Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Process Theology of Cobb & Bracken (pt.2)

[This is post #2 in a series - click here for post #1. For a simple introduction to process theology, check out my older post on the topic.  This series of posts goes a lot deeper than that one.] 

William James
John Cobb begins A Christian Natural Theology by explaining the basics of process philosophy – in fact, much of this book is an attempt to faithfully exegete the major works of Whitehead. Process philosophy provides a model of reality based on what must be the basic element in the universe. With William James, it describes human experience as growing by differentiated ‘drops’ rather than an undivided flow, and similarly agrees with physicists that events in the subatomic world happen in ‘bursts’, not smoothly. Whitehead thus names the basic individual entities of all reality ‘actual occasions of experience’, which dynamically flow in and out of existence. As such, there is no sharp line to be drawn between human experience and the rest of the natural world – everything is ultimately made up of successive occasions. Actual occasions succeed one another so rapidly that it is impossible to consciously analyze them individually, but we can know something about what they contain since the qualities we are aware of having in human experiences must be present in all occasions.

Becoming actual occasions in the present (subjects) ‘prehend’ all past occasions (objects) in varying degrees, synthesizing them into something unique. The past penetrates into the present, such that everything in the universe is ultimately related, although the effect of the past fades over time to virtually nothing. In this model, contemporary events have no causal efficacy on one another, so cause always precedes effect. Additionally, occasions are dipolar: the ‘physical pole’ prehends the finite past and the ‘mental pole’ conceptually prehends the mental past, which offers novel possibilities. These relevant possibilities that are felt and realized by the becoming occasion are called ‘eternal objects’, which are like Plato’s forms, although for Whitehead they are passive while ‘matter’ (which is actually energy) is active. As such, the eternal objects must be ordered and actualized by actual entities. Without the novelty introduced by the ordering of eternal objects for each occasion, the past would entirely determine the present and there would be no real freedom. For Whitehead, freedom is so essential that it is universally present even without conscious decision-making. He argues that in every occasion there is a purposive element called the ‘subjective aim’, as well as its ‘subjective form’ – how the occasion uniquely prehends the past. The subjective aim and form are largely repeated in immediately subsequent occasions. The final synthesis of the becoming occasion is its ‘satisfaction’, after which they ‘perish’ and become an influence on all future occasions.

John B. Cobb Jr.
While we are not generally aware of individual occasions, we can analyze groupings of occasions. Whitehead calls these ‘societies’, which organize occasions that are closely dependent on one another and exemplify common traits. Societies account for objects that endure through time (bodies, tables, etc) and provide stability. Another important concept for Whitehead is the ‘dominant occasion’, which is a crucial part of what Cobb calls the soul. The dominant occasion is that which is essential for the well being of the entire society, and they are not present in lower forms of life or inanimate societies. For Cobb, the soul is not a substance but a society in which only one occasion occurs at a time: the dominant occasion in the brain. The soul is relational not isolated, is dynamically constituted by experiences, and is closely related to the rest of the body. While some higher animals have a soul, the human soul differs in its peculiar intensity and complexity. But Cobb also sees humans as particular in their historical orientation, “the human potentiality for being formed by history,” especially evident in their sense of memory that provides a basis for responsibility for the past. He speculates about life after death and concludes that, while natural theology cannot talk about a physical resurrection of the body, the soul (which is the living person) can logically live apart from the body. Exactly where the soul might live on is difficult to know, though one could speculate about other dimensions of reality.

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