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John Dupré: A World of Things

John Dupré began his first Gifford Lecture in George Square, the heart of the University of Edinburgh campus, commencing the 2022/23 series. A good audience of 150 people met him and engaged enthusiastically with questions and with the Lecturer’s engaging style. The lecture was chaired by Professor Sarah Prescott, the Gifford Lectureship Convener and Head of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. What follows is a summary of the lecture and a response from Camden, a newly awarded Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh.

In this first lecture Dupré sought to set out the theoretical foundations for his series and align himself and his own career to his current paradigm. As a philosopher of science, Dupré is most interested in biology and metaphysics, explained with an oft-quoted phrase by Wilfred Sellars that he is concerned with,

“how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”

His project aims to explore a more abstract level of science than experimental methods.

“we live not in a world of things but in a world of process”

Dupré devotes attention to explaining the long-standing history of this debate, and its reality of falling out of use today.

“nothing changes and that everything changes” Parmenides and Heraclitus, pre-Socratic philosophers, late 6th and early 5th Century BCE.

This idea was popularised by Democritus to expand a term familiar to even the non-scientists among us that atoms are eternal unchanging elements of reality. A changing world is a fallacy and what really happens is that atoms rearrange into different relations. This has grown to create the ideal of reductionism in the sciences (from chemistry to sociology)- studying entities in terms of the particles which they are composed. Throughout these lectures Dupré will argue,

‘this atomistic reductionism is entirely misguided […] The neo-Parmenidean world is a world of things: eternal things, atoms, and more or less stable things that are structures of atoms. I advocate a return to the world view of Heraclitus: there are no stable things at all. Everything always changes.’

At the core of this debate is the definition of a ‘thing’.  A thing needs to be stable- at least for a period of time.

Processes however have no obvious stability- their core is their changing. Dupré believes that often processes can seem stable, explaining our misguided endeavour to study the world as made up as things, but thing-like processes are dependent on further processes- internal or external that sustain them. An illustration used is an eddy in a river. The eddy is only stable as a ‘thing’ so long as the river flows past and through it.

Dupré turns to the terms which are used to define a thing in the method of reductionism in science- essential properties and things being autonomous. Thinking about essential properties Dupré illustrates how painting a table allows it to keep its essential property, whereas sawing it in half does not. Regarding autonomy, we know the table has boundaries and if it changes we assume it has been changed by an external factor.

For defining processes, it is perceived that they are in opposition to things- always dynamic, connected to their environment, and rarely stable, their stability and autonomy require explanation. The link between a process and its environment is hard to undo.

The aim of these lectures, Dupré outlines, will be to show the necessity of a Heraclitean view of life for understanding human life.

A processual world is a world of time. Starting with the big bang, quarks and gluons, neutrons and protons, and then the slower developments into nuclei, eventually combining with electrons to form atoms, leading to stars, larger elements etc. Quarks and gluons were not stable, they were stablished in neutrons and protons (atoms), but atoms are not unchanging.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, with the rise of atomism, came the view that organisms, including humans, were a kind of machine. Rene Descartes popularized this with metaphysical dualism where the cognitive and affective features of the human with a separate, immaterial part of the person, ultimately the driver of the machine. This laid rest the concern about the living of mechanical models, but the mode of interaction between the machine and the immaterial soul or mind was obscure.

“the inaccessibility of an immaterial substance to empirical investigation is one sufficient reason for scepticism about such a dualism”.

Despite naturalistic metaphysicists’ and philosophers’ reservations of the Descartian model, it has undergone major study and revival- especially through a 2000 published paper by Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden and Carl Craver. They state that neither entities nor activities are reducible to one another, but Dupré argues this is an asymmetrical dualism: if entities are that which engage in activity then entities can exist without activity whereas activity needs an entity to perform. Also in contrast to the mechanism model, is its concentration on understanding the world bottom-up, or through its smallest parts, whereas processes cannot be understood in this unidirectional way.

“scientists very often describe themselves as looking for mechanisms, and philosophers of science naturally seek to understand what scientists think they are trying to do […] We should, as naturalistic metaphysicians, try to understand what scientists have found to be the case. But how best to understand the more general outline of the world they have helped to illuminate is a distinct further philosophical task.”

The second section of Dupré’s lecture seeks to paint how the world is composed of processes. An elephant, mushroom or an oak tree are presented to the audience to mull over.

