Regional Inclusion and the Extensive Continuum

by John B. Cobb Jr. and Donald W. Sherburne

John B. Cobb, Jr. is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology. Donald W. Sherburne is Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 277-295, Vol. 2, Number 4, Winter, 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.


Cobb and Sherburne debate issues concerning regional inclusion and the extensive continuum. The argument is over the attributions of certain doctrines to Whitehead’s process thought.

Cobb: It is a pleasure to debate Professor Sherburne. Not only does he take clear positions and argue for them vigorously, but also the debate makes progress! Sherburne’s rejoinder [in PS 1, 2 (Summer, 1971), 101-13] is much more sharply focused than his original essay on "Whitehead Without God." (PPGT 305-28). It pushes more deeply into basic issues. And it calls for a more precise response, though in this exchange we will restrict ourselves to only one of the issues raised, that concerning regional inclusion and the extensive continuum.

Altering somewhat his sequence, I believe that I do no injustice to the structure of his general argument by summarizing it as follows:

1. Whitehead implies that God is the ground of the givenness of the past. This is a sufficiently important part of Whitehead’s reason for affirming God that its successful rejection is "one reason for exploring the possibility of a naturalistic reinterpretation of Whitehead’s basic categories" (PS 1:105; cf. 108f).

2. For God to function as the ground of the givenness of the past, he must either occupy a region coextensive with the regions occupied by his creatures or relate to them nonextensively. The first alternative must he rejected because there can be no regional inclusion. The second alternative must be rejected because only contiguous occasions can be prehended.

It is important for the reader to understand a rather odd feature of our debate. I am not arguing against Sherburne in favor of the view that God is needed as the ground of the givenness of the past and can fulfill this function. On the contrary, I am arguing in favor of Sherburne’s view that God is not and cannot be in Whitehead’s system the ground of the givenness of the past. Our disagreement is as to Whitehead’s intention. According to Sherburne the "most reasonable reading of Whitehead’s system" (PS 1:105) requires that God be the ground of the givenness of the past and Whitehead implies this doctrine. I deny that there is any ground for attributing this doctrine to Whitehead. The dispute is relevant to Sherburne’s basic project of an atheistic Whiteheadianism since, if this were an important reason for Whitehead’s theism, its refutation would cast doubt on that theism. Since I am convinced that it was no part at all of Whitehead’s reasons for affirming God, I do not see its refutation as a "reason for exploring" the atheistic alternative. Of course in our day, when "God" is so unpopular in philosophy, in the university culture, and even in theology, there are quite understandable reasons for trying to excise God from Whitehead’s system. But I think it worthwhile to insist that Sherburne’s basic argument thus far does not express them; otherwise, the reader might suppose Sherburne had displayed a very basic weakness in Whitehead’s case for theism that does not in fact exist.

Sherburne explicitly discusses regional inclusion and noncontiguous efficacy as adjuncts of his basic argument that God cannot be the ground of the givenness of the past. Since we are agreed that God is not the ground of the givenness of the past, one might suggest that no further discussion is appropriate. However, in fact Sherburne’s argument is much more fundamental. If God cannot be related to occasions either contiguously or noncontiguously, God cannot be related to occasions at all. This is the real thrust of Sherburne’s argument, and it counts against all Whiteheadian talk of God. For this reason it is eminently worth discussing.

I shall begin with the second point because that can be treated more briefly. Here too there is partial agreement between us, followed by important disagreement. We agree that the most promising way to show how God is related to the world would be by regional inclusion. We disagree in that whereas I leave open the possibility of exploring an alternative mode of relation, he wishes to foreclose this. In A Christian Natural Theology I pointed out that Whitehead allows for the prehensions of noncontiguous Occasions. This leaves open the undeveloped possibility of arguing that the relation of God to actual occasions may be of this sort.

Sherburne does not in this instance dispute my reading of the text He argues instead that Whitehead errs in allowing for such noncontiguous prehensions. He insists that Whitehead’s assertion of hybrid feelings of noncontiguous occasions assumes too sharp a distinction between the mental and the physical poles. If the mental pole cannot be sharply separated from the physical pole, Sherburne thinks, Whitehead must accept the same limits for hybrid feelings as for physical feelings. Since Whitehead follows science in disallowing physical feelings of noncontiguous entities, he should deny such hybrid feelings as well. Sherburne even claims that in this way he has "educed arguments that strongly suggest the desirability of limiting immediate objectification to contiguous occasions as a general metaphysical principle" (PS 1:113, italics mine).

It would indeed require that this be a general metaphysical principle in order to achieve Sherburne’s desired results of excluding the possibility that God and actual occasions have hybrid feelings of each other not dependent on contiguity. For if the argument appeals to contingent features of the interrelation of actual occasions in our cosmic epoch, it obviously cannot settle the relation of God and the world. Whitehead’s assertion that God exemplifies the categories is not an assertion that in his relation to actual occasions he is bound by all the limitations that govern the relations of actual occasions with each other. But I do not find that Sherburne even discusses the metaphysical or categoreal question. Hence I assume that he does not really mean anything as strong as this.

To show that Whitehead should, in consistency, deny all prehensions by actual occasions of noncontiguous ones would go some way to putting the burden of proof on the Whiteheadian who would claim contiguity unnecessary for God. This is the actual context of Sherburne’s argument. However, even here it basically begins at the opposite pole from Whitehead. Sherburne assumes that common sense or science overwhelmingly supports the view that there can be no "action at a distance" and hence thinks that the burden of proof rests on anyone who would assert this to be possible. He further seems to think that Whitehead denies physical feelings of noncontiguous entities. Hence he thinks Whitehead could only justify his belief that there are hybrid feelings of noncontiguous entities by showing some very fundamental difference between hybrid and physical feelings.

