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The Structure of Christian Existence 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 University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706, Copyright 1990. Used by permission. This material was prepared for America Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 2: The Psyche


There is such a thing as "conscious experience" or "awareness." I shall use the two expressions interchangeably. In one way or another all of us must begin with this, yet just for this reason it is impossible to define our terms. Both "conscious" and "experience" as primitive concepts cannot be explained by simpler terms and, as referring to the unique, cannot be classified as special cases under broader headings -- as species under a known genus. The substitution of "awareness" does not alter this situation. However, this does not mean that nothing can be said to clarify and render more precise the particular way in which one chooses to use these terms, for here one finds real and significant variety. This variety is to be understood chiefly as a range of limits around a common center. When I direct focused attention on an object, a person, or an idea, seeking, thereby, an answer to a clearly formulated question, everyone is likely to agree that I am consciously experiencing that entity. Most of us would agree that conscious experience occurs also without such dearly focused interest, but just how far to extend the term is a matter of reasonable disagreement.

For example, one may feel a dull discomfort and yet ignore it; that is, one may turn attention elsewhere and proceed to think and act almost as if that discomfort were not there. Is the feeling at such times conscious? It is present to consciousness, we will suppose, in such a way that it is constantly making some claim to attention. If the other and temporarily dominant interest wanes, it will once again move into the center of attention. At such a time, one will recognize that the discomfort has been there all along. But in the meantime, while attention is directed away from this discomfort, should we call the continuing feeling conscious or not?

Or again, to take a very different question, what about dreams? Are they a part of conscious experience? Here the issue is not one of attention vs. inattention as a criterion of consciousness. There is no lack of attention to the subject matter of a vivid dream. The distinction here is the relation of the subject to his environment. "Conscious experience" is often limited to the type of awareness we have of the environment when we are awake and sober. But on such points ordinary usage is inconsistent, and the careful thinker must impose, more or less arbitrarily, his own consistent usage.

In this book "conscious experience" will be used as inclusively as possible. By this usage, "awareness at any moment is broader than the focus of attention, and dreams are also a mode of "conscious experience." The first inclusion indicates that there are degrees of consciousness shading off into unconsciousness. One is more or less conscious of certain stimuli. The second indicates that there are different types of consciousness of equal vividness. Actually, this distinction between degrees and types of consciousness is itself oversimple. There is an endless variety of modes of awareness shading off into one another and into total nonawareness. Dream-consciousness is very different from ordinary waking-consciousness of the environment, but there are also experiences of many sorts that lie on the boundary between them. Nevertheless, classifications are necessary, and one useful distinction must now be made because of its importance for the analysis in the following chapters. This distinction is between conscious experience as significantly organized and conscious experience lacking such organization. The presupposition here is that although all consciousness depends on some organization of its contents, an organization that may be provided by the sense organs and related cerebral structures, this organization need not always be meaningful or significant. Examples and further comment may serve to make this assumption plausible and to explain the distinction.

I begin with an actual recent experience. I was riding in a train absorbed in a novel. My wife spoke to me, stating that we were near our destination. For a few seconds I continued reading, undisturbed by what she had said. Then, suddenly, her words "sank in" and I hurriedly prepared to get off the train. At the moment that her words sank in, I realized that I had heard them several seconds earlier.

I regard the earlier hearing as a mode of awareness. That is, the sounds she uttered impinged upon my consciousness although my attention was directed elsewhere. Through the following moments, I remembered what I had heard, and finally their meaning registered in consciousness in such a way as to be recognized as requiring action. Now I am raising the question as to the status of these sounds in the seconds before their meaning sank in. There are two possible interpretations. One is that they carried their meaning with them from the beginning, but that this meaning failed at first to gain my attention. This is possible, and the experience would then not serve to illustrate the distinction between significantly organized experience and that which is not so organized. However, this is not the way it seemed to me at the time. It seemed, rather, that my original awareness was of sounds unassociated with meanings, and that when a few seconds later the memory of the sounds evoked their meaning, my attention was instantaneously redirected. If so, then we have an instance of awareness prior to significant organization. This type of awareness I will call "receptive" to indicate the absence of the psychic activity of meaningful ordering.

