Chapter Five–On The Nature Of The Subtle Worlds

We have now succeeded in accounting for the physical world as that system of factors of Fact which is disclosed by sense awareness; characterized by a uniform, metrically geometrical structure of spacetime; and dominated by societies of percipient events (actual occasions) that are sufficiently simple and regular in the rules by which their interactions are governed to support the existence of rulers and clocks.

What the senses disclose is only a part of Fact, and the physical world is only a tiny part of that. The subtle worlds comprise those factors of fact that are sensory, but which do not fit into the dominant spacetime continuum. This subset of the factors of fact disclosed by sense awareness does not come to us through the physical sense organs. But it is, nonetheless, sensation. This is what we call subtle sensations. The physical world is an order that we experience among those sensations disclosed by the physical sense organs. The subtle worlds are orders that we experience among those sensations disclosed by the subtle senses. As we will see, the range and depth of the worlds that we can access through these subtle senses is quite vast.

The Modes of Subtle Sensation

There are numerous modes in which we can experience subtle sensations.


During our normal waking life, the subtle sensations recede into the background of consciousness, and the attention is monopolized by the sensations coming through the physical senses. Even during waking life, however, we are not infrequently interrupted by subtle sensations that demand our attention in the mode of memory , fantasy, or thoughts that we hear in our minds. We will call this background of drama and thought that finds its expression in the visual sensations, the tactile feelings, the auditory mumblings, and the occasional smells and tastes of our own non-physical experience “imagination.” Except in periods of samadhi,138 all of us experience some degree of imagination all of the time.

Daydreams and Active Imagination

Sometimes, our attention can get so drawn in by these subtle experiences that our attention to the outer world dims. It is almost as if we really are wherever it is that our imagination has taken us. We are then daydreaming. Daydreams tend to happen without much volition. We fall into them, and they may even become compulsive and tormenting. We can also engage the daydreaming function with greater intentionality, and thus enter into those states that are explored in the “active imagination” cultivated by Jung and his followers. Generally, when we are daydreaming or doing active imagination, even if the imaginal space dominates our attention, it is accompanied by a rather strong background awareness of physical sensation and of the physical world to which that sensation connects us. While we are daydreaming, we know where we are in the physical world, and we can respond to exigencies that arise in our physical environment.


If, however, we allow the subtle sensations to sufficiently monopolize our attention, we may lose track of the physical sensations to a very large degree. Most often, when this happens, we fall asleep. In our experience there is an abrupt transition between daydream and full dreaming. Quite suddenly, we forget our waking life completely. We find ourselves living through a situation in a world strangely unlike our own, a world that – while we are there – we take entirely for granted. It is as if we had always been there, and as if we were a natural denizen of that world. While we are there, that world is utterly real.

Lucid Dreams and Out-of-Body Experiences

Many people report lucid dreams. In lucid dreams, we enter into the experience of dreaming without losing the memory of waking life. When the dreamer says “I am dreaming,” he or she, though immersed in the dream environment, is remembering (and anticipating) the waking experience. In lucid dreams, it becomes possible to bring to bear the kind of mental purposefulness that we can, at our best, bring to bear in our waking lives, but we are doing so in a subtle world that is disclosed by subtle senses. Out of body experiences resemble lucid dreams, but often include a memory of leaving and observing the physical body while in a subtle body, and often take place in worlds which closely resemble the physical world. Lucid dreams can, however, merge into experiences in realities that less resemble the physical world and are more ‘dreamlike.’139

Occult and Mystical Experiences

Theosophical texts140 suggest that lucid dreams and out of body experiences, are just the outer fringes of the subtle worlds. They suggest that the subtle senses can offer us a vast array of illuminating experiences. Sri Aurobindo, who is our primary spokesperson for the occult tradition, says:

There is … a movement inward by which, instead of living in our surface mind, we break the wall between our external and our now subliminal self; this can be brought about by a gradual effort and discipline or by a vehement transition, sometimes a forceful involuntary rupture,—the latter by no means safe for the limited human mind accustomed to live securely only within its normal limits,—but in either way, safe or unsafe, the thing can be done. What we discover within this secret part of ourselves is an inner being, a soul, an inner mind, an inner life, an inner subtle-physical entity which is much larger in its potentialities, more plastic, more powerful, more capable of a manifold knowledge and dynamism than our surface mind, life or body; especially, it is capable of a direct communication with the universal forces, movements, objects of the cosmos, a direct feeling and opening to them, a direct action on them and even a widening of itself beyond the limits of the personal mind, the personal life, the body, so that it feels itself more and more a universal being no longer limited by the existing walls of our too narrow mental, vital, physical existence. This widening can extend itself to a complete entry into the consciousness of cosmic Mind, into unity with the universal Life, even into a oneness with universal Matter.141

Sri Aurobindo goes so far as to suggest that a thorough exploration of these subtle realms is one way that human beings can, ultimately, fulfill the evolutionary project by discovering their fundamental identity with the Divine source of the whole of existence.142

This brief survey of the modes in which we can experience subtle sensations is sufficient to indicate both their variety and their importance. But modern thought has relegated these experiences to a shadowy, private existence on the ‘inside’ of subjects who are thought to enjoy objective existence only in the one, real, outer physical world.

It is, of course, undeniable that the physical world obtrudes with great authority on our waking lives. As we have seen, even Whitehead, in spite of his desire to account for science on entirely empirical grounds, at one point considered the possibility that physical objects (non-delusive perceptual objects) might be characteristics which events can have for themselves alone. If physical objects (and, by extension, scientific objects) are characteristics which events can have for themselves alone then they are “true Aristotelian adjectives.” The logic governing the ingression of Aristotelian adjectives into events is the simple, two-termed logic of substance and attribute. This logic is dear both to common sense and to scholastic philosophy. It is much neater and simpler than is the more complex polyadic logic of Fact.

If we imagine perceptual objects as Aristotelian adjectives, then they begin to strongly resemble the inert, self-existing, substantial things of materialism. The events in which they are ingressed come to seem like the furniture of a real, solid world and sense objects come to seem like ambassadors from that world into the complex, shifting, half-real world of experience to which we poor conscious beings are limited. If we think about reality in this way, then only those sense objects which are somehow in direct contact with physical objects tell us anything about the real world. The rest of the sense impressions must be indirectly produced by the scientific objects which analysis of the data of the physical senses reveals. This is the position of the materialists to which we have alluded numerous times in the course of this essay.

We have been exploring a line of inquiry which stays within the realm of concrete experience, and the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds to which this approach lends support. According to the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, our subtle sensations are not complex echoes of physical sensations, they are rather the effects of real, external, subtle worlds of events that are entering into the perceptual process of our bodies in those worlds. According to the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, the worlds in which we imagine, dream, lucid dream and leave our bodies are worlds that have just as much claim to external reality as does the physical world in which we lead our waking lives.

This assertion necessarily focuses our attention on the meaning of the phrase “external world.” What do we actually mean when say that the world is “external?” While the externality of the world seems quite obvious and simple, it is one of those taken-for-granted elements of common sense that is extremely difficult to put into words. Whitehead, in An Inquiry into the Principles of Natural Knowledge, has undertaken an exploration of this issue in terms of what he calls “the six constants of externality.”143

The Six Constants of Externality

The constants of externality are a description of those characteristics which a factor of Fact possesses when we assign to it the “property of being an observation of the passage of external nature.”144

The first of these constants is “the belief that what has been apprehended as a continuum, is a potentially definite complex of entities for knowledge.”145 To see what Whitehead is getting at here, we must remember that in the perceptual process, factors of Fact are first discriminated in awareness before they are thought about or perceived. Mere awareness, like the consciousness of a newborn infant, is a highly fluid process. It does not discriminate one thing from another. It is an experience of a field of shifting values without clear boundaries and without clear definition. In awareness, all relations are internal. In other words, when a factor is first discriminated, it is not yet separated from the whole, restless, background of Fact in which it is implicated. It is only with thought, which focuses on the contrast between the factor in question and the field of other factors in which it is implicated, that objects and events are discriminated, and entities, which are mutually external things, emerge into consciousness. Thus, when we say that we are dealing with an external world, we are saying that we have to do with a system of factors which can, in thought, be resolved into a complex of definite entities, or discrete events.

