A Christian Natural Theology Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com.. Published by Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. Used by permission. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 1: An Introduction to Whitehead’s Philosophy
1. Whitehead’s Philosophy and the Problem of Dualism
The central question for traditional philosophy is to determine the kinds of things that are and how they are related to each other. In answering this question, we have two main types of clues. We may look at the world of sticks and stones, mountains and trees, animals and human bodies, and we may intuit some notion of matter or substance. On the other hand, we may reflect on the nature of our own conscious experience and intuit some notion of mentality. Of course, nations of matter and mind vary widely, and there are other possibilities as well, but much philosophy can be illumined by this simple duality.
Given this duality, one confronts the question of the relationship of material things and mental things. Are they fundamentally different from each other, such that there is no more-inclusive understanding of what the reality is that serves to explain both? This seems reasonable, but it leads to acute philosophic problems. Our mental experience seems to be highly correlated with the movements of material things both within our own bodies and beyond. How can this be? Can minds influence material bodies if they are completely different from matter? This would mean that the cause of the motion of matter could be something of a wholly different order from matter, and that seems inherently strange and unrelated to what the physical scientist discovers. Or conversely, it would mean that minds are determined in their behavior by causes of an entirely nonmental sort.
This dualism has played a large role in common sense, but most philosophers have tried to overcome it. This can be done in one of three main types of ways. First, one can understand matter as an appearance to mind. The justification for this view is that when we consider carefully the basis of our notion of matter it turns out to be entirely a function of sense experience. But we know that sense experience is fundamentally mental, that is, it belongs to mentality to have conscious experiences. Hence, the notion of matter should be reduced to the notion of a togetherness of sensuous qualities.
Despite its philosophic plausibility, common sense and the science of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries largely ignored this proposal. People were quite sure they had to do with something other than their own experience, and this something other seemed to be material. The second solution to the problem posed by dualism took this materiality as its clue and held that minds are functions of matter. Minds may be held to be epiphenomenal. The real causes of all things are seen in the behavior of matter, and subjective experience is regarded as a product of material forces with no independent influence upon them.
But total materialism is as difficult to accept as total mentalism. Even if mental experience is epiphenomenal, it still seems to be, and to us humans it seems to be quite important. It seems to be our minds, for example, that are inquiring about their relations to matter. Even if it should prove that all our mental states are caused by material states, this still does not tell us what mind is or how this cause operates. Hence, a third alternative commends itself; namely, to subsume the duality under some more-comprehensive unity. This might mean that some kind of reality underlies our subjective mental states as well as that which seems objective to them; it might mean that all reality participates in both mentality and materiality without in fact being either. This attempt to find a single type of reality explanatory of both what we call mind and what we call matter has taken many forms. Whitehead’s philosophy is one of them.(AI 245; MT 205.)
In the twentieth century the physical sciences have become open to the idea that the notion of matter is, after all, not illuminative of that which they investigate. This has happened in several ways, but it will be sufficient to note one of these by way of illustration. As long as what we call atoms were regarded as the ultimate stuff of the universe, the notion of matter seemed appropriate. Atoms seemed to function as little lumps of impenetrable stuff. They could be viewed as having definite location and as moving continuously through space. On the whole, mechanical models could be employed to understand them. Other phenomena that could not be understood in this way could be imaged as being like the waves on the ocean. Some medium such as air was compressed and extended or undulated. An appropriate medium for the transmission of light, for example, was posited as extending through all space and was called ether.
However, when the atom was discovered to be not ultimate but, rather, composed of electrons, protons, and "empty space," problems arose. At first one tried to understand these new entities as particles of matter, and for some purposes this imagery worked well. However, in other respects they turned out to function not as particles but more like waves. Evidence for a similar duality in the functioning of light that had long puzzled investigators also became more insistent. It seemed that the ultimate entities of which the world is composed are able sometimes to function as particles and sometimes as waves. To this disturbing fact was added the fact that they seemed also to be able to move from one place to another without passing through the intervening space. Further, it became clear that electrons and protons are not things that carry electric charges, as a material model would require, but rather they themselves are electric charges. It seemed that something happens, now here, then there, with definite connection between one event and the next, but without continuous movement between them. Things happen in bursts or jerks rather than in an even flow. One might think of the motion picture, which in fact is only a succession of discontinuous pictures.
