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Continuity, Possibility, and Omniscience: A Contrasting View

by James A. Keller

James A. Keller is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Philosophy Department, Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 1-18, Vol. 15, Number 1, Spring, 1986. 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 a recent article in Process Studies, Richard Creel discusses the idea that the realm of possibility is a continuum and the implications of this idea for our understanding of God’s omniscience (PS 12:209-31). Although he agrees that the realm of possibility does form a continuum (or perhaps several continua), he nevertheless believes that it is possible for God in some sense to know all possibilities. Much of his article is devoted to defining this sense, to contrasting his view with that of Charles Hartshorne (who denies that God in this sense knows all possibilities), and to pointing out some purportedly problematic implications of Hartshorne’s view.

In addition to the intrinsic importance of this issue, more is at stake for both Creel and process thinkers. Creel relates this issue to God’s deciding about future action and to the immutability of God’s will. He thinks that unless we can define a sense in which God eternally knows all possibilities "God’s will could not be impassible and immutable because he would not be able to make his decisions about the world in advance of things actually occurring because one cannot knowledgeably and responsibly make decisions about one knows not what" (PS 12:209). Implicit in this reason is the idea that by knowing all possibilities God is able to decide his response to any combination of them. Though he may not know in advance which possibilities will be actualized, he will have already decided what he will do in any possible situation. In principle, the decisions could have been made in an eternal contemplation of all possibilities. Then when a particular situation occurs, God simply does what he had from all eternity decided that he would do in such a situation, which he had eternally contemplated as possible.1 This view has important similarities to John Cobb’s exposition of Whitehead’s view of God’s knowledge of eternal objects, though Cobb might not wish to claim that the primordial orderings of eternal objects are conscious, as Creel claims about God’s knowledge of possibilities.2

But there is much at stake for Hartshorne also. If Creel can specify a sense in which God can eternally know and pre-decide about all possibilities, he will have devised a concept of God in which God knows more than God knows according to Hartshorne’s view. Since Hartshorne admits that knowledge is a perfection, Creel’s view of God will involve a higher degree of divine perfection than Hartshorne’s. But Hartshorne insists that God is the most perfect being consistently conceivable. Thus, if Creel succeeds in his project, Hartshorne would be forced to make drastic revisions in his conception of God and therefore in his entire system.

It seems to me, however, that Creel has not succeeded in defining a sense in which possibilities are understood as constituting a continuum and yet can be eternally known in a way which would permit God to use his knowledge of them to decide his action in response to any possible situation. The first section of this paper is devoted to articulating an argument to show that no such knowledge is possible. But if (as I shall be assuming throughout this paper) possibilities do constitute a continuum, what sort of knowledge does God have of them, and how does that knowledge relate to actualities and to God’s purposes for the universe? The balance of this paper explores these issues in relation to the thought of Charles Hartshorne and, more briefly, of Alfred North Whitehead.

Creel’s Doctrine of Possibility

According to Creel, possibilities form a continuum whose points are inexhaustible even by God. To illustrate his view, he speaks of generating all isosceles triangles by rotating two sticks which are hinged at one end and joined by an elastic band at the other. By varying the angle between the sticks from 0 through 180 degrees, one will have moved through all possible isosceles triangles whose equal sides are the length of the sticks. But "it would be impossible for us or God to stop at every point along the way because such points are in principle inexhaustible" (PS 12:217). Thus, Creel admits that it is impossible to actualize all the points of a continuum. But could God explicitly think of all points (all possible isosceles triangles whose equal sides were a given length) even if they could not be actualized?

It appears crucial to Creel’s position to say that God could. In order to explain how God could pre-decide his actions in various possible situations, Creel must attribute to God a knowledge of all possibilities which is detailed enough for God to decide how to respond to each contemplated possibility; I claim that this requires that the possibility have been brought in complete detail to full conscious awareness. For if something has not been brought to full conscious awareness, would not a decision about it be a decision about one knows not what? And as Creel himself admitted (PS 12:209), one cannot responsibly make decisions about one knows not what.

But can even God have consciously thought about every possible isosceles triangle? Would not this be a way of exhausting the inexhaustible? To be sure, the object of each thought would not necessarily be exemplified in some physical object. But it is hard to see why this matters. Surely God (on the more or less traditional conception Creel has) could produce physical triangles (or physical objects instantiating particular triangular shapes) as fast as he could think of the shapes. The problem cannot be that God cannot make what he can clearly conceive. Thus it is hard to see that the inexhaustibility could lie in the impossibility of physically producing something which can be thought of; rather, it must lie in the nature of the object which is being thought of or instantiated. I should note too that it seems that Creel agrees on this point, for he states that "it is logically impossible for anyone to know as discrete all possible individuals that can possibly be excised from a continuum . . . hence, an exhaustively infinite set of individuals could not have been known by now or ever, even in the mind of God" (PS 12:217f.).