The second constant is the relation of extension. The events that make up an external world are, as the first condition stipulates, discrete. In order to make up an external world, however, they must be not only discrete, but also systematically interrelated. In common sense, we think of the framework within which mutually discrete events interrelate as the structure of space and time. As we have seen, however, space and time are not, per se, factors of Fact. The factors of Fact that we perceive resolve themselves, in thought, into events and objects. The neutral container which we imagine when we speak of space and time is neither an event nor an object. However, as we established in Chapter Four, what we mean by space and time, both in common sense usage and in scientific usage, can be understood as an abstraction derived from the ways in which events extend over, or include one another. The first and second constants together stipulate that an external world is one which can be resolved into a collection of discrete events which are systematically interrelated in that they include, or extend over one another.

The third constant of externality is that every event which is part of an external world must be apprehended as related to a specious present which extends over it, and over all of nature now present, both discerned and discernable. The fourth constant is that this specious present is associated with a percipient event. These two constants jointly stipulate that every event which is part of an external world is experienced in the context of what we have been calling a ‘duration.’

The realization that every event belonging to an external world is structured as a duration is a decisive clarification of the notion of externality. The notion of externality is somewhat paradoxical because, in our common sense usage, it wavers uncertainly between two different ideas. On one hand, when we say ‘the external world’, we are implicitly contrasting that world with something else that is ‘internal.’ In this sense, the external world is the ‘outer’ world, as opposed to the ‘inner’ world. This inner world is the world of our own private experience. Since, however, all of our direct experience is, in some important sense, private and inner, the implication here is that the inner world contains the outer world. On the other hand, in our common sense dealings with the world, we often consider it in abstraction from our experience of it. Thus we tend to imagine the external world as self-existing and as containing the perceptual event by means of which it is known. Thus common sense implies that the external world contains us and our experience of it, and that our experience contains the external world.

As we have seen, Whitehead’s strict empiricism insists that we examine nature in terms of the full, concrete reality of our experience of it, and this full concrete reality is always an internal experience of an external world. Without the subjectivity of the percipient event, there is no external world. Without an external world to experience, there is no internal experience. Thus the phrase ‘external world’ turns out to be shorthand for ‘internal-external world.’ In our experience we contain a world of events, and that world contains one particular event, a percipient event, by virtue of which we participate in that world. Thus Whitehead’s definition of externality as essentially involving durations does justice to the full paradoxical complexity of the common sense use of the term ‘external world.’

The fifth constant of externality is what Whitehead calls ‘cogredience.’ As we saw in Chapter Four, Whitehead defines cogredience as follows: “when the specious present is properly limited, there is a definite univocal meaning to the relation ‘here within the duration’ of the percipient event to the duration.”146 On the face of it, this constant seems technical and uninteresting. If we look at it more closely, however, it is rather remarkable. If you look around yourself at this moment, you will notice that you are right at the center of your own perceptual field. If you then get up and walk across the room, you will still be at the center of your own perceptual field. It is as if each of us walks around in a little bubble of perception, and we are always just exactly at the center of it. Within any sufficiently brief span of time, within the single glimpse of simultaneous nature that constitutes a duration, ‘here’ does not change. In addition, we can observe other events within the duration which hold constant relationships to the ‘here.’ For example, within the particular duration that is transpiring as I write this word, I am ‘here,’ and my desk, the other furniture in the room, and the walls of the room remain in a fixed relationship to the ‘here.’ It is this fixed scheme of spatial relations around the unambiguous ‘here’ of the percipient event that Whitehead designates with the term ‘cogredience.’ Without assuming cogredience, Whitehead cannot abstract a geometrical scheme of relations from the structure of durations. Cogredience holds within the physical world. As we will see, however, this is the one constant of externality that does not hold in subtle worlds.

The sixth constant of externality is that there is a “community of nature.” Whitehead says: “[t]his sixth constant arises from the fragmentary nature of perceptual knowledge. There are breaks in individual perception, and there are distinct streams of perception corresponding to diverse percipients. For example, as one percipient awakes daily to a fresh perceptual stream, he apprehends the same external nature which can be comprised in one large duration extending over all his days. Again the same nature and the same events are apprehended by diverse percipients. . ..”147 This is, of course, an important part of what we mean by an external world. As we have seen, scientific thinking tends to satisfy this requirement by considering the outer world in abstraction from the fact that it is perceived, and this leads to the “bifurcation of nature” into a realm of “real” events characterized by Aristotelian adjectives and a shadowy, private, half-real world of conscious perception. We have rather satisfied this requirement by making two key assumptions. First, that every event comes into being by “prehending,” or perceiving, its environment, so that the community of nature is fundamentally an intersubjective community. Secondly, by virtue of the ways in which events participate in each other’s constitution, they form communities of pattern that endure, and so provide a context in which the fragmentary perceptions of individuals can be ordered over time.

To summarize this discussion: An external world is a system, or community, of events, experienced in the context of a duration. These events can, in thought, be discriminated as discrete entities which extend over one another. A duration is the experience of an event that is socially situated in a percipient event through which it perceives the rest of the world. When there is ‘cogredience,’ the percipient event occupies an unequivocal ‘here’ within its associated duration. We now have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what we mean by an external world. We know that the physical world is external in this sense since we have derived these requirements precisely by an examination of that world. Let us now turn our attention to the subtle worlds as we have defined them above, and see to what extent they, too, can be considered external worlds.

The Externality of Subtle Worlds

It is certainly the case that the subtle worlds are very different from the physical world. We will shortly examine the nature of these differences in some detail. But if we consider the subtle worlds with the constants of externality in mind, the extent to which they apply is immediately apparent.

Imagination, dream, active imagination, lucid dream, out-of body experience, and all occult experiences are organized in terms of durations. In every such experience, there is a specious present. In every such experience, there is some sense of presence in a world of events, and that presence is organized around a point of view which is defined by a percipient event. In other words, there is a strong sense in which we are in the events that we imagine, and even more clearly, we are in dreams and, in dreams, we occupy dream bodies. In these subtle modes of perception, we clearly retain the ability to discriminate, in terms of objects, a system of discrete events, and those events clearly are involved in spatiotemporal relationships and do, therefore, exhibit relations of extension. Finally, we meet other subjects in subtle experiences, and those other subjects interact with us around common objects in a way that is quite analogous to our experiences in waking life. We have already seen that a consistent accounting of waking life as a system of factors of Fact suggests that all events are ultimately composed of percipient events and, thus, that all of reality is intersubjective. This logic applies at least as forcefully in dreams as it does in the physical world.

In all of these ways, subtle worlds manifest an externality analogous to that of the physical world. There are ways, however, in which the externality of the subtle worlds is quite different from that of the physical. We will now examine those differences.

How the Externality of the Subtle Worlds Differs from the Externality of the Physical World.

The Breakdown of Cogredience in Subtle Worlds

Perhaps the most striking difference between the physical world and the subtle worlds is that in the subtle worlds there is a breakdown of cogredience. Cogredience, as we have seen, is the unequivocal ‘here’ of the percipient event within the specious present. In imagination, and dream there is a breakdown of cogredience in several senses. First, especially in imagination, there can often be a sense of being suspended between worlds. On the one hand, I am sitting here at my desk. On the other hand, my attention is ‘a million miles away,’ in some more or less colorful daydream. When the experience of imagination becomes sufficiently distinct, there can be a sense of inhabiting two percipient events at once, one physical and one subtle. While each percipient event may define its own unique ‘here’ within its respective duration, the possibility of being simultaneously cogredient in more than one duration begins to complexify our sense of cogredience. Secondly, cogredience breaks down in an even more flagrant sense within subtle durations themselves. Consider our experiences in dreams, where we sometimes say “I was that character, or maybe I was that other character, or maybe I was both.” Or we say “I was having the dream, but simultaneously I was watching it as if from outside.” In either of these situations, it becomes very difficult to find an unambiguous definition of ‘here in the duration,’ and the task of measurement becomes difficult, if not impossible.

