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A paper read at the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, August 14, 1998.  Text taken from here.


The Active Future as Divine
Lewis S. Ford

Ordinarily we think of the future as a blank background on which we imaginatively project our plans, hopes and fears. Or we may consider it as a receptacle, passively registering the conditions the present and past lays upon it. Once all these conditions are completed, it comes into being—only then it is no longer future but present. As long as it is still future and still indeterminate, we do not see how it could be active. How could the future actively receive and respond to its world?

Besides the ordinary passive future we are all familiar with, I wish to propose a notion of the future which can serve as the appropriate mode of divine activity. First, I need to show how an active future is possible. Then I must try to show that God can be appropriately conceived as the activity of the future. In this account I shall be relying heavily on the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, primarily as found in his main work, Process and Reality (1929). In part I shall be presenting his ideas, while in part I shall be building on them in ways he did not foresee.

The future is usually considered to be exclusively passive because it lacks any discernible activity. Most deem whatever discernible activity there is to be present, relegating to the past whatever is no longer active. This makes good sense for those who assume that world is constituted out of enduring substances, but it makes less sense if the world is conceived in terms of events. Substances can inhabit different temporal modalities, such as persisting from the past into the present. Thus a substantial cause can lie in the past of the substance it affects (thus being before its effect), and yet also be present as actively causing. In an event theory, on the other hand, an actual event must be present or past, but not both. Then a causal transaction must be analyzed in terms of two events, only one of which is present. Since the cause must be earlier than its effect, the event serving as cause must lie in the past of the present event which is its effect.

Most consider that the causes are active, the effect its passive result. But if only the effect event can be present, and only it is vested with activity, the conception of causation needs to be reversed in the event theory. The effect actively appropriates or prehends its causes. Whitehead’s coined the term ‘prehension’ from ‘comprehension’ or ‘apprehension’. The prefixes were omitted in order to call attention to any taking account of another, whether or not this is conscious. This is a generalization from perception, and so generalized, it applies to causation as well.

Thus a present event prehends only past objects. For something to be discernible, then, it must be objective, and to be objective, it must be past. If so, then the discernible is not active, and the active is not discernible. Thus there a fundamental shift in the characterization of the temporal modes when we enter the context of process philosophy, a shift which calls question the notion of a ‘discernible activity.’

‘Discernible activity’ ordinarily means the perceptible changes we now experience as going on. But if nothing can be both active and discernible, these perceptible changes must belong to the immediate past. These discernible changes result from the indiscernible activity of what just happened. Immediately past events, those deemed present by most, are concretely determinate and have the same ontological status as the more distant past.

The present then becomes the domain of activity in terms of which determinate events come into being. In this radical sense we experience the present only in terms of our own subjective immediacy. Objective, discernible activity is then to be understood as being derived from subjective, indiscernible becoming.

There are many acts of subjective becoming taking place in the present. Yet the creative advance need not be restricted to the present. It could extend into the future as well. This future activity might be universal and one, first being pluralized in the particular acts of the present.

Whether active or passive, the future is more indeterminate than the present. A particular locus (e.g. November 18, 2056) could now be part of the active future, becoming present when all of its conditions have come into being, receding into the past thereafter. Each present event comes into being as a particularization of this future activity.

If, as Whitehead argues, antecedent events as past and determinate lack the inherent activity to be active causes, present events must actively prehend and integrate their past. These events bring themselves into being by receiving and integrating all these causal factors. ‘Process’ in process philosophy is much more intense than mere change. Though Whitehead rarely uses the term, it is really ‘creation,’ reconceived as a temporal, pluralistic, immanent activity. It is not absolute creation ex nihilo, but the relative creation of new events out of old ones.

God’s role for Whitehead is not that of creator, but more a source of values by which the universe can be partially ordered. Divine persuasion is the required conceptual bridge between the traditional concept of God and the notion of a divinely active future. For there can be very little connection between the ideas of immutability, omniscience and omnipotence, and the active future. Whitehead’s modifications of these concepts prepare us for theism reconceived as the active future.