Whitehead held, on the other hand, that "the contrary opinion would seem more natural" from the point of view of his philosophy (PR 469). He then conceded,

provided that physical science maintains its denial of ‘action at a distance,’ the safer guess is that direct objectification is practically negligible except for contiguous occasions; but that this practical negligibility is a characteristic of the present cosmic epoch, without any metaphysical generality.

Since he concedes only contingent "practical negligibility" with respect to physical feelings, he obviously does not have to show any profound difference of hybrid feelings from physical ones in order to hold that there may be less negligible hybrid feelings of noncontiguous occasions. Many Whiteheadians pass over this aspect of Whitehead’s thought with embarrassment. They seem to think that to agree with Whitehead here would either violate fundamental intuitions that are sacrosanct or be "unscientific." They are likely to agree with Sherburne because they want to. Wishful thinking of this sort is difficult to argue against, but it may be relevant to note briefly that the status of "action at a distance" is by no means so clear cut in contemporary philosophy of science as they seem to suppose.

"Action" in the sense required in this phrase has to do with causal efficacy, and few concepts are less clear in contemporary science than is cause. Among philosophers of science the Humeans are in the majority; the Humean doctrine by no means excludes noncontiguous causes. Bertrand Russell even argued on occasion that causes cannot be contiguous to their effects (2:389-91). More recently Arthur Pap has discussed the whole matter as an open question, although he favors the search for (nearly but not quite) contiguous causes (4:261, 269f).

The non-Humeans are at least equally undogmatic on this point. Mario Bunge asserts that the relation of causality to contiguity is one to be investigated empirically, not decided by fiat. He traces the history of physical theory on this point and indicates that the gradual victory of contiguity applies only to phenomena of a specifiable sort. It provides no grounds for metaphysical generalization (1:64).

Modern science in general has found that a priori views of what is possible, far from being helpful in its development, are handicaps. Whitehead is again and again careful to present categories that are open to highly varied empirical facts. There is no more reason to suppose that he is being weak-minded on this point than when he denies dimensionality as a necessary characteristic of the extensive continuum. If some development of quantum theory should lead to the positing of causal efficacy between noncontiguous quanta, we might be glad that Whitehead had not been so rigid as to affirm a metaphysical necessity of contiguity. Similarly, if evidence continues to favor the occurrence of parapsychological phenomena, and if no special medium of such communication can be found, we should be glad to have available a conceptuality in which these phenomena can be understood in continuity with the rest of our knowledge of the world. Whitehead’s openness on such questions may in the long run prove much wiser than the narrower views of many of his followers. At the very least, if we are to speak of God at all, we should be careful not to suppose that he is limited to the same modes of relation that contingently characterize us.

Although I am sure Whitehead left open the door to think of God’s relations with the world in such terms and although I see no reason to close it, I am myself more interested in exploring the consequences of holding that God is quite literally omnipresent. His interrelations with the world can be rendered more readily intelligible in this way. Sherburne and I agree that this implies that the regional standpoint of God includes the regional standpoints of the creatures. Sherburne believes that this idea of regional inclusion is excluded by Whitehead’s systematic position. I recognize that Whitehead does not have it in view, but I do not see that it is excluded.

With Sherburne’s discussion of the relation of regions and entities I find myself generally in agreement. I even agree with the conclusion he takes "from these various argument . . . that the unity of a subject involves irrevocably the extensive elements which identify the standpoint, or region, of an actual entity" (PS 1:104). To deny that would seem to suggest that the actual entity need not be extensive at all, or that it might float loose from its locus in time and space, or that it might expand or contract, and it has never occurred to me to affirm anything of that sort. But I am a little startled in reading on to find that "this conclusion does show that Whitehead’s categories exclude regional inclusion from his system, in principle."

I am puzzled by this last step for two reasons. First, I simply don’t see how the conclusion shows this. I cannot think how one would formalize a deduction of the latter sentence from the previous one without introducing a number of very questionable premises (This is a challenge!), and I have only a vague intuition as to how Sherburne’s mind connects the two. Second, he speaks here of Whitehead’s categories, whereas the previous discussion does not refer to them, and the notion of region does not appear in the categoreal scheme. Perhaps "categories" is used more loosely, but in that case, the "in principle" becomes even more suspect.

My perplexity leads me to try to understand the difference between us that leads Sherburne to find the irrevocable extensiveness of an actual entity sufficient reason to suppose that regional inclusion is impossible. This leads me to a close examination of some quite subtle disagreements with his language, disagreements that in another context I would pass over as trivial.

Sherburne twice (PS 1:102, 103) quotes against me Whitehead’s statement that "the subjective unity dominating the process forbids the division of the extensive quantum which originates with the primary phase of the subjective aim" (PR 434). This sentence is taken from a passage dealing with the relation of occasions to physical time. Whitehead’s point is that one cannot speak of a first part of an occasion as temporally preceding a second part. The becoming of the whole occasion presupposes its entire standpoint. I fully concur, but this is an entirely different issue, one on which I think that Sherburne and I are in agreement.

But Sherburne draws from this sentence the conclusion that "the extensive quantum, the region correlated with an entity [italics mine], actually originates with an entity" (PS 1:102; note that Whitehead’s sentence does not speak of regions). He thus gives the impression that regions come into being. That could be understood to mean that until the extensive quantum originated, i.e., prior to the actual entity’s becoming, there was no given region at all. Sherburne’s criticism of my view as presupposing a Newtonian preexistent space-time fits this interpretation of his view, because in this criticism he seems to assert that extensiveness applies only to the past and to the becoming occasions, that the extensive continuum is actually increased in extent by the concrescence of new occasions. If that were the case, then I would indeed have difficulty in speaking of regional inclusion, for it would be strange to think of a single region as being created out of nothing twice!