Clear examples of such receptive awareness in normal adult human experience are hard to find, for we cannot question our experience as to its contents without using signs. Nevertheless, such experience plays a large role. For example, we are somehow aware of everything in our field of vision, although our attention is much more narrowly focused. The focusing of attention is closely associated with significance, and much of what is not attended to in the visual field is also significantly ordered. Still, much of what is visually presented occurs simply as sensuously given and as otherwise quite meaningless. Novel significant organization is organization of such data, and if the data were not already there in experience, such a process could not occur. Also, it is possible to cultivate an awareness, even an attentive awareness, of these data that is free from such organization. Husseri’s phenomenological method can be interpreted in these terms as can part of the technique of Zen Buddhism. All of this would be impossible if awareness were limited to what is significantly ordered. That even attentive awareness does not presuppose such organization is indicated also by the response to a sudden loud noise. Such a noise forces itself into the center of attention and evokes certain emotional responses before any meaning is attached to it, before it is perceived even as a " loud noise." That this is so seems clear to introspection and is further substantiated by the behavior of babies. The experience of babies is another indication of the fact and importance of awareness that is not significantly organized and of its separability from the question of attention. Infants attend to novel stimuli in their environment before they can deal significantly with them.

The evidence indicates that in the growth of conscious experience mere awareness is prior and primordial. In man the process of symbolization so transforms the whole that this prior and primordial experience recedes to the fringes of awareness and is only rarely and with difficulty brought to attention. However, both in the understanding of the relation of man to the subhuman and in the understanding of differences among structures of human existence, the distinction of significantly organized and receptive awareness plays an important role.

In the description of receptive awareness, the nature of significantly organized awareness has been indicated by contrast. In this awareness, elements of the environment, or the past, are perceived in terms of their relation to other entities, past, present, and future, or of their relevance to the experient subject. This relation or relevance is not a subsequent interpretation of data that are first passively received, but is, rather, the mode of initial conscious reception.

Conscious experience, then, includes both a diffuse receptive element and a significantly organized one. This latter can be subdivided according to the types of meaning it employs, and to this subject we will return in Chapter Three. First, however, it is important to broaden our understanding of experience by turning to its unconscious dimensions.

The vast majority of human experience is unconscious. This statement may seem extreme in view of the inclusiveness of the understanding of consciousness proposed above, but there is ample evidence for its truth. Such evidence is provided by the depth psychologists in their efforts to explain otherwise unintelligible aspects of conscious experience and behavior. But long before the time of Freud, and with no reference to pathology, the fact was fully recognized.(Cf., e.g., Lancelot Law Whyte, The Unconscious Before Freud [Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962.])The primacy of unconscious activity can be seen even in reference to the most conscious of mental activities, such as visual experience of the environment and rational thought.

Physical and physiological science shows us something of the process that eventuates in conscious vision. It begins with the emission or reflection of light by objects in the external world. Light waves or particles reach the human eye where they are not merely passively but also actively received and translated into nervous impulses transmitted to the occipital lobe of the brain. These nerve impulses activate selected cells in this part of the brain.

Thus far the process is not one of the unconscious dimensions of human experience but of external and bodily events. At this point, however, the chain of bodily events is at an end, and we must consider the relation of the numerous cellular events in the brain to our conscious visual experience. The chasm between these is a vast one. On the one hand, we have a plurality of physical events located inside the brain. On the other hand, we have a unified conscious field of vision located in the outside world. There must be extensive intermediate activity linking these two. Furthermore, much of this activity must have the kind of unity and creativity characteristic of conscious experience. Yet in such experience we have no glimmer of awareness of this activity. We can be aware in a general way of the role of our eyes in mediating visual experience, but we have no awareness of the work of the brain or of the process by which its work is translated into our conscious experience. We are forced to recognize that even the most passive of visual experiences are the result of vast unconscious activity.

The situation with respect to thought is similar. ‘When I am working out an argument such as this one, I am consciously thinking. Indeed, when compared with my situation at most times, this is an extreme case of conscious effort and control. Nevertheless, most of what takes place is unconscious.

For example, consider the use of words apart from which I would be quite unable to deal with the abstractions that are my stock-in-trade. At any given moment I am conscious of only a very few words, namely, those which at that moment I am using or about to use. Even if we suppose that the remainder of my vocabulary is somehow stored in my brain, I must confess that I have no conscious power to locate in my brain the words I desire and to bring them out. The words "come to me" more or less appropriately, more or less as they are needed. The way in which they come in one moment is influenced by vaguely conscious intentions and purposes of the preceding moment, but these intentions seem only to trigger processes that remain unconscious. If I am aware that there is a word that I want but that word does not come to me, I can consciously try various devices to facilitate its coming, but when and if it comes, it is supplied to consciousness by a process not itself conscious.