Classically, perfection has been understood in terms of completion. A perfect being must therefore be immutable, for any change would undercut the completion already achieved. The Greeks conceived such perfection to be finite, but the basic argument was retained to affirm divine infinity. Absolute infinity could be conceived as that which allows nothing to be added to it.

Immutability and divine subjectivity were identified with each other, even though this could not be rationally justified. God was immutable on grounds of Greek ideals of perfection, but deemed to be personal because of the authority of Bible and church. When examined in terms of rational critique, as by Spinoza or the Enlightenment deists, immutability excluded divine subjectivity.

Whitehead has proposed what may be the first rational justification of divine subjectivity. A person may be understood as a dynamic, responsive source of values. In that sense God is personal, prehending each situation for what it is, responding to that situation in terms of that which will contribute the richest value if actualized, and providing each event with its initial value or aim. The event may, or may not, actualize that aim, or actualize it only partially. Such actualization contributes to the contingency of the world, which only imperfectly reflects the divine order. In order for God to be thus dynamically responsive, God must be temporal, or more precisely, everlasting. An eternal personal God is a contradiction; an eternal God can only be apparently responsive.

Classical omniscience is a way of preserving immutability by rendering the future wholly determinate so that it could be (divinely) known, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Immutabilist omniscience considers what a perfect, unchanging being must know. Process omniscience, on the other hand, conceives of perfect knowing as perfectly contoured to its object. Thus the actual is known as determinate, and the possible as indeterminate. This means that divine knowledge grows with present actualization, and that it is dependent upon worldly contingency for its content. This means that God is not a perfect being, although God could be perfect becoming.

Divine persuasion replaces omnipotence. Creation is not bringing the world into existence ex nihilo, but the introduction of greater and greater levels of complexity. Actualization is the joint activity of God and particular events. Left to their own devices, these events would be free to actualize themselves in any way consonant with their past conditions. If so, individual freedom will often lead to conflict and disorder. Traditional theism confronts the problem of evil, because omnipotence ought to be able to establish perfect order. But there is a corresponding problem of good if the divine is omitted entirely. Why should there be any order in the world, and why is there increasing complexity of order over time? Divine persuasion can explain the partial order we encounter in the world.

Despite these strengths, there are some weaknesses in Whitehead’s theology which can be remedied by an appeal to an active future:

(a) Creativity empowers each event’s activity, yet it cannot be handed on to occasions. It is too indeterminate to be prehended. In any case, the event must first be empowered by creativity before it can prehend anything. If we relax the rule that only that which is prehensible can be derived, it could receive its creativity from a future universal creativity. Then the present would receive from the future the power whereby it prehends the past.

(b) Whitehead holds God to have two natures, a primordial or nontemporal nature -envisaging all possibilities, and a consequent nature experiencing all actualities as they arise in the world. This second nature is everlasting, never coming to determinate closure. It cannot be prehended, since it cannot be objectified. That in itself would be no problem, for it simply means that God is a Pure Thou. But Whitehead makes the further assumption that only that which can be prehended can be effective. Then the consequent nature can have no influence in the world. On the other hand, if there were an active future, its particular response to each situation could inform the creativity it could bequeath to each nascent event.

(c) Whitehead has two different ways of understanding actuality, acting and being concretely determinate. Both have a long history in philosophy. They are united in being features of an actuality: acting pertains to its process of coming into being, and concrete determinateness to the being so achieved. Thus the actual is ontologically primary in the present as (particular) activity, while it is ontologically primary in the past as concrete determinateness.

The rule that there is only one genus of actuality (PR 110) needs to be qualified to mean that there be only one genus in any temporal mode. The rule was adopted avoid the arbitrary disjunction of two kinds of (present) actualities might introduce. This is not a problem here, however, since the temporal modes are interdependent. Past determinateness requires some present act of determination, while present determina-tion requires many past determinates to integrate together.

The nature of present actuality gives us a clue as to future actuality. Since the present is finite particular activity, it could be universal activity, an infinite activity which could be the source of present acting, and which as informed by aim could influence it in terms of divine persuasion.