But whether or not this is Sherburne’s view, it is not Whitehead’s. Whitehead holds that "the extensive continuum . . . underlies the whole world, past, present, and future . . . The reality of the future is bound up with the reality of this continuum" (PR 103; my italics). The continuum is characterized most basically by extensive connection, and Whitehead defines regions as "the relata which are involved in the scheme of ‘extensive connection"’ (PR 449). Hence past, present, and future are all characterized by regions. Regions as such do not originate with the becoming of occasions.

These regions, as segments of the continuum, are infinitely divisible. But the infinitely divisible continuum is atomized into definite extensive quanta which are the standpoints of particular occasions. These extensive quanta or standpoints do originate. They are, of course, also regions, having all the properties of regions as well as the distinctive property of atomic unification by the subjective unity of the occasions whose standpoints they are. Hence Whitehead writes, "In dividing the region we are ignoring the subjective unity which is inconsistent with such division. But the region is, after all, divisible, although in the generic growth it is undivided" (PR 435).

There is no disputing that regions as regions overlap and are divisible in all manner of ways. The question is only whether these relations can apply to those regions that function as standpoints of actual occasions. If this is forbidden, it is not by their character as regions; it must be by the character of the actual occasions whose subjective aims determine which regions will be standpoints. Neither Sherburne nor anyone else, so far as I know, has shown that the diversity of subjective aims requires externality of all standpoints.

Sherburne writes as if this distinguishing of regions from occasions led toward a Cartesian dualism. It does not. A Cartesian dualism would follow if it were held that some occasions had regional standpoints, and hence were extended, while others did not, Whitehead has not maintained anything of this sort, nor have I.

One final word. Sherburne tends, in his argument against regional inclusion, to quote passages in which Whitehead is making the point that when the region of an actual occasion is divided the subregions correspond to its physical feelings but that these physical feelings are not actual occasions capable of independent existence. These physical feelings exist only as parts of the total occasion, and the total occasion presupposes the entire extensive quantum that is its standpoint. I hope that it is understood that I not only subscribe to this Whiteheadian doctrine but insist upon its great importance. In the offending passage quoted by Sherburne from A Christian Natural Theology, I was stressing that the occasions whose standpoints occupied subregions were not parts of the occasions occupying the larger region. The occasions could not be discovered in the way Whitehead is rejecting, i.e., by identifying the subregion correlative with a particular physical feeling. On the contrary, the lesser occasions are contemporaries of the larger ones. They are not parts, and there is no causal relation between them. Again, I should stress that I do not attribute this doctrine to Whitehead. But I do not see that its possibility is excluded by basic aspects of his system.

Since the doctrine is not Whitehead’s, the reasons for exploring it must be shown. One reason, of course, is that (as Sherburne agrees) it could make more fully intelligible how God is related to the world. But there are other advantages. Ivor Leclerc (3) has recently shown that although Whitehead has- done more than other atomists in explaining the kind of unity possessed by compounds and organisms, he still fails to do justice to the distinctive characteristics that emerge and function at these supraparticle levels. I find his thesis generally persuasive, and I suggest that a doctrine of regional inclusion would handle the problem with less adjustment of Whitehead’s general philosophical position and greater adequacy to the needs of the sciences than Leclerc’s proposals.

Sherburne: This debate over my allegation that the concept "God" introduces an incoherent element into Whitehead’s metaphysics has developed to the point where my position can be stated, as noted by Cobb, in the form of a dilemma: God must be related to occasions either contiguously or noncontiguously, but both options fail, for the first horn presupposes the untenable concept of regional inclusion and the second presupposes an interpretation of hybrid physical feelings which I have argued is unjustified. The first horn is of primary interest in this debate, because Professor Cobb has shown a strong penchant for the notion of regional inclusion, a notion he acknowledges to be, at least explicitly, unrecognized by Whitehead, but which he, Cobb, finds (1) quite compatible with the Whiteheadian conceptuality and (2) of great philosophical usefulness. It is my conviction that the concept of regional inclusion is, in principle, incompatible with concepts at the heart of Whitehead’s metaphysics. I will move our debate forward by arguing that there are disagreements concerning the nature of the extensive continuum which underlie the different judgments Cobb and I make concerning the coherence of the notion of regional inclusion.

The new and significant claim which Cobb has introduced into the argument is the claim that regions do not come into being. I have argued that they do, since it is because an occasion’s region comes into being as an integral part of that occasion that the notion of regional inclusion is unintelligible. Prior to an actual entity’s becoming there is no given region, no actual region. Much is at stake here, for Cobb acknowledges that if I am correct then regional inclusion is an absurd concept. I will argue that Cobb has blurred the distinction between actual existence and existence as part of a scheme of potential relationships. This blurring of a key distinction results from the way he presents the concept of the extensive continuum -- he does not make clear the sense in which it "underlies the whole world, past, present, and future." It is my intent to clarify the concept of the extensive continuum with the aim of making it apparent that, in the sense relevant to our debate, regions do originate with the becoming of the actual entities of which they are an integral part.

Cobb writes:

The continuum is characterized most basically by extensive connection, and Whitehead defines regions as "the relata which are involved in the scheme of ‘extensive connection’" (PR 449). Hence past, present, and future are all characterized by regions. Regions as such do not originate with the becoming of occasions.

Cobb gets in trouble here not so much because of what he has said as because of what he has left unsaid about potentiality and actuality in the context of his discussion. That Cobb is in trouble is apparent when we read on a few lines and find him saying of standpoints:

These extensive quanta or standpoints do originate. They are of course also regions, having all the properties of regions as well as the distinctive property of atomic unification by the subjective unity of the occasion whose standpoints they are.

