return to religion-online

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 cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. Used by permission. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 2: The Human Soul


1. The Soul as Social

Whitehead is remarkable among recent philosophers for his insistence that man has, or is, a soul. Furthermore, he is convinced that this doctrine has been of utmost value for Western civilization and that its recent weakening systematically undercuts the understanding of the worth of man. The understanding of the human soul is one of the truly great gifts of Plato and of Christianity, and Whitehead does not hesitate to associate his own doctrine with these sources, especially with Plato.(AI, Ch. II)

Nevertheless, Whitehead’s understanding of the human soul is different from those of Platonism and historic Christianity and is one of his most creative contributions for modern reflection. If we are to understand any aspect of Whitehead’s doctrine of man, we must begin by grasping his thought on this subject.

Perhaps the most striking differentiating feature of Whitehead’s doctrine of the soul is that it is a society rather than an individual actual entity. A moment’s reflection will show that this position follows inevitably from the distinction between individuals and societies explained in the preceding chapter. Individuals exist only momentarily. If we identified the soul with such an individual, there would be millions of souls during the lifetime of a single man.

But when we speak in Platonic or Christian terms, we think of a single soul for a single man. If we hold fast to this usage, and Whitehead basically does so, (MT 224. However, since for Whitehead identity through time is an empirical question, he allows for the possibility of a plurality of souls in a single organism.) then we must think of the soul as that society composed of all the momentary occasions of experience that make up the life history of the man. The soul is not an underlying substance undergoing accidental adventures. It is nothing but the sequence of the experiences that constitute it.

In contrast to some Christian views of the soul, it should also be noted at the outset that Whitehead’s understanding of the soul applies to the higher animals as well as to man. Wherever it is reasonable to posit a single center of experience playing a decisive role in the functioning of the organism as a whole, there it is reasonable to posit a soul. For the soul is nothing but such a center of experience in its continuity through time. The use of the term "soul" carries no connotation in Whitehead of preexistence or of life after death. There is no suggestion that the soul is some kind of supernatural element which in some way marks off man from nature and provides a special point of contact for divine activity. The soul is in every sense a part of nature, subject to the same conditions as all other natural entities. (Although this is Whitehead’s usual terminology in his later writings, in such earlier works as CN and occasionally in his later writings he speaks of nature in a more restricted sense.)

Nevertheless, the soul is a very remarkable and a very distinctive type of society, and among souls the human has still further remarkable distinctiveness. In this section we will attend to the peculiar character of the soul in general, and in the following section we will focus on the distinctiveness of the human soul in relation to subhuman souls.

The soul is remarkable, first, because it is a society composed of an extraordinary type of occasion. This type of occasion was barely introduced near the end of the preceding chapter. Whitehead calls it the presiding or dominant occasion of a complex animal organism. In vegetables and perhaps in very simple animals no such dominant occasion occurs, but in the higher organisms, especially where a fully developed central nervous system and brain is found, there is strong indication of centralized control of many aspects of the animals behavior. We find such centralized control present in our individual human experience, and we have immediate introspective awareness of the conscious experience that functions in this control.(PR 164. See also PR 74; MT 231.) There is every reason to suppose that the higher animals have similar immediate enjoyment of themselves as centers of experience.(PR 164.)

The dominant occasions of experience are extraordinary in that they are almost certainly the only occasions of experience that are conscious. Consciousness Whitehead identifies as a factor in the subjective form of some prehensions or feelings.(PR 246.) But it must be remembered that it occurs only where a high level of mentality or originality is present. Further, it depends upon a complex integration of conceptual and physical feelings involving highly developed contrasts.(PR 369-372.) No other type of occasion of experience would appear capable either of so high a level of mentality or of such complex integration of conceptual and physical feelings.

The dominant occasion can rise to such heights of experience only because the entire body is so organized as to make this ‘possible. It is so constructed that there is a constant flow of novelty from all its parts to the brain. In the brain there are many living occasions which in turn contribute their novelty to the dominant occasion located among them.(PR 166-167, 516.)

In the case of humans, and presumably of the higher animals as well, these dominant occasions are so ordered as to constitute enduring objects. Enduring objects are societies in which only one member occurs at a time. This arrangement of occasions can be spoken of as serial order or personal order.(PR 50-51) But the enduring objects composed of dominant occasions, that is, souls, are extremely different from other enduring objects, such as the molecule that has been our example heretofore. The molecule maintains itself through time by endless repetition, by trivializing of novelty or mentality, and by thus existing in an almost totally physical form. By contrast, the most striking feature of the soul is its aliveness or mentality.

Just as decisive is the contrast of the soul with the living occasions previously encountered in the empty space of the cell. These occasions lack all continuity and even social relatedness. They constitute, Whitehead tells us, a nonsocial nexus within the cell.(PR 152.) The dominant occasions of the animal, on the other hand, have serial or personal order of the kind definitive of enduring objects, thereby maintaining a high degree of continuity through time.

This synthesis of endurance and life leads Whitehead to employ a distinct term, "living person." (PR 163) A living person is a soul.(AI 271. The term "soul" rarely appears before AI, but there and in MT it is frequent.) It is a type of enduring object, but I will follow Whitehead’s usual practice of using the latter term to refer to the far more numerous societies that achieve endurance by the sacrifice of life. We must ask, then, what makes endurance possible without sacrifice of novelty, life, and mentality.

This problem will be treated at some length below in section 4. However, a brief introduction is needed here. To explain the peculiar way in which continuity is maintained without sacrifice of originality, we must introduce a distinction between two types of "simple" physical feelings.(PR 355, 375.) A simple physical feeling is one in which a single actual occasion is felt. Such an actual occasion must be prehended by the new occasion in terms of some selected eternal object embodied in it. When the eternal object selected for this purpose was embodied in the physical pole of the actual occasion felt or prehended, that is, when it expresses how that actual occasion prehended its predecessors, then the simple physical feeling is " pure." (PR 375-376. Unfortunately, Whitehead also speaks of pure feelings as those not involving both physical and conceptual feelings. Such double use of terms adds to the difficulties experienced by the student.) But when that eternal object is embodied in the mental pole, that is, when it expresses some novelty in the self-determination of the actual occasion prehended, then the prehension is "hybrid." (PR 376.) In ordinary enduring objects hybrid prehensions play almost no role. In living persons hybrid prehensions are decisive.(PR 163.)

Hybrid prehensions preserve for the future the flashes of novelty that have occurred in the past. The new occasion adds its own novelty, thus compounding the richness of the inheritance of successive occasions. With some peculiar completeness each member occasion of the living person sums up the past of the society,(PR 244, 531.) contributes its own novelty and passes away.

In the identifying of the soul, the emphasis has been placed upon the special connectedness of the successive dominant occasions in the animal organism. This is proper, and we must return later to the difficult question of the self-identity of the soul or person through time. It is equally important to note the profound involvement of the soul with the body (PR 182 ff.; AI 241-243; MT 218-219) and its relationship with other souls.

The body and specifically the brain, is the immediate environment of the soul. (See sec. 6, for discussion of the locus of the soul.) Because of the apparent primacy of the sense data perceived outside of the body, this immediacy of the bodily environment is sometimes neglected. Actually, what the soul immediately experiences or prehends are the occasions of experience of the entities immediately adjacent in the brain. These in turn prehend other contiguous occasions and so on throughout the body. This experience of the body is the primal datum for the soul.

This contribution of the feelings of the body to the soul is a major part of what Whitehead calls causal efficacy. The causal efficacy of the body for the dominant experience is always dimly in the background of that experience. But within the body there are organs designed to give the soul needed information for adjusting the body to its environment. These are the specialized sense organs. Their experiences also have causal efficacy for the soul, but to a distinctive degree they lead to a special kind of activity within the soul. In the introduction, we saw how sensuous experience of the external environment (in the mode of presentational immediacy) arises out of physical prehensions by the soul (in the mode of causal efficacy) of contiguous events within the brain. Thus the body mediates to the soul a knowledge of the outside world, but even here the information is fundamentally about the body and its states, and only secondarily about the more distant sources of the bodily stimuli.

