Substance and Process

In Chapter 6 I stated that the conception of constitution and persistence that I present there implies that compound objects are to be considered processes, if by ‘process’ we mean any entity for which change is essential for its continued existence. Furthermore, I claim that they can still be considered substances. This contradicts received wisdom according to which substance and process ontologies are contrary and incompatible views. Here, in Nicholas Rescher’s words:

Process philosophy diametrically opposes the view—as old as Parmenides and Zeno and the Atomists of Pre Socratic Greece—that denies processes or downgrades them in the order of being or of understanding by subordinating them to substantial things.

(Rescher 2012)

However, like Albert William Levi (1958), I find it less than perfectly clear just what the relevant opposites are. For one thing, as Rescher himself points out, what unites philosophers of process is more an opposition to substance ontology rather than a common view on the nature of process (Rescher 2012). And, for another, it is not clear that all metaphysical systems that make use of the notion of substance share the features process ontologists ascribe to substance ontology. Levi indeed says, ‘it is not easy to find in either Bergson or Whitehead criticisms which specifically controvert the relevant sections of Aristotle’s Metaphysics' (1957: 750). Rescher implicitly recognises this as well, because even though he characterises process philosophy as diametrically opposed to substance philosophy, he includes Aristotle as a ‘key figure in the history of process philosophizing’ (1957: 11). So, what exactly is this conception of substance to which process ontology is opposed?

Substance Ontology

The term ‘substance’ is a philosophical term of art, which covers all kinds of sins. Here I will only delve as far into the details of the issue of substance as is necessary to clarify the contrast between substance and process ontology, and in particular for identifying which versions of each view stand a chance of being compatible with each other. For a more complete overview, see Robinson (2020).

One sense of understanding‘substance’, which is possibly obsolete, is of whatever is considered the most fundamental entity out of which everything else is made. According to this use, processes are the substances of process ontology. It seems clear that the dispute between process and substance ontology is about the nature of the most fundamental entities, in which case this sense of ‘substance’ is irrelevant to elucidate the kind of opposition process ontologists have in mind.

Contemporary views on ‘substance’ are of a certain kind of fundamental entity, and they are all popularly believed to be closely connected to the kind of entities that Aristotle picked out using the term ‘ousia’, i.e. persistent entities that exhibit a certain unity. These are what we ordinarily call ‘things’ like sticks, stones, and teacups. We can ignore the complication to do with the distinction between natural unities and artefacts, which, although important to understand Aristotelian metaphysics, is not a concern in modern metaphysics (although it should be). It is with this focus on ‘things’ that process ontologists think we can begin to see a contrast between substance and process ontology. The idea is that substance ontology assumes that the fundamental constituents are whatever remains fixed and unchanged in an ever-changing world, while processes are ever-changing. Two questions arise. First, is it fair to think of Aristotelian hylomorphism in terms of our ordinary notion of‘things’? Second, do substance and process ontologists really disagree about which of the entities that appear to us in our everyday conceptual scheme are more fundamental than the other? I think not.

If we begin with the latter question, then the answer is clearly no. Everyone agrees that teacups are more fundamental than a tea party, atoms are more fundamental than teacups, and elementary particles more fundamental than atoms. Process ontologists just insist that teacups and atoms are processes, and that even when we get down to the elementary particles of the standard model, they too are processes rather than substances. So, the disagreement is not about which entities are fundamental, but about the nature of what everybody regards as fundamental. The real disagreement is whether the most fundamental entities are dynamic or static, and process ontologists think that substance ontology makes these entities out as being inherently static. But are substances really static on all accounts? A good place to start answering that question is to have a look ar what Johanna Seibt calls the paradigm of substance ontology (1996), which I think is the clearest statement to date of what contemporary substance ontology amounts to, from the perspective of contemporary process ontology.

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