It is because there is a breakdown of cogredience in subtle worlds that we often assume that subtle worlds are part of our private experience. We assume that an objective world is necessarily a world with the rigid geometrical structures of waking life. But, in terms of our analysis of Fact, there is no convincing reason to hold to this assumption. Remember that every duration extends over an indefinitely large number of events. The percipient event is some set of those events which define the perspective of the duration on the rest. But, as Whitehead often remarks, the percipient event (what we usually call “our body”) cannot be marked off from the other events comprising the duration with any great degree of exactitude. Thus there is a sense in which all of the events comprising the duration are, to some degree, part of the percipient event.

There is no metaphysical necessity which dictates that that set of events which, in a given duration, defines a perspective on the rest, needs to be a compact physical object with a unique position and continuity of location within or among durations. There is no reason that it cannot simultaneously occupy more than one position, and no requirement that it needs to move along continuous trajectories. In fact, as we will see, this breakdown of cogredience is exactly what we would expect given the characteristics that we will discover in the objects which tend to be ingredient in events that can be discriminated in subtle worlds.

Cogredience is the only one of the six constants of externality that is violated in subtle worlds. The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds suggests that this requirement is not an actual constant of externality per se. It is rather a characteristic of that particular mode of externality that permits measurement, and which defines that system of factors of Fact disclosed in sense awareness that comprises the physical world.

In Chapter One, it was suggested that we cannot operate consciously in subtle worlds until we learn to differentiate self from other in those worlds as we now make that discrimination in the physical world. We are, at this point, in a position to state more precisely what we mean by ‘differentiating self from other.’ To separate self from other in a given world is to designate for ourselves those events in that world that constitute the percipient event in terms of which we define our standpoint there. If, as we are suggesting, the percipient event in subtle worlds can simultaneously occupy more than one location, then the cognitive skills necessary for differentiating the percipient events there will be very different from the cognitive skills that are required here in the physical domain. This is probably one of the chief obstacles that we face in attempting to operate more consciously in subtle worlds.

Spacetime in Subtle Worlds

In Chapter Four, we saw that measurement is only possible in a continuum which is structured as a uniform spacetime characterized by a metrical geometry. We saw, too, that Whitehead was able – given a percipient event cogredient with its duration – to abstract such a geometrical framework from the structure of durations. We see now that cogredience does not hold in subtle worlds. The question before us, then, is how we can understand the spacetime structure of those worlds.

Let us pause to remember that physics identifies the physical world with the configuration of material processes distributed throughout space at a given instant of time. The utility of this particular abstraction is attested to by the undeniable successes that physics has enjoyed over the past few centuries. Because the abstractions of physics can be pulled out of the structure of durations, the process of accounting for the physical world as a system of factors of Fact in no way excludes the insights of physics. Even in the physical world, however, this abstract space with its discrete, instantaneous times is not a fully adequate description of spacetime. In fact, if we fall into misplaced concreteness, and if we imagine the abstractions that underlie research in physics to be ultimate descriptions of what is real, we immediately run into difficulty. The problem is that if reality consists of elements which exist only at isolated point of space, it is difficult to understand how those elements can come to interact with each other (this is the problem of “action at a distance”), and if those elements exist only at single instants of time, it is difficult to establish any causal connection between those elements and other elements which precede or succeed them.148 Further, if we take these abstractions too seriously, we are hard pressed to account for physical variables such as acceleration – which do not display themselves at a single instant. Thus neither “action at a distance,” nor causal interactions, nor properties which display themselves only over time, can be accounted for if we take too seriously the abstractions of physics.149 These considerations require a deeper look at the nature of spacetime within the physical world itself, and we will have to do that work before we can return to the issue of spacetime in the subtle worlds.

When we look at a world within the domain of Fact, what we discern is a system of interacting events. These events are organized into a system by the ways in which they include, or extend over one another. Thus every event finds within itself a multiplicity of other events, and these events are discerned as extending over one another. A great deal of Whitehead’s work – particularly in Process and Reality – is an exploration of this interaction among events. In order to clarify the characteristics of spacetime in subtle worlds, we will have to review some of Whitehead’s ideas about this interaction among events, and to introduce some of his indispensable technical vocabulary.

Each event is either an actual occasion of experience, or else it is a collection of actual occasions that share some defining characteristic. An actual occasion is a specious present, and it always has some finite temporal depth. As we have seen, each actual occasion is a unified experience of a multiplicity of events. Whitehead describes these occasions as a process by means of which the settled past is brought from the status of an original multiplicity into the unity of a single experience. It is this unity which is experienced by future occasions as an event which they, in their turn, can take into their own constitutions. In Whitehead’s technical language, each actual occasion begins with the “prehension” of an “initial datum” which comprises a multiplicity of events. It proceeds through a process of “concrescence” by means of which that original multiplicity is welded into a unified experience which is the “final satisfaction” of the concrescence. It is this final satisfaction which is “objectified,” and so becomes available for prehension by future occasions. The details of concrescence are intricate and endlessly fascinating, but we need not examine them in our current context. In order to understand the relationship between the spacetime of the physical world and the spacetimes of subtle worlds, however, we need to become clear about the full richness of the notion of “prehension.” The term prehension is an attempt to name the most concrete reality of the relationship which events have to one another within the domain of Fact.

An event is a differentiated collection of factors, and factors emerge out of the background of Fact by the operation of awareness. For one event to prehend another is for one event to become aware of another. Fact is the totality of all experience. Awareness is a factor of consciousness, and consciousness is the primordial factor of Fact by virtue of which it is experience instead of vacuous actuality. Thus, every prehension is an experience. As we shall see, however, there is much more to prehension than bare experience. The notion of experience can be abstracted from prehension if we bracket out or ignore the other qualities and functions of prehensions in the full functioning of occasions.

Prehension is not just simple awareness. It is, rather, as we know from our own prehensions, rich with the texture of personal relationship and valuation. If, however, we bracket out, or abstract from both the quality of awareness and from the personal richness (which Whitehead calls the “subjective form”), there does remain a kind of bare relationship of proximity. This is the relation of extension. Thus extension, too, is an abstraction from prehension.

Whitehead points out that the prehensions an occasion has of its initial datum are not the only prehensions which occur in concrescence. There are prehensions of prehensions, and there are prehensions of contemporary events and even prehensions of future events.150 But, if we restrict our attention to prehensions of the initial datum, then we see also a deep connection between efficient causation and prehension. The events which an occasion initially prehends are the occasions of which it is an experience, and out of which it arises. This initial datum immediately precedes that occasion in the “creative advance” (the ongoing emergence of occasions of experience from which time is an abstraction), and forms that portion of the past which most strongly contributes its element of definiteness to the new occasion. The occasions comprising the initial datum are, thus, the efficient cause of the occasion. From this point of view, efficient causation is an abstraction from the notion of the prehension of the initial datum.

Memory is also an abstraction from the notion of the prehension of the initial datum. This idea will require some exploration. One of the things that we mean by remembering is “having an experience of a past event.” The events that we remember may have preceded us in the creative advance at some remove (they may be part of the distant past), or they may have reached their own final satisfactions just as our present occasion of experience began (they may be in the immediate past). If I prehend an event which took place a week ago, that is a memory. If I prehend an event that took place an hour ago, that is a memory. If I prehend an event which took place a second ago, that is a memory. If I prehend an event that took place immediately before the present occasion of experience, and is part of its initial datum,151 then that is also, in some important sense, a memory. This way of thinking considerably blurs the distinction between what we usually call perception and what we usually call memory.

Now it might seem that by memory we actually mean more than just prehension of a past event. We might try to sharpen the contrast between prehension of past events and memory by noting that memory is not just an experience of a past event, but rather an experience of a past experience. In this sense, a memory is a present experience of a past experience. But we are assuming that every event is, in its concrescence (or process of formation) an experience. Thus every prehension of an event in the initial datum is an experience of a past experience, and so even in this stronger sense of memory, memory and prehension of the initial datum are indistinguishable.

Finally, we might try to salvage the distinction between prehension and memory by restricting memory to the experience that an occasion has of some particular occasion in its immediate past. We might, that is, say that memory is the experience of “my own” experience in the past. But this raises the question as to what qualifies a particular past event as “my own.”

