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Ask Dr. Cobb

May 2001 Question

Divine persuasion or coercion?

Dr. Cobb's Response

In the April essay I claimed the remarkable order at the base of the universe as best explained by God's decision. Others have argued that process theism cannot account for this order, because its exact nature and universal determination point to coercion rather than to the persuasion of which process thought speaks. This raises important questions about how God acts in the world. In terms of Whitehead's formulation in Process and Reality, how does the "initial aim" work? Can it function to determine with detailed exactness much about the way the world is ordered?

My current view is that, indeed, it can, and the contrary impression given by us interpreters should be corrected. Whitehead spoke of a principle of limitation. The discussion of this principle in Science and the Modern World and the account in PR have different accents. But the label is repeated in PR. The term points to the fact that only a very few of the pure possibilities are real possibilities for any occasion. Possibilities are ordered by God so as effect this limitation. Most pure possibilities are excluded. Whitehead gives the example of dimensionalities other than the four of our cosmic epoch.

In PR Whitehead speaks of one decision that is unilateral, that is, not conditioned by any other. This is the primordial decision that orders possibilities in their relevance to actuality. Presumably this is the act of God that establishes the limitation required for the attainment of value. At the very end of PR, W associates the immanence of the PN with the determinate conditions of all actual occasions. The many remarkable features of our cosmos, including the constants, are naturally to be understood as the result of God's ordering of possibility.

In PR's much richer account of the divine functioning, the accent is different, and other roles of the initial aim are emphasized. It determines the exact locus of the occasion. Given that locus the occasion is formed largely by causal forces from those occasions that are in the past of the locus. But because of the initial aim, the occasion also transcends those causal forces and decides how to constitute itself in relation to them. Every occasion has some capacity for novelty, some element of self-determination. Neither God nor the past nor any combination of the two determines exactly what any occasion will become.

Finally, God's working within the occasion is not limited to introducing alternatives to sheer determination by the past. It also lures toward the actualization of the fullest possible realization of value in itself and in its contribution to others. How fully occasions follow the lure is their decision.

Against this background, we can recognize that posing the issue simply in terms of coercion and persuasion has been misleading. When process thinkers deny that God acts coercively, we are opposing all too common ideas about God. God is sometimes depicted as causing everything to happen just as it does. Or God is thought of as preventing something from happening that persons involved want to happen. These ideas assume that God acts on creatures as an external force. All of this is alien to process thought.

Instead, human beings experience God as calling them to act more lovingly toward their neighbors. They find themselves resisting, but the call continues. This call is internal to us, drawing us away from our self-centeredness. It feels like persuasion.


But does the centrality of God's persuasion imply that God strictly determines nothing? Some have seemed to say this, but Whitehead does not.  God strictly determines limits precisely so that value can be realized through persuasion. If strict determination is equated with coercion, then God "coerces" extensively. But this is a drastic extension of the normal meaning of "coercion". We could also say that God coerces us into making decisions, since God's presence in our lives is the reason we must constantly decide. But this, too, is an odd use of "coerce."

From a process perspective it is better to avoid "coercion" as a description of God's working in the world. We should also continue to deny that God and the past separately or together determine exactly how any occasion is finally actualized. But certainly we should affirm that very much about every occasion is fully determined by God and the occasion's past, and that God's share in that determination is exceedingly important.  That God plays a role, and that much of what God does is determined antecedently to each occasion is surely central to process theology. We have learned that this includes the establishment of the constants that have shaped the development of the cosmos since the Big Bang, making life possible.

One source of the confusion is that process thought views many "laws" as habits of particular species. These are not "imposed" by God in a deterministic fashion. This interpretation can be applied even to elementary particles. Their behavior follows from their nature. If they change, their behavior changes, and the "laws" in question change. These
"laws" and their changes can be understood as, at least in part, resulting from divine persuasion.

Those of us who have emphasized this type of "law" and its statistical character have sometimes wanted to explain all uniformities in this way.  It is this that has given a misleading impression of the limits of divine power. We have seemed to deny that anything is determined by God's unilateral decision. It is time to follow Whitehead more closely.

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