Process Philosophy and Buddhism: Process Metaphysics versus Substance Metaphysics
1. Christian versus Buddhist worldviews
I've written this article in response to a couple of recent critiques of Buddhism by two prominent Catholic intellectuals, George Neumayr and Professor Regis Martin, which demonstrate common misunderstandings of Buddhist beliefs. One of the causes of these misunderstandings is that Catholics and Buddhists have two very different metaphysical views of the world, which will almost inevitably result in them talking past each other.
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of existence.
There are two main varieties of metaphysics:
(i) Substance Metaphysics
(ii) Process Metaphysics.
Substance metaphysics holds that the foundations of reality are things, substances and universal forms. In contrast, process metaphysics holds that no stable foundation to reality can be found, and everything we observe is the aspect of a process or processes.
Most western philosophies have been based on substance metaphysics, whereas most schools of Buddhism are committed to process metaphysics. Classical (pre-quantum, pre-Darwinian) science presupposed substance metaphysics, whereas modern science is moving towards process models of reality.
In terms of religious views, this difference can easily lead to misunderstandings. Most Christians believe that a thing called 'the soul' survives death and continues to exist independently of the body. Most Buddhists believe that a cognitive process called the 'mental continuum' or 'mindstream' survives death and continues to operate for a while independently of biophysical processes, until it forms a further association with another set of biophysical processes constituting the developing body of its next rebirth.
This is easily misinterpreted: 'Buddhists don't believe in the soul' (as a thing) rapidly becomes misunderstood as 'Buddhists don't believe anything survives death'.
I've listed the contrasting features of substance metaphysics versus process metaphysics below. Not all the points will apply to a particular philosophical variety of metaphysics, but the lists give a general flavor of the different worldviews, and will hopefully give Christians and Buddhists a clearer idea of where the other is coming from during interfaith dialog.
2. Major features of Substance Metaphysics
2.1 Focuses on what there is.
2.2 Being is primary, becoming is secondary.
2.3 Reality is an assembly of static components whose changeable aspects are secondary and superficial.
2.4 Matter is static and stable and can be categorized into fundamental substances composed of atoms and particles.
2.5 The identity of an individual plant or animal is determined by some 'ideal form', specification, or prototype for the particular species of which it is a member. Thus the actual forms of individual dogs are determined by the universal form of 'dog'.
2.6 The human mind is either a 'thing' (a soul as believed by Christians), or is a secondary and superficial emergent phenomenon of matter (as believed by materialists).
2.7 Processes are secondary to substances, and consist of rearrangements of very small things (stable unchanging atoms).
2.8 Measurements are real, objective properties of what is being measured 'out there'.
2.9 There's a tendency to favor creationism rather than evolution.
2.10 There are often essentialist assumptions and presuppositions.
3. Major features of Process Metaphysics
3.1 Focuses on what is occurring and the way it is occurring.
3.2 Becoming is primary, being is secondary, arbitrary and ultimately impermanent
3.3 All functioning phenomena are processes.
3.4 The human mind is a process.
3.5 All physical (as distinct from mental) processes can be modelled and understood in terms of the operations of a 'Turing machine'. (Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle)
3.6 Anything that causes a change is itself changed.
3.7 Large scale macro objects consist of combinations of very small processes (quantum phenomena).
3.8 Measurements are properties of interactive processes. The observer is part of the system.
3.9 There is a tendency to favor evolution rather than creationism.
3.10 Empty space is itself a process, with entities continually coming in and out of existence (quantum vacuum).
3.11 All living individuals are processes, with their apparent stability being maintained by 'homeostasis', which is a collection of coordinated processes that utilize energy inputs to maintain structure, water balance, chemical composition, pH, temperature etc. When the processes of homeostasis fail, the individual undergoes the process of death.
3.12 The subjective assessment of the stability of a phenomenon (e.g. , planet, ocean, continent, shoreline, sandbank, raindrop) is arbitrary and based on the phenomenon's length of endurance in comparison with the human lifetime. 'Things' are snapshots of particular stages of processes.
3.13 The inability to find any stable, self-existent or internal quality of an object that defines what it is, implies that it is the mind of the observer that arbitrarily assigns the name, identity, function, and conventional discreteness to that object.
3.14 There is a continuity between all lifeforms, and our categorizing plants and animals into separate species is an arbitrary result of their current stage of development and the extinction of intermediate forms (Dawkins' Granny chain).
3.15 The predisposition of humans to reify phenomena is a cognitive bias resulting from our evolutionary history.
4. Mental processes - when Buddhism goes beyond science
If Buddhism were only concerned with physical processes, then it would be nothing more than a philosophy of science. However, Buddhism is especially concerned with non-physical, mental cognitive processes, such as the development of qualia in meditation, and the intentionality of attachment and aversion. It is also concerned with the mind as a process that continues from one life to the next, and which does not end when its associated physical processes end.
Physical processes, which include processes studied within the academic discipline of physics itself - and also processes in those disciplines based upon physics such as cosmology, chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, physiology, meteorology, geology, engineering and technology - can all be modelled, simulated and understood in terms of datastructures and algorithms.
