Articles - Alan > Serial Selfhood


Serial Selfhood (1/89)

1. Dancing in the dark: science’s semi-illuminating adoption of process.

An insight which lost out in the philosophical disputes of ancient Greece has been embraced by modern science. This is the realization that all actuality is changing, is in flux. As Heraclitus realized, you cannot step into the same river twice, since the water into which you first stepped no longer is there when you step in again.

Scientists long ago learned that our planet is revolving around the Sun; the solar system is hurtling through space; the whole universe is expanding; the blood is circulating within our bodies; all the cells of our bodies are being replaced constantly, so you do not have in your body a single bit of matter that was in it several years ago. Each atom is a collection of fantastically active sub-atomic particles, which are understood better as packets of energy; matter is simply a form of energy. Science has dematerialized and activated the picture of the world which must be accepted if one is to be consistent with the latest learning.

Science has abandoned the notion of enduring substance, the previously supposed stuff underlying the appearances of which we are aware; there is only process, activity. There is no thing which changes; there are only momentarily-existing bursts of activity, of energy, which we—with our imprecise sensing and thinking abilities—interpret in their collectivity as continuing stuff. It is rather like—in reverse—our interpreting as a moving picture the rapid succession of still photographs projected onto a theater screen.

In our daily life we take for granted that there are continuing things, which remain essentially the same for relatively long periods of time. Notably we assume that we are the same beings from birth to death, if not longer. For many practical purposes we cannot get along without these common-sensical assumptions, but they are without scientific foundation as candidates for being adequate pictures of what reality is like at base.

What of other foundations? Might it not be that there is some changeless divine substance standing under (as the roots of the word "substance" indicate) scientifically-discovered process? Possibly, but is there any need of it? Would static substance serve any useful purpose? To create a division between the processive world which is dealt with by science and a scientifically unreachable world of substance is to be done only if it can be shown that a process form of philosophical interpretation of realms of reality which science cannot measure is in any way inadequate. If God is in charge of the universe, it would suggest something like divine schizophrenia—and a major mystery—if there were a world essentially unlike its source and supervisor. This writing is a sketch of how a process view can account for everything with which we can be concerned.

2. Putting life into the scientific picture: Whitehead’s vital addition.

Am I suggesting that science has the last word and that philosophy is unnecessary, that physics can displace metaphysics? Far from it; metaphysics—the branch of philosophy that inquires into what anything must be like in order to be at all—is needed to complete the scientific worldview. One of the greatest philosophers of all time, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) accepted the scientific destruction of the common-sense picture of reality. But he realized that science had not uncovered the whole story. He saw that science can give no more that the pattern of activity, the order in which events appear. It provides no basic explanation of what is happening. In describing the universe as lifeless, science provides a dead end in understanding. The universe is seen as a giant accident, in which we are tiny accidents, with nothing of permanent importance about either us or the world in which we live. Physics gives us a dance of death, ceaselessly gyrating to no meaningful end. It is a dismal portrait of a purposeless reality. Probably because of all the impressive technology associated with science, this view has become remarkably popular, accounting for much of the despair of many people in recent times. Science is not designed to give all the answers, and civilization cannot afford to forget that.

Whitehead pointed to what science had left out: life. Science gives us a world in which living processes are reduced in explanation to nonliving physical-chemical occurrences. Whitehead, along with other life-oriented philosophers, placed seemingly lifeless processes into the larger perspective of life, but Whitehead did it in a way progressing beautifully from physics to metaphysics. The lifeless parts of the world can be understood adequately only as collections, aggregates, of living "occasions of experience," as Whitehead called the building blocks of everything. He observed that apart from experience there is nothing whatever. Most experience is at a sub-personal level, but all of it is at a feeling level. Such collections as stones and buildings do not experience, but they are made up of vast numbers of experiences.

3. Misplacing the concrete: on not falling for the abstract.

Most, if not all, of life’s problems might be solved if we were to avoid the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness," as Whitehead called it. This fallacy is mistaking, misinterpreting, the abstract for the concrete. At first blush, one might well doubt that anybody could commit such a seemingly obvious error. But, alas, probably everyone has done it, and does it most, if not all, of the time. Obviously, clarification of what is meant by concrete and abstract is needed.

