Introduction: see below
The Process-Relational Metaphysical Vision
The Passage to Ethics
General Features of Process Ecological Ethics
Implementing the Process Vision
A Consultation on Religion and the Environment could do with one paper at least from within the broad tradition of Process or Process Relational Thinking. After all, the Process tradition has rather strong credentials in ecological thinking, within Christian theology and in the cross-religions dialogue especially with Buddhism. John Cobb, the foremost living process person after Charles Hartshorne, for example, is quite strong in all three, and there are lots of others with strength in one or other area (see References) and also some ecofeminist theologians e.g. Marjorie Suchocki. The following paper has the aim of adding this tradition as a voice in the dialogue in which this Consultation consists.
Process Ecological Ethics is based in a broad metaphysical vision, a characteristic which it shares with the ethics of Spinoza or that of Deep Ecology (esp. Arne Naess). A major part of the paper will need to be spent on explaining this Process Relational metaphysical vision, with due regard to significant variations among process thinkers. We can then make a passage from metaphysics to ethics, look at some of the typical characteristics of Process Ecological Ethics and finally turn our attention to questions of implementation in practice.
The Process Relational Metaphysical Vision
Process or Process Relational Metaphysics in all its versions is
blatantly revisionary rather than descriptive. It seeks to change our
thinking at a deep level rather than just explicate the way we typically
already think. Or at least it suggests such a change. It does this in the
name of adequacy to the totality of our experience, including scientific,
artistic and religious experience. It does this also for the sake of the
smoother attainment of the good and the beautiful in our lives, in our
relationships with each other and within the concerns we have as an
interacting part of Nature.
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Process people suggest that the world consists in events, happenings,
processes in various kinds of connections or 'nexus'. This is the case,
rather than the world consisting in substances or enduring substantial
things with properties which more or less maintain their identity
independently of time and relation. Substances are cashed in as
certain kinds of connected systems of events. In some versions, these
events or processes may be nested inside each other. In other
versions all bona fida events are microscopic. (See Moses 1997 for
details.) For all versions time is of the essence, and everything takes
some time to happen.
The Process universe is strongly relational, strongly connected rather than either atomistic or totally holistic. It is also into creativity in a big way. Everything is a more or less creative taking account of its total past environment, and a giving of itself to be taken into account by the future of the environment. This is broad enough to include electronic events on the one hand and the event of you here and now reading this paper. That latter is also a particular way of taking account of your total social and natural environment, at a certain point in your life, for the sake of the future of that environment. The same might be said about my writing this paper. Striving to be less anthropomorphic in our statement but rather more abstract: everything is reception, transformation and transmission of something like energy and information from total past environment to total future environment.
In other words, everything is an environmental event or else a
connected series or nexus of such events. But not only that.
Everything adds something to the process, everything makes a
difference, albeit oftentimes oh so slight. This latter conviction is one of
the features which stops the scheme being strongly holistic to the point
of being totalizing. Everything is an environmental event, but it is also
a little bit individual, it cannot be entirely cashed in terms of its
ensemble of social relations. The other feature is a differing relation to
past and to future. An event is internally related to its past, cannot be
described or conceived except as a particular way of taking account of
that past. But it is externally related to the future. What it is here and
now is describable and conceivable apart from the way things actually
work out. Certain futures are made probable by the present events,
but not entirely certain, at least not down to the last detail.
The kind and degree of connectivity is still rather important in the scheme, however. As the universe evolves, there is a progressive development towards more and more subtle and complex kinds of environmental order, capable of supporting the existence of higher and higher-grade systems of series of events, and eventually of those kinds of series of events we call animal and human minds. In our cosmic epoch, which is to say, in the world as we experience it today, there are a broad variety of kinds of middle sized phenomena, ranging from 'aggregates', such as rocks, to 'compound individuals', such as koalas, dolphins and human beings. Compound individuals are where there appears to be a presiding or dominant more or less well connected temporal series of high-grade events in the system providing for a kind of global control. For example, in our case the human mind. An example of an aggregate would be a rock or a pile of rocks. In between would be crystals and also plants. Plants are rather more organized and co-ordinated in response to environment than are aggregates, but they do not appear to have a presiding series of events as co-ordinating element. As Hartshorne puts it, plants are democracies of cells. What this makes us I'm not so sure! What might we say of a forest? Would this count as a democracy of trees and other flora and fauna?
