God & Possibility – September 2002

Question: Is God, in process theology, the ground of all possibilities? And if so, are all possibilities actualized in God?

Publication Month: September 2002

Dr. Cobb’s Response

In general I have avoided the more technical metaphysical issues in these discussions. We want to talk about process theology and that brings the focus on the “So what?” questions. How God relates to us is certainly central to process theology. The metaphysical status of eternal objects not obviously so.

Nevertheless, even such questions do have religious importance. One of the reasons that Charles Hartshorne did not like
Whitehead’s doctrine of eternal objects is that he felt they undercut the importance of what creatures do. He thought Whitehead’s doctrine tended to imply that God already has all the richness that Hartshorne believed creatures contribute to God. That is, if every possibility in all its detail is already in God, what difference does it make that these possibilities are also exemplified in creatures.

The reason that matters appeared to Hartshorne in this way is that he thought of the difference between the possible and the actual in terms of indefiniteness and definiteness. Possibilities are vague and nonspecific. Actualities are exactly what they are. But Whitehead says that the eternal objects are exactly what they are. In that case, they would all be actualized in God.

Whitehead did not distinguish actuality and possibility in that way. A form may be very precise, a particular shade of color for example. It is a possibility for ingression into actual occasions of experience. But in and of itself it is not actual. The same remains true if the color is combined with a shape and this is combined with a sound and an emotional tone, etc. In other words, whatever the detail of the complex possibility, however fully it is defined, it remains simply possible. Until the form characterizes an actual occasion of experience it is not actualized.  Hence, for Whitehead the answer is at this level quite clear. The possibilities are not actual in God. Further value lies in actuality. There is no intrinsic value in the merely possible. They are not better or worse in themselves, although their ingression or actualization will certainly affect the value of the actual occasions in which it occurs. For Whitehead the entertainment of the forms apart from their actualization in creatures does not contribute to God any of the value that is contributed when creatures actualize them. Hence, at least this problem does not occur when one follows Whitehead’s doctrine. There are, however, puzzles about Whitehead’s doctrine, at least for me. I have been inclined to assume that the way eternal objects are in God is as data of conceptual feelings. Conceptual feelings constitute the mental pole of creatures, and Whitehead speaks of the Primordial Nature, the repository of eternal objects as the conceptual pole of God.  One way that eternal objects are in creatures is as the data of conceptual feelings. A mathematician thinks about all kinds of mathematical forms without any ingression in mind. Whitehead calls these eternal objects of the objective species, that is, possibilities that cannot characterize the subject. An actual occasion can the possibility of squareness. The subjective form of the actual occasion cannot be square.  Thus squareness is not actualized in the concrescing occasion. It is a datum.

Whitehead decided that such a datum had to be somewhere. We cannot prehend what has no existence at all. But simply as pure possibility, an eternal object does not exist. Hence its existence must be in God. The problem is that if we assume God contains eternal objects by conceptual feelings, then we would have the same question. Where do they exist for God. There would be an infinite regression of answers. This seems to mean that the mode of being of the eternal objects cannot be as data of conceptual feelings.

There is another possibility suggested by some of the texts. The problem may not be the sheer “existence” of possibility as possibility. It may be relevance. The sheer existence of the eternal objects, then, could be what it is without regard to God’s entertainment of them. But they would have no accessibility to creatures. It is this accessibility that requires God’s ordering of them. It is as ordered by God, that they function as the data of creaturely conceptual feelings. In that case, and I think this is the best interpretation of Whitehead’s theory even though it does not fit all the texts, then there would not be a problem about God’s conceptual feeling of the wholly unordered eternal objects. They gain order in his conceptual feelings of them.

Nevertheless they are not thereby actualized. They are in God as the square is in the mathematician, complexly related to all other possibilities, but simply as possibilities. There is in God the subjective form of desire for the actualization of possibilities. That subjective form is actual in God. But the possibilities are not. When they are richly actualized in creatures, God’s desire is fulfilled. We do contribute to the divine life.


Actual occasions (of experience)  Whitehead’s term for the indivisible entities that make up the world. Whitehead thought that every philosophy has some idea as to what kinds of entities are “actual” rather than abstract or imagined.   In many philosophies, these “actual entities” are thought to be “substances”, things that exist in and of themselves, independently of anything else.  Whitehead believed, instead, that to be actual an entity must be an event, an occurrence, or a happening.  For the unit events he chose the term “actual occasions.”  So in his view all actual entities are actual occasions.  Unlike substances, actual occasions are composed largely of their relations to other actual occasions.  But to be an actual occasion, the occasion must be something for itself, that is, an experience.  Sometimes he called them “occasions of experience’.  We sometimes combine the two expressions into the longer one “actual occasions of experience.”  Our own experiences, moment by moment are the occasions of experience to which we have direct access.

Eternal objects.  Whitehead’s term for forms.
In addition to actual occasions there are forms.  There are, for example, colors and shapes and numbers.  Whitehead emphasized that there are also qualities of feeling such as anger and joy.  And, of course, there are complex combinations of these elementary forms.  Every philosophy has some account of these forms.  Plato and Aristotle had contrasting doctrines, with Plato envisaging the forms as having a superior and independent existence, whereas Aristotle thought they existed only in actual entities.  Whitehead’s view lay somewhere in between.  He thought that they transcend actual occasions as possibilities for future actualization, but still they could have no effect in the actual occasions if they did not already exist in some actual entity.  He called them “objects” because they have no subjectivity and hence to actuality in themselves.  He called them “eternal” to emphasize that they are completely unaffected by the passage of time.

The mental (or conceptual) pole.  Whitehead’s terms for that part of experience that prehends eternal object or possibilities. Every aspect of experience has some form. To be actual requires that an occasion have one set of characteristics in distinction from others.  But eternal objects play another role also. An occasion of experience entertains possibilities as well as feels the already existing actualities.  The possibilities are abstracted from the actualities and the entertained as possibilities for fresh actualization.  Many possibilities, even when they are entertained are not fully actualized. In human experience we imagine much that does not happen.  This entertainment or prehension of forms, possibilities, or eternal objects is the mental aspect of the occasion.  In most occasions, the mental (or conceptual) pole plays a very small role.  In human experience its role is very large.  Indeed, much philosophy devotes itself exclusively to analysis of the data of the mental (or conceptual) pole, such as what is given in vision, colored shapes.  Whitehead’s distinctive contribution was to ground the mental pole of occasions in their experience of other actual entities, which he called the physical pole.

The mental (or conceptual) pole of God.  God’s envisagement of the whole range of possibilities or eternal objects. Whereas ordinary actual occasions, including occasions of human experience, entertain only a very small selection of eternal objects, Whitehead speculates that all eternal objects are envisaged by God.  God orders them in such a way that they are available as relevant possibilities for actual occasions.  This envisagement constitutes the mental (or conceptual) pole of God.  It is eternal and unchanging.  Whitehead prefers the term “primordial.”  He calls the mental pole of God, the Primordial Nature.