Cobb here says standpoints are regions, have all the properties of regions, and do originate. But in the passages above he has insisted that it is a property of regions that they do not originate. Cobb has contradicted himself. Something is wrong! His failure to take careful account of the actuality-potentiality distinction has revenged itself upon him!

The first point that must be insisted upon is that the extensive continuum is, in a sense to be specified, associated with potentiality.

The extensive continuum is that general relational element in experience whereby the actual entities experienced, and that unit experience itself, are united in the solidarity of one common world. The actual entities atomize it, and thereby make real what was antecedently merely potential. (PR 112; italics added.)

Since Cobb has tied the notion of the future to that of the extensive continuum, let me put his quotation in context: "The reality of the future is bound up with the reality of this continuum. It is the reality of what is potential, in its character of a real component of what is actual" (PR 103; italics added), We need now a clearer grasp of the nature of this potentiality and if we really understand what Whitehead means in this last sentence, when he refers to the character of this potentiality as "a real component of what is actual," then we will understand the nature of the extensive continuum much more clearly.

The required understanding can be had if we unpack the following passage. "Extension is the most general scheme of real potentiality, providing the background for all other organic relations" (PR 105). The crux of the matter is this notion of "real potentiality." To understand this concept is to understand how the extensive continuum is a real component of what is actual, which in turn must be seen before Cobb’s confusion concerning whether or not regions originate can be cleared up.

"Real potentiality" is a concept best understood by contrast with the notion of "general potentiality." General potentiality is a phrase used by Whitehead to refer to "the bundle of possibilities, mutually consistent or alternative, provided by the multiplicity of eternal objects" (PR 102); general potentiality refers to the realm of eternal objects considered in itself apart from any limitations, other than logical limitations, that might be put upon the patterns within which eternal objects might ingress into the world. But there are, in fact, limitations other than those of logic put upon ingression into the world by eternal objects. The past, with all its commitments to one set of developments rather than another, limits the range of eternal objects that can ingress in any specific, concrete instance. For example, it is a general or pure possibility that I might win the 100-meter dash in the next Olympic Games, but this is not a real possibility given my creaky joints, advancing years, etc. "Real potentiality" refers to those possibilities for the ingression of eternal objects which still remain after one strikes from consideration the impossibilities which the conditions of a given, factual world eliminate from the horizon of any particular actual entity or set of actual entities arising out of that world.

In my example I have presented the notion of real potentiality in a negative way. I need now to provide another example which will put the notion in a positive modality, for it is in the positive modality that we encounter the extensive continuum. It is a fact that neither my wife nor I nor any of our relatives or close friends speaks Chinese. When we married and began to have our children, it was not a real possibility that our children would grow up speaking Chinese in the home -- even were the two of us to perish in a disaster, the pool of persons from whom guardians would be appointed were and are such that this is just not a real possibility. But now turn this example around and look at it positively. Our children were born enjoying certain real potentialities; i.e., they would grow up speaking English in the home, knowing about baseball and sailing, eating hot dogs and hamburgers, etc., because of the past of the world into which they were born. The nature and conditions of the world to which my wife and I belong specified certain real potentialities for all possible children we might have. Or put it this way, the world to which my wife and I belong is part of a society, and it is a characteristic of a society that as long as it endures it lays down conditions to which successor members of that society must conform. In my example the society involved is American society of the middle of the twentieth century, and that society lays down many different real possibilities for its members than does the society occupying mainland China in mid-twentieth century. Note carefully from this example that though the real possibility of our era and locale dictates that all possible children I might have would grow up speaking English and eating hot dogs, there is not, off in the shadowy future somewhere, a potential child of mine eating a potential hot dog. In talking about real potentialities we are talking about conditions that a present lays on any future which is to flow from it. If there were some conditions that a given present were to establish for its future, then Whitehead would be inclined to say that the reality of that future was bound up with the reality of that present just to the extent that certain structures were bound to unfold from that present, though there might very well be, of course, many particular aspects within these structures not yet determined.

Now we can push on to the notion of the extensive continuum. Whitehead’s trained mathematical intuition penetrates into the nature of things to grasp the defining characteristics of a vast society, wider than the electromagnetic society, wider than the societies which define the geometrical elements and the very concept of measurability itself. This widest of all discernible societies he terms the society of pure extension, and its defining characteristic is termed extensive connection (cf. PR 148). All actual occasions, even though they be also members of far more localized, specialized societies, must be members of this society, must obey the social conditions of inheritance which this society lays on all becoming. Therefore, this society, the extensive continuum, lays down, through the massive social inheritance of its myriad generations, the first, most general limitation upon general potentiality: the limitation that each generation of actual occasions, no matter what its more special characteristics of order, shall at least exhibit the general properties

of ‘extensive connection,’ of ‘whole and part,’ of various types of ‘geometrical elements’ derivable by ‘extensive abstraction’; but excluding the introduction of more special properties by which straight lines are definable and measurability thereby introduced. (PR 148)

This is the context within which one must understand the Whiteheadian assertion with which we opened this analysis: "Extension is the most general scheme of real potentiality, providing the background for all other organic relations" (PR 105).

We can now utilize this analysis to look more closely at Cobb’s claim that "regions as such do not originate with the becoming of occasions. In a sense his statement is correct, but my point will be to show that in another sense, and this the sense relevant to our debate over regional inclusion, it is incorrect. A rather neutral way of expressing the Whiteheadian position would be to say that the society of extensive connection, as realized up to now, so dominates the conditions of all future becoming that any actual occasion which might ever enjoy concrescence would have to be related to all other occasions extensively. Note first that to view this set of relations from the perspective of the future is to focus on regions as relata involved in a web of real potentiality. Seen from this perspective, as a schema of potential relatedness, the extensive continuum is, in some sense, infinite since all possible occasions must conform to its demands, so from this perspective it is odd to think of the extensive continuum as being increased in extent.

