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Regional Inclusion and Psychological Physiology

by John B. Cobb Jr. and Donald W. Sherburne

John B. Cobb, Jr. is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology. Donald W. Sherburne is Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, Nashville. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 27-40, Vol. 3, Number 1, Spring , 1973. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.



Those who have followed our debate concerning Sherburne: "Whitehead without God" [PS 1/2 (Summer, 1971), 91-113] and "Regional Inclusion and the Extensive Continuum" [PS 2/4 (Winter, 1972), 277-95] will recall our differences concerning regional inclusion. Whitehead does not develop such a theory, but our problem is whether such a theory would be compatible with his basic principles as Cobb claims. Here my efforts to adumbrate a "Whiteheadian Psychological Physiology" are quite pertinent. I originally wrote this article (1:401.07) as the opening shot in my war against the concept of regional inclusion. One of Cobb’s arguments is that regional inclusion is a fruitful concept for gaining understanding of the relationship between the regnant society of personally ordered occasions that answers to the concept of a "soul" in the Whiteheadian philosophy and the other occasions in the brain which support that regnant society. Since I believe that regional inclusion is an incoherent concept, I there provided a model for understanding the relationship in question without making any appeal to regional inclusion.


Whitehead speaks of the personally ordered society of dominant human occasions (Sherburne’s regnant society) as a "thread of happenings wandering in ‘empty’ space amid the interstices of the brain" (PR 516). This clearly does not entail regional inclusion; so I am not claiming his support for my doctrine of the relation of the "soul" to the "body." My claim is that this relation could be understood better if reconceived in terms of regional inclusion. Since Sherburne has proposed a theory interpreting and defending Whitehead’s position as part of our debate, my claim may be furthered by responding to it. First, I would like to express my gratitude for his clarifying interpretation of the passage in PR 161 to which I have paid too little attention.

The main point of Sherburne’s theory is that a nonsocial nexus exists in the interstices of the brain such that its members are severally attuned to stimuli from different parts of the body. The personally ordered society that is the soul is not a set of distinct entities. It is rather defined by a decisive inheritance by one or another of the members of the otherwise nonsocial nexus from some antecedent member, a member which may or may not have had a similar relation to the body. Thus in one moment the soul would be constituted by the present reception of stimuli from the ear drums, while inheriting from a past occasion that was stimulated from the big toe.

I grant that this is a possible interpretation of certain texts in Whitehead. Although I doubt that it was his intention, it is as close or closer to his intention than my theory. Hence I do not want to dispute the matter textually. My thesis is rather that it is not a plausible view of physiological psychology. Consider its implications. (1) No one human experience can be affected directly by a multiplicity of sources of sensations, such as seeing, hearing, and tasting, as well as feeling what is occurring in the big toe. All such contributions of the body must be successive. A man might remember what he saw a moment earlier while hearing a portion of a syllable, but he could not simultaneously see the man speaking and hear what he says. (2) Since the members of the nonsocial nexus cannot all be contiguous, and since Sherburne stresses the necessity of contiguity for inheritance, definite patterns of succession must exist such that, for example, between a moment of seeing and a moment of hearing one might have to have a moment of awareness of his big toe. (3) Conscious seeing, for example, can occur only intermittently, since most of the time the ego must be elsewhere than in the seeing occasions. (4) Since seeing, etc., are in fact physiologically very complex processes, even the above is oversimple. Probably we must be held to see different parts of the visual field successively, perhaps one color at a time.

I know of no evidence supporting this theory, and certainly it sharply conflicts with my experience of seeming to see, hear, taste, and feel my big toe all at once. Indeed, this theory of experience is so eccentric that I hesitate to attribute it to Sherburne. I am helped in avoiding this attribution by his subsequent indication that the personally ordered regnant society he is tracing "answers to the notion of the conscious ego while the supporting nonsocial nexus answers to the dimly conscious regions of the ‘depth’ dimension of the psyche" (1:406). Sherburne’s point is then that conscious attention focuses on different aspects of experience successively.