In some cases these datastructures/algorithms can be as simple as the formula on the back of an envelope, such as e=mc2. In other cases, they involve complex software simulations. What they all have in common is that they specify processes, and they are all ultimately reducible to the operations of a Turing machine.
A Turing 'machine' is a mathematical structure that can implement and emulate any computable mathematical/logical function or algorithm. Although it’s called a 'machine', and has actually been implemented physically, the Turing Machine is usually regarded as an abstract mathematical thought-experiment. There is a fundamental principle of science, known as the Church–Turing–Deutsch principle, that any physical system can be simulated by a universal Turing Machine.
However, an examination of the architecture and capabilities of the Turing machine demonstrates that it is incapable of supporting or generating such characteristic mental processes as qualia and intentionality. A completely different approach to studying and investigating these mental phenomena is required, which is where introspective Buddhist meditation techniques become applicable.
5. Materialism and physicalism and their refutations
In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only phenomena that exist are matter/energy; that all things are composed of matter, and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance, and reality is identical with the actually occurring states of energy and matter.
This gives a problem to those substantialists who believe in a spiritual dimension to life, which includes most Christian theologians, who are therefore forced to postulate non-material things (souls) composed of some substance or substances which survive the death and dissolution of the material body. This view, which requires the existence of two fundamental kinds of substance - mental and material - is known as substance dualism.
According to the theologians, souls and soul-substance are unique to human beings. Animals don't possess souls and are purely material beings. These theological views run into some pretty obvious difficulties when we try to reconcile them with evolution. In addition, there is no evidence whatsoever of any 'soul-substance' detectable by science.
Process philosophy refutes materialism by demonstrating that processes, rather than substances are fundamental (quantum physics).
At first sight this would seem to provide similar difficulties for anyone asserting a spiritual dimension to existence, in that materialism is simply replaced by the more process-oriented physicalism, which is the philosophical view that everything is explainable in terms of physical processes. The physicalists claim that all mental activities are reducible to the physical processes of neuronal firings in the brain.
However physicalism can be shown to have a yawning explanatory gap when it comes to providing any mechanism of consciousness. It has 'known unknowns', to use a Rumsfeldian idiom, whereas the soul-substance theory is more in the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’.
An eloquent statement of these 'known unknowns' in physicalist attempts to explain the mind was provided by the Victorian physicist John Tyndall in 1871. I'll quote it in full, then go on to discuss some of the points in more detail, taking account of changes in knowledge and terminology in the intervening 142 years - none of which has to the slightest extent invalidated the deficiencies in physicalism identified by Tyndall:
"The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why.
Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable.
Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why?" would remain as unanswerable as before."
—John Tyndall (1871), Fragments of Science
6. Comments on Tyndall’s critique of physicalism
6.1 "The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable."
It still is. Philosophers still cannot conceive of how a sequence of physical events, whether spiralling molecules, diode states, neuronal discharges or strings of characters, can produce qualitative experience (see the Chinese Room argument).
6.2 "We do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other."
If we rephrase 'intellectual organ' as 'intellectual faculty', then the major addition since Tyndall’s time has been computer simulation and modelling. Nevertheless, all that computer science has done is to confirm Tyndall's view by providing a more rigorous definition of physical and mechanistic processes, and a better understanding of why such processes cannot in themselves support the mental processes of intentionality and qualitative experience.
To illustrate this, suppose that we could map the brain, to whatever degree of accuracy required (down to single molecules if need be) as a three dimensional array of values in a computer. Consider also that we knew that a certain configuration of values was associated with pleasure, and a different configuration of values was associated with pain.
This three-dimensional array of values is reducible to, and actually stored within the computer as a one-dimensional array if binary digits (isomorphic with the tape in a Turing machine). So we would then know that, say, 01010 was associated with pleasure, and 01101 was associated with pain.
However, the mechanism by which these binary strings caused the subjective experiences would remain as obscure as ever, because there is no envisageable 'mechanism', in the Turing sense, that can bridge the gap between a datastructure and subjective experience.
6.3 "Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable."
In other words, if the technology of brain scanning were so improved and perfected that we could follow the causal chain of physical or biophysical processes from seeing someone we love/hate, starting from the eye, then through the optic nerve into the brain until its final physical manifestation as the firing of neurones, we would have reached a state beyond which no physical causal mechanism was present, and yet causality would still be occurring, as evidenced by the experience of love/hate.
From a Buddhist point of view, any further causality along the chain would be regarded as coming from mental processes rather than physical processes.
Imagine the case where we caught sight of our fiancé(e) after an absence (which made the heart grow fonder). Our mental processes would interact with the physical processes of the brain to produce the qualitative feeling of love. Now consider the case where we caught sight of the same person a couple of years later as he/she was entering the courtroom during particularly acrimonious divorce proceedings. Would our mental processes then interact with the same physical processes of the brain to produce the qualitative feeling of hate?