This is part one in a four-part series. Kyle, Joe and Johanna Hilla were able to spend time recording with John B. Cobb at his apartment in Claremont, California. This was during a small weekend conference on psychedelics titled “Exceptional Experience Conference.” You can listen to the full talk in this episode of Psychedelics Today.
John Boswell Cobb Jr. is an American theologian, philosopher, and environmentalist. Cobb is often regarded as the preeminent scholar in the field of process philosophy and process theology, the school of thought associated with the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Cobb is the author of more than fifty books. In 2014, Cobb was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A unifying theme of Cobb’s work is his emphasis on ecological interdependence—the idea that every part of the ecosystem is reliant on all the other parts. Cobb has argued that humanity’s most urgent task is to preserve the world on which it lives and depends, an idea which his primary influence, Whitehead, described as “world-loyalty”.
John Cobb: The senses heighten and intensify the connection on particular kinds of connection. The eyes are obviously very sensitive to particular wavelengths, and the ears are sensitive to other wavelengths and so forth. But that this is to think that sight is the most direct relationship to what’s going on externally, doesn’t make sense. Sight requires… I mean there’s lots that happens before what we call sight occurs. And those happenings are more fundamental than seeing. But the tendency of British empiricism has been to start with the data of sight. Philosophy should go deeper than that. What label can we give to the most fundamental relationship? First, we need to describe that relationship. The most fundamental relationship is any happening, the world is made up of happenings, rather than substances.
Any happening enters into its successors. And one of the best kinds of meditations in terms of conscious experience is to think of what’s happening. As you listen to music in any given moment, there’s just one tone, but you don’t really just hear a tone. If you heard just a tone and then another tone, you wouldn’t hear music. You hear at least the musical phrase, and the whole musical phrase is still in the experience at the time that the concluding note is being struck. So the experiences of the previous tones do not end when that experience ends; it gets transmitted.
Our experience is the inclusion of elements of previous experiences. It’s very much like Buddhism in this respect. Whitehead calls the fundamental relationship of inclusion including part of the previous experience a prehension. So a prehension is the way in which one experience enters into successor experiences. And he thinks this is what’s going on also in the subatomic world. So the word, “prehension” is a cause. It’s a causal relationship. But the image of course that Hume was looking for just looking in the wrong place.
So if the world is made up of prehension, then what, in any given moment, is prehended, and Whitehead says everything. That is every past event leaves some trace and has some trace in the present. In that context, you can try to figure out why sometimes particular past events sort of revivifies itself in the present.
You could study it under what circumstances, there’s some event from your childhood all of a sudden. But it doesn’t mean it has had no relationship to your experience. The conscious experience is, of course, a very special form of experience, and the boundary between what is conscious and unconscious is a very fuzzy one.
So when we talk about everything being experience, we certainly don’t mean everything is conscious. Sadly among a lot of philosophers, the only use of the word experience is referring to conscious experience. And then there’s no understanding of Whitehead’s view.
Since everything is a synthesis of relations to everything in the past, you have much more material to work with when you’re trying to explain experience. Now an experience is not exhausted by its relation to the past. Whitehead calls the relatedness to the past, physical prehension. We are prehending actual entities. But we also prehend potentialities. Now those potentialities may also be prehended as realized actualities in the past. So it doesn’t mean that every conceptual feeling is of something that is radically novel, but it is being experienced simply as a potential, not as actual. And Whitehead thinks this is present even in very elementary matters. Waves of vibration. He liked the term. It’s a very large part of the world we live in.
And then when you go back and forth between two states, this is the minimum of novelty that actual entities can have. Both states, neither state is novel, it’s constantly recurrence. He thinks that without some variation from moment to moment, nothing really happens. So this kind of novelty is to be found all the way down in the quantum world. And though as the description of the quantum world, so the indeterminacy and all of that certainly suggests that this is not unreal. Most of the developments in science since his time tend to fit very well into his ideas. Quantum was just on the edge coming into existence when he was writing. He wrote very extensively about relativity, very little about quantum. But many quantum physicists are quasi-Whiteheadians. David Bohm, we worked with a lot because he came and spent two weeks in the house next door to me and we talked all afternoon, day after day. So I really thought I got acquainted with him.
He was very process-oriented. He actually thought that we needed to change our language. He thought we could do it simply by shifting to gerunds from nouns. Because gerunds suggest something’s happening. Nouns suggest something IS. And this has distorted our understanding of the world in which we live.
So from the Whiteheadian side, any experience, however weird, needs to be taken seriously, that happened. If that is experienced, however confusing it is, however misdirecting it may be, nevertheless, if it happened, it happened, and that has to be taken account of. And his combination of the inclusion of actuality and potentiality usually makes it possible to figure it out. And of course, if it’s too much potentiality and too little grounded in actuality, you better be careful of it. But on the other hand, if you don’t have the potentiality, then you ultimately just have a completely deterministic universe. Then you can’t explain a great many of the most important phenomena.
Johanna: Does Whitehead relate potentiality to his ideas about intuition?
John Cobb: The word intuition, you don’t find in Whitehead. I shouldn’t say that. It’s a very limited word in Whitehead. But I think people who have studied about intuition in other traditions usually find that what they mean by intuition is a form of prehension. Intuitions, I think, can be both of pure potentials and can be intuitions about other people. Yeah.
I mean obviously proximity is likely to make something stronger. My psyche can prehend your psyche when you’re sitting there and I’m here. And also around the world even it could… It becomes less and less likely when there were no other supportive… I think when you’re actually talking to somebody, obviously you have visual cues and auditory cues and it enriches the connection, but that’s not the basis of it. That there is an actual occasion over there that is experiencing hearing me and seeing me is intuitively about a certain… It’s really in many ways more certain than that’s a patch of blue. I’m more likely to be wrong about the color than I am about the sheer being, sheer occurrence. So obviously a lot of what are called paranormal experiences are not magical or supernatural or something.
