Presume not that I am the thing I was

Have you ever wondered which is more fundamental, process or things? Surprisingly, I can’t remember the last time the question crossed my mind. I mean the words are straightforward enough: a process is a series of actions that achieve a particular end, whereas a thing… well, come on, that’s pretty clear, eh? Fundamental is a bit trickier, perhaps, but ‘centrally important’ probably captures it. Trying to make sense of a question that lumps them all together is almost impossible for the average person, though. Of course, that’s why Philosophy was invented.

And I suppose that’s why I check on it from time to time to see if it’s still on the right track. Fortunately, just as I was wondering how someone could actually do it for a living, I came across an interesting essay on metaphysics by the Brazilian philosopher, Celso Vieira.

Metaphysics, when I looked it up, turns out to be far from what I thought it probably was: the quest to transmute iron into gold. It turns out that was alchemy, however -an honest mistake. No, metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with first principles -you know, being, knowing, time, identity, and probably anything else that you never thought to delve more deeply into.

Vieira, for some reason, decided that things and processes were ripe for delving -perhaps he has tenure at some university down there- and he tweaked my interest when he suggested that ‘human beings use metaphysical assumptions to navigate the world. Assumptions about what exists and what is fundamental exert a powerful influence on our lives.’ I thought it strange that I hadn’t noticed it before, but it may be because I am only recently retired. So, having nothing better to do at the time, I read further.

It turns out that ‘Western metaphysics tends to rely on the paradigm of substances. We often see the world as a world of things… Objects are the paradigmatic mode of existence, the basic building blocks of the Universe. What exists exists as an object.’ Seems simple enough to grasp -it’s called substance metaphysics. And, he continues, ‘That is to say, things are of a certain kind, they have some specific qualities and well-defined spatial and temporal limits.’

But Vieira thinks this is wrong… Whoa. ‘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.’ Makes sense, I suppose, although let’s face it I’m definitely malleable when it comes to process metaphysics.

It did remind me of one of the few things I remember from university philosophy, though: Heraclitus’ metaphor of The River. Vieira even uses it to illustrate his point: ‘It is not possible,’ [Heraclitus] 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).’ It’s still the same thing -a river- but is it? ‘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.’ Okay… Of course, maybe I’m only agreeing because Vieira used an example that I remember -familiarity breeds credence. But then he drives the nail in: ‘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.’

I mean, identity is like that too, isn’t it? I am a huge collection of cells -of ‘things’- but they are constantly being shed and renewed. I don’t even look much like my childhood pictures, and yet I feel myself as part of a continuum over the intervening time. So, what constitutes a ‘me’? Process, that’s what.

So, let’s see, because nothing is static -not even molecules, or atoms- everything is in the process of change. Therefore there may not be any ‘things’. Vieira uses an example by the early 20ieth century philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (how could I forget a name like that?): ‘we should think about ‘occurrences’ instead of ‘things’.’

But, ‘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… A universal is the thing that particulars have in common, such as types, kinds and relations. Universals are essentially different from particulars.’

I think I should have stopped reading after the last paragraph. I mean, I followed his argument up to that point, but perhaps the devil is always in the details. Maybe Vieira should have simply inserted a brief discussion of Plato’s Forms at that point to help explain Universals for the ‘thing’ side. Even I remember Plato’s idea that although we can have an infinite variety of triangles, say, the idea (the Form) of triangle would be an example of an unchanging, albeit otherwise unappreciable ‘thing’. But I suppose Vieira couldn’t think of everything, eh? Or maybe he felt that it would give too much ammunition to the ‘thing’ people.

At any rate, I think he’s on to something; I have a feeling I’m a process type. And just because my skin is now wrinkled and I have to get up at least once a night, there’s still a beating, changing ‘me’ in there somewhere that ‘I’ recognize, even when the mirror tries to confuse me.

There is one thing that bothers me about it all, however. Is reality a process (or whatever) merely because we think it is? Without a mind to apprehend the changes, would it still be the same? Would there still be a continuity, or simply an endless succession of ‘things’? Does the fact that a mind links them together play a central role in process? Is mind the ‘Form’ that Vieira forgot to mention?

Just wondering, eh?


1 thought on “Presume not that I am the thing I was

  1. Enjoyed reading the post.
    I think you’re onto something there!


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