The concrete is the actual, that which exists. Only occasions of experience, also called actual entities (a better name when referring to God, whose existence was not occasioned by anything) are concrete. According to what Whitehead called the "ontological principle," all adequate explanations must be found in the activity of actual entities or occasions of experience. There is nothing else in concrete, actual, non-potential, existence; so there is nothing else that can explain anything.

The abstract is what is pulled out of, or constructed from, the concrete. All that is visible is a collection of invisible units. All conventionally well educated people believe this with regard to atoms. We cannot see atoms, but we can see things which are collections of enormous numbers of atoms. So it is with occasions of experience (which make up the atoms). They are the concrete actualities; the things that we call material are abstractions from them. In terms of its origins, "abstract" means "to draw from", to separate. So whether we use "abstract" in a more conventional sense (such as "thought apart from worldly particulars") or in the Whiteheadian sense, it refers to a separation of what is abstracted from something else, which is concrete.

4. What life is: free choice creatively combining past and possible to produce present satisfaction.

Most simply, life is freedom. To be free is to have some degree of choice. To have choice is to be alive. All occasions of experience choose, at least to the slight extent required to repeat past patterns. The word "concrete" comes from Latin roots meaning "to grow together." Life is a process of creating concreteness by putting together, or blending, influences of the past and the possible, in some degree of freedom, accompanied by some degree of enjoyment.

What are the elements of life? Whitehead characterizes life as having (1) creativity, (2) aim, and (3) enjoyment or satisfaction.

(1) Creativity. Creativity is the passing on of energy, or emotion or feeling, which is what energy is, from past to present to future, from occasions of experience to the next ones that arise. Whitehead referred to this creative process as the "creative advance into novelty" or newness.

(2) Aim. Each split-second occasion of experience is a process of combining influences of the past and of the potential, in accordance with the aim or purpose or will of the occasion. This is the case whether the occasion in question is one of the succession of human, personal, occasions that I call myself, or of the vast number of occasions making up my body, or of those in a steel bar. In each case God gives to the occasion its "initial aim," which offers the perfect plan for what the occasion can become if it adopts fully that aim. But the influence of the past occasions, especially the immediately past one, which overlaps the new one, is strong, and the new occasion generally is very much like its immediate predecessor, especially in the material realm.

(3). Enjoyment. The feeling of accomplishment which an occasion has as it is creating itself is its enjoyment or satisfaction. It does not come after the occasion in complete, for then the occasion perishes (Whitehead’s word), in terms of self-awareness.

5. What divine love is: giving, receiving, recycling.

What is divine love? It is the process by which God-the-One becomes God-the-many (these are my interpretations and terms, not Whitehead’s) by expressing as the innumerable relatively free, self-creating occasions. Divine love is commitment to and facilitation of the maximum depth of enjoyment by every occasion as it creates itself and by God as God receives it into the divine totality and everlastingly places and re-places it in the expanding harmony of all existence. Divine love is (1) the giving of perfect initial aims, (2) the receiving of the product of what is done with them, by the supreme actual entity or succession of supreme entities, as the disputed case may be, called God, and (3) God’s harmoniously arranging and making available the whole collection of past occasions to all developing occasions as the background which influences their self-creation.

6. Immortality: objective and subjective.

After a moment of self-awareness (subjectivity), each occasion becomes an object for awareness by God-the-One and all later occasions, although as moments accumulate into eons the influence of vastly earlier occasions on a developing one must be slight. An occasion’s endless status as object for awareness of others, without any continuing awareness of itself, is called "objective immortality."

What about subjective, personal, conventional immortality? Process thinkers disagree about this. Some say that there is none; others say that there is no reason why there cannot be personal immortality, since one is not one’s body, but abstractly is a succession of occasions each of which acts like a monarch or powerful chairman of the board of the many occasions making up one’s body. My own view is that there is continuing personal life, in the form of endless postmortem addition to one’s line of development. After death, as before it, concretely one lives for only a moment.

7. Being very becoming.

Now that we have seen some of the fundamentals of process philosophy (or process theology, or process thought, as it is called more or less interchangeably), let’s look at some practical applications of it in daily living.

The ancient contest for the title of basic reality waged between champions of being and becoming has been won by the becoming side, according to science and process philosophy. Being is abstracted from becoming. In addition to becoming in the sense of attractive (and what special project of God could be lacking in beauty, from a divine perspective?), you are becoming in two ways: (1) Concretely you are becoming for a fraction of a second as you make your blend of past influence and perfect plan for the future-becoming-present; (2) abstractly that collection of past personal occasions that you call yourself is being added to and changed by what it is that you are doing concretely, which is to say concretizing, making definite, selecting from what is available to you.