The doctrine of the two modes of perception, causal efficacy and presentational immediacy,( Cf. PR 255 ff.) has immense importance for Whitehead’s philosophy. Through it he justifies an ontological realism rare in our day. He synthesizes our knowledge of physiology with the immediate deliverances of experience and shows the many ways in which error can enter our judgment. He also brings the scientific vision of a world of electrons and molecules into intelligible relation with the world given us in visual experience. All this, however, is beyond the scope of the present work. The point here is to show how seriously Whitehead takes the relation of the dominant occasions, which constitute the soul, to the organism over which they preside, while refusing simply to identify or merge soul and body.

In addition, Whitehead is open to the evidence that there may be relations among souls not mediated by occasions spatially between them. For example, if there is empirical indication of mental telepathy, Whitehead sees no philosophical difficulty in incorporating such relations into his system. The general philosophical principle is that every new occasion takes account of every occasion in its past. So far as this principle is concerned, every past occasion, near or far in time or space, might be directly prehended by every becoming occasion. Factually, however, in our cosmic epoch, this does not seem to occur. Rather, physical influences are brought directly to bear on the new occasion only by those immediately contiguous to it. To state this in more technical terms, simple physical feelings of the pure variety are limited to contiguous occasions. These, in turn, mediate the physical influence of other occasions. This is, however, only a probable, and in any case contingent characteristic of our world to be affirmed on the basis of scientific inquiry. It affords no basis for either affirming or denying that the mental aspect of noncontiguous occasions can be directly prehended. Whitehead’s own judgment is that there are, in fact, immediate prehensions of the mental poles of noncontiguous occasions. He gains empirical support for this judgment both from "peculiar instances of telepathy, and from the instinctive apprehension of a tone of feeling in ordinary social intercourse." (PR 469.) He thinks that the inevitable mixing of these hybrid prehensions of other souls with the mediated experiences of the same souls explains why it is so difficult for consciousness to focus on clear instances of unmediated prehensions.

The soul is, then, in immediate contact with some occasions of experience in the brain and with the mental poles of the experiences of other souls. (Presumably the mental aspects of other types of occasions might also be directly prehended, but this would be trivial.) Indirectly, but intimately, the soul also prehends the whole society that constitutes its body and still more indirectly, but still very importantly, the wider environment that is the whole world. At the same time, the soul contributes itself as an object for feeling by other souls, the contiguous occasions in the brain, and indirectly by the whole future world.

Whitehead’s understanding of the relational character of the soul is still more radical than this suggests. One could understand all that has been said thus far to mean that the soul is first something quite definite and then receives the influence of its world. But the soul, or rather each occasion of its life, like every other actual occasion of experience, is relational or social in its essence.

An actual occasion is a new synthesis of its past. Everything that it is, except its own sheer actuality and subjectivity, it receives from beyond itself. It becomes only in this receiving.( Whitehead makes this point forcefully by stressing that an actual occasion is as much a "superject" of its prehensions as a subject. (PR 43.) The more it receives, the more it can become. Insofar as it is closed to its world, it impoverishes itself. The multiplicity of the other occasions entering into the composition of the new occasion is so great that the problem in understanding an actual occasion is not so much how it as an individual enters into social relations but how all the relations that make it up achieve the unity of subjective immediacy and satisfaction.

This point is sufficiently important to an understanding of a doctrine of man to justify further elaboration. If we begin with the idea of self-contained entities, relations are necessarily accidental or external. The entity can be characterized first, and then we consider how it is related to other entities. This is a natural procedure when we are thinking of the corpuscular societies around us, such as tables and chairs. The table seems to be a self-contained entity, enduring through time and only externally affected by being moved to another part of the room. This is an exaggeration, but for common purposes we get along very well with this point of view. However, modern science has shown us that the table is not finally understood as a single entity but rather as a society of entities exceedingly different in character from the smooth, hard, passive, still, impenetrable surface we seem to experience. It is these actual entities to which Whitehead directs our attention in his philosophy. These entities, he tells us, must be thought of as happenings, occurrences, or occasions rather than as lumps of inert matter. Furthermore, each of these happenings seems to reflect the whole state of the universe as it impinges upon that happening and then to become a part of the universe impinging upon subsequent happenings. Each occasion is a synthesis of the universe as it is grasped from that perspective and contributes to the universe its own definiteness of synthesis or satisfaction. Such occasions cannot be understood as first occurring and then being in relation. They are constituted by their relations to the occasions in their past.

The question is whether we should understand the soul after the pattern appropriate to our common dealing with the things of our world or after the pattern appropriate to our understanding of actual occasions as the ultimately real entities of the world. Whitehead’s answer is unqualifiedly in the latter direction. In each of its momentary occasions the soul is one of these ultimately real entities of the world. It absorbs into itself in each new occasion of its life the total impact of its universe from its special perspective. It differs from other entities in the vastness and complexity of what it can receive from its world and synthesize in its own novel becoming.

In Whitehead’s view, therefore, the soul is not at all like a substance undergoing accidental adventures in time. It is constituted by its adventures. It can attain richness and depth only through the variety and quality of the entities it encounters and its own willingness and ability to be open to what they can contribute.

This does not mean, of course, that sheer quantity of stimuli is important or that the soul has no use for privacy. A part, and a very important part, of the relations by which each new occasion is constituted is its prehension of its own past, that is, of past occasions in the life of the same soul. Ultimately, those occasions received their richness of life from beyond the occasions of that soul altogether. Hence, the individual depends radically upon the society of other souls. But provisionally there may be every reason to retreat from the complexity of the environment into one’s own interior life so that one may better be able to be enriched by the larger world.( Cf., e.g., Whitehead’s passage on the role of withdrawal in which occurs his famous definition of religion as "what the individual does with his own solitariness." [RM 16-20.])

2. The Distinctiveness of the Human Soul

Thus far, although the human soul has been the prime example, all that has been said may apply also to the souls of the higher animals. That this is so is certainly significant for Whitehead’s doctrine of the soul. The idea that men can be distinguished from other animals by their possession of souls gains no support from him. Wherever there is evidence of some centralized dominance in the animal organism, he assumes that a dominant occasion is present; and to whatever degree such dominant occasions have significant serial order, they jointly constitute a soul. The gulf between a soul, any soul, and living occasions not organized into living persons is vast, but it must not be confused with the gulf that separates man from the rest of the world.

Our question therefore is, What is distinctive about the human soul? To answer this question, we must get some sense of the kinds of gradations that can be found among souls.

One way of distinguishing among souls is according to the significance to the individual dominant occasions of their serial connectedness with each other. Just as among enduring objects the uniting characteristic may be more or less important, so also with living persons or souls. Consider, for example, what may be the case with some very low-grade animal organism. Much of the time such an organism may function essentially as a vegetable. Now and then, however, there may be need for some unified coordination of its behavior. The society may communicate to its brain some special richness of feeling making possible the emergence of a dominant occasion. This occasion may fulfill its function and cease to exist. Subsequently, another need may produce another occasion, but in the extreme case this new dominant occasion may inherit nothing of special importance from its predecessor. If we were to speak of a soul at all in this extreme case where effective continuity between the dominant occasions is lacking, we would recognize an absolute minimum of significance of this term. There would be dominant occasions, but they would not be socially ordered to any relevant degree.

Even in more highly developed organisms, it may be that most of the connection between successive dominant occasions is mediated by the central nervous system. One experience may leave its mark upon the brain which then in turn affects a later dominant occasion. Perhaps some insects might be understood in this way. Many persons seem to suppose that all experience of our own past is mediated in this way, that we directly experience only our brain. Whitehead disagrees. In our memory of our immediately preceding experience, we have direct intuition of that experience actively forming the present.(AI 233.) Nevertheless, part of our relation to past experience is undoubtedly mediated by the brain, and to that degree, the ordering that constitutes the society of occasions as the soul has less to do with the outcome.

We may also distinguish between souls according to the relative importance of fresh organic stimuli and past experiences. In general, animals seem to be more fully absorbed in the present than are adult humans. This would suggest that the role of past occasions of their soul in determining the present occasion may be less than the role of fresh occurrences in the bodily environment of the soul. To whatever degree that is the case, the relationship among the dominant occasions that constitutes them conjointly as a soul is less marked and significant.

