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Twenty Key Ideas in Process Thinking
by Jay McDaniel
Process thinking is an attitude toward life emphasizing respect and care for the community of life. It is also a way of living.
It is concerned with the well-being of individuals and also with the common good of the world, understood as a community of communities of communities.
It sees the world as a process of becoming and the universe as a vast network of inter-becomings. It sees each living being on our planet as worthy of respect and care.
People influenced by process thinking seek to live lightly on the earth and gently with others, sensitive to the interconnectedness of all things and delighted by the differences.
They believe that there are many ways of knowing the world -- verbal, mathematical, aesthetic, empathic, bodily, and practical - and that education should foster creativity and compassion as well as literacy.
Process thinkers belong to many different cultures and live in many different regions of the world: Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, North America, and Oceania. They include teenagers, parents, grandparents, store-clerks, accountants, farmers, musicians, artists, and philosophers.
Many of the scholars in the movement are influenced by the perspective of the late philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead. His thinking embodies the leading edge of the intellectual side of process thinking.
Nevertheless, a mastery of his ideas is not necessary to be a process thinker. Ultimately process thinking is an attitude and outlook on life, and a way of interacting with the world. It is not so much a rigidly-defined worldview as it is a way of feeling the presence of the world and responding with creativity and compassion.
The tradition of process thinking can be compared to a growing and vibrant tree, with blossoms yet to unfold.
The roots of the tree are the many ideas developed by Whitehead in his mature philosophy. They were articulated most systematically in his book Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology.
The trunk consists of more general ideas which have been developed by subsequent thinkers from different cultures, adding creativity of their own. These general ideas flow from Whitehead's philosophy, but are less technical in tone.
The branches consist of the many ways in which these ideas are being applied to daily life and community development. The branches include applications to a wide array of topics, ranging from art and music to education and ecology.
Much of this website -- Open Horizons - is devoted to the branches. For those interested in gaining knowledge of the roots, we have created a free course of short videos which provides an introduction to Alfred North Whitehead's organic philosophy and serves as a guiding companion to Whitehead's seminal work, Process and Reality. These twenty six-minute videos can be viewed in sequence or in parts, depending on your interests. If you would like to get started on this short course to better understand the roots of process thinking, go to What is Process Thought?
The ideas below represent the twenty key ideas in the trunk.
1. Process: The universe is an ongoing process of development and change, never quite the same at any two moments. Every entity in the universe is best understood as a process of becoming that emerges through its interactions with others. The beings of the world are becomings.
2. Interconnectedness: The universe as a whole is a seamless web of interconnected events, none of which can be completely separated from the others. Everything is connected to everything else and contained in everything else. As Buddhists put it, the universe is a network of inter-being.
3. Continuous Creativity: The universe exhibits a continuous creativity on the basis of which new events come into existence over time which did not exist beforehand. This continuous creativity is the ultimate reality of the universe. Everywhere we look we see it. Even God is an expression of Creativity.
4. Nature as Alive: The natural world has value in itself and all living beings are worthy of respect and care. Rocks and trees, hills and rivers are not simply facts in the world; they are also acts of self-realization. The whole of nature is alive with value. We humans dwell within, not apart from, the Ten Thousand Things. We, too, have value.
5. Ethics: Humans find their fulfillment in living in harmony with the earth and compassionately with each other. The ethical life lies in living with respect and care for other people and the larger community of life. Justice is fidelity to the bonds of relationship. A just society is also a free and peaceful society. It is creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying - with no one left behind.
6. Novelty: Humans find their fulfillment in being open to new ideas, insights, and experiences that may have no parallel in the past. Even as we learn from the past, we must be open to the future. God is present in the world, among other ways, through novel possibilities. Human happiness is found, not only in wisdom and compassion, but also in creativity.
7. Thinking and Feeling: The human mind is not limited to reasoning but also includes feeling, intuiting, imagining; all of these activities can work together toward understanding. Even reasoning is a form of feeling: that is, feeling the presence of ideas and responding to them. There are many forms of wisdom: mathematical, spatial, verbal, kinesthetic, empathic, logical, and spiritual.
8. The Self as Person-in-Community: Human beings are not skin-encapsulated egos cut off from the world by the boundaries of the skin, but persons-in-community whose interactions with others are partly definitive of their own internal existence. We depend for our existence on friends, family, and mentors; on food and clothing and shelter; on cultural traditions and the natural world. The communitarians are right: there is no "self" apart from connections with others. The individualists are right, too. Each person is unique, deserving of respect and care. Other animals deserve respect and care, too.
