return to religion-online

Energy-Events and Fields

by Joseph A. Bracken, S.J.

Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., is Associate Professor of Theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 153-165, Vol. 18, Number 3, Fall, 1989. 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.


By general agreement among process-oriented thinkers, Whiteheadian metaphysics is considered to be an event-ontology rather than a substance-ontology. That is, the building-blocks of reality are events, not things. Events do not happen to already existing things or persons, as in Aristotelian metaphysics. Rather, a complex set of events constitutes what in common sense language would be called a person or a thing. Yet, in my judgment, a fair amount of substance-oriented or "entitative" thinking still lingers among the disciples of Whitehead, partly because Whitehead’s own style of expression, if not his thought as such, is periodically quite ambiguous.

Whitehead’s oft-quoted statement, for example, that actual entities "are the final real things of which the world is made up" (PR 18/27; italics mine) is certainly open to double interpretation. For that matter, the more consistent use of the term actual entity as opposed to actual occasion seems to betray a residual entitative image in Whitehead’s mind. Similarly, even though "[e]ach actual entity is conceived as an act of experience arising out of data . . . a process of ‘feeling’ the many data, so as to absorb them into the unity of one individual ‘satisfaction"’ (PR 40/65; italics mine), Whitehead’s subsequent explanation of the reformed subjectivist principle, if only by reason of the reference to Descartes as the originator of the "subjectivist principle," still links together subject and substance in the mind of the reader as she tries to comprehend what is meant by an actual entity.

Naturally, all serious students of Whitehead know that societies rather than actual entities are the true counterparts to the Aristotelian notion of substance. For, as Whitehead says in Adventures of Ideas, "[t]he real actual things that endure are all societies. They are not actual occasions. . . A society has an essential character, whereby it is the society that it is, and it has also accidental qualities which vary as circumstances alter" (Al 262). Hut what is a society? Whitehead’s classic definition of a society in Process and Reality, which he repeats in Adventures of Ideas, is that a society is a nexus with social order. He then continues:

A nexus enjoys ‘social order’ where (i) there is a common element of form illustrated in the definiteness of each of its included actual entities, and (ii) this common element of form arises in each member of the nexus by reason of the conditions imposed upon it by its prehensions of some other members of the nexus, and (iii) these prehensions impose that condition of reproduction by reason of their inclusion of positive feelings of that common form. (PR 34/50-51; AI 261)

What is distinctive about this definition is that the society thus appears to be nothing more than the sum of its parts. It seems to be, in other words, an aggregate of actual occasions possessing a "common element of form."

Whitehead, to be sure, resists the idea that a society is simply an aggregate: "The point of a ‘society,’ as the term is here used, is that it is self-sustaining, that it is its own reason. Thus a society is more than a set of entities to which the same class-name applies" (PR 89/137). Yet what is that raison d’être for a society precisely as a society and not just an assembly of similarly constituted actual occasions? The hint of an answer is provided a few lines later when he says: "Thus a set of entities is a society (i) in virtue of a ‘defining characteristic’ shared by its members, and (ii) in virtue of the presence of the defining characteristic being due to the environment provided by the society itself" (PR 89/137). A society, then, is an environment needed to sustain the common element of form or defining characteristic of the society in successive generations of actual occasions. The constituent occasions, of course, in line with Whitehead’s ontological principle (PR 19/28), provide the ultimate reason(s) why the society exists with a certain structure at any given moment. But the society precisely as an ongoing environment provides the (derivative) reason why successive generations of occasions maintain the same structure or pattern of interrelation.

This will be more evident below when I analyze Whitehead’s remarks on the nature and function of societies in Process and Reality. For now, I only wish to point out how easy it is to think of occasions as mini-things in close association rather than as interrelated energy-events requiring a context or field for their ongoing structure or pattern.

Charles Hartshorne, for example, seems paradoxically to be thinking of occasions in thing-like terms within his oft-quoted article on "The Compound Individual." As the very title of the essay makes clear, his problematic is how to justify the existence of compound individual entities (e.g., organisms) when the ultimate entities are microscopic (cells) or submicroscopic (atoms). His solution, following his own reading of Whitehead’s doctrine of societies, is to argue that an organism or compound individual entity exists wherever one of its constituent subsocieties is dominant over the other subsocieties within the organism (PEW 215). At any given moment, therefore, one mini-entity (actual occasion) is regnant over all the other mini-entities (occasions) within the organism or compound individual entity. Societies of actual occasions, on the other hand, which do not include a regnant occasion are what Hartshorne calls a "composite individual," equivalently, an aggregate of similarly constituted individual mini-entities which give the appearance of an externally unified reality. But, as Hartshorne comments, "[a] stone is better interpreted as a colony of swirls of atoms (crystals) than are its atoms interpretable as servants or organs of the stone. The atoms and crystals are the substance, the stone-properties, the accidents" (PEW 215).1

How else, you may ask, is one to understand the unitary reality of a Whiteheadian structured society so that it corresponds to what common sense understands as an organism or compound individual? The answer, in my judgment, lies in looking more carefully at Whitehead’s relatively sparse remarks about societies as stable, structured environments for the emergence of successive generations of actual occasions. The unity of the structured society, in other words, might lie in the society itself rather than in its regnant constituent occasion. Admittedly, this would be an objective unity indirectly achieved in and through the subjective processes of unification of its constituent occasions. But it would allow Whiteheadians to affirm the unitary reality of atoms and molecules simply as democratically organized societies of occasions rather than as mini-organisms requiring a dominant subsociety of occasions for their ontological cohesiveness. Furthermore, and even more importantly for the purpose of this essay, it would likewise allow Whiteheadians to talk about actual occasions as indeed occasions, i.e., events, taking place within a pregiven environment or structured field of activity.