Due to these and other even more perplexing mysteries, many scientists gave up the idea that the human mind can frame any notion as to the nature of things. The effort to picture reality was widely abandoned. New theories were advanced which are completely baffling to our intuition but nevertheless are successful in explaining or predicting the results of experiments. On the whole, philosophers gave up the attempt to answer the questions of traditional philosophy and devoted themselves to the study of language. But some refused to acknowledge the ultimate unintelligibility of the universe and continued to seek models in terms of which to understand its strange functioning. One of these philosophers was Whitehead.(Cf. MT 185-186.)
Neither the usual notion of matter nor the usual notion of mind helped in understanding these discontinuous events that seem to be the ultimate entities of the natural world. But there were other ideas of mind, or rather of human experience, that were more suggestive. William James, for example, had argued that human experience grows by buds or drops rather than developing as a smooth, undivided process. (Whitehead acknowledges the influence of James at this point. [PR 105-106.]) In a single second there are a series of such occasions of experience.( Whitehead suggests that there may be from four to ten such occasions of human experience in a second. [AI 149, 233; MT 220.])
This can suggest that there may, after all, be something common to the human mind and the entities found in nature by physical science.
In one way or another any model by which we attempt to understand reality or any part of it must arise from human experience. There is simply nowhere else to turn. But the things given in the flow of sense experience suggest no other models than those of particles and waves already found inadequate by science. The only hopeful model, then, is the human experience as such. Furthermore, philosophical problems that are insoluble if we insist that human experience and physical nature are of radically different character are far more manageable if we can find some common genus to which both belong. Our modern conviction that human beings and their mentality have evolved through long ages from simpler and still simpler natural forms also suggests that there is some family connection between human experience and the entities of the natural world.(FR 11; AI 237.) At any rate, Whitehead launched boldly forth on the speculative possibility that human experience as such is a clue to the ultimate nature of things. Electronic events are to be thought of as occasions of electronic experience. Their disconnectedness can be conceived as being like the disconnectedness of successive human experiences.
Whitehead never suggested that electronic experiences are like human ones in any inclusive way. They have no sense experience, no consciousness, no imagination. If "experience" necessarily implies all those things, then surely a more general term would have to be found; but Whitehead thought the notion of experience could itself be made to serve. After all, men speak of their unconscious experience.
The suggestion that the entities in nature are to be thought of as belonging to the same category of existence as human experience would have little value if it did not lead to further explanation. If the first speculative conjecture has merit, then the philosopher must proceed to the exhaustive analysis of how human experience occurs. He may be able to find at its most primitive level factors that can be generalized so as to be illuminative also of the ultimate entities in the physical world.(PR 29, 172; AI 239,284; MT 231-232.) This process of analysis is worked out by Whitehead in amazing detail and is productive of numerous suggestions as to how specific physical phenomena are to be understood. It also provides a basis for understanding space and time and the many geometries with which the modern scientist approaches his world. It is, further, rich in its suggestiveness for aesthetics, ethics, and religion. Indeed, there are few areas of human interest on which Whitehead’s analysis fails to shed some light.
2. The Analysis of an Actual Occasion
Whitehead brought to his task great distinction as a mathematician and logician, but his procedure was not what we might expect on the basis of a usual understanding of these disciplines. We might call his procedure phenomenological except that at no time did Whitehead dismiss from his thought the relevant knowledge about physics, physiology, and psychology. It would be best to say that he began with human experience as we all know it, and as we further understand it in the light of science, and then presented the question as to what must be the case in order that this experience can occur.
We have noted that what must be assumed, in order that human experience (and the ultimate particles of nature) can be understood, are successive "actual occasions of experience." (PR 33, 113. The complete phrase, "actual occasion of experience," is not characteristic of Whitehead. In PR he usually speaks of actual occasion" and in AI he writes of "occasion of experience." The referent is the same.) Rather than being a continuous flow, experience comes to be in discrete and indivisible units. These momentary occasions succeed each other with a rapidity beyond any clear grasp of conscious attention. The direct analysis of a single occasion of experience is impossible.(Whitehead shows that no occasion can be conscious of its own satisfaction.[PR 130. See also PR 387])
The difficulty or impossibility of focusing attention upon an individual occasion does not prevent us from carrying out an analysis of what these occasions contain, for we may assume that whatever qualities we are aware of experience as having at all obtain also in individual occasions. The only exception is change, since this is the difference between successive momentary experiences each of which in its own being must be changeless.(PR 52, 92.) We can take a simple experience of a second or so; we can analyze what it contains other than what depends on temporal successiveness; and we can assume that one or another of the occasions within that second -- and perhaps all -- had those qualities or characteristics. Let us take an example.
