Electric Dreams

Whitehead's Process Theory and Dreaming

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2005 January). Whitehead's Process Theory and Dreaming.
Electric Dreams 12(1).

An illustrated version of this article is available at: http://dreamgate.com/pomo/whitehead_and_dreamwork.htm


AI = Adventure of Ideas
MT = Modes of Thought
PR = Process and Reality
PRr = Process and Reality, revised edition
SMW = Science and the Modern World

"Music is feeling, then, not sound" Wallace Stevens

"The basis of experience is emotional" Alfred North Whitehead


What is the stuff of which dreams are made? Are they completely mental material, cut off from the rest of matter by the prison house of sleep? Are dreams the final froth of a material brain heated by neurotransmissions? Are dreams more imagination, or memory, and what is the difference? Are dreams part of a third realm of stuff between mind and matter, like Neoplatonic psyche/anima/imagination? If dreams are just mental, or if dreams are psyche, how and where do they touch and influence the ideal above or matter below?

The placement of dreams in mind or matter is part of a great debate in Western culture that has deeply divided our thinking and is referred to as dualism, or the mind-body split. Our science has decided to look only at the body, and developed materialism has no place for the subject, only the object. If there is a subject, it says, it will eventually be explained as a kind of object. Even in quantum physics where observation becomes a factor, it is considered a problem and nuisance that we will eventually get past. This goes against the grain of our most direct experience, which is, experience. There is something or someone that experiences these objects which seems quite different than the objects experienced. This intuition is so strong that the opposite view to materialism has also been developed, that all is mind, and all objects are really object projected by our mind, or a great mind behind our mind. The third position, the most popular, is a dualism that holds that there is both experience and experiencer, and the object and subject are two distinctly different things. But just how they communicate becomes problematic. How does an object leap over to the subject? How does the subject's will shift from mental to physical?

It is with these problems that Whitehead's process theory becomes so valuable. For Whitehead, there is no matter, no mind. Not initially, anyway. These are both errors of abstract concreteness, where we have confused an abstract idea of something as being the real thing itself. Science, Whitehead says, is quite valuable, and has finally seen that matter is really a set of processes in motion, of events. But what science fails to see is that these processes are creative, experiential processes. Rather, science reverts back to its old notion that processes are just a new container for materials. Whitehead's process theory proposes a radically different stuff of which the universe is made, creative experience, or feelings. This doesn't mean that the world is just a projection of our own mind, but rather that the universe is a process of multitudes of experiencing individuals.

While most take experience to mean clear, distinct perceptions and ideas, Whitehead sees these, along with object consciousness, as derivative abstractions from our more basic experience of feeling. Since our bodies are not separate from our feelings, so too the individuated bodies of the whole world pass on their feelings. These feelings are not interpretations of the world, but direct nonsensory passages of subjectivity, of interiority, of what he calls occasions of experience, which can creatively synthesize and pass themselves on as novel feeling/thought/forms to subjects in the present who experience them anew. In fact, the experiencing subject will slip into the past and become this very object-once-subject. What we experience is ourselves that we were a moment ago, along with a synthesis other selves that were experiencing a moment ago.

Who Was Whitehead?

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), was an amazing, yet humble and reserved man, who had three separate careers. His first career was in England as a mathematician and teacher of at Trinity College, Cambridge. His interests were more in applied mathematics and mechanics, but his theoretical developments were impressive as well. He came up with a universal algebra, he worked with his student Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica, which attempted to reduce all math to logic, and he developed an alternative relativity to Einstein's, which wasn't dependent on the constant speed of light. In 1911 he moved to the University of London and eventually became an educational reformer and administrator. Instead of retiring in 1924, he moved his whole family to America and became a philosopher at Harvard, where he developed his unique Process Theory. His main biographer was Victor Lowe.


Whitehead's theory is a process theory. Though its popular now to assume the world is a process rather than an object, this was really something quite new a century ago. And Whitehead's view is still considered one of the most complex and advanced of all process theories. Whitehead lived during a time when science was rapidly revamping its views of about matter and energy. Einstein's convertibility equation, that matter and energy are one and the same thing, liquefied the universe. The whole idea of hard matter melted before us, as mountains became butter flowing out to sea. Yet the notions of matter and substance persisted. Atoms, molecules, electrons, these all hide in them the older notions of matter that goes bump. Processes were still seen as inert, dead matter occurring in space. Personal experience was seen by the sciences seen as an accidental byproduct.

