Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Process philosophy: Buddha, Nagarjuna and Whitehead

Here's a golden oldie by Thomas J. McFarlane from 15 years ago, which is well worth revisiting.  Nagarjuna and Whitehead were the most influential exponents of Process Philosophy in the Buddhist and Western traditions respectively, and the convergence of their views is quite remarkable...


Process and Emptiness:  A Comparison of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy and Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy
Spring 2000
Revised and edited for the web March 2004

ABSTRACT: Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy is compared with Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. After briefly introducing the philosophies of Whitehead and Buddhism, some similarities between them are examined. The primary areas of convergence are:

(1) Impermanence and process as fundamental aspects of reality
(2) The emptiness and lack of substance of things
(3) The relational and dependent nature of things
(4) The notion of ignorance and mistaken perception
(5) The possibility of freedom from ignorance and mistaken perception
(6) The emphasis on subjective and experiential aspects of reality
(7) The fundamental limitations of language and philosophical systems in characterizing reality.

The paper concludes with a discussion of an important distinguishing feature of Buddhist philosophy, namely, its dialectical method of criticism.


Read more at Buddhist Philosophy

1 comment:

Carey Carlson said...

Whitehead's analysis of the world into discrete occasions of experience connected one-to-another by causal inheritance relations he called "physical prehensions" seems to have been lost completely in the above discussion. That analysis of the world into whole-and-part has been re-invented for physics today as "causal set theory." No one has noticed the fact. I was using directed graphs to illustrate Whitehead's reduction of physics to occasions engaged in temporal/causal succession when I noticed that such graphs show the formation of frequency ratios, something that Whitehead never noticed. The frequency ratios serve as energy ratios in accord with Planck's fundamental discovery, E=hf. Thus it emerges that sheer temporal succession can account for frequency and energy all by itself. The step of discrete temporal advance is identified as the quantum of energy ratios. The immediate consequences then spill themselves out, producing directed graphs of the 4-D manifold and the common particles and their mass-ratio values to one another. That is all in accord with Whitehead's view in Adventures of Ideas. He was only missing the frequency ratios in order to show how his panpsychism of time-ordered occasions produces the reconstruction of quantum physics from the repetitive action of a temporal successor relation. The end of physics results in "the arrow diagram of the universe" as a sufficient image of the foundation of physics. Much like Indra's net, and bringing to mind the "interdependent origination" of the occasions at the nodes of the directed graph of the universe, these pleasing results are still unknown in spite of my years of trying. The problem for Buddhists seems to be a lack of competence in whole-and-part analysis into relations and relata. With that, they could reassert the inviolable rule of cause-and-effect in the ordering of occasions by a causal successor relation. The simplest instance of time forming frequency ratios is shown by a directed graph of 3 arrows forming a triangle. It doesn't take a physicist to identify frequency ratios in a time diagram of 3 arrows, or to relate the fact to Planck's famous formula, E=hf. If there is a Whitehead scholar, or a Buddhist thinker, or any physicist, or any Russell scholar (he shared the reduction to a "causal web" with Whitehead) who can grasp the significance of the generation of frequency and energy by the sheer temporal succession of causally primitive individuals, illustrated in the simplest case by a time diagram of 3 arrows, I haven't found such a person. Let me know if you are someone who can think this thing through. -- Carey R. Carlson