Living in the midst of it all

- a sketch of a process philosophy

Process and evolution
And so what?


In my opinion, the 20th century is marked above all by a crisis in the European culture (which is not to say that the phenomenon of crisis is unique to this century, or to Europe, but I believe this crisis is especially deep and has far-reaching consequences). At the same time, Western Europe is exporting its culture to the rest of the world, threatening to destroy all other cultures. More precisely, it is the `scientific' worldview evolving in the 17th century and the (techno-capitalist) social system associated with this which is in a crisis. The most important features of this worldview are: The crisis is visible at several levels simultaneously. I will call these levels scientific, ecological, existential and social. Measured by its own internal standards - scientific progress and economic growth - the techno-capitalist system is still successful, although Japan, by fusing two cultures, may prove economically superior. But the question remains: Are these still relevant standards?

The scientific self-destruction of the classical world-view has taken place in several diciplines; I will mention two things: The concept of evolution, stemming from Lamarck and constituting the fundament of biology since Darwin; and the discovery of quantum mechanics, marking a total revolution in the basic ideas of physics. Evolutionary theory bridges the gap between man and animal, and places Homo sapiens firmly in the realm of nature, thus making a more ecologically sound vision of the world possible. It also makes it difficult to think in terms of means and ends, and thus opens for a non-linear view of time. (Darwinism may be taken as a triumph for a mechanist conception of the world (cfr. Monod), but this view takes into account only proximate causes or mechanisms, and not the structure of evolution.) Quantum mechanics renders the distinction between subject and object, the reality of measured quantities, and the meristic conception of matter problematic. Since classical physics constitutes the basis of the classical world-view, the discovery that these notions are not valid in fundamental physics will be of utmost importance.

The ecological crisis may be described using the ancient notions of hubris and nemesis. The Western man has upset the `natural order', thinking of himself as completely independent, and using nature and other people solely as means to his own ends. This is hubris (pride and arrogance), to which both nature and the people exploited (in the third world) shall strike back - an uncontrollable nemesis.

The existential and social crisis has to do with the removal of meaning from the `scientific' universe, and with the emphasis on instrumental efficiacy in a meristic frame. There are three main elements of this part of the crisis: fragmentation, alienation and the loss of values. The tendency to maximise efficiency in separate areas leads ultimately to a world where both society and the lives fo each person are split into parts or spheres with no internal connections between them. The world is fragmented. At the same time, the individual cannot find any meaning in society within her horizon - all meanings, connections and power have disappeared beyond the horizon, to become parts of anonymous institutions. Her work, duties and other connections to society become something alien, or serve an alien purpose. There is the possibility that this purpose does not even exist - classical science and economy, which have replace religion, leave no place for values, but are only occupied with `brute' facts and means to presupposed ends. Efficience becomes an end in itself, and the only God is money.

All this is of course well known and widely discussed; I will deliberate no more upon it. What is more important, is what lessons have been learnt, and what strategies for coming trough the crisis may exist. I will expound on a line of thought which stands in opposition to the Cartesian one, but gains strength from (and may be partly inspired by) the scientific `self-destruction' of this view, and which also explicitly takes into account the crisis of the modern world. I will then say something about the practical consequences of this line of thought, emphasizing especially the example of Mahatma Gandhi. At last I will try to evaluate the relevance of all this.

Process and evolution

The line of thought which I call process philosophy or philosophy of living can be seen breaking through more or less independently several places in this and the last century. I will, for my exposition, choose the concept of evolution as a starting point.

The first thing that is bound to strike one as one looks at evolutionary theory is that there is a continuity between all species, including Homo sapiens. We have no reason to see ourselves as something unique in the universe - or even worse: as not part of nature at all. The continuity must be mental and spiritual as well as physical. All this seems to be a blow to the Cartesian dualisms, which moreover have been under attack from many other directions the last century.

