Workshop #3: Formal Accounts of Powers, Processes, and Change (Dec 2021)

Date: 9-10 December 2021, 14:00-19:00 (CET)
Place: Online (Zoom)

It is becoming an increasingly popular idea to account for change in terms of powers or in terms of processes, or in terms of a combination of both. Accounts of change along those lines often claim to provide a dynamic rather than a static picture of reality and notoriously invoke notions such as dynamicity, directedness, becoming, activity, or productivity. The formal aspects of such accounts are, however, under-investigated, and it is not straightforward to reconcile the above ideas with a standard model-theoretic approach, according to which objects are assigned properties relative to points in time.
This workshop will bring together researchers who aim at making formally more precise the idea of change in terms of powers or processes. We will investigate viable routes to overcome the static aspects of the model-theoretic picture and discuss attempts to provide formal tools that allow for a more dynamic representation of powers, processes, and change. Questions to be addressed include:
– How are the manifestations of powers, how are processes to be represented formally, and how do they combine to yield change?
– How can the temporal continuity of objects be guaranteed on formal grounds?
– How does an account of change in terms of powers or processes relate to the logic of time and modality?
By answering these and related questions, the workshop will also shed light on the metaphysical debate. In particular, it will elucidate the notions of dynamicity, directedness, becoming, activity, or productivity and thereby help to clarify which views on powers and processes can be consistently combined with which views on time, persistence, and change.

Everybody is welcome to attend, but registration is required. To register and receive the zoom link, please send an email to

Antony Galton (Exeter)
Ludger Jansen (Rostock)
Thomas Müller (Konstanz)
Tomasz Placek (Krakow)
Antje Rumberg (Aarhus)
Johanna Seibt (Aarhus)
Barbara Vetter (FU Berlin)


Thursday, 9 December 2021

13:50 – 14:00 Introduction
14:00 – 15:00 Ludger Jansen: Qualitative Change in Formal Ontologies
15:00 – 15:15 Break
15:15 – 16:15 Thomas Müller: A Formal Account of Temporal Continuity and Change
16:15 – 16:45 Break
16:45 – 17:45 Antje Rumberg: Transitions as Dynamic Elements
17:45 – 18:00 Break
18:00 – 19:00 Barbara Vetter: Knowledge of Abilities

Friday, 10 December 2021

14:00 – 15:00 Antony Galton: On Deriving Objects from Processes
15:00 – 15:15 Break
15:15 – 16:15 Tomasz Placek: On Novelty-Inducing Processes
16:15 – 16:45 Break
16:45 – 17:45 Johanna Seibt: What Does it Take to Formalize Processes?
17:45 – 18:00 Break
18:00 – 19:00 Final discussion


Antony Galton (Exeter): On Deriving Objects from Processes
Despite the longstanding acceptance of substances as the primary constituents of the world, there has been a persistent strand of argumentation according to which this role should rather be played by processes. In recent years this view has been particularly (though not exclusively) associated with philosophers inspired by the phenomena of biology, in which the nature and existence of organisms are intimately bound up with their metabolic processes. At the same time, in other areas of philosophy such as that concerned with the analysis of action, there has been intense focus on the nature of processes themselves, leading to a divergence of opinions between those who regard processes as event-like, and thus extended in time and unchanging, and those who regard them as more object-like, existing in the moment and capable of undergoing change. Objections to the idea that entities such as organisms should be regarded as processes rather than objects often rely on the assumption that the processes in question are to be understood in the former way, as event-like, rather than in the latter. In this paper I will advance the view that the primary constituents of the world are processes conceived in the object-like mould, and I will examine how, and to what extent, the traditional view of objects as Aristotelian substances, with their various properties and powers, can be derived as abstractions from the processes constituting their life histories.

