Which is More Fundamental: Processes or Things? by Celso Vieira

Glass Half Full or Half Empty by Sealle, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Metaphysics is the attempt to understand how existence works by examining the building blocks of reality, the distinctions between mental and physical entities, and the fundamental questions of being and reality. But metaphysics is not only an arcane branch of philosophy: human beings use metaphysical assumptions to navigate the world. Assumptions about what exists and what is fundamental exert a powerful influence on our lives. Indeed, the less aware we are of our metaphysical assumptions, the more we are subject to them.

Western metaphysics tends to rely on the paradigm of substances. We often see the world as a world of things, composed of atomic molecules, natural kinds, galaxies. Objects are the paradigmatic mode of existence, the basic building blocks of the Universe. What exists exists as an object. That is to say, things are of a certain kind, they have some specific qualities and well-defined spatial and temporal limits. For instance: Fido is my dog, he is grey, and was born one year ago. (It’s worth noting that such a simple statement will give rise to a litany of metaphysical disputes within substance metaphysics: realists believe that universals, such as the natural kind ‘dogs’, exist while nominalists believe them to be only intellectual abstractions.)

Though substance metaphysics seems to undergird Western ‘common sense’, I think it is wrong. To see this, consider the cliché about the glass of water: is it half-empty or half-full? The question assumes a static arrangement of things serving as a basis for either an optimistic or a pessimistic interpretation. One can engage in interminable disputes about the correct description of the physical set-up, or about the legitimacy of the psychological evaluations. But what if the isolated frame ‘a glass of water’ fails to give the relevant information? Anyone would prefer an emptier glass that is getting full to a fuller one getting empty. Any analysis lacking information about change misses the point, which is just what substance metaphysics is missing. Process philosophers, meanwhile, think we should go beyond looking at the world as a set of static unrelated items, and instead examine the processes that make up the world. Processes, not objects, are fundamental.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus provides the most famous image of process metaphysics. ‘It is not possible,’ he says, ‘to step twice into the same river’ – because existence depends on change; the river you step into a second time is changed from the river you stepped into originally (and you have changed in the interval, too). And while substance philosophers will tend to search for the smallest constituent objects in order to locate reality’s most fundamental building blocks, process philosophers think this is insufficient. So do modern physicists. Electrons are now understood as bundles of energy in a field, and quantum vacuum fluctuations prove that there are fields without bundles but no bundles without fields. Things seem to be reducible to processes – and not the reverse. (As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, we should think about ‘occurrences’ instead of ‘things’.)

Change poses a recurring problem for substance metaphysics. Universals have traditionally been a popular way to circumvent it. These static entities are difficult to define precisely, but can be thought of as ‘hyper-things’ that are instantiated in many different particular things. A universal is the thing that particulars have in common, such as types, kinds and relations. Universals are essentially different from particulars: Aristotle, for instance, argued that particulars – such as Fido my dog – are subject to generation and corruption, while species – the universal – are eternal. This particular example provides another instance in which science seems to favour process metaphysics. Thanks to the theory of evolution, the Aristotelian view that species are unchanging and eternal was proven wrong. Species evolve. They change. Dogs, after all, evolved from wolves to constitute a whole different kind. Once again, we’re better off using the paradigm of change rather than substance.

Process metaphysics leads to a re-evaluation of other important philosophical notions. Consider identity. To explain why things change without losing their identity, substance philosophers need to posit some underlying core – an essence –that remains the same throughout change. It is not easy to pin down what this core might be, as the paradox of Theseus’ ship illustrates. A ship goes on a long voyage and requires significant repairs: new planks to replace the old, fresh oars to replace the decayed, and so on, until, by the time the ship returns to port, there is not one single piece that belonged to the ship when it departed. Is this the same ship, even though materially it is completely different? For substance philosophers, this is something of a paradox; for process philosophers, this is a necessary part of identity. Of course it is the same ship. Identity ceases to be a static equivalence of a thing with itself. After all, without the repairs, the ship would have lost its functionality. Instead, as the German philosopher Nicholas Rescher argues in Ideas in Process (2009), identity just is a programmatic development. That is, the identity of a process is the structural identity of its programme. Other things being equal, every puppy will turn out to be a dog. (This programme need not be thought of as deterministic. The interactions between processes, Rescher argues, open room for variations.)