Whitehead does acknowledge that our various prehension of past events differ among themselves in respect of their fullness. We can understand this difference in two different, complementary ways. On one hand, past events are prehended in the current occasion by means of some subset of the objects which they, in their own concrescence, ingressed. For example, I may prehend a far distant boulder only insofar as it ingresses the simple sensory object that is a miniscule blot in my visual field, but I may prehend the boulder on which I am sitting insofar as it ingresses a very complex perceptual object including many visual and tactile elements. On the other hand, Whitehead deduces that prehensions of the initial datum must also conform to some element of the subjective form of the prehensions of which they are objectifications. In other words when an actual occasion prehends a past event, it feels, to some extent, the feelings that the past occasions felt. This sounds somewhat strained when we imagine interactions among inorganic occasions, but there is no doubt that our memories come complete with the feelings that they aroused at the time they were formed, and, while we can change our minds and change our moods within any given occasion of experience, we always start each moment just where the last moment left off, both in terms of what we are perceiving and in terms of what we are feeling about those perceptions. Thus, insofar as we have intimate memories of our own past experience, we are demonstrating the capacity to prehend in a very concrete way the subjective forms of past occasions of experience.

In Whitehead’s terms, past events “objectify” in present occasions with varying degrees of concreteness. An objectification is more concrete to the extent that it includes more elements of the final satisfaction of the objectified occasion, and to the extent that it includes more of the subjective form of the final satisfaction. Beings such as ourselves do seem to achieve a peculiar concreteness of objectification for one particular event in the immediate past, and we call that particular event “our own.” But in any case, within the conceptual framework which we are exploring, even memory in this special sense is just a peculiarly complete prehension of a past event, different only in degree, but not in fundamental structure, from the experience of other immediately past events.

The point of the current discussion is to establish that the full concrete relation which, in Fact, binds durations into a system is such that extension, inclusion, experience, efficient causation, and memory are all abstractions from its fullness. The recognition of prehension as the fully concrete relation among events enables us to overcome a great deal of philosophical perplexity. Since events arise out of their prehensions of the past, they are not “simply located” at a specific point in spacetime, and causal relations are internal to their very being. Thus the understanding of events as “prehensive unifications,” unlike an ontology of substances, can deal very effectively with the problem of causality. Since events arise by experiencing other events, an ontology prehending events situates consciousness in the heart of being, and so overcomes the duality of mind and matter. Finally, an ontology of causality as being inseparable from the experience of past experiences, builds memory into the very heart of being, and thus saves us from having invent elaborate and complex mechanisms of data storage. If, on the other hand, we forget that extension, efficient causation, and memory are abstractions from the complex structure of concrescence, then we find ourselves unable to reassemble them into a coherent accounting for the real world that we actually do experience.

If, we keep the concrete fullness of prehension in mind, then our view of spacetime is considerably modified. Spacetime is no longer an objectively existing container, it is rather something much richer, which we can describe in at least three different ways. First, spacetime is an abstract description of the patterns in which the events that we experience include one another. As we have seen, an actual occasion concresces by unifying the experience of a diversity of events (the initial datum), all of which are in its immediate past. These events are patterned, and the simplest relation among them is that of extension. I discern a desk, and that desk extends over its surface, its legs, and so forth. Given cogredience, I can abstract from the relations of extension obtaining among a system of such events a geometrical structure of spacetime.

Secondly, spacetime is an abstract description of the pathways for the transmission of efficient causation. An analysis of the structure of actual occasions in relation to the passage of nature tells us that those events from which it originates are the legacy of the past in the present. The desk which I see is my experience of the desk as it was a fraction of a second ago. An occasion of experience comes into being as a process of appropriating the past, but it does not appropriate the entirety of the past, rather it appropriates only the immediate past. The events included in or extended over by my current duration are past events, and they, themselves, include or extend over events from their immediate past, and so forth. The efficient causes of the current duration are those past events over which it extends. Those events are at once its immediate neighborhood in the spacetime past and its efficient causes. They themselves grew out of their own immediate neighborhoods, and the indefinite continuation of this process of nesting extensions is spacetime considered as the route of transmission for the efficient causes giving rise to the current occasion.

Thirdly, spacetime is an abstract description of the way in which our memory of the past is ordered. This follows from the way in which extension, experience and efficient causation are all abstractions from one concrete relation. If a duration necessarily experiences its efficient causes, then those causes are experiences of the past, and experiences of the past are memories.

In the foregoing discussion, we made the assumption that the distant past can be clearly distinguished from the immediate past, but in light of the way in which we have now blurred the distinction between perception and memory, this assumption needs to be more closely examined. What, indeed, is the difference between a prehension of an event which occurred last week and an event which occurred a microsecond ago? We generally assume that prehension of events that are more distant is mediated by events that are closer to hand. And yet, as we have seen, all prehension of past events is similar in its structure, and prehensions of events in the distant past have, on the face of it, just as much right to be considered elements of the initial datum as do events in the very recent past. Let us say that I am walking down the aisle in a supermarket when I suddenly remember a past occasion, earlier in the day, on which I was strongly desiring a piece of chocolate. Abruptly I change directions and head for the candy section. The occasion of experience in which the memory occurs prehends that past occasion of desire, and thus it extends over, or includes that occasion. That remembered occasion is certainly experienced in the current occasion, and it no doubt functions as an efficient cause contributing its quota of definiteness to the concrescence. How, then, is it different from my prehension of the immediately preceding moment of walking down the supermarket aisle?

To clarify this vexing point, it will be necessary to look more deeply at the notion of extension. Up to this point, we have left the notion of extension or inclusion relatively undefined. But a precise definition of extension is crucial to an understanding of the nature of spacetime, both in the physical world and in subtle worlds. In a remarkable passage from An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, Whitehead tells us:

Every element of space or of time (as conceived in science) is an abstract entity formed out of this relation of extension (in association at certain stages with the relation of cogredience) by means of a determinate logical procedure (the method of extensive abstraction). The importance of this procedure depends on certain properties of extension which are laws of nature depending on empirical verification. There is, so far as I know, no reason why they should be so, except that they are. 152 (Italics added for emphasis)

The particular properties of extension to which Whitehead here refers are not difficult to understand. Common sense gives us a fairly clear notion of these properties, drawn mostly from the an examination of the visual field, supplemented by reference to tactile experience. In the process of developing his method of extensive abstraction, Whitehead developed a rigorous logical formulation of this ordinary notion of extension.153 We need not examine his logical formulations in detail. The important points for our purposes are these: the relation of extension is assumed to operate in a unified continuum. That is, it is assumed that all the events over which an occasion extends are involved in close relations of extension with one another. The visual field, as that field is presented to us by our physical eyes, is an excellent illustration of this notion of continuum. The visual field extends over all of the events which it includes, and each of those events, from its own point of view, extends over all of the others; the continuum is smooth. That is, if event A extends over event C, then there is some event B such that A extends over B and B extends over C. Further, given any two events, A and B, there is some event, say E, which extends over both; the relation of extension is transitive. That is, If a particular event, A, extends over another event, B; and if B extends over C, then A extends over C, and C does not extend over A.

Whitehead’s procedure for abstracting the geometrical spacetime continuum out of the structure of durations, or actual occasions, made use of the method of extensive abstraction, and that method works only if extension exhibits these particular properties. But, as Whitehead points out, extension need not exhibit those properties. In fact, even a cursory examination of our own occasions of experience shows that these properties obtain within our own experience only in a rather limited way. Consider the occasion of experience we discussed a moment ago in which the memory of a past desire for chocolate played such an important role. That event extended over, or included, all of the immediately past bodily events comprising what we would usually call the sensory perception of the supermarket environment. Within that subset of the initial datum, the relation of extension as Whitehead defined it roughly applies. But that occasion also prehended, included, or extended over, the event of the past desire for chocolate. So although, in terms of inorganic time (clock time), the desire for chocolate is in the relatively distant past, in terms of the vividness of my memory, and in terms of the power of efficient causation, it functions as if it is in the immediate past. If I assume that what I remember is in my immediate past, then the desire for chocolate is my immediate past, even though it is in the more distant past of my body. Thus the actual pattern of extension which characterizes human experience is too complex to be described by any simple geometry.154

We normally make the assumption that all of the events of the initial datum must be extensively related to each other in a simple continuum of the type that Whitehead describes. On that basis, we infer that prehensions of past events which are not in the immediately past neighborhood of that continuum (memories of the more distant past) are not part of the initial datum, and are somehow mediated by or drawn out of that datum later in the concrescence. This makes an accounting for memory of the more distant past a very complex procedure, indeed. On the other hand, if we drop the assumption that all of the events of the initial datum must be implicated in a single, smooth continuum, the way is opened for a much more natural definition of memory. We are now free to explore the possibility that all of the prehensions which an occasion has of the past are part of its initial datum or – to put this another way, the immediate past of a given occasion is precisely that which the occasion remembers. This approach is, as we shall see, one of the keys that opens up an understanding of spacetime in subtle worlds.