Thus my argument against Creel rests on two premises: (1) If possibilities form a dense nondenumerable continuum (as Creel admits), then they cannot all be brought to full conscious awareness as discrete items; and (2) In order to pre-decide his response to a possibility, God must have brought that possibility to full conscious awareness as a discrete item. These premises deductively imply that if possibilities form a dense continuum, then God cannot have pre-decided his response to all possibilities. Thus, if Creel is to avoid this conclusion, he must deny one of the premises, and if I am correct in thinking that he accepts the first, he would have to deny the second. Later in the paper I shall explore one possible way in which he might deny this, viz., by affirming that God gathers point-possibilities into groups when he considers them as situations or actions; but I shall not have anything to add to my argument for the second premise. Now, however, I wish to explore how these issues appear within the philosophies of Whitehead and Hartshorne.

Continuity and Possibility in Whitehead’s Thought

As we begin our discussion of Whitehead, we should recognize that Whitehead does not explicitly state whether or not he regards the realm of eternal objects as constituting a dense continuum. Thus, to attribute this view to him represents an extension of his philosophy, not simply an explication of it. Such an extension has, however, already been made by Lewis S. Ford (TPP 65). This extension has the advantage of precluding questions about how broad a range of possibilities each eternal object includes. That is, suppose that a single color is one eternal object and yet includes more than one point on the color spectrum. Then one might well ask why that putative single color cannot be analyzed into two different colors, each one occupying half of the spectrum occupied by the putative single color. Moreover, if all colors together do constitute a spectrum, one might well wonder why that spectrum has been nontemporally cut at certain points and not others, especially when comparisons of different human cultures suggest that there is no way of dividing the color spectrum which is natural even to the human species. (Of course, it is possible that the primordial envisagement creates colors each of which covers such a small portion of the spectrum that it would be compatible with any humanly or even any creaturely division into discrete colors.)

But regardless of how conclusive these reasons may or may not be, we shall consider Whitehead’s view only as so extended, for I am concerned to explore the implications of this conception of possibility. At first glance, Whitehead’s view might not seem liable to the objection which I raised against Creel’s because Whitehead explicitly denies that the pure conceptual prehensions which constitute the primordial nature are conscious. Moreover, as Ford develops this view, at no time does God consciously prehend all eternal objects (IPQ 13:361). The data of conceptual prehensions are consciously entertained only when they are synthesized with the data of physical prehensions in intellectual prehensions. Thus, God is conscious of only those eternal objects which are relevant to prehended actual occasions, and these would be only a small part of the realm of eternal objects.

In what sense does God unconsciously prehend the entire realm of eternal objects? Ford suggests that the primordial decision which constitutes the realm of eternal objects might be compared to the postulation of a set of axioms. This postulation establishes all the theorems of the system, but only gradually do they come to consciousness, and perhaps many of them never do. However, unlike the postulates of an axiomatic system, those in God’s primordial decision which establishes the realm of eternal objects can never be completely specified; Ford suggests that in this regard the primordial nature is more like human integrity, which can be expressed only in the entire lifetime of the being (IPQ 13:371-73).

Earlier I argued that it is impossible to actualize all the members of a nondenumerable multitude or to think of every one of them as a discrete object. Does the unconscious prehension of all eternal objects in the primordial nature violate this principle? As I remarked earlier, it does not appear to. Perhaps further analysis would reveal that it violates some analogous principle. But I am not inclined to pursue this point any further, for I think that there is a related point in Whitehead’s view of God which clearly does violate this principle.

I have in mind God’s intellectual feelings regarding an occasion after its concrescence is completed. Provided that there are at least two possibilities for what it could have become (e.g., the one it did become and at least one other), there is a nondenumerable set of such possibilities. For one characteristic of a dense continuum is that between any two points on it there is an inexhaustible multitude of points. Thus, there would be an inexhaustible multitude of possibilities relevant to any concrescence. Each of them could be the conceptual part of a proposition whose logical subject is the concrescent actuality. Each such proposition could be one element in an intellectual feeling whose other element was the completed occasion in its full concreteness. Now each of these intellectual feelings would be conscious. Thus, in relation to every past occasion God would have a nondenumerable multitude of conscious intellectual prehensions. This would be exhausting the inexhaustible with a vengeance!

A related problem arises in relation to God’s provision of the subjective aim for a new concrescence. God would prehend the past actual world for a new concrescence and form propositions relating various eternal objects to that world. These objects would be possible ways in which that world could be unified by the new concrescence.3 Reasoning parallel to that in the foregoing paragraph suggests that there would be a nondenumerable multitude of such possibilities for each new concrescence. The new occasion derives its initial aim from one of these possibilities. But what of the rest? Does it prehend any of them? All of them? Even though the prehensions in question are not conscious, surely one would be hesitant to attribute to a finite occasion the envisagement of a nondenumerable multitude of possibilities from which to select its subjective aim.

It may seem that this problem may not be as difficult to resolve as the previous one. For instance, it might be suggested that God provides only a selection of alternative objects (or perhaps only a selection of novel alternative objects). The occasion could then select one of those provided or select a related one derived by conceptual reversion. But this suggestion is itself in need of further development. For instance, where and how would there arise the limitation on the alternatives provided? Would God prehend them all? If not, it would seem that God’s conceptual supplementation of his physical prehensions is not complete. But if so, just how would God limit those which he provides? To be sure, the prehending entity is limited by its perspective. But all the alternatives would seem to lie within the perspective of the new occasion. Thus there are problems with the suggestion that God limits the alternatives which the concrescing occasion prehends.