The metaphysical system thus postulates different levels of natural events, the level being proportional to the quality of reception and transformation and the consequent likely effectiveness and spread of the transmission. The higher the grade event the more the capacity for taking into account the environment and responding to it in a creative fashion. On the other hand, as stated previously, what kinds of events are possible is a function of the richness of the sustaining environment. In a too poor environment the rich events might well be the first to go. Meanwhile, the quality and effective extent of the reception, the degree of creativity or self-initiative in the transformation and the likely effectiveness of the transmission are taken as capable of almost indefinite degrees in both directions, from the smallest sub-atomic events in the midst of space to God. Human and animal consciousness, in this scheme, is thus no big deal, just something which may happen quite naturally in certain rich environments. They are a particular intensification of what is going on all over the place.
Certain key people in the process tradition go on to talk in terms of
Panpsychism (Hartshorne) or at least Panexperientialism (Griffin), soul
or at least experience everywhere. There are other people, including
this writer, who wonder whether such expressions are worth their price
on the open market. What is essential to the scheme is a multi-layered
or multi-level or differentiated ontology: there are different species or
levels of natural event, albeit sharing the same basic structure.
Everything is a particular way of taking account of its environment and
a gift by nature to the future of that environment. There are no
vacuous actualities, nothing which does nothing. Though certain
aggregates of smaller actualities give the impression of being rather
vacuous in so far as the various contributions cancel out. But there is
no need to say that soul or even experience is everywhere.
We human beings are high-grade natural events enmeshed in an
environment of natural events of various kinds. This is to say that for
process people we are very much an interacting part of the natural
world. What makes us, and perhaps some other animals and
creatures on other planets different, is that we can know that we are an
interacting part of Nature. More grandiosely, we are within that class of
natural events wherein Nature comes to know itself. What this does is
to give us something else to take account of in our self-constituting,
which thereby opens the way to ethics. But before we come to that, a
word on God and religion.
Process metaphysical systems are mostly theistic, though even in the Whiteheadian camp there are also non-theistic versions (esp. Donald Sherburne). For our purposes, we may distinguish a spectrum of views from minimal religious naturalism' (Stone, 1993) to various maximal possibilities. Minimal religious naturalism talks in terms of immanent and transcendent resources for the task of living together in the natural world, without specifying a single metaphysical source for these resources. There is in our lives, for example, a lure towards goodness, truth and beauty, and perhaps something analogous to this further down the line.
There are a variety of maximal theistic versions, Whitehead, Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, Suchocki, the Christian Trinitarianism of Joe Bracken to mention some of them. Typically and deriving from Whitehead, God is noted as principle of limitation providing a kind of focus for the cosmic process; also as principle of possibility and of novelty within the process. There is also a fairly common division made between the Primordial Nature and the Consequent Nature of God, with sometimes also a Projective or Superjective Nature.thrown in. Roughly, this comes down to, God as Creative, God as Receptive and God as Responsive. There is also the God as Primordial Qualification of Creativity of the Belgian philosopher Jan Van der Veken, this last being accessible as something religious people would recognize as God only on the basis of particular religious experiences. This avoids turning God into just another being amongst the beings as well as recognizing 'God' as a specifically religious notion. What all agree on is belief in a God who affects all and is affected by all, affected by the fall of the sparrow in the silent spring and the flowers of the field or lack thereof and the hair on your head falling out. This is, moreover, a God who persuades and does not determine, not by any means an overgrown absolute monarch or some kind of power-mad patriarch.
While a minimal religious naturalism may be sufficient to ground some kind of broadening of concern and discerning of worth beyond the human sphere (Stone 1993; see also Mesle 1993), theists propose that they have rather firmer grounds (see esp. Cobb, in Mesle 1993).
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The Passage to Ethics
The passage from a metaphysic to an ethic is not always smooth, and rarely if ever a matter of straight deduction (cf. Vogel 1995). Often it is just a difficult to define species of coherence between the metaphysics expressed and the ethics espoused. Given the metaphysics, some ethical stances make more sense than others and certain ethical stances look rather irrational in the circumstances.