Processes are not the mere intervals between two different states of affairs or two objects, as the paradox of the heap exemplifies: take a heap of sand and remove one grain. It remains a heap; one grain doesn’t make a difference. But if you repeat the subtraction enough times, eventually there will be just one grain. Clearly, this isn’t a heap. Where did it become a non-heap? By looking at the process, and not the end-states of affairs, you’ll realise the impossibility of pinpointing the boundary between heap and non-heap. (Similarly, no individual was the exact turning point between wolves and dogs.) At the very least, this gives us a warning about the unnoticed abstraction operating on our division of natural kinds. Process philosophers such as Henri Bergson stop at this negative conclusion, believing that processes cannot be known but only experienced. Regardless, as the Danish philosopher Johanna Seibt notes, it might just be the case that focusing on the process requires a whole new perspective.

Looking at the world as a manifold of interconnected processes has scientific and philosophical advantages, but there are more prosaic benefits too. Process philosophy invites us to look at longer stretches of time, blurred boundaries and connected relations. Identity as a programmatic – but not deterministic – process welcomes innovation through small, recurring changes. Under these metaphysical assumptions, a meaningful life is less about finding your ‘real’ self than expanding its boundaries. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Celso Vieira has a PhD in philosophy from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. He lives in Belo Horizonte where he started the first Brazilian chapter of the effective altruist group The Life You Can Save. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

When Philosophy Needed Muslims, Jews and Christians Alike, by Peter Adamson

From The Three Philosophers, attributed to Giorgione, ca. early 1500’s. It likely portrays a young Italian philosopher, Averroes, and Plato

If you were asked to name the most important philosopher of 10th-century Baghdad, you would presumably not hesitate to say ‘al-Farabi’. He’s one of the few thinkers of the Islamic world known to non-specialists, deservedly so given his ambitious reworking of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics and political philosophy. But if you were yourself a resident of 10th-century Baghdad, you might more likely think of Yahya ibn ‘Adi. He is hardly a household name now, but was mentioned by the historian al-Mas‘udi as the only significant teacher of Aristotelian philosophy in his day. But ibn ‘Adi is not just a good example of how fame wanes across the centuries. He is also a fine illustration of the inter-religious nature of philosophy in the Islamic world.

Ibn ‘Adi was a Christian, as were most of the members of the group of philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle at this time in Baghdad. The Muslim al-Farabi, who was apparently ibn ‘Adi’s teacher, was an exception to the rule. Completing the ecumenical picture, ibn ‘Adi was involved in an exchange of letters with a Jewish scholar named Ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Mawsili, who wrote to him with questions about Aristotle’s philosophy that he was hoping to have cleared up. Admittedly, Baghdad was an exceptional place, the capital of empire and thus a melting pot that drew scholars from all over the Islamic world. But philosophy was an interfaith phenomenon in other times and places too. The best example is surely Islamic Spain, celebrated for its culture of convivencia (‘living together’). Two of the greatest medieval thinkers, the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides, were rough contemporaries who both hailed from al-Andalus. After Toledo fell into the hands of the Christians, the Jew Avendauth collaborated with the Christian Gundisalvi to translate a work by the Muslim thinker Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.

That last example is a revealing one. Philosophy in these times often involved representatives of different faiths because it often presupposed translation. Hardly any philosophers of the Islamic world could read Greek, not even Averroes, the greatest commentator on Aristotle. He and other Muslim enthusiasts for Hellenic wisdom had to rely on translations, which had mostly been executed by Christians in the 8th to 10th centuries. Knowledge of Greek had been maintained by Christian scholars in Byzantine Syria, which explains why Muslim patrons turned to Christians to render works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and many other ancient thinkers into Arabic. Thus the very existence of Hellenic-inspired philosophy in the Islamic world was a manifestation of inter-religious cooperation.