Suppose I am looking at a green tie and wishing it were brown. (For readers interested in a more technical discussion, it may be noted that this involves the contrast of a conscious perception and an imaginative feeling. Sherburne’s account of these higher phases of experience is excellent. See A Whiteheadian Aesthetic, pp. 55-69.) Let us analyze the ingredients in this experience. Sense experience plays a considerable role, but at the outset we must be clear that for Whitehead it does not play the foundational role.(The comparative superficiality of sense experience is a main theme of MT. See, e.g., pp. 41, 152, and 181.) He shows that the assumption that sense data alone are given in experience is disastrous for philosophy. Certainly it would put an end to any possibility of finding aspects of human experience attributable also to electrons, for it would be absurd to suppose that subatomic particles enjoyed vision or touch. There is, of course, the experience of the patch of green. But there is also the experience of some thing that is green and that occupies a region of space in a particular geometric relation to my body. This experience of thingness, Whitehead insists, is not dependent on a process of learning. We do not first experience only sense data and then later learn by experience that these represent entities. The simplest animal acts as if it were aware of being among things and not simply sensa. (MT 154.) The sense of there being a reality other than our experience given to us in the experience is absolutely primitive. Indeed, our knowledge of physiology shows us, if immediate introspection does not, that sense experience is the secondary and not the primary factor in experience.
According to physics and physiology, we know that a train of light coming from the molecules in the tie strikes our eye and activates certain cells there which in turn relay this impact to the occipital lobe. It is only after all this has occurred that we experience the green patch somehow projected back onto roughly the region of space where those molecules are located. Whitehead insists that we must take this knowledge seriously and employ it in the understanding of what is occurring in any occasion of experience.(MT 166.) In this way the seeing of the green tie is revealed to be a matter of considerable complexity. It originates in a complex and indirect process in which the molecules in the tie make an impression on the experiencing subject. The experiencing subject most immediately experiences the events in his brain, but these relay to him the events in the eye which in turn point beyond themselves to their cause. Thousands of events have occurred, each having causal efficacy for its successor. All this represents the physical impact of the world upon the occasion of experience. Whitehead calls it the "physical pole"(PR 49.) of experience, that by which we experience ourselves as related to, and our experience as derivative from, events in our recent past.
The physical pole of our experience can be analyzed into "physical prehensions" or "physical feelings."( The only difference between "feeling" and "prehension" in Whitehead’s technical vocabulary is that only positive prehensions are called feelings. Since the idea of negative prehensions can be omitted from this discussion, the two terms are treated as equivalent. See PR 35, 66.) Each physical prehension is the feeling by one momentary occasion of another momentary occasion. It is of utmost importance for the understanding of Whitehead’s philosophy to note that the occasion that is felt is always in the past of the occasion that feels it. Cause always precedes effect. The relation of prehension is always asymmetrical. The earlier occasion has "causal efficacy" (PR 125) for the later. The later occasion "prehends" (PR 28-29.) the earlier. These terms cannot be reversed. In other words, there is no causal relation between contemporary occasions.(PR 95, 188, 192.) The deeply ingrained commonsense view that cause and effect are often, if not always, simultaneous is derived from experiences at the macrocosmic level and does not apply to the world of microcosmic entities. At the macrocosmic level it seems that the pressure I exert on the pen causes movement of the pen simultaneous with the exertion of pressure rather than subsequent to it. At this level Newtonian mechanics seems quite adequate. But the inability of models derived from our experience of objects like pens to deal with the microcosmic world is precisely the cause of the collapse of the old world views. Further, at least in retrospect, we can see that acute philosophical problems were always entailed by the concept that cause and effect are simultaneous, for in that case our whole sense of the influence of the past upon the present is rendered unintelligible. Yet without memory of the past, which is surely an important influence of the past upon the present, no knowledge whatsoever would be possible. In any case, in studying Whitehead, we must always remember that physical prehensions are only and always prehensions of the past, chiefly of the immediate past. The events in the eye succeeded the events in the space between the tie and the eye, and these in turn succeeded the molecular events in the tie. The events in the nerves leading to the brain succeeded the events in the eye and were in turn followed by the events in the brain and finally by the impact upon the conscious human occasion of experience. Thousands of successive physical prehensions were required for the molecular events in the tie to have their efficacy mediated to the human experient.
