Communities and Destinies

First published 2008

Anthropology is a key discipline in any philosophical or theological system. Some approaches, such as those of Kant or Descartes, necessarily begin with the human being, because experience as produced and/or filtered by human consciousness must be the starting point for all reflection. Other approaches, like those of Aquinas or Barth, attempt to begin with divinity, discovering the nature of the human being through a combination of revealed truth from above and the activity of reason from below. Still others, such as existentialism or postmodernism, reject systematic metaphysics as a goal, and attempt a dialectical phenomenology to describe, but not delineate, human existence in the world.

Whitehead’s metaphysical goal was undeniably systematic and began “from below,” thus placing him in the first camp. Yet while Whitehead accepts that our discovery of reality begins with “the order of dawning,” that is, with the appearance of experience in consciousness, he rejects the notion that this is where metaphysics itself must begin (PR 162). Instead, he follows a more classical approach, asking questions with a much larger scope than the anthropological, and attempting to create a system that encompasses anthropology as a particular case (whether special or ordinary, it is yet to be seen). The question of the human being, then, appears in Whitehead’s philosophy as the beginning of the empirical method, but only as a subheading of the system in general. And in fact, in the systematic (as opposed to the methodological and historical) chapters of Process and Reality, the human being appears as a quite remote subcategory, being overshadowed by the more general topics of societies and nexūs, and the more crucial specialized case of the divine entity. In his less systematic works, such as Science and the Modern World, Adventures of Ideas, and Modes of Thought, human society, history, and mind are always to the forefront, as Whitehead adopts the Enlightenment approach to metaphysics through systematic (human) thought.

The nature and destiny of man, as Reinhold Niebuhr once put it in a book title, are among the most urgent preoccupations of philosophy. Indeed, one might argue that the bulk of the philosophical enterprise has as its precipitating aim the need to know the human self. Even as philosophers explored the nature of reality as such and investigated the preconditions for such knowledge, the question of human nature and purpose remains central, as the motivation for the larger investigation and, for many, as its ultimate goal. If such a complex investigation is needed to discover the nature and significance of human existence, it would not be surprising if the answer turned out to be far from simple.

And so it is, according to Whitehead. Because process thought posits a kind of atomism of experience that exhibits emergent properties when structured into higher-order organisms, human beings fall closer to the far end of a continuum that extends from very simple realities to complex ones like consciousness. There is a real possibility of further evolutionary development along these lines, as well as the existence of even more complex or advanced creatures in other parts of the universe currently inaccessible to us. Their future or contemporaneous existence may even be assumed—an assumption consistent with Whitehead’s metaphysical turn away from anthropocentrism. In order to address the topic of anthropology, then, we shall need to work both downward and upward from the human being, considering the components of which a human being is constituted, as well as the possibilities for evolution or alternate forms that illuminate her particularity.

1. The Lessons of Direct Experience

Like all reality, human beings consist of actual occasions—droplets of existence that come into being out of their pasts and perish upon achieving “satisfaction,” or the completion of their becoming. Process philosophy often focuses on analyzing these individual, momentary entities. But it quickly becomes obvious that the task of understanding the realities which most concern us at the human level (i.e. between the sub-microscopic scale of actual entities and the macroscopic scale of the entire universe or multiverse) is not limited to such an analysis. Human beings, along with other living and non-living enduring objects, exhibit properties and capacities that cannot be accounted for by reference to the properties and capacities of actual occasions. (For a definition of “enduring object,” see PR 34.) However, comprehension of the “life cycle” of an actual entity does lead to several conclusions that are important to a process-based anthropology.

(1) We are made out of our pasts. First, process anthropology gives metaphysical weight to the humanistic and even relativistic discoveries of modernism (the historical consciousness) and post-modernism (the absence of any neutral territory from which to observe). What a human being is, as well as who he is, depends on the context in which he arises. Since all contexts are unique spatiotemporal and social locations, and all historical routes leading to emerging entities are different, opportunities to generalize about human nature are extremely limited. The hallmark of humanity is variety, not similarity. This widely recognized fact is consistent with process thought’s analysis of the temporal entity in terms of the data of its past.

