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From the earliest days of philosophy there has been a bewitching binary opposition of ideas about the fundamental nature of reality. Does the world consist of objects or does it consist of processes? If your answer was both then how are we to reconcile these two properties of existence?

The tantalizing intellectual challenge of this dilemma – what makes it more than just a silly puzzle – is that processes and objects seem to be separated in our minds but somehow united in their material manifestation. This paradox or antinomy is known to Western philosophy as the contrast between being and becoming, permanence and change. In Eastern philosophy it is expressed in a more general way as the seemingly contrary dual forces of Yin and Yang.

Ideas like these, elliptic as they might seem, find a more obvious focus in science where similar mental contradictions arise in the distinctions we make between particle and wave, space and time, substance or process.

Plato and Aristotle (the former through his eternal unchanging world of forms or ideas and the latter through his philosophy of substance) have given Western science its emphasis on substance and permanence. But they acknowledged the challenge presocratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus who described the world as being in constant change and flux. Science has always had its Heracliteans and today they are known as ‘process philosophers’ and their approach to science is gaining increasing support.

The following account draws heavily on the papers of Dupré and Nicholson in Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (2018) which claims that ‘a process ontology is the right ontology for the living world’ to replace existing ‘substance ontology which provides a serviceable characterization of biological entities, especially as considered over short temporal intervals, despite being a fundamentally inappropriate description of the living world’.


Whether we like it or not, and whether we admit it or not, we are committed to particular metaphysical views . . . even if we are not aware of them. Our intuitive understanding of biology (and the world) is that it consists of ‘things’ or substances, notably physical objects like organisms and particles. Our common sense intuition assumes the ontological primacy of objects: we have matter first and motion second. This is an early modern extension to the earlier scholastic principle operari sequitur esse, activity is subordinate to being. Science then studies the structure and function of these substances.[1] Though this general approach might also seem appropriate for the world of biology, our inclination to regard organisms as things rather than processes diminishes rapidly when we put them in a temporal context.

Process ontology claims that the world can be more advantageously considered as consisting of processes rather than objects.


This approach finds its first voice in the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus and the doctrine of universal flux (the Greek form stated as panta rhei or ‘everything flows’) and the idea of permanence in change, that ‘we cannot step into the same river twice’. In contrast, atomist (indivisible persisting particles) Democritus considered permanence as prior to change as did Plato in his transcendental changeless world of eternal Forms, and Aristotle whose Forms situated in this world also demonstrated persistence of kind due to an unchanging essence. Thinkers of the Scientific Revolution like Newton an Boyle were substance philosophers, the atoms of early modern science being permanent in their intrinsic properties though through motion their relations to the world changed. There are hints of process philosophy in Liebniz and more so in Hegel and the American pragmatists James and Dewey. But the most obvious precursor to this modern movement was Alfred North Whitehead in his work Process and reality (1929) which conceived the world as a ‘unified, dynamic, and interconnected whole’ though overall the book is both obscure, controversial, and of doubtful relevance to contemporary process philosophy.

Apart from classical thinkers, many biologists and thinkers were process sympathizers including Joseph Woodger, Thomas Huxley, Georges Cuvier. Modern process philosophy finds its roots in early 20th century thinkers known as the organicists (including the Brits John Haldane, Edward Russel, Charles Sherrington, Conrad Waddington and on the continent Ludwig Bertalanffy and Paul Weiss) who rallied against reductionism, mechanistic biology, and vitalism and the accentuation of the idea of the organism as a self-regulating whole existing in time.


Objects are (usually) extended in space and it is a moot point whether they have temporal parts: processes are extended in time and have temporal parts. Processes entail change (traditionally objects as durable units not dependent on external relations are the subjects of change while process merely track their modification). Subjectless processes thus become problematic (osmosis, fermentation, ?natural selection). Their existence is not however compromised by their lack of determinate boundaries (concrete particulars) or spatiotemporal location.

Biological thermodynamics

All activity is the processing of energy. Organisms are constantly processing flows of energy and matter but in a unique way because they are dynamically stable replicating open systems. That is, they maintain a steady internal environment (homeostasis) in the face of wide-ranging external conditions . Thermodynamically metabolism is the integration of the energy-releasing process of catabolism (organic molecules broken down during respiration) and the energy accumulating process of anabolism (the energy-accumulating process of constructing macromolecules). This is what ensures homeostatic self-maintenance in the face of a variable environment and entropy. It is metabolism that is the single most important characteristic of life (N p. 6) Food as fuel-energy is incorporated in a changing organic structure since organisms ‘autonomously modify their constitution’ … ‘… adaptively’ (p. 7) (not so in machines).