It is equally clear that the process of arriving at new ideas in terms of new conjunctions of words is chiefly unconscious. The idea, like the word, comes to consciousness and grows in consciousness by a process itself not consciously controlled. A person can consciously orient his attention in such a way as to facilitate this process or channel it. I am consciously aware of the results of these unconscious processes of thought as I am of the words that such processes also supply. But I am not conscious of the processes themselves.

The point at which consciousness plays its most autonomous role is in the judgment of the results of such processes. I can consciously consider the consistency and adequacy of the ideas proffered to me by my unconscious thought or by that of others. Logical and methodological reflection expresses the greatest independence that consciousness can achieve in thought. Yet even here the priority of the unconscious processes must be acknowledged. The conscious judgment that a certain argument or a certain type of argument is invalid is first the product of unconscious thought. Conscious reflection starts with such judgments and organizes them in relation to one another. It makes possible their extension to many cases where unconscious thought alone offers no conclusion. But it cannot ultimately explain its own activity.

I have intentionally chosen as examples those areas in which consciousness seems most autonomous to show that even there the conscious element is profoundly influenced by unconscious processes rather than being a self-contained entity or function. In other aspects of our experience, this is today less controversial. Few today would argue that the emotions of which we are conscious exhaust our emotional life or can be explained without reference to the ebb and flow of unconscious feeling.

Since no psychic activity is fully conscious, and all are dependent on unconscious functioning, the term "conscious activity" or "process" is misleading. Nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made, and this term is needed in order to make it. There are unconscious activities and processes that are but little affected by the forms and relations given to consciousness by the outside world. These are governed by aims at meaning and value that are often little oriented to the practical adaptation of the organism or the psyche to its environment. The results of these processes may or may not reach consciousness, in dreams or in waking life, but in either case they can be conveniently described as unconscious in their fundamental character. Alongside these are other psychic activities geared to man’s conscious interaction with his environment and subject to a considerable measure of direction and control from the side of consciousness. These may conveniently be described as conscious despite the large unconscious component.

There are still those who reject the use of the term "experience" in any way more inclusive than conscious experience, and we must agree that the term derives its central connotation from such awareness. However, there is hardly an alternative to its extension. When we take conscious experience as our basis for understanding what experience is, we think of receiving and responding to stimuli from the body and the environment, of emotion, purpose, and thought, of the significant organization of data and the influencing of action. But all of this we must attribute also to the unconscious. All that is lacking is consciousness! We could, perhaps, create some word to represent a genus inclusive both of "experience," understood to mean consciousness, and of the unconscious. But to my knowledge no suitable word has yet been proposed. Furthermore, even then it would have to be recognized that the boundary between what would be called "experience" and the unconscious is vague and fluctuating, and that, for most purposes, they must be seen as constituting a unity. It is far more natural to use "experience" itself inclusively, distinguishing between its conscious and unconscious phases, when that distinction is important for the question at issue.

I have tried to make clear that I do not regard the unconscious as identical with the brain or any other entity subject to direct investigation by the physiologist. The prejudice in favor of a physiological explanation of experience, and especially of unconscious experience, has long been very great. But this prejudice is to be understood as the result of a metaphysical faith rather than any actual evidence. If one assumes that only what can be seen and felt is "real," and that everything else, including the subjective seeing and feeling, must be a function of this reality, then psychology must be reducible to physiology. The fact that the most fruitful research has occurred only when this dogma has been denied (or bracketed, as by Freud) is not yet viewed as any grounds for lesser faith, nor are the extraordinary paradoxes that follow from this dogma for thought’s understanding of itself. On the other hand, every correlation between physiological functioning and subjective experience (and I assume that far more such correlation will be discovered in the future) is hailed as proof that eventually the reduction of psychology to physiology and biology will be achieved.

The power of this dogma over intelligent minds rests not on its own plausibility, usefulness, or attractiveness but on the unacceptability of what are supposed to be the only alternatives. The Cartesian dualism of mental and physical substances is indeed unacceptable, as is the idealism that reduces the physical to the function of the mental. Also, the popular idea of a mysterious, nonphysical, immortal soul temporarily attached to the body is unacceptable. In other scientific disciplines, the road of progress has been the road of sensuous observation with its implicit assumption that the primary and determinative reality is what is sensuously given. Hence, the prejudice is understandable.

