Updated: Apr 23, 2022
What do we mean when we talk about ‘the world’? We don’t just mean the universe, the cosmos or the planet Earth. We mean the world as it is experienced…by us, and by every other ‘actual entity’ that populates it.
What constitutes the world? Matter and energy, sub-atomic particles and the forces between them? No, these are just the raw materials of the world.
Nouns and verbs? Subjects and predicates? Adjectives and adverbs? No, these are categories that we abstract, after the fact, from real, everyday experience.
When we experience the world, we do not experience particles and forces or objects and actions; we experience events. An event may include something we later call an object, action or attribute; but what we experience is the event, pure and simple.
Whether we’re talking about a laboratory experiment, a criminal investigation or an ordinary day at school or work, the fundamental question always is, “What happened?”
So, events are the actual entities that make up the world. (Note: British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead used ‘event’ and ‘actual entity’ interchangeably depending on context. I will adopt that same convention here.)
Every event is singular: one. Events are holistic. Sure, an event has phases and elements; but those phases and elements are the superstructure of the event, not the event itself. Every event is distinct from its phases and elements; and that distinctness (novelty) is the event.
An event can, and usually does, encompass other events; but those encompassed events, neither individually nor collectively, constitute the event itself. Again, an event’s distinction from its elements is its essence and that distinction is holistic: it cannot be analyzed or sub-divided.
Therefore, events are local and instantaneous. Time and space are constructs we use to classify or describe relationships between events. They are principles we rely on when we order events, but they derive their meaning solely from the events they order.
Absent events, time and space do not exist; in fact, they have meaning only in the context of multiple events. They have no meaning, for example, inside an event. If the world consisted of one and only one event, time and space would not exist; the concept itself would be meaningless.
Likewise, if there was a single event that encompassed all other events, time and space would exist for those other events but not for the all-encompassing event itself. Like all events, an all-encompassing event would be local and instantaneous; it would be a-temporal and therefore eternal.
So, events are here and now. The process by which an event comes to be is its ‘concrescence’. The concrescence of an event is a process but that process is a-temporal. Therefore, events happen only in the present. Each event defines its own present. In fact, ‘happening’ and ‘being present’ are synonymous.
An event may be (and usually is) enriched by material from the so-called ‘past and future’, but past and future exist for an event only to the extent that they are present in the event itself.
Consider, for example, the human faculties of memory and imagination. We associate memory with the past and imagination with the future, but memory and imagination do not exist in the past or in the future. They exist in the present. They are elements of an experience and experience only happens in the present.
Consider also the present impact of cosmological events that occurred in the distant past. Our present experience includes information from those events, information that originated “a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away”; but the key phrase here is “present experience”.
Events are like quanta. They have extension (e.g. duration) but they are not divisible into units of smaller extension. If you think of time (and/or space) as linear, then an event (a quantum of experience) is a ‘hole’ in that line.
Events are also like atoms. They have ‘sub-atomic parts’, but none of these parts, on its own, has any of the qualities of the atom itself.
Compare an event to a work of art whose elements include paint and cavass. Something is projected onto those elements that is neither present in any of them singularly nor in all of them collectively: an image. If the painting is original, the image will be unique and inject novelty into the world.
Of course, the analogy of an event to a painting is not perfect. In most cases, an artist forms the painting’s image and, arguably at least, the artist is distinct from the painting itself.
Every event, on the other hand, creates its own image, its own ‘superject’, i.e. its own contribution to the world. In fact, an event is its own subject and its own superject. In that sense, every event is sui generis. It can only be explained in terms of itself.
The concept of ‘trinity’ appears in many ontological models:
Father, Son, Spirit in Christianity
Thesis, antithesis, synthesis in Hegel, Marx, et al.
One, many, creativity in Whitehead, etc.
Likewise, in our model, every event has three aspects:
The Ideal – a nexus of values
The Actual – a nexus of events
Freedom – the substance of ‘event’ per se.
When we talk about the Ideal, we are talking about the Good; but ‘good’ is a generic term. What do we mean when we say something is good? That depends on the context. We may mean that it is beautiful, or that it is true, or that it is just…or potentially many other things.
The English poet John Keats famously wrote: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Keats was right. Beauty and truth are both manifestations of the Good. They are denotatively synonymous, even if connotatively distinct.
Of course, Keats meant something more: what is true is beautiful because it is true and what is beautiful is true because it is beautiful. He was proposing an epistemology grounded in aesthetics…but that takes us way beyond the scope of this essay.
So, the Ideal is the Good but the Good manifests differently in different contexts. These manifestations are the ‘values’ that motivate the coming to be of events.
Motivate? Events are ‘motivated’? You bet! Of course, when we talk about motivation in this context, we are not necessarily talking about conscious motivation in the human sense.
Every event happens either ex nihilo or in the context of a world composed of other events; and every event makes a novel contribution to that world. Therefore, every event alters the status quo. Each event must somehow overcome the inertia of what-is (or is-not) to bring about what might-be but isn’t. Everything needs a raison d’etre, a reason to be.
Some cosmologies attribute the emergence of novelty to a fundamental restlessness at the heart of nature (e.g. vacuum pressure). This essay seeks to unpack this rather vague notion of restlessness (Heraclitus’ flow, Whitehead’s creativity). In our model, novelty emerges from the interplay of the Ideal, the Actual and the Free.
