Omniscience and Divine Synchronization

by John Robert Baker

John Robert Baker received his ThD. in 1969 from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 1972. He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 201-208, Vol. 2, Number 3, Fall, 1972. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author deals with two questions raised by Hartshorne concerning the Whiteheadian understanding of the temporal structure of God. First, whether there is be a cosmic present; and second, the temporal length of the divine present.


Some thirty years ago Charles Hartshorne raised two questions concerning the Whiteheadian understanding of the temporal structure of God.1 He asked first if, in spite of relativity physics, there must not be a cosmic present, a divine immediacy in which the de facto totality of simultaneous actual entities exist. This question has received a measure of attention in thc last decade.2 His second question concerned the temporal length of the divine present. If the divine present is construed epochally, what must its temporal span be for its creative interaction with the advance of nature? This second question has received scant attention in the literature. My task will not be to answer this question, but to show how problematic it is for a Hartshornian conception of God.

A few preliminary remarks on the epochal theory of time, which Hartshorne generally accepts, are needed to provide a context for the discussion. According to the epochal theory, time is not some absolute container within which actual entities become; rather, time is an abstraction from the succession of actual entities. The basic thrust of the matter is expressed by Donald Sherburne: "Concrescence is not in time: rather, time is in concrescence in the sense of being an abstraction from actual entities" (KPR 38). From the point of view of physical time actual entities are temporally atomic. That is, they are indivisible into earlier and later portions; but they are not, like instantaneous points, indivisible because unextended. Each actual entity has temporal extension, but the temporal extension happens all at once as an indivisible unit. Time might be construed as being built up out of the successive relations of actual entities.

In some abstractive, though legitimate, sense one can speak of the temporal length of an actual entity’s epoch. Whatever its temporal length or extension may be, the actual entity prehends God at its inception and is prehended by God at its satisfaction. Furthermore, since God is conceived by Hartshorne as a society of actual occasions, it is legitimate to ask what the temporal extension of a single divine experience is.

The issue begins to take shape. God must be able to prehend the satisfaction of every actual entity of the temporal process. God’s omniscience requires this. Furthermore, the satisfaction of a divine occasion must be able to be prehended by every incipient actual entity. God’s creative role in the world requires this. It follows then that God’s successive experiences must coincide with the inception and satisfaction of every actual entity, lest there be an actual entity for whom God is not available as an initial datum, or an actual entity whose satisfaction is not prehended by God. This is not to suggest that any one of God’s successive experiences is coincident with all the actual entities at some divine present. It is to say that each actual entity at its inception must prehend some divine satisfaction or other, and each actual entity at its satisfaction must be prehended by some divine occasion or other.

Such speculation may be foreign to Whitehead’s system, yet the following quotations from Hartshorne and John Cobb suggest that their notion of God lends itself to such an analysis. Hartshorne observes that

the notion of a "creative advance of nature" seems to imply a cosmic "front" of simultaneity as short as the shortest specious present. I suppose God to have this now as his psychological simultaneity. (P1 324f)

Along similar lines Cobb suggests that

we may ask how many occasions of experience would occur for God in a second. The answer is that it must be a very large number, incredibly large to our limited imaginations. The number of successive electronic occasions in a second staggers the imagination. God’s self-actualizations must be at least equally numerous if he is to function separately in relation to each individual in this series. Since electronic occasions are presumably not in phase with each other or with other types of actual occasions, still further complications are involved. (CNT 192)

The picture can now be boldly sketched. The temporal process is moving forward in a unison of becoming. At any given cosmic present, as determined by the divine simultaneity, some, but not all, of the actual entities have reached satisfaction.3 The satisfaction of no actual entity escapes some cosmic present, for at that time God prehends the datum and thereby increases his knowledge. The frequency of the cosmic present, or the divine "psychological simultaneity," is such that no actual entity fails to be creatively related to God. God’s life must be synchronized with the lives of every actual entity. What then is the temporal length of the divine occasion?

God’s successive experiences must be as rapid as those of any in creation, lest God’s knowledge and creativity be diminished. Suppose that in all of creation every actual entity has a temporal extension of either 1/5, 1/10, 1/20, 1/40, or 1/80 of a second. This is but to say that five actual entities with a temporal extension of 1/5 of a second when serially ordered would require a time lapse of one second, and similarly for the other four possibilities. It would seem that, according to Hartshorne and Cobb, each of God’s experiences would have the same temporal extension as the most rapid of actual entities, in this case 1/80 of a second. Thus God would prehend the satisfaction of those actual entities of temporal extension of 1/80 in every successive moment of his life. Every other occasion of the divine life would prehend those entities with temporal extension of 1/40. With respect to those actual entities of greatest temporal extension, 1/5 of a second, God would have sixteen successive occasions to every one of them. Nevertheless in this pattern it is sufficient for the temporal extension of a divine experience to be that of the least of all actual entities.