9. Complementary Thinking: The rational life consists not only of identifying facts and appealing to evidence, but taking apparent conflicting ideas and showing how they can be woven into wholes, with each side contributing to the other. In Whitehead’s thought these wholes are called contrasts. To be "reasonable" is to be empirical but also imaginative: exploring new ideas and seeing how they might fit together, complementing one another.
10. Theory and Practice: Theory affects practice and practice affects theory; a dichotomy between the two is false. What people do affects how they think and how they think affects what they do. Learning can occur from body to mind: that is, by doing things; and not simply from mind to body.
11. The Primacy of Persuasion over Coercion: There are two kinds of power – coercive power and persuasive power – and the latter is to be preferred over the former. Coercive power is the power of force and violence; persuasive power is the power of invitation and moral example.
12. Relational Power: This is the power that is experienced when people dwell in mutually enhancing relations, such that both are “empowered” through their relations with one another. In international relations, this would be the kind of empowerment that occurs when governments enter into trade relations that are mutually beneficial and serve the wider society; in parenting, this would be the power that parents and children enjoy when, even amid a hierarchical relationship, there is respect on both sides and the relationship strengthens parents and children.
13. The Primacy of Particularity: There is a difference between abstract ideas that are abstracted from concrete events in the world, and the events themselves. The fallacy of misplaced concreteness lies in confusing the abstractions with the concrete events and focusing more on the abstract than the particular.
14. Experience in the Mode of Causal Efficacy: Human experience is not restricted to acting on things or actively interpreting a passive world. It begins by a conscious and unconscious receiving of events into life and being causally affected or influenced by what is received. This occurs through the mediation of the body but can also occur through a reception of the moods and feelings of other people (and animals).
15. Concern for the Vulnerable: Humans are gathered together in a web of felt connections, such that they share in one another’s sufferings and are responsible to one another. Humans can share feelings and be affected by one another’s feelings in a spirit of mutual sympathy. The measure of a society does not lie in questions of appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement, but in how it treats those whom Jesus called "the least of these" -- the neglected, the powerless, the marginalized, the otherwise forgotten.
16. Evil: “Evil” is a name for debilitating suffering from which humans and other living beings suffer, and also for the missed potential from which they suffer. Evil is powerful and real; it is not merely the absence of good. “Harm” is a name for activities, undertaken by human beings, which inflict such suffering on others and themselves, and which cut off their potential. Evil can be structural as well as personal. Systems -- not simply people -- can be conduits for harm.
17. Education as a Lifelong Process: Human life is itself a journey from birth (and perhaps before) to death (and perhaps after) and the journey is itself a process of character development over time. Formal education in the classroom is a context to facilitate the process, but the process continues throughout a lifetime. Education requires romance, precision, and generalization. Learning is best when people want to learn.
18. Religion and Science: Religion and Science are both human activities, evolving over time, which can be attuned to the depths of reality. Science focuses on forms of energy which are subject to replicable experiments and which can be rendered into mathematical terms; religion begins with awe at the beauty of the universe, awakens to the interconnections of things, and helps people discover the norms which are part of the very make-up of the universe itself.
19. God: The universe unfolds within a larger life – a love supreme – who is continuously present within each actuality as a lure toward wholeness relevant to the situation at hand. In human life we experience this reality as an inner calling toward wisdom, compassion, and creativity. Whenever we see these three realities in human life we see the presence of this love, thus named or not. This love is the Soul of the universe and we are small but included in its life not unlike the way in which embryos dwell within a womb, or fish swim within an ocean, or stars travel throught the sky. This Soul can be addressed in many ways, and one of the most important words for addressing the Soul is "God." The stars and galaxies are the body of God and any forms of life which exist on other planets are enfolded in the life of God, as is life on earth. God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. As God beckons human beings toward wisdom, compassion, and creativity, God does not know the outcome of the beckoning in advance, because the future does not exist to be known. But God is steadfast in love; a friend to the friendless; and a source of inner peace. God can be conceived as "father" or "mother" or "lover" or "friend." God is love.
20. Faith: Faith is not intellectual assent to creeds or doctrines but rather trust in divine love. To trust in love is to trust in the availability of fresh possibilities relative to each situation; to trust that love is ultimately more powerful than violence; to trust that even the galaxies and planets are drawn by a loving presence; and to trust that, no matter what happens, all things are somehow gathered into a wider beauty. This beauty is the Adventure of the Universe as One.