Process, Substance, Time, and Space


If we examine the cosmos and its history we face what appears to be an amalgamation of process and substance. Substance refers to the objects and types of things that appear to comprise the physical universe, all the objects that occupy space from gas molecules to galaxies and everything in between including ourselves. Substance might also include such abstract objects as numbers and ideas. Process is what animates this collection, the transformation of substance into other substance or into new arrangements of substances. There has long been a dialectic in western metaphysics between philosophers who take substance and those who take process to be the foundation of reality.

“Radical monism”, a substance view, argues there is really only one substance, the universe taken as a whole. Apart from certain Eastern religions, radical monism has been out of philosophical vogue for many centuries. Substance ontologists today, the Western ones at least, are pluralists. They may argue as concerns the particulars that comprise the foundational “furniture of the universe” but most accept that the furniture is plural; the universe has more than one real thing in it.

Substance-first ontologists all accept that substance participates in processes. No philosopher today accepts the Parmenidian idea that the universe is fundamentally static and all the dynamics are illusion. Process philosophers, by contrast, argue that process is not only fundamental, but that all of what we commonly take to be substance is, under the surface, nothing but process nested in other process. Substance is, if not an illusion, nothing more than the way process external to observing minds manifest to the processes that comprise those minds. They defend this view on the grounds of parsimony. Process “all the way down” is said to be simpler than an ontology of both process and substance.

But simpler does not automatically better represent of the world. Nicholas Rescher is a contemporary process philosopher and pragmatist as concerns such things as the progress of science. He believes that scientific progress is measured in the control it gives us over the world. In Rescher’s view, to the extent that control has been purchased with implicit substance-grounded ontologies (from quarks to galaxies) there is nothing wrong with a substance viewpoint. It has obviously (that is pragmatically) been useful. But Rescher maintains that while useful heuristically, substance is not fundamental while process is. He notes that process cannot be derived from a purely substance view of things, while substance can be derived from a purely process view. Substances, at least what we ordinarily think of substances are, metaphysically speaking, only nested processes.

Although the concrete particulars of the world might perhaps be envisioned from a purely process-centric viewpoint, I do not think this view encompasses everything as Rescher intends that it should. In what is, in my opinion, one of the seminal examinations of cosmology in the 21st century, “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” Roberto Unger (philosopher) and Lee Smolin (cosmologist, quantum-gravity physicist) have offered up what they call a “proposal in natural philosophy”. Centuries ago “natural philosophy” was a phrase meant to encompass all the sciences as science was understood in those days. Today the phrase is not much used, but Unger and Smolin invoke it deliberately because in principle the work encompasses all of science although the book’s focus is cosmology. Their argument leans heavily on process.

To summarize the outcome of their view (not the arguments for it), time is real. In fact time is the only brute and non-emergent reality in the universe and must therefore go back (prior to the big bang) and forward indefinitely. Everything else, space, the cosmological settings, even the laws of physics (descriptive and not antecedently controlling) evolved to their present values in time. To be sure some of these evolved in the earliest moments of the universe and have remained quasi-constant ever since, but it remains true (for Unger and Smolin) that the regularities and constants of the universe emerged as they did through a process of evolutionary change and might have fallen out having other values. This all means that process cannot occur in the absence of time even though, at universe extremes (the opening Planck times of the big bang for example), process might be entirely lawless and irregular.

Compare this to Rescher’s answer to the question “what is process?” from his book “Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues” (2000 U. of Pittsburgh digital books collection)

“A process is an actual or possible occurrence that consists of an integrated series of connected developments unfolding in programmatic coordination: an orchestrated series of occurrences that are systematically linked to one another either causally or functionally. … A natural process by its very nature passes on to the future a construction made from the materials of the past. All processes have a developmental, forward-looking aspect. … The inherent futurition of process is an exfoliation of the real by successively actualizing possibilities that are subsequently left behind as the process unfolds.”

This quote fits rather well into what Unger and Smolin believe concerning time. Rescher does claim (elsewhere in the same book) that process always takes place in time, but he also claims, somewhat contradictorily, that time, like space, is emergent. That would make time dependent (emergent from) causal process (in the manner of Michael Tooley’s “Time, Tense, and Causation” (1997) Clarendon Press). But something has to be real and non-emergent unless the universe is a case of emergence from nothing. Rescher points to quantum mechanics as an example of a physical realm that appears to be nothing but process. David Albert (“After Physics” (2015) Harvard Univ. Press) would seem to agree with him arguing that the Schrodinger wave (a process) is a sort of holographic fundamental source of substance and not the other way around.