It is my assumption that along these lines one can argue with Whitehead’s tacit support that soul is more fully developed in men in general than in animals in general.(Cf. AI 267. "It is not a mere question of having a soul or of not having a soul. The question is, How much, if any?") Presumably, however, there would be exceptions if we were to contrast a mature high-grade animal with a human infant or with an extremely retarded child. These exceptions are not important except to caution us that whatever we say of the difference between men and other animals must be affirmed in terms of gradations and with empirical warrant.

The second and more important basis for comparing men and other animals has to do with the quality of the occasions constituting their souls. Once again we must recognize the extreme range of experiences that can belong to dominant occasions of animal organisms. Even within human experience, we can note wide differences between moments of intense alertness and moments of drowsy semiconsciousness shading off into unconsciousness. It is difficult on this line to indicate a precise point at which animal consciousness reaches its apex and beyond which only human consciousness can go. Nevertheless, it is clear that very great differences exist. Whitehead recognizes that all such differences are matters of degree, but that where degree achieves a certain magnitude, the difference amounts, for practical purposes, to one of kind.(MT 38.) Both a chipped rock and an IBM machine are tools, but the difference of their complexity and capabilities is so vast that for most purposes we properly regard them as quite different types of objects.

When we ask specifically what distinguishes man from the other animals, the single clear answer is language.(Even here we may assume that there is no absolute discontinuity between animal and human communication.) According to Whitehead, language and the human mind in its distinctiveness are correlative. We may say either that the human mind has created language or that language has created the human mind.(MT 57.) It is language that makes possible thought of any degree of complexity as well as the progressive cumulation of the fruits of thought.(MT 49) In addition to language, Whitehead notes that morality and religion are distinctive of man. But even here he hedges, for he believes that something like morality can also be observed among the higher animals.(MT 39.)

These efforts to distinguish the human from the animal soul are not of special importance in their details. The important point is that Whitehead is open to affirming whatever difference the evidence warrants our affirming. He does not allow any a priori affirmations of human distinctiveness. There is no kind of entity present in man that is not present in animals. There is only a peculiarly powerful and complex development of ontologically similar entities.

This view of difference within unity is characteristic of Whitehead’s thought throughout. There are categories descriptive of every entity whatsoever. These are metaphysical categories, and insofar as one succeeds in grasping one of these he has a genuinely necessary truth. But these metaphysical categories are exemplified in an unimaginable diversity of modes. Whitehead has characterized some of the particular forms and structures important in this cosmic epoch and on the surface of our planet. Among the most important of these are enduring objects. Thus, when we note that the soul, like the molecule, is an enduring object, we are saying something important about the identity that underlies their diversity. Yet we are not minimizing their diversity. Likewise, when we show that in animals as well as in men the dominant occasions are grouped together as souls, we have stated something of great significance about the kinship of men with the other animals, but we have left open for further consideration the differences that may or may not exist between them.

The distinctiveness of man is often formulated today in terms of the antithesis of history and nature. We may consider briefly whether Whitehead allows this distinction and how it would apply. We know in advance that there can be no ultimate distinction, for both must be understood as participating in a more inclusive unity.

"Nature" is not a consistently used technical term in Whitehead. Sometimes it is used as an inclusive term for all that occurs.(AI 99, 237; MT 214.) In this sense, of course, not even a provisional duality would be possible. History could be conceived only as some portion of nature; for example, that part in which life or mentality plays a significant role, or as still further limited to the events in which consciousness, or some special form of consciousness, is decisive. Any such definition is possible.

On the other hand, Whitehead sometimes defines nature in terms of that which is typically investigated by the natural scientists.(SMW 171; MT 100, 174. See also AI 265 for an identification of "nature" as "a complex of enduring objects.") In these terms, nature may be sharply contrasted with history, for Whitehead shows the virtual irrelevance to human events of the physicist’s analysis.(SMW 265; MT 185.) The natural scientist abstracts from the meaning, purpose, and subjectivity of things. He thereby distorts, Whitehead believes, even the physical objects that he treats.(FR, Ch. I.)The effort to treat nature as a mere object of the scientist’s investigation must finally break down, even in the scientist’s own province. When it does, the deeper underlying unity of the reality of physical objects and of historical events can be grasped without minimizing the decisive differences that also obtain.

In concluding this discussion of the distinctively human, we may ask whether there is such a thing as human nature and how it is related to history. If the term "human nature" is used meaningfully, it must point to characteristics common to all human souls and absent from all other animal souls. We are asking now not simply how the human soul differs from the animal soul, but whether in its distinctiveness it is marked by common structures. It is rather clear that if we are demanding some common factor actualized in all human souls, we must be disappointed, for the exceptional case in which that factor is lacking can always be found. If, however, we ask for distinctive potentialities, then something positive can be said.

In the light of the preceding discussion, we can say that language is the fundamental distinctive common mark of the human.(Whitehead makes the striking statement, "Speech is human nature itself." [MT 52]) Presumably the larger brain and other bodily differences underlie this new dimension of the human. Language, in turn, introduces many other possibilities into human life which are remote from that of animals. But language is not a property of the human soul such that the soul possesses it by virtue of its nature. Rather, what the human soul possesses by virtue of its rich inheritance from the body is the potentiality for learning and using language. The actualization of this potentiality and of the further possibilities it opens up for men depends upon social relationships. Human nature then, in the first instance, is simply the common potentiality of men (where there is no serious bodily deformation) for language.

It may be, further, that the process of actualizing certain human potentialities always exhibits some common structures. Clearly, in specific terms the actualization varies almost infinitely. The potentiality for language does not include any predisposition toward one language rather than another. There does not seem to be such a thing as a natural language, beyond perhaps a few sounds made by infants. But at a level of sufficient abstraction, it is still possible to discuss structures common to all languages. In a similar way in the area of ethics, for example, as its distinctively human development is made possible by language, almost any act regarded as right in one culture may be regarded as wrong in another. It is idle to appeal to human nature to settle disputes about matters of this kind. Yet at a level of sufficient abstraction there may be some common structures. The question of whether such structures exist and what they are is always an empirical question, but whatever they may be, in their transcendence of what man shares with the animal they may be thought of as part of human nature.(See Ch. III, esp. secs. 3 and 4.)

Human nature, then, is the set of unique potentialities of the human soul with whatever formal structures may be necessarily involved in their actualization. When we turn from potentiality to actuality and from highly abstract structures to the concrete particularity of actual things, we turn also from human nature to human history. Most of what is distinctively human is extremely diverse in its human manifestations. This diversity is a matter both of the extent to which the potentialities are developed and of the form which they take in their parallel development. To understand a particular man is not to understand what he has in common with all other men, or even with all other equally developed men. It is to understand how he has been formed and has formed himself in his historical existence. The decisive characteristic of human nature is historicality, man’s potentiality for being formed by history. (I recognize the altogether inadequate character of these brief remarks on history and the historical character of human existence. It is my intention to discuss this much more fully in a subsequent book on history and Christ. Whitehead’s major discussion of history is found in Al, Part I. A brief treatment of history is found in MT 22-27. That Whitehead understood the historical character of human existence is clearly indicated in his correlation of civilizations and languages (MT 49) along with the identification of human nature with speech (MT 52) already noted. See the whole discussion of the relation of man to animal and of speech and written language in relation to civilization. [MT 38-57.])

3. Life After Death.

One of the questions to which the similarity and difference of animal and human souls is relevant is that of their existence after death. Whitehead dealt with this question only rarely, and then very briefly. The most important passage on the subject can be quoted.

"A belief in purely spiritual beings means, on this metaphysical theory, that there are routes of mentality in respect to which associate material routes are negligible, or entirely absent. At the present moment the orthodox belief is that for all men after death there are such routes, and that for all animals after death there are no such routes.

