Process Thought and the Hopi Universe
Copyright 1994 by John R. Mabry
Wisdom comes at us from all directions. Just as, with the discovery of "curved space" traveling in one direction will eventually bring one back full circle to where the journey was begun, so it is that the linear, Cartesian, parts-mentality stream of Western thought eventually brings us back to where we began, the perception and appreciation of the whole. This return to holistic awareness in philosophy, religion and science not only revolutionizes and energizes these fields, but it humbles us that it has taken us so long to discover what so-called "primitive peoples" have known so well for so long, all things are interconnected. It humbles us, and in so doing, enables us to admit that perhaps many of our perceptions of the universe are just that, perceptions, and not necessarily "objective" reality at all.
In reviewing certain perceptions of time and the nature of the universe as perceived by the Hopi peoples of North America, it became apparent that many of them are quite similar to the cosmological intuitions of early twentieth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Following the lead of Hegel in the Western philosophical tradition, Whitehead came to many conclusions regarding God, the universe, and the nature of time and its relationship to reality that are strikingly similar to the Hopi cosmology.In the following pages we will examine some of Whitehead's ideas and describe its similarities to Native American thinking, especially as described in Benjamin Whorf's article "An American Indian Model of the Universe."
Both philosophies share a common intuition: that the material universe is not distinguishable from the progress of matter through time. Static, objective matter is an illusion of the Western imagination. The reality is harder to pin down, messier, and far more glorious. Matter and time cannot be divorced, and we can only talk about one in terms of the other. In Whitehead's view, there are no static moments, all is moving in four dimensions at all times; all is in flux; all is in the process of changing from one state to another; all is in the process of "becoming" other than it is. There is no choice: time marches relentlessly onward, and any illusions of permanence or security is just that, illusion. All of reality is in a constant state of "becoming," in process toward the fulfillments of its potentialities. Likewise, as Suzuki and Knudtson write, "the Native Mind tends to view the universe as the dynamic interplay of elusive and ever-changing natural forces, not as a vast array of static physical objects. It tends to see the entire natural world as somehow alive and animated by a single, unifying life force, whatever its local Native name. It does not reduce the universe to progressively smaller conceptual bits and pieces."1
In both philosophies, separating the Creator from the Creation is impossible, and even distinguishing them is sometimes a challenge. As Roger Sperry, the Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist says, "The Creator and Creation cannot be separated. The two of necessity become intimately interfused and evolve together in a relation of mutual interdependence. Thus, what destroys, degrades or enhances one does the same to the other."2 In a Hopi creation myth, the androgynous being A'wonawil'ona created clouds and the waters from his/her own breath. "He-She is the blue vault of the firmament. The breath clouds of the gods are tinted with the yellow of the north, the blue-green of the west, the red of the south, and the silver of the east of A'wonawil'ona; they are himself, as he is the air itself; and when the air takes on the form of a bird it is but a part of himself. Through the light, clouds, and air he becomes the essence and creator of vegetation."3 In a similar Navajo myth, Changing Woman fashion the Navajo people from shreds of her own skin.4 In both of these stories the natural world is not separate from the Creator, but part of the Creator him/herself.
In Whitehead's (and Hegel's) philosophy, God and the universe are a single organism. The universe is the "body" of God in a way. As Meister Eckhart puts it, "God created all things in such a way that they are not outside himself."5 Every thing that is, then, is in God. From such a Gestalt perspective, then, nothing that exists in the phenomenological world may be considered in and of itself, but only as it relates to the Whole, the Absolute. That the part is a separate entity is an illusion, only the Whole is real.6 Hegel himself sums it up, "Philosophy is concerned with the true and the true is the whole."7 But, so far as Whitehead is concerned, it is not just the universe that is dependent upon God for existence. His God is more reciprocal and limited than we are used to thinking of God in the West. For Whitehead God is intricately bound up in the progress of the universe, and is dependent upon it for his/her own growth. Whitehead, therefore, claims that "it is as true to say that God creates the world as that the world creates God."8
The Native American conception of deity likewise differs from the prevalent Western notion. As David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson write, "Native wisdom sees spirit, however one defines that term, as dispersed throughout the cosmos or embodied in an inclusive, cosmos-sanctifying divine being. Spirit is not concentrated in a single monotheistic Supreme Being."9 The Native God, like Whitehead's, is not a static one. It is a deity caught up in the ebb and flow of the material universe. God is not a thing with an objective, separate existence, but is as much a process as anything else in existence. Since this has been the Native view for sometime, it is no wonder that Native Americans have had such a hard time describing their conception of God to White People. As Dan Moonhawk Alford writes, "The toughest job the Indians ever faced was explaining to the white man who their God was. That's because they don't have a Noun-God...you can't make it into a person with form and shape. It's not a person, but a process--a profound mysteriousing."10
This view of God and the universe is, for the Native American, hard-wired into their language system. Native languages, says Alford, "are more verby, come out of a worldview which pays primary attention to process, relationships, rhythms, vibrations and change--where only flux is constant and can be counted upon."11 For Whitehead, then, trying to describe his "new" view of the universe, language was, understandably, a problem of profound proportions. There are simply no words in the English language to describe Whitehead's ideas. Thus, he had to set about creating some. This was still problematical, since he was trying to describe a universe that was process oriented--verb oriented--in the context of a matter-bound--noun-bound--language system. This makes Whitehead tough reading regardless of one's reading skills. He could well have benefited from being able to explore his ideas in a language like Hopi, which is ideally suited to such an endeavor.