This doctrine also is questionable if pressed as far as Sherburne’s theory would require, but it is far more defensible than the other. Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that it is correct. There is then an important shift that moves Sherburne closer to my own position, closer than he intends. Although he begins by associating the soul with the regnant society, he ends by identifying the psyche with the whole nonsocial nexus. The regnant society is one part of this nexus, but my experience in any moment includes both the clear conscious experience of the regnant society and the dimly conscious experiences of the other members of the nexus. In that case, either my experience does not have (at any moment) the unity of an actual entity (i.e., it is then in fact and finally many discrete experiences and not an experience at all), or my experience is an actual occasion including, or contributed to by, both the ego and the other occasions of the nexus. The first alternative must be rejected, for Whitehead holds that all real togetherness is derived from the indefinable togetherness that is found in a single experience (PR 288). If the apparent togetherness in experience of both clear and dim consciousness, or of hearing and seeing, is declared unreal, as in this alternative, then no basis remains for any doctrine of togetherness whatever.

The second alternative requires a doctrine of regional inclusion. If my experience subsumes, or directly inherits from, a multiplicity of members of a nonsocial nexus, then it must be contiguous (on Sherburne’s view) to all of them. It cannot be contiguous to all of them unless its region includes other regions.

One other point in Sherburne’s article needs to be challenged as misleading. Sherburne correctly quotes a passage from Whitehead in which he argues that life is not to be explained in terms of the relations between successive members of an enduring entity. That relation is one of repetition and reenactment, whereas the characteristic of life is novelty.

However, Sherburne follows this quote with the following statement which is at least implicitly critical of the doctrine of the human soul that I developed in A Christian Natural Theology. "This objection has force . . . against any simple-minded attempt to identify as the living soul the regnant, personally ordered society which we uncritically have been calling the analogue of the soul. Such an enduring entity, with its binding of any individual entity to the line of its ancestry, is, taken by itself, as irrelevant an answer to the problem of life, which is a bid for freedom, as is the doctrine of substance" (1:403). Sherburne proceeds to the discussion of the nexus of living occasions that provides the context of the soul and with which in the end he seems to identify the soul. (Or does Sherburne ontologically distinguish between soul and psyche?)

I have no desire to quarrel with the discussion of the nonsocial nexus in the interstices of the brain. But Sherburne poses a question which Whitehead answers in another and a clearer way. The reason we cannot explain life in terms of enduring entities is that in ordinary enduring entities the physical feeling of each member is reenacted in its successors.

The lines quoted by Sherburne are taken from a discussion of the life of a cell. Whitehead denies that this life can be illuminated by thinking of the cell as having a soul. However, a few pages later Whitehead starts a new section with the sentence: "The complexity of nature is inexhaustible" (PR 163). Here he begins his discussion of what in Adventures of Ideas he called the soul, what he here calls a living person." The living person is also an "enduring entity" but it differs from the enduring entities of which he was speaking before in a crucial respect. Those, which he usually calls enduring objects, establish their identity through time by endless repetition, i.e., by physical feelings of physical feelings of physical feelings, ad infinitum. Life or novelty can play at best a trivial role there. But where life is highly developed a new mode of relationships among living occasions is possible. Living persons establish their identity, or, perhaps better, continuity, by hybrid feelings of hybrid feelings of hybrid feelings. Hybrid feelings are feelings of the conceptual feelings of antecedent occasions, and it is there that novelty lies. "By this transmission the mental originality of the living occasions receives a character and depth" (PR 163). It is both "canalized" and "intensified."

My point here is not that Sherburne is strictly incorrect in anything that he says. My point is only that by failing to mention the way in which Whitehead solves the problem Sherburne poses, Sherburne gives the impression that much more hinges on his mode of dealing with it than is in fact the case.


Cobb’s fundamental objection is that my account makes ordinary human experience unintelligible. He argues that my account implies that our human experience cannot be affected by a multiplicity of sources of sensation all at once, with the result that if my account were correct we ought to have for one moment a visual, and nothing but a visual experience, succeeded the next moment by an auditory, and nothing but an auditory experience, etc. Our experience is not like this, he correctly points out, and so he condemns my account. In a moment I shall defend my account from this charge, but let me first point out that Cobb’s theory of regional inclusion leads to a position that is equally as absurd as the conclusions with which he attempts to saddle my presentation. Then I shall argue that I can get out from under my "absurdities" a lot better than he can get out from under his. But I want to emphasize before launching into these topics that I consider these comments exploratory and provisional -- we are entering an area where a great deal more work needs to be done.