Consider the words of Robert Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.” In its own way, every actual entity ‘dreams’ of things that never were, asks why not, and acts on the answer.
Motivating values (the Ideal) transcend the physical world…any physical world. They are a pre-condition for the being of a physical world.
These values are ubiquitous and eternal. They are impervious to change. They apply in every possible world at every point and at every moment of that world’s history. Therefore, we call them ‘universal’.
Not all values are universal; in fact, most are not. Redness, for example, is a value but it certainly does not apply to every possible event in every possible world (e.g. it would not apply at all in a world without color).
Furthermore, redness is neither ‘good’ nor ‘not-good’ per se. Beauty, truth and justice, however much we may struggle to define and apply these notions, are good per se and do apply in every possible world and in every possible circumstance.
The less beautiful is never better than the more beautiful, the less true is never better than the more true, the less just is never better than the more just. Of course, it is possible to argue, rightly or wrongly, that a small sacrifice of value today may result in a larger increase in value tomorrow (Machiavelli). Yet even then, value (now ‘net value’) remains the sole criterion.
The Ideal is one component in the concrescence of an event; the second component is the Actual. The Ideal manifests itself as a nexus of universal values specific to a nexus of actual entities (i.e. an ‘actual world’). Events emerge in the gap between what is ideal and what is actual. (Think about the role of the ‘Ginnungagap’ – or just plain ‘gap’ – in Norse Mythology.)
Every event aims for the Ideal…but always in the context of the Actual. The actual world of any event is the nexus of actual entities it inherits, i.e. the unique constellation of events in response to which the novel event occurs.
Every event seeks to transform (i.e. improve) the actual world it inherits. In fact, the transformation of an actual world is what an event is; and since the world consists entirely of events, the world is nothing other than the process of its own transformation. In that sense, Heraclitus was right: everything flows. So was Whitehead: being is process.
An event may transform its actual world in two ways. We call these the ‘modes’ of its concrescence.
In the first mode, it passes judgment on its actual world and finds it wanting; then it selectively redeems specific elements from the actual entities that form that world and harmonizes them according to a pattern it derives from the Ideal. We call this ‘the mode of exclusion’ because the event forms its own ‘image’ by paring away useless or conflicting material from its actual world.
In the second mode, an event, often the same event, also passes judgment on its actual world; but this time the event focuses on the incipient harmonies that bind selected actual entities together to form a nexus. We call this ‘the mode of inclusion’ because the event amplifies those harmonies by transmuting conflicts into contrasts.
But process in either mode is dialectic. Each event, inspired by universal values, seeks to transform its actual world…but in the process the event itself is informed…and potentially deformed…by that actual world. Elements from the actual world may become values in their own right and compete with the universal values inherited from the Ideal.
This is the origin of the concept of idolatry. When a temporal element from an actual world is treated as if it were a universal value, it functions as an idol.
So far, we have referred to two components of a novel event: the Ideal and the Actual; now we introduce the third component: Freedom.
Without existential freedom, no novel event would ever emerge in the ‘gap’. The Ideal would be ideal and the Actual would be actual and never the twain would meet. It is Freedom that makes possible the ‘bridging’ of that gap. The Ideal motivates an actual entity to transform its actual world; but Freedom empowers the entity to do so. In our model, freedom plays the role that physis plays in ancient Greek cosmology.
The Ideal has no power to compel or even propel; it can only attract. It is ‘existential freedom’ that enables an actual entity to ‘say’, “I know who I am and I know that I can be whatever I want to be.” This is the fundamental mantra, the baseline meme, of every novel event.
Interestingly, this is exactly what Yahweh says in Exodus 3:14: “I am what am.” God, as we shall see later, is an actual entity and therefore, like every other actual entity, existentially free. If we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26 & 5:1), then freedom is that image and that likeness.
Freedom is the Ideal in actu. It is freedom that turns the lure of the Ideal into action. Values constitute the essence of an actual entity but freedom constitutes its substance. In the vocabulary of Heidegger, values are the wasein of an actual entity (what it is), but freedom is its dasein (that it is).
Events are motivated by value so no actual entity would ever freely choose ‘less value’ over ‘more value’. Therefore, every actual entity, to the extent that it is free, pursues the Ideal. That is why we may call freedom ‘the Ideal in action’.
The universal preference for value is not a restraint on freedom, it is an expression of that freedom. It is freedom that powers the transformation of the Actual toward the Ideal. It is freedom that allows an actual entity to ‘be itself’.
Absent some external constraint, hot air rises, water seeks its own level, etc. Likewise, actual entities seek value. That’s what an actual entity is! When an entity is unable to pursue what it considers ‘good’, we call that ‘slavery’.
Slavery is the antithesis of freedom and it comes in many forms: the plantation economy, ‘wage slavery’ (Marx), bondage to a hostile government, imprisonment, mental illness,
personal addiction, etc. As we shall soon see, selfishness, the fetish of the self, is also slavery.
It is commonplace today to say that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We go farther. We say that a whole is also greater than the product of its parts, i.e. its parts and all their mutual interactions. And we go farther still: the whole is not a function of its parts at all; those parts are a function of the whole!
The actual entity (the whole) selects elements and acts on them based on its freely chosen identity: its purpose, its meaning, its superject. The whole does not evolve from its elements; it projects itself, one might even say ‘imposes itself’, on those elements.
But freedom is a double-edged sword. Social historians argue that pla