Because of these problems, perhaps it might be suggested that the sheer multitude of alternative eternal objects would prevent the finite occasion from prehending more than a relatively small set of them. Which ones the occasion prehends would have to be random, for the occasion could not prehend them all and then non-randomly select some for further consideration. For a non-random selection would require that the occasion already possess a subjective aim to guide the selection, but this process is the means through which the occasion obtains its aim. Therefore, on this suggestion the occasion would prehend some eternal objects randomly selected from relevant divine prehensions and aim at one of them or at something similar obtained by reversion. We shall see that this position has similarities to Hartshorne’s view, except that it (unlike Hartshorne’s) states that the eternal objects nontemporally exist as distinct items in the continuum.

In summary, extending Whitehead’s doctrine of eternal objects to include the idea that they form a dense continuum seems to raise at least two problems: (1) it requires that God consciously prehend a nondenumerable multitude of propositions regarding every past actual occasion and (2) it requires either that a new concrescence choose its subjective aim from a nondenumerable multitude of alternatives or that this multitude somehow be restricted before all these alternatives are prehended by the occasion. Although I have suggested some ways which might be developed to solve the second problem, I can think of no way to solve the first. Since the source of these difficulties is the claim that each eternal object is a discrete entity which can be individually prehended, it might be worthwhile to examine the position of Charles Hartshorne, who denies this claim while affirming that possibilities form a dense continuum.

Continuity and Possibility in Hartshorne’s Thought

Hartshorne’s rejection of eternal objects in Whitehead’s sense constitutes one of the main differences between him and Whitehead. Hartshorne himself has called attention to this difference, as have several other scholars.4 He holds that although there are certain logical and metaphysical categories which are eternal (defined at all times and unchanging), no other possibilities are eternal. Rather, these other possibilities belong to an eternal continuum in which particular possibilities are not individually defined. Such possibilities emerge into more or less clear definition with the passage of time, as events and entities occur for which they are more or less relevant.

But no possibility, Hartshorne insists, is fully definite. Only actualities are fully definite. He writes:

There is no such thing as a possible particular. . . . Not even God can fully define a world without creating it. Possibilities are irreducibly non-particular. . . . The definite past in outlines implies its own successors, but when these are definite or actual, there will be in them that which their mere possibility failed to embrace, namely determinates corresponding to the antecedent determinables or universals. (CSPM 122)

Possibilities, then, are indefinite. But indefinite in what sense? How could two actualities instantiate the same possibility? A possibility is a way in which past actualities are (and actualities which have not yet occurred might be) similar. If two actualities are similar in some manner, that manner of similarity is a possibility which they instantiate. Thus we can see how possibilities emerge with the passage of time. As new actualities occur, they enable the more precise delineation of ways in which other actualities might be similar (to them or to other actualities).5 And since similarity is a matter of degree, possibilities are indeterminate; how much they include is not precisely specifiable.

This understanding of possibilities might occasion perplexities if similarity is understood as partial identity and partial difference. (If two things are similar, what identical quality do they have in common? Any such quality would also be a possibility, but this possibility would be a way in which the two things were identical, not just similar. The doctrine that a possibility is a similarity among things would then be otiose.) But Hartshorne claims that similarity is as ultimate as identity. Indeed, both are degrees of difference, which Hartshorne takes as a positive quality. Identity is the zero of difference, and similarity is a low degree of difference (CSPM 59).

This account of possibilities accords well with certain aspects of our experience of possibilities. Many possibilities in our experience, particularly those which fire qualities (such as red or hot), have vague boundaries. Red (hot) things are things which are similar to standard cases of red (hot) things. This is Hartshorne’s model for all possibilities. On the other hand, some possibilities in our experience do seem discrete. Some living thing is either a human being or it is not. The flip of a coin will produce a heads or a tails. In both these cases and in many more concerning which we think and make plans and decisions, the alternatives seem discrete, not continuous.

What sort of account can Hartshorne’s view give of discrete possibilities? I would suggest that the existence of such discrete possibilities always is dependent on contingencies in the development of the universe, including human history. For example, why is it that the flip of a coin will produce heads or tails? It is not because of the logical impossibility of a result in which the face of the coin makes an angle other than approximately 0 degrees with the flat surface on which the coin is flipped. It is logically possible for a coin to be inclined at any angle from 0 to 180 degrees with the surface which it touches. But a result other than approximately 0 degrees is exceedingly unlikely given the laws of nature and the characteristics of the surfaces on which we flip coins.

Suppose, however, that we were to coat the surface with a "super glue" which would cause the coin to stick at precisely the attitude at which it struck the surface. Then the result of a flip might be a coin inclined at any angle. In this situation, the possibilities would not divide into two clear discrete categories. (Of course, we would not then use a coin flip to decide things, as we do.) This is not to deny that the coin -- an actuality -- has only two faces; it is only to point out that the result of a coin flip depends on the angle which these faces make with a surface, and there is a logical possibility of any angle, not just approximately 0 degrees, for the result.