For Whitehead, experience is primary, and precedes matter. Matter and substance, even forces and energy, are for him Johnny-come-lately products of our imagination that we have made up for our convenience and we now confuse with reality. However, his 'experience' is something quite unique and separate from human consciousness, though human consciousness is built up out of his primary experiences. For the moment, its best to think of experience as primitive feeling, or awareness with subjectivity and value, which may or may not reach consciousness.

Having experience as the primary unit or process of the world means for Whitehead that the internal or subjective aspect of life is returned to the world, and not set aside as it often is in materialism. All individuals, human or not, have experience. This is called panpsychism (pan = all, psychism = psyche) Whitehead is more often referred to as a panexperiencialist, as for him not everything has experience, only special units of process called 'individuals.' An individual can accept influences from the past as a whole, unified organism. Thus we might see individuals in many forms, as sub-atomic processes, atomic processes, molecules, and other beings/becomings that can take in the influences of the past as a unified whole, and give them a unique spin. Just how unique this spin may be will vary dramatically depending on how long an experience can last for an individual. Subatomic processes may have durations of billionth of a second, while an animal with memories may have experiences that last many seconds or longer. The longer one can maintain an experience, the greater the chance of giving it a unique spin. Obviously this kind of experience that an electron has is not the same as what we could call everyday object consciousness, where we can consciously identify tables, chairs, and people. Still, all individuals are composed of experience and receive previous experiences and creatively produce other novel experiences. I will consider the case of dream entities later, but for now, one might imagine a dream character as an entity being able to have feelings and therefore being able to synthesize unique experiences.

Whitehead calls these individual experiences 'actual entities'. They are "the final real things of which the world is made up. . . drops of experience, complex and interdependent" (PRr 27, 28). They are also called actual occasions, and occasions of experience, feelings, and prehensions, terms which will be explained below. A table would not be an individual actual entity, but rather is an aggregate of actual entities. So the table is swarming with a multitude of experience, but not as a whole. You or I have full body responses to the world and so have a dominate actual entity (think mind, but not as ghostly as a mind) as well as micro swarms of cellular and atomic and subatomic actual entities.

The next thing to know about actual entities is that they are subjects while in the present, and become objects after they move into the past. An atom (that is, a small actual entity at that level) in the table, for example, is in its present an experiencing individual, but then passes into being experienced. These actual entities pass their subjective feelings, their own unifications, directly into the next actual entity. In this way, subjectivity as well as objectivity is inherited by the present actual entity. We don't just get interpretable data, but we get the subjective feeling itself, primitive feelings that are the stuff of which the whole universe is made. Since all things are made of these feelings, we might say that we get objects directly as well, even if they are built up derivatives of actual entities. Only present time actual entities can experience, only past actual entities can be experienced. What they experience is other actual entities. In other words, we experience the world here in the present, though the world experienced is just past, and we feel it directly, its aim to continue in some particular way, and we also have some degree of freedom in passing on something novel as we are connected to the realm of alternatives and possibilities.


The term prehension was first used by Whitehead in relation with causality. (SMW, Chap 4). He was very unhappy with the notion that causality is seen as the bumping of external objects in space. Rather, Whitehead envisioned each event directly including within itself aspects of the events to which it responds temporally as well as spatially, and that it will react selectively towards these events. This process of response through creative incorporation is prehension. One might say it's the connecting of the actual with the possible in an individual evaluation, and individual event, an actual occasion.

Though actual entities are the fundamental stuff of which the universe is made, and can't be further divided ontologically, (can't really be divided) we can discuss conceptually the various parts of the process in terms of prehension. Prehending comes from apprehending, without the ape, or conscious animal mind, [Riker 1976] and refers to the grasping/receiving/synthesizing process of actual entities or actual occasions. What is prehended are other actual occasions, which have moved into the past and become objects (objects for other subjects, never material objects in a void). Note the temporal rather than spatial spin. What is at risk here in using such a word as 'object' is a fall back into external relations, of things going bump into one another. Rather, prehension is a process first, one that first takes an objective datum, which it subjectively unifies with other objective datum, and finally passes a unique datum back into objectivity.

As a quick model, we might say that here in the present, we experience a whole universe that influences us, and feel this whole thing as one unified thing. It is a multitude or multiplicity of influence that we synthesize into one new experience. And then when our present passes, we will pass this feeling-now-object on to all (individuals) who are experiencing us.

The Three Factors of Prehension.