Here, now, is the problem for Cobb. If the route of "soul" occasions is composed of "macro" occasions that regionally include the totality of occasions that make up the brain, then the regnant, "soul" occasions should be perfectly receptive of all the experiences recorded by the brain. But our experience no more answers to this model than it answers to Cobb’s interpretation of my model. Consider first the way we experience, forget, and recall again. Last week a prospective graduate student called to inquire about our philosophy program. Now I want to write him a note. But I have forgotten where I put the scrap of paper with his name on it. I think and think in an attempt to recall. I fail. But suddenly I remember I gave it to the departmental secretary. Now in some sense I knew this all along, i.e., in the sense that the information was coded as a memory trace in my brain. I could not "put my finger on" the information momentarily but after a while "it came to me." This kind of experience would not be what Cobb’s model would lead us to expect at all, for if the fully conscious, regnant occasions totally encompassed the region of the brain, inheriting from every part, how could the content of some of the brain occasions have remained hidden from me? Consider another example. A football player gives his shoulder a hard twist but hardly notices it in the heat of the game. When the game is over he becomes aware of the pain, and aware also that it was in some sense hurting during the game, though he hardly noticed it. Cobb’s model is ill equipped to explain this sort of experience. Consider again my own experience right now in my library study. I have suddenly focused on the hum of the air-conditioning unit. The hum has been there all afternoon but I have not been aware of it until now, as I searched for another example to make my point. Given Cobb’s model I would assume the hum ought to have been bearing in on me constantly. (But now I find I have made my point too well -- I cannot get my mind off the hum and back completely on my writing; my attention fluctuates on and off the hum in just the successive way that fits Cobb’s interpretation of my model!)

It seems to me that the only systematic concept that Cobb could fall back on in connection with these sorts of examples would be the concept of a negative prehension. He would have to argue that the regnant occasion directly inherits from all the regions of the brain in virtue of regionally including all the occasions of the brain, but negatively prehends some of these occasions while positively prehending others. This move might be plausible as an account of the example of the football player and his pain -- the concentration of aim upon the game generates negative prehensions of all factors not relevant to the winning of the game. But when we move to the example of not being able to remember where I put the scrap of paper, then I find that this suggestion has lost its plausibility. Here my every ounce of concentration is involved in trying to remember where I put it; every aim of the moment is directed toward drawing forth into consciousness what I know is buried in my brain somewhere and what I am confident I will uncover shortly. How I could be stymied in this way over little things from time to time baffles me if Cobb’s model be used to shape our understanding of psychological physiology. It is possible that a Freudian explanation in terms of unconscious aims and wishes might account for some instances of this type of temporary inability to remember, but there are so many ordinary, common, innocuous instances of this phenomenon that to account for them all in terms of negative prehensions generated by hidden aims strikes me as highly unsatisfactory. One wants further to ask of Cobb’s model how it would propose to make intelligible the notion of these unconscious aims which generate these slyly operative negative prehensions. As unconscious and hidden to the all-encompassing regional inclusiveness of Cobb’s regnant occasion, they themselves must be hidden by negative prehensions entertained by virtue of yet other hidden aims, etc., etc., ad infinitum. My conclusion from these considerations is that Cobb has problems of his own when he proposes to illuminate our understanding of psychological physiology by means of his model of a regionally inclusive regnant occasion. Having pointed this out, I turn now to my own model in an effort to show that it can be defended from the objections Cobb brings against it.

Let me point out first that the phenomena we have been discussing respond rather well to analysis in terms of the model presented in my original article (1:401-07). When we forget something and are trying to remember, the mind moves from topic to topic trying to find its way to its goal. It often finally arrives at its goal by a circuitous route involving a great deal of free association. In the face of this kind of evidence I feel my model is strong, stronger than Cobb’s, for the zigzagging route of the regnant society through the supporting nonsocial nexus diagrams just such a search, a search we often make but the need for which would be a mystery were we to take Cobb’s model of regional inclusion seriously. In situations where we focus on one particular facet of our environment to the exclusion of others, here again I feel on firm ground. The model of the route of regnant occasions inheriting steadily from the same segment of the supporting nonsocial nexus seems to answer to this experience and handles not only cases of intense concentration on sensory input, but also cases like that described by Russell, when he says he and a friend walked into Whitehead’s garden one day but found him concentrating so intently on a mathematical problem that he was oblivious to their presence; they circled around him once and left.