Whereas a machine is a kind of thing for Dupré- a toaster can be stored in an attic for many years and come out in a similar way, whereas a duck stored in an attic for the same amount of time would be quit horrifying to revisit. Why would a duck not survive? Because, literally trillions of chemical reactions must take place in its body every second. The environment must be taken in to allow the metabolic processes inside. Without this external nuclei, the duck returns to a thermodynamic equilibrium with its environment (and becomes horrifying to see and smell). Another example of how organisms are processes- they are developmental processes- homeorhetic (on specific trajectories) where a human child leads to a human adult. Such as the change from a tadpole to a frog. Billionaires’ desire to live for 1000’s of years relates to their trying to slow or stop this process. Dupré sees this desire as being part of the misguided idea of the world being formed of things, leading us to see ourselves as stable machines and progression being something to halt. These examples explored however contradict the ‘thing’s’ need for stability, and question our categorization as things.

Organisms are also not autonomous. Intimate relations with organism of other kinds are necessary for proper functioning. The human body contains trillions of microbes, especially in the digestive tract, and they provide essential services. The roots of plants are the sites of complex communities of bacteria and fungi, as well as archaea, viruses, protozoa and other kinds of organism, generally involved in the provision of resources. Fungi can be beneficial but can also be harmful. In the human case, digestion, immunity, development, and possibly even cognition are affected by symbionts. If organisms depend on symbionts for survival, how are they autonomous?

One solution has been to include the other species as part of the whole, the “holobiont”. This however contradicts the next definition of the ‘thing- its clear boundaries. Parasites have this symbiotic relationship but it is not beneficial to the host- are they included? Plants also problematize this where it is difficult to distinguish growth from reproduction.

The final point of discussion in this lecture is the question of essence, where there is no question as to what kind of thing it belongs to. John Locke has a famous phrase, “the being of any thing whereby it is what it is”, points to this determining, and we also have boundaries of when it comes and goes in and out of existence. Evolution questions this clear essence of distinguishing of biological kinds. Natural selection requires variability in a kind. We could trace the series from a frog to an oak tree and find a common ancestor. This contradicts the assumption that everything must have the essential property of its kind. Instead, Dupré argues there need be no clear boundaries between species and sometimes we will not be able to assign an organism unambiguously to a particular species, and welcomes hybridity, and also points towards lateral gene transfer which problematises classification of bacteria.

The next point is the beginning and end of things. The outlines this problem,

“Theseus, as the story goes, replaced damaged or decaying parts of his ship until eventually every part of the original ship had been replaced. However, all the replaced parts were carefully stored, and when the last part was replaced the original parts were reassembled into a second ship. Which is the original ship of Theseus?”

Dupré’s response is that of indifference, questioning why there should not be two ways of tracking the history of an entity. If someone objects that this is a contradiction: if ship A is identical to both ship B and ship C, then ship B is identical to ship C, which is impossible, I reply merely that the material ship and the functional ship are not the same process. This idea is explored in relation to a baby and adult being the same person in lecture 4.

The final concluding illustration of the lecture is the constant red spot of Jupiter, observable on the giant planet since we have had sufficiently powerful telescopes. The spot, however, is an enormous storm, essentially an eddy in the flow of atmospheric gases.

 life, I claim, is always and everywhere processual […] everything changes.

Dupré has argued that we should reject the ontology of stable, hard-boundaried things that has dominated our thinking since at least the scientific revolution, and embrace instead an ontology of process and fluidity in their more or less disorderly flow. The following lectures will align this paradigm to questions of evolution and various aspects of the human condition.


Response: Camden Alexander McKenna

Heraclitus asserted that “It is impossible to step twice into the same river… it scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs,” (Plutarch 1936: 392b10-c3). Heraclitus was of course less interested in rivers than he was in reality—the river is of a piece with nature itself. In Greek, panta rhei— “everything flows”.[1] A similar commitment to impermanence lies at the core of Buddhist metaphysics, which was developing around the same time as Heraclitus was flourishing (Ronkin 2009: 14).[2]

This rivulet of thought, remaining for the most part outside the mainstream of Western philosophy, has flowed from Heraclitus down to us, through Bergson, through Whitehead and many others, and now through Dupré. Alfred North Whitehead spoke of process in his own Gifford Lectures, given in Edinburgh in 1927-1928 and becoming the influential Process and Reality (1929), which pushed back against the prevailing, Cartesian attachment to static substances, which themselves undergo change. Whitehead instead subscribed to what he called “Organic Realism” (Whitehead 1929/1978: 309), a kind of process ontology. The “organic” descriptor points tellingly towards biology, which Whitehead and now Dupré take to be paradigmatically processive.

However, Dupré’s lectures are assuredly not Process and Reality revisited. While sharing his basic metaphysical orientation, Dupré leaves behind the eccentricities of Whitehead’s overwrought system, presenting a much more comprehensible and accessible vision of process philosophy. Besides this, Dupré disagrees with Whitehead on two very important points that are especially relevant in the context of the Gifford Lectures, which have since their foundation concerned natural theology. Where Whitehead endorses (1) panpsychism and (2) an atemporal God, Dupré is instead a naturalist. Dupré is also even more committed to process ontology than Whitehead: atomism must be denied and process affirmed everywhere, including on the grandest cosmic scales, which is a step further than Whitehead was willing to go.