Category of Explanation XI: "That every prehension [feeling] consists of three factors: (a) the 'subject' which is prehending, namely, the actual entity in which that prehension is a concrete element; (b) the 'datum' which is prehended; (c) the 'subjective form' which is *how* the subject prehends that datum." (PR pg.28)

Note that each prehension is three feelings in one. There is the feeler, the feeling being felt and the feeling of the feelers reaction to what is felt. As Nobo notes, prehension involves a process "in which the occasion unconsciously grasp the objective reality of earlier occasions as efficient causes of its own existence and as determinants of it own initial ingredient subjectivity. " (Nobo 229)

Further, a prehension may be divided into its physical and conceptual sides. In its physical form, the prehension is a datum from a previous actual entity. It is a "feeling of a feeling as felt elsewhere" (Leue, chap2). In this subjective form, the physical feeling is said to be conformal, meaning the subjective feeling is passed to the new actual entity. However, this passage or conformation is never complete. This subjective form of physical feeling/prehension is not a sensation nor developed human emotion, but rather more a direct feeling of a something, along with a sense of attraction or aversion.

In its conceptual form, the prehension selects from the many alternatives of the universe to individuate or define itself. There is no pure conceptual prehension. These alternatives, called eternal objects, are prehended as hybrids of physical/conceptual datum. That is, the eternal objects are not floating in space, but always come with each physical prehension. Some interpretations of these eternal objects see them like Archetypes or Platonic forms, but more recent interpretations point out that Whitehead did not see them this way at all and they always need to be discussed in relation to physical feelings. Eternal objects are not part of an ideal realm to which physical feelings conform, but rather are part of the pure world of becoming which is never actual nor complete. I think they are better seen as the time-space folds that alter and mutate in alternatives. That is, alternatives are falsely seen as objects of choice, rather than forces of alteration. The process allows the concressing of conceptual feeling to experiment with relevant alterations before actualizing. The process intuits into and experiments with the realm of possibility and selects the most relevant through valuing up or down. Dreamers often notice this in semi-lucid dreams where they are following their own story along in a dream narrative (I'm headed down to the river with a fishing pole to get some fish.) but notice side alternatives cropping up along the way (No, I'm not really going fishing, I'm going to get the boots I left. No, not the boots, the car I parked.). The final recalled dream will have a particular actual narrative, but these alternatives surround it at every turn. One gets the sense in these dreams that while it seems like we are revising the storyline, the more accurate description of what is happening is that the actual final storyline depends and rests on these alternatives or alternating forces.

Finally, the completed actual occasion has an aim. These aims are experienced by the next actual occasion as causes, or as Whitehead calls them, efficient causes. These aims must be addressed, but don't completely determine the actual occasion. Since this aim is the final cause of an actual entity, we might say that the feeling process is one of taking account of the universe and synthesizing a subjective purpose that is passed on.

And so the stuff of which the universe is made is a creaturely process, multiplicities of entities prehending the universe and carrying the universe forward in creative droplets of experience. There may be groups of actual occasions within larger actual occasions, as with the subatomic particles in an atom, the atoms in a molecule the molecules within a human being, a human within a society and societies within worlds.

How Does This Make Any Difference?

Sensory and Nonsensory Perception

Sensory perception is derivative from two earlier modes of experience, 1. perception in the mode of causal efficacy (physical prehension in the language of perception) , and 2. perception in the mode of presentational immediacy (sense-like data).

Perception in the mode of causal efficacy is nonsensory, primitive feeling directly of the world. Whitehead interpreter, David Ray Griffin, suggests that we, as experiencing actual entities, get this directly from our brain, almost in a psychokinetic way, and thus from the nervous system of our whole body. However it is, it is direct, thus a subjective perception, pre-sensory, a feeling. "In prehending my body, for example, I prehend some of its parts as causally efficacious for my own experience. " [Griffin, World Knot, Pg.133] That is, we directly get the world as being important in the flow of causal influence. This includes pleasures and pains, but also a priori categories and external sensory perception. Extrasensory perception takes on a new meaning as well, as direct nonsensory perception needed be limited by traditional views of causality being the bumping up of material objects and their wave patterns. (see Griffin, Archetypal Process and essays by Dave Pleasants). Whitehead cites immediate memory as an example of nonsensual perception. Not long term memory, which is filled in with abstractions, but something more like the memory that allows me to not forget the point as I complete this sentence. It is the immediate visceral grasp of the world.

Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is similar to sense data and more derivative than casual efficacy. Visually it would include space, shape and colors. We know we see yellow, but not why or from whence it came. Yet it defines an area that separates it from the rest of our visual field.

Sensory perception combines casual efficacy and presentational immediacy, and might be termed presentation in the mode of symbolic reference. If we say, "Oh, that's the yellow sun." then we may or may not be correct. It might be something else, and it might be we are imagining it rather than seeing it. I can't be wrong that I saw or imagined yellow, and that I had direct primitive feelings about it, but the symbolic mode introduces interpretive possibilities and errors.

