Chapter 6: Perishing

Nature and Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 6: Perishing

According to the ideas of emergence and value that we have presented there is a fragility in the universe that appears in direct proportion to the degree of intensity and complexity of emergent phenomena. That is, things of value are afflicted with an instability or precariousness that might make us question their value after all. Entities that derive their aesthetic intensity from the manifold nuances and contrasts that they integrate and rely upon are not guaranteed an indefinite prolongation through time. There is always the threat that the complexity of such emergent value-laden beings will overwhelm their harmony. Complexity may persist indefinitely, as may trivial modes of unity. But harmonized, organized complexity is itself eminently perishable. Patterns of physico-chemical activity, for example, may never deviate from strict routines, but the harnessing of these invariable patterns by higher dimensions into animate or conscious organic structures is precarious. Such "intense" structures are incapable of enduring beyond a brief span of time. The emergent phenomena, life and mind, are obvious illustrations of this fleetingness. There is everywhere the threat of instability to any intense integration of complexity and harmony. Along with a general aesthetic enrichment of the universe by the emergence of life and consciousness there has appeared a fragility that is constantly exposed to the entropic tendencies of physical reality. The precariousness of things seems to increase in direct proportion to their preciousness.

We must learn to think of cosmic purpose, if we are to think of it at all, in terms consistent with the evanescence of occasions and cherished societies of occasions. If our notion of purpose is to be faithful to the facts we cannot disregard the most obvious one of all: things perish.1

Anything of value must, of course, have some quality of endurance or else we would not be able even to recognize it, let alone revere it. But the things we treasure the most such as life, consciousness, personality, moral goodness, heroism, culture and peace all abide only tenuously. They are seemingly tinged with a kind of "unreality" that makes them appear epiphenomenal. While they are the most important things to us, their constantly passing away makes us wonder just how real and significant they can possibly be in the final analysis.

Our anxiety about the meaning of our own lives as well as that of the universe as a whole generally arises simultaneously with our experience of the transience of the most deeply valued entities. Things perish, including those we hold most dear, and so they apparently fail to make a mark of enduring significance. The fact that cells degenerate, that organisms decay, that our own lives ebb toward death, that civilizations eventually fall and that noble deeds and ideals fade into oblivion -- all this makes us wonder how the universe could conceivably have any abiding seal of purpose. Can there be purpose without some aspect of permanence to the flux?

Without some sense of the everlastingness of the value achieved in the emergence of nature we might easily concur with the dour ruminations of those ancient and modern writers who have voiced an anguished pessimism as a result of their sensitivity to impermanence. Marcus Aurelius, for example:

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too. (Meditations IV,

Do not consider life a thing of any value. For look to the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations? (IV, 50)

All things are changing: and thou thyself art in continuous mutation and in a manner in continuous destruction and the whole universe too. (IX, 19).2

Or the tragic prospectus laid out by the author of Ecclesiastes:

The hearts of men are full of evil; madness fills their hearts all through their lives, and after that they go down to join the dead. But for a man who is counted among the living there is still hope: remember, a live dog is better than a dead lion. True, the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. There are no more rewards for them; they are utterly forgotten. For them love, hate, ambition, all are now over. Never again will they have any part in what is done here under the sun. (9, 3-6 New English Bible)3

The reigning philosophies of nature, influenced as they still are by the scientific materialism of the classical era in physics, are incapable of sustaining any hope that things of value somehow escape being utterly forgotten. William James has shown with deep feeling how impossible it is to reconcile materialism with any human longing to rescue permanence from the stream of passing events:

That is the sting of it, that in the vast driftings of the cosmic weather, though many a jeweled shore appears, and many an enchanted cloud-bank floats away, long lingering ere it be dissolved -- even as our world now lingers for our joy -- yet when these transient products are gone, nothing, absolutely nothing remains, to represent those particular qualities, those elements of preciousness which they may have enshrined. Dead and gone are they, gone utterly from the very sphere and room of being. Without an echo; without a memory; without an influence on aught that may come after, to make it care for similar ideals. This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood. The lower and not the higher forces are the eternal forces, or the last surviving forces within the only cycle of evolution which we can definitely see.4

The victory of the lower over the higher forces seems to be most decisive in the case of human mortality. It is the dreaded vanishing of our own personalities in death that stirs us to the greatest anxiety. Paul Tillich thinks that ". . .in the depth of the anxiety of having to die is the anxiety of being eternally forgotten."5 Man was never able to bear the thought of having his being thrust into a past where it would be totally lost to memory. And so humans have always sought ways of resisting the fact of their perishability.