To see how this works, we begin by noting that actual occasions differ in the complexity which characterizes their concrescent processes. The concrescence of the event which is an occasion of experience in, for example, the life of a hydrogen atom is considerably simpler than is the concrescence of an event which is an occasion for experience for a higher grade occasion such as a giraffe. Whitehead differentiates occasions into at least three grades. Low grade occasions are those which make up the societies (or systems) of occasions that constitute the inorganic world. Medium grade occasions are those which make up the living portions of organic beings. High grade occasions are those which make up the societies of occasions which are the experiences of thinking beings.155

The physical world is dominated by a society of inorganic occasions. We have, through centuries of scientific investigation, been able to describe and predict the behaviors of inorganic occasions on the basis of two assumptions: first, that they participate in a continuum of the type that supports the method of extensive abstraction,156 and, second, that causal influences propagate through this continuum from the immediate past to the present in a (more or less) smooth and continuous manner. All of the events that constitute the initial datum for an inorganic occasion are bound together in such a way that they, themselves, share, almost entirely, a common past.

In the context of modern relativity, scientists routinely picture an occasion as a point at the apex of a spacetime cone such as that represented in Figure One, which represents an inorganic occasion, I. The curve A cuts through those occasions which are proximate to occasion I, and which form its immediate past. The curve B cuts through those occasions proximate to A, and so forth. The arrows represent the pathways of causal influence. The events in the past region of that cone are the totality of those events which have had an efficient causal influence on occasion I, and all of those influences are mediated by the events (through which the curve A passes) which form I’s initial datum. In the context of our current mode of explanation, we would say that inorganic occasions remember, and thus are causally conditioned by, only a very simple cross-section of the past.

Figure 1: Causal Relations Among Inorganic Occasions

We cannot explain the behaviors of organic occasions (particularly as they rise in the scale of complexity) without assuming that they are influenced by memories of the more distant past. Figure Two represents a fairly high level organic occasion, O. As before, A, B, and C pass through occasions which are at further and further remove in inorganic spacetime. But here we observe not only the routes of causal transmission that propagate through successive inorganic occasions, but also the causal influences (or prehensions, or memories) of events from spacetime regions B and C which seem to bypass the linear pathways of transmission that characterize causality in inorganic spacetime. In common sense, and in scientific reasoning, we generally assume that these longer range causal influences must be mediated by routes of transmission which pass, somehow or other, through inorganic spacetime. Here, however, we are exploring the possibility that these apparently more distant causal influences are, in fact, direct. That is, we are exploring the possibility that everything an occasion remembers is, by definition, in its immediate past. If this is the case, then the immediate neighborhood of organic occasions is not smooth in the sense we have discussed above, and the laws of extension, or inclusion, which order this continuum must be other than those which govern patterns of extension in the inorganic, world.

Figure 2: Causal Relations Among Organic Occasions

In the inorganic world, an occasion can prehend – which is say, can include, extend over, be causally influenced by, or remember — only those other occasions which are immediately proximate to it in the past of a smooth, geometrical, extensive continuum. In this extensive scheme, the patterns of causal propagation can be expressed in terms of relatively simple geometrical laws such as those which govern the radiation of electromagnetic waves.

Organic occasions, on the other hand, can prehend occasions which occurred at some distance from them in that smooth continuum. But the patterns of extension, or the laws of causal propagation governing these prehensions, are not such that they can be expressed in geometrical terms. Suppose, for example, that I resolve to clear up a particular misunderstanding that I am having with a friend the next time I see him. Three days later, I run into him quite by surprise. At that moment I have a causally efficacious prehension of the past occasion on which my resolution was formulated. The occasion of the resolution might have objectified itself in two days or four days, or in any number of different locations. Thus the objectification is fairly independent of the geometry of inorganic spacetime. It seems, rather, that it objectifies itself when the overall pattern of “seeing my friend” occurs, wherever or whenever that happens to be. In other words, the event of the resolution objectifies itself in another event when that second event ingresses a pattern of sensory and perceptual objects which somehow indicates “my friend.” It is also possible that occasions may extend over other occasions that resemble them not in any objective manner, but only in subjective form. For example, I might resolve to behave differently the next time I am angry. Assuming that this resolution objectifies in some future occasion, the occasion of the resolution and the occasion in which it objectifies are linked not so much by a similarity in their respective patterns of sensory or perceptual objects, but rather by their similarities of subjective form. Thus patterns of extension (or inclusion, or efficient causation, or memory) – the patterns from which spacetime is abstracted – need not be geometrical at all.

The notion that there are causal interactions among occasions which are mediated by overall pattern rather than by geometrical proximity has been explored by Rupert Sheldrake, who suggests connections among occasions may be mediated by what he calls “morphic resonance,” or overall similarity of form. Sheldrake, who uses this idea of morphic resonance to deal with issues of morphogenesis, defines it as “causal influence from previous similar forms . . . [requiring] an action across space and time unlike any known type of physical action.”157 We will borrow his term to describe the patterns of extension characterizing the relations of medium and high grade occasions. The particular similarity of form which connects occasions may be an “external similarity” – i.e., it may be a similarity in the pattern of sensory or perceptual objects which the occasion is ingressing, or it may be more subjective – i.e., it may be a similarity of subjective form.

Inorganic occasions prehend only those past occasions which have immediate proximity to them in the smooth extensive continuum out of which the spacetime of physics is abstracted. The prehensions that bind them into a society are entirely ordered by patterns which can be geometrically described. Organic occasions in the physical world extend over a particular society of such inorganic occasions, but they extend also over other occasions which are not geometrically proximal, but which are proximal by virtue of their morphic resonance with the current occasion. Thus their spacetime is fundamentally more complex than is the spacetime of inorganic societies.

When I am standing in the aisle of a supermarket and remembering my earlier desire for chocolate, the prehensions which figure in my perception of the supermarket around me are structured by my physical body which is my percipient event in the physical world. My body is composed of cells, which are, in turn, composed of molecules and atoms, and those atoms are inorganic occasions which are interrelated through the smooth continuum of the inorganic world. Thus, through my prehensions of the events making up my body, I am involved in a world which can be characterized by the spacetime of physics. Indeed, I can apply the method of extensive abstraction in this local space and, starting from my general impression of the supermarket scene I can, by that method, identify any particular point within that scene. But although both the supermarket scene and the occasion on which I experienced the desire for chocolate are integral parts my current duration, no process of extensive abstraction can account for my sense that both the supermarket scene and my desire for chocolate are, in the sense we are here discussing, in my immediate causal past.

Human beings are societies of high grade actual occasions. When we are awake, our various occasions of experience tend to be dominated by the continuum in which we participate by virtue of our physical bodies as percipient events. But we also have memories, or direct prehensions, of occasions which took place at some considerable spacetime distance from our physical bodies Those prehensions are integrated into the current duration not in terms of geometry, but rather in terms of some scheme of morphic resonance which (particularly insofar as it includes elements of subjective form) can neither be reduced to geometry nor expressed in terms of numbers. The behaviors of other organic beings suggest that they, too, participate in this system of inclusion by morphic resonances.

Two occasions in the inorganic continuum are proximate to the extent that their positions in that continuum resemble one another. Two occasions in the organic continuum are proximate to the extent that their overall morphic patterns resemble one another. The organic continuum is much more complex and much less well understood than is its inorganic counterpart, and no one has formulated its laws in the way that Whitehead has formulated the laws of the inorganic continuum. Nonetheless, the actual texture of our waking experience is significantly illuminated when we consider it as a superimposition of these two extensive continua. Our perceptual experiences of local space are dominated by the inorganic occasions that inhabit it. But our experience is also significantly affected by memories that are included, not so much by virtue of their proximity in inorganic spacetime, but rather by virtue of their resonance with the entire texture of the current occasion of experience. Thus our full experience of the world is vastly influenced by prehensions of events that are proximate in a spacetime which is ordered in terms of morphic resonance.

