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Process Metaphysics

In his book Process and Reality A.N.Whitehead abandoned the notion, strong in Western philosophy since Parmenides and Plato in the 5th Century BCE, that what is most unchanging is most real. Instead he conceived the structure of reality in dynamic terms (an approach which goes back to Heraclitus). Whitehead set out a radical metaphysics based not on entities but on events - on an infinite series of ‘actual occasions.’ All entities are ‘momentary constituents of the processes of reality’; unchangingness is a property of what is ‘dead, past, abstract or purely formal.’Pailin, D, God and the Processes of Reality (London: Routledge, 1989) p51The emphasis is on becoming, on development in time, rather than on static being.

Space does not permit a detailed analysis of this way of thinking, except to say that for process thought the central metaphor for understanding the world is that of organism, rather than that of machine. The formation of each event is a function of:

  • the nature of the entities involved (as in, for instance, a physicalist scheme)

  • their context and interdependence on a number of levels (in a way more characteristic of biological organisms than of inanimate objects)

  • their ‘experience’ and their effort to ‘fulfil their possibilities to the full’ in the given event (language deriving not merely from biology but from the analogy of human mentality).

As Barbour describes, ‘Each entity is a center of spontaneity and self-creation, contributing distinctively to the world.’Barbour, I, Religion and Science (London: SCM Press, 1998) p285This assignment of quasi-mental subjective experience to all entities is known as panpsychism, or sometimes pan-experientialism. The best recent account of process thought is that of David PailinPailin, D, God and the Processes of Reality (London: Routledge, 1989). For briefer summaries see Fiddes, P, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press) p40-45, or Barbour, 1998, 284-304, 322-28....(1989).

Note that the process scheme is neither consistent nor inconsistent with experimental observations - it does not of itself give rise to any empirically testable proposals.It is sometimes supposed that because Whitehead formulated his metaphysics at the time of the great developments in physics known as the second quantum revolution [The Schrödinger Wave Equation was published...Nothing in science attributes any sort of subjectivity to an entity like an electron, nor is such a postulate anywhere supported by experiment. Whitehead’s scheme is true ‘meta’-physics.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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