This imaginary case illustrates my point that the fact that some possibilities can be categorized into discrete categories depends on the contingencies of the world in which we live. The same point can be made in relation to the existence of different species of living things. Consider, for example, a type like the human species. The boundaries between this type and the type from which it evolved are not sharp. At present we are able to distinguish humans as distinct species from all other individuals with which we are familiar. But between humans and other species there are conceivable (but non-actual) intermediaries, and more intermediaries between the humans and certain intermediaries, and still more between the humans and them, and so forth until we come to other "types" from which we could not clearly distinguish humans; humans would blend with these other types.

Thus, that we can distinguish humans as a type from other types depends on the contingencies of our world, in particular that it came to be characterized by certain individuals and not others. (I say "not others" because it is crucial that we not be acquainted with individuals which fill what is for us a relatively clear gap between humans and nonhuman species.)6 In relation to these individuals, we are able to define a type to which they belong. That is, they are sufficiently similar to each other and sufficiently dissimilar from other individuals that we can assign them to one type. In relation to them we are also able to conceive other nonactual types to which they would be similar but from which they are also distinct -- e.g., human-like entities with a green skin or with only one eye (a Cyclops). In this way our experience of individuals of one type can enable us to conceive of other individuals of other types -- other possibilities -- which we have not experienced.

I would claim that this is also true for God. But that does not mean that 10 or 20 billion years ago, when the big bang was occurring, these types rather than others could have been distinguished, even by God. At that time there were no relevant individuals who could serve as a group to generate the idea of one type and to be a contrast for the generation of the idea of similar but distinct types. (Of course, if individuals like us existed before the big bang, then God would remember them and be consciously aware of them and of the types whose definition they enabled. Under these rather unlikely circumstances God would have conceived of the human type at the time of the big bang. But he could not have done this long before the first appearance of such individuals in some cosmic epoch before our big bang. A fortiori, he would not have conceived of them from all eternity.)

Thus on this account, though the realm of possibilities is eternal, the delineation of possibilities (universals) depends on the occurrence of actualities. For a possibility is a similarity among actualities. Since which possibilities occur is logically contingent, sub specie aeternatatis and divorced from all actualities, no possibilities could be distinguished (except perhaps for metaphysical and logical categories, to which Hartshorne believes that there are no consistent alternatives).7 Hence, it would be impossible for God from all eternity to contemplate all possibilities and pre-decide his response to every possible combination of them (as Creel holds).

Of course, this account does not preclude either God or humans from pre-deciding at one time their response to events at a later time; it precludes only such pre-decisions being made from all eternity. We have already seen how the occurrence of contingent actualities makes possible the delineation of various possibilities. Once these have been delineated, one can use them to categorize events and to pre-decide one’s response to some future event.

It is important, however, to note that both the categorization of the event and the pre decision refer not to the event or the action in its full concreteness, but only to some abstractable aspect of each. For both are done in terms of certain ways in which the event and the action are similar to other events and actions. And the fact that one thing is similar to another does not by itself allow a precise knowledge of the former even if the latter is known with complete precision.

For example, suppose that a woman decides that if she receives information today about some matter which concerns her (e.g., a medical condition), she will phone a friend to discuss the matter with him. Notice that she did not specify whether the information came by phone or letter or from whom. She did not specify exactly what the information was, how it was worded, whether it was delivered impersonally or warmly, etc. And in her response she did not decide whether she would phone immediately, how frank she would be, how she would express herself, etc. Nor is this just a correctible oversight on her part. For each of these further specifications itself still only designates an abstactable aspect of the situation or action -- i.e., a way in which the situation or action is like others. Thus, no matter how precisely she specifies the event or her response, she cannot exhaustively specify the event in its full concreteness before it occurs.8 This is why Hartshorne says that "the fulfillment of a plan, which is always an outline only, implies the plan, but the latter, being more meager in definiteness, cannot imply the fulfillment" (CSPM 122).

We should note too that it would not help Creel to claim that God categorizes situations and actions in terms of discrete possibilities covering many points on the continuum rather than in terms of precise points on the continuum. Though Hartshorne believes that God does in fact do this, it is only actualities which enable him to determine the appropriate and relevant similarities (i.e., how to gather points into appropriate groups). In abstraction from all other actualities, no way of grouping them is any more appropriate than any other. And the number of logically possible groupings would be nondenumerable, for it would be logically possible to use each point as a center for a possible grouping and to include more or fewer points in each grouping. Thus, God could not eternally group points into discrete possibilities in a way which would be relevant to whatever actualities occur.

Creel and Hartshorne on Omnipotence and Omniscience

At this point it might be appropriate to consider another argument advanced by Creel to support his view that God eternally knows all possibilities in a way which would allow him to pre-decide his response to all possible situations. He asks how God knows continua of possibilities, and he responds that it is from the combination of God’s omniscience and omnipotence. The former implies that God knows all there is to be known. But Creel sees that it would be begging the question to assume that this "all" includes familiarity with particular points on the continuum. However, he thinks that the conception of omnipotence will bridge the gap. For the "all" certainly includes God himself; and since God has the power to actualize any of the points on the continuum, by knowing his power he knows the points. As Creel says, since God has the power to create any particular shade of blue, by knowing that he has this power, he knows the shade (PS 12:223f.).9

Unfortunately, this argument also appears to beg the question. Does God know before he creates a shade the particular shade which he will create or (as we have seen that Hartshorne holds) only that he will create some such shade? If the latter, then Creel has not shown that God knows particular points. If the former, then God has already cut the continuum of possibilities at a particular point in consciously thinking of exactly that color. And even if God can do that for a few points, would Creel want to affirm that God could do it for all points? Would not this be a way of exhausting the inexhaustible, of attributing to God a knowledge of an exhaustively infinite set of individuals (contrary to PS 12:218)?