(2) We bear responsibility for what we become. The inevitable consequence of an uncontrollable past is a solitary present. While none of us can choose our ancestors or birthplace (and this lack of choice continues for several years, until some measure of independence can be attained), each moment brings us a choice about how we will respond to the facts of our past. Whitehead speaks of the actual entity’s “decision” to value its constituting data in a certain way. While the term “decision” must be used in a strictly technical sense about non-conscious entities, it certainly can be used in its common-sense meaning with reference to human beings (although, using the term in a Whiteheadian way, only a minority of human “decisions” are conscious ones: cf. PR 28, 43-47). Naturally not every moment of becoming from infancy onward is an act of conscious decision, and the range of possibilities from which to choose, as well as the ability to weigh the nuances of the decision, increases with maturity. Nevertheless, the fact that we are constrained by the facticity of our past, yet free in the moment to decide how to arrange that facticity into a life, makes human beings both profoundly contextual and profoundly responsible for themselves.

(3) We cannot hold on—we must let go. The final lesson that can be derived from process of an actual occasion is that no part of us is permanent. Perpetual perishing is the way of all reality. As one occasion passes out of its “living” phase and into its “dead” phase, another arises. And the unchanging brute facts of the past are “resurrected” as data in a new occasion. Human beings have been concerned about death from time immemorial; some of the earliest artifacts of our species have been preserved because they were a part of burial rituals. Yet reality continually frustrates our attempts to stop time and preserve ourselves unchanged. We recognize that each moment is a slipping away of what matters to us, but we nevertheless murmur (like Goethe’s Faust), “Verweile doch, du bist so schön.” The perishing of the actual occasion means that we perish, too—and not just moment by moment, but also in a final relinquishing of our enduring life. We are creatures that arise, persist through change, and die—overlapping and being succeeded by others who will “immortalize” us by remembering and utilizing our facticity.

With these building blocks from the atomic level of experience in mind, let us examine how actual occasions organize themselves into living creatures, including human beings.

2. Humans as Communities

The relationship of the human being to her constituent actual occasions can be described by three Whiteheadian terms. The first, “multiplicity,” is also the simplest; it refers to a collection of actual occasions considered only as the data that an emerging entity will unify. Since the human being does exhibit a more robust unity than this mere “collectedness” into a set of data—a unity that endures over time and provides an immediate, bounded “microverse” that strongly contextualizes all entities emerging in it—the description of the human being as a multiplicity is not as apt as the other terms about to be explicated. However, it is important not to let the multiple nature of the human being slip away entirely from our view. To mention only a few considerations, I am undoubtedly prehended as just this sort of collection—the set of actual entities that are collectively called “me”—by other human beings, gathered therefore as a multiplicity in their experience. Furthermore, the boundary between me (mind and body) and everything that is not me is far less defined than we tend to assume. We are constantly exchanging matter and energy with our surroundings: the body takes in and sheds molecules; we eat, process and excrete foodstuffs; we even retain a thin layer of atmosphere and gravity of our own as we move through the world. Our minds, too, are in such intimate interaction with the environment through the medium of our senses (which themselves gather in matter and energy, be it molecules of scent or photons of light), that the question of where the mind begins and the environment ends, or whether the two are completely disconnected (since no simple point of intersection is apparent) continues to occupy philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychological specialists. Whatever may be the final answer to the puzzle of consciousness, the fact remains that it is impossible at any given moment to delineate the set consisting of all the parts of the human being, and only those parts. To that extent, then, it is crucial for the process anthropologist to remember that there is a multiplicity to the human being that resists reification and organic definition.

Moving closer to the human being as we directly experience it, we come upon the Whiteheadian concept of nexus. A nexus is “a public matter of fact,” a “set of actual entities in the unity of the relatedness constituted by their prehensions of each other” (PR 22, 24). Unlike a multiplicity, whose only unity is found in the actual occasion that prehends all its members in terms of an ascribed quality or common feeling, a nexus is mutually interconnected prior to and outside of the prehensions of another. Its members prehend each other and thereby enter into the kind of internal relations that are the hallmarks of Whitehead’s system.

