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Ask Dr. Cobb

July-August 2006 Question

I understand that God provides the possibilities in a moment of becoming and that one is the choice. I do not understand how the synthesis of the various prehended objects happens. How does this synthesis happen? To further clarify my question: does God synthesize? Or does synthesis remain a mystery for process thought? From a process perspective, I see God as making novel syntheses possible, but I do not know how a synthesis is actualized.

Dr. Cobb's Response

This is an excellent question, or set of questions. I will focus on “Does synthesis remain a mystery for process thought?” And I will distinguish two questions that unpack it: (1) Do we understand why synthesis occurs? And (2) Do we understand how it takes place.

With regard to the first question, we could answer that it takes place so as to achieve God’s aim at the increase of value. I think that is a meaningful and important answer, but it is certainly not a complete one. To view it as a complete answer we would have to suppose that God is a transcendent, omnipotent being who brought the process as a whole into being. If we made that move, then the mystery would be God’s existence and nature. We could, at least at some level, understand the world.

Whitehead rejects that way of thinking. For him there is no God without a world, just as there is no world without God. We cannot think of a beginning of either. The mystery, accordingly, is the reality of God and the world. God is explanatory of the world in some respects, and the world is explanatory of God in some respects. But at a deeper level, the very existence of God-and-the-world remains a mystery.

Whitehead gives the answer to that mystery a name: “creativity.” Creativity is the ultimate. Both God and every actual occasion in the world are instances of creativity. Creativity only exists in these instances. It is not another entity alongside them. That there is instantiated creativity is the given. We cannot probe more deeply.

The ultimate question is: “Why is there anything at all? Why not, simply nothing?” This is a question that no one has ever answered. It is the mystery of being. Some suppose they have answered by saying there is something because God has created it, but the question then simply shifts to “Why is there God?”

Some philosophers linger on these questions. Whitehead does not. That there are events is simply given. Nor can we answer a narrower question: “Why is every unit event, every actual entity, a synthesis or relations?” That, too, Whitehead finds to be given.

The givenness of creative synthesis is somewhat different from the givenness of “something.” No one really doubts the latter. Even if one supposes that the world is a private dream, that does not deny that something, the private dream in this case, exists or occurs. But very few philosophers have held with Whitehead that whatever occurs is a synthesis of relations. To discover that this is what is given requires extensive theoretical development of a sort that has been rare.

In any case, Whitehead judged that the “given” consists of instances of creativity and that creativity is best described as “the many become one and are increased by one.” Our focus with the present questions is on the former part of this. “The many become one.”

How does this occur? At this point we certainly still have a mystery, but one that can be answered, in a speculative way, descriptively. A large part of Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality, is devoted to this description. It describes how the synthesis of the past occurs in the present in very simple occasions and in very complex ones. Nevertheless, the process is amazing, utterly astonishing. The more fully it is described the more wonderful it seems that this is happening moment by moment both in our own experience and in the occasions of empty space. The wonder is increased as we realize that each occasion is not only a synthesis of the past but also appropriates some element of novelty.

Part of the heightened mystery is that so much occurs so rapidly. Another part is that it is very hard to say who or what is causing it to happen. In traditional theism, we might appeal to God as the actor, and for Whitehead, too, God plays an absolutely necessary role. But the role of past occasions is just as necessary, and so is the role of the new synthesis. Shall we say that the new occasion is a creation of God? Whitehead allows, but does not encourage, that language.

Shall we say that each new occasion is the creation of the past? When whitehead describes what happens in terms of causal efficacy, it seems that this is the best way to think of it. Past occasions exert causal efficacy in the constitution of new ones. In his brief definition of creativity, he says the many become one. The many are the occasions constituting the past. What an occasion becomes is largely determined by the past.

However, when Whitehead does his most detailed analysis of the becoming of an occasion, he does so from the perspective of the becoming occasion. His language there is not about the causal efficacy of past occasions but the prehensive activity of the new one. The focus is on the variety of prehensions and how they are integrated. This activity seems to be internal to the becoming occasion, guided by its subjective aim. It climaxes in a decision. Whitehead even says that every occasion is causa sui, that is, cause of itself.  

It is easy to attribute, based on this language, too much to the occasion. Its physical prehensions are the consequences of the decisions of past occasions, not of its own decision. It has no choice as to what it will physically feel and thus incorporate into itself. The past occasions participate in the very constitution of the new one. This is their casual efficacy. It is because the past multiplicity becomes the new unity that the world holds together and so much that happens is predictable. In Whitehead’s language “whatever is determinable is determined.” Nevertheless, ‘there is always a remainder for the decision of the subject-superject of that concrescence.”

The language of “subject-superject” makes clear how difficult it is in this process vision to draw sharp boundaries around who does what. The new occasion is the superject of its own prehensions which are the way the past enters into it. It is thus the outcome of the causal efficacy of the past. But the new occasion is also the subject prehending the past and integrating its prehensions. As long as we get the concepts by which we organize our thought from the world as given to us in sense experience, what Whitehead calls presentational immediacy, our formulations will inevitably distort in one direction or the other.

Whitehead takes it as the task of philosophy not to explain why there is anything at all or why what is has the fundamental character it has, but to describe what is and the causal relations operative in it. Very broadly we can say that the past causes the present to reenact elements of itself. God makes it possible for the present not merely to repeat the past and thus to be a new event. The present decides which of the options derived from God it will actualize. Creativity is the characterless ultimate that takes on specific character in each occasion. These over simple statements point to the ultimate mystery that is creativity.

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