From the perspective of Hartshorne’s (and Whitehead’s) philosophy, there is a further problem with this argument of Creel’s: it assumes a model of an entity doing something which he does not accept. Creel’s model for an entity doing something seems to be something like a human driving a car or baking a cake. But this is not Hartshorne’s model at all. He would say that we can speak of an actual entity doing something in two senses: a strict, narrow sense and a broader sense.

In the narrow sense, all that an actual entity can do is to determine how it will synthesize the data from which it originates; it does this as it concresces (to borrow Whitehead’s terminology). Since the aim of this process is to become something fully definite, there is no fully definite possibility at which the occasion aims.10 Indeed, a "fully definite possibility" is, in Hartshorne’s view, a contradiction in terms. So the entity itself does not know precisely what it is becoming: rather it is aiming at becoming something like this (or similar to this: a possibility)." But as its process of concrescence proceeds, it narrows the range of possibilities more and more, until all indefiniteness is resolved and it is a fully definite thing (and the continuum of possibility has thereby been cut at one point). The foregoing description of a concrescence applies to God as well as to other actual entities; not even God knows the particular point on the continuum toward which he is concrescing until he gets there, for the only way of defining a particular point is to actualize it.

In the broader sense, we may speak of the action the entity performs in terms of its effect on subsequent actual entities. According to Hartshorne, the entity cannot control the precise effect which it has on subsequent entities; it is metaphysically necessary that the subsequent entities take account of the earlier entity, but the earlier entity cannot control exactly how the later entities take account of it. Thus, God cannot know that he will bring about a particular shade of blue in some other entity, and he cannot know in advance that he will bring it about in his own concrescence.

Divine Omniscience in Hartshorne’s View

Creel objects to Hartshorne’s view on the grounds that it raises doubts about God’s omniscience. He develops this objection in at least three ways. One is to claim that according to Hartshorne’s view, God does not know what he is doing. We have just seen that there is a sense in which this is true. God knows only that the outcome of a concrescence (his own or some finite entity’s) will be similar to X (or perhaps similar to X or to Y or to Z, etc.). Thus, we might say that God knows only the range of possibilities toward which his own concrescence is headed at any moment and the range of possibilities toward which the concrescence of some finite entity is headed. Creel wonders, then, how does God know "what he can bring about and how to bring about anything that has not already existed. Does he use trial and error," or thrash about, or experiment systematically (PS 12:225)? How could God lure into existence something he knows not what?

In part the answer to these questions has already been given. God knows the sort of thing toward which he is headed in his own concrescence and the sort of thing toward which any particular finite concrescence is headed. What God does not know is exactly what thing within that range will eventuate. But this does not imply that God must use trial and error or experiment. God everlastingly knows (i.e., knows "from all eternity") that he can determine how he integrates the data with which his own process of concrescence begins at any particular moment. He knows that those data put limits on what precise overall final state results when he completes the process of concrescence. Thus God knows the range of final states. But he does not know in advance where in that range he will come out. And he also everlastingly knows that he can influence but not completely control the process of concrescence in other entities. Thus he does not know in advance the precise outcome of any process of concrescence, including his own.

To speak of trial and error or experimenting is misleading, however, for it suggests that after practice God could eventually come to know how to bring about exactly some predetermined end. But this can never be since actuality is always more definite than possibility and since (as Hartshorne believes) all actual entities have some freedom. Thus we speak of trial and error and experimenting in the physical sciences, where we hope for repeatable results -- repeatable in certain abstract characteristics. In other words, we hope that all events in a certain series will be sufficiently similar in a certain regard. (And God knows that he -- along with the limitations provided by the other data from which a new entity originates -- can bring about the repetition of certain abstract characteristics, or there would be no "order of nature.") But if we are trying by persuasion to evoke a feeling in another person, (1) we can specify only roughly, not exactly, what we are aiming at and (2) we do not expect to get repeatable results; therefore, we do not speak of trial and error or experimenting in this context. And this context provides a better model for Hartshorne’s view of God’s action on other actualities.

A second way in which Creel develops his objection based on the implications of Hartshorne’s view for God’s omniscience is to claim that on Hartshorne s view, as time goes on God learns about new possibilities which he had not known about before. For instance, at some time in the past, God might not have known about blue or even colors in general. Thus, it seems that long ago God knew much less about possibilities than he knows now; by extrapolation, at some time in the past, God must have been "as ignorant as a clam" (PS 12:224). Creel regards these as inescapable conclusions from the premise that God learns about possibilities as time passes. I think Creel is correct in claiming that on Hartshorne’s view God learns about possibilities as time goes on; indeed, earlier portions of this paper imply that this is a consequence of any view which understands possibilities as a continuum. But I do not think that this implies that at some time in the past God was rather ignorant. That conclusion would follow only if the range of possibilities were finite, but there is no reason to think that it is. If the range is infinite, then at any point in the past, God would have known an infinity of individuals exemplifying an infinity of sub-ranges of possibilities.

