Ask Dr. Cobb

June 2005 Question

Does God have a serial existence as we do? Is it correct to think of God as the dominant occasion in the universe?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Before offering answers to these questions, I feel the need for a word of caution. the first and surest answer is that neither I, nor Hartshorne, nor Whitehead, nor anyone else, has ever known the answers to questions of this sort. In a strict sense of know, that lack of knowledge applies to most of the questions I try to answer, but questions that press for the exact nature of God and God's relation to the world, especially from God's side, require this disclaimer more than others. Whitehead makes such a disclaimer before beginning his religiously most interesting discussion near the end of Process and Reality. His disciples should not forget to repeat it.

Nevertheless, it is good and proper that we try to shape our imaging of God in the most reasonable and plausible way we can. Those of us who find process thought the most reasonable and plausible way of understanding ourselves and our world try to use it also to think about God. At that point, even the limited sort of testing that is possible with our ideas about ourselves and our world eludes us. But we do not cease, for that reason, to think. What models, derivative from our theories about the world work best when we are thinking of God?

The questioner asks about the model of the "dominant occasion.” That idea was developed by Whitehead to depict the occasion of human experience in its relation to the other occasions that make up the human organism. It works for other animals as well, at least the vertebrate ones with brains. It points to the fact that although there are many centers of life and activity in the body, by far the most influential one is located somewhere in the brain. Its decisions have far greater importance in determining the behavior of the whole organism than do those of any other entity in the body. It is also called the "final percipient occasion," because the body is so organized as to channel stimulation from sources both in the body and outside it, through the central nervous system, to the brain. The final percipient occasion is enabled to play a dominant role because it is informed of so much.

At the same time, it is important to emphasize that richly as this occasion is informed, its continuing ignorance far outweighs its knowledge of what goes on either in its body or its environment. The information it receives and processes is very limited indeed. Similarly, although it is the most influential occasion in the body, its "dominance" is only very partial. In most cases it has little influence on the heart, for example. During sleep, its dominance is greatly reduced. Even in the areas where it has the strongest influence, it depends on the good functioning of other parts of the body. For example, I am now typing on my computer, and my fingers follow my thoughts quite well. But damage to some of the nerves would quickly end that influence. The influence is less vulnerable in relation to spatially proximate neuronal events in the brain.

So how good a model is this for the relation of God and the world? We can compare it with some others that have been used, for example a king and his subjects. In this comparison, the model of dominant occasion is better. The relation of dominant occasion expresses the intimacy and mutuality of the relation better. Also the dominant occasion works only internally on its adjacent occasions. Also we know that what happens to the body deeply affects the dominant occasion, and we believe that whatever happens in the world affects God.

The king may work partly by persuading subjects, but the relation is largely mediated through laws. There is always the threat of externally imposed punishment. Also the king may be unaffected by what happens to many of his subjects. On the other hand, the king's subjects are more obviously free agents able to resist the demands of the king than are bodily cells; so the monarchical model has some advantages. A better one, especially for Christians, would be parent and child. Nevertheless, if these are our choices, I vote for the dominant occasion.

What we mean by dominant occasions, or better, by a series of dominant occasions, is what the Greeks meant by psyche. Some of them, also, speculated that the relation of God to the world was like that of psyche to soma. That may have worked better for them than it does for us. They tended more to think of the psyche as the enlivening force of the whole body. God is surely spatially related to every part of the universe equally. We locate the dominant occasion more fully in the brain and often at a particular place within the brain. This means that it is related directly to only a few loci in the brain and to every other part of the body indirectly. That analogy is not good. But even for the Greeks there were limitations. The psyche might be co-terminus with the soma, but it still had a spatially external relation to most of reality. Its relations to these others played a large role in shaping it. God has no spatially external environment. Still, if the model simply says that the relation of God to the world is like that of the psyche to the soma, understanding the psyche to pervade the soma, it is a good place to start.

It is better to think of this as an analogy than as a model. A model may be thought of as an abstract pattern that is literally exemplified in more than one kind of thing. An analogy normally has some similarities and some dissimilarities. In some respects God is related to the world as soul is related to body. In other respects, important ones, the relation is quite different. Hartshorne liked the analogy. Whitehead never mentioned it so far as I know. I, personally, have used the analogy of soul to brain to avoid, or at least reduce, the problem of spatial separation and mediation of influence. If we think of the soul as more or less co-terminus with the brain, influenced by what happens in the brain and also influencing it, the analogy is one with which we can begin to think of God and the world. It also helps to explain why we should not expect to understand God very well. There is an enormous difference between the subjective life of an individual neuron and a unified human experience. Presumably the difference between a momentary human experience and that of God is even greater. We can speculate that the relation is similar in that God includes our experiences and unifies them, somewhat as we include the experiences of the neurons and unify them. But we also speculate that God includes our experiences perfectly as well as those of the neurons. Our inclusion of neuronal experience is very imperfect, and our inclusion of the quantum events of which these are ultimately composed is even vaguer. That God includes and unifies the whole world is a very bold claim and certainly not one implicit in the analogy. Still I think it more reasonable to make that claim than to press the analogy too far.