All thinking and doing are in the moment. One does not need to be a process philosopher to believe that. Even if process philosophy were not true, a wise person would live as if it were. If one holds to a substance view of oneself, one thinks of a personal something which changes from one moment to another, whereas if one holds to a process view, one realizes that the only actuality is in the moment. There can be a significant psychological difference, depending on whether one believes that he or she is (1) just acting in the current phase of long-lasting substantial selfhood, or (2) being the whole of one’s career of self-awareness in a single moment. There is no opportunity for an occasion to correct any mistake; it thinks-acts-feels once, and that is all. A fraction of a second later a new occasion takes over and carries on, with some modification, the projects of the past occasion. It takes many occasions to say a sentence. Sometimes the later ones will cancel what the earlier ones started, and will start another project, which may last a second or a lifetime, depending on what later occasions decide. This gives great importance to the moment. All the more easily if one accepts this philosophy, it is possible to make a drastic change in a moment.

It is liberating to realize that one is not the perpetrator of past mistakes, although one cannot escape the effects of past decisions made in the train of occasions abstractly called oneself. This realization helps to prevent pointless regrets and feelings of guilt, while at the same time encouraging one to help his or her successors in that personal line of accomplishment by providing them with the most constructive foundations for their development. Obviously, one has greater influence on the later occasions that carry one’s own name than on those of other persons, as one has greater influence over the occasions of his or her body than on those of the rest of the world. Serial selfhood is somewhat like a serial story of magazine or television. It is fragmented, but united by continuing interest of its characters and their observers.

Perhaps we love too much (however unwisely), rather than too little, in that we identify ourselves lovingly (although we may not call it that) with past and future parts of "our" lives, which are ours only abstractly, to the extent that we sacrifice much of the only moment available. This is particularly so when one frets about past happenings. To believe that we are not concretely one with past and future occasions may encourage us to be more constructively loving toward others, who are neither abstractly nor concretely ourselves, but with whom we are united in God and in influence on later occasions.

It may seem unfortunate to be born into an age of plague or unenlightenment, or into a succession of occasions undergoing drowning, but occasions must have successors, and it is their business to make the best of the situations in which they arise, whether a birthday party or a dying gasp. In each there is, as Epictetus observed about everything, a handle by which it can be borne and another by which it cannot. The initial aim provides the handle by which it can be borne most constructively, for the most wise satisfaction in the situation encountered. When one has only perhaps a tenth of a second to enjoy experiencing, it is foolish to waste any energy in regret that one is not in a different situation.

8. Here’s looking at your ancestors; sorry I can’t see you.

If one is somewhat isolated from one’s past—although it overlaps and very much influences the present—we are even more practically isolated from others, although they also influence us. No occasion can know another occasion which is precisely contemporaneous with itself. We know our fellows, and the whole world, as they were a moment ago. This would be the case with regard to a conventional view of perception, even if process philosophy were not true, since information transmitted at the speed of light still takes a little time to reach us. Of course, for all practical purposes that is enough. We are inheritors in all relationships, not only with "our" former selves, but with all selves.

What may be the case with extrasensory perception is a fascinating question; extrasensory perception seems to be instantaneous, but, since there is nothing actual in a timeless instant, there must be the passage of at least one split-second occasion of experience in extrasensory experience; process philosophy can be taken as an extended statement of the primacy of extrasensory perception or of the fundamental nature or awareness other than sharp, notably visual, perception.

The status of the others that we experience as being past is a good reason for being generous in responding to them; one cannot affect the past other that one experiences, and the next one, which will receive the response, may be significantly different. There is no adequate reason to be anything but loving to anyone or anything. Loving means responding in such a way as to maximize the likelihood of the other’s accepting most fully its perfect initial aim. The recommendation to be loving applies as much to one’s "own" later occasions as to others. One can avoid being unwisely, selfishly loving by realizing that one’s occasion of the moment will not be around subjectively to receive any benefits from the definitions of later occasions. However selfishly calculating one may be, he or she can afford to be generous in the context of believing that there is nothing that can be lost or gained in the future, and that the fullest enjoyment of the present comes in going the most Godly, loving way.