At this point, we are still on the outer fringes of the subtle worlds proper. Let us next consider the fact that organic beings such as ourselves not only prehend events which took place at some remove from us in the inorganic continuum; we also have significant prehensions of imaginary events, of dream events and of events comprising other occult experiences, which are not located in the inorganic continuum at all. In his essay, Uniformity and Contingency, Whitehead discusses this point at some length in reference to dreams. He says: “The distinction between the dream-world and nature is, that the space-time of the dream-world cannot conjoin with the scheme of the space-time of nature, as constituted by any part of nature. The dream-world is nowhere and at no time, though it has a dream-time and dream-space of its own.”158 People’s lives are changed by dream experiences, and by imaginary experiences as well. There can be no doubt that these experiences are causally efficacious. In terms of the approach that we are exploring in these pages, we would have to say that the occasions of experience which take place in high level organic occasions such as ourselves regularly and significantly include, or extend over, events which are not part of the inorganic world at all. But these events which are disclosed in sense awareness, but which do not find a place in the dominant spacetime continuum, are precisely what we mean by subtle world events. Thus, to the extent that we are dealing with organic beings, we cannot understand them without acknowledging the extent to which they participate in subtle worlds.

Finally, in dreams and out-of-body experiences, our prehensions of the inorganic occasions out of which our bodies are composed fade into relative insignificance, and we then have experiences of subtle worlds which are largely unaffected by the extensive scheme which dominates our waking hours. The spacetime which we remember from our dreams is largely deficient in geometrical coherence. While there is one, dominant, geometrical continuum which extends over all of our waking lives, dreams seem to be ordered into many continua. Sometimes geometrical relations will seem to hold with some consistency within the stretch of a single dream, and sometimes we may even visit that same dream continuum again and again in successive dreams. On the other hand, even during a single night we may flit from dream to dream, and each of these dreams seems to take place in its own continuum. The extensive continuum of dreams is usually not smooth. In dreams we often experience abrupt changes of locale, and relations of inclusion are not necessarily transitive – e.g., in a dream, I could walk three paces, turn around, and see a scene entirely different from the scene which I left; or I could enter a room in a house, and find that room to be a huge space which contains the house which contains it. Remember, however, that the laws governing the smooth extensive continuum out of which the geometry of physical spacetime has been abstracted are in no way metaphysically necessary. They are, in fact, an extremely restrictive set of conditions. The laws governing patterns of inclusion among occasions in dream worlds are much less restrictive than are those in the physical world; and dreams, being portions of the subtle worlds that we recall when we are awake, are probably just those portions of the subtle worlds that most resemble our waking experience.

Every actual occasion must grow out of its own initial datum, but there is no reason whatsoever to assume that all occasions must include among that datum some number of inorganic events. Some organic events, those events belonging to societies of higher grade occasions which are “incarnated” in the physical world, do include inorganic occasions which, when they are awake, function as their percipient events in that world. But even those societies which are so incarnated function, in dreams and in other occult experiences, through percipient events which have no place in the physical world at all. Indeed, given that the physical continuum is only a peculiarly limited region of the larger and more complex continuum of the subtle worlds, it seems entirely natural to assume that there are vast regions of the subtle worlds composed of events which have essentially no relation to events in the physical world at all. This, as we saw in Chapter Two, is precisely what Sri Aurobindo suggests. In this sense, the spacetime of subtle worlds transcends the spacetime of the physical world.

The issue of locating the subtle realms in relation to the physical world has occupied human beings for a long time. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is able to reach Hades – which is a region of the subtle worlds – by boat. Later, it became clear that the subtle worlds were nowhere on the surface of the Earth. Dante, therefore, located them both below the Earth and out beyond the orbit of the Moon. With the articulation of perspectival space, which extends its grid-like structure in every direction as far as the imagination can reach, the subtle worlds were entirely banished from the physical domain.159 The Theosophists tried to re-establish a connection between physical space and subtle spaces by invoking a fourth spatial dimension.160 But such a spatial dimension, should it be found to exist, would be just an extension of the measurable spacetime of the physical world, and could not do justice to the complex phenomenology of subtle worlds. Centuries of scientific work have demonstrated conclusively that the subtle worlds are nowhere in physical spacetime. What we are here suggesting is rather that the physical world is somewhere in subtle spacetime. It is a region of the subtle worlds dominated by a society of actual occasions operating according to the peculiarly restrictive extensive relations which we observe among inorganic occasions.

The following points summarize this discussion. Spacetime is an abstraction from the patterns in which actual occasions prehend, extend over, include, are causally effected by, or remember one other. The patterns of prehension binding inorganic occasions into societies are characterized by cogredience, and, thus, by relatively simple routes of transmission within a smooth continuum which can be described in geometrical terms. Organic occasions participate in a more complex continuum which need be neither smooth nor transitive, and in which patterns of inclusion are defined by morphic resonance rather than by geometrical proximity. The waking experience of organic occasions is a kind of superposition between the inorganic continuum defined by the low level occasions making up their physical bodies and the organic continuum in which they also participate. Organic occasions also appear to participate, by means of imagination, dream, out-of-body experiences, and various occult experiences in continua which are entirely outside of the inorganic continuum. The organic continuum and the actual occasions which constitute it systematically transcend the physical world – in other words, while the subtle worlds cannot be found anywhere in the physical world, the physical world can be understood as a region of the subtle worlds dominated by a society of inorganic occasions.

Objects in Subtle Worlds

The worlds of imagination, dream, lucid dream, out of body experiences, and occult experiences can, like those in the physical world, be discriminated into discrete events by virtue of the objects that have ingression in them. The polyadic logic of ingression, which requires an operation of consciousness, force, and determinate possibility to secure every ingression, applies with the same force in subtle realms of Fact as it does in the physical realm. However, the particular objects which come to characterize subtle world events differ somewhat from those found characterizing events in the physical world.

Sense Objects in Subtle Worlds

As we know, the sense objects which characterize events in the physical world are very much conditioned by the characteristics of the sense organs in the physical body – our percipient event in the physical world. Percipient events in subtle worlds need not share those same limitations. Thus it is possible that the sense objects belonging to a particular sensory modality – say sight or sound – might be more various in subtle worlds. This is suggested in Theosophical texts.161 In addition, there is no metaphysical reason that percipient events in subtle worlds might not possess sensory modalities entirely other than those that characterize our physical bodies. We would not expect to find evidence for this expanded menu of sensory objects in our memories of imagination and dream, as it might be particularly difficult to access memories of experiences characterized by entirely unfamiliar sensory objects while we are operating through our physical bodies in the physical world.

Perceptual Objects in Subtle Worlds

We have defined perceptual objects as the permanence characterizing associations of sense objects in a situation. We have not yet, however, examined what we mean by “permanence of association.” Fact, as we have observed, is constantly active. Perceptual objects are, thus, permanences amidst change. But, in Fact, we never observe an absolute invariance. What we do observe is a relatively fixed pattern of change amidst change. The patterns of change which characterize perceptual objects are various. For example, the perceptual objects which come to characterize societies of inorganic occasions such as rulers and clocks do exhibit a kind of quantitative invariance. On the other hand, the perceptual objects which characterize societies of organic occasions (living beings) exhibit complex, nonlinear rhythmic patterns.

The physical world, as we suggested in the last section, is a society of low grade, inorganic occasions. If we consider just the macroscopic physical world, we could say that it is entirely built up out of the basic elements identified in the Periodic Table of the Elements. Among the structures built up out of these elements, we frequently find the simpler, more linear perceptual objects which we associate with nonliving things. The subtle worlds, however, are societies of higher grade, more complex organic occasions. We have no Periodic Table for the subtle worlds, but the basic elements out of which they are structured are higher grade, and therefore more complex, more variable in their behaviors, and quite probably more numerous than are the basic elements of the physical world. Thus the structures that they form will be more complex and much more variable in their behaviors than structures found in the physical world.

We could say that physical objects approach a degree of simplicity which can be characterized as invariance amidst change, whereas as subtle world objects are always more variable, and can best be characterized as pattern of change amidst change.

