Prehension & the Self – November 2005

Question: I am struggling to understand the process view of the person. I understand the notion of the person as a sequence of actual occasions. I understand the concrescence of each occasion, based on the prehension of God, through God of ideals, and of other (past) occasions. This all makes sense. But there is a “core” of it which remains inexplicable: namely that process thought says that in its becoming, the occasion chooses how to take account of God’s prompting, of its environment, and of its past; that it is influenced deeply but not determined by these. Very well then: “what” is making that choice, and how? How do we account for this decision rather than that being made? When we look beneath all influences external to the occasion, “what” do we find at its core? A freedom which is ultimately not rationally analyzable. Somehow in the center of the occasion’s becoming there is a mystery untouched by the process analysis. What is the uniqueness of the person, beyond its history of becoming, and where and how does that uniqueness subsist?

Publication Month: November 2005

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This question goes to the heart of both metaphysical and theological issues. It raises the most basic issues. A good many people use process theology at more superficial levels without coming to terms with the basic conceptual shift that its full appropriation requires. In this short essay I will focus on that. Needless to say, this will be more demanding of the reader than most of what I write in these monthly columns.

The key question is “what is making that choice?” That is an inevitable question for anyone whose mind is shaped by the Indo-European languages. And this is all of us. Our language tells us that there are entities that think and act. Hence there can be no thinking and no acting without a pre-given subject who thinks and acts. This is so deeply drilled into us unconsciously that any other way of describing matters seems absurd or, at least, unintelligible.

Two and a half millennia ago the Buddhists faced a similar problem in India . There a different Indo-European language had created a strong sense of the self or Atman. Reflection on that Atman had led some Indian thinkers to the view that the self that acts in all things is not affected by its actions. Actually, it has no qualities at all. It turns out to be identical with being as such. In other words, the analysis of the substance underlying personal thought and action showed that this substance was the same as that underlying everything else, that it was immutable and eternal and undifferentiated. The religious result was a depreciation of the importance of all that is differentiated. All that happens, all that becomes, all that changes belongs to the world of appearance rather than the world of reality.

Buddhists took an opposite move. They decided that there is no such undifferentiated substance underlying all particulars. The particulars and their flux of change constitute the whole of reality. These particulars are events rather than substances. Some of these events are human experiences.

If that is the case, then these events are not happening to something more fundamental. They are the reality. Human experiences are not experiences of an underlying self. They constitute the self. These experiences are the way the world comes together in that location. Buddhists spoke of pratitya samutpada, which is often translated “dependent origination.” The experience is the integration of the whole world.

I have described that form of Buddhist thought that Whitehead’s philosophy most nearly approximates. He adds a point that is very important for Christians. There is not just one way in which the integration can occur. The past does not decide which possible path will be taken. This is decided only in the occurrence itself.

So who or what decides? In Whitehead’s language, the actual occasion of experience decides. But that does not mean that the actual occasion first comes into being and then decides. The actual occasion can only come into being through the decision.

Similarly, an actual occasion does not first exist and then prehend other occasions. The actual occasion is the outcome of its prehensions. To bring this out, Whitehead speaks of the occasion as superject. However, to avoid the implication of complete causal determination by the past, he says it is a subject-superject.

This analysis applies to the quanta studied by physicists as well as to human experiences. It is interesting that quantum physicists sometimes speak of the “decisions” in that realm. Whitehead makes clear that he uses the word in its root meaning “cutting off.” Among the multiple possibilities only one is realized. This is true for the quantum events, and it is true for human beings. Which one is realized is not decided by past occasions or by God. It is decided in the coming to be of the occasion and only there. This is the grounds of the radical indeterminacy in the world. Whitehead thinks that what is indeterminacy for the observer is self-determination for the occasions involved. At the human level this self-determination underlies the sense of responsibility for what we do.

The answer to the question as to who or what decides is: the occasion decides, but only in and through the decision does it complete itself. Concrescence is an activity that brings an entity into being. It is the activity of that entity in the process of creating itself. Indeed, it is that process of self-creation. This includes a selection of one way to be among possible ways of being.

I am being repetitive, but since the notion of some completed thing doing the thinking or the acting is so deeply entrenched, it seems important to repeat the alternative description several times. The occasion does decide. That is the answer to the question. But if one simply says that, the habit of substance thinking will transform that answer into the picture of an occasion fully existing and then deciding. In that case it cannot decide what it will be, only what, with its being decided, what it will do. The logic of this thought form will return us to a comprehensive deterministic vision.

If we are to have a metaphysical basis for affirming human freedom, we must assert that entities participate in deciding what they will be. That is self-determination. And there can be self-determination only if deciding is part of the process of becoming what the entity becomes.