In her book “Understanding our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles” (2015 Imperial College Press) Ruth Kastner offers up another possibility. Her transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that the solution to quantum riddles lies in quantum phenomena occurring outside spacetime. This is not some supernatural realm, it is still physical, causal but not deterministic. Instead, it is fundamentally random. But the measurement problem and the mystery of action at a distance fall out easily from her idea that at the quantum level, process lies outside spacetime. No energy is exchanged in quantum “virtual transactions” until they become “real transactions” and emerge into spacetime subject to measurement. In exchange for an expanded ontology, timeless and spaceless physics, Kastner’s idea fully resolves quantum riddles without explaining them away. For example, action at a distance seems faster than light, in fact infinitely fast from a temporal perspective because the effect is atemporal.

If Kastner is right, then for Unger and Smolin time can’t cover everything. In particular it doesn’t cover the quantum realm of virtual transactions. But Kastner doesn’t claim that time (or space) are emergent from the quantum realm, only that virtual transactions emerge into spacetime becoming real transactions in which energy/information is exchanged. Unger and Smolin are safe because in their view the present universe did not begin with an infinite singularity. For their part, infinities belong in mathematics, but not in physics. “There are no infinities in the physical universe.” The big bang proceeded from some fantastically dense, hot, pressured, tiny region, but not literally a mathematical point of infinite density. Something proceeded the big bang in time, but not in space, or at least not in our space.

So long as we limit ourselves to the spacetime realm, time can “go all the way down” and remain non-emergent. It is conceivable that the same quantum realm (Kastner likens it to the underwater part of an iceberg, much larger than what sticks out above the surface) underlies all of indefinite time. That is, this universe along with its predecessors and successors rest on the same timeless and spaceless quantum realm. What about Rescher? As concerns spacetime he is unaffected by Kastner, but he must abandon his idea that quantum process is necessarily temporal. It seems reasonable to anoint it with the ‘process’ appellation, but it becomes atemporal process.

I think Rescher gets into trouble if he tries to apply his system to such notions as the cosmological constants. The proton/electron mass ratio (1836.15267389) is nothing but a dimensionless number, certainly not a process and perhaps does not belong in a catalog (ontology) of the physical. But it does represent a fixed physical relation. It is not just any arbitrary number. Its value is absolutely vital to the composition of all the substance (if any) and the way all causal process unfolds in the universe.

If we try to substitute process language for substance language as concerns mass we cannot make sense of the notion of ratio. Rescher has not to my knowledge shown us how to reduce something as substantively fundamental as mass to process. Functionally speaking we can measure mass by its effect on spacetime and this effecting is a process, but a thing’s effect is not the thing in itself only a proxy for it. Rescher has not given us an example of a process that is input, sequence, and result simultaneously; atemporally. By his own definition a process requires time.

This brings me to Edward Jonathan Lowe. Lowe is my favorite philosopher not because of what he says but because he writes so clearly and unfolds his arguments so well. Alas he passed away a couple of years ago at the young age of 54 with many books yet to write. Lowe is a substance ontologist but his aim is much narrower than that of Unger, Smolin, and Rescher. He is not trying to formulate an ontology that covers the historicity of the universe, but rather a simple way of dividing up what we find in the universe now so we can talk about it consistently.

Lowe’s best known book “The Four Category Ontology” (2006 Clarendon Press) is an effort to find a minimal description with which we can relate (to one another) the qualities of what we find in the present universe including both substances and processes. Lowe does not deny that there are processes. The point of the Four Category Ontology is not to find the fundamental substance of the universe but rather to develop a simple scheme by which we can characterize what seems to be the case about the substance and process of the universe as this is reflected in mind. All the categories of the scheme and the relations between them are not a part of the ontology itself. A crucial point with which Lowe avoids set-paradoxes. The categories as such are mental constructs. This is not to say that mental constructs, for example concepts, cannot be fit into the ontology. Lowe’s goal was to find a scheme that works under various views of what is real.