Now I turn to the specific objections against my model advanced by Cobb. In the first instance he claims that my model entails that no one human experience can be affected directly by a multiplicity of sources of sensations." This I deny. I think the reason for this objection is that Cobb has not kept in mind the distinction I have made between inheritance from a dominant past occasion and oblique inheritance from occasions in the past which are contiguous but "at a slant," so to speak (PPCT 328). I think this distinction gives me everything I need provided the following points are kept in mind. The nonsocial nexus is the terminus of inheritances which involve many complex integrations. Rather than thinking that there is one terminal entity in the nonsocial nexus directly connected to the big toe, another connected to the little toe, another connected to the ankle, and so on, my suggestion is that an entity which is part of the nonsocial nexus (which remember, would only be a very small section of the brain) is an entity which, by means of transmutations, has brought together a vast number of, for example, bodily feelings into a unity of bodily experience. Our normal, ordinary bodily experience is like that of, say, feeling tired, which we might describe as a general feeling of tension and strain broadly diffused throughout the whole body. Many, many, many routes of inheritance from all parts of the body contribute to this general feeling but in the brain these many feelings are integrated into one general experience focused in one strand of the nonsocial nexus. The regnant society of occasions may by and large inherit obliquely from this strand of the nonsocial nexus so that the feeling of being tired is carried along as a vague, undifferentiated background for that activity (which might be something like looking through a microscope) which is generating the dominant route of inheritance for the regnant society at that time. In this way human experience is quite normally affected directly and simultaneously by a multiplicity of sources of sensation. Perhaps a surprising find in the microscope can so focus our attention on what we see that our awareness of being tired vanishes for a spell, or perhaps the feeling of fatigue comes to dominate our experience so that we cannot "keep our mind on" the patterns before our eyes.

But now I want to challenge more directly Cobb’s reading of our experience. He advances as a criticism of my view the claim that given my model "no one human experience can be affected directly by a multiplicity of sources of sensation." We have seen that we can account for the type of situation where a general feeling tone persists in consciousness as a background for a focal point of attention. But how well, in fact, can we fully concentrate on multiple sources of sensation? Suppose you were sitting in a chair with earphones and were hearing a lecture on politics over the earphones at the same time that the printed pages of a novel were being reeled off on a screen before you. Could you both read the novel and follow the lecture simultaneously? Perhaps if both were going rather slowly you could hang on to the two. But you would hang on by making a whole series of flip-flops between sight and hearing. While you were concentrating on the screen your auditory mechanisms would sort of make a recording for you of a series of sounds and then you would switch your attention to those sounds and scoop them up before returning your attention to the screen. While at Oxford University, I took tutorials for two terms with a don who was notorious for reading his mail, writing letters or talking on the phone while his tutees were reading their essays. At the conclusion of an essay he would invariably provide a brilliant critique of everything that had been said. When queried once about this ability seemingly to concentrate on two things at once he implied that his "gift" was a combination of knowing the subject matter of the essays very well and being able to shift his attention between two matters very rapidly. All of this is a way of saying that Cobb’s objections may have more weight than he intended. In terms of our concentrated, conscious experience, it does seem to be the case that we have difficulty absorbing two sources of sensation concomitantly. Now Cobb might object that the earphone-screen example is not what he has in mind -- rather, he might say, he has in mind the sort of situation where we go to listen to a lecture but obviously watch the speaker while we listen to his words. Here, also, I suggest, we must consider our experience carefully. Normally in this sort of situation our visual impressions are much in the background of our attention. Should the speaker have unusual mannerisms, we refer to them as "distracting" or "disconcerting" -- they draw our conscious attention to our visual data to the detriment of our ability to follow the argument. Should people on the rostrum move about or do things while the speaker is holding forth, we find this distracting. My point in these examples has been that our normal experience is not as Cobb suggests, it is not the sort of thing wherein all sorts of sensations and awarenesses hold equal sway. Rather, it has the character of a focal point of attention (correlated with dominant inheritance on my model) washed over by various vaguely discriminated backgrounds (correlated with oblique inheritance on my model). In this regard it is instructive to consider certain of the recent "compositions" by men such as John Cage. The audience is bombarded by sound, lights and fragments of poetry and other readings. The intent seems to be to shake us out of our normal patterns of experience by doing away with the possibility of a mute of dominant inheritance. What results is either a blur of sensations or a constant, and very disconcerting, shifting of attention. Such a happening may have a certain charm to it, but it is certainly not anything like our normal mode of awareness. My response to Cobb’s first line of criticism, then, is that the presuppositions of his criticism entail a view of experience which is unreal, namely, that we have all kinds of focused, conscious experiences simultaneously. To the contrary, our normal experience has a focused center washed over by a series of vaguely discriminated backgrounds, any one of which can snap to the center of attention given appropriate stimuli, and I hold that it is my model of dominant and oblique inheritance and not his model of regionally inclusive inheritance which most adequately reflects this normal mode of awareness.

