A new lens to view the world: the world as process

My PhD is essentially an exercise in communicating and examining the potential for an  alternative worldview to the mechanistic materialism offered by process philosophy to contribute to addressing structural forms of violence and working toward peace.

Process philosophy is too rarely taught in university philosophy as the current fashion there is divided between analytical or postmodern navel gazing. Yet process philosophy contains deeply enlightening ideas for anyone’s search for wisdom – which is what philosophy is supposed to be about.

Process philosophy offers a new lens through which you can see the world not as comprised of many separate “things” that impose cause and effect on each other (this is the materialist worldview). Instead process philosophy provides a way of seeing the world as comprised of “events” or “processes”.

In my research I’m trying to map out where this worldview sits in the real world, and what kind of impact it can have in bringing about a more peaceful and ecologically harmonious world system.

What is this process worldview? Further to replacing things with events, which sounds terribly abstract, what does it mean to see the world as process?

This short introduction by Jonathan Cobb (grandson of famous process philosopher John Cobb Jr), who I met at the Seizing an Alternative: Towards Ecological Civilization conference mid-2015, may be a good place to start:

How would seeing your “self” not as separate from other people and your environment, but as a web of relationships in ever-changing process, impact on your experience of being a self?

How can seeing other people as changing processes to whom you are in relationship with, impact your attitude toward that person?

How can seeing social, religious, political and economic institutions, as processes that are forever changing, impact your experience of these institutions?

So long as these questions are in words they will feel abstract. The big challenge that I (and other process thinkers face) is how to communicate these ideas in a world in which they seem so foreign?

How do you challenge the deep assumptions of the dominant mechanistic materialist worldview, when no one even realises that they see the world in this way?

When it seems so blatantly obvious that a table is a “thing” that is separate from me, how does one come to see that this view is tied up in language and in a view of the world that has arisen historically and is not the only way one can see the table? Is it really possible to see the table as an event? Yes!

The table has a life – it was formed out of materials that were once produced by nature, it exists for some time in its current form, and it will one day transform into something else, decompose, or be buried as waste. As the table exists in front of you it exists in relationship with you, and in relationship with everything else in the room in which it is placed. At a quantum level the table is a pattern of vibrations existing as a series of events in relationship with to the vibrations of the book or glass, the light waves, the air, the floor and so on. All of this exists in a geographical space, and within a period of time. All of this is being experienced by you in a united moment of experience—as a whole. So, one can see a table as a relational event, rather than a thing.

Is this just a matter of abstract academic wordplay, or is there a deeper significance in the difference between substance and process perspectives? Personally I see something important in this distinction, and like process thinkers I believe this is fundamental to some of the problems in the world today.

Whitehead sees all temporal objects as comprised of series of moments, “occasions of experience”. These occasions of experience combine to make YOU – as a process, in relationship with everything and everyone around you, for a certain period of time and in a series of geological places. The point that Whitehead makes is that the things that look like things, can only temporarily be called things, they are primarily events.

Such a view makes sense of the latest in physical sciences that show that matter is energy, essentially comprised of vibrations, and those vibrations are essentially relationships to other vibrations.

I do not know that I exist because I can think, as Descartes posed, but I exist because I am in relationship with other events that exist. I comprehend these relationships in a series of experiences.

What difference does this make, to see the world as comprised of events rather than things? It may sound abstract and meaningless but in fact this shift in lens CHANGES EVERYTHING!

You see, our Western culture is based on things. Our economy is based on money and the exchange of commodities. Our legal system is based on entities that are separate, the policies of governments assume a separation of people from their environments, our social practices assume that we are unchanging static entities, our universities and education teach in subjects and disciplines as if they are all separate from each other.

We prioritise what we can put numbers on, what we can quantify, measure, weigh. A process lens still counts and measures, but it does so in the context of a broader framework of real life processes: emotions, environments, relationships, happiness… A process lens evaluates and constructs laws, policies, institutions and practices in their context, evaluates them in connection to each other, with a big picture and long-term perspective in mind.

For example, the transport authority in Sydney might consider restricting the 40km school zones to suburban streets, rather than including them on busy highways (this really exists!) that adds to the time people spend in cars rather than with their families, with the traffic adding to anxieties.

Legal and political systems would seek to address the root causes of problems not just the superficial solutions, e.g. by putting in place rules that force:

  • fossil fuel corporations to invest their profits in the development of green energy solutions (it might piss a few shareholders off, but it is in their own long-term interests as a human being who wishes to live with clean air, water, food, and with environmental systems that sustain life)
  • all corporations to develop their products and services to be 100% renewable and recyclable, leaving the planet better off for human consumption (like ants leave their environment better off for their being there)
  • governments to implement a universal minimum income (even if this increased costs of production the long-term, it would help to stabilise population and keep the economy within environmental limits in the long-term)
  • encourage a return to small rather than industrial farming, animals would be given space to roam and cruelty to animals ceased (as they are approached with empathy, as fellow living beings in this world), and people would adjust their diets to consume the servings of animal meat they need rather than the cultural norm in the West of daily meat
  • agriculture would no longer be allowed to mono-crop with the sole aim of short-term profit, but would be required to plant variety of seeds to maintain the richness and long-term health of the soil, and the nutrition and diversity of our foods (e.g. a variety of decent apples would return to the shelves)
  • governments would no longer be able to accept donations (from corporations, lobby groups or private interests) but would be provided a set budget out of the tax income for sharing their policy plans
  • provisions would be put in place to ensure a free media, not owned and manipulated by the interests of the most wealthy people on the planet

A process lens is to see the world as alive (rather than dead), comprised of organisms with purpose (as opposed to purposeless matter), and a world in which we are participants in the creating of the future (as opposed to tiny pre-determined cogs in a giant machine).

As I study Whitehead and other process philosophers I will try to expand on Cobb’s enlightening cartoon and this introduction to further explain what the world looks like through this lens, how this can benefit your personal experience of the world, and how the shift in decision-making that may result can contribute to bringing about a better world.

Want know more without waiting for my next ad hoc blog entry? Here are some fantastic sites from professional process philosophers and the process philosophical community:

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1 Comment

  1. Kevin Wayne Lundgren
    30 Jan ’16    

    Hello ,
    My name is Kevin Wayne Lundgren in the United States in central Texas near Austin
    Came across your blogs about Agriculture and its past and present status I carry 5 generations of knowledge and now witnessing the disappearing act of sound farming practices.
    It is a breath of fresh air to know that across the World people actually( get it ) Personally I have changed my farming practices to be a better steward of the land and have committed to the future as this is all we have.
    Here is a quote from a book called Weeds Control Without Poisons by Charles Walters
    “Not since the Romans salted the land after destroying Carthage has a nation taken such pains to visit the war upon future generations”.
    When I read this many years ago the whole issue hit home as the roar traffic covers fields, no longer the fragrance of wildflowers bolting in the spring but the stench of toxic chemistry eliminating multiple species seeds born of a laboratory designed engineered not to be propagated, only purchased .
    I am fortunate in some respect that in the early days of my youth that I was able to catch a glimpse of farm life before all this, reading about your work assured me that the message is out there . Thanks for the good work.
    .
    . K.W.Lundgren

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