How do things change, yet remain themselves? It’s one of the basic philosophical problems. Things that can be discerned from each other on account of their differences are simply not the same thing. If you can’t tell two things apart no matter how closely you examine them, well then they are just the same thing. But if you can tell them apart even the least little bit, then they are just not identical: they simply *can’t* be the same thing.
Yet our experience of what it is like to be, and to become, includes the experience of changing while remaining ourselves. How?
Aristotle took a (shrewd and powerful) shot at the problem, when he distinguished between accidental and essential properties of things. The essential properties of a thing are what make it the thing that it is, and the accidental properties can change without making it into something else altogether. So, e.g., as long as my essence is unchanged, I am me whether I happen to be in San Francisco or in Berkeley.
But it doesn’t quite work, does it? The more you examine the me of Berkeley versus the me of San Francisco, the more important the differences look. Even if there are no important differences, are the two versions of me different at all? Then they are just different things, aren’t they?
Whitehead gave in. He went ahead and admitted that the me of Berkeley and the me of San Francisco are altogether different things, different substantial entities. They are connected to each other, though, are they not? How?
This is a special case of the more general question: how does one thing exert causal effect upon another?
Whitehead treated causation – the links between events – under the heading of the only sort of transition to which we can have any direct access, or that we can therefore know about directly: the transition between one moment of our own lives and another. Such transitions are the only evidence we can possibly have about what causal transition is like.
In such transitions, no new moment is a complete innovation, utterly different from its predecessors. Rather, we feel the feelings we can feel that we have recently felt, so that we feel them over a whole series of moments, first swelling in intensity and then trailing off into a dim memory of feeling.
When I have gone from San Francisco to Berkeley, the me of Berkeley feels what the me of San Francisco was like – or rather, is still and forever like, as being past, completely defined, and thus thenceforth changeless – and incorporates some of the feelings of what the San Francisco me was like – its feelings about itself and its world – into its own constitution.
Whitehead called these feelings “prehensions:” to prehend is to grasp or seize an aspect of a prior entity, and take some aspect of it for oneself, and to be an aspect of oneself. When an entity prehends another, it feels the feelings that that entity felt, and takes them for and as its own. This taking involves those feelings in the final constitution of the latter entity, forming its character – and, thus, the way it then feels to subsequent entities.
The later me of Berkeley, then, by feeling the earlier me of San Francisco and adopting almost all of its properties for its own, in a way includes in itself everything that was included in the me of San Francisco, while adding some additional properties – memories, experiences, novel ideas, and so forth. If nothing else, the later me of Berkeley adds its own Berkeleyan perspective to the data present in the prior me of San Francisco – and to all the prior moments of me. In so doing, the me of Berkeley reinstantiates the form that is the essential form of me, that was expressed also in all my prior moments.
What we get with this is the idea that a person with a history is a sort of society of moments distributed over a temporal extent – a life span, or career. Although they are essentially alike, they are ontologically distinct from each other, and causally important to each other; and together, they form a temporal “togetherness” or “nexus,” that on account of their basic similarity respecting the most important aspects of their characters, all exhibit a character that is recognizable as just theirs.
Now notice that this was really nothing more on Whitehead’s part than an elaboration of Aristotle’s notion of a distribution of essential and accidental properties over the existential career of a substantial thing, with the only difference being that Whitehead treated that career as if it were a series of discrete clips sewn together, whereas Aristotle had treated it as if it were a single movie. Aristotle had no notion of the techniques of animation, whereas Whitehead did. Whitehead could see how a series of discrete images could assemble a continuous smooth change.
Animation is a terrific analogy for Whitehead’s vision of causal continuity. Another is the integrity of a performance of a piece of music. Purcell’s Te Deum in D as performed is a series of quite distinct waves of sound, each with a different form, and temporally distributed. Yet it is a single thing, with each moment of its career bearing a coherent and complex and specific relation to every other. If our vision was good enough, we could spread out and read all the pages of the score at once, and even hear them altogether in imagination, as great composers have reported that they are able to do. But the only way the piece can be implemented actually is as a temporally distributed series of discrete events.
Excursus: compare God’s eternal perspective, to which all moments, however distributed over time, space, or other causal dimensions, are present simultaneously.
Notice also that Whitehead had done nothing more here than take Newton’s insight into the relation between differentiation and integration, and applied it to the real world. Newton had treated the smooth integral curve as the truest image of reality – naturally enough – as may be seen from the name he gave to the process by which it may be decomposed into its component infinitesimal parts: derivation. Whitehead flipped that, and treated the series of discrete Newtonian infinitesimals as the best picture of how things truly are, and the smooth curve of their integral as derivate. So doing, he transcended Newton’s static Cartesian space. Space and time became for Whitehead instead a derivate – a fossil, as it were – of the creative surge of novel events.
Excursus: this is actually rather important. It is one of those figure-ground reversals of perspective that, counterintuitive as it first seems, nevertheless gives us a much better grasp of reality. This: space is not the environment of events. It is, rather, the network of prehensile relations between events, the causal web. It is, then, lively, unfolding, elaborating. And, it is growing.
