Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-598jt Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-29T04:44:11.716Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Substances, Agents and Processes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2019


This paper defends a substance-based metaphysics for organisms against three arguments for thinking that we should replace a substantial understanding of living things with a processual one, which are offered by Dan Nicholson and John Dupré in their edited collection, Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). Dupré and Nicholson consider three main empirical motivations for the adoption of a process ontology in biology. These motivations are alleged to stem from facts concerning (i) metabolism; (ii) the life cycles of organisms; and (iii) ecological interdependence. The paper discusses each of the three arguments in turn and concludes that none gives us any compelling reason to abandon the metaphysics of things. At best, they are arguments against a kind of caricature substance metaphysics that ought never to have been in the running in any case. Then, at the end of the paper, it is suggested that there may be more positive arguments for insisting on retaining things in our metaphysics, arguments which, perhaps ironically (given the opposed standpoint of Everything Flows) get their main impetus from the phenomenon of life.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2019 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 See e.g. Velleman, David, ‘What Happens when Someone Acts?’, Mind 101 (1992), 461–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hornsby, Jennifer, ‘Agency and Causal Explanation’, in Heil, John and Mele, Al (eds.), Mental Causation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993): 161–88Google Scholar, repr. in Hornsby, Simple Mindedness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 129–53; O'Connor, Timothy, Persons and Causes: the Metaphysics of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Mayr, Erasmus, Understanding Human Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Steward, Helen, A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 For example, Juarrero, Alicia, Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Noble, Denis, The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Murphy, Nancey and Brown, Warren S., Did My Neurons Make me Do it?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Steward, op cit.

3 See e.g Campbell, Donald, ‘“Downward causation” in hierarchically organised biological systems’, in Ayala, and Dobzhansky, (eds.), Studies in the Philosophy of Biology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), 179–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Prigogine, Ilya, Self-Organization in Non-Equilibrium Systems (New York: Wiley, 1977)Google Scholar; Moreno, Alvaro and Umerez, Jon, ‘Downward Causation at the Core of Living Organization’ in Anderson, Peter Bøgh, Emmeche, Claus, Finneman, Niels Ole and Christiansen, Peder Voetmann (eds.) Downward Causation (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

4 Nicholson, Daniel J. and Dupré, John (eds.), Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Nicholson expands further on some of the relevant arguments in his own paper in the same volume ‘Reconceptualising the Organism: from Complex Machine to Flowing Stream’, 139–66.

5 See e.g. Rowland Stout, Things that Happen because they Should (Oxford: Oxford University Press); Antony Galton, A. and Mizoguchi, Riichiro 2009: ‘The Water Falls but the Waterfall does not Fall: New Perspectives on Objects, Processes and Events’, Applied Ontology, 4(2), 2009, 71107Google Scholar; Hornsby, Jennifer, ‘Actions and Activity’, Philosophical Issues, 22, 2012, 233–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Steward, Helen, ‘Actions as ProcessesPhilosophical Perspectives, 26:1 (2012): 373–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Meincke, Anne-Sophie, ‘Autopoiesis, Autonomy and the Process View of Life’, European Journal of Philosophy of Science 9(1), 2019: 116CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 ‘Reconceptualising the Organism: from Complex Machine to Flowing Stream’ in Nicholson and Dupré, op.cit., 143.

7 Ibid., 141.

8 Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics are of course the most obvious examples.

9 Op cit., 14.

10 Ibid. 15.

11 Ibid. 15.

12 Thus we need not be too fixated on the species level. All that is required is that we can recognise the processual development we observe as one of a kind.

13 In fact, only about half of frog species have a life cycle that begins with eggs laid in water, which then hatch into tadpoles. The other half ‘includes an incredible diversity of life cycles, including species in which eggs are placed on leaves, in nests made of foam, and even in the throat, stomach, or back of the female frog. There are also hundreds of species with no tadpole stage at all, a reproductive mode called direct development’. Stony Brook University, ‘Surprises in evolution of frog life cycles’, ScienceDaily, 10 September 2012., accessed 11.08.2019 and discussing research by Ivan Gomez-Mestre, Robert Alexander Pyron and John J. Wiens, Phylogenetic analyses reveal unexpected patterns in the evolution of reproductive modes in frogs. Evolution, 2012; DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2012.01715.x

14 It also needs to be noted that any variety of spatiotemporal continuity which gives rise to equally good ‘competitors’ with equal claims to be identical to some originating organism cannot ground identity (as with the fission cases that populate the personal identity literature); though it can ground claims about continuity of life-cycle; parenthood; etc.

15 Aristotle, Physics, Bk. 2, 192b8-12.

16 Op.cit., 10.

17 As outlined, for example, in Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality: an Essay in Cosmology (New York: Macmillan, 1929)Google Scholar.

18 Ladyman, James and Ross, Don, Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Op. cit. 12.

20 See in particular Seibt, Johanna, ‘Ontological Scope and Linguistic Diversity: Are there Universal Categories?’, The Monist, 98 (3), 2015, 318–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 van Inwagen, Peter, Material Beings, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 90Google Scholar.

22 See in particular the Appendix to Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature ed. Nidditch, Peter, with an Analytical Index by Selby-Bigge, L.A. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p.635Google Scholar: ‘ … having … loosen'd all our particular perceptions, when I proceed to explain the principle of connexion, which binds them together … I am sensible that my account is very defective’.

23 For detailed arguments to this effect, see Steward, Helen, A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.