But note secondly that this real potentiality, like every real potentiality, is a function of a present that exists in the mode of actuality. There can be real potentialities only in as far as there are actual presents which lay down conditions to which the future must conform, Furthermore, a past has led up to any such present, and the weight of this whole tradition imposing itself on the future is a necessary condition of the very concept of a real potentiality. In this limited Whiteheadian context we can certainly accept Aristotle’s dictum that actuality precedes real potentiality (though it is also true that in some sense "general" potentiality precedes actuality for Whitehead). The meaning of these distinctions for my present dispute with Professor Cobb is simply this: the concept of regions as potentialities that cannot, qua potentialities, be said to originate with the becoming of occasions logically presupposes as its necessary condition the concept of regions as actualities, regions which, qua actualities, do originate with the becoming of occasions. And these necessarily presupposed actual regions have actually increased the extent of the extensive continuum, conceiving of that continuum now as the actual set of relationships among actual regions which generates the real potentiality relative to that actual world. Part of the confusion of Cobb’s position stems from the fact that the extensive continuum, conceived of as a set of relations underlying past, present, and future, is part actual and part potential -- actual in as far as it is constituted by actual entities enjoying actual relationships legislating what are real potentialities governing the relationships of future occasions; and merely potential in so far as these relationships are viewed as factors determining what forms of definiteness are, and are not, possible as factors in future fact.

As far as the regional inclusion hypothesis is concerned, let us recall that Cobb has (1) correctly noted that I hold that the extensive continuum is actually increased in extent by the concrescence of new occasions, and (2) admitted unequivocally that if this were true then he would "indeed have difficulty in speaking of regional inclusion, for it would be strange to think of a single region as being created out of nothing twice!" My argument has presented an analysis of the extensive continuum which clearly makes it true to say that the extensive continuum, as just that set of actual relations among actual occasions which makes the very conception of the continuum as real potentiality intelligible, is indeed actually increased in extent by the concrescence of new occasions. Cobb’s gambit in presenting his interpretation of the extensive continuum was to make it appear that the extensive continuum in the future has a kind of reality such that it makes no sense to speak of its regions originating with concrescence, This effect was obtained by quoting Whitehead (PR 103) to the effect that "the extensive continuum . . . underlies the whole world, past, present, and future. . . . The reality of the future is bound up with the reality of the continuum." This makes it plausible to say that since the future is real and since the continuum enjoys that same reality, it is therefore nonsense to speak of regions of the continuum originating with the becoming of occasions. But the bubble of plausibility is burst with the very next sentence in Whitehead’s text, which, unfortunately, was neglected by Cobb. It reads: "It is the reality of what is potential, in its character of a real component of what is actual. . . ." I submit that our analysis of real potentiality has revealed that there is no incompatibility at all in recognizing that "future regions" have the sort of potential reality which does "underlie" the future in the way that real potentiality does this, and at the same time recognizing that, as actual, regions do indeed most definitely originate with the becoming of occasions. As a potential scheme of relatedness, the extensive scheme specifies certain extensive conditions that the future must satisfy, and within these conditions there are many possible wax’s that regions could atomize this extensive continuum. But when that future becomes present, just one set of actual regions will atomize that continuum, and those actual regions will originate with the occasions of which they are the standpoints. The extensive continuum qua continuum underlies the past in the sense that although past regions are definite and atomic one can specify many alternate ways that regions might have atomized the continuum, though just that one set of regions did in fact so atomize it. It is clear that the scheme of potential relatedness which is the extensive continuum does not constitute a reality in any way ruling out subsequent "originating" of regions. Hence actual, given regions do originate as the extensive component of concrescing actual occasions, and it therefore follows that regional inclusion would involve a single actual region being created twice, a consequence which Cobb himself has recognized as a reductio ad absurdum of his position. For this reason I conclude that the notion of regional inclusion is incompatible, in principle, with concepts at the very heart of Whitehead’s systematic thought.

Cobb: Now it is highly probable that there are some state- ments of Whitehead’s that are incompatible with a doctrine he did not affirm or discuss. The debate between us is not over whether Whitehead ever asserted regional inclusion. We agree that he did not. It is not over whether there are statements in his writings that would require modification if regional inclusion is to be affirmed. There are such statements. In Sherburne’s words, the issue is whether "the notion of regional inclusion is incompatible, in principle, with concepts at the very heart of Whitehead’s systematic thought." Sherburne holds that it is and seeks to prove this by showing that regional inclusion is incompatible with Whitehead’s essential doctrine of the extensive continuum. I do not believe he has been successful.

Sherburne’s discussion of the extensive continuum is a genuinely helpful one. It further clarifies the issues between us as well as Whitehead’s difficult thought on this subject.

The focus of a debate is necessarily on differences. It is sometimes useful, however, to point out the common ground shared by the disputants. We agree that the distinction of actuality and potentiality is crucial for understanding the extensive continuum in its relation to past, present, and future. We agree that the continuum qua continuum is potentiality and not actuality. We agree that among the regions of the continuum qua continuum there occurs the relation of inclusion (PR 452). We agree that Whitehead did not affirm regional inclusion with respect to the standpoints of actual occasions. We agree that the extensive continuum qua continuum extends infinitely in all directions, including the future. We agree that the extensiveness which the future must have derives from the fact that it must have extensive relations to an extensive past and present, that is, that like all potentiality, the potentiality that is the extensive continuum derives from actuality.