I think that it nevertheless troubles Creel that God was not eternally consciously aware of something like this shade of blue. But there is no reason to be troubled by this fact provided that (as I am now assuming) (1) the range of possibilities is infinite and (2) there is no limit to how fine-grained God’s knowledge of a sub-range of possibilities might be. (To say that one’s knowledge becomes more fine-grained is to say that within a more encompassing similarity one distinguishes other less encompassing similarities and differences. For example, within the set of cars we distinguish subsets of Chevrolet Citations, Ford Escorts, Toyota Corollas, etc. All these have a similarity denoted by calling them cars; within that overall similarity, there are similarities and differences denoted by the make and model names.) These two assumptions imply that God never has an exhaustive knowledge of any sub-range of possibilities. The thoroughness of his knowledge of any two sub-ranges differs only in how fine-grained the knowledge of each is. For some sub-ranges (e.g., those which past actualities instantiated), it is much more detailed than for others (e.g., those very unlike any past actualities). But since exhaustive knowledge, a knowledge of every point on the continuum of possibilities, is impossible, it does not seem demeaning to say of God, who is in process, that the amount of detail with which he knows various sub-ranges of possibilities varies with time.

The third way in which Creel develops his criticism of the implications of Hartshorne’s view for God’s omniscience has to do with the nonrepeatability of qualities and the purported consequence that God’s memory of an event must inevitably grow more and more erroneous as time passes (PS 12:225-28). This conclusion about the divine memory would, if accurate, be a serious problem for Hartshorne’s metaphysics. How does Creel arrive at this charge? He starts with Hartshorne’s claim that "particular qualities in their absolute definiteness are irreducibly relational and historical"; therefore, they are unrepeatable (PS 12:225 citing CSPM 64). But if they are unrepeatable, then each divine occasion which remembers a particular event will differ; thus the divine memory of that event will inevitably continually change (PS 12:228). Therefore, Creel concludes, the divine memory of any particular event or individual will become increasingly inaccurate.

This argument however, rests on a failure to distinguish between the uniqueness of reaction (in Whitehead’s terminology, the subjective form) of an occasion and the uniqueness of the data. There is no requirement that each datum of an occasion be unique. To be sure, no two occasions begin with the same toted set of data, but two occasions may well begin with some data in common. And each divine occasion includes all the data of previous divine occasions and more besides. But the subjective form for any datum depends on that datum and on the total occasion of which that datum is a part. Thus, it is unique, for no two occasions have an identical set of data; and even if per impossible they did, it is virtually inconceivable that their freely chosen reaction to those data would be completely identical.

This is what Hartshorne was getting at when he wrote that particular qualities are irreducibly relational and historical. For a subjective form is irreducibly relational and historical; it is the form for this datum in this occasion. But a datum occasion, though it occurred in a particular historical context, is not in its status as a datum irreducibly relational and historical. It can be a datum -- the same datum -- for many other occasions. Non-divine occasions will inevitably abstract from the total datum and thereby lose some of it; colloquially, their memory will not be perfect. But divine occasions do not have to abstract anything from the total datum; each time the datum is included in a divine occasion, it can be included without change or modification. In short, because the nonrepeatability of qualities (as subjective forms) does not imply the non-recurrence of a datum (with its qualities) in many different occasions, the nonrepeatability of qualities does not imply the inevitable degeneration of the divine memory of individuals.

Providence in Hartshorne’s Thought

In his essay Creel is concerned to explain how God could use his knowledge of all possibilities to pre-decide his response to all possible states of affairs. Then as God learned what transpired in the world (which, because of creaturely freedom, he could not foreknow), God would simply do what he had already decided he would do in that situation. Thus Creel was concerned with how God’s knowledge of possibilities and actualities would be used in his providential guidance of the world. Before concluding this paper, we might also examine Hartshorne’s view on these topics.

Such an examination is all the more necessary because it has been charged that Hartshorne’s doctrine of divine providence amounts to little more than divine imposition of the laws of nature on the universe (Lewis S. Ford in TPP 75-80). It must be granted that there are elements in Hartshorne’s writings to support this charge. Usually when he speaks of providence, he illustrates it with God’s providing the laws of nature (LP 110) or setting limits to chaos and chance (DR 137; LP 206,295). Moreover, he often says that God does this by setting limits to the range of creaturely freedom (e.g., DR 142). And Ford cites a passage in which Hartshorne calls God’s selection of the laws of nature which characterize the universe "a ‘lure,’ an irresistable datum, for all ordinary acts of synthesis" (TPP 77, citing WEP 21).12

Hartshorne’s writings, however, contain other ideas which suggest that God’s providential role in the world is richer and less coercive than can be gleaned from the foregoing account. For instance, Hartshorne says that God does for the world everything which he should do for it (DR 24). Though this is merely a formula without specific content, it might prove possible to fill it out by arguing that among the things which God should do for the world is to provide some direction to the overall course of human history and perhaps indications of preference regarding some human choices. For if God is concerned, as Hartshorne says, to provide a world in which there is an optimum mix of opportunities and risks (LP 231), then surely that might include more specific influences than just the provision of laws of nature.