That’s not all. Because space and time are derivates of the causal relations between actual occasions – are how we apprehend, specify, and understand these relations – we find that actual occasions are not in time and space at all. They themselves are timeless, and have no locus, other than what is given by their relations to other moments, other acts, other events. This means that a moment in the process of its own formation might in principle immediately prehend any other moment whatever as a datum of its own constitution, provided that moment was itself already actual. In principle, then, a novel moment might constitute itself as importantly influenced by the characters of events in the causal vicinity of Caesar’s death; it might in itself elaborate upon those characters, fleshing out more fully the scenario of his assassination. Any scene, then, might ever be under further construction: the moment of Caesar’s death might not ever be quite fully fleshed out.
The key thing to note here is that occasions of becoming are not simply located in space and time. There is no space or time apart from the matrix of relations between already actual entities. And this means, quite simply, that *occasions come to be pretemporally.* Which is to say, that they come to be in the environment of eternity; of timelessness.
Notice then also that what Whitehead did with his notion of the actual event was accommodate the basic discontinuity that quantum mechanics had then just discovered apparently lies at the root of being in our universe. The Whiteheadian moment is physically expressed as the quantum of action, of information, of certainty: of fact.
The quantum of action effected by Whitehead’s occasion of becoming is just Aristotle’s act, in virtue of which myriad potentialities are reduced to actualities. It is the “collapse of the Schrödinger wave function” so beloved of our New Age students of consciousness who hang in Taos and Santa Fe.
There is yet more. In his account of the concrescence of actual events, Whitehead recapitulated Plato and anticipated Claude Shannon, integrating their insights. The prehension of other already actual events by which each novel occasion begins its own process of becoming is in effect an ingression to it – precisely, an information, in the Shannonian sense, by a signal (mediated by prehension) – of the Platonic forms already expressed and concretely manifest in its actual world. Becoming then involves communication, and each instant thereof is the achievement of a new community of agreement about what’s what – or, as Whitehead called it simply, a “togetherness,” literally a toward + gathering: a communion.
Excursus: The congruence of Whitehead’s scheme with the mature theology of the eucharist is evident.
Then, at last, there is Beauty. Whitehead characterized prehensions as feelings (rather than impacts or collisions or something of that dumb dead Democritean sort) not just because he was quite aware of the physics of fields (there’s no such thing, really, as a collision), but because he was convinced that prehension is *experience.* Not, NB, that physical transactions are sort of like experience, but that, being the transfer of information from one particular event to another, they *just are* instances of suffering.
Prehensions are feelings of prior feelings; so that they are inherently evaluative: feelings always have some aesthetic character, and therefore some value, ergo some valence, some allure or repulsion. And as feelings of things, prehensions are always intensional; they are about things other than themselves.
As intensional, and significant – as, i.e., *meaning* something or other – prehensions and occasions are also teleological. The feelings of an occasion of becoming about its past, and about how it should best and most beautifully respond thereto by way of its own self-construction (its sub-creation), are inevitably informed also by the overall structure of the world it inherits, and by a vision of the world toward which it would bend its urges, its hopes, its powers. The constitution of an act is an assertion of how the world ought optimally to be; a proposal of that world, and a lure toward it. E.g., when I am brave, I effectually assert the aesthetic value – the Beauty – of bravery. When I took that last swallow of hoppy IPA, I effectually asserted the Beauty of hops, of water, of beer – not just for myself in the moment of the swallow, but as an objective matter of fact. When an instant in the career of a particle conserves the momentum of a prior instant of some particle that is peculiarly influential in its own past and in its present constitution, it effectually asserts, and proposes, the Beauty of the good cosmic order furnished by the conservation laws, and urges their obedience by all subsequent occasions. Each instance of the fulfillment of these laws is an effectual assertion of how it is good for our world to be.
Excursus: this is how the heavens tell the Glory of God.
Thus Whitehead showed just how becoming involved all four sorts of Aristotelian causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. The material cause of each occasion is its actual world, the things that in respect to its specific causal locus already are. Its formal causes are the forms manifest in that actual world (including the forms actually instantiated as yet not mundanely, but rather only as Augustinian ideas in the mind of God), as integrated in its own final constitution. Its final causes are the aesthetic values produced in that final configuration. Its efficient causes are the emphases of its causal antecedents upon the Beauty, value, and enjoyment of the various combinations of the forms which they themselves have expressed.
Whitehead employed a lot of terms for the quantum of becoming: actual entity, actual occasion, actual event, concrescence, actuality, final satisfaction, immortal object. He used them interchangeably, depending on whether he wanted to emphasize their process of becoming, their final completion, or their appearance to each other. I have taken lately to calling them “nunc:” now. For, each of them is to itself a now.
Try this Whiteheadian inversion of your natural perspective that you persist substantially from one moment to the next. Try thinking of yourself rather as *reiterating* from one moment to the next, differently, yet smoothly. I bet that you find that it clears up a lot of difficulties, introduces no new problems, and feels about the same as things have always felt. I.e., that it does no violence to the notions you have developed from your own experiences, and accommodates them, all.