. . . . the Greeks spoke of glory as the conquest of being forgotten. Today, the same thing is called "historical significance." If one can, one builds memorial foundations. It is consoling to think that we might be remembered for a certain time beyond death not only by those who loved us or hated us or admired us, but also by those who never knew us except now by name. Some names are remembered for centuries. Hope is expressed in the poet’s proud assertion that "the traces of his earthly days cannot vanish in eons." But those traces, which unquestionably exist in the physical world, are not we ourselves, and they don’t bear our name. They do not keep us from being forgotten. 6

Thus for ages people have asked: "Is there anything that can keep us from being forgotten?"7 Is there anything that might guarantee that nothing real is every totally pushed into the past? Affirmation of purpose has always required some positive answer to these questions. Unless perishing is less than absolute, unless transience is somehow compensated, it is extremely difficult to imagine how anything could be imbued with lasting significance. 8

The religious visions of mankind have usually pointed toward something or someone that saves the world of nature and of human experience from vanishing into a total nothingness. Religions have, of course, been deeply affected by the passing of things. But they have sensed behind the façade of transience something that endures and, in enduring, preserves the past moments of our personal experience and of the universe s becoming from utter oblivion. Religion, Whitehead says,

. . . is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something that is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.9

Such a vision responds to our desire not to be utterly forgotten. But can we honestly reconcile it with the fact of perishing that runs throughout the physical universe?

As William James emphasized, it is hardly possible to harmonize the religious vision of "something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension," with a materialistic cosmology. The bits of matter in the classical picture of physical reality are incapable of being taken up into any sensitive salvific scheme. Since they are by nature insensitive, they cannot be endowed with any significance other than mathematical. Only a universe in which "qualitative" (aesthetically valuable) experience is itself fundamental, is compatible with an interpretation of reality in which nothing is absolutely lost and every event somehow makes a lasting impact on the universe. Thus it is not a matter of indifference whether we envision the basic constituents of physical reality as insensate lumps of matter or as percipient occasions.

It is of course also true that religious and philosophical reflection have at times failed to take seriously the fact of perishing, consigning it to the realm of "mere appearance." And theologies have also at times superficially reified the intuited divine source of permanence and distanced it from all contact with becoming. Whenever this has occurred the religious vision has suffered either from escapism or a sense of deadness. But at least at other times religious consciousness seems to have been searching for a reality that embraces the flow of perishing events without eliminating the fact of perishing, and that intimately experiences becoming and perishing without itself dissolving in the flux.10 Religious consciousness has symbolically groped for a transcendent reality that salvages from the flow of becoming and perishing events whatever of value has appeared in the course of the worlds movement in time. And quite often sensitive persons and communities have been convinced that such a reality has manifested itself to them decisively by some mode of "revelation."

How, though, more specifically, is this religious vision of a permanence embracing the stream of perishing events capable of being harmonized with a coherent view of physical reality? Precisely how can occasions that have perished and things of value that have been pushed into an apparently irrecoverable past still be felt in the present? How, in other words, might we be able to join our hope that they have abiding significance with the fact of nature’s becoming and impermanence?

In response to this set of questions we must again call to mind the notions of physical reality, perception and causation described in the earlier chapters, and the aesthetic notion of value sketched in the previous one. Intrinsic to this combination of concepts there is a framework within which we may legitimately see the transience of events and of valued entities as redeemable from absolute loss and as, therefore, capable of making a difference of value to the universe as we experience it in the present.

The structure of actual occasions as perceptive, as actively inheriting and synthesizing the past, and leaving themselves open to synthesis by subsequent occasions, gives us a basis for affirming the continued influence of occasions on subsequent occasions in the cosmic process. Every occasion is at root experiential, and the material of its experience is, at least in a vague sense, the entire universe. In perishing, occasions are not consigned to total nothingness but are granted a kind of "immortality" as elements in the experiences of subsequent occasions and groupings of occasions. 11 The aesthetic intensity of feeling that they enjoyed is deposited in the stream of events, so that when the immediacy of their own experiencing is past they continue to "survive" in varying degrees of vividness or dimness in the feelings of later entities. It is precisely in perishing that they deliver themselves over to assimilation by subsequent phases of cosmic process. It is their perishing that allows them to enter internally into others as abiding causal influences on the course of events. And this emptying of themselves, this non-clinging to their own immediacy gives them therewith a status of permanence in the experiential universe. Consequently, there can be no absolute loss in the universe since each perishing occasion is somehow felt by the perceptivity that is intrinsic to all the constituents of nature. It is because occasions are by nature transitional that there can be such a reality as causal efficacy or transfer of influence in the universe. And it is also because occasions perish that there can be a constant opening for the incursion of novelty into the emergent process.