But other patterns can be devised where the temporal extension of the divine experience must be much smaller than that of any actual entity. Consider the following pattern of temporal extensions.

Figure I:

1/17 1/34 1/68 1/136

1/13 1/26 1/52 1/104

1/11 1/22 1/44 1/88

1/7 1/14 1/28 1/56

1/5 1/10 1/20 1/40

1/3 1/6 1/12 1/24

Suppose that every actual entity in the universe enjoys one or another of these twenty-four temporal extensions, it being understood that each represents a fraction of a second. In this case 1/3 is the greatest extension, whereas 1/136 is the least. But what must the temporal extension of the divine experience be if God is to function separately in relation to each individual in this series? The answer to that question is found by determining the lowest common denominator of the fractions, for only by this means can we determine that the inceptions and satisfactions of the divine occasions will coincide exactly with the inception and satisfaction of every actual entity. It is 23 x 3 x 5 x 7 x 11 x 13 x 17, or 2,042,042. Therefore, God has 2,042,042 occasions of experience per second, whereas the least temporal extension in the pattern is 1/136 of a second.

But one might object that the disparity between the temporal extension of the experience of God and that of other entities is occasioned by the disparity of temporal extensions in Figure I, from 1/3 to 1/136 of a second. Furthermore, the objector might continue, twenty-four possibilities is too great. It could be said that there is no reason to think that actual entities differ that much in temporal extension4 or that so many different possibilities exist. Let us then consider another pattern of temporal extensions, this time with twelve options and all approximately 1/10 of a second.5

Figure II

1/9 1/10 1/11

2/19 2/21 2/23

3/28 3/31 3/34

4/37 4/41 4/45

As before, every actual entity enjoys one or another of these twelve temporal extensions. What must the temporal extension of the divine experience be in such a case? The answer is 1/22 x 32 x 5 x 7 x 11 x 17 x 19 x 23 x 31 x 37 x 41, or 1/4,842,179,260,380 of a second.

At this point one might be tempted to say that the temporal extension of every actual entity is the same. God could be conceived as sharing this same temporal extension. But the problem is not really solved unless one says that all of the actual entities are in phase or synchronized. Let the temporal extension of all actual entities be some constant 1. Arbitrarily select an actual entity AE; its temporal extension is 1, obviously. But somewhere in the universe there are twelve actual entities whose temporal extensions, also 1, overlap that of AE. Return to Figure II. The temporal extension of one actual entity overlaps that of AE by 1/9 of the constant 1, another by 1/10, and so on until each of the twelve possibilities of Figure II is uniquely assigned to the twelve actual entities. It is obvious that the problem has reappeared in different form, and the temporal extension of the divine experience is 1/4,842,179,260,380 x the constant extension of all actual entities.

Now it is appropriate to explore briefly some of the issues which the preceding considerations raise. First, one might claim that these arguments constitute a reduction to absurdity (such frequency of divine occasions being construed as absurd) of the Hartshornian position and consequently that the position must be altered to avoid this absurd result. I think this claim is mistaken. Although the number of divine occasions in a second would have to be incredibly large on this accounting, there is no reason in principle why Hartshorne could not affirm it. Such a frequency of divine experience is unimaginable, but it is not logically impossible. Hartshorne has often chided the positivist for claiming that God cannot be intelligible unless God is imaginable. Doubtless it is open to Hartshorne to claim that the divine occasions, no matter how small, are of finite duration and hence intelligible and not absurd.

Second, an intriguing problem is raised with regard to the growth of God’s knowledge. According to Hartshorne and Cobb, God’s knowledge grows in each successive experience. Yet the pattern of actual entities in Figure II raises a curious problem at this point. Arranged in increasing magnitude of temporal extension, the actual entities appear as 2/23, 3/34, 4/45, 1/11, 2/21, 3/31, 4/41, 1/10, 2/19, 3/28, 4/37, 1/9. Assume that there are twelve actual entities, each uniquely possessing one of these values. Further assume that all of these actual entities commence simultaneously at some time t. Arbitrarily select any two contiguous fractions, such as the third and fourth in the series, 4/45 and 1/11. After the completion of the actual entity with a temporal extension of 4/45 of a second, God will have 9,780,160,124 successive experiences before the satisfaction of the actual entity with a temporal extension of 1/11.6 This means that God has nearly ten billion successive experiences before there exists an actual entity whose satisfaction he can prehend, thereby increasing his knowledge. This assumes that all of God’s successive experiences are equal in temporal duration. If this is true, it is incorrect to think that each successive experience of God increases his knowledge.

