Even More Dots: Process Philosophy

People seem to have an unlimited ability to create new ways to abstract and conceptualize physical relationships. One of the less common approaches is the idea of a process. Although the idea of processes is very old, it didn’t reach a very formal realization until the work of Alfred North Whitehead, a mathematician who became associated with Bertrand Russell and eventually constructed a philosophy of his own called Process Philosophy.

Process philosophy seems mystical to many, and indeed Russell was never very fond of it. Whitehead was platonic in his thinking rather than strictly materialist, setting him at odds with the ethos of his day, which, enlightenment and renaissance in its foundations, hoped to explain everything by material causes. For Whitehead, matter and substance were secondary components, evanescent and changeable, and shaped by their evolution through time. He would see a table in the kitchen, not as a simple object in purely three dimensions, but as a momentary glimpse of a process that had a beginning, when the table was made, and had an ending, when the table was eventually discarded and destroyed. The table of yesterday, young, unmarred, still glowing with fresh varnish, could not be reclaimed from the march of time, and the table of today, while similar, is nevertheless different, marred, worn, and ineluctably degraded.

I was never comfortable with the idea of process philosophy because it seemed to deny the intransigent durability of matter. After all, rock is hard, and surely its material must be the foundation of any concept of reality, yes?

But process philosophy is just another way of drawing lines between dots.

In my previous articles on dots, A Theory of Dots and More Dots, I explored how solid form is constructed over the gaps between material particles. Geometry, especially solid geometry, is more than an abstract type of mathematics, it also describes how we see things, and it’s undeniable that geometrical rules underly the physical structure of many aspects of the material world. Even atoms arrange themselves in crystals in geometrical ways. The distances between particles, and the structures that particles are arranged in, are all elements of conceptual form that is distinct from, yet includes, the particles that define the vertices of the shapes around us.

Process philosophy is nothing more than drawing the connections between particles in time rather than space. The line of geometry becomes the path of history, the course of evolution, of particles and their larger structures.

And just as, with geometry, we can draw an arbitrary number of curves through any selected group of points, so, too, in identifying processes, we can construct the paths of dots through time in any number of different conceptual views. Life, for example, is a kind of death; a process of emergence, and a process of decay. Life brings forth diversity and generates new objects, but it depletes the environment of raw materials and impoverishes the land. What processes exist are all in how we choose to relate the changes the process entails, and which specific changes we choose to notice, and those that are ignored.

None of this is to say processes aren’t real. It only means processes aren’t physical. They are an abstract view of metamorphoses in time, in the same way that geometry abstracts relations in space. Both are useful, and both have meaning, and the fact that they are not purely material is not very important. As we’ve seen before in these talks, any logical structure is a language L formed of elements of two sets, V and R,

L = {V,R}

where V is a vocabulary of elementary objects, and R are rules of relations between them. You can make a chess game by inventing the pieces and defining their possible moves, or you can describe a process for making steel by combining ores in a series of refining steps. Both are equally arbitrary, and equally valid.

The conclusion we continually reach in this study of dots, is that the world we live in is only partially material. It also contains abstract and conceptual components which are just as important, because they provide the form and structure of our world, without which we could not survive in it.

About John Valley

Born in Michigan, USA, in 1948, I've since lived all over the US, but back here again. I've worked as operating systems developer, consultant, and published three books on Unix and programming back in the 90's. My interests include philosophy and cooking chili. I can usually be found online in the mornings, on Undernet, chatting with people in the #Philosophical channel.
This entry was posted in Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s