Here we run headfirst into a difficulty that Whitehead scholars have long acknowledged: the problem of mutual contemporary prehensions. The data for each emerging actual occasion consists of the entities in its immediate past world. In order to be prehended, entities must be past—satisfied, dead, brute fact, no longer becoming, only being. How, then, are we to understand the concept of a nexus with its members prehending each other? A past entity prehends nothing; it is only prehended. A presently-unfolding entity, conversely, only prehends; it is not (yet) prehended. Whitehead insists, however, on speaking of mutual immanence among the members of a nexus, even though “[i]t is the definition of contemporary events that they happen in causal independence of each other” (AI 195). He is able to do so because the prehensions of each other that the members enjoy are not direct and contemporaneous, but mediated through the elements in their past that they prehend in common, as well as through the common future in which they will be objective elements: “Thus indirectly, via the immanence of the past and the immanence of the future [in the occasions’ presents], the occasions are connected” (AI 195). It is also that case that a nexus is not merely a momentary, immediate-present connection between entities: it is one that extends through time. For that reason, the mutual relationship of which Whitehead writes takes on the dual form of aspiration and constraint. The constraint arises from the asymmetry of the relationship between a past occasion (which is immanent in a following occasion as an efficient cause) and a present occasion (which is immanent, much less restrictively, in the past occasion as an anticipated outcome of the past occasion’s becoming) (AI 197). The aspiration of the relationship arises from the genesis of the nexus in a proposition, or “complex eternal object”—a potentiality for unity that is concretely embodied in this set of actualities aiming, to the extent that they both aim at the creation of a common reality.

Finally, human beings are most fully described by the Whiteheadian term “society.” A society is “a nexus with social order,” meaning that the members (a) share a common element of form, (b) prehend each other, and (c) reproduce the form in their own actualities as a result of prehending it positively in each other (PR 34). This form (a complex eternal object, like the one out of which a nexus arises) propagates throughout the society through positive prehensions that result in a genetic relationship; it is “inherited throughout the nexus, each member deriving it from those other members of the nexus which are antecedent to its own concrescence” (PR 34). Human societies also exhibit personal order, meaning that their constituent entities inherit their common form serially—that the society’s “defining characteristic” has a “single line of inheritance” (PR 34). Thus all members of the society participate in the identity of the society, although they are not all identical with each other.

It is all too easy when discussing the nature of the human being to read the language in use as referring to substances that endure over some period of time. To get into the process mode of thought, however, one must remember that in a so-called enduring object, what endures is the identity that unites the society, not any single member of the society, nor any group of its members. Whitehead underlines this point when he points out that “there is no one nexus which can claim to be the society, so long as that society is in existence” (AI 204). In other words, as long as the society is growing by adding members serially that inherit its common form genetically, no definitive group of the members of that society can be delineated. But once the enduring object has ceased to live (once the human being is dead, for example), then a nexus can be identified that is fully identical to the society, because no further members of that society are being added.

Such a description implies a definition of “life,” “death,” and “existence” that calls immediately to mind the philosophical point of view of existentialism. And indeed, the existentialists, especially as they have informed theology by way of Heidegger and Bultmann, contribute much to the process view of humankind (Cobb and Griffin 1976, 80-82). The oscillating emphasis on constraint and responsibility, on determinism and freedom, resonates perfectly with an existential analysis. We cannot escape the determining facts of our past, but we are free in each moment to respond to them—and then constrained anew in the next moment by what we have chosen, yet free to respond to that new set of facts in a novel way if we can muster the strength. To that incipient understanding of existence as a series of moments, a gradual “filling up” of one’s life with choices, process thought adds the metaphysical claim that all of reality is constituted by a series of connected moments. In each moment there is a “decision”—not a conscious decision in the vast majority of cases, but instead a move toward completion that “cuts off” (note the connection to the Latin root of “decision”) all other possibilities than the one in fact actualized. And then the newly created (and now dead and completed) fact becomes a factor in the material with which the next moment must deal. We recognize this model of existence in human life, but may overlook it in the non-human world because existentialist descriptions focus so heavily on the role of consciousness in this process. The “decisions” of the non-human world may not be as fraught with anxiety and nausea (to borrow Sartre’s language) as our own, but they are no less effective at creating facts, which then must be assembled anew as the next moment balances briefly between the past and the future.

3. The Nature of the Human Individual

Before moving further along the continuum towards entities on a macroscale and considering how the larger community affects the human being, we must first pause at the level of the human being to ask how the community of actual occasions becomes an individual human being. Are we justified in calling the human being a single self? And if so, how does this singular self emerge from the multiplicity, nexus, and society of actual occasions that composes it at every moment?