Usually we reckon time to flow in only one direction, from the earlier to the later. Usually the earlier is understood to be that which is completely determinate (i.e. past), while the later, particularly if later than the present, is (passively) indeterminate. In terms of determinateness, time flows from the past towards the future, but in terms of the process of determination, there is the opposite flow from the indeterminate future to the determinate past.

Whitehead analyses the present as a process of determination. My proposal extends this process of subjective becoming to the future. The earliest phases of becoming are the most indeterminate, according to Whitehead, but they could draw upon an even more indeterminate future activity. The future never becomes determinate like the past, but pluralizes itself into the many present finite acts of becoming, which then become past.

There have been two basic ways in which the divine has been conceived: as an individual God or as an impersonal ultimate all actualities participate in. The latter approach often seeks the divine within oneself. Thus in Hinduism ultimately the highest soul can be identified with the ultimate power of brahman. In Buddhism an emptiness is sought, overcoming all particular self-centeredness. In this emptiness the sacred void is present. Both types of eastern disciplines can be understood as efforts to get behind the various phases of present becoming, to experience the interface between the active future and the present. At this interface the divine leaves off and the finite present begins.

The predominantly Western approach proclaims the will of a transcendent personal God known in revelation. This revelation is historical and contingent; it could have happened otherwise. The Israelites were saved out of Egyptian bondage and entered into covenant with the Lord their savior at Sinai. Through the sacrifice of Jesus God in Christ became the savior of others as well. Through the revelation of the Qur’an Muslims have submitted themselves to God. Even the creation of the world is held to be a contingent act, one which God need not have performed.

Creation is understood somewhat differently in process thought. It is not the calling into being of that which had no being, but the divine persuasion urging the world toward greater complexity, an increase in order, first of matter and then of life. Divine persuasion by means of aim is the way novelty can be introduced into the world. It depends, to be sure, upon the mentality of the creatures to be affected by possibilities God provides, for only thus can any novelty emerge. Mentality is required for the actualization of anything really new. This need not mean, however, as Whitehead thought, that every present actuality must have some degree of mentality. Insofar as actualities repeat successful forms over and over, substituting the form of past actualities as the form for the present, ignoring any divine persuasion as to any variation thereof, actualities may lose their sensitivity. Repetition can dull mentality, so that in time the mentality which used to be active in their predecessors becomes purely vestigial, if at all.

Much of the world, its weather, earthquakes, atoms and inorganic molecules may now be impervious to divine influence, however important it may have been in their initial emergence.

Aim is communicated by means of form. God prehends the world just as finite actualities do, only from a future standpoint. Thus as each event is on the verge of actualizing it, God prehends the world it is about to experience as a part of the total divine experience. God responds to that determinate situation in terms a specific, temporally emergent value. This value is passed on to the nascent event as the particular ideal it ought to actualize. As the event decides for itself how this ideal shall be actualized, it becomes ontologically detached from the divine. In this way, the world separates itself from God.

It is one of the goals of ecumenical inquiry to provide a common model for the ultimate in terms of which the great world religions might recognize their concerns. Whitehead’s concept of God provides a good way of conceptualizing Western theism. His notion of creativity goes a long way towards accommodating many forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. But in Whitehead’s own philosophy God cannot be conceived as the source of creativity, nor can creativity be seen as unambiguously good. But insofar as creativity is future, it can be purely good if evil first comes into being by finite acts of present creativity. Also if future creativity pluralizes itself in the present, it can be the inner source of creativity within the self which Hindu and Buddhist disciplines point to.

All present events enjoy subjectivity according to Whitehead. Subjectivity may be understood as the individualization of creativity. This comes about for finite events as they are particularized. Ordinarily a divine creativity in which all creatures participate would lack any subjectivity of its own, because its creativity would be used up by these particular creatures. Yet if that creativity were first future, it would have a universality of its own. The individualization of this universal creativity would constitute a cosmic subjectivity appropriate to Western theism.


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