So far I have simply followed Whitehead. I think we may speculate somewhat further with respect to how this process transpires in highly evolved occasions such as human experiences. My judgment is that this varies somewhat among individuals and even among cultures. I wrote a book in which I speculated about the diversity of what I called “structures of human existence.” I suspect that in different structures of existence the decision occurs somewhat differently.

For most adults in the sphere of influence of the Abrahamic traditions, there is a strong development of personal identity through time. We think of ourselves as the same persons we were in infancy and will be if we are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Even with us, this is qualified somewhat. We can speak of conversion making us new persons. Or disease, especially disease affecting the brain can lead us to say of someone that she is not the same person she used to be. There are cases of multiple personality that confuse our talk of personal identity. But most of the time we ignore all these qualifications and assume that there is one, and only one, person associated with a human body and that this one person is identical from birth to death and perhaps from before death to after life. This is connected to the substance thinking that sharply distinguishes the primary reality from the changing experience, behavior, and character.

Process thought rejects this view but must account for the strong sense of identity most of us feel through long stretches of time. I judge that this is based on the primacy, moment after moment, of the prehension of antecedent moments of personal experience. Phenomenologically, in this structure of existence, the occasion does not experience itself as simply integrating numerous diverse prehensions. It experiences itself as integrating experiences of “other” entities with its personal past. The self or “I” is the continuation of that personal past. The occasion anticipates successor occasions that continue that personal line. The decision will be how other prehensions and anticipations are integrated with the prehension of the personal past and the anticipation of the personal future. We could almost say that the decision is made by this prehension and anticipation – but we should not say that. The decision is made in the process of the concrescence of the occasion in which this prehension and anticipation play the role of “self”.

Buddhists engage in meditational practices designed to reduce the role in the present of the personal past and future. To whatever extent they are successful, the process of decision will be different. Self will not be so sharply differentiated from other. There will be a greater tendency for the whole of the past to play a less differentiated role in constituting the present.

Western mystics may function in a way quite different from both most Christians and most Buddhists. They seek unity with God. In terms of Whitehead’s categories, God’s presence in the occasion, or the occasion’s prehension of God becomes the primary reality in the occasion. The distinction between God’s decision and the creaturely one fades.

We could distinguish the experience of tribal people. We could also talk about the experience of the Jewish prophets. We can speculate, as I have done in my Christology, about the structure of Jesus’ experience and that of Paul. These are possible uses of Whitehead’s conceptuality to relate it to the multiplicity of forms of human experience. But it is important not to confuse such speculations with the metaphysical judgment that in all cases decision is the final stage of concrescence of all actual entities.

We might then answer the question as to who makes the decision in different ways. In the sphere of influence of the Abrahamic traditions, for most people the decision is made primarily by the personal self. For advanced Buddhists, it is made by the totality of things. For theistic mystics, it is made by God. But this only means that in the process of concrescence these data of prehension play primary roles.

Is it really possible to think this way? Buddhists found it very difficult. They criticized conceptual thought in general and strove to liberate themselves from it. In an appropriate meditative state, they thought, people could be released from the power of concepts and let reality be what it is.

David Bohm was convinced that substance thought inhibited the advance of science. He rightly noted that even when the expectations arising from substance thinking are dramatically refuted by the evidence, scientists tend to invent new substance concepts rather than abandon the language of substance. He devoted some time to developing a language based on gerunds rather than nouns. He believed, rightly I think, that if we were accustomed to hearing a gerund like “deciding” used as the subject of most sentences we would be less likely to look for a substance that decides.

 Contemporary deconstructive postmodernism engages in elaborate linguistic exercises to break the power of deeply entrenched habits of thought. It shares with Buddhism and process thought the rejection of substances and especially of “the self” as a substance. It has influenced a significant segment of the academic community, but it remains quite esoteric for most people. It “deconstructs” much that needs deconstruction, but like the Buddhists it does not develop an alternative conceptuality.

Whitehead differs on this latter point. He does offer a new vocabulary. For this he is often criticized. However, the difficulty in understanding him is not nearly as much the learning of a different vocabulary as entering into a different sense of what is real.

It may be that the linguistic changes Whitehead made are not drastic enough. It is too easy to treat “prehensions” and “occasions” as if they were themselves substance-like. Whitehead was not free of this tendency himself. His interpreters, and I include myself, have generally made matters worse. Perhaps some day a Buddhist writer on Whitehead, one who is truly free from substantialist habits of mind might carry Whitehead’s revolutionary work further. I am sure that Whitehead would be pleased.