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Of Time, the Self, and Rem Edwards

by Robert Fancher

Robert Fancher, Department of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, (MA. In philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale) is now working on a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 40-43, Vol. 7, Number 1, Spring, 1977. 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.

In "The Human Self: An Actual Entity or a Society?" (PS 5:195-203) Rem B. Edwards proffers a provocative polemic against Whitehead’s theory of the self as a society. He rightly sees that the social-self theory is an inevitable outcome of the epochal theory of time. Thus, he wishes to exempt the human self from that theory by means of two fundamental criticisms. (1) On Whitehead’s theory, God is a nonepochal self who is nevertheless temporal in his consequent nature. Since God is exempt from the epochal theory of time, so may man be. (2) The epochal theory of time implies that between any two successive occasions in the self "there is a gap during which nothing exists" (PS 5:197). This criticism is based on certain early statements in Science and the Modern World about the discontinuity of an electron’s path and the presupposition that without such gaps atomic actual occasions cannot be delineated.

Edwards’ criticisms fail for two reasons. (1) Not only is God not exempt from the epochal theory of time, but it is precisely this theory of time which makes the actual entity Whitehead calls "God" a nontemporal, continuous concrescence dependent upon the temporal world for his being. (2) Edwards’ "gap theory" criticism rests on a surreptitious return to Newtonian time and to the fallacy of simple location.


The epochal theory of time states that time is created by actual entities and that it is created in extended epochs. The creation does not take place in time, but it is what creates time. The epoch of time comes into being when the creation of the actual entity whose temporal extension that epoch is, is complete. This completeness comes with the satisfaction of the subjective aim (PR 106, 434, 29, 38, passim). But God’s subjective aim, being infinite (PR 521-24), is never satisfied; thus, he is never complete, and thus, he is never temporally extended. This is why he is a single continuous concrescence rather than a society: Every actual entity is a single continuous concrescence until it is complete. Edwards, as I see it, errs in claiming: "Whitehead recognizes two species of actual entities, God and actual occasions. The latter exist discontinuously, the former continuously. . ." (PS 5:199). Whitehead recognizes actual entities, each of which is -- regardless of its species -- internally one continuous concrescence until its end. God is unlike the self because, in relation to the principles of time, he is exactly like any one actual entity in any electron or in any human self. God is not exempt from the epochal theory of time, and Edwards’ first attempt to exempt the human self from that theory fails.

Thus, whatever theological problems Whitehead’s theory may have, there need be no philosophical problem of exempting God from the principles of atomicity. Whitehead’s method of God-talk should be remembered: "We must investigate dispassionately what the metaphysical principles, here developed, require . . . as to the nature of God" (PR 521). God’s nontemporality may be seen as the natural, dispassionate working-out of the epochal theory of time. It is one of the great virtues of his philosophy that when Whitehead needed a nontemporal entity for the grounding of eternal objects, he did not create nontemporality by philosophical fiat, but by working out his general principle of time.

Doubtless there are serious problems with Whitehead’s nontemporal God; the body of literature on these problems is huge. What Edwards has inadvertently done is reveal that if, in trying to solve these problems, we follow some interpreters (William Christian, for instance) in temporalizing God’s consequent nature, as Whitehead explicitly refused to do,1 we may introduce an incoherence into the system which may cost us the social-self theory.


Turning now to Edwards’ "gap theory," let us note his words:

between any two successive occasions at this microscopic level there is a gap during which nothing exists. The occasions do not touch or overlap. The real difference between an actual entity which concresces continuously and a society of actual entities which concresce discontinuously is that the experiences and activities of the former are not interrupted, whereas the experiences and activities of the latter are interrupted. There are short intervals or gaps during which the latter does not exist. (PS 5:197)

Since for Whitehead, time is created by actual entities and does not exist apart from them (PR 108,122), all duration is the duration of actual entities. There cannot be any "gaps during which." Gaps have duration only on the supposition that time is an independent container for actual entities, which is exactly what the epochal theory of time denies. For Edwards, actual occasions "create" gaps just as erecting buildings close together "creates" alleys: by leaving an independently existing "space" unfilled. Thus, Edwards has begged the question: He has shown that if we maintain the notion of absolute time, a theory based on its denial fails. He has not shown why we should revert to such a notion.

"The occasions do not touch or overlap," Edwards says. But Whitehead says:

The notion of the contiguity of occasions is important. Two occasions, which are not contemporary, are contiguous in time when there is no occasion which is antecedent to one of them and subsequent to the other. A purely temporal nexus (e.g., a self) is continuous when . . . each occasion is contiguous with an earlier occasion. (AI 259; emphasis mine)

Process and Reality expresses the same general notion when it defines "immediate objectification" as prehension of a contiguous actual entity and uses the notion of "successive contiguous occasions" in discussing physical transmission (PR 468). The communion of actual entities is fundamental to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. It is the very meaning of the doctrine of prehensions and of the denial of the Aristotelian doctrine that no substance is in another substance.

Edwards rejoins "if there are no gaps between occasions . . . the atomic theory of time has been abandoned. There are no discrete events" (PS 5:203). However, this rejoinder introduces a dichotomy between atomicity and continuity which Whitehead resolved in his cosmology. Edwards presupposes that "atomicity" means separation by a gap, which of course means simple location in an independent continuum. This is precisely how Whitehead did not distinguish between successive atomic occasions, since such a distinction would be unintelligible in the philosophy of organism. Successive occasions are distinct in terms of the "satisfactions" in which they culminate. Each concrescence proceeds from the indeterminacy of the many to the integrated, organic determinateness of the unified subject. The achievement of this determinateness is the achievement of one single, indivisible identity. Since further change would abrogate that atomic integrity, the process of becoming ceases. But this atomic occasion is a datum among the many severally atomic data out of which its successor is made. It is, because of its atomicity, a precondition for the continuity of the Universe as expressed in that self. That the atomic entity as itself passes into the further concrescence is no abrogation of its atomicity; it is a determinate datum for a concrescence which has not yet become fully atomic. It is part of that concrescence, and thus the dichotomy that the older metaphysics of scientific materialism could not mediate is resolved by Whitehead’s alternative conceptuality. The interrelations of completed and incipient atomic occasions is the becoming of the continuity of time.

I interpret Whitehead as saying that the process of becoming results in being.2 Edwards has followed Hartshorne, Leclerc, and Sherburne in identifying becoming with being. How can that interpretation delineate individual occasions and avoid a continuity of becoming, except by gaps between occasions? Is this not the origin of Edwards’ gap theory? But such gaps cannot exist, since all duration is the duration of actual entities. How, then, can that interpretation delineate occasions? And how can it bridge the atomicity/continuity dichotomy? On the other hand, if becoming constitutes being, there is no need for any gaps in the social-self. Its experienced continuity does not undermine the individual atomicity of its successive occasions.



1 "Each actuality in the temporal world has its reception into God’s nature. The corresponding element in God’s nature is not temporal actuality, but is the transmutation of that temporal actuality into a living, ever-present fact" (PR 531; emphasis mine.)

2 Jorge Luis Nobo has marshaled evidence in favor of this interpretation in "Whitehead’s Principle of Process" (PS 4:275-84).

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