In any case, in the following paragraphs I will first analyze Whitehead’s remarks in Process and Reality on societies as the necessary environment for the ongoing emergence of actual occasions and then show how this analysis throws unexpected light on Whitehead’s further explanation of the hierarchy of societies within the current world order, in particular, the difference between inorganic and organic societies, and, among organic societies, those with a "soul" or "living person" and those without such a central organ of control. Afterwards, I will review the broader significance of this new understanding of actual occasions and societies for the mind-body problem, paying particular attention to articles published over the years by Whiteheadians on this very topic.

I begin, then, with Whitehead’s exposition of societies in the chapter on "The Order of Nature" in Process and Reality. Having stated that "a society is, for each of its members, an environment with some element of order in it," Whitehead continues:

But there is no society in isolation. Every society must be considered with its background of a wider environment of actual entities, which also contribute their objectifications to which the members of the society must conform. Thus the given contributions of the environment must at least be permissive of the self-sustenance of the society. Also, in proportion to its importance, this background must contribute those general characters which the more special character of the society presupposes for its members. But this means that the environment, together with the society in question, must form a larger society in respect to some more general characters than those defining the society from which we started. Thus we arrive at the principle that every society requires a social background, of which it is itself a part. In reference to any given society the world of actual entities is to be conceived as forming a background in layers of social order, the defining characteristic becoming wider and more general as we widen the background. (PR 90/138)

Thus, even though actual occasions are "the final real things of which the world is made up" (PR 18/27), societies as the progressive "layers of social order" into which they are organized are clearly of equal importance for the self-constitution of the universe from moment to moment. For, without these structured environments for the emergence of subsequent generations of actual occasions, there would be no effective guarantee that the present and the future would be continuous with the past. The occasions themselves, after all, are discrete energy-events which would have no community or solidarity with one another without the implicit presupposition of a field or medium within which they first arise and then take their "place" relative to each other upon completion of their process of concrescence. This field, moreover, which in its most generic sense is the extensive continuum for Whitehead,2 is progressively shaped and ordered by successive generations of occasions so that it effectively serves as the medium for the transmission both of physical feelings and of conceptual patterns from one generation of occasions to another.3

As Whitehead comments in Process and Reality, "the actual world, insofar as it is a community of entities which are settled, actual, and already become, conditions and limits the potentiality for creativeness beyond itself (PR 65/101; italics mine). What he fails to spell out in detail here but indicates elsewhere (e.g., PR 96-98/147-150) is that the extensive continuum or, more specifically in terms of our cosmic epoch, the space-time continuum is not just a single overarching community of actual occasions but an interlocking network of communities or societies of occasions, each of which possesses its own laws and proper dynamism. Thus each of these subordinate societies is a field within the all-comprehensive field of the space-time continuum and as such possesses an ontological unity proper to itself.

Though possessing an objective unity, a society or unified field of activity is not ipso facto an ontological agent. That is, unlike its constituent occasions, a society is not a subject of experience and thus not able to make a "decision" with respect to its self-constitution. At the same time, Whitehead seems to allow for the possibility that a society exercises a derivative type of agency in and through its constituent occasions:

The causal laws which dominate a social environment are the product of the defining characteristic of that society. But the society is only efficient through its individual members. Thus, in a society, the members can only exist by reason of the laws which dominate the society, and the laws only come into being by reason of the analogous characters of the members of the society. (PR 90f/139; italics mine)

A society, then, is efficient, i.e., exercises a form of agency, in and through the interrelated agencies of its individual members. This agency, of course, is a derivative or strictly collective agency since it is exercised not directly by the society itself but indirectly through the agency of its constituent occasions. But it is an agency sufficient to preserve the pattern of interaction for its constituent occasions from moment to moment and thus to assure its own ongoing identity in space and time.

