Friday, 27 November 2009

Buddhism and Process Philosophy

Never stepping into the same river twice

Process Philosophy versus Substantialism

Process Philosophy holds that the underlying basis of reality is change, process and impermanence. Becoming is more basic than being, and existence is really just impermanence in slow-motion.

The converse view - Substantialism, holds that true reality is 'timeless' and based on permanent ideal forms. Change is accidental, whereas the substance is essential.

Traditional Western philosophy has always denied any full reality to change, which is conceived as only accidental and not essential.

Buddhism is, of course, the ultimate Process Philosophy. According to Buddhism, all functioning phenomena are impermanent and have no essential natures or inherent existence.

Dominance of Substantialism in Western thought
However, Substantialism has dominated Western philosophy from the time of Plato until the early twentieth century, and is still deeply embedded within our culture.

There were indeed Process Philosophers among the early Greeks. For example Heraclitus pointed out that no-one can step into the same river twice. It's not the same river nor is it the same person.

Process Philosophy Field Trip

Nevertheless, the early process philosophers were ignored or forgotten, and the theory of ideal forms propounded by Plato was adopted by the later Greeks and then enthusiastically embraced by the Christian Church as a justification for Creationism, and the derived doctrines of Original Sin, the Fall of Man etc.

Darwinism and Process Philosophy
Creationists believe that species are unchanging and derive their forms by reference to a divine blueprint equivalent to Plato's 'essences' or 'ideal forms', which were fixed by God, unchanging and inherently existent. Bible-believing creationists claim that the world and all its species were created in six days of a single week around 4004 BC.

In contrast, Process philosophy is evolutionary. If all things are impermanent, constantly arising, becoming, changing and fading, then nothing exists 'from its own side' or by reference to some 'essence'.

Just as Buddhist philosophers had previously rejected the Platonic mechanism of production from 'ideal forms' as being the fallacy of 'production from inherently existent other', so the Darwinians came to the conclusion that a species does not correspond to any inherent reality, but is merely a concept that the mind imputes over interbreeding groups of plants and animals with similar characteristics (and the majority of their genes in common). The boundary between one species and another is not clear-cut.

The Michelson–Morley experiment
Just as the theory of evolution emphasised the dynamic processes of mutation and selection, rather than static species as the fundamental realities of biology,  a similar transformation of thinking was to affect physics a few years later with the negative result of the Michelson–Morley experiment.

Until the nineteenth century, it was thought that all waves must propagate through matter. In other words, processes such as sound and water waves needed some substance to support their existence.   It was therefore assumed that space was filled with a 'luminiferous aether' through which electromagnetic waves such as light, heat, radio waves, X-rays etc propagated like ripples on a pond.  But the Michelson–Morley experiment demonstrated that this aether did not exist, and thus electromagnetic waves were standalone processes with no supporting substance.   Quantum physics was later to show that the fundamental particles of matter are also processes.

Quantum Physics, Chemistry and Substantialism
Another blow to substantialism came from atomic physics. For 2000 years scientists believed that atoms were solid chunks of matter embodying the unchanging qualities of their elements. During the 20th century this has been superseded by subatomic physics, which views matter as being a manifestation of quantum interactions and processes.

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev

In the 19th century chemists such as Mendeleev discovered numerical relationships between the elements. Then, with the development of subatomic physics, it was demonstrated that an element's properties aren't determined by its essential nature, but by the number of electrons orbiting its nucleus.

The worldview of quantum physics differs radically from that of classical physics. An an electron isn't actually a 'thing', it's a dynamic mathematical process known as a wavefunction.

Classical physics regarded the universe as being composed of clearly-defined building blocks ('things') which were specified by their own internal properties. Quantum physics sees the universe as an ever-changing set of relationships between entities which can be defined only in terms of those relationships.

