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Does your “dispositional” ontology avoid substantival categories?

Question: In Trinity and Process you argue against a “substantival” ontology and instead advocate a “relational,” “process” and/or “dispositional” ontology in which being, being-in-relation and being-in-process are one and the same. In your view, entity x is its relation to entity y (and all other relations) and is the disposition to interact with y (and all other entities) in various ways. My objection is that for an entity (x) to be related to another entity (y), they must first be distinct from one another. In some sense they must exist “in and of themselves,” otherwise they (as distinct entities) could not be related to each other. So too, to say that anything “becomes” or “is in process” or “is disposed to act” in certain ways seems to presuppose that there is first a distinct thing that becomes, is in process of becoming or is disposed to act in certain ways. This means there must be substances that own the relationship and substances that become and are disposed to act. So I don’t see that your relational, process and/or dispositional ontology can avoid substantival categories.

Answer: I believe you’re caught in a “language game” that structures adjectives and verbs around nouns. Try for a moment to observe concrete reality without imposing language on it. Don’t analyze it, just look. What you’ll find, I submit, is that there is an “x related to y” reality and an “x becoming” reality (these are two sides of the same coin). It’s all one thing. We analyze this one thing into separate parts, but our analysis is a map of the territory, not the territory itself. We abstract out of our concrete experience of reality to think and communicate – dividing reality up into nouns and adjectives and verbs. But the abstraction is one step removed from the reality we’re communicating about. (This is what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”)

Metaphysics is most fundamentally an attempt to get at the reality beyond words and then explain it with words. I argue that the closest our language-map we can get to concrete reality is via the category of dispositions. The most fundamental thing that can be said about anything, I argue, is that it is a network of dispositions that act (somewhat indeterministically) in various ways There is the “x disposed to y and y disposed to x” reality. And there is the “x disposed to verb” reality. And these are two sides of the same coin, since all action is action in relation to other things (which are themselves dispositions to act and relate in certain ways). Concrete experienced reality is a web of distinguishable dispositions to become and relate to other distinguishable dispositions in such and such ways.

We can, of course, theoretical isolate “x” from its disposition, relations and becoming, but this is like taking a snapshot of a river. In reality, the river is the flowing. The snapshot misses this.

The concept of disposition also is a snapshot, but because it is dynamic, it’s one that captures the truth that the reality it points to is not static. It’s becoming and relational. Adding the word “substance” contributes nothing to our thought. Indeed, I (following Hartshorne here) argue “substance” is nothing more than a word we use to cover a question. No one has, or ever has had, any clear idea what a “substance” is.

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