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Ask Dr. Cobb

January 2006 Question

Two questions this month struck me as complementary, and I decided to combine them. They are:

1. Process theism seems to speak of God as eternally envisaging and harmonizing all possibilities. But some possibilities are horrific—genocide, rape, torture . . . If God is good, how can these possibilities be eternally in God? How can such possibilities be “harmonized”? Perhaps it makes sense to say as Wieman does that possibilities do not exist primordially, but are created with the universal process?

2. If all events are eternally in God’s memory in all their immediacy, how do we avoid the notion that all evil is also preserved in God forever? There are allusions to this problem in PR (the idea that God “dismisses” such events into the triviality of their mere facticity). I find these responses unsatisfying. How does God overcome the evils which God experiences? How is it that goods are preserved (“tender care that nothing be lost”) and not evils?

Dr. Cobb's Response

The first of these questions is, for me, theologically easier to respond to than the second, but philosophically more difficult. That is, I think that when we understand what Whitehead means by the “eternal objects,” the sense that God’s inclusion and ordering of all of them does not have detract from God’s goodness. On the other hand, I have repeatedly found that my effort to explain what Whitehead means by a pure possibility fails to communicate. Still it may be worth trying again.

Whatever my success on this point, it will not help with the other. What is preserved in God’s Consequent Nature are the actual events in their immediacy. We must reflect existentially or religiously about the value of preserving “evil events” alongside “good” ones.

In any case both questions are asking how a God who contains evil can be good. It helps to have examples in mind when one asks questions of these sorts, and the first questioner offers three: genocide, rape, torture. I’ll tackle the two questions in sequence assuming that the second questioner also considers these to be examples of the evils that God retains eternally.

With regard to what is eternally included in the Primordial Nature of God, I think that genocide, rape, and torture are not good examples. I incline to say that they are not eternal objects at all. Let me explain.

The eternal objects and their ordering, Whitehead says, presuppose that there will be some actual world, but they do not presuppose any contingent particularities about that actual world. The only ideas I have that in any way correspond with genocide, rape, and torture presuppose the actuality of human beings. One might argue that a cat sometimes “tortures” a mouse; so I will not strictly insist on that limitation. But without living beings, at least, there can be no torture. All three terms refer primarily to what human beings sometimes do to one another.

For Whitehead our ideas of such things are “propositions” or “impure possibilities.” In ordinary language, most of our references to possibilities are to this type. We are thinking of what is possible in a given situation or for given people. In the realm of eternal objects there is no reference to any actual situation or people. Possibilities of this impure sort, that is, what Whitehead calls “propositions,” emphatically come into being progressively in the course of evolution and history. Whitehead fully agrees with those who say so.

I left the door ajar for a possible argument that the complex pattern of eternal objects embodied when a rape takes place could be named “rape.” This is the pattern that a proposition feeling unites with a physical feeling when the possibility of rape, in the usual sense comes into being. It is very rare that someone means this by “rape” but perhaps not impossible. Nevertheless, it is the proposition, the impure possibility, that we normally understand to be evil.

Does this mean that there are no “evil” eternal objects? I’m not sure how to answer that, but at least the question can lead to a deeper probe. There are two species of eternal objects: objective and subjective. Those entities typically considered by mathematicians, such as shapes and quantities, are of the objective species. That is, one can think of them and about them, but they cannot characterize the subjective form of the experience in which such thought occurs. It is safe to say that eternal objects of the objective species are neither good nor bad, although the ingression of a particular shape into a particular painting may be aesthetically good or bad.

With respect to eternal objects of the subjective species matters are not quite that simple, and I am less sure of my answer. These eternal objects are qualities of feeling. A particular sense of aesthetic pleasure is an eternal object of this species. It remains an object about which thought is possible, but it can also characterize human subjectivity. The same is true of a particular form of pain.

Are, then, the eternal objects, pain and suffering, evil? For God to feel subjectively every possible form of pain and suffering would seem evil. My understanding, however, is that God feels such pain and suffering subjectively only in God’s sympathetic feeling of the feelings of creatures who feel them. God’s primordial envisagement of the eternal objects does not involve their ingression into the subjective form of the divine experience. In the Primordial Nature, even eternal objects of the subjective species are felt by God only objectively. If readers agree that we can communicate with one another about the ideas of pain and suffering without feeling them subjectively, then this should not be difficult to understand.