There are at least two way of getting ethics out of our metaphysics.
One could for example lean on the process relational version of the Buddhist 'No Self' doctrine and push it in a direction reminiscent of some of the Deep Ecologists (e.g. Naess). A human person is a succession of events with personal order, maintaining a high degree of similarity through time, a certain style, such that in looking for causes we look to previous mental and bodily events. But we look not only to past mental and bodily events. The distinction between past mental events, the body and the social and natural environment is only a relative distinction. I am a (creative) function of my body and of my total natural and social environment. Which is stronger or more important in an individual case is an empirical matter. I am constituted by/constitute myself on the basis of my total past environment, in view of the total future, which is in this sense also my total future. In the final resort, I am everything that affects me and everything that I affect. All boundaries are relativised, all boundaries are permeable. Given this, there appear to be no reasons why concern should not be generalized to include all elements which affect me and which I affect.
The more usual pattern for a process ecological ethics, however, is to rely on certain features of the metaphysical vision in order to do two things. Firstly, we rely on the fact that we are very much natural beings in the midst of natural beings in order to motivate an extension of 'intrinsic value' or value in and of itself, value as an end not just a means, well beyond the human sphere. Secondly, we rely particularly on the differentiated ontology to motivate differential assignment of value for the sake of solving conflicts. Thus Birch, Cobb, McDaniel, Armstrong-Buck (see references). In the next section of this paper, we will spend time on some general features of this more usual view.
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Some General Features of Process
This is a fairly straightforward distinction. Value is the good in the context of action. Something or some process has intrinsic value if it ought to be valued in and of itself apart from its usefulness to other things or processes. Something or some process has instrumental value if it is useful to the existence or thriving of other things or processes, and in proportion to its contribution to such existence or thriving. The extension of intrinsic value beyond the human sphere is important for two reasons. It makes processes outside the human sphere valuable quite independently of their contribution to human life. Also and just as importantly, it prevents extrinsic value from cashing out eventually as value for human beings. Of course, extrinsic value does include value for human beings: we are part of it all after all.
In a typical case, value is assigned usually to a connected series of natural events or processes within a certain total context, e.g. a koala colony in an old growth forest in fair ecological equilibrium. This would involve weighing up of both intrinsic and instrumental value. However, in practice I don't think anyone does a Bentham like calculation. It is more a matter of global intuitive response sharpened up or perhaps changed by further investigation of the details, with certain strong process-motivated convictions about what the world is like in mind. Eventually, there is no decision procedure. Eventually it takes a degree of phronesis, wisdom chiselled out in practice that comes from being in the right way and knowing how to use our knowledge. But see later.
It's uncontroversial that instrumental value has degrees. Process ecological ethics typically makes intrinsic value also to have degrees, versus deep ecologists and some eco-feminists and other advocates of ecological egalitarianism or ecological democracy.
One way forward would be to assign intrinsic value in proportion to quality of natural event, that is, quality of reception, transformation and transformation etc. That is, the multi-layered or differentiated ontology maps onto a multi-layered or differentiated deontology. This has a certain elegance about it. Every actuality or series of actualities or compound individual has intrinsic value, though sometimes it is negligible. There are no vacuous actualities, nor are there any intrinsically valueless actualities.
Some process people do give the impression of wanting to go this way, for example, Jay McDaniel, Susan Buck, and some earlier work by Cobb and Griffin.
The problem with this is precisely the other side of its strength: it is altogether too interlaced with the metaphysics. In addition there is a dilemma. If 'intrinsic value' is extended all the way to sub-atomic particles its assignment is either massively counter-intuitive or else seems to rob the notion of 'intrinsic value' of any useful meaning.
So process people in practice sometimes talk of sentiency or the capacity for feeling or something like that as the ground for intrinsic value, being careful to extend this sentiency or capacity for feeling or whatever as far as they plausibly can, though not necessarily all the way.
Either way we are in trouble. It is not so much the extension of intrinsic value that worries however but the admission that it has degrees combined with the apparent implication that they are degrees on the same spectrum. Human beings almost inevitably end up as having the highest degree we know of apart from God.
There are at least two considerations that might be invoked to escape the charge of continuing anthropocentrism.