All of which is not to say that the Islamic world was free of inter-religious dispute. On the contrary, it seems that one reason those Muslim patrons were interested in Aristotle was that his logic would give them the tools to keep up with Christian opponents in theological debate. A vivid example is provided by al-Kindi, the first Muslim thinker to draw on Hellenic sources. He wrote a short refutation of the Trinity in which he used Greek logic to argue that God must be wholly one, not one and three – mentioning that Christian readers should be able to follow the argument, given their familiarity with logical concepts. A nice twist to the story is that we know of this refutation only thanks to the aforementioned ibn ‘Adi, who quoted al-Kindi in order then to rebut his attack on the Christian dogma.

While men such as al-Kindi were appropriating Greek ideas to defend Islam and attack Christianity, others disapproved of the importation of these same ideas into Muslim culture: al-Kindi responded to unnamed critics who deplored the use of pagan philosophy, and the founder of the Christian Baghdad school got into a public dispute with a Muslim grammarian over the usefulness of Aristotle’s logic. The grammarian mocked the pretensions of the Christian Aristotelians, and delighted in pointing out that all this logic had not prevented them from believing that God can somehow be both one and three.

Still, it remains the case that philosophy and the sciences more generally offered a kind of meeting point or neutral ground for intellectuals of different faiths. Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared an interest in Aristotle’s metaphysics or the medical theories of Galen read each others’ commentaries and elaborations on the Hellenic tradition. This is shown even by the disputes that they had with one another: using Greek logic to debate the Trinity implicitly suggested that this was a topic that could be resolved by appeal to reason. And many of the thinkers mentioned above argued that philosophy offered the best resource for the interpretation of sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Quran. So it is no coincidence that in the Muslim al-Kindi, the Christian ibn ‘Adi, and the Jew Maimonides, the One God of Abrahamic tradition bears a striking resemblance to the god of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Their shared enterprise as elite philosophers meant that they had more in common with one another than they did with most of their co-religionists.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast. (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’

David Hume, sculpture by Sandy Stoddart on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh

David Hume was always a nerd, something I love about him. Since he was a young boy, he always had his face buried in a book. And he was a happy nerd, self-described as having a ‘cheerful’ and ‘sanguine’ (optimistic) personality. I like that too.

Perhaps that’s why he was able to enter into his self-described ‘New Scene of Thought’. It was a whole new philosophy, one which included, as a central guiding principle, that the honest thinker should never claim to know, or to understand, that which the human mind can’t know or understand, and if they can’t know or understand it, they shouldn’t make strong claims of knowledge about it. But another guiding principle is this: the process of learning and thinking critically is among the noblest endeavors there is.
 
This sounds simple enough. But to the thinkers and to the everyday person in his time, this was not the way people thought. It was the end of the long period of scholasticism, of academics and theologians who took great pride in devising complex and subtle arguments about anything and everything under the sun (and above it), and whose authority was not to be challenged. If you were a member of this elite, you better support this system or you better find another occupation if you don’t want to be financially, and reputationally, ruined. if you were an everyday person, you should stay in your place, accept what the great thinkers have to tell you, and don’t ask too many questions.
 
It’s also a challenge to the way many people think today, from the strong skeptic who says ‘no one can know anything at all, so who cares?’ to the theocrat who says ‘I know the author of the universe, I know what he says, and I know what everyone must believe and how they should act’. We live in an age where screaming pundits dominate the media, who are certain ‘the other side’ is leading us all straight to ruin; where politicians are more reluctant to serve the public interest by putting aside their differences and working together on important issues; where the funding and communication of science is up for grabs to the highest bidding corporations.
 
Hume challenged the philosophers, the theologians, all those who made extraordinary claims about the ultimate nature of reality and of the workings of the human mind. He thought that they were undermining, even destroying the great project of philosophy by being so abstract, and so extravagant in their claims. Too many, Hume thought, had pretensions of knowing exactly how the universe came into being and how it worked, what was ultimate source of morality, what is meant by ‘the soul’ and how human beings are defined by it, and so on. These thinkers based their claims on two things: that the author of the universe has communicated these things to them and that they knew what the author meant, and that the elaborate arguments they constructed were all based on irrefutable logic and careful reasoning. Or some combination of these.
 