"Also at present it is generally held that a purely spiritual being is necessarily immortal. The doctrine here developed gives no warrant for such a belief. It is entirely neutral on the question of immortality. . . . There is no reason why such a question should not be decided on more special evidence, religious or otherwise, provided that it is trustworthy. In this lecture we are merely considering evidence with a certain breadth of extension throughout mankind. Until that evidence has yielded its systematic theory, special evidence is indefinitely weakened in its effect."(RM 110-111)

Whitehead never returned to a positive treatment of this question, largely because his own interest focused on quite a different conception of immortality.(Dial 297.) Hence, if we are to discuss this aspect of his doctrine of man, we must lean heavily upon this single fascinating passage. A number of points are clear. First, with reference to the topic of the last section, it seems that Whitehead is doubtful that so sharp a line can be drawn between animals and humans that there is real warrant for affirming total extinction of all animals and survival of all humans. Here again we see the insistent rejection of a priori and absolute distinctions. Second, Whitehead explicitly and forcefully denies that the existence of the soul is any evidence for its survival of bodily death. On the other hand, it is clear that he regards his philosophy as perfectly open to the possibility of immortality and that relevant evidence might in principle be obtained. Third, Whitehead recognizes that our response to evidence of this sort depends upon a wider structure of conviction that either opens us to the likelihood of that which is being affirmed or closes us to it.

The passage quoted is found in Religion in the Making and uses terminology slightly different from that employed in this book which depends on his later writings. In terms of the analysis offered above, we may put the question quite simply: Can the soul exist without the body? Can it have some other locus than the brain and some other function than that of presiding over the organism as a whole? In other words, can there be additional occasions in the living person without the intimate association with the body in which the soul or living person came into existence? To these questions Whitehead answers yes.(Whitehead even speculated as to the existence of other types if intelligences in far-off empty space However, the philosophical possibility that this occurs is no evidence that it in fact occurs. Furthermore, it might occur for some minutes or days or centuries and then cease. Whitehead’s private opinion was probably that it did not occur at all.

Nevertheless, in our day the philosophical assertion of the possibility of life beyond death is sufficiently striking that we will do well to consider the grounds of this openness. Since in faithfulness to Whitehead it cannot be argued that there is such life, I will only try to show why the usual philosophical and commonsense arguments for the impossibility of life after death are removed by his philosophy. These arguments stem both from anthropology and from wider cosmological considerations. They are treated below in that order.

The basic form of the anthropological argument against the possibility of life after death has already been answered in what has gone before. This argument fundamentally is that man is his body, or his body-for-itself, (Sartre) or the functioning of his body, in such a sense that it would be strictly meaningless to speak of life apart from the body. The body-for-itself obviously shares the fortunes of the body in general, and certainly the functioning of the body cannot continue without the body. Others, more correctly (from Whitehead’s point of view) , state that man is a psychophysical organism. Clearly a psychophysical organism cannot survive the death of the physical organism. From this point of view, whatever might survive could not in any case be the man.

Whitehead recognizes that language does commonly refer to the entire psychophysical organism as the man.(AI 263-264.) In this it bears testimony to the extreme intimacy of the interaction between body and soul. However, he himself ordinarily identifies the man with the soul.(PR 141.)It is the soul that is truly personal, the true subject. The body is the immediate environment of the person. Hence, the continued existence of the soul or the living person would genuinely be the continued existence of the life of the man. That there is a soul or living person, ontologically distinct from the body, is the first condition of the possibility of life after death. This distinct existence has been established in Whiteheadian terms in the preceding sections of this chapter.

The secondary anthropological objection against such life Whitehead himself probably found more weighty. This is that we have no experience of souls apart from the most intimate interaction with bodies. It is by bodies that the causal efficacy of the universe is mediated to them, and it is as the controlling forces in bodies that they have their basic functions. But whatever significance Whitehead may have attached to such considerations, he knew they were far from decisive. The soul in each momentary occasion prehends not only its environing brain but also its own past occasions of experience and the experiences of other souls.( Most important of all is the prehension of God, omitted from the text because of my effort here to limit myself to what can be said of man without reference to God. Attention will be devoted to God and to man’s experience of him in Chs. IV to VI. Insofar as White-head himself speculated about the separability of the soul from the body, the relation to God was uppermost in his mind. Note the following passage, Al 267: "How far this soul finds a support for its existence beyond the body is: -- another question. The everlasting nature of God, which in a sense is non-temporal and in another sense is temporal, may establish with the soul a peculiarly intense relationship of mutual immanence. Thus in some important sense the existence of the soul may be freed from its complete dependence on the bodily organization." Whether Whitehead actually had in mind in this passage the kind of life after death of which I am speaking or the kind of immortality in the consequent nature of God that was his usual concern I do not know.) These prehensions are not mediated by the body. Hence there is no evidence that they could not occur apart from the body. The extreme vagueness with which other souls are prehended directly in this life (PR 469. "But of course such immediate objectification [of other living persons] is also reinforced, or weakened, by routes of mediate objectification. Also pure and hybrid prehensions are integrated and thus hopelessly intermixed.") might be replaced by clarity when the mediating influences of the pure physical prehensions are removed. Such speculation makes use of no materials not directly provided by Whitehead. But it affords no evidence that the soul does live beyond death. It simply supports Whitehead’s statement that his philosophy is neutral on this question.

Even if it is accepted that the soul is such that it could exist in separation from the body, we are likely to object that there is no "place" for this existence to occur. The days when heaven could be conceived as up and hell as down are long since past (if ever, indeed, they were present for sophisticated thinkers). In the Newtonian cosmology, disembodied souls seemed thoroughly excluded from the space-time continuum. But souls, or mental substances, fitted so ill in this continuum at best, even in their embodied form, that it did not seem too strange to suppose that beyond the continuum of space and time there might be another sphere to which human souls more naturally belonged. Those who believed that somehow the soul could also be explained in terms of the little particles of matter that scurried about in space and time could not believe in any such other sphere. But for those who were convinced that mind could never be explained in terms of the motions of matter, the duality of matter and mind pointed quite naturally to the duality of this world and another, spiritual world in which space, time, and matter did not occur. Gradually, however, the sharp line that separated matter and mind gave way. Evolutionary categories brought mind into the natural world, involving it in space and time. Even if this forced the beginning of the abandonment of the pure materiality of the natural world, it also undermined the justification for conceiving of any sphere beyond this one. If minds have emerged in space and time, it is to space and time that they belong. A nonspatiotemporal mental sphere seemed no more meaningful or plausible than a nonspatiotemporal material sphere. There seemed no longer to be any "place" for life to occur after death.

Theology responded to this new situation by reviving the ancient doctrine of the resurrection of the body. If heaven could not be another sphere alongside this one, then it must be a transformation of the spatiotemporal sphere which will come at the end of time. The Pharisees, it appeared, had more truth than the Orphics. But the belief in an apocalyptic end was hard to revive, and even among the theologians who used its language, there were many who regarded the resurrection of the body more as a symbol of the wholeness of the human person, body and mind, than as a reliable prediction of the future. Outside of conservative ecclesiastical circles, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body continued to appear anachronistic. Natural theology, at any rate, could not be asked to attempt to make any sense of such a theory.

But in our situation, in which the mind or soul has been naturalized into the spatiotemporal continuum, can natural theology suggest any "place" for any kind of life after death? I am not sure that in any positive sense it can, and I am sure that I am not capable of the kind of imaginative speculation that would be required to give such a positive answer. Yet something may be said in a purely suggestive way to indicate that our commonsense inability to allow "place" for the new existence of souls is based on the limitations of our imagination and not on any knowledge we posssess about space and time. We will turn to Whitehead for the beginning of the restructuring of our imagination, on the basis of which further reflection must proceed.

The first point that must be grasped and held firmly is that we are not to think of four-dimensional space-time as a fixed reality into which all entities are placed. Space-time is a structure abstracted from the extensive relationships of actual entities. So far as what is involved in being an actual entity is concerned, there is no reason that there should be four dimensions rather than more or fewer. The world we know is four-dimensional, but this does not mean that all entities in the past and future have had or will have just this many dimensions. Indeed, it does not mean that all entities contemporary with us must have this number of dimensions, although there may be no way for us to gain cognition of any entity of a radically different sort.