The four categories and some of the relations between them are sketched crudely below. [I could not get this drawing to come out right, so imagine there are vertical lines between the four corners so forming a square] Objects are the stuff of the physical world, but they can be abstract like sets, particular concepts, or processes. Note that objects can be particular instances of various kinds. A particular cat is an instantiation of felines, mammals, and animals. Similarly objects can have many tropes. A particular green apple has a specific shade of green, a certain mass, size, shape, etc.

Kind/Type ————- Attributes


Objects ————- Modes/Tropes

Kinds –> Characterized by Attributes, instantiated by objects
Objects –> Characterized by Modes, instantiate kinds
Attributes –> Exemplified by Objects

Material objects fit the scheme easily. A green apple is an object. It instantiates the kinds apple, fruit, and plant. It’s attributes include mass, size, color, while its modes are its particular mass, color, and size, etc. What about that proton/electron mass ratio? The number is not particularly a problem. It is, for Lowe an abstract object in this case a set of one member, that number (1836.15267389). It is an instantiation of the kind/type/class number which, in turn, is characterized by the attribute property magnitude. It’s specific mode (property) is the proton/electron mass ratio. But Lowe has a problem with non-intrinsic relations being in the ontology.

That Mo is three inches taller than Joe is a relation and there is even a dimensionless number that is the ratio of their two heights. But the relation’s properties all belong to Mo and Joe as such. Nothing is “added to the universe” by noting the Mo/Joe height ratio. The relation isn’t intrinsic to the pair. Lowe doesn’t think this kind of extrinsic relation belongs in the ontology at all. But imagine the continuation of life on Earth was dependent on the Mo/Joe height ratio. If Mo grows taller or shorter, the ratio would change and all life on Earth would cease. Suddenly this extrinsic relation is no longer arbitrary and its value, in the cosmological case, depending on the mass of the proton and electron is a lynch-pin in our physics without which the cosmos would unravel. Something is added to the universe by this ratio, namely the capacity of process to generate stars, galaxies, and everything else with which we are familiar. Surely such a lynch-pin belongs in our ontology and clearly it is not itself a process! As goes process, Lowe says:

“A process, then, might be thought of either as being a temporally extended trope, or as being composed by a temporal succession of different momentary tropes, depending on whether or not the process is a qualitatively unvarying one.”

One of Rescher’s examples (of a process) is evaporation. Evaporation occurring in a certain puddle would be the specific process, our particular object. It is an instance (type) of evaporation which might have the attribute property of phase change, and a mode of evaporating.

Alas, I cannot ask Dr. Lowe his opinion of my use of the categories. But Lowe is open to the categories being used in various ways depending on the nature of the particular being characterized. Again his goal is not to identify the fundamental stuff of the universe, but to find a way to classify it all as it manifests particulars and their properties to mind. That Lowe is open to the fact that his scheme may not be the “last word” on the subject is another reason I like him. He is unafraid to pursue lines of reasoning that might lead him to “change his mind” as concerns some of his core commitments. He notes this possibility in several places of the aforementioned book as concerns events, processes, concepts, and other particulars that are not physical.

By contrast, I think Rescher commits an inductive error that might be called “the fallacy of abstraction”, the tendency, having discovered some aspect of truth to say that it encompasses the whole truth. Clearly Rescher identifies process as something that belongs in our ontology. But just as clearly, not everything that exists-as-such is a process. The cosmological constants are not processes though they certainly could be the outcomes of processes as they emerge into substance. The mass of protons (all baryons) results from the energy of quark/gluon interactions. Mass is therefore the result of process.  Is the outcome of that process, mass itself, also a process? The values of the constants cannot be processes and yet they are not arbitrary either. If any of them varied by much there would be no cosmos, or at least not one within which we could evolve.

An ontology that includes both processes and substances is more complex than an ontology having only one or the other. But as Einstein famously noted “A theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler”. I am quite willing to accept (along I believe with Unger and Smolin) that every substance in the universe emerged from process at some point in history beginning with the big bang. But having emerged it becomes past-fact and thereby perduring, if yet mutable (by process), substance. To assert that every such substance can be (theoretically) traced backwards in history to its emergence from process might be true. But having emerged it is substance now.

4 thoughts on “Process, Substance, Time, and Space

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