There are many different kinds of experiences we could appeal to and analyze in connection with this first line of criticism -- let me assume that I have made my position clear enough for the reader to go on and work out the kind of analysis I would provide in each of these cases. To summarize, Cobb is of the opinion that pointing out that he seems "to see, hear, taste, and feel my big toe all at once" refutes my position (and presumably he means see a mountain, hear music, taste ice cream and feel the toe, not see the toe, hear the toe, etc.). I do not think this is true at all, for if I am listening to a thrilling concert of Mozart’s music outdoors in Salzburg, I am only vaguely aware of the scenery, idly nibble on the ice cream cone, and totally "forget" for the moment the blister on my big toe. But enough of this point; the distinctions we have already made will help me deal more briefly with Cobb’s second main line of criticism.

This second line of attack centers on the demand for real togetherness within a single experience. The argument is that the "togetherness in experience of both clear and dim consciousness, or of hearing and seeing" requires a doctrine of regional inclusion. This I deny. At stake here is how one conceives the relationship between the "conscious" and the "unconscious." I used the language of "ego," "soul," and "‘depth’ dimension of the psyche" in my article and Cobb, in effect, has asked me to clarify what I mean by this language. I am happy to oblige.

I mean to assert that my conscious experience, the experience constitutive of me as a conscious ego, is the experience of the actual entities constitutive of the personally ordered regnant society which dominates my brain and my whole animal organism. As Whitehead clearly states, the question of the immortality of the soul is the question whether this regnant society can continue to persist without its supporting subordinate societies; for reasons such as this I have referred to this regnant society as being the analogue of the traditional concept of soul.

A problem is generated when I go on to suggest that "the supporting nonsocial nexus answers to the dimly conscious regions of the ‘depth’ dimension of the psyche Cobb notes that it is not clear whether I identify "soul" and "psyche." Assuming that I make the identification, he poses a dilemma; either my experience does not have the unity, the togetherness required by a single experience (and this because my experience includes both the clear, conscious experience of the regnant society and the dim experience of other members of the nonsocial nexus); or, my experience is that of a super entity which inherits from the ego and from the other occasions of the nonsocial nexus, and, since inheritance requires contiguity, this latter alternative presupposes acceptance of a doctrine of regional inclusion. In this dilemma Cobb attempts to make me accept either an incoherent concept of experience or his own doctrine of regional inclusion. I accept neither, and to break out of the dilemma I must clarify my meaning when I use the phrase "‘depth’ dimension of the psyche," and when I refer to these regions as "dimly conscious."