9. Healing-love.

Loving and healing are the same process. The potentiality for healing is given by God to an occasion of experience, and need only be chosen by the occasion in order to be effective. Almost certainly this takes at least a few occasions to accept fully and to be translated into observable results. Often it may take a great many observable results. Often it may take a great many occasions to accept healing as it is offered in successive initial aims, and it may be rejected indefinitely. Part of the reward of satisfaction of a wise occasion is found in its awareness of its heading in a certain direction, not necessarily in being a part of the realization of the objective. Nothing lasting more than a fraction of a second can be accomplished except by a series of occasions of experience.

What happens when one assists another to be healed (even in conventional medicine) is that the one promoting the healing helps to make adoption of the initial aim as easy as possible, by helping to produce a background which is less at variance with the initial aim, which includes the potentiality for healing, than would be the case without the help. This can be done either directly by simply gaining one’s own understanding of the perfection of the one to be helped or indirectly by attempting to manipulate the energy of the one to be helped. In neither case, of course, can one influence the contemporaneous occasion, but one can modify the background out of which the next occasion in question will arise. Everyone influences all late occasions, even without intent, but intent is important in bearing most directly on specifically intended future occasions. Fortunately, one does not have to hold the correct theory about what is going on in order to be helpful.

10. Law.

Is there a responsive "law" or "servant" or other aspect of God at work in healing (and, of course, I do not limit healing to bodily healing), which responds to an occasion’s thought and feeling? Yes and no. God produces the tailor-made initial aim (indwelling Christ, spark of divinity) of an occasion of experience in line with what was thought and done by the preceding occasions in a sequence of development. This is not to say that the past limits the perfection offered by God, but only that the special form in which perfection is offered is colored by the past. In this sense God responds, although necessarily for later occasions, since even God-the-One cannot know an occasion during its moment of development as one of God-the-many. There is no need for God to respond within the developing occasion, since God has given the perfect initial aim; it is for the occasion to respond to God, by appreciatively shaping the continuing phases of momentary aiming growing out of the initial aim. The traditional view that our place is to respond to God is sound, but it should be understood within the context of a process view vastly different from the assumptions of conventional theology.

There is no need to suppose that God somehow is divided into love and law. Divine love, which is indistinguishable from divine wisdom—another name for love, that which knows and cares—is sufficient. There is no unformed matter or any sort of unformed substance to be impressed by any idea or pattern. There is no separation of pattern and experience. There is no idea or belief that produces a form; they are one. There is nothing but experience. Reality is entirely spiritual or ideal. This, of course, includes form; the greatest form to be found in one’s life is one’s initial aim; it is pure God in human expression. Form simply is specificity. In the initial aim the form is commitment to certain potentials; in later stages of concretizing it is modification of the original commitment. The form that an occasion finally takes is what it decides on in the contest between the past and the possible. It is experienced in its being formed. There is no possibility of an occasion’s experiencing after it is completed, since the occasion then perishes. What we call material is enjoyment of spatial-temporal feeling.

It is true that "we receive as we believe," in the meaning of "as" as "in accordance with," but it is even more significantly true that "we receive as we believe" in the sense of receiving it in the course of development of the moment, not later. It is done unto us, but it is done unto us by us as we believe—believe in and accept, or reject, what we already are—and honestly can so affirm—in the initial aim, which is one’s highest self. While much of this process view may seem complex, once it is understood it is seen to be a description of an exquisitely simple (if unimaginably detailed), direct mode of divine operation. In it we never leave our divine home; our world is real, but within God as experience, not illusion.

If anyone misses law, it should be recognized that law is an abstraction; no law ever did anything to or for anyone or anything, since no abstraction can act. When one believes that he or she is turning over a concern to the law, what one unknowingly is doing is accepting an initial aim, or many of them. If one wishes to speak of divine law, one should understand that it is a name for the orderliness and reliability of divine love, which never will work in a different way, for knowing-caring-depth-of-experience-promoting-giving, receiving, appreciating-harmonizing-recycling is the way that it has to be in order to be at all, and it cannot not be. In contrast, natural laws are formulations of the habitual ways in which actual entities interact. There is no necessity to the way that they are now; over vast periods of time most likely they will change enormously, and eventually the universe as we know it will be only a memory fresh to God-the-One, but of negligible influence on the occasions of that far-off time, and they will have interacting experiences that we cannot imagine. But the universe, whatever it will be like, will remain God’s body, as it always has been. However little we may grasp all this, we can stand in awe of evolving reality, and rejoice that we have some notion of what it is in which we are participating.

