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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.1 (2000) 17-23

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The Future as Active

Lewis S. Ford

Alfred North Whitehead has shown, to the satisfaction of many, that part of what we ordinarily regard as present is really past (1977). After sketching his argument, I shall extend it in another direction. I propose that part of the present, its divine part, ought really be conceived as future.

The present, as commonly understood, has both subjective and objective factors. Thus, if I see the beautiful vista of forest with mountains or whatever, the percepta I subjectively experience constitute an objective present. This objective present is redefined by Whitehead as the immediate past, having the same ontological characteristics as the more distant past. Both are perfectly determinate, meaning that they can no longer acquire real relations.

On the strength of this reconception, it becomes possible to understand the subject/object contrast in temporal terms. If whatever is objective is determinately past, then present immediacy can only be subjective. Even if we consider the objectively past to persist into the present, it is as an inert component appropriated by present activity.

We are only directly acquainted with this subjectivity in ourselves, but it is a feature of all actual occurrences. Since whatever is determinately past must have come into being, it was once present, and had its own subjectivity, however minimal. This is the basis for Whitehead's pansubjectivity, though we should note the extreme generality of this notion of subjectivity. It means nothing more nor nothing less than present immediacy. It need not mean that every actuality enjoys mentality, which I understand to be the capacity to be influenced by possibility. It certainly does not mean that all have consciousness, which requires a complex contrast enjoyed only by the very few.

How did Whitehead come to reconceive the present, which has such far-reaching implications? I suspect it was prompted by the problem of causal activity as it poses itself for a theory of events. Causal activity [End Page 17] has two features that concern us: the cause is the way the past influences the present, but causing is also a present activity because all activity lies in the present. The past by itself is devoid of activity. The usual theory saw the past persisting into the present and there acting upon the effect.

Thus, the cause acts upon the effect as its contemporary. Prior to the special theory of relativity, this was quite unproblematic. The special theory, however, excludes any influence by contemporaries. Only the past can be causally influential. In fact, the past is often then described as the causal past, and the region of contemporaries as those events that neither cause nor are caused by one another.

Whitehead initially bypassed the problem of causation by constructing a world of events and objects (characteristics), to which was added an early notion of prehension. Prehension may be thought of as a generalization of perception to apply to all events. It is the way two events are related by means of a common sensum. 1 Such prehension, as originally conceived, preserved epistemological realism because the sensum, as an eternal object, was timelessly the same in every spatiotemporal situation. However, it could not explain causation, for at least two reasons. The concreteness of causal interaction could not be sustained by relations based on necessarily abstract eternal sensa. Moreover, this model could not explain causal activity. Whitehead's essay on Symbolism argues that perception in the mode of presentational immediacy, perception based on sensa, could not explain these two factors. David Hume sought to explain causation in terms of sensa, but Whitehead stressed the inadequacy of this approach in terms of our commonsense experience of causal efficacy, that is, the activity of causation. Although this is never indicated, I suspect he took the critique to apply to his own early theory of prehension as well.

The invention of physical prehension, which is fundamental to the revised theory of concrescence in part 3 of Process and Reality, was designed to meet these difficulties (see 1999). Instead of being...


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