Whitehead posits a “dominant occasion” or, to add the temporal dimension, a “thread of personal order” within complex (especially living) societies. This dominant occasion gathers data from the entire society, originates significant novelty that affects the entire society, and coordinates the activity of the entire society (PR 102, 107). The notion of a dominant occasion solves two problems in the process system. On the one hand, it explains the subjective feeling of self-identity. Normally we do not feel ourselves to be a collection of experiences and decisions all happening at once and then bundled over time, but a single strand of experiences happening to “me” and a single plotline of decisions made by “me.” On the other hand, it allows for significant linguistic reference to individual selves. The commonsense notion that I can point to my friend Jane and positively identify her as a single person is validated by the concept of a dominant thread of actual occasions to which I am really referring with the name “Jane.”

Yet another advantage, particularly for theologians interested in using process categories for religious interpretation, is that the dominant occasion may prove a satisfactory substitution for the concept of the soul. Some process theologians have even speculated that this dominant temporally-ordered society could continue its life after the death of the human body; namely, an immortal soul and life after death become real possibilities (Griffin 1971). Although Whitehead too speaks of the “personal living society of high-grade occasions” as “the man defined as a person […] the soul of which Plato spoke,” and even speculated about whether this soul “finds a support for its existence beyond the body” (AI 208), there are some reasons why we might refrain from rushing too quickly to embrace this possibility. First, for Whitehead, the dominant occasion is a completely evolutionary notion. That is, in the natural history of the development of complex living things, creatures procured an evolutionary advantage by being able to coordinate and direct their sensation and activity through a central processor, so to speak. While it is certainly within the realm of possibility that this mental function might become more or less independent of its physical environment, this would require further evolutionary development that we cannot say for certain has already occurred. Second, the Greek concept of the soul is by no means identical with the Hebrew Bible’s notion of the self as the animating force in the body, and the history of the development of this idea toward Platonic dualism is a checkered one. An attempt to confirm what is naively taken to be the New Testament concept of the soul by reference to Whitehead’s dominant occasion may well end in confusion, based on the diversity and variety inherent in the former, and too simplistic a notion of the latter. On a philosophical level, it is probably safest to assume that the connection between the dominant occasion in a human being and the actual occasions making up the body are crucial to the life of the human being as a whole.

However, the readily available correlation between the Whiteheadian concept of a dominant occasion and the Christian concept of a soul, no matter how many differences of detail separate them, is enough to cast some doubt on Whitehead’s concept, at least when it is simplistically appropriated for the purpose of positively identifying the seat of the human self. Can a single strand of occasions, strung together like pearls on a fragile thread, sufficiently house the complex experience of consciousness, even if the occasions are highly developed and specialized? Is the normal human experience of self truly as unitary as this concept would presume? How would other experiences of self (as fragmented, non-continuous, multiple, socially constructed, etc.) be subsumed under this theory? What is the relationship of this temporally-ordered dominant society to the actual occasions that make up the physical brain, or the chemical events occurring within it? Some thinkers find Whitehead’s thinking too hierarchical on this matter, since he sees the dominant occasion as the “monarch” that governs all the individuals and societies that make up the human being (Cobb and Griffin 1976, 87). In fact, the notion of a “monarchical society” of dominant occasions is the result of Whitehead’s famous “ontological principle”—that whenever one points to a cause or a reason explaining an effect, one is pointing to an actual occasion (PR 19). The coordination of actual occasions in all kinds of societies and sub-societies in the human being, from the gene to the cell to the tissue to the organ to the self—can only be explained by reference to an actual occasion “doing” the coordinating. And so Whitehead posits other strands of dominant occasions coordinating the work of each sub-society at each level, all ruled by the dominant personal society that we call the human self. He writes: “The only strictly personal society of which we have direct discriminative intuition is the society of our own personal experiences,” the dominant society (AI 206). Yet this sentence immediately illustrates the existential problem of the systematic elusiveness of consciousness. How is it possible that “we” can “have […] intuition” of our own dominant societies, when it is only those societies that are supposed to be the intuiting, knowing, thinking, and perceiving selves? What is this further “I” that is conscious of its own consciousness? Perhaps Whitehead refers only to the present member of the society prehending the society of entities in its past; nevertheless, if we are never conscious of the society in its up-to-the-moment form, that is, including its present incarnation, then we do not seem to be conscious of our selves, in the strictest sense of the word. Joseph Bracken, S.J., of Xavier University has proposed a field concept of the self, using Michael Polanyi’s theory of a morphogenetic field, in order to provide a more nuanced and less hierarchical account of how coordination among entities and societies is achieved (Bracken 1981). Does this field concept build a bridge between Whitehead’s atomistic actual occasions and the sophisticated, enduring aggregates exhibiting coordination and common form that we routinely experience? Are there other possibilities for filling this gap, or is the gap itself only illusory?