Nevertheless, differences exist between us, which, though important, are not easy to state unambiguously. They have to do with the locus of the potentiality that is the extensive continuum. My view is that the dependence of the extensive continuum on the actual world is a function of the fact that if there were no actual occasions there would be nothing at all. There would be no potentiality of any kind. But there are actual occasions, and actual occasions are extensive. This extensiveness is more primitive than the distinction of space and time, but because actual occasions are necessarily sequential, it applies infinitely to past and future as well as to the present. The future continuum is there only because there is an actual world, but given the actual world, the future continuum is in the future and not in the actual world. It is that by virtue of which we can speak of future events or future cosmic epochs, not as located in the present but as genuinely future. All that is settled about them is settled by present actuality, but that "future" is a meaningful notion at all, that it has a certain reality for the present, is "bound up with the reality of the continuum.

The term region designates potential extensions past, present, and future. If there were no actuality at all, there would be no regions, but because there is actuality, there are also regions everywhere -- past, present, and future. There are regions as potential standpoints in the past even when that portion of the extensive continuum has been forever atomized in another way. And there are regions as potential standpoints for future actual occasions before those actual occasions originate.

No new regions come into being with the becoming of actual occasions. Some regions, as potentials, become also the standpoints of actual occasions. As regions they remain potentially divisible. As standpoints, by virtue of the subjective unity of their occasions, they are in fact undivided. If this is correct, there is no reason that two regions having the relationship of regional inclusion cannot both become the standpoints of actual occasions.

In Sherburne’s view, the locus of the potentiality that is the extensive continuum lies in the actuality of occasions. These occasions are such as to lay necessities upon whatever follows them, and this character of occasions, insofar as it determines that the future will be characterized by extensiveness, is the potentiality that is the extensive continuum. To say that this potentiality precedes new actualities is to say no more than that earlier occasions precede later ones.

The most important way Sherburne poses the issue in this paper is by his assimilation of the extensive continuum to real potentiality. Real potentiality is the past presenting itself as datum so as to limit the general potentiality of the universe in respect to each new concrescence. It is identical with the actual world of each new occasion. It pervades the future in just the way in which Sherburne understands the extensive continuum to pervade the future. If the extensive continuum is part of the real potentiality of the universe, such that Whitehead’s general account of real potentiality applies to it without qualification, then Sherburne is correct. The locus of "future regions" must then be in attained actuality.

I have tried to ponder the texts to which Sherburne calls our attention, together with others, with an open mind. One conclusion to which I have come is that Whitehead himself judged the question difficult. In Adventures of Ideas he comments more than once on Plato’s recognition of the peculiar obscurity of the notion of the receptacle, which is the equivalent in that book to the extensive continuum of Process and Reality.

Yet the notion of extensiveness in general is exceedingly important. The most basic fact about occasions is that they are extensive. The most inclusive society to which we belong is the society of pure extension. Whitehead hesitantly attributes metaphysical universality to extensiveness as such in its most abstract form. The continuum of this pure extensiveness is then unqualifiedly infinite. But Whitehead can also speak of tile extensive continuum as having more particular properties that limit it to our own cosmic epoch.

Extensive connection is a physical relationship (PR 449). The extensive continuum binds the physical world together (PR 147). Yet it relates an occasion to its contemporary world, which in Whitehead’s usual language cannot be physically felt. In these respects it seems quite real, almost to impose solidarity on the world. But the more usual emphasis is that it is "in itself merely the potentiality for division" (PR 104).

Extensiveness is discussed primarily in relation to two topics: mathematics and presentational immediacy. Presentational immediacy in turn has its importance both in the analysis of conscious experience and in the interpretation of strains. These topics are all united in the explanation of measurement.

If we ask what Whitehead seems to say as to the locus of the continuum, that is, whether it is somehow there before actual entities arise, the answer is that he does write in this way. Sherburne quotes him (PR 112) to the effect: "The actual entities atomize it, and thereby make real what was antecedently merely potential." Whitehead also writes: "With the becoming of any actual entity what was previously potential in the space-time continuum is now the primary real phase in something actual" (PR 104). He locates actual entities "in" the continuum as something given both in its past and future dimensions. A continuum has "unbounded dimensions," so that it cannot be regarded as ending or changing its character at the present.

But quotations like these, which could be multiplied, do not settle the issue in my favor. On the one hand, Whitehead envisioned a future of infinite extent reaching beyond our cosmic epoch and all now conceivable forms of order. On the other hand, Whitehead denied actuality to the future and insisted that all forms of potentiality are grounded in actuality. Where then is the future of the extensive continuum?

I noted that Sherburne’s major contribution to the discussion in this paper is his identification of the extensive continuum as part of real potentiality. Whitehead’s language definitely suggests this at times (cf. PR 123), and there is no question but that Whitehead’s explanation of the extensive continuum is closely bound up with his discussion of real potentiality. However, in his most careful formulations the two are distinguished, and I believe that there are reasons for distinguishing them.

The topic of extensiveness in general and the extensive continuum in particular is little discussed prior to the chapter with that title. That chapter begins with a discussion of "consciousness of the extensive relations of the world" given in presentational immediacy (PR 95). We then learn that the "account of ‘presentational immediacy’ presupposes two metaphysical assumptions." Of these the first is: "That the actual world, insofar as it is a community of entities which are settled, actual, and already become, conditions and limits the potentiality for creativeness beyond itself" (PR 101). This actual world is the real potentiality for becoming occasions. Real potentiality is relative to some actual entity, taken as a standpoint whereby the actual world is defined. . . . No two actual entities define the same actual world" (PR 102). "The second metaphysical assumption is that the real potentialities relative to all standpoints are coordinated as diverse determinations of one extensive continuum" (PR 103).

