines for Whitehead himself becomes most clear.
”The Peace that is here meant is not the negative conception of anaesthesia. It is a positive feeling which crowns the `life and motion’ of the soul. . . . It is not a hope for the future, nor is it an interest in present details. It is a broadening of feeling due to the emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its coordination of values. Its first effect is the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling arising from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. Thus Peace carries with it a surpassing of personality. . . .
”The experience of Peace is largely beyond the control of purpose. It comes as a gift. . . . Peace is the removal of inhibition and not its introduction. it results in a wider sweep of conscious interest. It enlarges the field of attention. Thus Peace is self-control at its widest,–at the width where the `self’ has been lost, and interest has been transferred to coordinations wider than personality. . . .
”Amid the passing of so much beauty, so much heroism, so much daring, Peace is then the intuition of permanence. It keeps vivid the sensitiveness to the tragedy; and it sees the tragedy as a living agent persuading the world to aim at fineness beyond the faded level of surrounding fact. Each tragedy is the disclosure of an ideal:–What might have been, and was not: What can be. The tragedy was not in vain. This survival power in motive force by reason of appeal to reserves of Beauty, marks the difference between the tragic evil and the gross evil. The inner feeling belonging to this grasp of the service of tragedy is Peace–the purification of the emotions.” (Adventures of Ideas, New York: The Macmillan Company, l933, pp. 369-371