I have neither the expertise nor the space to delve into the many possible answers here, and can only invite the reader to explore the suggestions for further research at the end of the chapter. Suffice it to say that the constitution of the human self remains a key area for Whiteheadian thinkers to research, make proposals, and elaborate or revise the structure found in Whitehead’s writings. About the nature of the human being, however, and its relationship to its constituent actual occasions and societies, we must conclude for now that consciousness, whatever it is and wherever it resides, does not have a God’s-eye view of the human being. It is unaware of some actualities that comprise it (such as lost memories or areas of the body that lack nerves), only dimly or intermittently aware of others (such as the ordinary activities of respiratory and digestive systems), and highly aware of others (such as inputs from the sensory organs). Its operation is, moreover, regularly interrupted by sleep, in which even the areas of high awareness are partially or completely shut down. It is vulnerable to many upsets, physical, mental, and environmental. And it is evident that consciousness’s intuition of nearly all it perceives is indirect—that is, mediated through the activity of other actualities that help bring the percipient to the awareness of the human consciousness. Whether the directing and coordinating force in a human being turns out to be a dominant personal society or some less monarchical arrangement, we are talking about a flexible, robust, and specialized function in human existence that also turns out to be enormously fragile and limited in important ways. Such an observation restores the premium on intricate, resourceful cooperation among the many parts of the human organism, and mitigates the danger of reducing the human being to its “soul.”

4. The Human in Community

Process thinkers are also indebted to the existentialists for help in expressing the contribution of larger communities to the nature of the individual human being. Existentialists rightly insist that the human being cannot be discussed in isolation from her environment. In fact, the only human being is human being-in-the-world, with the hyphens indicating that the elements of the phrase are neither distinguishable nor separable. However, for thinkers such as Camus, Sartre, and even Heidegger, there is no true community, in the sense of intimate participation with one another in mutual relationship. We recognize the Other as one trapped in the same structures of constraint and freedom as ourselves; we may resolve to act in moral solidarity according to that recognition, but we do not participate in each other or truly meet “man to man.”

Whitehead’s thought has engendered a set of approaches to various fields that have been felicitously termed “relational” theologies, philosophies, psychologies and so on. His system provides for real internal relations—the interpenetration of actual occasions with each other, or to put it another way, the immanence of actual occasions in each other. The relationship of the larger community (or communities) to the human being is not an accidental matter, then, to use the language of Aristotelian philosophy. In a very real sense, those larger communities create the human being, even as, in just as real a sense, the human being creates herself. Let us examine the modes by which various communities are immanent in the human being.

4.1. Human Communities

Humans are social animals, and so our most immediately intimate communities, on first glance, are those consisting of our own kind. It is obvious that these communities engender us by providing the genetic code that guides our development, and the social norms and folkways that structure our experience. About the former we have no choice. About the latter we have no choice, either, when one considers our socialization as children. Both are simply “givens,” aspects of the individual’s unique spatiotemporal and social location. As we mature, we gradually gain the ability to respond in more flexible and innovative ways to those givens. Their inherence in us, however, as part of our background and training—their facticity as parts of ourselves, remains permanent.

Process philosophy is able to describe this phenomenon at a metaphysical level. As the human self grows from moment to moment, all occasions in its “world”—the subset of occasions with which the self has direct contact—contribute data to the emerging human being. The human being moves forward in life by setting all that data into a fixed pattern—a valuation of feeling. Each bit of data is felt in a certain way, with a particular tone and flavor to the experience. And as those feelings coalesce into a determinate feeling of the human being’s world, the individual moves past that moment and on to the next one, carrying with it, as the starting point of its own continuing life, that moment of its immediate past in the form of a complete and unalterable fact.

Our existential experience, then, is that we are trailed by the ever-lengthening train of our past. Naturally as we move farther and farther along in our lives, we find it difficult to turn on a dime and do or become something new, as we might have done when we were young. Our ability to maneuver is restrained by the inescapable past that is a part of us. The more “filled up” our lives become with our facticity, the more difficult novelty becomes. But it is never impossible. To understand why this is the case, let us turn to the non-human realm, and first of all, to the divine community of which we are a part.