This hypothesis, to be sure, runs counter to the position taken by Hartshorne in "The Compound Individual." For, he there insisted that, wherever individuality is present, it is due to the self-constituting activity of an actual occasion. Thus, if a nexus of actual occasions behaves as a dynamic unitary reality, then, a higher-order occasion must be present to exercise that measure of agency for its contemporaries within the nexus. As John Cobb readily admits in an article on this same subject, Hartshorne’s thesis is not what Whitehead himself proposed in Process and Reality (EA 155-58). But it is consistent with Whitehead’s statement elsewhere in Process and Reality that "agency belongs exclusively to actual occasions" (PR 31/46) and it does circumvent the charge of reductionism (atomism) which Ivor Leclerc and others have leveled against Whitehead in the past (NPE 289-91; PN 118-22).4

My own position, however, as noted above, is to affirm with Whitehead that agency in the strict sense belongs exclusively to actual occasions, but also to claim that the effect of the interrelated agencies of the occasions within a society is to produce a collective agency necessary for the society as a unified field of activity to preserve its pattern of order or ongoing self-identity from moment to moment. Once again, this is not to say that a society is a subject of experience capable of making a decision with respect to its self-constitution. Where a given field (society) appears to be a unified subject of experience (e.g., a human being or some other animal species), it is so only through higher-order actual occasions making up its soul or central mechanism of organization and control. A field, therefore, composed simply of inanimate actual occasions is not a subject of experience; but, in and through the interrelated agencies of its constituent occasions, it does exercise the collective agency necessary to preserve its own identity as this particular field, e.g., an atom or molecule of a peculiar shape or consistency. It is not, in other words, a mere aggregate of occasions which alone possess individuality and/or substantiality, as Hartshorne seems to claim (PEW 215). It is rather an objective but strictly non-entitative reality, i.e., a structured environment or unified field of activity for the emergence of successive generations of actual occasions. As such, it is "self-sustaining; . . . it is its own reason (PR 89/137).

Somewhat later in the same chapter on "The Order of Nature" Whitehead introduces the notion of a "structured" society, i.e., a society composed, not of actual occasions as such, but of subordinate societies and subordinate nexus of occasions (PR 99f/15 1/53). Subordinate societies are those which basically retain their distinctive self-identity within the larger structured society (like molecules within a cell); hence, they can survive the dissolution of the higher-order society. Subordinate nexus, on the other hand, are groups of occasions whose character is derived exclusively from the role which they play in the structured society; hence, when and if that "level of social order" dissolves, they, too, go out of existence. This distinction between subordinate societies and subordinate nexus of occasions within structured societies is extremely important for Whitehead’s discussion of "living" societies a few pages later. For, according to Whitehead, a structured society is considered living if it contains a sufficient number of living actual occasions organized into spontaneous nexus which are "regnant" over a much larger number of stable subsocieties of inanimate occasions.

The key point here, at least for our purposes in this essay, is that the structured society or field of activity is "alive" because of the interrelated individual agencies of all its constituent occasions. As Whitehead comments, "[a] complex inorganic system of interaction is built up for the protection of the ‘entirely living’ nexus, and the originative actions of the living elements are protective of the whole system. On the other hand, the reactions of the whole system provide the intimate environment required by the ‘entirely living’ nexus" (PR 103/157). In effect, then, the "system" or field of activity in question (e.g., a cell) is alive in virtue of a collective agency derivative from the interrelated individual agencies of all its constituent occasions. Some of these occasions are living; the great majority, however, are inanimate. But, in any case, there is no need to postulate the presence of a personally ordered subsociety of occasions (the equivalent of a primitive soul) to account for the unified activity of the cell. The "system" or field itself with its "causal laws" (PR 90/139) provides for both the continuity between successive generations of occasions and for the interrelatedness of occasions within a given generation.

Commenting on Whitehead’s doctrine of structured societies at the cellular level, John Cobb remarks: "Whitehead at that point was forced to explain the order in the cell in terms of its molecular structure, to which spontaneity was denied, and to explain the life of the cell in terms of the events in its empty space, which he depicted as radically unordered. It is hard to think that this combination can account for the type of order and the type of spontaneity actually exemplified in a cell" (EA 156). On the contrary, given the presumption of a collective agency for the cell as a unified field of activity, it makes excellent sense to account for the stability of the field in terms of societies of inanimate actual occasions with their ongoing transmission of fixed patterns and for the vitality of the field in terms of the nexus of living occasions with their higher degree of novelty and originality. The confluence of these two types of individual agencies produces the collective agency of the field as a whole.

One might counterargue, to be sure, that the unity of the cell is manifestly more than what a nonsocial nexus of living occasions can provide; only a personally ordered society of dominant occasions can "do the job." My response would be that the agency of the cell is, as noted above, a collective agency derived from the interrelated agencies of all the constituent occasions, animate and inanimate alike. This collective agency of all the occasions within the cell rather than the individual agency of a single dominant occasion at any given moment is what ultimately provides for the ongoing unity of the cell as an organic whole.

This last point becomes much more evident when one studies carefully Whitehead’s analysis of structured societies with a regnant subsociety of personally ordered occasions. For, even here where a set of dominant occasions is clearly operative, the agency of the structured society is a genuinely collective agency, not just the agency of its dominant subsociety. In the final section of "The Order of Nature," Whitehead begins thus:

An ‘entirely living’ nexus [i.e., nexus of living occasions] is, in respect to its life, not social. Each member of the nexus derives the necessities of its being from its prehension of its complex social environment; by itself the nexus lacks the genetic power which belongs to ‘societies.’ But a living nexus, though non-social in virtue of its ‘life,’ may support a thread of personal order along some historical route of its members. Such an enduring entity is a ‘living person.’ It is not of the essence of life to be a living person. Indeed a living person requires that its immediate environment be a living, non-social nexus. (PR 107/163)

Just as nexus of living actual occasions, therefore, are reciprocally interrelated with a massive infrastructure of inanimate occasions organized into various "layers of social order," so a "living person," i.e., a personally ordered society of such living occasions, is reciprocally interrelated with an infrastructure of living occasions organized into one or more nexus.

