College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

2022/2023: Professor John Dupré Lecture Series: A Process Perspective on Human Life

Professor John Dupre

Professor John Dupré Lecture Series: A Process Perspective on Human Life    

In this series of lectures, Professor Dupré shall explain why we should understand life not, as is still commonly the case, as composed of things made of smaller things, the latter arranged into mechanisms, but as processes. As such, life is constantly dynamic and active. The lectures will explore the implications of this thesis for various topics with increasingly direct relevance to human life, starting with evolution and symbiosis, and moving to human nature and human kinds, personal identity, and freedom of the will.

The six lectures will take place over two weeks at the beginning of May: 

Monday 1st May: Lecture 1 - Why life is All Process

In this lecture, Professor Dupré will introduce the view of life as process that he has been defending for the last 15 years. He will explain the difference between a world of process and a world of things (or, as philosophers have sometimes called them, substances), and show how the former fits better with our current understanding of the history of the universe. Professor Dupré will then explain why familiar living systems, especially organisms, must be seen as processes. More specifically, his propose that organisms, and a fortiori humans, are open-ended and persistent processes.

Tuesday 2nd May: Lecture 2 - Evolution

In the second lecture, Professor Dupré considers some implications of a process philosophy for our theory of evolution. Starting with the entities that evolve, lineages, he will explain what these are and why they should be seen as long-lasting processes. Professor Dupré will then use this insight as a perspective to look at various factors in evolution. He will touch on the current debate between defenders of the now traditional modern synthesis and the extended evolutionary synthesis, before concluding with some reflections more specific to human evolution.

Thursday 4th May: Lecture 3 - Humans and their Fellow Travellers

In this lecture, Professor Dupré takes up the quite recent realisation that we are not composed entirely or even mostly of “human” cells, but are hosts to trillions of microbial passengers. How should we think of these? Are they transitory passengers, or are they integral parts of us? If the latter, what does this say about how we determine the boundaries of the individual? Might this problem even extend to (some) viruses)? Professor Dupré shall also consider the status of a quite different fellow traveller, the foetus. Might this too be best seen not as a distinct individual, but as a (temporary) subprocess of the pregnant female? This topic will be further discussed in relation to the concept of personhood in the next lecture. He will conclude with some wider thoughts about the extraordinary sociality and interconnectedness of humans.

Monday 8th May: Lecture 4 - Personal Identity

Whatever the problems in saying what the boundaries of the organism might be at a time, we cannot avoid a question about the persistence of the organism through time. What makes me the same person as a child who existed several decades ago? Professor Dupré's starting point for addressing this question is the position that has recently been defended as animalism: the continuity of a person over time is just the continuity of a certain kind of animal. The position is, however, substantially modified when combined with the view than an animal, human or otherwise, is a process. He shall elaborate this synthesis, which he describe as “processual animalism”. Professor Dupré shall further consider what implications this position might have for ideas of personal responsibility and for the possibility of massive life extension.

Tuesday 9th May: Lecture 5 - Human Nature and Human Kinds

While no one doubts that all humans are members of a single species, is there anything to human nature beyond belonging to this particular lineage. While there are, of course, many statistical facts about humans, Professor Dupré argues for scepticism about any stronger understanding of human nature. Fortunately, while there is no essence defining the human, the evolutionary history of humans has left us an entirely sharp boundary between humans and non-humans. Within the broad category defined by the human lineage, many further distinctions are often made, most notably divisions into cultures, races and sexes. This lecture will consider how we should understand these distinctions within the context of a process philosophy.

Wednesday 10th May: RSE Seminar with Professor John Dupre

The RSE Gifford Seminar allows audience members to explore some of the bigger questions asked across the Gifford Lecture Series and provides the opportunity to hear alternative voices on the subject area. This year, Professor Dupré, a distinguished philosopher of science and the Consulting Director for Centre for the Study of Life Sciences at the University of Exeter, explores taking on a process perspective on human life.

He has looked at the implications of taking on a process perspective, asking questions such as:

• What is the difference between a world of process and a world of things?

• What are the implications of a process philosophy for our theory of evolution?

• How should we think about the trillions of microbial passengers that the human body hosts?

• If humans are open-ended processes, does this offer an answer to the free will question

Join this panel discussion, featuring Professor John Dupré, to reflect on this perspective, discuss the implications of considering a process perspective, hear responses from a panel and ask questions related to the Gifford Lecture Series. Tickets for the seminar can be booked here

Thursday 11th May: Lecture 6 - Free Will

In his final lecture, Professor Dupré turns to the human individual. If, as argued in the first lecture, humans are open-ended processes, does this offer a solution to the age-old problem of free will? Professor Dupré argues that, with important qualifications, it does. The most important qualification is that while humans do indeed have powers to make a difference in the world, these powers do not derive solely from their intrinsic natures, but equally from their social embedding. So the conception of free will defended offers little support to the individualism that has dominated so much recent political thought. Rather, it can help to point us towards recognition of a proper blend of the powers of individuals with their responsibilities to the social order from which their powers substantially derive.

A drinks reception will follow the final lecture. 


2022/2023: Professor John Dupré Lecture Series: A Process Perspective on Human Life

The University of Edinburgh is delighted to host Professor John Dupré Gifford Lecture Series, 'A Process Perspective on Human Life'.

Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre, 32 George Square, Edinburgh