Moreover, there is at least one indication that the laws of nature should be construed as statistical tendencies in the behavior and relations of the actual entities in the universe rather than being divine impositions, as Ford charges. In The Logic of Perfection, as part of his argument against determinism, Hartshorne writes that "plural freedom cannot be ordered (no matter by whom) save approximately and statistically" (LP 189). This accords well with Hartshorne’s claim that no plan or intention is ever as specific as what results from carrying it out; therefore, the end result cannot be exactly specified, even by God (CSPM 66).

Third, it is noteworthy that in Man’s Vision of God Hartshorne distinguishes between God’s "purpose as laid down before all the worlds, or rather before each and every world" -- which is part of God’s eternal and unchanging aspect -- and "the more and more particular purposes which mark the approach to, and . . . , the achievements of purpose which mark arrival at, any given point of time" (MVG 237, my italics). This passage, especially the italicized part, clearly suggests that Hartshorne attributes to God particular purposes for particular moments. It further suggests that as the world process moves nearer a given point in time, God’s purposes for events at that point are constantly subject to modification and more precise specification. If God has such purposes for particular moments, there is no reason to doubt that those purposes may influence what transpires.

Finally, one of Hartshorne’s favorite analogies for the God-universe relation is the mind-body relation. The human mind influences the human body by desiring and choosing certain states of affairs. These choices by the mind set conditions of which occasions which constitute various parts of the body must take account as they concresce. These conditions strongly influence those occasions, but they do not determine what those occasions will do. Indeed, the occasions may not do anything like what was desired or chosen (as when one’s muscles will not respond because of the excessive accumulation of lactic acid). This analogy suggests two things: (1) God, like the mind of a human being, may have specific intentions for part of his body that do not pertain (except very indirectly) to the rest; and (2) God may wish to influence part of the created order by his desires or preferences for it and not be certain of success.

The mind-body analogy can be further developed as a model for how God influences particular occasions. Each new occasion in our body feels, as part of its past, occasions which are members of the society of occasions which constitute the mind of human being. If these occasions had choices which were relevant to the new occasion, it would feel them and be influenced (but not completely determined) by them. Of course, the occasions which it is feeling were themselves responding to their past actual worlds, which would not be identical with the new occasion’s. But if the world has not changed too rapidly (and usually it does not, or we would not survive), the choices made by the presiding occasions will, if followed by the new occasion, produce appropriate actions.

Analogously, a new finite occasion might feel a divine occasion’s feeling of its (the divine occasion’s) past world and its reaction (subjective form) regarding that world (or some aspect of it), and the new occasion might be influenced by that feeling. To be sure, the new occasion’s past would not be identical with the divine occasion’s, for the divine occasion which began at the same time as the finite occasion could not be prehended by that occasion. So the new occasion would be influenced by divine occasions which began and ended before it began its concrescence. But the analogous situation in humans does not usually cause inappropriate actions. And if divine occasions have a much higher frequency than finite occasions, the new finite occasion could prehend a divine occasion which started only a very brief time before it did. Surely their worlds would be similar enough to make the influence of the divine occasion highly relevant to it.

I would suggest that the new occasion might include in its data a divine feeling of preference that certain developments occur in that place. Of course, as we have seen, such a preference can only mean the preference that something like this happen, since it is impossible to specify in advance exactly what will happen, for the actual is always more definite than the possible or the imagined. But in this way a divine preference that a certain development occur might influence the course of the universe in specific ways at specific points in space and time.

This model differs in important ways from Whitehead’s with regard to the source of novelty in the world. On Whitehead’s view a concrescing occasion begins with definite novel forms provided by God and eventually selects one of them as its subjective aim. It selects from among these definite forms, but it does not further define them. On Hartshorne’s view God has (feels) a preference that the occasion concresce into something similar to a certain form. The form God has in mind has already been realized elsewhere or is a combination of such forms. But on this view there are no completely definite forms provided by God (or any other entity) from among which the concrescing occasion chooses its subjective aim. Without any completely definite form as a guide, the occasion must itself decide how it will synthesize the data from its past, including God’s preferential feeling. The result of this process is productive of a new actuality and thus of new forms of definiteness (in the sense of new ways in which actualities may be similar to each other). Novel forms emerge in the process; they do not exist nontemporally as a lure for the process. In the process of self-determination, the concrescence is not without aim or direction, for its prehension of other actual entities’ preferences provides a variety of rough aims. But for Hartshorne, unlike Whitehead, these aims are not eternally definite forms made relevant by God, but rather temporally emergent forms to which it could become something similar.

This completes our examination of Hartshorne’s views on the issues under discussion in this paper. It does seem to me that those views, unlike Creel’s, raise no irresolvable problems. Therefore, if possibilities do form a dense continuum, there is no reason to think that God as Hartshorne conceives of him is less than maximally perfect. But (apart from the briefest of hints in the discussion of Whitehead) nothing has been said to establish this idea of possibilities. Such a task must await another occasion.

 

References:

CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965.

CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1970.

DR -- Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.