Yet by implication the agency proper to the living person would also seem to be dependent upon the smooth functioning of those same "layers of social order" which provide the infrastructure of inanimate occasions for the survival of living occasions. The infrastructure of the latter is necessarily also part of the infrastructure of the former. Hence, even in this highly complex case, it is the collective agency of the entire structured society or overall field of activity which is at work to support a "thread of personal order" among the living occasions. To be specific, a human being or higher-order animal organism is an ongoing subject of experience in and through its dominant subsociety of occasions; but the coordination therewith required to sustain the flow of consciousness can only be achieved through the collaboration and coordination of millions of sub-fields of activity, subordinate layers of social order, within the organism.

Whitehead himself seems to make the same point when he states a few paragraphs later:

The living body is a coordination of high-grade actual occasions. . . . In a living body of a high type there are grades of occasions so coordinated by their paths of inheritance through the body, that a peculiar richness of inheritance is enjoyed by various occasions in some parts of the body. Finally, the brain is coordinated so that a peculiar richness of inheritance is enjoyed now by this and now by that part; and thus there is produced the presiding personality at that moment in the body . . . . This route of presiding occasions probably wanders from part to part of the brain, dissociated from the physical material atoms. (PR 108f/166f; cf. also on this point AI 266f; MT 218-27)

The fact that the constituent occasions of the living person or personally ordered subsociety do not have to be spatially contiguous with one another in some localized part of the brain is implicit indication that in Whitehead’s view the structured society or field of activity as a whole is the collective agent here. The presiding occasion, to be sure, adds its unique individual agency to the "common element of form" or specialized pattern of behavior for the field at any given moment. But it is the field with its "causal laws" which survives to provide the necessary environment for the emergence of the next generation of actual occasions, including the next presiding occasion. Equivalently, then, that successor presiding occasion prehends the mentality of its predecessor(s) in the dominant subsociety, not directly through spatial contiguity, but through the patterns of activity already present both in the brain as its immediate environment and in the entire organism as its overall field of activity.

Otherwise stated, the organism as a unified field of activity exercises collective agency in faithfully transmitting to new generations of actual occasions the physical feelings and, above all, the structural patterns necessary both for ongoing self-identity and for creative adaptation to the external environment. All this is done, of course, through the interrelated agencies of its constituent occasions (including the presiding occasion). But it is the organism itself as a unified field of activity which thereby continues to exist and undergo various changes.

Given this interpretation of Whitehead’s doctrine of societies in Process and Reality, I will now turn to a re-evaluation of articles written by Whiteheadians over the years on the mind-body relationship. My principal focus will be on George Wolf’s article entitled "Psychological Physiology from the Standpoint of a Physiological Psychologist" (PS 11: 274-91), but I will make limited reference to others which preceded it.

In 1969 Donald Sherburne wrote an article for the Southern Journal of Philosophy setting forth Whitehead’s doctrine of nonsocial nexus of living actual occasions. Much in line with my own explanation earlier in this article, Sherburne made clear how these nexus of living occasions provide the necessary infrastructure for the personally ordered society of regnant occasions which constitutes the soul in humans and other higher-order animals. As the diagrams in the article reveal, however, he did not conceive Whiteheadian societies and nexus in terms of layered fields of activity but, in more traditional fashion, as composing a comprehensive mosaic of mini-entities tightly fitted together (SJP 7: 404f). Accordingly, the occasions constituting the regnant society or soul were diagrammed as contiguous with one another even though, as noted above, Whitehead himself seems to have allowed for them to be noncontiguous. Sherburne, accordingly, was more cautious than necessary in making his case about the dependence of the soul on the supporting nonsocial nexus of living occasions and the animal body because of his failure to see how societies as structured fields of activity eliminate the need for spatial contiguity between successive presiding occasions.

Likewise, John Cobb could have profited from the notion of societies as structured fields of activity for their constituent occasions in an article written some years ago on the topic of regional inclusion. Therein he proposed that the dominant occasion constituting the soul at any given moment must prehend and coordinate within its own concrescence the data available to all the members of its supporting nonsocial nexus. Its "region" or scope of operation, in other words, must include the regions of these other occasions (PS 3: 2Sf). But, if the brain is a comprehensive field of activity with many interrelated subflelds (corresponding to societies of inanimate occasions supporting various nexus of living occasions), then the region proper to the presiding occasion must include all the subfields as well as its own field, i.e., the field proper to the brain as a whole. As Whitehead comments in Process and Reality, "the presiding occasion, if there be one, is the final node, or intersection, of a complex structure of many enduring objects" (PR 109/166f). These "enduring objects," as I see it, are subfields of activity within the brain corresponding, as noted above, to societies of inanimate occasions organized and interconnected in terms of nexus of living occasions.