Firstly, a high degree of extrinsic value can well go with low degrees of intrinsic value. This is typical indeed of creatures at the bottom of a food chain, e.g. plankton.
Secondly it doesn't follow just from A is more valuable than B that A can do what it likes with B. No, we need another premise. In addition, B has to be necessary for the life of A or something like that. However interpreted, in affluent Western countries where one can buy wholesome vegetarian food at reasonable prices in supermarkets and health food stores, this is not enough even to justify meat eating. Whereas it quite smoothly allows eskimos and aboriginees in traditional environments to eat meat, which latter is an advantage I suspect. An alleged anthropocentrism that can't justify meat eating is not much of an anthropocentrism.
The present author is still a bit uncomfortable with it. It is at this point that one might be better off talking in terms of a differentiated rather than a multi-layered or multi-level ontology, mapping on to a differentiated deontology or value assignment. It is not necessarily the case that anything they can do we can do better. While all events have a certain common event structure (everything is a more or less creative etc. etc.), there may be specific differences in how this event structure is instantiated, which differences need not in all cases map onto the same spectrum. (Cf. Plumwood 1993.) In such situations we should not talk of high and low, just different, both ontologically and deontologically. This rather spoils the possibility of calculation in case of conflict. But it never was a genuine possibility anyway.
This is another little problem that some people have with classic Whiteheadian or Hartshornean process. It seems that only individuals have intrinsic value, that is to say, individual actualities and compound individuals. Ecosystems as such have only instrumental value, as providing a context for the thriving of the individuals. This may in many cases be rather high, but it is only instrumental. It is not as if ecosystems as such are valuable in themselves.
The present author empathizes with the critics on this one. It seems counter-intuitive. Ecosystems have a species of beauty all their own. It is not just their use value for their membership that seems to count for us.
There is at least one other revisionist version of Whitehead-derived process thinking which has some prospects of solving the problem, namely the metaphysics of energy events and fields of Joseph Bracken. According to this metaphysics, fields are equiprimordial with events. There are no fields without events, and events constitute fields. On the other hand, there are no events without fields, events put themselves together on the basis of the fields in which they find themselves. Fields carry contributions made by events through time, and events clue into the fields rather than past events themselves which are not there any more to be clued into after all. Moreover, it is the fields which carry the structure across time through changes of the elements. If fields are ontologically equiprimordial, which not deontologically? This would introduce two equiprimordial species of intrinsic value, I think, and allow us with good conscience to give ecosystems as such intrinsic value.
A further way, not inconsistent with either of the above, might be to build on Whitehead's distinction in Adventures of Ideas between Beauty and the Beautiful. Beauty is the harmony and intensity of experience. The Beautiful is what contributes to the harmony and intensity of experience. One may then ask a version of Plato's famous question (or one of his many famous questions!): is the Beautiful beautiful because it contributes to the harmony and intensity of experience, or does it contribute to the harmony and intensity of experience because it is beautiful? (See the Euthyphro.)
The bottom line, I suppose, is that it may be possible to give ecosystems value in their own right, without departing too much from even the Whiteheadian process tradition.
Our little Process Ethics group sometimes noted this as 'the Singerian Paradox' after Prof. Peter Singer. According to this idea, the effort to widen moral concern beyond the human species can have the effect of lessening moral concern for certain 'marginal' members of the human species, such as babies, severely handicapped people, people with senile dementia. Babies and pigs, considered as here and now actualities, have a similar place in the scale of being, so should be treated similarly. What makes it interesting for this paper is that process people can also fall into this paradox (see Cobb 1991).
What makes this especially paradoxical is that people on the so-called margins are precisely the ones whose dignity requires to be defended. The ones in the main line, the fully-fledged 'persons', can typically look after themselves.
The process thinker Daniel Dombrowski, in two closely argued works (Dombrowski 1988, 1997) has shown that the argument can be pushed in the other direction. Instead of saying, babies are like pigs, therefore should be treated no differently from pigs, Dombrowski proposes, pigs are like babies and therefore should be treated no differently from babies. It is not even necessary to know why we reverence babies, just that we do so (Dombrowski 1988). Given this we should also reverence pigs. Logically we should all be vegetarians, though Dombrowski admits doing the right thing in this situation may require from some saintly virtue.