We also pointed out that those perceptual objects which can qualify as physical objects have the properties of uniqueness and continuity, i.e., physical objects occupy one place at a time, and their movements through space are characterized by continuous trajectories. Quantum physics has taught us that scientific objects such as sub-atomic particles need not conform to these requirements, but when we are referring to the macroscopic physical world, what we mean by a physical object is something that is unambiguously in one place at one time, and that, in moving from point A to point B necessarily traverses a continuous path between them. Perceptual objects in subtle worlds are not constrained by these conditions. Thus, in subtle worlds, as we know from our imaginal experiences and from our memories of dreams, a given perceptual object can be in more than one place at a time, and it can move from place to place without traversing any of the intervening points.

Earlier in this chapter, we discussed the notion of “cogredience.” Cogredience is a condition that holds in a duration when the percipient event of that duration is at exactly one position, and holds that position throughout the duration. Another way of stating this would be to say that cogredience holds when the percipient event ingresses a perceptual object of the physical kind. To the extent that our occasions of experience are dominated by their prehension of the physical body, which is, in this sense, a physical object, cogredience holds and we experience a physical world. Our waking experience is largely dominated by such prehensions but even there, given the importance of memory and imagination in our waking lives, this dominance is only partial. In dreams, out of body experiences, and occult experiences our prehensions of the physical body fade into the background, we leave cogredience behind, and we orient our perceptions through percipient events free from the logical constraints which characterize perceptual objects in the physical world.

Scientific Objects in Subtle Worlds

As we saw in Chapter Four, scientific objects are discerned by a sustained application of the principle of convergence to simplicity with diminution of extent and by the method of extensive abstraction, which is a further specification of that principle. Earlier in this chapter, we saw that the principle of convergence only holds to the extent that the continuum in which it is applied is uniform, smooth, and transitive. These conditions do not obtain with any regularity in subtle worlds.

This is not to say that the principle of convergence is without application in subtle worlds. In our dreams we clearly discern perceptual objects, and every discernment of a perceptual object involves some application of the principle of convergence which pulls that particular object into focus. But in dreams that principle cannot be applied in the rigorous way that we apply it in waking life. In a dream, diminution of extent quite often fails to bring about convergence to simplicity. In a dream, I might start with a perception of a desk, and then, while attending to the leg of the desk, I might find there a living being, or even a whole world of living beings. Thus, in subtle worlds, scientific objects cannot, in general, be discerned.

On the other hand, while the law of convergence is a master key that unlocks many secrets in the physical realm, it is not the only tool that is available to thought. Another way in which we can make sense of durations, even in the physical world, is by noting morphic resonances, symbolic correspondences and the overall texture of synchronicities that plays among events. It is these tools which seem to function as master keys for the understanding the subtle worlds.

Prolegomenon to a Cosmology of the Subtle Worlds

Let us summarize the journey we have taken so far. In Chapter Three we established a framework for this discussion by defining the domain of Fact. In Chapter Four, we saw that we could understand the physical world as that system of factors of Fact that is discerned in sense awareness, characterized by a uniform, metrically geometrical structure of spacetime, and dominated by societies of actual occasions that are sufficiently simple and regular in the rules by which their interactions are governed to support the existence of rulers and clocks. In this chapter, we have seen that the subtle worlds can be understood as that system of factors of Fact that is discerned in sense awareness, characterized by a complex structure of spacetime in which proximity is defined by morphic resonance rather than by geometrical relations, and dominated by societies of actual occasions that are too complex in the rules by which their interactions are governed to support the existence of rulers and clocks. We have seen, too, that the freedom and complexity which characterize subtle world experience is no reason to deny to subtle worlds the mark of “externality” which we so readily confer on the physical world of our waking experiences.

In our work so far in this chapter, we have primarily been concerned with the formal properties of extension and the formal characteristics of objects as they function in the various worlds. Before we can sketch out a fuller cosmological vision, we need, once again, to broaden and deepen our understanding of Whitehead’s analysis of the way in which occasions of experience function.

As we have observed, each occasion is a unified experience of a multiplicity of events. The events of which it is an experience comprise its initial datum, or its efficient cause. But Whitehead found that it was impossible to understand the unity of an occasion of experience without also positing a “subjective aim” which is “the ideal of what that subject could become, which shapes the very nature of the becoming subject.”162 In other words, the concrescence which binds the experience of the initial datum into a unity is informed by purpose, by a final cause. That final cause, the subjective aim, is both an aim at unity of experience, and also an aim at becoming something particular for the occasions in the relevant future. The initial datum establishes the circumstances given for the concrescence. The subjective aim establishes what that concrescence might become. And the concrescence itself is a process of decision. In other words each concrescing occasion prehends its past, anticipates its possible future and, as an intrinsic part of its own process of becoming, it decides which possibilities it will actualize and will, thus, make available for prehension by future occasions.

Actual occasions of different grades conduct this process of decision in very different ways. Actual occasions of low grade, inorganic occasions, are dominated by a blind urge to perpetuate the past. They experience the past, and affirm the past for the future. The introduction of novelty into the physical world is a slow and painstaking task. Actual occasions of medium grade, organic occasions, on the other hand, are in constant pursuit of novel possibilities. Living beings exist through constant processes of growth and decay, and they are largely dominated by desire, which is a kind of compulsive attempt to realize changed conditions of experience. Actual occasions or high grade, thinking occasions, prehend a range of possibilities and choose consciously among them. Table Two, below, summarizes the observations which we have made concerning actual occasions of varying grades.

With the conceptual tools that we have now developed, let us see if we can weave the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds into the outlines of a fuller cosmology. We begin with the physical world. The physical world is dominated by a society of low grade actual occasions. These occasions interact in a geometrical spacetime, which means that they can only remember, and only be affected by, events to which they are connected in terms of certain abstract, geometrical principles of order. They remember only the immediate past, they anticipate only the immediate future, and they show very little imagination. This physical world establishes what all of us who live in this physical universe recognize as our “dominant continuum.” The spacetime of science is abstracted from this continuum.





Low grade (inorganic)

Defined by a uniform, smooth, continuum in which relations of extension are transitive

– Perceptual objects which are invariances amidst change, with unambiguous position and continuity of position within and across durations.

– Minimal objectification of subjective form

Perpetuation of the past (habit)

Medium grade (organic)

Defined by a non-uniform continuum in which relations of extension are ordered in terms of morphic resonance

– Perceptual objects which are complex patterns of change amidst change, able to occupy multiple positions in a given duration, and to change position discontinuously.

– Medium objectification of subjective form.

Compulsive pursuit of novel possibilities (desire, imagination)

High grade (thinking)

Defined by a non-uniform continuum dominated by relations of meaning

– Perceptual objects which are reflective of conscious processes of structuring

– High objectification of subjective form.

Conscious choice among a range of possibilities (free choice, conscious intentions)

Table 2: Grades of Actual Occasion

Certain regions of the spacetime continuum, regions such as the surface of the Earth, come alive. We are here explaining life as the presence, amidst the occasions of the inorganic world, of medium grade actual occasions. Medium grade actual occasions participate in the physical world by virtue of their ongoing prehensions of some system of physical events (their percipient event, or body). But medium grade occasions are not limited to prehensions of the events making up their physical bodies. Every medium grade occasion also prehends events which took place in the more distant past of the physical body, but which are proximal by virtue of morphic resonance.

If we could examine the prehensions of a living being in the physical world, we would discern among them a set of prehensions of the events comprising a system of inorganic occasions belonging to the geometrical spacetime continuum. These prehensions would constitute its percipient event in the physical world, and its prehensions of all of the other events in the physical world would be ordered around that. We would also find prehensions of other living beings which are similar to it in grade, and which establish with it varying degrees of morphic resonance. Because these prehensions objectify the subjective form, or the feelings of past occasions in a fairly complete way, and because they are not limited by linear trains of propagation in the physical world, they form webs that are at once causal networks, shared memories, and bonds of empathy that transcend the mathematical patterns which so strongly condition the unfolding of inorganic societies.