Thus, as William Gallagher made clear in still another article on this topic, the presiding occasion can take advantage of the organizational activity of nondominant living occasions (PS 4: 263-65). Gallagher, to be sure, thinks of these other living occasions as "subordinate nonconscious ‘living persons,"’ (PS 4: 264), i.e., as strands of living occasions with a modest degree of social order below the level of consciousness. Given the field-oriented approach to Whiteheadian societies advocated in this article, however, it is not necessary thus to temper with Whitehead’s distinction between nonsocial nexus and societies. For, the fields set up by the various societies of inanimate occasions within the brain are given further unity and coherence by the presence within them of living occasions which from moment to moment form tightly knit but nevertheless nonsocial nexus. Only the series of dominant occasions known as the soul is a separate society, i.e., a set of personally ordered occasions which provide continuity in time for the patterns already generated in large part by nexus of living occasions within the field of activity proper to the brain. Likewise, the dominant society provides for the transmission of these same patterns to the even broader field of activity constitutive of the organism as a whole.

Just how the dominant society can function as the principal unifying factor within both the brain and the overall physical organism should become more evident as we analyze an article by George Wolf. He begins by noting that Whitehead in his discussion of societies in Process and Reality tacitly abandons the so-called mosaic model for a new image, that of "nested hierarchies":

The theory of societies, like modern general systems theory, pictures a world made up of societies within societies (systems within systems) That is, societies do not just line up side by side like mosaics -- they form "nested hierarchies" that go from subatomic particles through cells to animal bodies, or through stars to galaxies. (PS 11:276)

Yet, given this new understanding of Whiteheadian societies, Wolf has trouble imagining presiding occasions within structured societies if they simply occupy one small space within the society just like all the subordinate occasions. Rather, these presiding occasions should "fill the whole interstitial space of the society over which they preside." Likewise, presiding occasions of subordinate societies should be "nested within presiding occasions of superordinate societies" (PS 11: 276). Accordingly, he offers a new model for a structured society with a presiding occasion:

Picture a jar full of marbles (the marbles representing the body cells). Imagine pouring a liquid into the jar to fill the interstitial space between the marbles. Imagine further that the liquid solidifies, so that the containing jar itself can be removed, and we are left with a kind of sponge structure packed with marbles. Note that the sponge -- the interstitial stuff -- does not completely surround any marble because each marble touches several adjacent ones. Note also that there are no overlapping regions and no empty spaces. (PS 11:277)

Finally, be suggests that each of the marbles (body cells) is, on closer inspection, a sponge filled with still smaller marbles (e.g., molecules), and that these in turn are sponges filled with even smaller marbles (e.g., atoms). He then concludes: "Thus, it seems possible to transform the mosaic model to one in which presiding occasions permeate the society over which they preside by occupying its interstitial space" (PS 11: 277).

In terms of my own field-oriented understanding of the nature and function of Whiteheadian societies, Wolf’s model is ingenious but still flawed. For Wolf identifies the interstitial space between the marbles with the presiding occasion. In making this connection, he is implicitly following Hartshorne and others in thinking that the unity of a structured society is the unity provided by its dominant occasion. I, on the other hand, would propose that the interstitial space is the society itself as the field or structured environment for the activity of its constituent occasions. Hence, while the presiding occasion contributes more to the unity of the society than any of the subordinate occasions, the objective unity of the society is still provided by all of the occasions acting in concert, not by the dominant occasion alone. Furthermore, given this "field" understanding of Whiteheadian societies, the dominant occasion can be seen as localized in one small place in the field even though its influence on the other occasions is all-pervasive in virtue of its impact on the underlying structure of the field.

Still another problem which Wolf seeks to resolve with the aid of his "hierarchical" model of structured societies is the issue of the duration or length of time required for the concrescence of an actual occasion. Some occasions would seem to require more time for their concrescence than others; how is one to understand the prehensive relations of the more slowly developing occasions to the faster developing and vice-versa? Wolf’s answer is to appeal once again to the notion of the presiding occasion as an ambient environment for subordinate occasions:

There are many different types of changes in an ambient environment -- some very fast like electromagnetic waves, some very slow like the accumulation of pollutants in the air, and some with rapid onsets and offsets but long durations like rainfall. Let the slow or long-lasting ambient effects represent the acts of presiding occasions. So a presiding occasion is analogous to the context which sets the condition for life within it. The action of a presiding occasion constitutes a change in the context which produces a change in the individuals within it. (PS 11:280)

Once again, from my perspective, Wolf is falsely identifying the dominant occasion with the society as a whole. It is the society as such which provides the context for the concrescence of its constituent occasions. Some of these occasions may well take place faster than others. But, since all of them impact in the first place, not on other occasions, but on the field in terms of its underlying structure, the difference in duration does not affect the prehensive relations of slower vs. faster concrescing occasions.