According to Dupré, despite the apparent ubiquity of processes in biological systems, biologists remain trapped in a worldview populated with discrete static entities interacting in mechanisms modelled after our own simple artifacts. By committing to this picture scientists are led away from the actual nature of the systems they study, which of course, has practical consequences for our understanding and ability to effectively intervene in such systems. To employ a simplistic metaphor, it is as if we insist on arithmetic when calculus is called for.

But could it not be that both things and processes are mere abstractions? Could it be that metaphysics remains, as David Hume thought, an exercise in speculative fancy? Perhaps our use of process or substance thinking ought instead to be dependent on our goals, experimental or theoretical, in recognition that the nature of reality is beyond our epistemic reach. Alternatively, might we not embrace a kind of ontological dualism, endorsing things and processes as equally real?

For Dupré and Nicholson, if process ontology is the best way “to make sense of nature” from an instrumental, epistemological standpoint, “then this is as good a reason as we can expect for taking nature to be ontologically composed of process.” (Dupré and Nicholson 2018: 4). For some metaphysicians this kind of provisional, rough-and-ready response might not be satisfying, but to that they might say a perfected state of certain metaphysics is not a condition anyone would be advised to hold their breath for.

I find myself sympathetic to the view presented, and think the case Dupré makes, especially for biological systems, is rather compelling. This apparently radical, new-but-actually-ancient philosophy is certain to excite many philosophers by occupation as well as by disposition. We may well benefit from adopting this perspective in our lives as well as in science. However, creeping doubts remain.

Specifically, the question of whether both process thinking and substance thinking may be abstractions from an unknowable fundamental reality seems to loom close by. Granted this is perhaps beyond the scope of these lectures: insofar as we accept metaphysics is possible, it seems we must say something about the issue. Arguably, it might be that we cannot avoid doing metaphysics anyway, even if we pretend to be skeptics at a philosophy conference. The case for process is meant to be superior to the case against, and this case appears to hinge on usefulness. But it seems to me there may well be a large class of cases that don’t lend themselves very well at all to process thinking, and do lend themselves very well to mechanistic thinking, especially outside biology. This may explain the endurance of the view, as it seems to help quite a bit with engineering problems, where the process view might seem unworkable to implement given the complexity it requires from its preferred descriptions of phenomena.

Additionally, I think it remains to be shown that ontological dualism is untenable: why not embrace processes and things together? It is not immediately clear to me, as a non-metaphysician anyway, that these things are mutually exclusive. Dupré acknowledges the modern mechanistic view is committed to something like this with entities and activities. Rejigging this picture so that neither is primary does not seem outside the realm of plausibility to me, but such a position was not addressed directly.

I also wonder about the pluralism concerning the Ship of Theseus (which will be covered further in Lecture 4) and species taxonomy. This is, to my mind, a potentially difficult pluralism to realize in practice. The argument that there are no essential properties to define a species appears plausible enough, but what then? Categorizing species is awfully useful even if it is not strictly speaking an accurate reflection of natural kinds. It was not quite clear how the process view would sort out taxonomy, but I assume it is not averse to maintaining useful fictions in cases where there would be some instrumental value in doing so.

Another potential advantage for the substantivalist is that, whereas the process view sees process all the way down, the substantivalist appears ready to admit that process can emerge from the interaction of entities. This is no problem for the process theorist so long as things do not exist, but in difficult cases where it looks like there is no process, a radical process theorist cannot ground the things in process the way the substantivalist can ground the process in the things. Instead, at best, these “apparent” things are just stable processes. Again, this is not necessarily a problem if no counterexamples are forthcoming. But it seems to present an open challenge to the view.

The process view as presented by Dupré has a lot to recommend it, with very interesting implications for the advancement of science, to say nothing of metaphysics itself. At the very least it is a kind of antidote to mechanistic thinking run amuck, which we often see at a fever pitch in cases like that of longevity research (as Dupré notes), “bio-hacking”, “mind uplink” schemes, and other manifestations of techno-optimism.

Though Dupré did not couch it in these terms, I particularly like that process philosophy makes time fundamental instead of incidental. I believe this to be true of our own subjective experience as well. Time doesn’t happen to atemporal things. Instead, there is only happening and time is of the essence, as it were. A worry I have though is that while this view seems eminently plausible as a sort of a phenomenological analysis, I am not certain we can move beyond the inherently dynamic phenomena (how things appear to us) to a well-grounded view of a fundamentally processual universe beyond ourselves (how things really are). But perhaps it is just the best inference we can make from the evidence we have available.

This first lecture is of course just the initial stage of a larger process, and I look forward to seeing my questions resolved as we continue to see John Dupré’s thoughts unfold.


