Exchange of Views on Process and Real Reality

By | October 30, 2013

Juan Bernal

A philosophical correspondents wrote:

I can’t remember whether I already commented on the relationship (as I perceive it, of course) between process philosophy and Buddhism. If not I should, because it helps to show how metaphysics is truly a variable. Otherwise we tend to identify our native metaphysics with reality itself.

Suppose that we wish to meditate on the really real. Following Whitehead, we would avoid the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. We would not meditate on the mind as such or the world as such. We would not meditate on any of the objects (people, places, things) we find in the world. We would meditate on the present occasion of experience. We would try to “be here now.”

If we took the present occasion of experience to be the fundamental reality, then we would realize that the world is in some sense an illusion. We would realize that there is no enduring world and no enduring self. We would realize that the ideas of world and self are abstractions, and we would not be tempted to think of them as independently existing, enduring realities.

“By mistaking what disintegrates moment by moment for something constant, I bring pain upon myself as well as others. From the depths of my heart I should seek to get beyond this round of suffering induced by mistaking the impermanent for the permanent.”

(Dalai Lama. How To See Yourself as You Really Are, p. 264)


My Reply to these provocative Remarks:

I don’t know what “our native metaphysics” might be; but I know that it is madness to deny that the world which we inhabit and in which we interact is real.  I’m not even sure that one can make sense — when we analyze things carefully — of a subject reflecting on reality without assuming that he himself and the world which he inhabits are real.  Since their reality is what makes any reflection on those questions possible.   But that is another argument, meanwhile I’ll attend to some of what you wrote.

I don’t understand why any mediation on what may or may not be real requires that we follow Whitehead and focus on the “present occasion of experience.”  If you want to elaborate on Whitehead’s views and do a thought experiment based on those metaphysical views, then we can understand that you might try to meditate on the “present occasion of experience.”  But that would be nothing more than doing a particular thought experiment based on Whitehead’s metaphysical theories.  Nothing says that anyone interested in honest reflection on reality has to go that route.

You think that anyone engaging in that thought experiment would realize that what we take to be real is an illusion; that there is neither an enduring world or enduring self.  Well maybe, but also, maybe not.  If this is philosophical proposition, then I would like to see the argument that implies those surprising conclusions.  Otherwise, I’ll take it as a mood that comes over the subject, a poetic mood; or maybe something presaging a mystical experience or other.

That the ideas of world and self are abstractions is not at all clear.  Is the idea of the State of Virginia just an abstraction?  But you just visited that State.  Did you not find it to be real?  And the idea of your relatives (son? daughter?)  in Virginia as enduring individuals?  Was the idea just an abstraction?  But they were there before you visited them and remain there after you leave (or left)?  Doesn’t that imply endurance?  Or is all that just an illusion or a dream, and not at all reality?   Are you really prepared to embrace such implications of your metaphysical speculations?  These speculations are what we should identify as abstractions (and not real) in my view,  not the world and individuals with which you interact.

In short, I take what the Buddhist offers as expressions of poetic, maybe religious, mood.  It may work to enable a person to deal with the realities of a hard, bewildering life.  But it hardly establishes the “real reality” as you imagine. And, to the extent that process philosophy takes you in this direction (and I doubt that it does), that style of process philosophy equally serves as just an expression of someone’s mood or attitude.  It surely does not quality as anything like a scientific or rationally grounded theory of reality.

Doesn’t it strike you as revealing that some one like the Dalai Lama, — who apparently denies that the airliner that transports him and his entourage to different parts of the world has any permanence (it is an illusion like everything else)  — nevertheless he hops on that airliner to do this traveling.   Apparently the airliner and the airline personnel have enough endurance to get the Dalai Lama to his destination?  Or does he admit that he himself and his teachings are illusions also?  But how does an illusion teach us what is really real?

Can you imagine Dalai Lama saying to himself:  “I know this airplane does not endure and just an illusion, yet I will board it anyway and pretend that it is real”?


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