Each occasion, in other words, prehends the structure of the entire field from its own regional standpoint, but each likewise positively prehends only what is necessary for its own self-constitution. Hence, a neuronal occasion in the human brain prehends the very minute disturbances of the electromagnetic field occasioned by other neuronal occasions in its immediate past, since these "minor" disturbances are absolutely essential for its own reaction (self-constitution). Other slower-acting occasions such as those constituting human temporal consciousness will attend only to the larger movements taking place in the electromagnetic field because only these larger movements are truly important for their self-constitution. In both cases, however, the field acts as a medium between earlier and later occasions, as it subtly registers the impact of every occasion, however short in duration, and transmits it instantaneously to all other concrescing occasions.5

My disagreement with Wolf, then, is not with the use of field-imagery as such to describe a structured society, but rather with the identification of the field with the dominant occasion. Here Wolf is simply following the lead of those Whiteheadians who, consciously or unconsciously, ascribe the unity of a structured society to the dominant occasion within the society. The dominant occasion contributes mightily to the structure of the field from moment to moment since it is one of the slower acting occasions which attend to the larger, more significant movements within the field. But it is still only one of the constituents of the field, not the field itself which is the society as an objective, albeit strictly nonentitative. reality. Paradoxically, this last point seems to be implicitly made by Wolf himself In the second part of his article where he applies his generalized theory of dominant occasions or "conscious superjects" to neurophysiology, specifically, to the interplay between the brain and consciousness.

He begins by noting that groups of neurons firing simultaneously produce complex interrelated patterns of brain waves within the electromagnetic field which is the brain itself. He then adds:

The present theory of conscious superjects proposes that there is another independent variable that determines the pattern of brain waves. This variable is the self-creative action of conscious occasions. The superject of this self-creative action is a particular configuration of brain waves superimposed on the waves produced by neural activity. (PS 11:283)

Here Wolf tacitly admits that the presiding occasion is not synonymous with the field as a whole but is only a constituent within the field, albeit the most important constituent since it superimposes its pattern on the patterns already generated by the more rapidly concrescing neuronal occasions. Thus the net effect of the presiding occasion within the brain is significantly to alter the structure of an already existing electromagnetic field.

Wolf likewise notes that the electromagnetic field which is the brain seems to be part of a still greater field of activity which is the total physical organism:

[o]ther body organs such as the heart also generate elecflical potentials that spread through the body and summate with the potentials from the brain. Therefore, we should think of brain waves as making up just one component of a complex field of electrical activity -- presumably contributing certain characteristic frequencies to the field. (PS 11:284)

Here, too, Wolf has tacitly abandoned the notion that the presiding occasion provides the "field" or "interstitial space" for subordinate occasions. Instead, he finds himself thinking of fields within fields, each with its characteristic patterns (sometimes controlled by nexus of living occasions, sometimes not), but all of them contributing to the overall field of activity which is the human organism as a whole. This is his own model of societies as a "nested hierarchy," but without the further qualification that the dominant occasion somehow acts as the field or interstitial space for the subordinate occasions.

To sum up, then, Wolf’s article is important because it represents a "halfway house" between the traditional conception of a society as an aggregate of actual occasions with the dominant occasion providing the unity for the group and my own contention that every society, whether it contains a presiding occasion or not, possesses an objective unity in virtue of the dynamic interrelatedness of its constituent occasions from moment to moment. Wolf clearly liked the image of a society as an environment or field of activity. But he apparently felt constrained to identify the field with the dominant occasion so as to remain in line with the presupposition that the dominant occasion is the principle of unity for the structured society. Only in the second part of the article dedicated to his own special interests, does he implicitly abandon that same presupposition and begin to think exclusively in terms of fields and patterns created by the various energy-events taking place within those same fields. Only here, therefore, does he win full release from the quasi-entitative model of societies espoused by Whiteheadians generally, even those who like Sherburne and Gallagher want to give greater attention to the role of the nonsocial nexus of entirely living occasions as the necessary infrastructure for the soul or society of presiding occasions.

One further remark should be made before concluding. In the eyes of some, this rethinking of Whiteheadian societies in terms of fields and the energy-events taking place within them may seem depressingly impersonal and materialistic. This, however, is to forget that, while actual occasions are indeed energy-events, they are self-constituting energy-events or momentary subjects of experience. Put another way, they are psychic energy-events with varying degrees of comprehension of the field(s) in which they are located and of power to affect the structure of the field(s) in question. Similarly, the fields are not simply physical energy-fields but fields of psychic activity, characterized by relations of intersubjectivity among their constituents.

Elsewhere, I have indicated how this field-approach to Whiteheadian societies allows for a trinitarian understanding of God in which the three divine persons of traditional Christian doctrine by their dynamic interrelatedness from moment to moment constitute a structured field of activity for the whole of creation.6 Here I would only emphasize that thinking of Whiteheadian societies as aggregates of mini-entities with one entity providing the necessary unity for the entire group is reductively much more impersonal and materialistic than the approach sketched in these pages. Fields and the events taking place within them, after all, are far less constrained by the limiting conditions of "matter" in the classical sense. In virtue of this new approach, one is finally free to think of subjectivity and, above all, intersubjectivity, in properly spiritual terms.

