Whitehead and Buddhism – August 2006

Question: It is well known that process thought affirms along with Buddhism the absence of an intrinsic existence—that is no underlying substance behind any activity. But how then does it maintain this position and at the time affirm the Jamesian account of intrinsic value? Please clarify.

Publication Month: August 2006

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This is an excellent question, because it brings out the difference between some forms of Buddhism and the implications of Whitehead’s similar vision. Both standard Buddhist thinkers and Whitehead reject any notion of substance as something that underlies the succession of events. Events do not happen to things. Human experiences are not attributes or possessions of underlying subjects.

Furthermore, the events or the experiences have no existence in and of themselves. They have their being only as products of other events or experiences. They are the way the rest of the world comes into being in the here-now. Buddhists often call this pratitya samutpada, which is commonly translated as codependent arising or dependent co-arising. Whitehead speaks of “the many become one.”

For neither Buddhists nor Whitehead does the rejection of underlying substance in any way constitute a denial that events or experiences take place. On the question of the “value” of these events, on the other hand, there is a difference between Whitehead and some Buddhists. For some Buddhists, the recognition that what happens in each instance is the product of the rest of what happens leads to detachment. There is a reduced sense of the importance of just what happens. One is freed from regret and from anticipation.

Masao Abe, who helped me to understand the Zen view, emphasized that at the deepest and truest level, the relation of the present to the future is not different from the relation of the present to the past. Time has its reality only at the more superficial levels. I think this view goes far to undercut the sense that it ultimately matters what happens. The question about how one can attribute intrinsic value where there is no underlying substance seems to presuppose something like this.

At this point, as Abe also insisted, there is a metaphysical difference between his Zen view and Whitehead’s. For Whitehead the difference between past and future is utterly real. The many that become one are the occasions that make up the past. The one is the here-now. The future does not consist in occasions but in a region of the extensive continuum (roughly equivalent to space-time) that has not yet been atomized into occasions. What that future may hold can be anticipated, and anticipatory feelings contribute to the present occasion in its coming to be. But their role is quite different from that of the completed occasions of the past.

Abe does not necessarily disagree with this, but he regards it as relevant only at the superficial level. Interpreting his view from my Whiteheadian perspective, he seems to be saying that the deepest reality is the coming to be of the present occasion and that in full enlightenment one experiences oneself as just that. This coming to be, in Whitehead’s terms as well, is not a temporal process. The deepest question, then, is not what value is realized in an occasion but how fully the nontemporal process of becoming that is the occasion realizes what it truly is. At this point past and future disappear or become indistinguishable as the constituents of the one and only reality — the present.

I will not pursue my attempt to understand Abe. There are many Buddhists who can explain this type of Buddhist experience far better than I. My purpose is to say that what undercuts the idea of, and interest in, intrinsic value is not the fact that there is no underlying substance, but additional views that may not be shared by all Buddhists. At a very simple leave, the fact that my present experience has come into being out of past events does not mean that I have no strong preferences with respect to its character. To take the most elementary example, I continue to value a pleasurable experience more highly than a painful one, other things being equal.

There are other features of Whitehead’s thought that contribute to a focus on the concrete character of each event and on its evaluation. Whitehead emphasizes that however far the occasion is determined by the past events that participate in constituting it, it still makes a decision about just how to integrate, and even to supplement, what it derives from these events. This assertion that there is decision is bound up with his idea that every occasion confronts not only its actual world but also relevant potentials. The actual world imposes itself on the occasion, but the potentials offer alternative ways of supplementing and integrating that world. Some of these potentials are actualized, others are cut off. This cutting off is what Whitehead calls “decision.” Just what is cut off determines just what the occasion will be. Every occasion, therefore, is, to some extent, however small, self-determining. This act of self-determining is affected by its aim to actualize some value. It may actualize the maximum value that is possible at that moment or it may not. But it does actualize some value, and that is an important fact about every actual occasion.

The value of which I have spoken thus far is “intrinsic” value, that is, the value of the actual occasion in itself and for itself. The quality of each moment of human experience as it takes place is an intrinsic value. But for Whitehead, occasions aim not only to realize some value in themselves, that is, intrinsically, but also to contribute some value to the future. The relevant future may be a fraction of a second or many years. Probably only human beings make decisions with a remote future in mind, and even among us those decisions are the rare exceptions. But even quite simple organisms make some effort to obtain food and escape danger. They value not only the present moment but succeeding ones as well. Hence, we can say that, within the small but important range where self-determination operates, occasions decide in terms of both present and future value. They make themselves useful, or instrumentally valuable, for some future occasion or range of future occasions.

I have stated that the difference of which I am speaking is with some forms of Buddhism. The issues between Whitehead and these forms of Buddhism are ones that were not systematically addressed in most of the Buddhist tradition. Against that background, it is not surprising that, when they are addressed, answers differ. I myself do not see any need for Buddhists to reject the idea that different occasions of human experience embody different types and amounts of value. Buddhists will all judge, I believe, that the greatest value, both intrinsic and instrumental, will be achieved through the realization of the way things truly are. But this judgment need not invalidate all other values.

Buddhists generally emphasize that when one achieves this realization one is filled with compassion. Perhaps compassionate activity is oriented chiefly to helping others attain the same realization. But there are thousands of stories also of the relief of suffering somewhat disconnected from the achievement of enlightenment by the one who is helped. To me these make no sense if there is no difference in intrinsic value between the condition of suffering and its relief.

Whitehead did not appreciate the great value of what Buddhists know as enlightenment. This is something Whiteheadians can learn only from Buddhists. But a Whiteheadian will not be sympathetic to any move that so emphasizes the value of enlightenment that it ceases to be concerned about differences in intrinsic and instrumental value in general.

Whitehead was sensitive to the way in which the fading of achieved value could lead to withdrawal from it of any feeling of importance. This withdrawal may play a positive role in the thinking and experience of Buddhists, but this was not so for Whitehead, and is not so for participants in the Abrahamic traditions generally. Whitehead’s need to ground this sense of importance is one reason that God, in one period of his life, became a major theme of his writing. He was convinced that if we come to see that the values that fade so quickly in the world contribute forever to the divine experience, their importance is safeguarded. This does not require that in God there is an underlying substance, only that the divine experience is everlasting.

I think we see here two quite different responses to the implications of a very similar vision of the nature of the world. One is clearly Buddhist, the other, Christian. I myself do not think that this difference requires a choice. At least from the Christian side, we can learn much from Buddhists. Many Christians do in fact practice something that is at least very akin to Buddhist meditation. Without ceasing to be Christians, some have had their experience affirmed by Buddhist masters. I do not think that they must necessarily abandon their Christian view that all experiences have intrinsic value, and that these values matter.