Yet these philosophers and theologians were in violent disagreement all the time, sometimes with the such disastrous results as a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for silencing, oppressing, even killing those with different opinions. This was so for even such highly abstruse arguments as to whether there were one or three persons in God, or what was the nature of the invisible force that made the planets go around the sun.
 
How do we account for such disagreements, when they originated from such seemingly perfect sources, revelation and logic? 
 
That’s because, Hume said, they got this wrong: that there’s such a thing as perfect human knowledge or understanding, or even that there is any mind at all that exists that knows all there is to know about everything. The honest thinker is the one that understands that a mind is a limited, fallible thing, and that the one way to know the most we can know is to carefully observe the world then only accept those ideas as true which observation can support. ‘The wise man…proportions his belief to the evidence.’ That’s another thing they got wrong: they tried to go so far with their logic, that the evidence they founded it on was so far removed, or so slight, I’d liken it to building a pyramid of elephants on a ball in a cartoon circus. Better to have a pretty solid foundation before you try such a thing.
 
Hume’s ‘New Scene of Thought’ helped make philosophy a reinvigorated, attractive scene for the curious and the thoughtful. Philosophy, at the time, referred to all areas of study whose project was to discover and understand as much as could be known about the universe. 
 
Funnily enough, it’s the attitude that human beings are fallible in our perceptions and our thinking, that enabled us to learn out as much as we have so far about so many areas of life, and that made the scientific process not only sucessful, but possible. That means when we observe something, or think something, we can’t just run out and proclaim our discoveries, just like that. We have to talk to each other compare notes, patiently test our theories again and again, and even if we’ve done all that, be able to say, humbly, ‘I was wrong’ if a better explanation comes along. This doesn’t mean we can’t believe in anything. It means that belief is always on a spectrum, is stronger or weaker depending on the support we have for it: whether it’s supported by observation and evidence, whether it consistently leads us to make successful predictions and form quality explanatory theories, and so on. But it should never be absolute. We should always be open to finding out more, and always suspicious if someone tells us they have the final, absolute answer.
 
It took this optimistic, friendly (Hume was well known to be a kind and genial person), and careful thinker, of great integrity, to form such a beautifully honest philosophy. Always having his nose in a book, he was well-read, and understood that there was an incredibly wide range of human thought and experience to draw from, much of it contradicting each other. And his reaction was not that we should resolve these contradictions by finding some orthodoxy and sticking to it, or saying at all that is not strictly logical in some abstract, perfect sense is valueless. He was able to take it all at face value for what it was: the natural outcome of what it means to have a human mind. The human mind is not just a reasoner, or a believer: it also perceives, dreams, thinks, feels, hallucinates. It’s variable, and it’s fascinating, and it all needs to be taken into account, if you want to pursue understanding to the utmost that you can. 
 
If you don’t yet have the answer, you must always be ready to say, honestly, ‘I don’t know’. That leaves you able and ready to say the next best sentence in the quest for knowledge: ‘Let’s find out.’
 
And this is only his epistemology (the study of knowledge) and his answer to metaphysics (the study of the fundamental nature of reality). Don’t get me started on his moral philosophy, which is even more awesome….. ’cause that will be the topic for another essay.
Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Sources and inspiration:
 
Hume, David. ‘Letter to a Physician‘, 1734. 

Hume, David. My Own Life, 1776. 

Morris, William Edward. ‘David Hume‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.

The Weird Concept of Nothing in A Universe Full of Somethings

‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’.

Most of us, I think, have been challenged with this question, usually as a preface to an attempt to convert us or to to convince us of the truth of one belief system or another.

But I’ve wondered for quite some time why so many consider this a compelling question. Why assume that ‘nothing’ is the default state in a universe that’s chock-full of ‘somethings’: objects with mass, properties, forces, the space-time continuum, subatomic particles, and so on?

It seems to me that ‘nothing’, unaccompanied by the existence of somethings, is the hypothetical state in need of explanation.

What do you think?