 

References

EA -- John B. Cobb, Jr. "Overcoming Reductionism." Existence and Actuality. Conversations with Charles Hartshorne. Ed. John Cobb and Franklin Gamwell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

NPE -- Ivor Leclerc. The Nature of Physical Existence. New York: Humanities Press, 1972.

PEW -- Charles Hartshorne. "The Compound Individual." Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead. Ed. F. S. C. Northrop. New York: Russell & Russell, 1936.

PN -- Ivor Leclerc. The Philosophy of Nature. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986.

PS 3 -- John B. Cobb, Jr. and Donald W. Sherburne. "Regional Inclusion and Psychological Physiology," Process Studies 3 (1973): 27-40.

PS 4 -- William Gallagher. "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology: A Third View." Process Studies 4 (1974): 263-74.

PS 11 -- George Wolf. "Psychological Physiology from the Standpoint of a Physiological Psychologist" Process Studies 11(1981): 274-91.

SJP 7 -- Donald W. Sherburne. "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology." Southern Journal of Philosophy 7 (1969-70): 401-07.

 

Notes

1Cf. also David Ray Griffin, "Charles Hartshorne’s Postmodern, Philosophy," Hartshorne. Process Philosophy and Theology, ed. Robert Kane & Stephen Phillips (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, Forthcoming), 16: "Leibniz’s most important but largely ignored contribution, Hartshorne says, was his distinction between two types of things that can be formed when multitudes of low-grade individua1s are joined together: compound individuals and mere aggregates. In a compound individual, such as an animal, there is a level [of] experience -- a mind or soul (called by Leibniz a ‘dominant monad’) -- which turns the multiplicity into a true individual by giving it a unity of feeling and purpose, so that it can respond as a unified whole to its environment. In mere aggregates, such as a rock, by contrast, no such dominating experience exists. The highest centers of feeling and self-determination are the molecules comprising the rock. Without a dominating center, the various movements cancel out each other, so that the rock as a whole stays put unless pushed or pulled from without. The passivity of the rock is hence a statistical effect."

One should realize, of course, that Leibniz’s monads are "simple substances or enduing things; they are not momentary energy-events like Whitehead’s actual occasions. Hence, if one draws a close parallel between the interplay of Leibnizian monads and the interrelatedness of Whiteheadian actual occasions, as does Griffin (and by implication Hartshorne) in the article just cited, then it is not surprising that one thinks of Whiteheadian societies as aggregates of mini-things rather than as fields for successive generations of occasions.

2Cf. here Jorge Luis Nobo, Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986), 256. The ultimate ground of the organic universe "has no name of its own, other than the names used to designate its two indissoluble aspects. Accordingly, insofar as this ground is the whereby of all becoming, it is termed ‘creativity’; and insofar as it is the wherein of all interconnected actual existence, it is termed ‘extension."’ Nobo, to be sure, distinguishes the extensive continuum which in itself is eternal and unchanging, from the spatio-temporal continuum which is the extensive continuum as progressively modified by actual occasions occurring in our cosmic epoch (52f). I myself would further argue that the spatio-temporal continuum is itself divided into a myriad number of regions or subflelds of activity, each of which is governed by laws characteristic of the interrelated activity of its constituent occasions from moment to moment. In any event, the notion of a field as the place wherein actual occasions first arise and then assume their proper "place" is not foreign to Whitehead’s thought.

3Pethaps some further explanation is needed of the manner in which a society as a unified field of activity serves as the medium for the transmission of physical feelings and conceptual patterns from one generation of occasions to another. First of all, upon completion of its process of concrescence, an occasion becomes a superject; that is, it objectifies itself so that it can be prehended by later occasions (PR 219f/335f). How does it objectify itself, if not by imposing its own "satisfaction" in terms of a unified set of feelings upon the regional standpoint which it occupies within the spatio-temporal continuum and therewith upon all the subfields to which it belongs? It releases, in other words, back into the field the feelings which it originally drew from the field of past actual occasions in the early stages of its concrescence, but now newly configured in terms of its own immanent "decision." How, then, do subsequent occasions prehend this objectification of their predecessor, if not likewise through the field or, more specifically, through that minute portion of the field which constitutes their own regional standpoint (PR 80/123f)? In both cases, therefore, the field acts as the medium for the transmission of physical feelings and conceptual patterns from one set of actual occasions to another.

Jorge Nobo seems to be making much the same point in the following passage from Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extention and Solidarity: "the state of the universe from which C [a given actual occasion] springs -- i.e., the state of the universe which gives birth to C -- is both outside and inside C. The occasion originates from an external totality and also embodies it (PR 22). For the attained actualities of the external world are objectified within C [the regional standpoint of C], and these ‘objectifications express the causality by which the external world fashions the actual occasion in question’ (PR 489)" (327). Nobo, to be sure, does not emphasize the role of the spatio-temporal continuum as a medium for the transmission of physical feelings and conceptual patterns in the same way that I do. But his insistence that "[t]he envisaging creativity, the continuum of extension, B’s anticipatory feeling of C, the disjunctive plurality of attained actualities, the multiplicity of eternal objects, and the primordial nature of God are all alike involved in the creation of C’s dative [i.e., purely receptive] phase" (326) would lead one to believe that some sort of objective medium must he present to facilitate the transmission to the new occasion of so many non-objective factors in its self-constitution (e g creativity, the anticipatory feelings of B and other past occasions, the multiplicity of eternal objects, the divine primordial nature, etc.).