We may assume that this last sentence is very carefully formulated since Whitehead approached metaphysical statements with great caution. It certainly associates the extensive continuum with real potentiality very closely, but it will not do simply to call it a part of real potentiality. Real potentiality is relative to each standpoint. In the extensive continuum the real potentialities relative to all standpoints are coordinated. The extensive continuum is affirmed as the ground of the solidarity of all the relative real potentialities.

Now we must ask what is meant by "all standpoints." Are these all the standpoints of those occasions that compose the actual world of a concrescent occasion? If only they are indicated, then the coordination of the standpoints as diverse determinations of one extensive continuum might be felt with the feeling of the actual world. The continuum could be a part of the real potentiality. But that is not the case. The metaphysical assumption is introduced in order to explain the perception of the contemporary world in presentational immediacy. That world is perceived as an extensive continuum of "bare mathematical potentialities" (PR 97). It is this extensive continuum to which the second metaphysical assumption refers most directly. And this metaphysical continuum expresses the solidarity of the real potentialities of potential contemporary standpoints with each other and with the percipient occasion as well as with all those past occasions that constitute the actual world.

Does then "all standpoints" refer only to all past and contemporary standpoints? No, the two sentences that follow in immediate explanation of the metaphysical assumption preclude that limitation upon "all." They read: ‘This extensive continuum is one relational complex in which all potential objectifications find their niche. It underlies the whole world, past, present, and future" (PR 103).

We must not understand this to mean that there is some actual thing that is an extensive continuum that underlies the past, present and future. The phrase "the extensive continuum" may be unfortunate by its tendency to suggest reification. Whitehead’s point can be made, as Sherburne also shows, without use of the phrase. The second metaphysical assumption is that all the actual and possible standpoints of actual occasions are coordinated with each other in terms of a sell-consistent system of continuous extension. In presentational immediacy we have consciousness of these extensive relations in the world. We project these relations without bounds in all directions.

This does not mean that in addition to all the actual worlds and their actual coordinations with each other there is something else, i.e., an extensive continuum. The extensive continuum simply "expresses the solidarity of all possible standpoints throughout the whole process of the world" (PR 103). But that there is such a coordination or solidarity or relational complex among all standpoints and their actual worlds is a metaphysical assumption additional to the assumption that there is real potentiality relative to every concrescence. Extensive solidarity with other standpoints is not, like real potentiality, relative to some actual entity. Any world of settled entities imposes upon the creativeness beyond itself that it participate in coordinated extensive relations. Thus "It is not a fact prior to the world; it is the first determination of order -- that is, of real potentiality -- arising out of the general character of the world" (PR 103). As the first determination of real potentiality it is given with and by the actual world of each occasion, but in itself it arises out of the general character of the world rather than out of that particular actual world of which it is the first determination.

This distinction is important for our debate. What rises out of the relative real potentiality of a particular standpoint cannot be the basis of accurate perception of the contemporary world. Yet presentational immediacy does disclose the extensive relations of possible standpoints in that world. In this it does not err. This is possible only because the extensive relations arise out of the general character of the world. Their illustration by sensa, of course, arises out of the real potentiality that is the actual world relative to that percipient.

If the status of the extensive continuum is not that of real potentiality, what can it be? It is certainly some form of potentiality, and it is not pure or general potentiality, nor is it impure potentiality. I believe it is sui generis. It is "in itself merely the potentiality for division" (PR 104). That cannot be said of eternal objects, propositions, or the actual world.

Since Sherburne has appealed to the less rigorously systematic formulations of Adventures of Ideas, I will do so too. There Whitehead repeatedly lists the "seven main notions" attained by Plato and calls them "as important for us now as they were then at the dawn of the modern world" (AI 188). These are The Ideas (general potentiality or eternal objects), The Physical Elements (real potentiality or the actual world), The Psyche (the human soul), The Eros (the primordial nature of God), The Harmony (the consequent nature of God), The Mathematical Relations (also called that by Whitehead in Process and Reality), and the Receptacle (the extensive continuum). What is striking in his repeated discussions of these is that he does not correct Plato by reducing them to a smaller number of primitive notions. His task is to show their systematic interconnections, but in doing so the integrity of each is respected. To say that the kind of potentiality that is the receptacle is sui generis rather than an illustration of "real potentiality" fits, and is almost required by, these discussions in Adventures of Ideas.

My view of the possibility of regional inclusion of standpoints rests on the understanding that this potentiality for division precedes the actuality of division by actual entities. It is there because of the extensiveness of the actual world, but still it is there, and not simply in the actual world of an occasion or in that occasion itself. I do not profess that this is an altogether clear and distinct idea. But we are aided in grasping it by the fact that in presentational immediacy we perceive this potentiality clearly, independently of perception of the occasions that actually divide it. Thus we do have a basis for projecting that potentiality into the future as a continuing potentiality for division, despite the nonexistence of any future occasion, in much the same way that the potentiality is still perceived as pervading the past, despite the actual atomicity of the past world.

Sherburne chides me for vacillating on the question of whether regions, which are the parts of the continuum, originate. My intention is to say that they do not. Standpoints of actual occasions originate. He thinks I am inconsistent because I also say that standpoints are regions. Although I thought that my meaning was clear in the context, perhaps I could avoid ambiguity by stating that standpoints correspond to regions or even occupy regions. They have all the extensive relations that the corresponding regions have, but qua standpoints they have an actuality that regions as such do not.