The other most striking aspect of evolution os the time aspect. The species are evolving, that is: there is always change and creation of novel features. This is a blow to the classical European (and Islamic) view that reality is or must be essentially static, consisting of things or eternal ideas. One must be aware that the change is not simply a regrouping of things - there is a real novelty of forms. Neither is the evolutionary process in any way teleological, approaching some kind of final order (or disorder). It is a genuinely open-ended, unbounded process. The process is irreversible, but not unidirectional - ie, it is not a steady progress. In fact, it may be wrong to talk about one process at all - the evolution is steadily branching off into a myriad of sub-processes. The result is no `Great Chain of Being', but rather a `Great Tree of Being', with leaves and branches entangled, and the life-forms of today as the outermost twigs. This tree is steadily growing.

One may also take a closer look at the structure of evolution - what does the process consist in? Quite generally speaking, one may sat that the scheme is: The organism (organism here means any entity capable of self-organising and self-change) is confronted with challenges or difficulties in the environment or in itself. These challenges can be met in different ways: by adjustment, overcoming, avoidance - or extinction - or by changes in physics or behaviour. There will normally be a complex interplay between these schemes, as in aware beings, where interpretation and intention may play important roles. Each response will alter the environment and create a new situation, with new challenges. The `same' situation will contain different challenges for different organisms; also, the `intended' or typical response is important for determining what the challenge consists in. There is, in addition to this, an essential interplay between the activities and responses of different organisms.

For the process to continue to be creative in the long run, that is, to be able to meet future challenges, variation and diversity is important. Therefore, evolution will tend to branch into greater numbers of different forms of life, and sub-optimal `solutions' will not be eradicated.

The typical activities, responses to (former and present) challenges, in their interdepence with other organisms and the total environment, creates for each organism an ecological niche (from the point of view of the ecosystem) or a form of life (from the point of view of the organism). This may be seen to constitute the organism's essence of being. The relevant factors in the environment and the organism itself constitute its life-world, that is, the world for that organism.

I maintain that this description of evolution is, in its most important features, also applicable to human history. (The ideas about challenge and response, I have from Ladislav Hejdanek: Challenge in human life.)

The essence of all this must be: Life is a steadily creative process, converging to no `final' or `ideal' order, but rather diverging into a myriad of different forms of life. No living creature can be ranked as `higher' or `lower' - each is a product of a separate evolutionary line and a starting-point of more. Furthermore, no creature can be completely separated from its environment, consisting of, among other things, other creatures. This process of living and meeting challenges can be seen as meaningful in itself! And we humans stand in no way outside this - we are living in the midst of it all.


This brings us over to the moral consequences, where the main point is: We cannot separate means and ends, or, with Gandhi, ``The way is the goal - the goal is a way''. Another place he is even clearer in his denial of instrumental thinking: ``To abstain from the fruit of the action, is the way above all''. Rather than the result, he is emphasising the meaningful directedness of the action. This way of conceiving our actions will give an extraordinary spiritual strength: There is no question of giving up because we fail to achieve the desired results - simply because there can be no question of complete failure. As long as the action stands there as an element of truth in the world, an important aim is achieved. The action becomes a part of the process of life, which may seek no final order at all.

Conceiving the way as the goal leads naturally to a deeply rooted non-violence. This non-violence is perceived as `metaphysical', rooted in the `law of love', a law that never may be violated. This is non-violence as a creed or as a way of life, and is to be distinguished from two other forms of non-violence: The first is choosing non-violence out of weakness, or out of fear of the overwhelming strength of the enemy if one resorts to violence. This is cowardice, and Gandhi made it explicitly clear that ``violence is any day preferable to impotence'' or cowardice. Metaphysical non-violence proceeds out of strength, not weakness. Also, it is to be distinguished from adopting non-violence as a strategy, or as the preferred means to an end. One may proceed from the insight that non-violence is morally far superior to violence - but still, if non-violence is not expedient, one may resort to violence. To quote Gandhi again:

They say, `Means are after all means'. I would say, `Means are after all everything'. As the means so the end.
It is also important, I would say, that one can never `win' by erasing an enemy - the personification ro reification of evil is an illusion. The opponent or wrong-doer is to be seen as a potential ally and a person rather than as an enemy. We are essentially united, being part of the same world and the same process; the process is greater than us and goes on without us. By thus stressing the essential unity of us and the wrong-doer, we deny evil by denying one of its premises: division and alienation, and by repaying disrespect with respect.