Charles Birch in his recent Living with the Animals (Birch, 1987, p. 56) is careful not to commit himself, regarding it as a complex and contentious issue which it is not his purpose to go into.
I would go one step further and argue that it is a needless complication, which tends to bring the environmental movement into disrepute among otherwise sympathetic people, derived mostly from taking our theories too seriously and thinking we can totalise the field with a single system. We human beings are into all kinds of practices that we may not understand, e.g. burying the dead. Should we stop doing that, merely because we haven't been able to rationally appropriate it? Or only bury people who have living relatives perhaps? We should try for overall consistency in our various practices, but probably all that is needed is speculative consistency rather than provable consistency, that given certain not totally implausible considerations our various practices might be consistent. (For the idea, compare Peter Forrest, God without the Supernatural, Cornell Univ. Press, 1996. Or Greg Moses, "Hume's Playful Metaphysics"...)
There are indeed I think a number of considerations consistent with the process tradition which added together might give us the appropriate pause, even apart from turning us into vegetarians. For example, process people can't blithely dismiss potentiality. Potentiality is of the essence of a Whiteheadian or a Hartshornean actual entity. Being is a potential for all future becoming, "the many become one and are increased by one" etc. The future events and environment will determine whether and how that potentiality is realized, but potentiality as such is an element of what that event is. Secondly, reverence in any case is rarely for individual events, more usually for connected systems of events taken in total context. We reverence Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones and continue to require them to be respected even when they end up in a nursing home not know where they are or why they are there. It is still Mr. Smith there and Mrs. Jones, they haven't simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Finally, there is Dombrowski's distinction between the criteria for moral agency which would presumably exclude the so-called 'marginal' individuals and the criteria for moral patiency which might well include them.
However, let's assume that this needless distraction can be taken care
of some how or other, and get back to our main line of widening in
practice our ethical concern well beyond the human species.
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Implementing the Process Vision
There are two issues to be dealt with. Firstly, can process ways of thinking give any guidance to concrete decision making processes? Secondly, how if at all can we stop process thinking in ecology from being just another elite discourse?
In answer to the first question and as a first try, our Process Ethics group came up with a five-step procedure. As it happened, the inspiration for the procedure was a meditation on how we went about choosing the wines for the enjoyment of participants at the May 1997 conference of the Australasian Association for Process Thought. The procedure went as follows:
1. Access the situation as broadly and as deeply as possible. This step is pretty obvious. Process thinking just adds: the relevant situation consists in all living creatures affected taken in their total context, with human beings in their concrete social reality as one player.
2. Decide on what outcomes are excluded, deciding on the non- negotiables, what is beyond the pale. This was quite easy in the bottle shop.
3. Within the scope of what remains, consider together how best to enhance the harmony and intensity of experience of all creatures involved, the best integration of unity and variety, the total thriving in a rich environment. We are interacting parts of the total natural process. How can we responsibly, artistically, most creatively participate?
4. Check what we come up with in stage 3 against 2 and 1.
5. Collective communal decision, the working towards a communal reflective equilibrium, leading to implementation, which will constitute a new situation, which may stimulate a further run through the procedure.
In our process, we make use of whatever knowledges there are at our disposal, but striving always to avoid what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which is to say, confusing abstract models, e.g. from some economic think-tank, with the total concrete reality.
One interesting thing about this model is that it patterns a typical process event. Step 1 = Reception, Steps 2 through 4 = Transformation, Step 5 = Transmission. Or, Steps 1 through 4 = creatively taking into account our total past environment, and Step 5 = giving ourselves in ways to be taken into account by the future of that environment. To complete the pattern: the Lure of Goodness, Truth and Beauty functions as Principle of Limitation in Step 2 and as Principle of Possibility and Novelty in Step 3. We think of ourselves in our environmental concern as a process that makes a creative, responsible input into the total process under the Lure of the Divine Mystery, or something like that.
It didn't take us long to realize that our procedure was a bit na´ve. Everything depends on who does it. Process ecological ethics can't be just applying principles or balancing value. It has to do as well with character transformation, with what kinds of individuals and communities and nations we are, with ingrained changes in the way we operate. Everything is a more or less creative taking into account etc., but everything depends on the how and the how depends on the who, the character, the style of the how, which is to say, with ecological virtue. This lead in our group to a kind of definition of Process Ethics: Process Ethics = striving to intervene in our own process, individual and communal and national and international, and to embed the consequences in habitual ways of behaving, in habitual ways for that process to go, lured on by ideals which themselves keep moving.