4.2. The Divine Community

For Whitehead, order and progress in the universe require an explanation, and according to his ontological principle, the explanation must be sought in the activity of an actual entity. God, although not qualitatively different from other actual entities, does have special properties that correspond to God’s special function. At least two of these special properties are particularly relevant to our discussion of anthropology. First, God is in the immediate “world” of every emerging actual occasion. And second, God primordially orders and values all possibilities, then presents relevant possibilities to each emerging actual occasion as part of its world of data.

In combination, these two properties describe how novelty enters and persists in the world. An analysis of how human beings conceive and respond to the truly novel is an essential feature of philosophical anthropology in the twenty-first century. We now have several centuries of experience with an increasing pace of change in human societies and the impact of completely new realities (technologies, moral situations, experiences with human and non-human others, and experience of increased knowledge and specialization). Any anthropology that does not pay attention to that historical record and contemporary way of being in the world will be obsolete before it begins.

Novelty, for Whitehead, is the actualization in the world of a possibility that has never been actualized before. It does not spring into existence ex nihilo, but begins as a feeling of that possibility (termed an eternal object) by an actual occasion. Human beings can prehend possibilities both directly (unmediated by another actual occasion) or indirectly (through the feeling of that possibility by an occasion in the immediate past, transmitted as part of the data contributed by that occasion to the emerging moment). But the particular contribution of God to the human being is to present relevant possibilities for novelty. These are possibilities that can be actualized, aimed at goals that humans and God can share, coordinated with the values being presented to the myriad other actual occasions coming to be at the same moment, and with the achievements and failures of the past. Without God’s presence in the world of all becoming occasions and God’s primordial ordering of possibilities allowing for specific, targeted propositions tailored to each occasion, the actualization of novel possibilities could only be haphazard and non-progressive.

At the level of the individual, membership in the divine community means the opportunity, moment by moment, to experience God’s intimate closeness and respond to God’s will. Note that in the process system human beings are always responsible for their responses (to make conscious use of a felicitous etymological kinship). In this view, the role of the human being in her own growth is to make decisions, while taking into account a wide and bewildering array of inputs. God’s guidance is crucial in seeing what sense can be made of those inputs, as well as what previously unimagined possibilities might fit into that landscape.

This brief discussion of the divine community to which the human being belongs raises one of the ultimate anthropological questions, one anticipated in the first pages of this essay: What is the purpose of human existence? We have been occupied with human nature, but not, so far, human destiny or telos. One more community must be quickly surveyed, and then I will end by proposing a process-inspired answer to that question.

4.3. The Non-Human Community

While God is certainly a part of the non-human community in which human beings come to be, God’s special activity and properties justify treating the divine as a separate category. Here we are considering what is sometimes termed the “environment”—the universe of non-human entities that surrounds the individual. We would not be stretching the truth too much to say that we are also considering the non-self entities that form the human body in its psychophysical functions. As we noted above, the human being is a multiplicity, and therefore it proves impossible to distinguish categorically the set of all occasions that make up the human being from the set of all occasions that do not. The human self persists in an “environment” of its own organs, tissues, cells, and subcellular structures; thus, entities that are not tightly integrated with the self, consciousness, or the dominant occasion (however one prefers to put it) might correctly be considered an environment for the human self.

And indeed, parts of the extra-corporal environment are ingested or otherwise brought into the body (food and air being the premier examples). Some of these (formerly) non-human entities become parts of the body: oxygen in the air binds to hemoglobin in the red blood cell, for example. Others pass through the body. Of course, given enough time, all the parts of a human individual eventually cease to be parts of that particular living individual, and become parts of some other community, whether it be the matter of my flesh decomposing (becoming part of some other living creature using me for food) or the ideational content of my thoughts (becoming conceptual material for another’s thoughts, if I have communicated them, or being preserved at the very least in God’s inclusion of all realities).

The caveats that accompany the mere idea of distinguishing human from non-human demonstrate perfectly the process contention that the human being is a community, rather than merely belonging to one or more. As we think about how occasions that we do not identify with the human being are related to that human being, we cannot escape this deep interconnectivity, these internal relations. Whenever we try to extricate the human being from its environs, we find ourselves enmeshed by the linkages that reach into the very soul of the human being, and, conversely, into the experiences of the occasions that constitute its world.