Our four-dimensional space-time is the special form that the universal extensive continuum takes in our world. Every actual entity participates in this extensive continuum. But even this is not because the extensive continuum exists prior to and is determinative of the occurrence of actual entities. The extensive continuum is necessary and universal only because no actual entity can ever occur except in relation to other actual entities. Such relations may not be such as to allow for measurement, as they do in our four-dimensional world; certainly they may not have the dimensional character with which we are familiar. But some kind of extensiveness, Whitehead believes, is a function of relatedness as such.

If we try to imagine what it would be like to have no intimate relations with a body or with an external world as given to us in our sense experience, we seem to be left with a two-dimensional world. There is the dimension of successiveness, of past and future. We have memory of the past and anticipation of the future. In addition, there remains the direct experience of other living persons in mental telepathy. These persons are not experienced as related to us in a three-dimensional space but only as being external to ourselves, capable of independent, contemporary existence. Shall we call this a one-dimensional spatial relation?

Let us suppose, then, that the life of souls beyond death occurs in a two-dimensional continuum instead of the four-dimensional continuum we now know. Is it meaningful to ask" where" this two-dimensional continuum exists? Such a question can only mean, How is it related to our four-dimensional continuum according to the terms of that four-dimensional continuum? And perhaps, in those terms, no answer is possible. However, if there are relations between events in a two-dimensional continuum and events in a four-dimensional continuum, then those relations too must participate in some extensive character. Perhaps, therefore, in some mysterious sense, there is an answer, but I for one am unable to think in such terms.

For the speculations I have just outlined, I can claim no direct support from Whitehead. He does make clear that the relation of an occasion to the mental pole of other occasions does not participate in the limitations that I take to be decisive for our understanding of a three-dimensional space. (SMW 216; PR 165, 469; AI 318.) He does affirm that even now there may be occasions of experience participating in an order wholly different from the one we know. (MT 78, 212. Whitehead anticipates the gradual emergence of a new cosmic epoch in which the physical will play a lesser role and the mental a larger one. [RM 160; ESP 90.]) He repeatedly emphasizes the contingency of the special kind of space-time to which we are accustomed.(SMW 232; PR 140, 442.) But beyond this the speculation is my own.

Even if my speculations are fully warranted by Whitehead’s understanding of the extensive continuum, it should be clearly understood that these considerations argue only for the possibility of life after death, not at all for its actuality. There is nothing about the nature of the soul or of the cosmos that demands the continued existence of the living person. If man continues to exist beyond death, it can be only as a new gift of life, and whether such a gift is given is beyond the province of natural theology to inquire.

4. Personal Identity

Another objection to the possibility of meaningfully affirming life after death may be raised. Whereas in the preceding cases we saw that Whitehead’s way of understanding man and space took the sting out of the objections, this objection is directed specifically at his own position. It is pointed out that life after death would be meaningless on his terms because that which would then live would not be identical with what had died. After death, there would be a quite new set of occasions, numerically different from those which had occurred before death. Whitehead’s own reflections on meaningful preservation may have been affected by this kind of thinking. He became much more interested in considering how each occasion’s values might be preserved than in speculating on the occurrence of additional occasions.(See Ch. IV for a discussion of the consequent nature of God, and Ch. VI, sec. 1, for a treatment of Whitehead’s religion.)

The objection rests upon the fact that Whitehead attributes total unity or self-identity only to individual occasions. All other things are built up of these units. They are societies of occasions rather than individual actual occasions. Some of these societies have a special order which Whitehead calls personal. These are the enduring objects and living persons. But even here an ontologically discrete entity is present at each moment. There is no absolute self-identity through time.

This lack of absolute self-identity through time does indeed pose problems for any doctrine of life after death. It poses many other problems as well. Our ordinary moral and legal practice presupposes personal identity. If there is no such personal identity, all justification for rewards and punishments seems to vanish. It would seem that there is no particular necessity to accept responsibility for our past acts, since they were performed by a numerically different entity. Gratitude would seem to be misdirected when expressed after the moment of the beneficent act. Past promises would not bind. The list of consequences is endless and disastrous.( Paul Weiss frequently criticizes Whitehead to the effect that he allows for no such responsibility. Sherburne in his response, "Responsibility, Punishment, and Whitehead’s Theory of the Self," in Kline, seems to agree. However, Whitehead did not himself take this line. See 1mm 690.)

Whitehead himself was troubled by the apparent conflict of his doctrine and the universal intuition and practice of mankind. He shared the intuition, and again and again he returned to the topic, seeking to shed light upon it.(AI 210, 240; MT 129-130, 221-222; Imm 689-690.)

The most obvious commonsense basis for asserting the identity of a person through time is the continuity of the body of whose dominant occasions that living person or soul is composed. When we are dealing with the same body, we almost always assume that we are dealing with the same person. This is surely part of the normal meaning of personal identity.(MT 222.) If it were the only meaning, the doctrine of life after death would be nonsensical. However, quite apart from this consequence the understanding of personal identity in terms of the identity of the body has at least two limitations.

First, our bodies change. If two points of time are sufficiently remote, we are told that no enduring object earlier present in the body will be there at the later time. Of course, the gradualness of the change is such that we have no difficulty in identifying the body as the same from birth to death. Nevertheless, it is highly questionable that we would correlate closely the identity of the person and the actual identity of the body. Second, Whitehead affirms that a single body may house dominant occasions ordered in competing societies. He believes that this is the case where split personality occurs.(PR 164.) If so, it is clear that the identity of the body would not guarantee the identity of the soul.

Whitehead sometimes answers that the identity of the person through time points to the inheritance of a common character through the successive occasions. (This note is the primary in Imm. See pp. 688-691.) This is an application to the special case of the soul of the general principle by which social order is defined.(PR 50-51.) It should be noted that it contains two aspects: the insistence on a common character, and the transmission of this character from member to member of the society. It will be worthwhile to consider the two elements separately to determine their individual relevance.

It is certainly clear that commonness of character in itself provides no basis for personal identity. Twin boys at six months of age are likely to be very much alike, whereas if we compare one of those boys of six months with the man of twenty he later becomes, we will be more impressed by the great differences. Yet we never suppose that the twins are the same person, whereas we do assume that there is a personal identity of the child of six months and the man he grows to become. However, granting that commonness of character alone helps us very little, we must ask whether it is indeed commonness in what is inherited that causes us to judge personal identity. There is some evidence in our ordinary speech in favor of this view. If a person has changed greatly, we may say that he is a new person, or if the change is unfavorable, that he is not his old self. Whitehead’s account would illuminate such language.

Nevertheless, Whitehead is in error if he intends to explain the common intuition of personal identity in this way. If pressed, the persons who use phrases such as those just suggested will insist that the person in question is really the same person, only changed. An exception may be made in the case of split personality or total amnesia, but mere change of personality will not lead to the conclusion that personal identity is gone. Furthermore, if the change leads to heightened sensitivity and responsibility, the person himself may take more rather than less responsibility for obligations undertaken before the change. Men will take it as a mark of bad character rather than enlightenment if, after the most drastic alteration in personality, a man refuses responsibility for all earlier commitments.

It is a perplexing fact, and perhaps an indication of some desperation on Whitehead’s part, that he fell into the trap of describing personal identity in terms that refer to a common character. He was himself quite aware that the decisive feature of life is novelty and not the repetition of past patterns. When considering the status of a living cell and the living occasions within it, he rejected the suggestion that they be considered as enduring objects on the grounds that "‘endurance’ is a device whereby an occasion is peculiarly bound by a single line of physical ancestry, while ‘life’ means novelty." (PR 159.) Since the cell is alive, we should not regard it as an enduring object just because the special feature of enduring objects is that they continue a common character through successive occasions. How then, when we come to the soul, which is even more alive than the cell, can we appeal to the inheritance of a common character to explain its identity through time?

If this were Whitehead’s only answer, or the only answer his categories would allow, the philosophy would be in serious trouble. Reflection upon our normal understanding of our self-identity makes it quite clear that it is not in virtue of similarity of character that we affirm our identity through time. The whole burden of Whitehead’s case must fall on the fact of inheritance, for as he himself fully recognized in discussing the cell, commonness of character is not the distinctive mark of life. But in that case, the distinction must be made in terms of a distinctive mode of inheriting, since otherwise, personal identity would relate every occasion to every other occasion in its past.