What ordinarily deceives us is that in conscious experience the green patch is presented to us as though it were simultaneous with the experience that sees it. Whitehead calls this dimension of our total experience "presentational immediacy." (PR 189 ff.) Whenever we try to focus our attention clearly and distinctly, our physical feeling of the past (experience in the mode of causal efficacy) fades into the background, and elements of our experience in the mode of presentational immediacy predominate. The most prominent aspects of experience in this mode are sense data. This has led philosophers concerned for clear and distinct ideas to treat these sense data as primary. But when we reflect more profoundly on experience, we realize that we constantly assume that real things and not sense data constitute our environment and are causally effective for experience. We must take seriously the scientific account of how this causal efficacy operates. When we do so, the problem is to understand, in our example, how the patch of green comes to dominance in presentational immediacy -- that patch so different from the myriad of molecules that bounced the light off in the direction of our eyes.
The only immediate source for that patch of green must be the events that took place in the eye and in the brain. These contributed their multiplicity of data to the human experience. Some quality present in those data must be abstracted from them and transformed (Whitehead says "transmuted" [PR 40.]) into what we call greenness. It is then projected back onto a contemporary region of space outside the body, roughly that region in which the molecules reflected light to the eye. This is an immensely complex process, but we will omit here most of the details. The main point is that this process of transforming the many received data into one patch of green is a mental operation. It involves the introduction of some quality not present in the data. That is, the consciously experienced visual quality of green can hardly be supposed to be enjoyed by the brain cells in just that way. There must be some quality, somehow analogous to greenness, that they do possess and contribute to the experience, but the human occasion is here introducing an element of novelty. This originality of the occasion of experience which is not derivative from the thing experienced but is contributed by the experient, Whitehead calls the "mental pole"(PR 165.) of the occasion. This originality plays a role in sense experience as here indicated, but it also plays a role in more primitive levels of experience. Its most striking role is in imaginative thought.
In this example I am conceiving the possibility of the tie being brown instead of green. Let us assume that I am not at the moment seeing any brown object. I am remembering some brown object I saw earlier, or rather, I am remembering just its color. This means that some past occasion of my experience is also contributing something to the present experience. Since this past occasion is an entity other than the becoming one, this is another physical feeling by the new occasion. Yet the quality of brownness was part of that earlier occasion’s mental experience. Whitehead calls the physical prehension of what was mental in the prehended occasion a "hybrid prehension." (PR 163.) The prehension of brownness, derived from this hybrid prehension, is now held in contrast with the greenness that is part of this occasion’s mentality. The comparison or contrast of the two colors is another more complex part of the experience, and the idea of the tie as brown, which Whitehead calls a "propositional feeling,"(PR 391 ff.) is still another. All this complexity belongs to the mental pole of the experience.
But there is more to the experience than this. Each aspect of what has been described above is accompanied by an emotional tone. The sheer it-ness (AI 336-338. See also PR 394, 398; AI 327.) of the tie conveys its emotional tone, the patch of green another, the memory of brownness a third, the idea of the tie as green a fourth, the idea of the tie as brown a fifth. All these emotional tones Whitehead calls the "subjective forms" (PR 35, 326, 362, 378, 391, 399.) of the prehensions that are the experiences of the entities in question. Some of the prehensions have as their objects other actual occasions, and these, as we have seen, Whitehead calls physical prehensions. Other prehensions are of forms, relations, or qualities in abstraction from any particular embodiment. Whitehead calls the entities felt in these prehensions "eternal objects." (PR 69-70.) Eternal objects are not actual entities like the occasions of experience. They are pure possibilities for realization in any experience at all, conceived quite apart from any such realization. Every actual occasion is the realization of some limited number of such possibilities. When we entertain such a possibility without reference to where it has been met in embodied form, we have an instance of what Whitehead calls a "conceptual prehension." (PR 35, 49.) A conceptual prehension is a prehension of an eternal object as such. Just as physical prehensions comprise the physical pole of each actual occasion of experience, so conceptual prehensions constitute the mental pole.
We have still far from exhausted the complexity of the occasion of experience. For one thing, the whole experience is governed by some purpose. Probably I would not wish the tie brown unless I had some use in mind. Perhaps I intend to dress for the evening and want to put on a new suit. Some end is in view, and it is partly in the light of that end that the prehensions have the particular force they have and the subjective forms that are associated with them. This purposive element Whitehead affirms as present in every occasion and is what he calls its "subjective aim.’’ (PR 37, 130.)