One might try to mitigate this conclusion by pointing to the immense density of the temporal process with regard to the satisfactions of the countless actual entities of reality, and then argue that surely there is at least one of these actual entities which reaches satisfaction simultaneously with the incohate divine occasion. This move will not do for two reasons. One, to emphasize the number of actual entities is to raise the possibility of a greater diversity in temporal extension and a greater number with overlapping extensions, hence causing the divine occasions to be even more frequent and more likely of occurring without an increase in the divine knowledge. A sort of helpless cycle is instituted. Two, this response fails to recognize the objection as systematic, not factual. That is, the objection points to a weakness in the Hartshornian system; on the system’s own terms there seems to be no guarantee that each of God’s successive experiences will coincide with the satisfaction of some actual entity. Thus the problem of divine synchronization seems to be a two-edged sword -- God’s experiences must be thin enough to be prehended by every actual entity in its inception and to prehend every actual entity in its satisfaction; but if his experience is that thin, there is no assurance that each divine experience will result in an increase in the divine knowledge.

How might a Hartshornian respond to this latter problem and retain the usual claim for the increasing divine knowledge? At least three responses exist. One, he might claim that all actual entities are in phase and the largest temporal extensions are multiples of the smallest extension, e.g., 1/320, 1/160, 3/320, 1/80, 1/64 Here it would suffice to have the temporal extension of the divine experience as that of the shortest temporal extension. The problem with this response is that it is blatantly ad hoc, besides contradicting the explicit remarks of Hartshorne and Cobb on the lack of synchronization among actual entities.

A second alternative would be to challenge a premise implicit throughout the entire discussion, namely that all divine occasions are of the same temporal length. The temporal span of divine occasions might vary so that divine occasion A does not reach satisfaction and divine occasion B does not commence until at least one actual entity in the universe has reached satisfaction. On this interpretation then, the temporal span of divine occasion A might be 1/495 of a second, i.e., that span between the satisfaction of an actual entity with a duration of 4/45 of a second and the satisfaction of one with a duration of 1/11 (see above, p. 204) while occasion B would have a longer temporal span, 1/231 of a second, given the difference between the satisfactions of actual entities with spans of 1/11 and 2/21 of a second. The principle governing the temporal duration of divine occasions could be stated roughly: No new divine occasion commences until at least one new satisfaction of an actual entity has been reached.

This second alternative shows some promise, but problems remain. How would God know when to reach a satisfaction and commence a new divine occasion coincident with this newly achieved satisfaction? On the Hartshornian model of the divine life, God is occupied with synthesizing and unifying those physical prehensions of the initial stage of that particular divine occasion. Following the initial stage, the divine occasion is closed to any further physical prehensions. Hence the divine occasion would be unaware of any new satisfaction that occurred coincident with this period of divine closure and synthesis. The divine occasion cannot prehend the emergence of the actual entity’s satisfaction because ex hypothesi the divine occasion in its concrescence is closed to further physical prehensions.

This objection might be countered by the following argument. Since the divine occasion includes within its prehensions the past actual world of some actual entity, call it AE (1), the divine occasion could calculate the temporal span of AE (1) from inception to satisfaction and could time its own satisfaction and successor’s inception to coincide with the satisfaction of AE (1). This could be done for every actual entity so that the divine occasions would be synchronized with the creative advance of reality. The lengths of the divine occasions would vary as the divine calculations dictated.

Although this proposal strikes me as somewhat forced, it is not unintelligible. However, one objection can be brought against it. Hartshorne has long been an advocate of the indeterminacy of the future; the specific concrete character of the actual is not knowable beforehand, not even by God. Can a Hartshornian consistently claim that God knows the quantitative duration of the immediate future? Why not its qualitative character too? The notion that God can compute the temporal span of concrescing occasions strikes me as being rather systematically irregular, if not ad hoc.

All that remains is a consideration of a third alternative. Allow the initial stage of the divine occasion to have some extensive breadth (possibly up to its satisfaction) so that it can have physical prehensions throughout its concrescence. This move would obviate all the talk about the divine computation of an entity’s temporal duration. God would be open to new satisfactions throughout its own concrescing occasion. This solves the problem of how God could know the next satisfaction, but a problem remains with regard to God’s creative role in the universe. The divine occasion is not allowed after its initial stage the luxury of several nonsimultaneous physical prehensions before reaching satisfaction. It must reach satisfaction coincident with the very first new satisfaction; otherwise, the successor to the recently completed entity will have no divine occasion to prehend. The divine occasion, call it DO (10), must prehend the first new satisfaction in the universe, call it AE (10), and reach satisfaction simultaneously with it; for only then could DO (10) provide the subjective aim for AE (11). DO (9) no longer exists to provide the subjective aim for AE (11). And, given the Hartshornian insistence upon the causal independence of contemporaries, DO (11) cannot provide the subjective aim for AE (11).7

