Volume 57, Issue 2, 2020
Life as Process
The thesis of this paper is that our understanding of life, as reflected in the biological and medical sciences but also in our everyday transactions, has been hampered by an inappropriate metaphysics. The metaphysics that has dominated Western philosophy, and that currently shapes most understanding of life and the life sciences, sees the world as composed of things and their properties. While these things appear to undergo all kinds of changes, it has often been supposed that this amounts to no more than a change in the spatial relations of their unchanging parts.
From antiquity, however, there has been a rival to this view, the process ontology, associated in antiquity with the fragmentary surviving writings of Heraclitus. In the last century it has been especially associated with the work of the British metaphysician and logician, Alfred North Whitehead. For process ontology, what most fundamentally exists is change, or process. What we are tempted to think of as constant things are in reality merely temporary stabilities in this constant flux of change, eddies in the flux of process.
My main claim in this paper will be that a metaphysics of this latter kind is the only kind adequate to making sense of the living world. After explaining in more detail, the differences between these ontological views, I shall illustrate the advantages of a process ontology with reference to the category of organism. Finally I shall explore some further implications of a process ontology for biology and for philosophy.