Process Ontology

The literature on process philosophy covers a wide field, not all of which is pertinent to the discussion in this chapter, which focuses on the objective nature of persistent material objects. First, there are discussions that don’t revolve so much about the place of process/substance in the order of being but only in the order of understanding. I exclude from this discussion views/arguments that profess to be making ontological claims solely on the basis of claims about the status of our conceptual scheme or of the language in which this conceptual scheme is expressed. If our knowledge of objective reality is fallible, as it is generally assumed to be, the actual status of our current conceptual scheme, and the language we use to express that scheme, is not a good guide to how reality actually is.

Alternatively, our conceptual scheme may be the product of irrational and random evolution. There is no guarantee that a product of evolution correctly captures the fundamental structure of reality, as opposed to simply being instrumentally useful in an anthropocentric way. Therefore, to show, say, that the concept of substance is at present basic to our understanding of the world does not constitute a decisive ontological argument in favour of the view that material objects are as a matter of fact basically substance-like, not process-like. It is possible that the notion of process may be conceptually subordinate to the notion of substance, given the present status of our conceptual scheme, and of the language in which this conceptual scheme is expressed, while material objects may in actual reality basically be processes.

For similar reasons I also exclude discussions about processes within the philosophy of mind, in so far as they promote process as a basic entity for reasons having to do solely with the characteristics of thinking and reasoning. Thinking and reasoning, in fact anything mental, is generally assumed to be of a very different kind than anything physical. It is at least generally assumed to be very difficult, even impossible, to draw any conclusions about the mental from considerations about anything physical, and vice versa. Such conclusions tend to be supported by arguments to the point that there really are no genuinely mental entities (that they are reducible to physical entities), or that there really are no physical entities (physical reality merely being a figment of the mind).

Process philosophy, then, is a doctrine that promotes process in a broad sense but cannot be treated as a single theory about the nature of processes. After all, it is considered to include ideas of process as basically physical (Whitehead 1929), as basically organic (Bergson 1910), and as basically psychological (James 1890). And, besides the mainstream view of processes as a series of events or occurrences (which on its own harbours different accounts), there are those that deny that the notion of process commits to an ontology of events or occurrences (Salmon 1984: 139ff; Seibt 2000). Rescher, indeed, admits that process philosophy is not so much a developed doctrine at all, but rather a projected programme (2000: 21). He nevertheless presents process philosophy, very tentatively, as a doctrine inclined towards certain basic propositions:

  • 1. Time and change are principal categories of metaphysical understanding,
  • 2. Process is a principal category of ontological description,
  • 3. Processes are more fundamental, or at any rate not less fundamental, than things for the purpose of an ontological theory
  • 4. Several, if not all, of the major elements of the ontological repertoire (God, Nature as a whole, persons, material substances) are best understood in process terms.
  • 5. Contingency, emergence, novelty, and creativity are among the fundamental categories of metaphysical understanding.
  • (Rescher 2000: 5-6)

Note, firstly, that none of the propositions concern the nature of processes; they declare (i) what are the basic categories of metaphysical understanding, according to process ontology, i.e. time, change, contingency, emergence, novelty, creativity, and process, or (ii) declare the explanatory advantages of process ontology. Only the latter may appear to be in opposition to Aristotelian substance ontology, but only if we find that a particular conception of process actually contradicts Aristotelianism. Aristotelianism also includes time and change as essential to our understanding of the fundamental structure of the world, and holds that the world contains contingency, emergence, novelty, and creativity. The question is, do process philosophers account for these notions in a different, or a better way?

Process philosophers do, for instance, claim that a process continuously creates itself, i.e. that there are internal causal relations between the stages of a process. While the persistence of substances is not predominantly explained in causal terms, substance ontology is no stranger to the idea, notably what W.E. Johnson calls immanent causation (1924). Dorothy Emmet acknowledges internal causation (1985), and Hoffman Sc Rosenkrantz claim that the relationship between the parts of compound objects is causal (1997). So, writers on both sides acknowledge this feature too.

What is clearly disputed is whether entities that have hitherto been understood in substance terms are better understood in process terms, which is of course the central issue in settling the question as to whether processes are more fundamental than substances. But, in addressing this issue, we need to get clearer on the sense in which things should be understood as processes.

I think we can express the standard account of process in a very similar manner to that in which I spelled out the Aristotelian view of substance earlier on:

  • (1) A process is a complex of temporally ordered stages or phases.
  • (2) The stages or phases involve becoming—a transition from potentiality to actuality.
  • (3) The stages or phases are distinct.
  • (4) A process is mereologically homeomerus—each stage is itself also a process.
  • (5) Has a temporal structure—each stage has connections with the future and the past.
  • (6) The stages are systematically linked to each other, either causally or functionally.
  • (7) The stages are generically linked—each stage originates from a previous stage and is the source to a later stage.

It is striking that only one of these features clearly contradicts the account of process that substance ontologists like Dorothy Emmet offer (1992), notably that the stages of the process are distinct. She thinks that processes are changes in substances or activities of substances, which manifest themselves like a complex of temporally ordered stages that each involve becoming and are in a way homeomerous in so far as the change in the substance is continuous. Furthermore, they have a temporal and systematic structure and are generically linked. Indeed, the reason they are not distinct is because they are different changes in the same substance, which is what explains the generic link. The claim about distinctness is also one of the main features of the standard view of process that Salmon (1984), Seibt (2000), and Nicholson & Dupre (2018) reject.

The question for me is whether process ontologists are able to plausibly explain the generic link between stages without resorting to the notion of a common constituent, of something being preserved from one stage to the other, i.e. of something resembling the concept of substance. Without a notion of some kind of common constituent, process philosophy seems to be committed to claim that the stages are absolutely distinct. Christopher Austin makes a similar point, when discussing recent attempts to develop a process ontology for biology, notably that their rejection of everything ‘substantial’ jeopardises their viability (2020).

Now, it is a worry that, with the exception of the standard view I present above, explicit alternative accounts of process are actually very scarce. The alternative accounts amount to no more than rejections of the notion of substance—well, a rejection of the modern analytic view—and an appeal to empirical facts about the dynamic nature of the phenomena studied by the natural sciences. In the recent volume Everything Flows, the closest we get to a characterisation of what a process is amounts to an inclusion or exclusion of theses (l)-(7) above (Nicholson Sc Dupre 2018: 11-13). They say that processes ‘are extended in time: they have temporal parts’ and ‘depend[s] on change for [their] occurrence’ and that it is ‘a mistake to suppose that processes require underlying things, or substances’. Instead, they take reality to be ‘constituted by processes all the way down’, which is to say that they hold ‘change, or better dynamicity, as fundamental or primitive’ and that‘like time itself, it is continuous’ (which is why they reject the Whiteheadian account). What emerges very clearly is that the motivation for thinking about the world in terms of processes is the empirical observation that all the entities of the biological realm are in continuous change. This is a naturalism which I approve of very much. However, I think there is a risk that the opposition to substance is based on a flawed dichotomy, which takes its departure from a mistaken identification of the notion of substance with the modern analytic view.

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