Both Whitehead and the Hopi divide the universe into two qualities of being, the manifest and the unmanifest. According to Benjamin Whorf, for the Hopi the manifest, or the "objective" comprises "all that is or has been accessible to the senses, the historical physical universe, in fact, with no attempt to distinguish between present and past, but excluding everything that we call the future."12 Whitehead refers to all things manifest as "occasions," or "actual occasions." These are the basic units, the "drops of experience," the "final real things of which the world is made, and there is no going behind them to find anything more real."13 Everything that is is an actual occasion, from an amoeba to God himself. Everything that can be experienced is an ongoing string of experiences unto itself, and it itself is an occasion, a moment that actually exists within a certain span of time. Only things that can be measured in time have any existence. Apart from temporal existence, there is nothing. Thus, an "occasion" is a thing that exists within time, be it a rock or the Horsehead Nebula.
The other pole of being, the unmanifest, is called the "subjective" by Whorf in reference to the Hopi conception of the universe. The subjective, says Whorf, "Comprises all that we call future, but not merely this; it includes equally and indistinguishably all that we call mental--everything that appears or exists in the mind, or, as the Hopi would prefer to say, in the heart, not only the heart of man, but the hart of animals, plants, and things, and behind and within all the forms and appearances of nature in the heart of nature, and by an implication and extension...in the heart of the Cosmos, itself."14 Further, the subjective contains "all mentality, intellection, and emotion, the essence and typical form of which is the striving of purposeful desire, intelligent in character, toward manifestation."15 The subjective is "the realm of expectancy, of desire and purpose, of vitalizing life, of efficient causes, of thought thinking itself out form an inner realm into manifestation. It is in a dynamic state, yet not a state of motion--it is not advancing toward us out of a future, but already with us in vital an mental form, and its dynamism is at work in the field of eventuation or manifesting, i.e. evolving without motion from the subjective by degrees to a result which is the objective."16
For Whitehead, it is in the realm of the subjective that there exists "unmanifest objects." These are known as "eternal objects," and can be thought of as eternal archetypes that are true apart from material existence. And, like the Hopi view, it is this realm, the unmanifest, that gives what is manifest its shape. Whitehead writes, "The things which are temporal [actual occasions] arise by their participation in the things which are eternal [eternal objects]. The two sets are mediated by a thing which combines the actuality of what is temporal with the timelessness of what is potential. This final entity is the divine element in the world, by which the barren inefficient disjunction of abstract potentialities obtains primordially the efficient conjunction of ideal realization."17
What Whitehead is saying (in his own impenetrable fashion) is that actual occasions are determined by what is, they exist in the now. But in the realm of the eternal objects lies the infinite potential of what might be. According to Whitehead, eternal objects have their existence in the mind of God, and because s/he, having absolute union with the material plane, is integral in every occasion of becoming. Whitehead writes, "Apart from such orderings, there would be a complete disjunction of eternal objects unrealized in the temporal world."18 God, then, is the mediator, the interface between the conceptual potentiality and the material reality. Yet Whitehead's God is not the only occasion with a will, for every occasion has some sort of need for satisfaction which Whitehead terms "subjective aim." All beings, then, participate in giving birth to the manifest.