Nevertheless, we may adopt some approximation of this concept of the non-human environment long enough to make a few observations. First, one of the strengths of Whitehead’s system is its lack of qualitative difference between higher-order organisms (such as human beings) and lower-order organisms (such as, for instance, the animal and plant kingdoms). A metaphysics that does not primarily focus on defining human beings as unique, but instead on their continuity with other creatures, lends much support to ecological and evolutionary worldviews. (See for example McDaniel 1989, among many other extensive treatments of the compatibility between process thought and ecological ethics.) Second, our relationship to the non-human world is not exclusively defined by our genetic kinship with a primate ancestor. It is ongoing and far-reaching, because we are internally related to the occasions of matter and energy in our immediate world—and through them, to all occasions everywhere and everywhen. However, and as a final point, the process view is not egalitarian with respect to the different types and complexities of organisms. Humans do differ from their non-living environment in being personally ordered instead of being merely enduring. They differ from their vegetable environment in having significant mental processes that structure their experiences. They differ from (perhaps most of) their animal environment in having consciousness and language, and therefore in being able to ruminate on and communicate the value they place on their experiences. These differences represent important advances in the ability of the human being to carry out its role in the universal process. This is the final topic to which we now turn.

5. Aims, Purposes, Destinies

The existentialists, on whose insights I have relied heavily in this chapter, proclaimed that the human being has no purpose other than the one he gives himself. Process thought agrees. In the final analysis, the only human purposes that have actual existence are the ones that have been effective in shaping human lives. And it should be evident to everyone that these purposes differ greatly historically, culturally, and even at an individual level. It is misleading to search for the (singular) purpose of human life, because such a search consigns to illusion the myriad diverse purposes that humans have adopted and actualized. Such actualizations are, as Whitehead points out, the only real things in the universe (cf. PR 18).

However, process philosophy’s endorsement of this fundamental tenet of existentialism does not preclude the reality of another dimension of purpose in which humans participate. We might call this dimension divine, or we might call it universal. The ambiguity over where this dimension of purpose is housed arises from Whitehead’s ambiguity over God’s primordial aim. God works toward what Whitehead calls “intensity” for all occasions, as instrumental to achieving intensity in the divine becoming (PR 105). But is this aim something God chooses from a variety of possibilities for the divine purpose? Or is it the aim of the universal process itself, organic and eternal, as it were, with God playing only one role, albeit a key one, in achieving it? Process thinkers differ, but I lean toward comparing this purpose to the religious statement that God is love. Could God have chosen not to be love, or could God have chosen a different aim? The answer may be philosophically interesting; it may even be theologically crucial. However, the practical way to go forward is to take this purpose as inherent in the system that actually exists, and to focus instead on how God goes about trying to achieve it.

By “intensity” Whitehead means the achievement of both harmony and contrast held together in a synthesis. Because harmony (or, to use other Whiteheadian terms, repetition, identity, or permanence) is the prevailing feature of a universe of enduring objects, Whitehead focuses on contrast as the agent by which intensity is achieved. As an actual occasion emerges, the enactment of some creative disjunction with its past is needed to create this contrast. When unified, ordered, and valued along with the occasion’s (repeated) past in the newly-formed fact, this contrast represents what Whitehead calls “intensity of feeling” (PR 249; cf. 27).

When considered at the human scale, intensity might come into focus in several ways. First, we could use the word “growth” as an approximation of one of intensity’s facets. We are encouraged to embrace our past while seeking new challenges and new ways of finding a place in the world. Total harmony is stagnation; total contrast is chaos. As we move into each new moment, we can seek continuity with the past at the same time as we invent creatively in the present. The result is a human life that existentialists would call “authentic,” accepting of its limitations and resolute in facing its challenges. Second, Whitehead’s formulation of purpose avoids moral overtones in favor of aesthetic ones. We are not urged to do good works or be good people so much as to create good art out of our lives—quite a different meaning for the word “good”! Whitehead saw this turn away from moral categories in defining life’s purpose as consistent with the use of the term “love” as an approximation of “intensity.” He famously remarked that love is “a little oblivious as to morals” (PR 343), meaning that the question when one loves is not one of duty or utility, right or wrong, but union or separation—a question about form, balance, and intensity, a question, we might even say, of the beauty of the dance. Finally, Whitehead is careful to distinguish between the aim or purpose proffered by God (or by the universe through God), and the aim or purpose that the human being chooses, moment by moment. The former is the “initial aim” (PR 244-245) and the latter is the “subjective aim.” (PR 244) The two are never identical, even in the hypothetical case in which the human being completely accepts God’s aim for him, without a hint of dissent or modification. Because the subjective aim is precisely the goal that the human being has chosen for himself, regardless of its origin or content, it is distinct from God’s proposal, experienced and felt differently than the initial aim, and effective as actual only in its subjective incarnation.