The fact of perishing, then, does not vitiate purpose. Perishing allows occasions to sacrifice the vividness and immediacy of present enjoyment in order that they might have a bearing on others. And even if their impact is felt only in a dim way they have still made their valued contribution; and that contribution reverberates throughout reality, permanently.

In terms of this cosmic fabric of transitory experiences and perishable societies of occasions we may come to understand an aspect of the idea of God that religious traditions seem to be unanimous in affirming but by no means always unambiguous in expressing. This is the idea of divine care. What would such an idea mean in terms of our cosmography?

God might be understood here as the ultimate recipient of all the experiences that make up the cosmic process. As such, God would retain in increasing richness of aesthetic feeling all the vividness of immediate enjoyment that characterizes each entity, even though the constituent occasions in perishing have themselves lost this sense of present vividness. Divine care would weave into itself all of the experiences, becoming, living, emergence, destruction, disorder, entropy, conflicts, sufferings and dyings that occur in nature. Thus God’s experience salvages what is apparently lost in the transience of events. As Whitehead says, God ". . . saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life." 12 God experiences every actuality in such a way that its becoming, experience and perishing "aesthetically" enrich the divine life. The world, with its becoming, emergence and its dying, matters to God. In God’s care for it, therefore, it finds its purpose and achieves its aim toward beauty. Whitehead himself has put it as follows:

The wisdom of [God’s] subjective aim prehends every actuality for what it can be in such a perfected system -- its sufferings, its sorrows, its failures, its triumphs, its immediacies of joy -- woven by rightness of feeling into the harmony of the universal feeling, which is always immediate, always many, always one, always with novel advance, moving onward and never perishing. The revolts of destructive evil, purely self-regarding are dismissed into their triviality of merely individual facts; and yet the good they did achieve in individual joy, in individual sorrow, in the introduction of needed contrast is yet saved by its relation to the completed whole. The image -- and it is but an image -- the image under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost.13

John Cobb draws out the possible implications of this vision of divine care for our own individual quest for significance:

. . . just as some fragments of the past are taken up vividly into our new human experiences, so all things in the world are taken up into God’s experience. Whatever we do makes a difference to God. In that case, we cannot regard our slightest acts as finally unimportant. Further, what is taken up into God is not primarily our public behavior; it is our experience in the full intimacy of its subjective immediacy. Our deepest thoughts and most private feelings matter to us because they matter to God.

. . .

Not only does God experience our experience and include it within his own, but also in him there is no transience or loss. The value that is attained is attained forever. In him passage and change can mean only growth. Apart from God, time is perpetual perishing. Because of him, the achievements of the world are cumulative. It is this aspect of the vision of God which ultimately sustains us in the assurance that life is worth living and that our experience matters ultimately. 14

In this interpretation of divine care God both feels and is felt deeply by the experiential occasions that make up the emergent universe. Perhaps at the level of primary perception human as well as other kinds of occasions already have a causal "awareness" of this pervasive sensitivity and at least a vague sense of being deeply felt themselves. Religious symbols and myths of divine care may be enigmatic expressions of this primordial perception. The word "God" and stories of God could then be understood as attempts to focus more sharply and linguistically the opaque but powerful feeling given in primary perception that something permanent and preservative runs through the becoming and perishing of events. Our reference to such a deeper dimension may require that we already resonate with some culturally contingent set of symbols of divine care and cosmic love. Such symbols may for some of us at least partially express what we feel obscurely in our primary perception as a universal purposiveness. At the pole of primary perception, according to hints given by art, poetry and especially religious expression, we have a dim feeling of the entire universe as well as a feeling of being assimilated by the processive universe in its deeper emergent comprehension of lower dimensions. There is an inarticulate causal feeling of the moments of our own experience both synthesizing the whole and being synthesized into further emergent depths of the whole. We have suggested that the notion of God points to the element of everlastingness within this flow of mutual sensitivity in the universe.15