IPQ 13/3 -- International Philosophical Quarterly for Lewis S. Ford, "The Non-Temporality of Whitehead’s God," IPQ 13/3 (September, 1973), 349-76.

LP. -- Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection. LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1962.

MVG -- Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God. New York: Harper & Row, Inc., 1941.

PPCT -- Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves. Indianapolis:

The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1971, for Lewis S. Ford, "Divine Persuasion and the Triumph of Good," pp. 287-304.

TPP -- Lewis S. Ford (ed.), Two Process Philosophers. Tallahassee, Florida: American Academy of Religion, 1973.

WEP -- Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, ed. George L. Kline. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963, for Charles Hartshorne, "Whitehead’s Novel Intuition," pp. 18-32.

 

Notes

1Clearly, this reason presupposes the denial of the Thomistic (and Boethian) doctrine that God knows all actualities in one eternal now, a doctrine which was crucial to Thomas’s defense of the impassibility and immutability of God’s will. Consideration of this doctrine, however, is not part of Creel’s paper nor of this one.

2 Cobb writes that "God’s ordering of possibilities is such that every possible state of the actual world is already envisioned as possible and every possible development from that actual state of the world is envisioned and appraised" (CNT 155f.). I am troubled by the idea of an unconscious appraisal of all eternal objects in relation to a possible world which is envisioned in all its detail, and Cobb does not comment explicitly on whether this appraisal is conscious or not. He does report Whitehead’s claim that pure conceptual feelings are not conscious and that God’s primordial nature therefore is not conscious (CNT 163f.). If he applies this consistently, it would seem that he would have to say that God’s primordial orderings of eternal objects are also unconscious and presumably also his primordial appraisal of developments from each possible state of the world. But perhaps he would think that the problem of the consciousness of the appraisals arises only because I am drawing too sharp a distinction between the primordial and consequent natures, a charge he levels at some of Whitehead’s formulations (CNT 178).

3 I am following Lewis S. Ford s interpretation of how God provides the initial aim (PPCT 292n9). It would appear to be open to a problem similar to the one mentioned in the previous paragraph. For God would entertain propositions about how an actual world might be unified by a new concrescence; these could be contrasted with that actual world, thus generating conscious, intellectual feelings. If for each actual world there is a dense multitude of such propositions and therefore of such intellectual feelings, we would have to conclude that God has a nondenumerable multitude of conscious prehensions for every past actual world, as he has for every actual occasion which has completed its concrescence.

4 For Hartshorne, see CSPM 58f.; David B. Griffin has discussed this from Hartshorne’s perspective and Lewis S. Ford from Whitehead’s perspective in TPP 37-40 and 58-65, respectively.

5 To adapt an example from Hartshorne, before Shakespeare was born there was the possibility "lover of writers" and the more specific possibility "lover of playwrights." But after he died, there was the still more specific possibility "lover of Shakespeare." The actuality, William Shakespeare the playwright, had created the possibility of future actualities each of whom loved not just playwrights in general but specifically Shakespeare; this would be a similarity among those actualities, a similarity whose delineation was enabled by the actuality which was Shakespeare.

6 Of course, if such intermediary individuals did exist, we still might distinguish humans from them by using criteria other than the biological classificatory systems now in use. But we could not do this unless there were a clear gap with regard to the new criteria between these intermediaries and humans. Thus this case would not be a counterexample to my claim.

7 Not even these possibilities constitute an exception to the principle that the definition of possibilities depends on actualities. For they constitute the eternal nature of God and thus are always instantiated by an actuality.

8 In Hartshorne’s terminology, both the envisioned situation and the pre-decided action are determinables, whereas the actual event and the actual action are determinates; but the fully determinate event and action which subsequently occur are not included in their full determinateness in the determinable (CSPM 64f.).

9 This position of Creel’s has obvious similarities with the doctrine of traditional Christian theism that by knowing himself God knows all possible ways in which he might be imitated and thus knows all possible creatures.

10 On this matter there is an important difference between Whitehead and Harts-borne. Whitehead would say that the occasion aims at a fully definite possibility (the eternal object), hut the aim of the concrescence is to become something fully determinate, not just something fully definite. The determinate differs from the definite in that the former includes location in a nexus of actual entities including the past actual world from which an occasion emerged, while the latter does not. (See Whitehead’s account in the twentieth category of explanation in PR 251 38).

11To be sure, if the possibility aimed at is a discrete one (as it often is in human concerns), then one can aim at this possibility (and not just something like it). But that is only because a discrete possibility is itself a collection of points which are grouped together in light of their similarity to and differences from certain actualities. Thus to aim explicitly at a discrete possibility is to aim implicitly at becoming similar to something.

12 The passage, however, may not point unambiguously to Ford’s interpretation of Hartshorne’s view. For the phrase ‘irresistible datum’ is in apposition to the word ‘lure’; this suggests to me that we should not make too much of the word ‘irresistible’; moreover, every datum is irresistible for later occasions in its facticity, though not in the use which they make of it. And there is evidence in Hartshorne’s writings that he recognizes that not even God can completely control the use which an occasion makes of its prehension of him (e.g., the passage cited below in the text about the impossibility of anything more than an approximate ordering of plural freedom).


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