Gandhi said, ``Nonviolence and Truth are so intertwined that they cannot be separated from each other.'' This is reflected in the word Satyagrahga, which means literally `holding on to truth', and is defined by Gandhi as `the Force born of Truth and Love, or non-violence'. What is of utmost importance is that Satyagraha cannot be seen only as a teaching or philosophy, nor as a strategy or policy, but as a way of life. Truth cannot be restricted to only one or a few spheres of life, but must penetrate everything - in fact, dividing life into separate spheres is denying Truth, as I would (tentatively) interprete it: appreciating and living in accord with the true nature of life and our place in the world - thus avoiding both self-elevation and neglecting aspects of life. One may now understand how Truth and non-violence are interwined: Truth necessarily entails non-violence, and a life of non-violence in the wide sense, that is: not violating the essence of any being, is the same as a life in Truth.

The life of Satyagraha, as Gandhi and his co-workers practised it, contained as essential elements:

Here, there is no division between theory and practice - everything is integrated in a totality of living. Great emphasis is also put on manual work and self-restraint (inspired by John Ruskin's book Unto This Last). This can be seen to serve a double purpose: It is part of a natural simple life, and thus bears a natural meaning which reveals itself; and it can be seen as a way of purifying the `spirit', overcoming the illusion of the self; seeing oneself as only an element of the totality; a pattern of action in the process of life.

A last important element of Gandhian ethics is universal respect (and maybe even love!): Every living being is one twig of the tree of life; one pattern of action in the process of being, and if there is any purpose of meaning in this at all, it resides in every single living being, as a purpose in itself. Not only those who are like us, or those who we do or might understand, but everyone, deserves respect. There are no `good beings' or `evil beings', only participants in life.

I have already touched upon the intrinsic value of work: It cannot be seen only as a (hated) means to an end, but as an end in itself, constituting an essential element of human life. This has important consequences not only for the individual, but for society and politics as well: Important aspects of the work are that it should help develop the whole personality, encourage friendship and cooperation and be directed towards the promotion of life - when this is clear, the intrinsic value of work will reveal itself. But in modern society, work is in general separated from both life and friendship, and serves an external, unknown, often anonymous purpose - and is thereby robbed of its intrinsic value. What is necessary, is that society is organised in such a way that our work, and our actions in general, again receive their `natural meaning', that is, they appear as meaningful in themselves or embedded in a meaningful totality - the person must be able to catch the meaning or purposiveness of her life, work, and essential connections within the horizon of her life-world. This requires the deconstruction of the huge, anonymous political and economical power structures, and putting at centre stage smaller entities that can be grasped by and appear as meaningful for living persons. Gandhi stressed the importance of the 500,000 villages, self-sustained as far as possible, and the value of small-scale, locally driven industry. He also stressed the role of popular participation, involving everyone in politics, and that big power structures are in fact artificial, built on separation and alienation, and will cease to function when the people does not consent.

The ecological consequences of the view I have tried to sketch should be fairly obvious. The first point is that it is a truly ecological view: The world is one interplaying system, and our essences of being are interwoven and cannot be separated from each other - this is so because they are shaped by the typical and important challenges that we and our ancestors meet and have met. And even if at one poit they were independent, they would proceed towards interdependence. In Buddhist terminology, this corresponds to overcoming the ego-illusion: We are only a pattern of action in the process of being - not one static and independent essence.