God is understood here both as being felt and as actively feeling. In the mode of being felt the divine presence in the universe is a lure or power of persuasion continually offering new possibilities of intensity and harmony to patterns of events in cosmic becoming.16 "God" is a word we may use to refer to the radical source of novelty and order in the emergent universe.17 Without such a source of novelty and order we may well ask whether there would be any emergence at all. We may even question whether there would be a universe. For in order for anything to be actual it would have to be ordered or patterned in some way or other. 18 As we shall see in the next chapter it is a dubious theological or cosmological procedure to associate God too closely with the fact of order. For in addition to instances of order in our universe there are also the fact of novelty and the disturbing, disruptive effects that novelty may have on prevailing patterns of order. Nonetheless, it does not seem out of line to associate the religious sense of the divine with a metaphysically required ground of order in the cosmos, provided that we also associate God with the fact of novelty. Thus God, as principle of order and novelty, is understood here as the creative ground of the emergent universe, giving it its very being and presenting it with whatever possibilities for further emergent self-transcendence may be relevant at each particular phase.

At the same time, in this scheme of interpretation, God is always actively feeling all aspects of the universe in an unsurpassably intimate way. Since the occasions that make up the universe are themselves through and through experiential by nature, there is nothing incongruous in our holding that the creative ground of the universe is also the ultimate experiencing recipient of the events of world process. By virtue of the reception of these events into divine experience they are saved from any absolute perishing. Attributing this experiential-receptive quality to God makes it at lease conceivable, without departing from a consistent cosmology, to appreciate Tillich’s summation of the religious response to the anxiety of being forgotten:

Nothing truly real is forgotten eternally, because everything real comes from eternity and goes to eternity. And I speak now of all individual men and not solely of man. Nothing in the universe is unknown, nothing real is ultimately forgotten. The atom that moves in an immeasurable path today and the atom that moved in an immeasurable path billions of years ago are rooted in the eternal ground. There is no absolute, no completely forgotten past, because the past, like the future is rooted in the divine life. Nothing is completely pushed into the past. Nothing real is absolutely lost and forgotten. We are together with everything real in the divine life. 19


Religious symbolism pointing to some ultimate context of cosmic significance, to a ground of meaning and love, to a comprehensive preservative care, is at least not incompatible with what we now know about the logic of emergence and he nature of physical reality. But can we go even further and maintain that the universe, if it is to become intelligible to us today, actually requires a religious interpretation? Whitehead, along with many other important thinkers, has insisted that it does. However, it seems to me that a necessary condition for ascribing to such a view is that we would already have an explicit trust in the universe as rooted in a "tender care that nothing be lost." We would not know what religious symbols were themselves pointing to did we not already have a primal sense of confidence in the ultimate goodness and meaningfulness of reality. But often this latent trust does not come to the surface until it is expressed mythically or religiously. And one does not generally encounter such forms of symbolism except in the context of a community of shared meaning and hope. Consequently, any possibility of interpreting the universe religiously might also entail that one already participates in and is committed to the beliefs of a community of faith. Could it be though, that such communities of faith carry in themselves the world’s emergent impulse toward being comprehended by deeper dimensions of harmonized intensity and aesthetic enrichment? In any case I doubt if a sense of the world’s general aim toward value can be deeply felt by those who have not experienced the urge to participate in a community of faith, where faith is understood as an adventurous openness and exploratory hope. For us humans it may well be that the quest for cosmic purpose coincides with the search for this kind of a faith community.



1 For Whitehead’s discussion of "perishing" see especially Process and Reality, pp. 340-41; 346-51.

2 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. George Long (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co. , Gateway Edition, 1956), pp. 41, 44-45, 115.

3 New English Bible. (New York: Oxford Universay Press, 1970).

4 Quoted by Randall, p. 585.

5 Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), p. 33.

6 Ibid. , p. 34.

7 Ibid.

8 Cf. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p.340: "This is the problem which gradually shapes itself as religion reaches its higher phases in civilized communities. The most general formulation of the religious problem is the question whether the process of the temporal world passes into the formation of other actualities, bound together in an order in which novelty does not mean loss."

9 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, pp. 191-92.

10 See Whitehead’s lecture "Immortality" in Paul A. Schillp, ed. , The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Tudor Publishing Co. ), pp. 682-700.

11 Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 29, 60, 82 and passim.

12 Ibid. , p. 346.

13 Ibid.

14 John B. Cobb, Jr. , A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), pp. 219-20.

15 Cf. Whitehead, "Immortality"; Religion in the Making, p. 149; Process and Reality, pp. 337-51.

16 Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 344.

17 Ibid. pp. 67, 88, 108, 247, 347.

18 Ibid. , p. 110.

19 Tillich, The Eternal Now, p. 35.