Sherburne and I agree that future regions are merely potential. He grants also that regions so understood do not originate. But he states that in another sense regions do originate and that it is this sense that is relevant to our debate. This sense turns out to be the sense in which regions are "actualities" and "atomize the continuum." I am puzzled by this argument first because I do not believe that regions are ever actualities, or that they ever atomize the continuum. They are always potential and they are always divisible. The term actuality should be applied to actual entities. These do atomize the continuum. "Actuality" can derivatively be applied also to standpoints. If Sherburne means here by "regions as actualities" what I (and I believe Whitehead) call extensive quanta or standpoints, then, of course, I agree that these do originate with the becoming of occasions. I agree that regions as potentialities presuppose as their necessary condition (I would say ontologically or metaphysically rather than logically) actual occasions and their standpoints, although they presuppose no particular occasions or standpoints -- any will do. But I do not see how this in any way counts against my position.

Sherburne’s argument against me is based on using the term "extensive continuum" to refer to the nexus of occasions that constitutes the past. This nexus does increase in extent by the addition of new entities with new standpoints. To that of course I agree. But Sherburne himself acknowledges that this is not the continuum qua continuum. And his argument would count against me only if it were. He has adopted this second use of "the extensive continuum" to refer to what he himself knows not to be a continuum because of his interpretation of a passage on the society of pure extension. That passage is introduced by a reference to the extensive continuum (PR 147), and Sherburne has interpreted it to mean that the extensive continuum is that society. I hope he will not insist on this very confusing mistake.

We could avoid unnecessary confusion and mutual misunderstanding if we would agree to distinguish the extensive continuum and its regions, as merely potential, from societies, occasions, and standpoints, which are actual. That would not settle the real issue between us, which is the kind of potentiality that the continuum has and its locus. I have devoted most of my attention to this question. I suspect that the next step in our argument will lead us to a consideration of the status of the future, just as we were earlier led to discuss the status of the past.

Sherburne has quoted against me a sentence about the reality of the extensive continuum: "It is the reality of what is potential, in its character of a real component of what is actual" (PR 102). He has interpreted this to mean that the extensive continuum is part of the real potential for any actual entity and is located, therefore, in its actual world. I do not believe that was Whitehead’s meaning. To continue the quotation, "Such a real component must be interpreted in terms of the relatedness of prehensions. This task will be undertaken in Chapter V of Part IV" (PR 103-104). That chapter does not discuss real potentiality. Insofar as it treats the relatedness of prehensions, this has to do with strains which are closely associated with the perception of the con-temporary world in presentational immediacy. It explains that this mode "exhibits that complex of systematic mathematical relations which participate in all the nexuses of our cosmic epoch, in the widest meaning of that term" (PR 498). These mathematical relations are of course potential. They are also held to be real components of what is actual. But their locus is not limited to the actual world. Since they participate in all the nexuses of our cosmic epoch, the point is not to tie them down to the past but to show that they are real components of all nexuses including future ones. I do not say that this is the self-evident meaning of the sentence Sherburne quotes against me. But the meaning he finds in the sentence gets no support, so far as I can see, from the chapter to which Whitehead is at pains to refer us for elucidation. In the light of that chapter, the sentence should be interpreted to conform with Whitehead’s other careful formulations of the extensive continuum.

Sherburne: I believe I can make a very short but very telling response to Cobb’s most interesting remarks. Let us suppose that we accept Cobb’s thesis that the extensive continuum is a sui generis "form of potentiality." I do not accept the argument and could challenge it in detail, but let us accept it for the moment. Then, I submit, Cobb has proven too much for his own case! Remember that we are arguing about the viability of a certain way of conceiving the relationship between a particular actual entity, God, and other actual entities in the world. Cobb argues they are related via regional inclusion. But if regions are interpreted as Cobb now says he wants to interpret them, viz., as sui generis potentials which do not originate, then regions are not what is involved in relating God and other actual entities. Standpoints, as Cobb conceives them, are what are so involved, and hence Cobb must present and defend a theory of "standpoint inclusion." Let me elaborate and clarify. If we think of regions as just possible segments of this sui generis form of potentiality which is the extensive continuum, fine. Then what we need to distinguish from regions so conceived are standpoints, which are actualized segments of the continuum. Cobb makes this move. I spoke of "actual" regions as over against potential regions, meaning thereby the segment of the continuum (conceived of in terms of real potentiality) which is actualized by a concrescing occasion. It is only these "actual" regions which are relevant to the issue of how God is related to the world. Cobb’s claim is that the "actual" region occupied by God includes the "actual" region occupied by any given occasion. If Cobb wants to call what I have referred to as "actual" regions (actualized" regions might be better) standpoints, then Cobb’s doctrine with respect to Cod’s relationship to the world must be called the Doctrine of Standpoint Inclusion, because the Doctrine of Regional Inclusion is the claim that God’s actual (i.e., particular, definite) region includes the particular, definite region of each occasion. But recall that Cobb clearly, unequivocally states above that while regions do not originate, "standpoints of actual occasions originate." All my arguments having to do with "origination" now go through if directed to standpoints. In short, either Cobb conceives of actualized regions in such a way that my arguments apply to regions directly, or Cobb conceives of regions in such a way that regions have nothing to do with how God is related to occasions in the world and my arguments are then directed to the Doctrine of Standpoint Inclusion. Either way, the "inclusion" route of relating God to the world fails.



PPCT -- Delwin Brown, Ralph E. James, Jr., and Gene Reeves, eds. Process Philosophy and Christian Thought. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

1. Mario Bunge. Causality, The Place of the Causal Principle in Modern Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.

2. Herbert Feigl and May Brodback, eds. Readings in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953, pp. 389-91.

3. Ivor Leclerc. "The Problem of the Physical Existent." International Philosophical Quarterly, 9 (March, 1969), 40-62.

4. Arthur Pap. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1962, pp. 261, 269-70.