So many things that the university just won’t touch for a Whiteheadian point of view should be regarded as empirical theories. The fact that somebody claims to have seen something or done something doesn’t mean that’s true because there are plenty of illusion. But rather than dismiss it, they just study it and test it rigorously. I mean, it’s not that you just immediately are gullible about everything,
I mean, frankly I have until yesterday paid very little attention to astrology. Now as a Whiteheadian, that does not mean that I think that the planets have no effect on us whatsoever. I’ve just rather assumed it was a rather minor matter. I’m much more open now to learning more about the connections as they say. But just the fact that you find thoughtful people have developed elaborate theories about these connections doesn’t make them right. But it should mean well, that’s interesting. What evidence is there?
And somebody was telling me that… You will see that as far as names are concerned, I’m absolutely terrible. But the woman who spoke (Becca Tarnas)
That she had told him, I don’t think it was either reviewed.
The year he was born, correctly. Just on the basis of very little knowledge, well, no, when I hear that I think, wow, okay, there’s more to this than I thought. But that doesn’t mean Whitehead says anything about this. It’s just he… If we prehend everything that has ever happened, however trivial, then to know in advance that this couldn’t be true is ruled out.
So on the other side, since he does not privilege our standard sensory experience, then if people started talking about having very different sensory experiences, there’s no bias against it. I’m saying what Whitehead offers, and since he makes very explicit points, we need to study experience, drunk experience, sober, he doesn’t say experience in the psychedelics and not, but it’s obviously included.
And then while he’s experienced drunk, does not seem to give one insights into reality through any very… I mean it tells you something about the human body and how our body chemistry affects neuronal activity. I mean, in that sense it cannot be understood, but that it gives you a vision of reality that happens to be much more like Whitehead’s, naturally increases interest on the part of the Whitehead is.
I mean, most people who’ve had drugs feel a deep relationality that is not given to us. An insight, for example. And the world has much more dynamic, and Whitehead shows us how vision abstracts from the dynamism rather than commuting the dynamism.
So I think Lenny can tell you. I mean, he wrote an article that we published in The Center for Process Studies that is using process categories to explain the psychedelic experience. And John Buchanan has been working on that, it got many people. And of course, the psychedelic experience is different with different people. So it’s different with different drugs and all of that. So you can explain one experience, you haven’t explained all. And obviously it can be just as misleading about what the world is like as normal experiences. So the interaction should give rise to hypotheses for testing.
But if someone is already convinced that our interconnections are far more extensive than if somebody says, “Oh, I had this vision and I saw everything related to everything else.” We Whiteheadians are not going to test it, we just say, “Good, I’m glad you’ve see it. I wish I could see it that clearly. I believe it.” One of the very important features of Whitehead is to distinguish a complex society. I mean, the table is a complex society. And if we talk about pan-experientialism, we’re not saying that the table has had the experience. But we are saying that if you analyze the table into the quanta and quarks, that these are dynamic entities.
So when you put together a lot of dynamic as it is, and even as indeterminate as it is. I mean, one of the ironies is that predictions based on theories in quantum, they call it quantum mechanics, but it ain’t mechanic. And they develop a formula and these tend not to be more precise than when you’re just dealing with the big objects. So you might think that if you have a little bit of indeterminacy in the entities that then this could be multiplied, but statistics don’t really work that way.
I mean, if you flip a coin, you flip a coin 10 times, it wouldn’t be too surprising if you got seven on one side three on the other. If you flip it a hundred times, it would be very surprising if you’ve got a 70 on one side and 30 on the other. If you did it 10,000 times, it would be utterly amazing. And you would be quite sure this was no longer neutral, that there was something about the coins or something that was causing this difference. So when you get trillions of cases, as you would in a table, that it comes out so that the prediction can be so precise, doesn’t mean it’s a mistake to think that there was uncertainty in the individual cases.
Physics has opened up vast amounts of things. From a Whiteheadian point of view contemporary physics would be almost universally valid if the world were composed entirely of physical feelings.
Kyle Buller: What do you mean by physical feeling?
John Cobb: Physical feelings are feelings of actual occasions. This term for what is, is an actual occasion. Human experience is an actual occasion.
Johanna: So what would be opposed to the physical feeling?
John Cobb: Conceptual feelings are feelings of potentials.
John Cobb: And he (Whitehead) thinks now our feelings are potentials in every actual occasion. So physics is never adequate to any individual entity. And the attempt to make physics apply, standard physics, of course I mean, apply to the quantum world is a total failure. Almost everybody agrees on that.
John Cobb: I think the attempt to make ordinary physics apply to human experience, which is the task assigned to Neuroscientists. The neuroscientists I have known, and they’re obviously a select group, on the whole, they’re completely convinced that subjective experience has a causal role to play in the world. Whitehead thinks it has the causal role to play in the world.
But as long as you are only talking about the experience of past entities, you can avoid it. But when they found out that when they study Zen practitioners and discovered that their brain’s shapes are changed by their practice, I just don’t see how they can keep on saying that subjective experience has no causal role. And they don’t. I mean the people who are doing these experiments, they said they have to be very careful how they word this when they go back to their… One of my many reasons for not thinking highly of the American university. It is more committed to metaphysics than it is to empirical study. Really is.
Other books by John Cobb Jr.
About John B. Cobb Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D, is a founding co-director of the Center for Process Studies and Process & Faith. He has held many positions, such as Ingraham Professor of Theology at the School of Theology at Claremont, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard Divinity, Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; For the Common Good. Co-winner of Grawemeyer Award of Ideas Improving World Order.