Ask Dr. Cobb

April 2003 Question

I would like a very simple definition of the concept of "aims," as in "God's aims" for me or us.

Dr. Cobb's Response

What are God's aims? The questioner is not asking what God's aims for us are in their specificity, but rather. what we mean when we say that God has aims for us.  It is a good question, and quite central for the practical meaning of process theology.  I'll try to explain as simply and clearly as I can.

In "Religion in the Making" Whitehead several times refers to an experience that he believes is widespread. This is a sense that there is a rightness that is objective to our preferences. Some ways of being and acting are genuinely better than others, and this cannot be reduced to our preferences or our calculation of what is best for us as individuals.  Traditional philosophies and religions explain this in different ways, but that some ways of being and acting are truly better than others is part of what they all take for granted.

One may, of course, explain this as social conditioning.  A tribe would not survive if its children were not socialized to act in ways that helped it to do so.  Socialization shapes the sense of what is right in diverse ways.  Perhaps no further explanation is needed.

However, Whitehead thought that there is more to this experience than the effects of socialization. Individuals have a sense of rightness that can be in tension with their social conditioning. We are likely generally to judge that the mores of our group reflect the objective rightness and express it adequately to be our guide. But the fact that we can distinguish what is truly right from what the community expects of us indicates that our sense of rightness is not exhausted by our conditioning.

Whitehead is especially interested in the insights attained by reflective members of what he calls the rational religions. These are the major traditional religious movements arising in several parts of the world around 2,500 years ago in which individual experience and conviction became decisively important. These traditions, such as Judaism and its offspring, Christianity and Islam, philosophical Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism,  all emphasize a rightness that transcends social mores.

In Religion in the Making, Whitehead emphasizes that this intuition gives no direct evidence for a personal God. Buddhism emphasizes the Dharmas, Confucianism speaks of Li, Taoism of the Tao, and so forth, without positing a deity in the Judaic sense.  Yet a theistic explanation is also plausible, and Whitehead  in fact opted for it. 

In the Abrahamic faiths, the tendency is to speak of divine laws, and even the nontheistic accounts of this experience tend to explain it in terms of static principles.  But Whitehead was not satisfied with that. What people experience is not unchanging rules of conduct but a much more specific and localized rightness. Indeed, loyalty to the felt rightness may be in tension with following principles that have been laid down in the past based on the same type of intuitions. Whitehead believed this could be explained best if we understood that there is an objective best for each momentary experience.  The occasion of experience must constitute itself somehow out of the past world that flows into it.  Some ways of doing this are really better than others. Theistic believers understand themselves to be called by God to actualize themselves in those better ways.

Whitehead occasionally spoke of the "best."  He recognized that there are circumstances in which there are no good choices, that the "best" is only the least bad.  Usually this notion of a best makes sense.  But sometimes more that one decision may be equally good. Indeed, it is often more important to decide matters quickly than to concern ourselves with discerning which of two more or less equal decisions is best.  God's call may be precisely to decide quickly.

Another qualification is important if we are to understand Whitehead.  When we think about decisions we commonly take for our examples clearly conscious choices that may take quite some time to make.  We decide which college to attend, what dress to wear, how to respond to an offensive letter.  Of course, these are, for Whitehead decisions and it is important to choose well.  But the decisions on which Whitehead focuses are made moment by moment.  In these moments there is no possibility of laying out pros and cons and weighing them against each other.  The response to the received data is spontaneous rather than reflective.  Of course, the best spontaneous response may be to decide to pause and reflect.  But this is the rare, not the normal case.  In any case, the decision about which college to attend finally results from innumerable smaller decision about what catalogs to read and with whom to talk and how attentively to listen.

Some people suppose that what happens in a moment of their experience cannot be considered a "decision" at all. From a Whiteheadian perspective, if there is no decision moment by moment, then the term decision will not be useful in the larger context either.  The reality will be that all is always fully determined by what is given.

As an example that may help to understand what is meant, consider a driver confronted by a sudden change, perhaps a reckless driver cutting in.  We often say that it is important to have good reflexes.  If all that is required to avoid an accident is applying the brakes, the idea of reflexes may suffice.  But suppose that someone is tailgating, so that abrupt slowing would be very dangerous. Perhaps the best alternative is to swerve quickly into another lane while increasing speed.  That will not be a reflex in any simply sense.

Later when the driver explains why she swerved into another lane, she can lay out her options and show that this was the best. But at the time there cannot be any verbal consideration of the options.  In a fraction of a second one sees the situation and decides what to do.  Decisions do occur in the moment.  Of course, most of them are far less dramatic.

Whitehead approaches questions of this sort not only through an account of human experience but also cosmologically.  That is, he considers the status in reality of what is widely intuited by reflective people. Where are the possibilities located among which a choice is made?

Most philosophers have thought that what happens in any event is the outcome of what has happened in antecedent events. In this case there is no decision.  If the philosophers are theists, they may include the divine reality as one of the causal forces or even as the all-determining one.  Whitehead believes that the intuition that we are partly responsible for what we do and become invalidates this widespread belief. But to be responsible means that we are not entirely determined by what is given to us, whether creaturely or divine.  That means that we are partly self-determining.  Each momentary human occasion makes a decision about itself, about just how it will constitute itself from what is given to it.

An occasion cannot choose what will be given to it.  In Whitehead's view, it will be physically shaped by the occasions in its past as they flow into it. There is no responsibility there.  But the occasion feels or "prehends" possibilities as well as actualities.  If only one set of possibilities could actually be realized given the physical world of that moment, then this would only add another causal determinant.  But Whitehead argues that alternative possibilities are felt and that the occasion has to decide among them.

This picture introduces God. Prehensions of possibilities do not normally constitute awareness of feeling God, but Whitehead believes that possibilities cannot simply present themselves. Indeed, to have any reality or effectiveness at all they must be in an actuality. To have any relevance to the situation they must be ordered. The locus of these ordered possibilities, Whitehead calls God.

But the intuition of a rightness in the world is not satisfied simply by the existence of alternative relevant possibilities rendered effective for the occasion. It requires that they be valued for the occasion and not only by the occasion. This leads to the idea that God offers these alternative possibilities to us with some gradation of valuation.  Some of them are better than others.  God calls us toward the better without in any way preventing us from choosing the worse.

Whitehead's technical term for this valuing of some relevant possibility as best for the occasion is "initial aim" or more elaborately, the "initial stage of the subjective aim." The initial phase of an occasion is the inflow into it of the world and God.  The inflow of the world may work to favor or actualizing possibilities that are real but less than ideal. The final form of the subjective aim, the one that determines just what decision will be made, is likely to fall short of the initial aim. But the feeling of the ideal possibility will not be wholly lost. It will linger as a sense of missed opportunity. In New Testament language, there will be a sense of "hamartia."  This is typically translated "sin," but it more accurately means "missing the mark."  This sense of missing the mark is testimony to the sense that there is a mark that has been missed, that there is a rightness partly attained and partly missed.

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.