[1] Not at all coincidentally, “Everything Flows” is the title of Daniel Nicholson and John Dupré’s recent anthology on process philosophy in biology. In their introductory chapter, they contrast Heraclitus’ position with that of the Ancient Greek atomists like Democritus and the substantialism of Parmenides, who held that all is static and unchanging (Dupré and Nicholson 2018: 5). According to Dupré and Nicholson, Plato’s theory of forms then took on the mantle of Parmenides’ eternalist anti-dynamism. Aristotle, while rejecting Plato’s idealism, maintained the fundamental atemporality of forms and substance, all but guaranteeing that this view, and not Heraclitus’ panta rhei, would remain ascendant in European as well as Islamic philosophy for a very long time to come (ibid.).

[2] A kind of process philosophy also seems discernable in the Daodejing (circa 4th century BCE), though the text is famously cryptic (see Miller 2015, who goes as far as to say, “Ultimately the Daoist experience of time, I believe, is about metabolism”).

2 replies to “John Dupré: A World of Things”

  1. John Dupré says:

    Many thanks to Camden Alexander McKenna for his thoughtful comments on my first lecture. You raise some very difficult and important issues. I’ll just comment on a few. Yours whether “both process thinking and substance thinking may be abstractions from an unknowable fundamental reality”. I think the possibility that reality is ultimately unknowable must certainly be taken seriously. But as you go on to suggest, we have to try. Recall, though, that the naturalistic metaphysics I espouse is in a sense on a par with science; science is its ultimate grounding. If science cannot disclose fundamental reality, nor can naturalistic metaphysics. Nonetheless, whatever science does disclose the interaction between detailed scientific investigation, and the attempt to draw out more general and abstract patterns from those that I take to be metaphysics might still be important for the advancement of science.

    You raise the question of whether we should not be dualist about processes and things. I can’t rule that out. However, I would say that the evidence is very compelling for the possibility of process monism. (I confess to always having had an instinctive aversion to dualisms. Two seems an arbitrary number, and one or many always seem ontologically more satisfying.). As I mentioned briefly in the Q and A, I don’t want to deny that mechanism has been extremely fruitful. But this is not hard to explain from a processual perspective. This requires only that the constituents of the mechanism have sufficient stability over a sufficient period of time to instantiate the mechanism. What is lacking is the possibility of exploring the limitations of mechanistic explanations due to the limited stability of constituents. And the commitment to bottom-up explanation is a further limitation. As key examples, I argue that both nucleic acids and enzymes have been significantly misunderstood by paying insufficient attention to their extremely dynamic properties.

    Finally on species, I don’t think that processualism exactly sorts out taxonomy. Rather, it provides a satisfying explanation for the pluralism that philosophers and some taxonomists have so often been forced to accept in the last few decades. My argument that we must loosen the ties between biological, usually evolutionary, theory and practical taxonomy. But with luck that will have become clearer in the second lecture…

  2. Camden Alexander McKenna says:

    Thank you very much Professor Dupré for your detailed reply and for taking the time to answer my questions. Your answer about the scope of naturalistic metaphysics seems pretty convincing from my perspective. The process view should certainly be important for the conduct of science itself, as I think you have amply demonstrated in your numerous example cases. Perhaps one could argue that the apparent general abstract patterns derived from science do not truly have metaphysical import, but then I suppose in saying this one would be adhering to the kind of arcane and more-or-less irrelevant metaphysical orthodoxy that you want to leave behind. Arguably the ontological status of the subject matter of science (whatever that may be) remains of much greater practical importance than the nature of “reality in itself” (should these not overlap). I suppose I asked the question as a way of clarifying the extent of your realism about process ontology and it seems to me you have qualified it in a way that does not outstrip its evidentiary basis.

    I share your instinctual aversion to dualisms. It also appears to me, especially from your discussion of fundamental physics, that process monism is looking increasingly like a better candidate vis-à-vis atomism. Furthermore, as you say, there may be obstacles to our understanding and further negative practical implications from mistakenly confusing stable processes for things, as in the specific cases you mention. It seems both instrumental value and empirical evidence are pushing in the direction of adopting a process view of the phenomena of science. I do think you make quite a compelling case, but of course I also understand the desire to maintain the reality of mechanisms given their historical utility.

    Regarding taxonomy, I think you’re quite right that as an explanation for the problems we face in that domain, the process view is very helpful. Loosening the ties between theory and taxonomy also seems called for, from my perspective. This is well beyond my expertise, but I would suspect that prior to Linnaeus, it might have been clearer to us from our ordinary language classification that we are carving the world up not at its joints but in the manner we find most convenient (e.g., the way a grocer divides fruit and vegetables), with this understanding becoming obscured as taxonomy became ever more systematic.

    Thank you once again for your insights—I certainly have found these lectures inspiring so far!

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