Whitehead's Process Philosophy
The first real break with 2000 years of Western substantialism came with Alfred North Whitehead's Process Philosophy formulated in the 1920's: 'The process metaphysics elaborated in Process and Reality proposes that the fundamental elements of the universe are occasions of experience. According to this notion, what people commonly think of as concrete objects are actually successions of occasions of experience. Occasions of experience can be collected into groupings; something complex such as a human being is thus a grouping of many smaller occasions of experience.' -

Whitehead on Buddhism and Christianity
Whether Whitehead's formulation of Process Philosophy was influenced by Buddhism, or whether he arrived at his conclusions independently and later realised their similarity with Buddhism, is unclear.

Alfred North Whitehead

Whitehead famously remarked that "Christianity ... has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion." This observation is something worth considering in the current debates in the Buddhoblogosphere about whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, and how far Buddhism and Christianity are compatible.

The underlying metaphysic that generates the religion of Buddhism is the Four Seals of Dharma.

'Existence' is really just impermanence in slow-motion.

To say that something exists is ultimately an arbitrary statement. All we are saying is that its rate of disintegration is negligible on the timescale of our lifetime. In reality, all functioning phenomena are impermanent - it's just that some are more impermanent than others.

'Change and decay in all around I see...'

All 'things' are impermanent, and so all things are in reality processes. Things do not stay the same from one millisecond to the next. Anything composed of atoms is composed of parts in a constant state of flux.

- Sean Robsville


Detailed Discussion of Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Rational Buddhism

Essentialism, Ideal Forms, Plato, Buddhism and Generic Images

Evolution is no Threat to Buddhism

Existence, Impermanence and Emptiness in Buddhism

The Four Seals of Dharma

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Science and Engineering

Essentialism in Physics, Chemistry and Biology

Sunyata - the emptiness of all things

Inherent Existence in Buddhist Philosophy

Quantum Buddhism - Buddhist Particle Physics




Anonymous said...

You’ve started from a wrong principle when you stand in equal stance the “process philosophy” and “substantialism”. The first one is immanent and the second is transcendent. You cannot compare different concepts in the way you did. Buddhism ― as Christianism does ― has an immanent dimension (Samsara) and a transcendent dimension (Nirvana); the immanent dimension has strong links to the quantum world, as well as the transcendent dimension could be linked to the quantum singularity.

Furthermore, please note that evolutionism did not begin with Darwin; some Christian medieval scholastic philosophers and even Aristotle wrote about animal evolutionism in his “Metaphysics”. Even Anaximander (born 610 b.C.) stood with the theory that humans have evolved from other animals. However, “creationism is a myth as well as it is evolutionism, because it is impossible to explain the mutation of forms” (Eric Voegelin).

ai said...

Readers interested in the relationship between Buddhism and process philosophy may find the following, which is the first in a series of three posts on Buddhist mindfulness practice (especially Shinzen Young's version of it) and the process philosophy of Whitehead and Peirce, to be of interest:

Anonymous said...

Substantialism in religion is found (as religion) at

All religions then are ultimate not 'substantialist', except one, the substantialist religion which seeks humanity, fullness, reality, not delusion with spirit only in afterlife. The difference is life and death. With spirit, you die. With substantialism you reincarnate into a normal living form without altering reality senses you feel on Earth. You reincarnate into a human that you were, while Buddhism sees it necessary to die, so you can reincarnate not in afterlife, but on Earth, maybe as an animal. But to become that animal you have to die, and forget who you were while you are an animal in your next life.

In a substantialist forms, you reincarnate to a living you, but on another world like Earth, where all reality is normal, like on Earth, and you choose if you want to live a life on Earth, but not transcending into other forms where you are not fully you.

The point of substantialism is that you remain fully you in afterlife, not spirit, not a form consistent with death to play part where you transcend elsewhere (as spirit).

Since to you religion, be it Buddhism is ultimate spirit, not humanism and common realism, you do not understand substantialism, because you can't. But on my web page it is explained perfectly.