Thus, while only more complex creatures may have presentational immediacy and symbolic reference, all individuals, down to subatomic particles, perceive in the mode of causal efficiency. That is, from the most complex to the simplest organism, there is emotional, appetitive, purposive experience.

There is no reason not to extend this to imaginal creatures as well. In dreams, the debate as to whether our dream characters are really projections of our selves or autonomous creatures often arises. The question in process theory then becomes somewhat different. Its doesn't matter whether our dream entities are projections or independent residents, but rather what actual entities are operative and dominate. That is, the question becomes whether these entities can feel and experience. If they can, then they are as 'real' as any other actual entity in the universe. How long they exist, whether or not they disappear when we wake up or go on living in their own dimensions is irrelevant. Experiences of subatomic particles may be counted in billionths of a second. The relevant question is just as with other societies, how to best help people fulfill their destinies and actualize their potentials.

Panpsychism, Again

There is a radical difference in the way we treat objects vs. subject in dreamwork, but these differences all shift when we see the dream as the carrier and unique synthesizer of experience.

Of course, one wonders what evidence might exist for experience existing in non-living individuals in nature. The basic argument goes as follows; we never encounter in life a element or piece of life that is just hanging around in the void, separate from experience. Even a dream of a void with nothing, if reported, was experienced. Speculations of objects located spatially beyond experience must all be speculated about from experience. We cannot think about relations without experience. We can deny this aspect of the relation (I'm imagining a void without anyone imagining it) but it remains in every equation of relation. For Whitehead, it follows that instead of assuming that the rest of the world besides ourselves *don't* experience, that it is a more sane assumption to understand that all individuals *do* have experience, no matter how primitive, and that the world is their relation to one another.

What is What

The fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which was discussed above as when one confuses the processes of the world with more derivative objects, is essential to Whitehead's argument. Or more accurately, this view surrounds the issues that process theory addresses. The only truly fundamental items of the universe are experiences, actual occasions. Notions of force, atoms, photons, electrons and the like are abstract entities that we have created to understand the world, and not parts of the fundamental structure of the world. And for Whitehead, problematic units as well, since they describe realty without reference to experience. It may serve us to not confuse actual entities and the societies they produce with the multitude of objects void of experience with which we have inhabited our world. In dreamwork, this is somewhat more difficult on one side and yet simple on the other. Tables, windows and other aggregate objects in waking life, unable as wholes to respond with any creative unity, may be actual entities in our dreams, capable of very create feelings. On the other hand, dreamworkers are very aware that dreams are already experience.

Mind-Body Dualism

Because actual entities are subjects in the present, objects in the past, the mind-body issue is dramatically shifted. Instead of wondering how mind stuff over here gets connected with body stuff over there, in process theory, everything is mind in present, and body in the past. The division is not here and there, but now and then. Again, dreamworkers are acutely aware of how the present feeling manifests as a reality in the next moment that can be experienced. Also, dreamworkers are not surprised by dreams enduring beyond sleep in the form of complex images, thoughts and feelings. By focusing on these dreams, the relevancy of their actual occasions allows them to connect directly with life, other dreamers, and the universe.


Actual occasion: an enduring moment of experience, a unifying process, a feeling. Also called an actual entity, and sometimes just called feeling, where something is felt, and felt with affective tone.

Concrescence: the process by which actual entities prehend other actual entities and then form new occasions. Kline suggests 'concrescence' to mean the internal adventure of becoming of the final real things, and 'concretum' to refer to the objectified actual occasion, the past product of a present concrescent process.

Causal Efficacy: The direct, nonsensual prehension of the past. "Sympathy, that is, feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformally with another" (PRr 246). Perception in the mode of causal efficacy is a vague but powerful emotion. " . . . in the silence, the irresistible causal efficacy of nature presses itself upon us . . . the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us" (PRr 267). It is "our general sense of existence, as one item among others, in an efficacious actual world" (PRr 271).

Eternal Objects: Conceptual objects (rather than subjects) in a state of potentiality. They enter into the actual entity becoming concrete without themselves being actual. Eternal objects (alternative non-actuals) enter into the concrescence of an actual entity through valuation, as a hierarchy. Alternatives are selected, some as more relevant than others, but to become actual, the occasion must become definite. "Potentiality becomes reality; and yet retains its message of alternatives which the actual entity has avoided" (PRr 226).

Prehension: The way a feeling or actual occasion grasps the world, at the same time, as an object and a subjective feeling. "The word perceive is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word apprehension, even with the adjective cognitive omitted. I will use the word prehension for uncognitive apprehension: by this I mean apprehension which may or may not be cognitive."SMW., p. l0l.

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