On several occasions, Whitehead stressed the fact that personal identity depends upon a special mode of inheriting rather than upon a common pattern inherited. He wrote, "We -- as enduring objects with personal order -- objectify the occasions of our own past with peculiar completeness in our immediate present." (PR 244.) And again, "An enduring personality in the temporal world is a route of occasions in which the successors with some peculiar completeness sum up their predecessors." (PR 531.) In these quotations, the enduring objects and enduring persons are what we have called, in dependence on other passages in White-head’s writing, living persons and souls.

Unfortunately, Whitehead did not adequately develop what he meant by peculiar completeness, and the theory of personal identity that follows goes beyond his explicit statements. However, I believe it to be the only satisfactory approach to personal identity allowed by his system and to correspond closely with my own intuition as to what constitutes my own identity through time. Furthermore, I consider it the only way to take seriously the statements of Whitehead just cited.

My sense of personal identity with my past seems to me to depend upon memory. I think of myself as remembering my own past experiences but not as remembering the past experiences of other persons or of any other entities. I may remember something about those experiences, but only my own are directly remembered as such. If, indeed, I remembered any experience, I would affirm that it was my own, and if I were persuaded that I could not have had that experience, I would be extremely perplexed. Likewise, I find it very difficult to identify myself as the subject of experiences of which I have no memory whatsoever, such as experiences I am told I had while under ether. I incline to view those experiences as belonging to my body but not to me. Also, I have a very limited sense of identity with the infant who, I am told, I was. I view that infant, in my imagination, from without rather than remembering his experiences from within.

Now I recognize that much of what I have forgotten and which is seemingly beyond recall could be recovered to memory under hypnosis or even on an analyst’s couch. Hence, I extend my sense of identity beyond my actual ability to recall. I assume that in my unconscious even now there is a relation to past experiences, also influencing my present conscious experience, that binds them to me "with some peculiar completeness."

My understanding of my future self-identity with my present runs along the same lines. If I could suppose a future condition, in this life or another, in which the occasions then occurring had no peculiar mode of inheritance from those I now am, I would not identify myself with them in imagination. To be told that there might be some underlying substance that would be the same then as it is now would not affect my judgment. Neither would Whitehead’s doctrine of inheritance of a common character. Only memory can serve in my self-understanding to determine self-identity through time.

I have made this statement quite independently of Whiteheadian terminology to pose the question as to whether, after all, Whitehead’s philosophy allows an explanation of this peculiar phenomenon of the sense of personal identity. If the inheritance from previous occasions in the soul is different only in quantitative ways from other routes of inheritance, then I believe it does not, and the consequences must be accepted or the philosophy itself altered or abandoned. But, in fact, I believe that we can make sense of the "peculiar completeness" of this inheritance, and that not only in quantitative terms.

In an enduring object of the ordinary physical variety, each occasion can directly prehend only the immediate predecessor occasion. This is because it objectifies its predecessor by the physical pole, and such prehensions are only of contiguous occasions. The influence of earlier members of the enduring object must be mediated through the more recent ones. In a living person, on the other hand, the mental poles of the past occasions are of primary importance for their objectification.(PR 163; AI 271-272.) Prehensions of the mental poles of occasions do not depend upon contiguity. Hence, there may be immediate objectification of many, perhaps of all, of the past occasions in the living person. In this way, a peculiar completeness of summing up would be accounted for and the question of common characteristics would be seen as entirely secondary. Also, my own experience of personal identity as described in non-Whiteheadian terms would be explained. I do experience immediate prehensions of former mental experiences, sometimes with considerable vividness. This experience does assure me of my personal identity, not of course of numerical identity, with that earlier occasion of experience.

We need not make personal identity in this view dependent upon the unmediated prehension of all past occasions in the person in question. So long as all those past occasions of experience are potentially available for such recall, whether spontaneously or under hypnosis, the peculiarity of the sense of identity can be explained. Whether or not in the unconscious dimensions of our experience they are continuously effective is a factual question best left to the depth psychologists.(See sec. 5 in this ch.)

This understanding of personal identity explains our sense of responsibility for our past acts. We remember, or can remember, those experiences from the "inside." Hence we identify ourselves with them. If, in fact, I am entirely unable to remember some past act attributed to me and am persuaded that the relation of that acting occasion to me is not like those of occasions I can remember, I can feel no responsibility for that act whatever others may say. The sense of responsibility is a function of that kind of identity determined by the possibility of memory in this sense, in Whiteheadian terms, the possibility of the unmediated prehension of the mental pole of a past occasion.

This understanding of personal identity is also adequate for explaining the hope for life after death. That hope will be satisfied if there exist occasions that have to each other and to my present occasions this relationship of memory. Their character may be quite different. The fact that personal identity in this life depends so little upon the relation to a common body and so much upon unmediated hybrid prehensions of past occasions of the soul’s life strengthens the plausibility of the claim that continuity may occur after bodily death. In no sense does it prove that this will occur.

I believe this to be an account of personal identity fundamentally loyal both to Whitehead and to normal human intuitions. I regret to note that in my own view it is still not entirely satisfactory.

The analysis I have given would serve to exhibit personal identity with full discreteness except for one point. Whitehead’s philosophy and some empirical evidence point to the possibility of having in relation to other souls experiences like those I have described as memory. In mental telepathy there seems to be an unmediated prehension of the mental pole of another person’s experience. Experiences have been reported in which occasions of experience in the distant past have been "remembered" in this way. If personal identity is defined as I have defined it, then all mental experiences subject to being prehended unmediatedly must be included in the living person. We can solve the problem definitionally by appealing to the fact that the living person is serially ordered, but the deeper question remains. It can be pointed up by a wild hypothesis.

If the dominant occasion in my body began to "remember" the past dominant occasions of another body and to fail to remember its own, my definition would require that it be regarded as a continuation of the other person. This would seem proper to common sense also, if we may appeal to common sense in this realm of fantasy. But what if successor occasions continued to occur in the other body in a quite normal fashion? Would these two strands of occasions then be the same living person?

An analogous difficulty can be posed with respect to the suggested possibility of life after death. Suppose that after my death there is a set of serially ordered occasions that enjoy unmediated memory of all the occasions of my life. Is it not possible still to wonder whether those occasions will be "me"? If so, it is clear that the definition of personal identity I have offered does not really exhaust the common intuition of self-identity. That intuition remains mysteriously unformulable. (Whitehead also speaks of "the mystery of personal identity," and says that "in respect to such intuitions . . . our powers of analysis, and of expression, flicker with our consciousness" [AI 210]). It may be an illusion, but I suggest that it is a persistent one which remains baffling in the light of any existing philosophy.

Meanwhile, so long as the eccentric possibilities I have mentioned are never actualized, the account I have proposed is quite satisfactory for practical purposes. It is that personal identity obtains whenever there is a serially ordered society of primarily mental occasions (a soul) in which each occasion actually or potentially prehends unmediatedly the mental poles of all its predecessors.

5. The Unconscious

The discussion of personal identity has raised the question of unconscious experience. This topic is obviously of great importance in our day for the understanding of man. When Whitehead spoke of the soul, he focused attention upon consciousness, but his philosophy also points up the very large role of unconscious experience. "Consciousness," Whitehead tells us, "presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness." (PR 83.) Most actual occasions of experience enjoy no consciousness at all. Where consciousness occurs, it appears as the subjective form of some part of the higher phases of experience. It presupposes a complex process of comparison of earlier and simpler phases of experience which can never enter into consciousness. It depends specifically upon negation, upon the contrast of what is with what might be.(PR 372.)

The occurrence of consciousness is of immense importance. Apart from it, no high form of animal life would be possible. Apart from conscious enjoyment, all value would seem trivial. All our thought presupposes consciousness, as does all our effort to consider the unconscious dimensions of experience. Nevertheless, Whitehead’s philosophy agrees with the depth psychologists in emphasizing the priority and greater massiveness of what is unconscious. Clear consciousness focuses itself upon the appearances immediately surrounding our bodies. Very dimly it suggests that there is another mode of relation to our bodies and their environment in which their reality is effective in us. But this awareness of the world in the mode of causal efficacy fades away before close attention. We can grasp the massiveness and complexity of what is present in our unconscious experience in relation to the relative simplicity and superficiality of our consciousness by considering what we, in fact, are experiencing in each occasion in comparison with that which we can bring into focus with some conscious clarity.(Cf. Whitehead’s discussion of consciousness, e.g., MT 166-171.)

