Process Metaphysics (rejected draft)

Sparrows feeding their young; to sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt; to notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy; these are items of Sei Shonagon’s list of things that make one’s heart beat faster. Those that belong to the emperor; suckling pigs; those that have just broken the flower vase; through this taxonomy of animals Borges reduces ad absurdum our certainty about which are the categories of the things we see in the in the world. Shoulder to shoulder with Sei Shonagon’s it becomes evident that despite all his inventiveness Borges did not quit seeing the world as a world of (conventionally classified) things.

Metaphysics is the attempt to identify and understand the building blocks of reality in all levels. Substance metaphysics is the view of a world constituted by things. In western culture this perspective is so pervasive that we take it as a given. As we see by the lists above, even if we are not conscious about our metaphysical presuppositions they change the way we relate to the world. Metaphysics is one of those masters whom the less aware we are about them, the most subject to its invisible powers we become. In the sequence we will take a look at some gains in seeing a world built on processes more akin to Sei Shonagon’s list.

[Isolation vs. relational]

If you see the world as a world of things the tendency is to take isolation as the ideal conditions to know what they are. It is the conception of the laboratory as an anodyne environment. To know what water is the scientist isolates a particle of it and makes an analysis of its constituents. In this ideal condition she will identify two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, but will never get to know the hydrogen bonding. This bonding is the process responsible for the liquid behavior of water. When the scientist explains the flowing of water by the hydrogen bonding between particles you she is dealing with processes. Knowing them both at the sensory and the molecular level is a relational enterprise. To do so you do not isolate but look for the links between the terms. A trip to an isolated place in search of self-knowledge will work only if used to identify missing relations.

[Identity as sameness vs. as program]

Identity is loosely defined as the condition of being equal to itself. In a world of things we tend to push a fixed identity on things. The pyramid of the sun is that construction at Teotihuacan. Açaí is that Amazonian fruit. The notion feels so trivial that the statements seem tautological. Is it? Consider two caterpillars. The first one follows the natural life cycle and becomes a butterfly. The second one, due to some genetic modification, stagnates as a caterpillar until the day it dies. Which one is more like itself? More like a caterpillar? And more like a butterfly? It is really hard to address those question if you are looking for a fixed identity. In a process point of view identity is more like unfolding a predefined program than remaining equal to itself. A pyramid becoming a ruin. A seed becoming a three. A caterpillar becoming a butterfly. All keep their identity through the process because they no less that process than that child that became you.

[Innovation vs. completion] determinism vs. thycheism

If you are thinking the predefined program in a static way it is a sign that you have not abandoned the substance way of thinking. Process are not only change but also a changing change. In a manifold of processes developing in a programmatic way there is always room for some innovation. This can arise due to the relational character of processes. Wolfs live in groups so it is likely that they will develop social features. Some individuals may be so strong in pro-sociality that they start living around other species like humans. Across some generations these innovations will push the pro-social features further to the point of justifying their classification as a new species, that is to say, dogs. Note that once again the notion of process is pervasive. It accounts for the innovations on the development of individuals but also to the realm of species which are also in process. Processes are deterministic with room for innovation and a twist of luck. A child will most likely grow to become an adult, but it can do so in several specific ways, including being a kidult. Another point for process is the fact that the amount of required change for one to remain the same (in some sense) through time.


Once one allows innovation into the programmatic unfolding of processes history comes into play. If processes were fixedly determined as in laboratory conditions we would be able to predict their unfolding before it happened. Once each individual process is unique in having some room for innovation one there is no way to perfectly predict the unfolding. It follows two consequences, one in relation to the future and other to the past. First, to think about the future in a world of processes it is necessary to make complex models with variables accounting for possible changes. Second, history as the specific way in which a previous process unfolded becomes central to understand the present situation. A volcano may or may not erupt. Once it erupted at a given point almost causing the extinction of humans made humans today much more genetically similar than other species. Being so similar who would predict that we would come up with so many artificial reasons for bigotry among us.

[No boundaries]

Taking things as the basic status of the constituents of the world also give an impression that whatever exist has well-defined boundaries. We tend to take our experience of solid bodies with well-defined spatial dimensions and expand to whatever we relate to in the world. It is easy to see the spatial boundaries of a piece of rock. Suppose this rock comes from a mountain. In a chain of mountains is not easy to see where one starts and the other ends. The property of defined boundaries is more on the ‘piece’ than on the ‘rock’. Even more convincing are examples of pure processes as hurricanes or tempests in which there is no specific limit in space or time for its start and end. The relations remains valid. If you fly from Paris to Munich you will for sure feel a cultural shock. Going by bike trough Alsace will make the transition subtle to the point of blurring the boundaries. The same goes for the differences between wolves and dogs.

[Body mind]

Substance metaphysics alters between two positions towards the difference between concepts and things. Either they divide them as separate mode of existence as in mind and body dualism or they reduce everything to a corporeal existence explaining concepts as firing neurons. This is because when we think about static things it is hard to think of emergence of a new think beyond the composition of once isolated smaller things. Thus you can explain a library as a sum of its books, but you have a hard time explaining sums that are more then the mere sum of its parts. Think about a book whose meanings emerge of the union of its words but go way beyond it. In a processual approach emergence is the rule. Physical processes as firing neurons give the conditions to the emergence of conceptual processes as feelings and thoughts. As the mixed treatment of physical and conceptual entities above prove they can be treated in similar processual ways.


Process philosophy offers a powerful refreshing perspective to understand reality from the micro to the macro-level. As such despite the historical preference for a substance way of thinking process is gaining room these days in a wide range of disciplines from physics to economics. The paradigm shifts we saw are widely applicable. Thinking about processes as fundamental compels us to investigate items in their inter-relations, including the context they occur, to blur boundaries and to recognize individual change as a necessity to persistence. We should at least consider this powerful perspective the next time we think about the nature, objects, institutions and ourselves.

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