Where is the Past? – August 2003

Question: Where is the Past?

Publication Month: August 2003

Dr. Cobb’s Response

At one level, this is a silly question. The past, of course, is in the past. But if you are willing to be teased by a question, stick with it. It leads to some important philosophical and even religious consequences.

In one sense, the past is now nowhere. “Where” suggests spatial location, and space seems to exist only in the present. However far one imagines searching in a spatial way, one will not find the past. One does find what one supposes to be the results of the past. In fact, according to some philosophies, everything one finds is just what it is by virtue of the way it is shaped by its past. Even if we do not accept this totally deterministic viewpoint, we are likely to agree that the present is largely shaped by its past.

But this is a new formulation of the problem rather than the solution. Where is the past that shapes the present? If it is nowhere, how can it have this enormous effect? Indeed, how can it have any effect whatsoever? Neither Hume nor Kant could find any answer to this question.

This question is not, initially at least, questioning that the past once existed and acted. But that was when it was present. When it ceased to be present, so it seems, it ceased also to exist and to act. Again, if it now exists and acts, where is this taking place?

On first glance, these questions seem to be sharpened by Whitehead’s temporal atomism. A view of time as a continuous flow does not answer the questions. Since Augustine, reflection about time has proved extremely frustrating and has led, in his case and in some others, to the denial that time is ultimately real. Even so, the sense of time as a continuous flow 
allows for a blurring of past, present, and future that enables some to finesse the problem of the locus and efficacy of the past.

On the other hand, when we understand the process to consist of a succession of indivisible, four-dimensional events, then the difference between a past event and a present one seems even sharper. Until the past event is over and done with, in Whitehead’s language is “satisfied,” the present event does not arise. If the past no longer exists, then all 
agency and activity must be found in the present. Whiteheadians say that the present incorporates the past, so that the past exists within the present. But how can the present incorporate what does not exist? How can it be aware of the past or be affected by it?

Appeal is often made to memory. The past, it is said, exists in our memory of it. But in fact this does not help. How do we distinguish memory from fantasy? Presumably by it being caused by the past and not simply projected in the present. But how does this causality take place? That is the problem, all over again.

One major interpreter of Whitehead, William Christian, came to the conclusion that the past can be effective in the present only through God. God includes the past, and, since God is everlastingly present, the present occasion can relate to the past in God.

Other major interpreters of Whitehead (Ivor Leclerc is one) have drawn back from this extreme view of God’s role, but have, nevertheless, assumed that all agency and activity must be in the present occasion. They have allowed past occasions the status of passive data. In some sense, these data have existence, but their time of acting as past. They are there for the present to act upon them, but they are not “actual,” because they cannot act.

This position is a halfway house that does not really help. It does not face the really radical question with which Christian deals, the question of where the past is. On the other hand, by treating the past as purely passive it implies an extent of freedom in the present in relation to the past that seems entirely unrealistic.

One reason that interpreters can reach conclusions of this sort is that they follow Whitehead’s detailed account of concrescence. This is presented from the side of the concrescing occasion. The relation to past occasions is described in terms of physical feelings or prehensions or perception in the mode of causal efficacy. Even this last term suggests that the act of perceiving takes precedence over the causal efficacy of what is perceived. Hence it is concluded that in this whole process the past is, at most, passive data for an act of the concrescing occasion.

Interpreters tend to ignore Whitehead’s point that the new occasion is as much the superject of its prehensions as their subject. It is properly called a subject-superject. this emphasizes that the data bring the subject into being through their causal efficacy. To say that an occasion physically prehends an earlier one is equivalent with saying that the earlier occasion exercises causal efficacy on the later one.

A major problem of both of these positions as interpretations of Whitehead, therefore, is that they contradict Whitehead’s own formulations. Whitehead writes extensively of the causal efficacy of the past for the present and of the present for the future. He attributes an element of self-determination to present occasions, but he affirms that they are largely products of the past. The first phase of each occasion is the conformal one, the one that is determined by the past. This phase is supplemented, but certainly not undone, in future phases.

Furthermore, however mysterious it may be that what is no longer present shapes the present to so great a degree, it may prove even more mysterious to say that what is not yet actualized, namely the presently concrescing occasion is acting in its own concrescence. The assumption shaped by our language and by deep-seated habits of thought is that only what is actual can act. But in Whitehead’s vision there is no realized actual occasion until it reaches satisfaction, at which point it is past.

The effort to assign agency either to past occasions or to the presently concrescing one is thus beset by problems. Yet Whitehead speaks freely of such activity. This suggests that he is thinking of reality in a different way from his interpreters. We encounter a challenge to deeper reflection.

We can come closer to grasping his radical vision if we pay closer attention to what Whitehead says. Whitehead identifies the ultimate reality as the many becoming one and being increased by one. This is “creativity,” and every occasion is an instance of creativity. So what is most fully actual is not the completed past nor the present occasion  conceived as existing separately from that past. What is most fully actual is the past many becoming the present one. In that process, the past many are clearly actual and active. They cannot be merely passive data for the one. At the same time, Whitehead’s detailed analysis of concrescence makes it very clear that the becoming one is also active in its own coming to be. It is not the passive outcome of many.

This means that there are two fundamental types of activity, both occurring in the present. There is the activity of the many becoming one. There is the activity of the one constituting itself out of the many. Every occasion is first active in its own creation and then in the creation of others.

From this point of view we can ask again, Where is the past? The answer is that the past is in the present bringing the present into being. Of course, it is in the present as the past, that is as what was once present but now completed and forever determined to be what it once became. The past occasions make no decision in the present. But they impose on the presently concrescing occasion the requirement of some conformation to themselves.

That these questions are philosophically important may be more apparent than that they are religiously so. In the West we have so separated philosophy from religion that such judgments are possible. But Whitehead’s vision is here, at its core, very similar to that of a good many Buddhists. The greatest Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, taught in a quite similar way that it is walking that generates the walker and speaking, the speaker. He found it of great religious importance to break the concept that something must first exist before it acts. The process is primary. What the process produces are ephemeral products. Realizing this helps us to break our attachment to things and especially to ourselves.

Whitehead did not appreciate the religious importance of his metaphysical vision. But today, with greater familiarity with Buddhism, we know that how we perceive the world shapes us deeply — at levels that can only be understood as religious. The extreme difficulties Whitehead’s interpreters have had in fully giving up substantialist notions of actual occasions has led them to distorted interpretations of his texts. The call to give up our attachment to substances and genuinely to accept the primacy of process still remains a difficult one, even for those who try to follow Whitehead.