Consider again Whitehead’s basic doctrine that each occasion prehends every occasion in its past. This has been stated again and again, but it remains an idea utterly staggering to the imagination. It means that a virtually infinite number of discrete entities are each playing some role, however trivial, in each moment of my experience. Of course, the vast majority of these influences are mediated through contiguous occasions. But somehow, Whitehead insists, their distinctive efficacy is therein preserved.

Even if we limit our consideration to occasions immediately contiguous to the soul, the contents of our experience are quite amazing. In each occasion we are immediately prehending numerous occasions of experience in the brain. We are totally incapable of becoming conscious of these prehensions, although it is through them that we receive the eternal objects that we project upon the environing world as sensa. All of our most immediate experience of other occasions remains unconscious, qualifying consciousness only with a vague sense of derivation from the body.

In addition to this, consider the prehensions of past occasions of the soul’s life. Let us assume that these are, as Whitehead says, summed up with some peculiar completeness in each new occasion of the soul. Let us assume further, as I have suggested above, that they are all immediately felt at all times as well as being mediated by proximate occasions. In this instance, we can indeed become conscious of some fragments of these feelings. Most of the time I am not conscious of my immediately precedent experiences, but by a focusing of attention I can become so with considerable vividness. Similarly, many occasions of the more distant past can be recalled with varying degrees of conscious vividness. But since consciousness presupposes experience and not experience consciousness, we must reckon with the possibility that all of them are, in fact, prehended at all times -- hence, with an immense richness of unconscious experience.

Beyond this are the prehensions of other persons. Here too there seem to be exceptional occasions in which these prehensions can be lifted into conscious awareness. But clearly, the vast majority of such prehensions remain totally unconscious. Furthermore, these prehensions need not be limited to the recent experiences of those prehended. Past experiences, even remote past experiences, are not excluded. There may be immediate feeling of every past experience of the race insofar as mentality functioned significantly therein.

These last ideas are not necessitated by Whitehead’s doctrine, but they seem to be a reasonable interpretation. Whitehead affirms only that the present occasion prehends its entire past either mediately or immediately. Where past occasions are objectified by their physical poles, all that are not contiguous are mediated through the contiguous occasions. Where they are objectified by their mental poles, contiguity is not necessary. Since primarily mental occasions are presumably most often objectified by their mental poles when prehended by other primarily mental occasions, immediate prehension of all of them seems indicated.

This idea is certainly fantastic, although no more so than many that have been made commonplace by modern physics. Moreover, depth psychology seems to provide some evidence for its truth. Mysterious concepts like that of the racial unconscious, quite inexplicable as they are usually presented, become fully intelligible in the context of Whitehead’s philosophy. Whether all past occasions of experience of human souls are directly prehended in each new occasion is indeed a factual question, but insofar as evidence of the influence of the past upon our psychic life is uncovered, it tends to confirm the natural speculations issuing from Whitehead’s philosophy.

6. The Locus of the Soul

The soul is located in the brain. Perhaps it would be best to leave the question of location at that point. However, Whitehead gave an explicit suggestive answer, and against this answer I would like to propose an alternative. I believe that my alternative makes better sense than Whitehead’s suggestion, but it does so only if we accept a special view about the relations among the regions that constitute the "standpoints" of occasions.(PR 435.) By the standpoint of an occasion, Whitehead means that unique extended locus it occupies in the total spatiotemporal continuum. The argument in favor of my view of the locus of the soul requires a considerable excursus.

Whitehead’s answer to the question of the place of the soul is that it is to be found in the "empty spaces" in the interstices of the brain.(PR 161, 516. Cf. The more open statement in AI 290.) Here it wanders from place to place according to the richness of the stimuli received at these places. Wherever it goes, it must be surrounded by living occasions, (PR 163.) presumably of the variety found also in the empty spaces of the cell.

In opposition to Whitehead’s view, I suggest that the soul may occupy a considerable region of the brain including both empty space and the regions occupied by many societies. This proposal assumes that it is possible for the region that constitutes the standpoint of one occasion to include the regions that constitute the standpoints of other occasions. To the defense of that view I shall return shortly. First, however, I want to offer my arguments for the superiority of this interpretation as against that of Whitehead himself.

First, the inheritance along the route of presiding or dominant occasions is more intelligible if there is continuity in the regions occupied by these occasions. If the dominant occasion is now here and now there, the degree of continuity and identity actually experienced is surprising. It is true that if the successive occasions are united only by prehensions of the mentil poles of their predecessors, then such contiguity is not essential. But its occurrence would help greatly to explain the clear difference almost always felt between prehensions of one’s own past experiences and those of other persons and thus tend to solve the still mysterious problems of personal identity.(See sec. 4 in this chapter.) This argument could be countered by suggesting a permanent location of the soul in one particular interstice of the brain. But Whitehead does not think in these terms, for he recognizes that diverse portions of the brain make the major contributions to our experience at different times. There is no indication that one segment of the brain is the unchanging seat of consciousness.

Second, Whitehead’s view seems difficult to reconcile with the apparent joint immediacy of inheritance from many parts of the brain. Hearing, seeing, remembering, and calculating seem to occur concurrently in one dominant occasion. If these functions are most intimately related with diverse portions of the brain, then it seems necessary to suppose that the dominant occasion is present at the same time at all these diverse places. (This is Hartshorne’s view as shown by his question to Whitehead in "Whitehead’s Idea of God," Schilpp, p.545.) The alternative is to appeal again to the independence of hybrid prehensions from the need for contiguity. However, it is doubtful that we should regard all the prehensions constituting the dominant occasions as hybrid. Furthermore, if this argument is pressed, there seems no necessity that the dominant occasion be located in the human body at all! Whitehead certainly thought that it is located contiguously to occasions in the brain from which it inherits.

Third, Whitehead’s doctrine of straight lines would be far more plausible if we adopt the view here advocated. Whitehead believed it important for geometry and physics to demonstrate that our understanding of straightness does not depend upon measurement. He shows, therefore, that our intuition of straightness can be explained if we posit pairs of points located in the region of the dominant occasion, the connections between which are projected out into the environment of the body.( PR 492. In Al 277, the segment of line is in the brain rather than in the percipient occasion, but I assume that the theory depends upon the line’s presence in that region in which the percipient occasion (hence the soul) is present. This suggests the advantage of my theory. If the region of the dominant occasion is of microscopic size, as suggested by Whitehead’s account, its projection of straight lines on a macroscopic scale is remarkable. However, since even the tiniest region contains an infinity of points, this argument is not decisive. More important is the fact that we can detect no shifting from one part of the head to another in the center from which projections of direction take place, whereas if the dominant occasion does move from place to place such a shift must, in fact, occur.

In view of arguments of this sort, why did Whitehead himself limit his few references to the standpoint of the soul to the view of a shifting locus in the interstices of the brain? A possible answer is that Whitehead may have conceived of all actual occasions as microscopic in size. Furthermore, he conceived of all space as occupied and considered what we regard as empty space simply as space in which the occasions are not organized into enduring objects. These occasions may be highly original in character. Just as such mental or living occasions are located by him in the empty space of the cell, so others may be conceived as occupying the empty spaces surrounding the brain cells. These would provide a peculiarly favorable environment for that most mental of all occasions, the dominant occasion of the animal organism.

My counterview proposes that we think of the region of the soul in its relation to the regions of both the brain cells, and the occasions in the interstices of the brain as White-head thinks of the cell in its relation to the molecules and empty spaces within it. I believe I have shown that this view would have a number of substantial advantages. It would, however, require the doctrine that the region constituting the standpoint of one actual occasion can include the regions constituting the standpoints of other actual occasions. Whether or not Whitehead himself thought this relationship possible, he made no explicit use of it and never dealt with the special problems it would raise. We may conjecture that he either rejected its possibility or failed to consider it seriously. Yet I believe his metaphysics allows for this understanding and that his cosmology, not only with respect to the problem now at hand -- the locus of the soul -- but at other points as well, is more intelligible if we affirm this principle. (See Ch. V, sec. 3, for my discussion of God and space in these terms.) Because of its importance for my own vision of the cosmos, I shall argue this point at some length. Since one of Whitehead’s ablest interpreters has argued the impossibility of such relationships in the context of his thought, some of the argument will be directed implicitly against his objections.(Christian argues that any relation of overlapping or inclusion among standpoints of actual occasions is impossible. An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, pp. 93-104.)