Max Rubner demonstrated that organisms observe the first law of thermodynamics (in a closed system energy is neither created nor destroyed only transformed from one form to another) such that the amount of energy returned to the environment (as, say, excretory products and heat) is equivalent to the energy taken in (assuming no change in weight).

The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time, that there can be no completely efficient transformation of heat into work – the amount of free energy (that available for work) is constantly decreasing while entropy is increasing. There is thus a net running down of the universe as an increase in disorder, sometimes called ‘the arrow of time’. This is all in stark contrast to what occurs in nature where organisms have tended towards greater organization and complexity over time. While the net entropy of the universe is increasing local pockets of order as negative entropy or ‘negentropy’ can be maintained. Organisms do this by importing free-energy-rich matter (food) from the environment and degrading it internally to maintain structure (until death) while increasing external entropy through the export of heat and waste products.

In 1977 a Nobel Prize was awarded to Ilya Prigogine for his foundational work in non-equilibrium thermodynamics (which studies steady states, irreversible processes, and non-linear reactions). The subject matter extends beyond organisms to open systems like tornadoes, whirlpools and flames – referred to as dissipative structures.

Machine metaphor

For process biologists it is time for the metaphor of organisms as finely tuned machines to be replaced with the metaphor of life as a flowing stream because organisms are more like processes than objects. For an organism activity is a necessary condition for existence and the self-maintenance of form. So, for example, each organism’s development proceeds according to a program encoded in the genes.

It helps to list the more obvious ways that organisms differ from machines – this is close to formulating a definition of ‘life’:

Organisms are intrinsically purposive, their ‘ends’ are (short-term) generated from within while machines get their purpose from external agents (extrinsic vs intrinsic teleology). Organisms exhibit (to use consciousness-talk) ‘self-interest’ (the preservation of its organization) while machines serve the interests of their designers. Although organisms totally dependent on their environment they are nevertheless semi-autonomous matter thus exhibit pre-conscious (non-intentional) agency with norms related to their own existence
Organisms are open systems that constantly exchange energy/matter with the surroundings to maintain themselves against an entropy gradient. Machines may be open or closed systems and exist in equilibrium with the surroundings: they do not need free energy to persist
The ‘self-interest’ of organisms means that they exist in, as it were, in thermodynamic opposition to their environment maintaining independent existence by the constant expenditure of free energy. They are matter with a special kind of autonomy very different from the autonomy of non-living objects, this being a crucial distinction between the animate and inanimate. Organisms do not have an ‘off’ switch: once these metabolic energy flows cease the organisms dies and its physical components join those of the inanimate world. Machines can be studied when they are ‘off’, organisms can’t. Metabolic activity is a necessary condition for biological existence
The history of an organisms (preserved in its heredity) shapes its present condition
Machines are usually identifiable by an invariable material constitution: organisms are in constant flux. They are fixed structure rather than continuous flow. There is an inversion here because in machines matter determines form (form reflects the contingent spatial arrangement of matter) while in organisms form determines matter by specifying a causally-efficacious whole? That is, organisms (form) persists precisely because of constant material change
Persistence is grounded in the self-maintenance of form, not matter
Machines have static organization: organisms have dynamic organization

The genetic blueprint does not contribute all of what results from replication. The genome doesn’t contain all the information needed to specify an adult that is the product of complex collective dynamics.

Organisms maintain their form (permanence) through a flow of energy and matter (change). Biological normativity is ‘self-interest’ as the preservation of living organization through survival and reproduction. What preserves life is pre-consciously ‘good’ and what threatens it is pre-consciously ‘bad’.
The philosophy of biology (William Whewell 1840: 46)

We cannot identify an organism with the materials that compose it (though they are similar in kind).

Organisms are patterns in a flow of energy – they are more about what something does than what it is – not appearance but causal connection.


We are accustomed to explaining wholes in terms of their component parts. And yet parts must be part of something, so we cannot understand what a part is without reference to the whole of which it is a part. But how can any whole be more than the constituent parts and their relations? The less inclusive (like atoms) must supervene (define the grounding conditions) for the more inclusive (molecules). This is usually represented as a substance ontology of hierarchical levels: the properties and relations at one level determine the properties and relations at another.

This is discussed elsewhere with the conclusion that there are no ‘levels’ just different aspects or ways of interpreting the world and that each is equally valid with no privileged grounding at the smallest or largest scales.

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