But would it have been better if the realm of pure possibility did not include pain and suffering at all? Pain has important positive roles as well as negative ones. Some suffering is an expression of love and seems ennobling. Probably few would argue for their total exclusion. The focus of the examples of evil we have been considering is probably more on the malice of those who inflict pain and suffering than on the victims. Hence the more searching question is whether it would have been better for God to have excluded malice from the realm of pure possibility.

The question suggests a more voluntaristic view of God than I find in Whitehead. God’s role in relation to the eternal objects is not, I think, to create them out of nothing or to decide whether they should exist but only so to order them as to encourage the emergence of increased value in the world. Even so, the question remains interesting. Would we choose to live in a world where willing harm to others was not only absent but also not conceivable or possible of realization? In such a world would willing good for others be conceivable or possible of realization? Would there be any moral experience at all? Would this be an improvement?

These are not easy questions to answer. But I am persuaded that the total value realized in a world where malice was not simply lacking but utterly inconceivable would be less than in one where people struggle with moral choices. We Whiteheadians generally think that progress in the realization of positive values inevitably involves increased possibilities for evil as well, so that God could not have ordered things so as to have rich experiences without pain and suffering. This assertion is highly speculative, and it is not directly derived from Whitehead’s texts, although we think it is consistent with them.

My response to the concern about the inclusion of evil in God’s Primordial Nature has been chiefly that what is included is far too abstract to be evil in itself. Evil arises through the ingression of certain eternal objects into certain actual occasions at certain times. That is, evil is to be found in actual entities, not the eternal objects. But this emphasis in no way reduces the concerns expressed in the second question. What about the Consequent Nature in which the immediacy of feeling to be found in every occasion is forever preserved? Does not that introduce evil into God?

In Whitehead’s view it certainly introduces suffering into God. Much of that suffering is unnecessary. Creatures could have made different choices that would have reduced the suffering in the world and therefore also in God.

Traditional theology resisted the idea that God is capable of suffering. God’s perfection meant that God was free of suffering. Patripassionism was condemned as a heresy. The idea that God suffers with us, however, is not alien to the Bible. I am not sure that the questioner is bothered by this way in which evil is in God.

The problem, again, may be more with the inclusion of the maliciousness of the perpetrator of suffering. The experience of the Marquis de Sade, taking pleasure in the agony of children, is preserved forever in God. Perhaps this is what distresses the questioner. It seems to have troubled Whitehead also, since he qualifies his general statement a little in response.

I will not, however, try to exegete, the qualifications. Instead, let us consider the basic question of the vivid memory of evil. What alternatives should we consider? For Jews no memory can be more horrible than that of the Shoa or Holocaust. No doubt some Jews want to forget it. But for most Jews, despite the pain that is reenacted in its memory, it is important that its memory remain vivid.

The horror of this event makes it more difficult for Jews to reconcile their belief in God as Lord of History with the actual course of events. But on the whole they do not regard this as a reason for minimizing the event. It belongs to the reality of Jewish history, and apart from it that history is not adequately incorporated.

The situation is similar in the case of individuals. Some women deal with rape by blocking out the memory. To recall it is too painful. However, in the majority of cases, this strategy of denial generates more problems than it resolves. For most, the path of healing leads through the renewal of memory and its incorporation into one’s life story.

These are only analogies, of course, and analogies should not be pressed. Nevertheless, if we think of the universe story as God’s story, we may be able to see that selective memory would not suffice. The story needs to include everything, however painful this may be to God.

Perhaps the questioner fears that if God contains the malicious feelings of the torturer, God’s own motives will be tainted. This would misrepresent the way in which God contains the world. Again analogy may help. A good parent empathizes deeply with the feelings of children. Empathy is a way of including the feelings of the other. Perhaps the child is angry at a playmate, and the parent feels the child’s anger. Still the parent feels the anger as the child’s anger. Empathy does not involve the parent becoming angry with the playmate. Ideally, the parent can at the same time be empathetic with the playmate. The emotional resources of the child probably do not allow both for anger and empathy toward the playmate, but children can grow into adults for whom this greater complexity of feeling, however difficult, does become possible. What is just possible to some small extent in mature human beings, Whitehead posits as ideally fulfilled in God. The inclusion of evil in God belongs to God’s goodness.

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