My view is that the unity of my conscious experience is the unity of experience in the occasions of the regnant society. About the other members of the nonsocial nexus I will make several points. First off, they have their own dynamic experience apart from that of the regnant society. In pathological cases this experience can burst into consciousness and there can be multiple centers of control competing for authority over the entire organism. The celebrated case reported in The Three Faces of Eve is a well documented case of what, in some degree or other, seems not to be terribly uncommon. In this instance three distinct regnant societies battled for control of the organism, each with its unity of experience. But even when there is not the extreme situation of multiple personalities, it seems as though "unconscious" drives and fears, appetitions and aversions, are present in occasions of the nonsocial nexus which are not incorporated into the regnant society. Whitehead notes that negative prehensions exclude their data from positive ingression into the subject occasion, but nevertheless leave the scar of this rejection on the rejecting entity. This seems to be an appropriate description of how these "dimly conscious" regions have an effect on the regnant society. They are "dimly conscious" in two senses: (1) as experiences, they do not normally rise to the stature of conscious centers competing for control of the organism, but they have appetitions and aversions in their own right so that it seems appropriate to label them "dimly conscious"; (2) they are perceived only dimly by the members of the regnant society, i.e., the regnant society has these particular occasions as dim, vaguely felt, negative "scars" on the data of what is clearly perceived in full consciousness. I submit that this seems to be an accurate picture of what psychoanalysis finds "inside" a man. There is warfare, with hidden troops, whose existence is hardly even suspected. Experiences from early youth, say, get shunted off into a byway of the brain and fester as uneasy memory traces, exerting only a negative prehensive effect on the regnant society. This negative pressure creates tensions without positive content in conscious experience. Therapy consists in using associational techniques to lead the conscious ego into those parts of the brain where the data of the renegade traces can be consciously encountered in positive prehensions. What were, in effect, many experiences can in this way become united in conscious experience in such a way as to eliminate tension, and the neuroses which this tension may create. I will put Cobb back on the defensive by saying that I fail to see how the model of an all-encompassing, regionally inclusive experience is compatible with the hiddenness of competing drives, aspirations and fears which psychoanalysis reveals in the "‘depth’ dimension of the psyche," by which term I mean something broader than the unified experience of the analogue to the "soul," namely, the restless depths of the complex societies which support the regnant nexus and which have a "life" of their own, which is in some instances incorporated into, melded into the conscious experience of the occasions in the regnant society, and sometimes is not.

It may be the case that bringing in terms like "soul" and "psyche" confuse more than they help, but I am willing to run the risk to try to bring Whitehead’s abstract terminology into contact with more ordinary ways of speaking. But Cobb is quite right in pushing me to clarify my analogies and I hope I have satisfied him.

The word "I" is ambiguous, but it has been my purpose to try to clarify the concept. I am a total organism made up of many societies of societies. If my arm is cut off, I lose a part of me, but I still exist, that is, my regnant society can still be supported by the organic structures which remain, though its character, aspirations, etc. may become deeply modified. But destroy my brain so that the regnant society can no longer be supported, and then you destroy the essential me. The experience of that regnant society is my experience and the frustration and triumphs of the societal parts of me (such as my big toe) are known to me through the unity of the experience of that central route of inheritance. This essential me is analogous to the director of the CIA in that it is at the apex of a great information gathering agency. The life of that agency is in a sense concentrated in that director, but there may well be subordinates down the line who are recalcitrant, who withhold information from the pipeline in an effort to influence agency policy, etc. I want to say that the human organism is like the agency in that there is both the unified togetherness of experience enjoyed by the director and fragmentary bits and pieces of structure which may be at odds with, out of tune with, the agency as a whole. In this analogy there is a sense in which there are many discrete experiences in the agency, but there is no experience which lacks the real togetherness of a single experience in virtue of lacking a subject for that experience. Cobb’s model is less atomistic -- he can have only a much less perfect analogy with a CIA-type agency because he wants his director to be an all-encompassing fellow whose experience involves overlap, in the sense of regional inclusion, with that of all the agents, i.e., he reads all the reports up and down the line!

These paragraphs have spoken to the problem of the togetherness of a single experience. But it does not follow that I am now thrown back on regional inclusion. The occasions in my regnant nexus inherit from their predecessors and inherit at any given moment obliquely from a variety of obliquely contiguous occasions. But they do not inherit from all of the members of the nonsocial nexus at all times, as Cobb implies they must. Rather, many parts of that nexus are unheard from in the experience of a given regnant occasion. That means that what is going on in some parts of the supporting nonsocial nexus is not known to the regnant occasion and this is what I mean by saying that the activities of those unprehended parts of the nonsocial nexus answer to the notion of the unconscious, or the depth dimension of the "psyche." Some aspects of this unconscious area are unconscious through lack of attention, and the regnant society may easily bring the experience of the occasions in that part of the nonsocial nexus within its purview. Other aspects of the unconscious may be areas of the nonsocial nexus where the regnant society fears to tread except in dreams through the mediation of a transforming symbolism. By permitting these sorts of distinctions I~ feel that my model for understanding psychological physiology from within a generally Whiteheadian context is superior to the one offered by Cobb.


Sherburne is performing a valuable service in his persistent effort to develop a physiological psychology that takes seriously Whitehead’s doctrine of the dominant occasion surrounded by a nonsocial nexus wandering among the interstices of the brain. However, he has not yet succeeded in persuading me that an adequate view can be developed along these lines, though his present argument marks a considerable advance over the earlier one.