In Chapter One, we distinguished between the subtle dimension of the physical world and the subtle worlds themselves. This web of empathy among living occasions is the subtle dimension of the physical world. In proportion as the living occasions are dominated by their prehensions of inorganic events, their patterns of morphic resonance remain dominated by considerations of physical proximity, and the webs of empathy that they form remain small. These small empathic webs function within the bodies of multi-celled plants and animals. As we know from the human experience, the societies of living events which comprise our bodies all show considerable sign of sharing, among themselves, rich webs of mutual prehension. If one part of our bodies is wounded, the entire body feels the suffering. If any part of our bodies experiences pleasure, that brings some measure of lightness and joy to the rest of the body as well.

As the occasions characterizing animal life rise in grade, the webs of empathy in which they participate become wider. Living occasions begin to develop webs of empathy that bind them to the living occasions inhabiting other physical bodies – to fellow inhabitants of the same nest, to offspring, to families, to fellow tribes-people and so on. Thus a living occasion of experience at a sufficiently high grade receives into its constitution: the feelings of the events comprising its physical body; the feelings of that living occasion which it identifies as its own immediate, personal past; the feelings of living occasions which took place earlier in its personal past; and the feelings of other living occasions, not part of its personal past, with which it is associated by morphic resonance.

The various contributions to the overall subjective form of an occasion need not be clearly discriminated as to source. They seem, in human experience at least, to form a kind of deep background mood. Elements of this mood may, however, be elicited into relevance during the process of concrescence, and then they are experienced as, for example, the mood of a particular place, as “vibes,” as an empathic knowledge of the particular feelings of another being, as telepathic communication, or even as memories of experiences that occurred so far into the past of the inorganic continuum that they may be thought of as memories of previous lifetimes. The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds suggests that modern science has vastly underestimated the importance of this subtle dimension of the physical world in shaping the experiences and the behaviors of organisms.163

The prehensions of living occasions, particularly as they rise in grade, are not restricted to events within the spacetime continuum defined by the inorganic occasions of their physical percipient events. High grade living occasions imagine, and they dream. As we have seen, the events experienced in imagination and dream generally satisfy the constants of externality, and thus are experiences taking place in real, external, subtle worlds. Sensory experiences in subtle worlds are ordered by subtle percipient events, or subtle bodies appropriate to those worlds. To the extent that they imagine and dream, organic occasions have subtle bodies as well as physical bodies. Thus we would expect that living beings in the physical world are interrelated not only through the interactions of their physical bodies, but also through rich and complex webs of interactions of their subtle bodies as well. The behaviors of living beings, and even the details of their physiologies, are strongly conditioned by these subtle interactions. Thus our failure to account for these interactions vastly impoverishes our understanding of biological processes.

Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that all living occasions have percipient events in the physical world. We, ourselves, have a physical body and we also have subtle bodies. But the stubble body does not depend for its existence on the existence of the physical body, and thus it is quite possible for there to be living beings who operate entirely outside of the physical world. In fact, the cosmology we are developing here suggests that the physical world is just a limited portion of a larger world – a portion in which extension is so constrained that it functions as a uniform, smooth continuum, and in which objects are constrained to occupy only one position at a time and to traverse continuous trajectories. The larger, freer world of which the physical world is a limitation is (as we saw in Chapter Two) what Sri Aurobindo calls the “vital world.” This is the world that all of us visit in our dreams, and that some of us visit in out of body experiences.

Let us try to imagine what it is like to have fully conscious experience outside of the physical body. In the vital world, there are no inorganic occasions. Everything there is alive. The inert stability of matter which we find so comforting in the physical world is absent there. Whereas physical objects tend, insofar as they can, to ignore changes in their environments, everything in the subtle worlds is actively adapting to its environment. The level of activity and change there is much greater than it is in the physical world. The level of variety and complexity which characterize the objects we find in the physical world is ultimately constrained by the relative simplicity of its inorganic components. Since the fundamental components in the vital world are more complex and more responsive than are those in the physical world, the forms there are much more complex and much more variable than are those that are found here.

The experience of “having a body” is quite different in the vital world. In the physical world, we experience a strong web of empathy among the living occasions which make up our bodies, but, although we do have empathic bonds with other living beings, the intensity of the empathic bonds tends to drop off rather suddenly at the edge of our skins. Within the physical world, each of us is like an island of living occasions surrounded by an inorganic ocean. Because I have a strong empathic bond with the occasions making up my arm, I can move my arm “at will”. But I cannot feel my way into the cup on my desk, and I cannot get it to move merely by willing it. In the vital world, where everything is alive, the boundary of the body is much more diffuse. The portion of the vital world which I could operate as “my body” would be fluid and changeable. Also, our bodies in the vital world would not be physical objects, and thus would not be constrained to occupy one place at a time, and would not be constrained to traverse continuous trajectories as they move from place to place.

Human beings are mental beings that are involved in relations of prehension with systems of vital occasions that are, in turn, involved in relations of prehension with systems of inorganic occasions. When a human being is awake, all of these occasions are focused on process that are taking place in the physical world. When the human being is asleep, however, the various occasions in the complex body are less coordinated, and are free to exchange objectifications with each other and with various other subtle world beings. Many of the fragmented dreams that we remember on awakening may be objectifications of experiences undergone by these lower level occasions during sleep.

The more coherent dreams that we have may be memories of experiences that the personally ordered mental society to which we belong has when we are asleep. Some of these dreams, as we know, resemble very strongly our experience in the physical world. There are also many reports of out of body experiences in which the environment is very similar to the physical environment, and in which the percipient event is very much like the physical body.164 The yogis who have explored the vital worlds generally suggest that the vital world is stratified so that there are “lower” portions of it which are almost Earthlike in the degree of constraint under which they operate, and “higher” portions of it which are much freer.165 The lucid dreams and out of body experiences which take place in Earthlike conditions are, presumably, explorations of the “lower” portions of the vital world.

Just as there are vital beings with no physical percipient events, so there are mental beings with no vital percipient events. These mental occasions form worlds that are so unconstrained that it is practically impossible for us to imagine them.166 We can only suggest something about those worlds by noting that, while the vital worlds are bound together in webs of empathy and shaped by currents of emotion, the mental worlds are bound together in webs of knowledge and shaped by currents of meaning.

As we know, science has not yet discovered these subtle worlds. If the subtle worlds are, as we are here suggesting, a larger and freer domain than the physical, a domain in which the measurement generally impossible and in which, therefore, scientific objects cannot be discerned, then it is clear that current scientific methods will not be able to disclose the existence of those worlds or to explain the particular ingressions of sense objects and perceptual objects that we observe there. Clearly, a full integration of these subtle worlds into our science will require a profound extension of current methods, one which has not yet been worked out.

On the other hand, the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds has immense explanatory power. As we have seen: it allows us to account for the subtle dimension of the physical world; It accounts for the webs of empathy that generally bind organic occasions into communities of feeling; it gives us a new and interesting way to think about the way in which the society of high level occasions which we call ourselves can “operate” the societies of lower grade actual occasions that make up our bodies; it accounts for the general background feelings which affect us as moods and “vibes,” and for the occasional experiences of acute empathic, and even telepathic, communications that we have with other embodied beings; and it accounts, too, for the experiences that we call experiences of former lives.

It also makes intelligible the vast respect which our ancestors granted to imagination and dream. In terms of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds, imagination and dream are not just rehashed memories of old physical perceptions, but rather immediate perceptions of events in the subtle worlds which are vitally relevant to the affairs of the organic and thinking beings who are embodied here.

Because the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds envisions the possibility of intelligent beings existing outside of the physical world and, indeed, because it envisions human beings as subtle world beings who are involved with, but not necessarily dependent upon, the societies of events making up their bodies, it gives us a way of understanding the survival of the personality after bodily death.

The Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds also provides a context within which we can understand the phenomenology of UFO’s. There is an increasing consensus among UFO researchers that the aliens who operate these strange craft are not exactly physical beings.167 They seem, rather, to be subtle world beings who have evolved a “technology” that enables them to interact with the physical world.

Finally, a great deal of psychedelic research becomes intelligible if we assume that psychedelic substances have the effect of thrusting physical prehensions into the background of awareness and forcing attention to concentrate on prehensions of events in subtle worlds.

While this is by no means a complete cosmology of the subtle worlds, enough has now been said to establish both the plausibility and the explanatory power of the Doctrine of the Subtle Worlds.

© 2009 Eric Weiss. All rights reserved.