I will end this sketch of process anthropology with some speculative thoughts about human purposes so construed. The key dilemma for the process humanist, it seems to me, is the effective marriage of the human responsibility to choose one’s own purpose and destiny, to whatever extent possible, with the notion of a divine being who suggests to the individual relevant steps toward achieving a purpose consonant with that of the whole universe. It seems important to the process spirit not to construe God as a “smother mother,” as Robert Neville once critiqued, constantly attempting to sign us up for God’s projects rather than empowering us to pursue our own (Neville 1980, 9-10). Thus, the danger in overemphasizing the metaphysical advantages of internal relations over ontologies of substance is that the former can seem to leave precious little room for the human being to develop a plotline that is definitively hers. One clue to the answer, I suspect, lies in rethinking how human beings respond to the initial aim provided by God (Bowman 2002, 191-214). On the one hand, the image of response tends to picture the human being answering “yes” or “no” to God’s proposal. The human reaction, then, becomes an acceptance of “God’s will,” or of some other inferior pathway. In this view, the question becomes whether one will be obedient to God or not, whether one will whisper with Jesus in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but thine be done.” But if, instead, the initial aim is seen as a starting point for the self-causation that belongs entirely and properly to the human individual (a view consistent with Whitehead’s explication), then it may be possible to see the projects of individual human beings as unavoidably (and even positively) conditioned by the way those around them, including God, are carrying out their own projects, without subsuming the individual’s project to those of her communities. Clearly, cooperation among members of communities can result in more progress, and different kinds of progress, than is possible with individuals working alone. Yet individual genius, leadership, charisma, and creative spark also contribute to making lives and communities richer and more beautiful.

For process thinkers, human nature and destiny is bound up with the endlessly rich variety of an unfolding universe in the midst of its becoming. We are medium-scale examples of that becoming, talented and capable of special contributions, yet far from the universe’s crowing achievement. As we create our lives by choice, creativity and constraint, we may respond to God and the universe in relationships founded on the trust that no beauty we foster will go unremarked or die without progeny.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Allan, George. 1971. “The Aims of Societies and the Aims of God.” In Delwin Brown, ed., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill), 464-74.

Birch, Charles and John B. Cobb, Jr. 1981. The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Bowman, Donna. 2002. The Divine Decision: A Process Doctrine of Election (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press).

Bracken, Joseph. 1989. “Energy-Events and Fields,” Process Studies 18, 3, 153-165.

Cobb, John B., Jr., and David Ray Griffin. 1976. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Griffin, David. 1971. “The Possibility of Subjective Immortality in Whitehead’s Philosophy.” University of Dayton Review 8, 43-56.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962 [1927]. Being and Time. Translated by John McQuarrie and Edward Robinson (London, SCM Press).

Janusz, Sharon and Glenn Webster. 1991. “The Problem of Persons,” Process Studies 20, 3, 151-61.

Keller, Catherine. 1986. From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self (Boston, Beacon Press).

McDaniel, Jay. 1989. Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press).

Mellert, Robert B. 1975. What Is Process Theology? (St. Paul, Paulist Press).

Neville, Robert C. 1980. Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology (New York, Seaburg).

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1956 [1943]. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel Barnes (New York, Philosophical Library).

Stinson, Linda L. 1986. Process and Conscience: Toward a Theology of Human Emergence (Lanham, MD, University Press of America).

Williams, Daniel Day. 1971. “God and Man,” in Process Theology, edited by Ewert H. Cousins(New York, Newman Press), 173-187.

Author Information

Donna Bowman
Honors College, University of Central Arkansas, Conway, AR 72035

How to Cite this Article

Bowman, Donna, “Communities and Destinies”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.