All is not well with this alternative, unfortunately. First, the notion of a divine occasion’s reaching satisfaction upon its prehension of the first new satisfaction would necessitate a revision of the whole idea of concrescence itself. How could the satisfaction of AE (10) be synthesized and harmonized within DO (10), when DO (10) ceases upon its prehension of that satisfaction? How could the satisfaction of AE (10) enter into the divine life except to bring one of the divine occasions to a halt? Two, this alternative is self-defeating in the following way. If the satisfaction of AE (10) is prehended by DO (10), then no new initial datum exists for DO (11). And without a new initial datum, how is this divine experience to result in an increase in the divine knowledge? On this view, however, DO (11) would be open after its initial stage to receive physical prehensions. But now the first mentioned problem returns: Is a prehension without a synthesis and unification into the divine life knowledge?

Of course the Hartshornian might want to claim that the divine occasion can be prehended at any stage of its concrescence, not just at its satisfaction. But this move cuts the ground out from under the Hartshornian rationale of conceiving of God’s "psychological simultaneity" as temporally thin. If God can creatively interact in any phase of concrescence, then why must that occasion be temporally thin? Could not its temporal span be several seconds, several hours, several days, ad indefinitum, and still be creatively interactive? This would commit one to a radical reconstruction of the Hartshornian scheme, moving closer to the position of William Christian.

Doubtless the three alternatives are not exhaustive. Nor do I deny that the alternatives mentioned may hold possibilities for further interpretations which I have overlooked. The purpose of this paper has been achieved whatever solution is proposed, for with any proposed solution there is an implicit recognition that the matter of divine synchronization is problematic for a Hartshornian position. To stimulate that recognition has been the purpose of this study.



CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia:

Westminster Press, 1965.

KPR -- A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, edited by Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

PI -- Philosophical Interrogations, edited by Sydney and Beatrice Rome. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.



1 Charles Hartshorne, "Whitehead’s Idea of God," in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. by Paul Arthur Schilpp, The Library of Living Philosophers (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1941), pp. 545-46.

2 The issue was raised anew by John T. Wilcox’s "A Question from Physics for Certain Theists," The Journal of Religion, 41(October, 1961), 293-300. Hartshorne’s answers appear in PI 324f and in his A Natural Theology for Our Time (La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1967), pp. 93-95. Lewis S. Ford, in "Is Process Theism Compatible with Relativity Theory?" The Journal of Religion, 48 (April, 1968), 124-35, proposes a new solution to the question, along with a criticism of Hartshorne’s position.

3 It might be objected that since Whitehead wrote that an actual entity lies in infinitely many durations (PR 191) and is temporally atomic, it is not appropriate in a Whiteheadian framework to raise questions about a cosmic present and the relative extension and overlapping of actual entities. The objection may be well-founded, yet it does not bear against the approach of the present study. All that the present study affirms is that such considerations are appropriate to the thought of Hartshorne and of Cobb. This may raise the question of the legitimacy of the Hartshorne-Cobb development of Whitehead’s thought at this point.

4 In fact, the disparity is probably not great enough, though for my purposes the more limited range of lengths is sufficient. In personal correspondence Lewis S. Ford called my attention to an article by Robert Efron, "The Duration of the Present," Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 138, 2 (February 6. 1967), 713-29. This work may be interpreted within a Whiteheadian framework as indicating that the temporal span of the shortest human mental occasion is 20-40 milliseconds, and that of the longest up to several seconds. Moreover, electronic occasions doubtless even range to less than 20 milliseconds in length. Whatever values one may settle upon empirically, my analysis still obtains, being formal in nature.

5 In AI 49, 233, Whitehead seems to suggest that an actual entity might have a temporal span of 1/10 of a second.

6 The figure of 9,780,160,124 was arrived at by subtracting 4/45 from 1/11, which results in 1/495. But in 1/495 of a second God will have 9,780,160,124 experiences, for 1/495 x 4,842,179,260,380 -- 9,780,160,124.

7See Hartshorne’s discussion in PI 325 and in "Idealism and Our Experience of Nature" in Philosophy, Religion, and the Coming World Civilization: Essays in Honor of William Ernest Hocking, ed. by Leroy S. Rouner (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966), pp. 79-80. For our purposes it suffices to say that Hartshorne argues that, for two contemporaries DO (11) and AE (11), AE (11) receives its subjective aim from DO (10), and the satisfaction of AE (11) is prehended by DO (12). The third alternative has already resulted in a modification of the principle of the independence of contemporaries, for DO (10), rather than DO (11), is construed as prehending the satisfaction of AE (10). But now if DO (11), and not DO (10), is construed as providing the subjective aim for AE (11), this principle is totally abandoned.