Thursday, November 20, 2014

Each of us has many lives to live … one life at a time

Alfred North Whitehead
Each of us has many lives to live … one life at a time.
Believers in reincarnation will interpret the previous paragraph in a way contrary to what I mean.
In process philosophy and thought (process philosophy began with the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead; prominent among process theologians are John Cobb, Marjorie Suchocki, and David Griffin) individuals (whether a person, another animal, an inanimate object, or a sub-atomic particle) are events that rather than things. Events have a duration measured in inconceivably small fractions of a second.
Interpreting the cosmos in terms of events rather than things has some important consequences. First, no thing is constant. Every sequence of events incorporates ongoing change. On a sub-atomic level, no particle's location and energy are both fixed. Inanimate objects (think of a rock, for example) constant change, e.g., because of erosion, pressure (if buried underground), etc. Living things change in more obvious ways, though it is worth noting that humans constantly change as both the brain morphs in response to new sensory input and thoughts and most of a human's billions of cells have a seven-year lifecycle. In other words, we are never the same person for more than the smallest fraction of a second.
Second, what we normally regard as things (sub-atomic particles, inanimate objects, all forms of life) is more accurately regarded as a continuing stream of events, the present emerging from the previous and leading to the next. Each of us has many lives to live … one life at a time.
Third, life is sequential rather than repetitive, i.e., unlike what happens in the movie "Groundhog Day," we live each moment only once. Once a moment – a unique set of events has occurred – it will never reoccur. Therefore, it behooves each of us to make every moment count.
Fourth, the cosmos exhibits an increasing complexity indicative of the presence of emergent properties. I, in this millisecond, am an event. But each of my organs and internal systems are also events as are each of my cells, each component of each cell, etc. Properties associated with one level of complexity (e.g., cells that self-propagate) are not necessarily found at other levels (e.g., an atom does not self-replicate). Humans have a level of awareness, because of our relatively high degree of complexity, not found in less complex events.
Fifth, we have the ability to exercise some degree of influence on the formation of some of the events in which we participate. This is an emergent property associated with greater levels of complexity that allow more opportunity to exert that influence. Concomitantly, greater complexity usually diminishes the options that other events and forces, including God, have to exert change.
In sum, process thought offers many people a way to make sense out of life while both incorporating the knowledge gained from science and avoiding the dead end of scientific reductionism that fails to account for life's multiple levels, creativity, and indeterminacy. Concurrently, theologians, biblical scholars, and clergy who utilize process thought provide a positive, constructive alternative to the foolish bibliolatry that sadly dominates so much contemporary thought, e.g., cf. my Ethical Musings' post on Noah's Ark.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

I've never read a better summation of process thought. Absolutely love it!