Two concepts that are key for Whitehead are "prehension" and "concresence." Prehension refers to an entity's interactions, interrelations in time with its environment. "Prehension" sounds like the word "apprehension," yet, as William S. Sahakian describes it, "subjects are the [actual] occasions... their objects are the data; [from its environment]; and prehension provides the relationship between them." Prehension is "incognitive apprehension; it involves more than mere perception but lacks the cognitive element."19 A subject "prehends" an object by its experience with the object. If the object changes the subject in some way, it is called a "positive prehension;" if the subject remains unchanged (except for the addition of the encounter) it is called a "negative prehension." Thus, positive prehensions effect what the subject is to become. 20
"Concrescence" is kind of analogous to the Buddhist concept of "dependant co-arising," in that a multiplicity of subjects interrelate in such a way that a more complex unity results. Actual entities "concresce" into larger entities. Whitehead writes, "Each instance of concrescense is itself the novel individual 'thing' in question. There are not 'the concrescence' and the 'novel thing' when we analyse the novel thing we find nothing but the conscrecence. 'Actuality' means nothing else than this ultimate entry into the concrete, in abstraction from which there is mere nonentity."21 (Emphasis his.)
These ideas are central to Whitehead's thought, and yet our ability to grasp and utilize such "action-bound" concepts is sorely limited by our language which has no precedent for such a train of thought. It is simply the wrong tool for the job. The Hopi language, though, is ideally suited to such description. Hopi has a verb forms which perfectly describe the very edge of "becoming" which would certainly have been helpful to Whitehead in describing the above processes. For the eternal object which is about to become manifest through an impending prehension or concrescence, there may be used the expective tense. The expective is "That which is beginning to emerge into manifestation...the nearer edge of the subjective cuts across and includes a part of our present time, viz. the moment of inception."22
The Hopi also can approach the event from the perspective of the objective universe as well. In this case, the inceptive tense is used, which "refers to this edge of emergent manifestation...as the edge at which objectivity is attained; this is used to indicate beginning or starting. Whitehead might easily have employed the expective when discussing the emergence of eternal objects and the acting out of subjective aim, while using the inceptive to describe the processes of prehension and concrescence as actually experienced by actual occasions. Both of these tenses are related to each other in terms of process as well, since, as Whorf points out, "the inceptive, referring to the objective and result side implies the ending of the work of causation in the same breath that it states the beginning of manifestation."23
One cannot help but wonder how process thought might have developed had Whitehead had access to linguistic tools that encouraged his train of thought instead of impeding it, and English most certainly does. We can rejoice that our parts-mentality orientation is becoming obsolete, and that the worldviews of Native peoples are finally being given credence they deserve. It is truly ironic that what for Whitehead (and for students of him) what seems like such a great--and difficult--conceptual leap is second nature and unquestioned reality for native populations all over the globe, most of whom have never even seen a copy of Whitehead's Process and Reality. Nor would they have much use for it, except perhaps for kindling. But what treasures might await the fields of philosophy and science if somehow the marriage of the native mind and the scientific method could be achieved? What leaps might Process thought or systems theory be capable of, in the hands of a Hopi philosopher or scientist with the proper tools for such exploration at hand? "What might the Native Mind glimpse that the scientist's more myopic gaze cannot?" Suzuki and Knudtson ask, "What creative images of the cosmos might holistic minds that are equally gifted intellectually conjure up if they were granted limitless access not just to the mind's reason but also to its capacity for feeling, compassion, visceral experience, and soaring imagination as it struggles to convey its personal vision of nature's boundlessness?"24
1 David Suzuki and Peter knudtson Wisdom of the Elders (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), p. 17.
2 Ibid., p. 30.
3 Ibid., p. 31-2.
4 Ibid., p. 3.
5 Fox, Matthew, OP, ed. Meditations with Meister Eckhart (Santa Fe: Bear & Co., 1982), p. 22.
6 Russell, Bertrand A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), p. 733.
7 Hegel, quoted in Copleston, Frederick, SJ, A History of Philosophy, Vol. VII (New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 170.
8 Mellert, quoting Whitehead, p. 58.
9 Suzuki, p. 16.
10 Dan Moonhawk Alford "God is Not a Noun in Native America" collected in Foundations of Integral Linguistics Reader (San Francisco, 1993), p. 2, 7.
11 Ibid., p. 5.
12 Benjamin Lee Whorf Language, Thought and Reality (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956), p. 59.
13 Mellert, Robert B. What is Process Theology? (New York: Paulist Press, 1975), p. 22.
14 Whorf, p. 59.
15 Ibid., p. 60.
17 Whitehead, Alfred North, from Sherburne, Donald W., ed., A Key to Whitehead's Process and Reality (Chicago: The Free Press, 1966), p. 25.
18 Ibid., p. 27.
19 Sahakian, William S. History of Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 297.
20 Mellert, p. 27.
21 Whitehead/Sherburne, p. 34.
22 Whorf, p. 60-61.
23 Ibid., p. 61.
24 Suzuki, p. 14.