The other part of the question points to one reason that Hartshorne uses the analogy and Whitehead does not. Hartshorne thinks that the divine life consists in a series of divine occasions as the human soul consists in such a series. Hence one can ground the analogy in a momentary occasion on both sides. Indeed, one reason Hartshorne thinks of God thus is so that more of the ways of understanding ourselves and our world can be understood to be applicable to God as well.

For example, in the world, an occasion can only function as a cause of what transpires in another occasion when it has become complete. At that point it ceases to be a subject and becomes an object for others. Process thought understands God to influence what happens in all occasions. That seems to require that God's process of becoming becomes complete and thus available as an object to be felt by others. When I wrote A Christian Natural Theology, I was influenced by that line of reasoning. Many process theologians continue to follow Hartshorne on this point.

Whitehead, however, never adopted this view. He held that God is an "actual entity" but not an "actual occasion.” God's relation to time, he thought, is not like ours. God and the world are complementary to each other. God is not another example of worldly occasions. There is some tension here with his other famous statement that God is the supreme exemplification of the categories, not an exception. Hartshorne follows the implication of that statement better than Whitehead. However, I have come gradually to prefer Whitehead's emphasis on complementarity to Hartshorne's emphasis on metaphysical similarity. Again, we are far beyond the reliable limits of human thought and there is no empirical check for either view.

Hartshorne's view of God as a serially ordered succession of divine experiences does not require special explanation. It provides a positive answer to the first question and supports a positive answer to the second. I fully respect this view. It has its problems, but I am convinced that we run into problems when we press any question, whether about God or the world or ourselves, very far. I think we can press them farther with fewer problems with a process conceptuality than with any other I know. But there are still plenty of problems.

The problem with thinking of God as one everlasting concrescence, as Whitehead does, strikes one immediately. The whole reason for bringing up the topic of God in the first place is because God makes a difference in the world. Yet in Whitehead's conceptuality, to make a difference is to be prehended, and an actual entity cannot be prehended during its concrescence. I have too much respect for Whitehead to think that he simply made a conceptual blunder here; so I was pleased when Marjorie Suchocki, reading the texts carefully, came up with a clue as to how Whitehead was thinking.

Actual occasions in the world have no unity until they have unified their many data. They originate physically and achieve their unification conceptually. Until they have become "one" they do not exist for others. But God is different. Primordially, or eternally, that is, in a way that all temporal things assume and itself does not assume anything temporal, God is a unity of conceptual feelings. All possibility is unified in God in such a way that its relevance to what is to be actual is established. That unity is complete and, therefore, can be prehended. It is this completed unity whose effectiveness in the world is the primary topic of Whitehead's philosophical writings so far as God is concerned. Without it there could be neither order nor novelty, indeed, there could be nothing at all.

In the world, conceptual feelings are added to the physical ones and are required in order to unify them. It is only as they bring unity to the whole occasion that they achieve their own unity. But God begins in conceptual unity. God's physical feelings of the world are woven upon the always already unified conceptual feelings. Hence they ipso facto become part of that unity. God's satisfaction grows with these additions, but this growth is not episodic.

One reason for the difference between Hartshorne and Whitehead on this topic is that they have different views of forms or what Whitehead calls "eternal" objects. "Eternal," like "primordial," means nontemporal. It is not an honorific term. Eternal objects are pure possibilities. Whether there will ever be a universe in which they might become really possible is a different question that makes no difference to what they are in their absolute abstractness. But even in their absolute abstractness they are related to one another, and how they are related to one another also determines how they are related to a world in which some of them are ingredient. It is this relatedness among them that provides order and novelty to the world. And it is this sphere of ordered possibility that constitutes the being of God eternally. There is simply no analogy with this among creatures. It is the presupposition of creaturely existence.

So far as I can tell, Hartshorne is not interested in this level of abstraction. The possibilities in which he is interested are the real possibilities for this world. For him new possibilities are coming into being. Creatures create them. To him it seems that if all symphonies already exist as possibilities in God, real creaturely creativity is belittled. What Whitehead called the Primordial Nature plays no role in Hartshorne's thought. Hence the only thing that is eternal is the essence of God, and that essence can be fully actualized in every occasion of the divine life. To think of the Primordial Nature of God being recreated in every moment is more awkward.
Although I began with Hartshorne's view, I have come to find Whitehead's vision of God more profound and, therefore, for me, more credible and more satisfying. That is simply a confession, not an argument. In any case, I assume that the reality is far beyond these human concepts and the limits of our imagination.

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