In other words, we moved from ecological consequentialism with some touches of deontology (cf. Step 2 above) to a process ecological virtue ethic. (Compare also Plumwood 1993.)
If we are as individuals and as a nation to take back control of our lives, subordinating economy to community and making the human community into a creatively interacting part of the total Australian and eventually total earth environment, our process ethic can't be just another elite discourse. In the present context in Australian politics we could regard this as responding to the John Howard critique.
There are at least two forces to align with.
Firstly, as the Melbourne-based process-aligned Aaron Gare has noted (Gare 1995, concluding chapter), among the forces capable of competing at the moment with the supremely totalizing force of globalizing free market economics are various forms of nationalism and regionalism and localization. It makes sense therefore to align ourselves with them: think locally, act globally. There is certainly a point here. Lots of people who never think of themselves as Greenies still do lots of recycling. People do worry about the pollution of their locality even where they might claim not to worry about pollution as such. Pauline Hanson has shown us something at least, but how to rescue it from the xenophobia? The bottom line here is, start with people where they are, with what they care for.
Secondly, as has been demonstrated graphically in the recent debate about Wik, the religions are still with us.
It is at this point that this mainly philosophical paper joins strongly with the theme of this Consultation on Religion and the Environment. Religions are still effective in the business of consciousness raising when every other force seems to fail. Religions are in the business of personal and communal character formation via various forms of transformative practice, including prayer and meditative techniques as well as rituals and narrative-based structures of various kinds. Modern Western philosophy is not much good at this. Religions do continue to serve to broaden concern, to all the human and beyond the human, to minimise the confining and limiting influence of ego, to improve the element of transformative creativity, to open us to the immanent and transformative resources in the total process. Whatever else they do, religions can well serve to focus for us the power of the Lure to Goodness, Truth, Beauty, Harmony and Peace.
Here, process thinking seems to be on a winner, in so far as it has
already a solid and well developed theological wing across Christian
denominations, and an excellent record in cross-religions dialogue,
especially with Japanese and to a lesser extent Chinese Buddhism.
Indeed, this is much more solidly developed than its more recent
ecological wing, though rather easy to integrate as the example of John
Cobb in particular makes very clear.
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By way of summary: process ecological ethics is among those varieties of ethics firmly based in a metaphysic. This metaphysics is revisionary rather than just descriptive, striving to get us into a new way of thinking and talking and, eventually, acting, rather than just to describe how we in fact think and talk and act. This revisionary metaphysics is into events or process rather than enduring substances or things. These events are typically strongly connected to and dependent on each other though always a little bit creative. Such events come in various kinds, while maintaining a common structure. Everything is a particular way of taking account of its total past environment and a giving of itself to be taken into account by the future of that environment. However, different events do this in different ways and to different degrees.
Process ecological ethics relies on the metaphysics in order to advance 'intrinsic value' well beyond the human sphere, while nevertheless allowing for degrees of intrinsic value. Typically, only individuals have such intrinsic value, whereas ecosystems have usually a high degree of instrumental value. However, some varieties of process ethics may also give ecosystems intrinsic value. Sometimes intrinsic value is extended to all actualities, sometimes only to those endowed with sentiency or feeling or something like that. The admission that intrinsic value might have degrees can have certain detrimental effects within the human sphere at the so-called margins. However, such effects can be mitigated and perhaps even eliminated. There still remains a tendency towards anthropocentrism in the general system, which may require some changes in both the ethics and the metaphysics.
Process thinking can well inspire practical decision making in situations
of ecological concern, and also and more importantly the
transformation of the people who make such decisions. To be truly
effective however it cannot be just an exercise in philosophy. It needs
to break beyond being just another elite discourse. It needs to align
itself with the only existing forces capable of standing up to the current
global obsession with market forces, including both nationalism and
religion. In respect of religion, process thinking can be taken as
already well advanced in this regard, having a solid theological and
religious strand already well developed and quite congenial to
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