11. Personality.

"Person" is much broader than "human being." The God who is the perfect loving planner for every occasion of experience everywhere, and the infinitely wise harmonizer-unifier of all experience is a person, the only complete person. It is not that reality is essentially impersonal, yet appears to us as personal; it is the case that reality is personal, but in many of its expressions it manifests at levels of complexity which, apart from divinely, personally-provided initial aims, are below the personal. All experience comes from the personal and ends in the personal, enriching the personal. Infinite personality is the antithesis of arbitrariness, which is the product of lower-level personality, which has little or no appreciation of its place in divine personality.

A person is a conscious, rational, value-oriented, purposing, active entity. We are fragmentary persons, made in God’s image. We are little unifiers within the one great unifier. The many become one in each occasion, and the many occasions become one in God, endlessly; to have some conscious, rational, purposeful awareness of one’s role in shaping life is to be personal. It is because God is utterly personal that she/he is totally trustworthy, completely reliable. If there were such a thing as a law which somehow acted on us in accordance with what we feed into it, it would be a poor substitute for the perfect love that expresses as each of us and gives to each the very best that could be, to which each of us need only respond with a resounding YES to enjoy life completely.

12. Conclusion.

We live, for a moment, in a world of flux, a plastic world, which we can shape far more than most of us realize. Its flexibility moment by moment suggests something of the very long-range flexibility to which I have just referred in relation to the evolution of natural law and of the universe (including all realms) in which they obtain. There is no absolute standard of magnitude; one’s life, of perhaps a tenth of a a second, is long by the measure of some subatomic events. We are given the whole past, and we shall influence the whole future. For your moment you are alone with God as the whole future. For your moment you are alone with God as all that you can become. God has incarnated as your initial aim. To the extent that we speak of you as different form God, it is a difference in stage of development within an occasion, in purity-wisdom of purpose; you are God a little later than what God was at the moment of incarnation as your initial aim. You can love God’s gift of him/herself, live it to the full for a moment, and thereby enrich everyone’s future. Or you can spurn it, and thereby bequeath a poorer future to "your" selves and to the whole of existence. You of the moment will experience none of that future, but your line of descent will continue, probably forever, and many of those momentary selves in the relatively near future will forget that they are not you, and in some sense they will be you, for a part of what they will become will be what you have chosen to become; they will incorporate you into themselves, will carry something of your image.

God became you in order to experience reality from the unique perspective which you are. You can make it worth God’s while to the fullest extent. You need not worry about tomorrow. You will not be as a subject, and God lovingly will provide for your successors just as fully as God gave to you, which was everything that ever has been and all that ever could be for the becoming that you are. Of course "I" am many selves writing this, as "you" are many selves reading it. No one self can do the whole giving or receiving, but each grows a bit from the process and bequeaths a valuable, if not wholly constructive, inheritance. That is what reality is about. What everything is about is God: God’s giving, God’s receiving, God’s enjoying in some degree every conversion of potentiality to actuality—however much it may fall short of what it might have been—and God’s sharing. Your highest possibility is to enter fully, consciously into the reality of God’s love, which really is what makes the world go round—in more ways than the adage-maker probably suspected.

The term "serial selfhood" is original with me, as far as I know. I used a related term in a chapter title, "Living your perpetual perishing," in my currently out-of-print book, The Problem is God. "Perpetual perishing" comes from Locke, via Whitehead; on this term see his Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), pp. 43 and 94. Probably Whitehead’s simplest presentation of much of the essence of process philosophy, which he called the "philosophy of organism," will be found in his lectures "Nature Lifeless" and "Nature Alive" in his Modes of Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1938).

Editor’s Note: We still have a few copies of The Problem is God. If you would like one, mail me a check for $15.00 in US currency at the address I am listing on our Contacts page, and I will be happy to mail you a copy at a US address. Outside of the US, you may take advantage of our new collection of Kindle books, courtesy of Ronald Hughes, world authority on the father of New Thought, P. P. Quimby . They are available through Ron’s site or through Amazon, and include Alan’s and my two jointly authored books, plus two books extracted from chapters of The Problem is God and expanded into More Than Mortal? and the soon-to-be-published A Guide to the Selection and Care of Your Personal God.