In addition, we recognize how very much we have abstracted from the concreteness of any experience when we describe it only as wishing that a green tie were brown. I have already suggested that some idea of putting on a suit contrasted with some other possibility of not being able to wear that particular suit, a still dimmer reference perhaps to the plans for the evening which would require enormously complex analysis in terms of the memories that combine to make such expectations possible, numerous other present sensory experiences besides that of the tie, bodily feelings, perhaps of hunger or vague discomfort, and a penumbra of memories from the past -- all these play their roles in each moment of experience. All of them can be analyzed into the data from which they arise, physical and conceptual, and into the complex patterns formed from these data and their subjective forms. Perhaps more important than all of them is the immediate continuity with the preceding moment of experience which is another physical prehension with its subjective form and aim largely repeated in the present. The occasion of experience as a whole is a synthesis of syntheses of syntheses of the simple elements out of which it is composed. This final momentary synthesis Whitehead calls its "satisfaction." (PR 29, 38, 129.) Yet if we ask how long it takes for such an experience to occur, we know that everything I have described may happen in the first moment my eye lights upon the tie. A fraction of a second suffices.
This is an analysis of a rather ordinary human experience. In detail it will differ from every other experience, but in its most general structures, Whitehead suggests, we may have a clue to the nature of experience in general. There is a reception of influence from the past, or what Whitehead calls physical prehension. This involves the causal efficacy of the whole past for the new occasion, largely mediated by the adjacent occasions but finally reflecting the whole course of past events. There is some subjective form of these prehensions which may be little more than a repetition of the way in which the past occasions felt. There is some reenactment of the data received from the past with the possibility of deviation or novelty in the conceptual prehension. And all this is governed by a subjective aim at achieving some satisfaction that will have value for the occasion itself and an appropriate influence on the future. In these most general terms, Whitehead believes, all occasions of experience are alike.
In the description of this simple human experience I have used the relatively neutral term " events" to characterize the other occurrences on which the human occasion of experience depends for most of its content. We have already seen in our earlier discussion of the mind-matter problem that the only clue we have to the notion of microscopic events appears to be human experience as such. We are now ready to consider whether this analysis of a human occasion of experience is in fact capable of illuminating the notion of microscopic events. If so, we must consider the hypothesis that these events in nature are in fact also actual occasions of experience.
Of course, when the description of the general structures of the human occasion of experience is applied to the realm of subatomic entities, all the terms employed must be divested of any suggestion of consciousness. But this is true already in the human occasion. We are not conscious of our prehensions of the events in our brain. We are not conscious of the individual feeling tones that constitute the subjective forms of those prehensions or of the individual elements that go into the composition of our mentality. We are only conscious of the very high-level syntheses of these simple data that are effected in the advanced phases of the becoming of the occasion.(PR 246.)At this point the vast multitude of individual prehensions has been simplified into a comparatively few general contrasts and synthesized into unity. An occasion of experience that never goes beyond the reception of data, their reproduction and their communication to the future, would of course remain totally unconscious.
Whitehead shows that the vector transmission of energy through discrete, successive occurrences can be explained in terms of physical prehensions.(PR 177 ff.)He shows that when we understand entities as actualizations of experience, both their particle-like and wave-like characteristics can be accounted for.(PR 53-54.) He shows how the actual occasions can be seen to be grouped together in societies (See section 3 below for discussion of what Whitehead meant by societies.) of varying degrees of organization and unity and why it is that physical laws have a statistical character as a function of such societies. (PR 305 ff.) But I am not competent to comment further on the detailed applicability of his categories to the interpretation of physical phenomena.(For discussion of the application of Whitehead’s philosophy to physical science, see Robert Palter’s Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science.) This should suffice, nonetheless, to suggest the intimate relationship between our human experiences and microscopic occurrences.
The one concept this analysis is intended to illumine is that of the actual occasion of experience, for this is the key to Whitehead’s cosmological formulation. This concept, referred to indiscriminately as actual occasion or occasion of experience, is equivalent to "actual entity." (PR viii-ix.) The only distinction Whitehead makes between actual occasion and actual entity is that he uses only the term "actual entity" when he refers to God.(PR 135.) Wherever in the book I deviate from Whitehead’s practice in this regard I shall try to make my usage clear. The actual entities are the finally real things, the ultimate individuals. Apart from them there is nothing at all. The whole of the philosophy is an analysis of such entities and their relations with each other.