One issue that lies between us is the relation of the dominant occasion to consciousness and to focal attention. Although Sherburne is not entirely consistent he seems to identify the experience of the dominant occasion as exclusively focused, conscious experience. Otherwise there would be no point to his criticism of my attack on him as presupposing "that we have all kinds of focused, conscious experiences simultaneously," since, of course I said nothing of the sort. Also, much of his phenomenological analysis assumes this. I, on the contrary, assume that focused, conscious experience is a very small, although very important, part of the total experience of the dominant occasion. At this point I believe that Whitehead agrees with me. For him "consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness. It is a special element in the subjective form of some feelings. Thus an actual entity may, or may not, be conscious of some part of its experience. Its experience is its complete formal constitution, including its consciousness, if any" (PR 83). It is my understanding that in principle, even the dominant’ occasion may have no consciousness whatever. Certainly its consciousness may be dim (PR 267). I am highly doubtful that any other occasions in the psychophysical organism enjoy consciousness. But however these more extreme statements may fare, I am sure that White-head means to say that the dominant occasion has nonconscious as well as conscious feelings.

For one thing, he explicitly asserts that all occasions include physical purposes (PR 421). And although consciousness can enter into their subjective forms where intellectual feelings are present, I do not believe that Whitehead meant to imply that they are all conscious in dominant occasions. "Consciousness only illuminates the more primitive types of prehension so far as these prehensions are still elements in the products of integration. Thus those elements of our experience which stand out clearly and distinctly in our consciousness are not its basic facts" (PR 245).

My own reflection on experience has led me to emphasize the primacy of the unconsciousness still more strongly. I assume that I prehend numerous occasions in my brain -- in Sherburne’s theory it would be occasions in the nonsocial nexus -- but I am conscious of none of them. What I am conscious of, of course, I receive in large part from them. But of those occasions themselves. I am blankly unconscious. When we follow Whitehead in thinking of prehensions of noncontiguous occasions -- mediated or not -- then the number of physical feelings of which I am blankly unconscious is staggering.

Whitehead, like Sherburne, does associate consciousness with attention. Consciousness is found chiefly in the subjective form of intellectual feelings, and "intellectual feelings, in their primary function, are concentration of attention involving increase of importance" (PR 416). My view is that conscious attention shades off by degrees into unconscious inattention, the latter constituting by far the larger part of the experience of the dominant occasion. Sherburne puts this well: "Our normal experience has a focused center washed over by a series of vaguely discriminated backgrounds, any one of which can snap to the center of attention given appropriate stimuli." I would want only to add that the backgrounds that are vaguely discriminated consciously have as their backgrounds others that are completely unconscious but which are also capable of so developing as to become conscious.

Sherburne thinks that the model of regional inclusion should imply that we are continuously conscious of everything that is occurring in the brain. My response is that the dominant occasion is continuously feeling all the occasions in the brain. None of these occasions is negatively prehended, since in Whitehead’s view "all actual entities in the actual world, relatively to a given actual entity as ‘subject,’ are necessarily ‘felt’ by the subject" (PR 66). However, of necessity most of the feelings of most of these occasions are negatively prehended. Most of what is felt is not consciously felt. Most, even of the conscious feeling, is vague.

Sherburne thinks I should have difficulty explaining forgetting. He seems to think the only obstacle to memory would be purposive. I by no means believe that conscious experience is so fully subject to purposive control. To a large extent consciousness is determined by the strength of the data. There is a tendency for what has been recently conscious to dominate present consciousness. What has long not been conscious -- has even been negatively prehended -- is not easily attended to and brought to consciousness. In my experience the very effort to remember a name can block me from doing so.

I am also persuaded by depth psychology to attribute to the psyche an active unconscious life. Whereas Whitehead recognizes that much experience is unconscious, he does not seem to have thought of this experience as involving the levels of symbolization of which depth psychology regards it as capable. Whitehead does not say much about our experience in dreams even though he does not intend to exclude it. I believe that dreams are experiences of the dominant occasion and that similar experience plays a subordinate role while we are awake, although generally excluded from consciousness by focused attention on the external world or events in the body. Whitehead does not help much directly in the unraveling of these mysteries of the human psyche, but that is not a serious objection. He does give us a way of thinking about the relation of the psyche to the body that provides a context for psychological work. Since for both Whitehead and depth psychology unconscious experience precedes and is more fundamental than conscious experience, a basic compatibility is available for fuller treatment. I have developed it somewhat in The Structure of Christian Existence.