Secondly, all forms of life must be respected as ends in themselves - there is no one final instance or aim, only branches of the same growing tree. None of these can claim to have a greater intrinsic value than the others - the value and aim lies in the process of life itself, in its multitude of forms.

Those who realise their Selves, see with the same eye a brahman with knowledge and humility, a cow, an elephant, a dog and even a dog-eater.
Bhagavad-Gita V, 18

Thirdlys, the great diversity must be respected and valued - there is no movement towards unity or equalite, but a steady branching, making life richer and (often) more robust. Valuing beings equally means not viewing them as equal, but respecting all their specific features - even (or especially) those that we could not possibly understand. There is no common denominator or life.

Some words here about the `global village'. The recently popular talk of this is well-intended, but in my view, it makes no sense. A village, where everybody knows, cares for and can communicate with everybody else, must be a local phenomenon - especially if it is to be the stable focus of people's lives. Treating the global community like a village is not only impossible, I think, but would also essentially mean making everybody the same. There could be something like a global or universal spirit, but seeking universal understanding would nullify the respect for diversity, and would rob life of much of its charm. How would it be if we did not have to make an effort to understand others, and did not sometimes fail? A true global responsibility should rather be based on a sense of our interdependence and unity, and a respect for diversity.

This view certainly gives ordinary life a more central place than it has traditionally had in Western philosophy. For Gandhi, morality and ordinary life were inseparable. And in the evolutionary perspective, our essence is primarily constituted by our ordinary life - although the great challenges are not at all unimportant. Thus, ordinary life itself, including activities like preparing food, raising children, and tending gardens, is changed from being vacuous, futile or absurd to being rich and meaningful. Above all, our values, beliefs, and `life projects' should be incorporated into our ordinary lives - nothing can be external to this. This is not some kind of escapism, forgetting big problems, world problems, grand project, etc. - rather integrating this into ordinary life. And after all, making life better can only mean making ordinary life better.

And so what?

When someone presents some grand new vision of reality or society which will probably be much better than the one we have here and now, I believe the correct response is: So what? In the West we are under the influence of three traditions barring agains process thinking: the Platonic, stating that `real' reality must be immutable; the Judaeo-Christian, putting man above and outside nature, and the industrial, `scientific' society, dividing the world and life into pieces that are put into boxes. (In the Indian and Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, this way of thinking is quite widespread, and it is an important undercurrent in China.) Simply arguing for a complete change in mentality and society is stupidity, and, besides, in complete disaccord with process thinking. Here lies perhaps part of the answer: What is important is the path we are going - that we try to respond to the challenges of our time by way of transformation and integration. Here is room for integrating the specific features of each culture, learning from ourselves and others. Moreover, varieties of process thinking have been growing forth in the West in the last century, both as philosophical positions and in the ideology of popular movements - eg, the peace movement, the feminist movement and the green movement. Certain scientific discoveries encourage it, and probably also plain self-insight, combined with a revival of a healthy sense of humility.

To be somewhat more concrete, I would point to two important elements of process thinking that should have relevance in Europe today. Firstly, the idea and practice of non-violent action has a direct political significance, like in the revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe. The idea and strength of non-violence isat first, and in general, intuited, and not known; and there is a great deal of uncertainty and vacillation between non-violences as a pure policy and non-violence as a principle and an end in itself - but I believe the consciousness about non-violence as a principle and a way of life is breaking through. Secondly, the ordinary life-practice as conceived in process thinking may have a great significance in the attempt to reconstruct a meaningful life-world from fragmented industrial life.

Ultimately, a `new' way of relating to the world or to ourselves will have to arise as a (more or less necessary) response to the challenges of our time - anticipating the future, interpreting the present and carrying on a continuity with the past; and, not less important, it will arise through practising it in ordinary life. What makes it charming, is that one does not know where this will lead us. Also, there is no one way, but a lot fo branching and intertwining ways to go.

So, there I will stop, concluding with and open end - that is, with no conclusion.

Last updated: 11-Mar-1995 Back to my front page