Each actual occasion comes into being against the background of the whole past of the world. That past is composed of innumerable actual occasions that have had their moment of subjective immediacy (PR 38. For clarification of this term, see below) and have "perished." (PR 126.) As perished, they have not become simply nothing. Rather, they have their own mode of being, which Whitehead calls "objective immortality." (PR 89, 94.) That means that they are effective as objects to be prehended by new occasions. They are the efficient causes explaining why the new occasions embody the characteristics they do in fact have. If, for example, someone wants to explain my experience, he must point to my past experiences and to the immediately past events that have been transpiring in my environment and in my body.
The influence of this past in determining what I become in the present is so vast that many psychologists are inclined to suppose it is complete. Some believe that if they could know every detail of my past experience, the force of the wider past embodied in my heredity, and all the influences now impinging upon me, they could predict exactly what my experience must be. But Whitehead holds against this the universal practical assumption that we are free. We may not be able to focus a particular act of freedom vividly in our consciousness, but that is no different from the situation with respect to physical prehensions. Our vague and persistent experience is that we are both determined by our past and also free. That is, the determination by the past is real but not absolute. What I have been in the past, and what the world as a whole has been, may narrowly limit what I can become in this next moment. But within those limits it is still my decision in that moment as to how I shall react to all these forces impinging upon me. (PR 41-42. See also Ch. III, sec. 1.)
Once again, this freedom is not a matter of consciousness. The freedom or self-determination of the occasion occurs first. In the human occasion there may or may not be some consciousness of it. Clearly-conscious decision would be a very special case of decision generally. Some element of self-determination or decision Whitehead attributes to all occasions whatsoever. In vast numbers of occasions this freedom is used only to reenact the past. But there are signs in modern physics of an ultimate spontaneity at the base of things. Not only is it clear that in principle man can never predict the behavior of individual electrons, it is also clear that the reason for the success of his predictions when he deals with larger entities is that so many of the ultimate actual entities are involved. Where enough individuals are involved, even pure chance or spontaneity on the part of each individual can allow for great precision in predicting the behavior of the group. There is no basis for exact prediction about individuals. For this reason, Whitehead’s assignment of freedom as well as the vast causal influence of the past even to such minute entities as electrons seems to be in accord with the world revealed to us by science.
3. Societies of Actual Occasions
The final indivisible entities of which the world is made up are actual occasions of experience. But these occasions exist only momentarily, enjoying a fleeting moment of subjective immediacy before passing into the past. These individual occasions are only detectable either by intense introspection or by scientific instruments. None of the entities of which we are conscious in common experience are individual occasions (Whitehead writes, "It is only when we are consciously aware of alien mentalities that we ever approximate to the conscious prehension of a single actual entity." [PR 387].) and only rarely do these appear even in the sciences. For the most part, our conscious experience is concerned with entities that are groupings of occasions rather than individual occasions.
Any group of occasions characterized by any real interconnectedness at all is called a "nexus," (AI 258) however loose the connectedness may be. When a nexus is characterized by some common trait exemplified by each of its members in dependence on some of the others, the nexus is called a "society." (Al 261. Our cosmic epoch, Whitehead tells us, is a vast electromagnetic society (PR 147) , and it is the ideal of mathematical physics to systematize into laws the characteristics of this society. But the electromagnetic society as such would provide "no adequate order for the production of individual occasions realizing peculiar ‘intensities’ of experience unless it were pervaded by more special societies" (PR 150). There may be societies of any degree of organization or specificity.
Whitehead does not deduce the existence of more special types of societies from the general idea of occasions and societies. The universe might be composed of a nexus of occasions lacking even in social order, or it might have some tinge of social order and no more. The only reason for affirming that there are more special types of social order is that we do, in fact, encounter entities that have such order.
Consider, for example, a molecule. If there existed only more or less random occasions, we could not speak of a molecule at all, but, in fact, we are able to identify a single molecule through a long period of time as the same molecule. Indeed, we are so impressed by its self-identity through time that it requires considerable scientific and philosophic reflection to persuade us that it is not a blob of changeless matter undergoing changing relations with an external world. Whitehead has taught us that indeed it is nothing more than a succession of molecular happenings or occasions, but he must still account for the fact that there is a special connection between these occasions, such that we may identify a single molecule as an "enduring object." (PR 51-52.)