Fundamentally, the unity of an actual occasion is the unity of its subjective immediacy culminating in its satisfaction. Its unity does not derive from the specificity of its standpoint or region. The region determines for the actual entity just what other actual occasions are in its past and hence, causally efficacious for it.(PR 434-436.) It determines, further, which occasions are contiguous and hence immediately effective for it physically. But the region the occasion occupies could have been actualized by several actual occasions instead of one, or could have been part of a larger region, or could have been parts of several regions rather than united as the actual standpoint of a single occasion. It is the occasions in their concrete immediacy which provide the principle of unity, not the standpoints.

Thus far there is no dispute. My contention is, however, that if the unity of the occasion does not reside in its standpoint, then a single region may be included in the standpoints of more than one occasion without affecting the discrete individuality of the occasions in question. This means that the inclusion of one region by another would not entail inclusion of one actual occasion by another.

This idea that a particular region of space-time may be occupied by more than one entity without reducing the relation of those entities to that of part to whole is so strange to our common sense that further explanation is needed. If we think of the entities with which we have to do in ordinary life, we can gain no analogy. For example, a page in a book occupies a space also occupied by the book as a whole, but we immediately see that this is because the page is part of the book. In the macroscopic world, to occupy a part of the region occupied by something else is virtually definitive of the relation of part to whole. If I insert a sheet of paper between the pages of the book, the space occupied by that sheet of paper is no longer occupied by the book precisely because the paper is not part of the book.

We must remember, therefore, that the entities with which we are now dealing are not like books and pages. They are not primarily to be conceived of as objects at all, but rather as subjects. The unity of objects (in the sense of corpuscular societies prehended from without) is inseparable from their spatial unity. Objects such as books can be cut in half, and each half will have physically much the kind of unity the book as a whole previously had. But subjects are indivisible. The regions they occupy are divisible, but the subject either has unity as subject or is not a subject at all. It is my contention that if we understand this very different kind of unity possessed by subjects, we will be able to understand that location within the region of another subject does not make a subject simply part of the larger subject. Indeed, it is meaningless to speak of one subject as part of another. As subjects, each is strictly an individual and is indivisible.

This relationship can be further explicated in Whitehead’s terms by discussing the way in which these entities would prehend each other. One of Whitehead’s cardinal cosmological principles is that contemporaries occur in mutual independence.(PR 95.) They do not directly prehend each other. Consider, then, actual occasion A, whose standpoint is entirely included in the region constituting the standpoint of actual occasion B. At the time A originates, B has not reached its satisfaction. Therefore, A does not prehend B. Likewise, at the time B originates, A has not reached its satisfaction. Hence, B does not prehend A. The two occasions will have much in common because of the similarity of their standpoints. However, their standpoints are not identical. Some occasions contiguous to B will not be contiguous to A. Furthermore, the occasions contiguous to both may not be objectified in the same way. A may objectify the past entirely through pure physical feelings, whereas B may objectify it primarily through hybrid feelings. The inclusion of the region of A in B does not entail that B include in its objectification of a common past the eternal objects by which A objectifies that past. Certainly it will not include the subjective form, the subjective aim, the subjective immediacy, or the satisfaction of A. The radical discreteness numerically and qualitatively, of A and B is not affected by the peculiar relation of the regions they occupy.

If A and B are occasions in the historic routes of enduring objects, then subsequent occasions in each route will prehend the earlier occasions in the other route. Moreover, we may speculate that the special regional relationship will enter into the subjective form of this prehension in some way. But fundamentally, these past occasions of the regionally included enduring object will be included in the later occasions of the including enduring object just as all past occasions are included -- not in any special sense as part to whole.

The idea of the inclusion of one regional standpoint by another calls attention to another point that may require some adjustment of common sense. A region is a perspective on the world. Every perspective, it may be thought, must ultimately be reducible to that of a point. For example, the causal efficacy of a contiguous past occasion would seem to affect that part of the becoming occasion that is contiguous before it affects other parts, if the becoming occasion is extended. But then we would have to introduce physical tune into the interiority of the occasion. So long as we can think of the occasion as sufficiently minute, this problem does not seem acute, but when we start to speak of occasions large enough to include others, our imaginations are bothered by this problem.

The answer, however, is that the principle of the extendedness of the regions of actual occasions is absolutely crucial to Whitehead’s thought, and that once the principle is accepted, the size of regions is irrelevant. The physical prehensions of the becoming occasion may indeed be correlated with the several portions of the region, but the subjective unity of the occasion is equally related to the whole region indiscriminately.(PR 434-435.) Portions of this subjectivity do not first arise in one part of the region and then get communicated to others. They are omnipresent throughout the region, whether that region be large or small.

Although Whitehead did not deal with the question of regional inclusion, some of his cosmological statements, taken at face value, seem to imply it. Thus far we have considered, as our chief examples of enduring objects, molecules (PR 124-125, 151.) and souls. These are among Whitehead’s examples. But Whitehead also gives others. Specifically, he identifies corpuscles of light, (PR 53.) electrons,(PR 139-141.) protons,(PR 141.) and probably subelectronic particles (PR 152. This is by inference from the fact that he says electrons and protons are probably structured societies.) are as enduring objects. For the sake of simplicity we can focus our attention on just two of these examples -- molecules and electrons.( It is, of course, possible that Whitehead did not mean to have all his examples taken literally or seriously. Hence, although I believe the burden of proof should be on those who deny that he meant what he said, I do not regard the following as proof that he intended to allow regional inclusion.)

Now, molecules and electrons as enduring objects must be composed of serially ordered occasions which we may refer to as molecular and electronic occasions. On the basis of physics, it is clear that there are electrons inside of molecules. This would seem to mean, in Whiteheadian terms, that the regions occupied by some electronic occasions are entirely included in the regions occupied by some molecular occasions.

The alternative explanation of the relation of molecular actual occasions to electronic ones would be that the molecular actual occasion is really a dominant occasion in the society of occasions constituting the molecule. It could then be located in the empty spaces within the molecule alongside of the many other occasions in the society.

This interpretation is a possible one, although it receives no direct support from Whitehead. His understanding of dominant occasions is entirely associated with living societies, specifically, animals. He speaks of animal bodies as corpuscular societies, whereas he speaks of molecules, quite directly, as enduring objects. The molecule is also, it is true, a structured society, but it is not a living society. Hence, this interpretation must be regarded as imposed upon Whitehead’s language on the assumption that the more natural reading is impossible. Since I see no impossibility in the more natural reading, I regard it as some support for my own speculative development of Whitehead’s thought. However, the fundamental issue is that of the possibility of regional inclusion and not whether this relation obtains between molecular and electronic occasions.

The cosmological vision made possible by this principle has been much more fully articulated by Charles Hartshorne. It is undoubtedly because it was he who first introduced me to Whitehead’s thought that I have been strongly inclined to interpret Whitehead as having been open to this view. Hartshorne sees the universe built up of compound individuals.( Hartshorne, "The Compound Individual," Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead. (Longmans, Green, and Company, 1986) , pp. 198-220.) At each level of individuality, the electron, the atom, the molecule, the cell, the person, new social relations obtain, and hence new laws must be formulated. The individuality of the compound individual in no way militates against the individuality of the individuals of which it is compounded. Hartshorne himself gives Whitehead much of the credit for this cosmology. Given this understanding of Whitehead’s philosophy, we can conceive of the soul occupying generally the region of the brain, receiving the causal efficacy of every portion of the brain at once, and experiencing its own synthesis of all these influences in its own unified subjective immediacy.

 

Key to References

Footnote references to books by or about Whitehead 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.

 

 

Viewed 106548 times.