Things or processes as fundamental?

Jed asked:

Can anyone here explain process philosophy?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Here’s a simple explanation.

From the earliest days (the Presocratics), philosophers have been divided as to whether the world ultimately consists of things (‘substances’) or processes.

On the substance view, things are primary and process (change) secondary. Change is due to interaction of unchanging things. For example atoms in the void (Democritus), or ‘No thing comes to be nor does it perish’, change happens by ‘mixing together and dissociating’ (Anaxagoras).

On the process view, process is primary, things secondary. Change is fundamental and unceasing, whilst things are merely temporary stabilities or patterns in the eternal flux. This was Heraclitus’ view (‘all things flow’). Famously he said that nobody can step into the same river twice: a river isn’t so much a thing as a temporary pattern in the constant process of flow, itself part of the water cycle (evaporation, clouding, raining, flowing). Other processes include growth, decay, heating/ cooling, thinking.

Aristotle sided with substance metaphysics, and this became the Western paradigm. Aristotle was posthumously adopted and ‘baptized’ by the Church, and his views became dogma, with lively debates about how the divine and earthly substances were united in the body of Jesus etc. Later, Descartes pitched in, suggesting there are two basic substances res extensa and res cogitans (matter and mind). The notion of mind as a substance was controversial and has now rather faded away, but matter held its ground as substance. Atomic theory supported the notion for two hundred years.

But by the 20th century the game was up. Atoms were found to be mostly empty space, and subatomic ‘particles’ seem to have no size at all, being merely loci of high energy in quantum fields, and even without definite positions, but rather existing in states of quantum superposition. Bertrand Russell truly said that the ‘matter’ of modern physics was no more substantial than anything we might be invited to witness at a seance. Modern physics supports the process view.

The time was riper for revival of process philosophy, which had continued, in a minor key, after the Presocratics, in the views of Leibniz, Bergson, William James and others. And so Russell’s colleague, Whitehead, championed process philosophy (Process and Reality, 1929).

His system is the most developed version of process philosophy but is hard going, including purposeful development (‘becoming’) of the world, and of God, moment by moment, and experiential events called ‘actual entities’ as the basic world elements.

A better, readable, general introduction to process philosophy is Rescher N (2000) Process philosophy: a survey of basic issues (Pittsburg UP).

To date process metaphysics hasn’t had the attention that substance metaphysics has enjoyed over the centuries, and so is less well developed than materialism or idealism, but I fancy it will survive and thrive, becoming a serious rival to substance metaphysics as it was with the Presocratics.

A point worth noting is that time scale is important in deciding whether to call something a thing or a process. Thus, a rock, over a human lifetime, hardly changes, and we think of it as a thing. But over a billion years, it forms (eruption/ solidifying, or sedimentation), erodes, disappears, in short is a temporary stability in a geological process. Similarly, in terms of attoseconds, a drop about to fall from a dripping tap seems to last forever as an enduring thing. Things are just part of very slow processes, and processes include very short-lived things.


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