An enduring object is a society of actual occasions that are temporally contiguous and successive. Whitehead describes such societies as having serial or personal order.(PR 51.) In such a society no two occasions exist at the same time, but at each moment one such occasion occurs, prehending all the preceding occasions in the society, reenacting the defining characteristic of the society, and mediating this pattern to its successors.
The molecule is typical of enduring objects in the extreme similarity of the successive occasions that make it up. Whitehead shows that this is caused by the overwhelming preponderance of the physical pole or physical feelings. Each occasion feels and reenacts the preceding occasion’s feeling and reenactment of its predecessor, and so on indefinitely. The successive occasions are comparatively little affected by other past occasions and the novelty of the new occasion is both trivial in itself and ineffective for the future. Enduring objects provide the things of the world with stability.
We have already noted that in ordinary life we have little to do with individual occasions. Now we must recognize that we do not have much to do with individual enduring objects either. We have to do with tables and stones. These objects, we know, are made up of numerous molecules which in turn are intimately interrelated. Bodies of this sort, analyzable into enduring objects, Whitehead calls "corpuscular societies." (PR 52.)
However, we must be careful not to think of these classifications of societies as in any way rigid. A society may be composed of many actual occasions of which some are and some are not organized into enduring objects. According to the predominance of one or the other type of occasion, the society will be more or less corpuscular. Furthermore, enduring objects vary as to the importance of their defining characteristics and the decisiveness of their inheritance from previous members of the enduring object in question. There is an infinite variety of degrees of order among which the two instances of the enduring object and the corpuscular society stand out with a certain simple clarity.
Perhaps the most important society that does not fit into either of these categories is the living cell. Within the cell there are enduring objects such as molecules. But there is also much space not occupied by enduring objects. This space is often called empty, but in this "empty space occur those occasions which constitute the life of the cell.(PR 161.) At first sight this association of life with "empty space" may seem strange; hence some explanation is in order.
As we have seen, for Whitehead every occasion has both a physical and a mental pole. That means that every occasion prehends both past occasions and eternal objects or possibilities. This prehension of eternal objects introduces the possibility of novelty, that is, the possibility that the becoming occasion will embody some quality not received from its past world. To the degree that this possibility is actualized, the germ of life is present. But in the molecular occasions, as in occasions composing enduring objects generally, novelty is and must be trivial. Repetition is required for endurance. It is these enduring objects and the corpuscular societies composed of them that are subject to investigation through our sense organs and through instruments. Where such societies are not present we can detect nothing. Yet we know that important events transpire in "empty space," so we must reckon with occasions there also.(PR 269.)
Now there is far more life in the cell than in the molecules found within it. Therefore, this life must be found in the space not occupied by these molecules, and specifically in the occasions located there. These occasions must be characterized by much more novelty and much less continuity than the molecular occasions. The cell as a whole, then, combines the stability of the enduring objects and the life of the primarily mental, and therefore not physically detectable, occasions within it.
Cells in their turn are organized into complex societies of cells, such as vegetables and animal bodies. Once again there is no sharp line of division between these great families of living things. Nevertheless, there are important differences between the more fully developed members of each class. Vegetables, Whitehead tells us, are democracies, whereas animals have ruling, or presiding members.(AI 264; MT 38.) In vegetables no single member of the society is essential for the well-being of the society, whereas in animals one such member does exist. This member Whitehead calls the "dominant" occasion.( Whitehead uses a variety of terms to refer to what I am calling the dominant occasion. "Dominant" appears in PR 156, 182; A1 264; "presiding" in PR 167; "final percipient" in PR 516.). The dominant occasion in our own bodies is that which we know most immediately in conscious introspection.(PR 164. See also PR 74; MT 231.) It will be discussed at considerable length in Chapter II.
The distinction between individual actual entities and their groupings into different types of societies prepares us to understand Whitehead’s creative contribution to the question of the subject-object schema, so much criticized in recent philosophy. Whitehead believes that the subject-object schema is fundamental to experience.(AI 225-226.) Every occasion of experience is a subject in relation to other entities that are objective to it.(PR 38, 336 ff.) However, several features of Whitehead’s analysis set it sharply in opposition to traditional interpretations of the subject-object schema.