4Cf. here an extended review of Leclerc’s book, The Nature of Physical Existence, by Lewis S. Ford in Process, Studies 3 (1973), 104-18. Whereas Leclerc argued that the ultimate constituents of material reality are mini-substances which act on each other reciprocally and by their interaction co-constitute the new reality of a compound substance (NPE, 309-10), Ford argues that such natural compounds are instead to be understood as "single strands of personally ordered actual occasions, potentially divisible into structured societies but not actually so divided" (109). That is, the components of the compound are not mini-substances, as Leclerc claims, but "suboccasions," each "with its own special sub-region and exemplifying its own persistent properties" (109). These suboccasions are then prehended by the larger occasion in terms of its own concrescence. Only if the society of larger occasions is discontinued, do the suboccasions become autonomous members of separate personally ordered societies of occasions.

In effect, then, the unity of the natural compound is the subjective unity of a more complex actual occasion rather than the objective unity created by the mutual interaction of mini-substances. While admiring the ingenuity of Ford’s response to Leclerc, I still find it objectionable on at least two grounds. First of, it further radicalizes the position taken by Hartshorne in "‘The Compound Individual." For, while Hartshorne allowed for the reality of structured societies and only specified that their unity as compound individuals was effected through the presence and activity of a dominant personally ordered subsociety, Ford equivalently wants to eliminate the reality of structured societies altogether, at least insofar as they function as compound individuals rather than as simple aggregates of occasions. To my mind, this is an interpretation of Whitehead which destroys more than it preserves of the latter’s original thinking.

Secondly, however, and more importantly for the purposes of this article, Ford’s stipulation that natural compounds are larger or more complex actual entities rather than structured societies implicitly confirms the entitative or substantialist understanding of actual occasions criticized in the opening paragraphs of this article. For, as Leclerc maintains, a natural compound is a substance because its parts or members are subsumed into a higher ontological unity; only if this higher unity of the compound is dissolved do the parts regain their reality as mini-substances. Ford is basically using the same paradigm for his analysis of the relationship between suboccasions and higher-level occasions. Hence, he seems implicitly to he treating occasions as substances or "things" rather than as mini-events taking place either simultaneously or successively within a pregiven field of activity (as in my theory).

5In his well-received book, The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, 1925-1929 "Albany: SUNY Press, 1984), Lewis S. Ford proposes that in preparing the Gifford Lectures in the summer of 1927 Whitehead presumed that the concrescence of an actual occasion "starts from a unified datum, not from a multiplicity of initial data" (190), whereas in his final revisions of the lectures before publication he modified that theory to the effect that concrescence starts from initial data, i.e., the prehension of past occasions in terms of simple physical feelings which are then unified into an "objective datum" by the concrescing occasion itself with the help of negative prehensions (213-17). While not contesting the likelihood of this theory for the genesis of Whitehead’s metaphysics, I would nevertheless propose that the notion of a society as a unified field of activity for the transmission of physical feelings and conceptual patterns from one set of occasions to another might well explain how Whitehead could make such an apparently significant shift in his theory and yet leave unchanged much of the material from the original draft of the Gifford Lectures.

For, a field is, after all, an ordered multiplicity of past occasions. If one focuses on the ordered character of that multiplicity, as Whitehead might have done in the original draft of the Gifford Lectures, then one would think of the concrescing occasion as arising out of an initial datum constituted by "a community of entities which are settled, actual and already become" (PR 65/101), or, as I would word it, by an organized field of past occasions. On the other hand, if one focuses instead on the multiplicity of occasions thus represented in the field, as Whitehead presumably did in the final revisions, then one has to come up with a theory of negative prehensions and the notion of subjective aim to account for the further simplification of the data in the field so that the concrescing occasion can achieve satisfaction. The field, in other words, offers to the concrescing occasion a measure of order needed for continuity with the previous set of occasions, but the occasion itself still has to sort out what is relevant for its own self-constitution from the mass of data contained in the field. Thus, only if one thinks of the "initial data" of the final revisions as a sheer multiplicity of past occasions with virtually no pattern of order between them, does the contrast between the "unified datum" of the first draft of the Gifford lectures and the "initial data" of the final revisions become really dramatic and, to that extent, hard to explain. May one presume, then, that Whitehead was implicitly working with a "field" understanding of societies both in composing the original draft of the Gifford Lectures and in making the final revisions before publication?

6Cf. "The World: Body of God or Field of Cosmic Activity?," in Charles Hartshorne’s Concept of God: Critical Appraisals, ed. Santiago Sia (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publ., 1990) 89-102.


Viewed 6692 times.