Nevertheless, the prejudice is not acceptable. It is simply not the case that everything real is visible and tangible. The physicist today understands the whole world as made up of entities that can affect his senses only in very indirect ways. Furthermore, these entities resist interpretation as being like visible and tangible entities, only smaller. They function in ways quite different from such entities. Visible and tangible entities must finally be understood as functions of these quite different entities -- not vice versa. If we are to avoid dualism -- and that is also my desire(Here as elsewhere, I follow Whitehead. The reader interested in seeing how this works out in a doctrine of man can consult the first two chapters of my A Christian Natural Theology.)-- we must get our monistic model elsewhere than from the objects of sensuous experience. In such a situation, the bias in favor of understanding unconscious experience as a function of the brain loses whatever metaphysical justification it may once have had.

However, neither the analogy of the physicist’s particles nor the direct evidence justifies the idea of a mental substance. In the first place, by no means all the functioning of the unconscious is "mental" in any ordinary sense. In the second place, the notion of substance introduces the idea of stable endurance through time -- if not of a wholly unempirical and unthinkable something -- which is not called for by the evidence. There are continuities within the unconscious, but they are the kinds of continuities to be found within a process. What is to be affirmed, in affirming the unconscious, is a succession of experiences in which continuity is established by reenactment rather than by static identity.

In the foregoing I have written too often as if consciousness and the unconscious constituted separate entities rather than aspects of a single entity or process. It is, at times, convenient to use these nouns to refer collectively to all those elements of experience describable respectively by the adjectives "conscious" and "unconscious," and I will resort to this usage from time to time. I hope, however, it is clear that the real entity or process of which I am speaking is a unity of which much is always unconscious and of which a small part is sometimes conscious. It is this exceedingly complex process and the various structures which it embodies that constitute the subject matter of this book.

This process can be referred to in various ways. The two that will be found most commonly in this book are, on the one hand, psyche or soul and, on the other, existence. In general, when this process is being viewed objectively as one of the many processes that constitute the world as a whole or the psychophysical organism which is man, psyche or soul is more appropriate. When, instead, attention is directed to this same process as it exists for itself, in its immediacy and subjectivity, existence is employed. The decision to take "structure of existence" rather than "structure of the psyche" as the key concept for the book as a whole reflects the desire to direct primary attention to the subjectivity of the process. But it is the mutual illumination of the subjective and the objective, the inner and the outer, rather than their separation that distinguishes the analysis here offered. Hence, no sharp distinction is to be expected with respect to terminology.

I use also at times the term "occasion of experience." This is a Whiteheadian term, and my use of it expresses my acceptance of and dependence on Whitehead’s analysis of process. He holds that the process which is a man’s experience through time is composed of atomic units. The process as a whole is the succession of these atomic units which are the individual occasions of human experience. An occasion of human experience is human existence at a moment.

In Whitehead’s view (and mine) , occasions of experience are not limited to the human ones. Even in the psychophysical organism there are many other processes consisting of such occasions besides the one that constitutes the psyche or human existence. When the stress is on the role of the occasions constituting the psyche in relation to the other occasions transpiring in the organism, then the adjective "dominant" is sometimes placed before "occasion of experience." Also in the case of animals, it is often best to speak of dominant occasions of experience to refer to that entity which in man is organized as soul.

The concept of occasion of experience enables us to see what is common to the human soul and all other entities whatsoever. The concept of dominant occasion of experience enables us to see in what further respects the human soul resembles its counterpart in other animals. For a total evolutionary view, the former would be of utmost importance. For this book, in which the earlier stages of the process are neglected, the latter is of special importance, as will appear in the next chapter.

Ontologically speaking, the dominant occasion of experience is not different from the other occasions of experience with which it jointly constitutes the psychophysical animal organism. It plays, however, a unique role in the organism, and to play this role it must have vastly greater complexity. It occurs only where a developed central nervous system is to be found, and it receives its primary data from this nervous system. Its basic function is to relate stimuli received in this way to the effective organs in such a way that the organism can respond appropriately to changes in its environment.

Of all the occasions in the animal organism, only the dominant occasion enjoys consciousness. However, much of its functioning does not require consciousness and not all dominant occasions of experience participate in consciousness at all. Thus even for the dominant occasion of experience, unconsciousness is the basic mode of its being.

The dominant occasion of experience is related not only to the other occasions jointly constituting the physical organism, such as the entities making up the brain, but also to past dominant occasions of experience in the same organism. The relative importance of the relation to the body and the relation to the past dominant occasions varies. At one extreme, we can posit the occurrence of an actual occasion of experience that receives stimuli and triggers motor responses without any significant influence of prior dominant occasions. At the other extreme, we can imagine an occasion in which new stimuli from the body are negligible and the memory of past occasions decisive. Most dominant occasions fall somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes. The place on this continuum is an important element in determining the structures of existence to be described in the following chapters.

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