In the first place, an exhaustive analysis of the actual entities experienced as objects reveals that in their own nature they also are subjects.(PR 89, 443; AI 226-227.) The difference between a subject and an object, as long as we are focusing upon individuals and not societies, is only that the subject is present and the object is past.(AI 229.)The actual occasion of experience now enjoying "subjective immediacy" (PR 38; AI 227.) will cease in a moment to have such subjectivity and will become an object for new occasions of experience. In this moment the objects it is experiencing are themselves nothing but past subjects. If we keep clearly in mind that causal efficacy is always the efficacy of the past, and that as past an occasion is no longer a subject, we can see that causes are always objects for effects that are always subjects. The correctness of the epistemological analysis of experience according to the subject-object schema must not be allowed to lead to an ontological view of objects as different in kind from subjects in any way other than the difference between past and present.
In the second place, Whitehead shows us that the true objects of experience are not the presented sensa or the contemporary entities in the regions on which we project the sensa. Most traditional thinking about objects has made the mistake of thinking of them as contemporary with subjects and as given in sense experience. This error has been at the root of much of the difficulty with this subject-object schema. The correct recognition that the world of the sensa belongs in and with the world of the subject has erroneously led to the conclusion that experience has no object at all.( See Whitehead’s critique of "the subjectivist principle" (PR 238 ff.) He describes his own position as a "reformed version of the subjectivist doctrine" (PR 288) Whitehead is able to do justice both to the objectivity of the real world and to the wholeness of the self-in-the-world experience of presentational immediacy.
In the third place, Whitehead shows that our understanding of subjects and objects has been confused by our failure to distinguish actual individuals from societies of such individuals. Philosophers have been especially prone to treat corpuscular societies as if they were individuals. Since we correctly resist the idea that sticks and stones as such have subjectivity, we have been driven either to deny them any status independent of our experience or else to regard them as objects in an ontological sense. Whitehead shows us that they are societies of subjects. The society as a whole has no subjectivity, but this is because it has only the individuality of a particular form or pattern, not that of a truly individual entity. The inertness and passivity of the stick or stone as a corpuscular society gives us no grounds for positing a similar inertness or passivity on the part of the protonic and electronic occasions of which the society is composed. It is to these and not to the sticks and stones that Whitehead refers as subjects in their moment of immediacy and as objects for new subjects when that moment is past. Our experience of societies is ultimately derived from this primal experience of individual past occasions of experience.
With this brief introduction to Whitehead’s philosophy I conclude the chapter. My chief concern has been to communicate some notion of what Whitehead means by actual entities or actual occasions of experience, how they are related to each other, and how they are grouped together in societies. Many important aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy have been wholly omitted from consideration. Some of them are indispensable for understanding the discussions in later chapters, and I will try to explain them as they arise. Further, I hope that the topics introduced in this chapter will become gradually clearer and more meaningful as the subsequent discussion unfolds.
Key to References
Footnote references to Whitehead’s books use the following abbreviations. Numbers after the abbreviations in the footnotes refer to pages unless otherwise indicated.
AI Adventures of Ideas. The Macmillan Company, 1933.
CN The Concept of Nature. Cambridge University Press, 1920.
Dial… Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as recorded by Lucien Price. Little, Brown and Company, 1954.
ESP…Essays in Science and Philosophy. Philosophical Library, Inc., 1,947.
FR…The Function of Reason. Princeton University Press, 1929.
Imm "Immortality," in Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. See "Schilpp" below.
MT Modes of Thought. The Macmillan Company, 1938.
PNK An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, 1919; second ed., 1925.
PR Process and Reality. The Macmillan Company, 1929.
RM Religion in the Making. The Macmillan Company, 1926.
SMW Science and the Modern World. The Macmillan Company, 1926.
Works about Whitehead are listed in the first footnote entry by author and title. Subsequent entries are usually by author only.
Blyth John W. Blyth, Whitehead’s Theory of Knowledge. (Brown University Studies, Vol. VII.) Brown University Press, 1941.
Christian William A. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Yale University Press, 1959.
Ely Stephen Ely, The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1942.
Hammerschmidt William W. Hammerschmidt, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Time. King’s Crown Press, 1947
Johnson A. H. Johnson, Whitehead’s Theory of Reality. Beacon Press, Inc. 1952.
Kline George L. Kline, ed., Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
Lawrence Nathaniel Lawrence, Whitehead’s Philosophical Development University of California Press, 1956.
Leclerc Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition. The Macmillan Company, 1958.
Leclerc (Ed.) Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead. The Macmillan Company, 1961.
Lowe Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1962.
Palter Robert M. Palter, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science. The University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Schilpp Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.
Sherburne Donald W. Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. Yale University Press, 1961.