Rational Religion

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The Misleading Nature of Processes


            "There are no things, only processes:  - David Joseph Bohm


This is very close to Nietzsche’s "There are no facts; only interpretations." (See “The Rape of Metaphysics,” earlier.)


It is likely true, of course, on a quantum-mechanical level.   On the Newtonian physical level, where most of us live our lives, some processes are persistent enough that we can comfortably think of them as things; from Pyramids to pollen grains.


But even on this macro level there are many obvious processes that people prefer to think of as having substance and reality, simply because they are easier to deal with that way. 


Where does the flame go when you blow out the candle?


This is the classic specious question.


Just because a human mind can frame a question does not mean the question has an answer. 


More profound, or more direct...Not all questions are valid.


"Have you stopped beating your wife?  Answer yes or no."

"I have never beaten my wife."

"I said to answer yes or no."

"I cannot accept your strictures and still give an accurate answer."

"But, you have not answered my question!"

 "Your question is specious and unanswerable." 

"Then, you cannot answer my question."

"I am under no obligation even to regard it as a question."

"But you just tried to answer it!"

"No, I answered you.  Your question was framed as an implication, and I deny the implication."


One is not bound to follow the other guy's rules, especially if he is making them up as he goes along.


So where does the flame go when you blow out the candle?


The flame "goes" nowhere.  The burning candle is a process; an ongoing chemical reaction which incidentally happens to produce light and heat.  Because light and/or heat are useful in certain circumstances, we make candles and burn them.


But the flame of an extinguished candle is in the same "place" as it was before the wick was lighted; as an entity whose existence can be referred to and questioned...exactly nowhere.


Because we have trouble pondering non-existence, we say the candle flame is "potential."  That means that conditions exist which can produce a flame if certain other conditions are met. 


But that is actually begging the question; which, remember, is a specious question to begin with.  "Potential" implies that the flame is really "there" all the time, just waiting to pop into view.


This is nonsense.   But the fact that the question was asked somehow makes it seem sensible; just as the query about beating my wife somehow raises the possibility that I do beat my wife and I am lying about it.


A candle will burn, if properly lighted; just as my house or the city of Chicago will burn if sufficiently torched.  But it is not valid to question where a process "goes" or "comes from.”  A more defensible query might be a "what"; what started it? ...Or , "why?" Or "when?" 


"But, it was there!  I saw it!"


No, you saw something happening.  It happened in a specific physical location and that may have fooled you into thinking it was an entity.


Fire has a peculiar relationship to human consciousness.  We have lived with it for at least half a million years, and we have little more control over it than we did when it first warmed our caves and occasionally burned up our possessions when we were careless with it.  We can start it more easily and in a greater variety of ways; we can confine it and make it do our bidding, most of the time; but we still can't always put it out when we want to.


Therefore, the question about the candle flame has an almost atavistic appeal.  We must be talking about something which has a kind of life.  Therefore, why can't we ask where it goes when it dies?


Well, think about it this way.  The process of a candle (or a house, or a city) in flames has no more "life" than a car wreck.  In each case something happens.  It has a beginning, a duration, and a cessation.  There are physical and chemical changes as a result.


Why don't we question where the car wreck goes, when it is over?


I suspect, you see, that the deeper problem lies in our understanding of life.  Fundamentally, you, or I -- like the car wreck or the candle -- are simply a process.


We have an easily identifiable beginning, a period of occurring, and an end to the occurrence.


But because our individual processes come equipped with some extremely complex subroutines such as awareness, consciousness, memory and insight, we refer to our processes as lives.


And our lives are so real to us; so objectively provable to exist ("Cogito; ergo sum…") that it is inconceivable to us that they should just "go out"...like the candle flame.


The question of where the candle flame goes is not only specious. 


It is a metaphor for the denial of death; your death and mine.


It is a futile delusion.


Death cannot be denied, but not because it is inevitable.  


Death cannot be denied because death does not exist. 


It is not an entity, no matter how many pictures you have seen of the Grim Reaper with his scythe, or what you have read of the pale horse with the pale rider.


We are back to the wife-beating question, here.  Just because we talk about death, write poems about it and draw pictures of it, doesn't mean it is an "it."


We speak of "cold," as well; but any freshman physics student knows there is no such thing.  There is only heat; the relatively rapid movement of molecules (and of atoms and subatomic particles within the molecules).  We can freeze an ice cube, or freeze to death in a blizzard, but "cold" had nothing to do with it.  There simply wasn't enough heat in the water to keep it from crystallizing; or enough heat in our body to keep our processes going. 


"Cold" and "heat" are both semantic constructs, useful in talking about the world.  But only "heat" has a physical basis in reality.


The analogy holds as we speak of "life" and "death."  "Life" may not be an entity, any more than the candle flame, but it is a valid name we give to our individual processes; as "heat" is what we call the movement of molecules.


But "death?"  No.  It is a construct existing solely within the nervous system; a word we use because we have no way to think the unthinkable.

            ...As the "number" zero absolves us from contemplating nothingness. 


Why do we humans, in nearly every society examined to date, have such an elaborate mythology of ghosts, spirits, zombies, vampires and the like?   These undead creatures are separate from gods, who usually exist on a "higher" plane within the metaphysical "world." 


Ghosts, et al, were usually once human, constrained by the laws of physics as you and I are.  But now they are dead, and the rules no longer apply; or at least there are another set of rules which we imperfectly understand.


But why do we subject ourselves to the terrors of the Essence of Grandpa roaming the attic at night?


Well, in the first place, and most fundamental, it affirms the notion of an "afterlife." 


If Grandpa is still wandering the nethers of the architecture, that means that he didn't simply go out, candle-like.  Some essential part of him didn't die.   Now, though it may be chilling to speculate what may be keeping his spirit from "resting" -- what unrighted wrong or uneasy family secret -- the fact that we can accept "evidence" that he is somewhere "on the other side" means that we can believe we will cheat The Grim Reaper as well.


Remember that all of this is metaphysics, and metaphysics - by definition - exists strictly inside your own head.  It is something you believe in order to keep from believing something else which you find less attractive.


So we torture ourselves with spectres and banshees in order to be able to believe that we, personally, will not die. 


It has a peculiarly human logic.