In the foregoing I am using psyche and soul synonymously, as Whitehead did. As he says in Adventures of Ideas, "The Psyche is, of course, the Soul" (AI 354). Both are used by Whitehead to refer to what Sherburne calls the soul. I am glad to have Sherburne clarify his usage of the two terms, but I regard it as unfortunate that the English translation of the Greek word should be taken to have a different meaning. The distinction reflects what I take to be an inaccurate and waning view of depth psychology, namely one that hypostatizes the different elements in the psyche as separate entities. Whitehead did not do that, and unless it has more responsible support from the psychological community than I am aware, I think it a dangerous proposal from a philosopher.

I will now raise some fresh objections to Sherburne’s model, many of which, would apply also to the undeveloped suggestions of Whitehead. I am not sure that the notion of a memory trace is supported by contemporary physiological psychology, but I will take Sherburne’s account. Despite the close association of the soul with conscious attention, Sherburne must attribute to the soul a great deal of unconscious experience. For one thing, I assume that it is not conscious of where it is. At least I have never had even the dimmest inkling of being in one or another part of my brain. It is also unaware of its motion. It seems also to have considerable knowledge of the physiology of the brain to guide it as it races around looking for the right memory trace, since the likelihood of its finding such a trace by sheer chance is negligible. Yet this vast array of knowledge, requiring intellectual feelings, as to the location of all the memory traces is entirely unconscious. If Sherburne means to say that he is conscious of some of this I hope he will say so. He would be an excellent subject for experiments in physiological psychology.

Now although I am much more inclined than Sherburne to attribute unconscious experience to the dominant occasion, I hesitate to regard its unconscious as so well informed as this. There is also certain irony involved. Sherburne does not want to attribute to the unconscious of the dominant occasions the memory itself, but he must then attribute to it the memory of where the memory trace is to be found. Or else it must remember where to look for the memory of where the memory trace is to be found. Perhaps it would be better after all to locate the memory itself in the soul’s unconscious!

I assume that these memory traces may be spatially at some distance from each other, two or three inches, perhaps. In relation to the size of the dominant occasion that is a great distance. Presumably it must wander through the interstices of the brain, which would protract the journey. I assume further that the successive dominant occasions, in Sherburne’s view, must be contiguous to each other. If a dominant occasion has a spatial extent of one-sixteenth of an inch, a minimum of forty-eight occasions would be required to move from one memory-trace to another. Meanwhile, one would suppose that the forty-seven intervening occasions would be peculiarly influenced by the memory traces--or whatever -- along the sides of the interstices through which they traveled. The nonsocial nexus, of course will be required to go along.

It was my inability to take such a view seriously that drove me to a different model in the first place. I still find that view incredible. However, I do not mean to ridicule it or to pose the limits of my own credulity as a norm for truth. I want rather to know whether this really is the model Sherburne offers us, or whether I have misunderstood. If I have not misunderstood, it should be possible to predict from the model certain remarkable phenomena whose occurrence could be empirically demonstrated.

On Sherburne’s principles (1) in the foregoing example, if there are ten dominant occasions per second, it would take at least 4.8 seconds from one memory trace to the other with a predictable series of memories or other experiences occurring in between. (2) It would be possible to interdict the dominant occasion and its accompanying nexus surgically and to remove them from the brain without disturbing any of the brain cells.

My question to Sherburne is whether he accepts these testable implications of his theory, and if so whether he believes that any evidence exists in their favor. Apart from empirical checks, I would like to know what Sherburne supposes would happen to a brain from which the dominant occasion was thus removed. Would the result be a human vegetable? Or would the brain generate a new living nexus to take the place of the old? Would this be an entirely new person or somehow a continuation of the old one? Is it possible that meanwhile the removed nexus could be transplanted to another brain, so that "soul transplants" are at least a theoretical possibility?

I could continue to ask questions, but these are enough to indicate the difficulty I have with this model. I still hope that if we can clarify our two models sufficiently, we will find what empirical tests are possible.



PPCT -- Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

1. The special Whitehead issue of the Southern Journal of Philosophy. 7/4 (Winter, 1969-70), for Sherburne’s article on "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology," 401-07.

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