Judger Jansen (Rostock): Qualitative Change in Formal Ontologies
My trousers are blue, but from washing to washing, they bleach out more and more. Though they change in colour, they remain blue. One day, I decide to colour them black. They no longer are blue now, but still they are coloured. Qualities, that is, come in hierarchies of determinable and determinate properties. Formal ontologies like BFO, the Basic Formal Ontology, and DOLCE, the Descriptive Ontology for Linguistic and Cognitive Engineering, have chosen different strategies to analyse and model this complex phenomenon. The talk reviews the different strategies and suggests a number of criteria to evaluate these strategies.

Thomas Müller (Konstanz): A Formal Account of Temporal Continuity and Change
In a change, one and the same persisting thing has one property first, and an incompatible property later on. Change is, therefore, intimately tied with the thing’s identity over time: the destruction of a thing is not a change in that thing, but the end of its existence.
Well-known challenges for the notion of identity over time threaten to carry over to the notion of change as well. I will focus on one such challenge: It appears that one and the same happening can be both a change and an ending, i.e., a non-change. Consider a live basil plant that is put in a blender. Does blending amount to change or destruction? The question concerns one happening pertaining to one thing, but there seem to be two or even three valid answers. The matter that was put in the blender is just physically rearranged, which amounts to change. The culinary entity, basil, also just changes its properties. The live plant, however, is destroyed. What are we to make of this?
In my talk, I will show how a formal approach to continuity and change, based on Case-Intensional First Order Logic (CIFOL; Belnap & Müller, J Phil Logic 2014), can help one to come to grips with such cases by highlighting the role of sortals in tracing a thing from one case to another.

Tomasz Placek (Krakow): On Novelty-Inducing Processes
The background of this talk is informed by Peter Simons’s (2014, 2018) analysis of occurrents and continuants. On this analysis processes (occurrents) are metaphysically prior to continuants (substances). Processes have parts, and, in particular, temporal parts (stages). Stages of a process can stand in the relation of genidentity (which, in nice cases, is the equivalence relation). A continuant is then defined as invariant with respect to the genidentity relation. It is provable in this framework that a continuant has no temporal parts. Furthermore, a continuant comes out as a concretum, as it occupies a time and (in many cases) occupies a place. Typically a continuant changes over time. However, the problem is that continuants’ changes are Cambridge changes, not real changes. A further problem is that a space vs. time distinction requires rethinking in the context of relativistic space-times. My talk intends to contribute to the clarification of these two issues.
The literature advances quite a few objections to Cambridge change (Cleland 1990).  The focus of this talk is the objection that in a Cambridge change there is no element of novelty. In the spirit of my earlier work with N. Belnap and T. Müller (2022, ch. 10), I interpret novelty in modal terms: something is novel because it was once contingent, but is settled now. A process induces novelty iff it involves a chancy element (choice point). A continuant undergoes real change iff it is invariant under a genidentity relation defined on stages  of a novelty-inducing process.
To address the relativity issue, and put the talk in a formal perspective, I appeal to a relativity-inspired notion of non-Hausdorff differential manifolds (Luc and Placek, 2020). In contrast to Hausdorff differential manifolds (which are standardly identified with space-times of General Relativity), a non-Hausdorff differential manifold contains non-Hausdorff pairs which can be read as loci of contingency. It also allows for bifurcating curves (Hajicek 1971) that can be interpreted as alternative possible paths of a point-like object. In the spirit of General Relativity I identify basic processes with the so-called causal curves. The  novelty-inducing processes are then the causal curves that pass through an element of a non-Hausdorff pair.

Antje Rumberg (Aarhus): Transitions as Dynamic Elements
In previous work, I suggested modeling the manifestations of potentialities as transitions. One natural way to think about transitions is to view them as arrows that are locally anchored in the circumstance at hand and point towards a future outcome, while leaving room for interaction and intervention. The transition approach thus incorporates a trifold distinction between the manifestation of a potentiality, its outcome, and what eventually turns out to be the case. In my talk, I will discuss in what sense transitions can be considered dynamic elements and investigate the prospects of employing the transition framework in the formal representation of processes.

Johanna Seibt (Aarhus): What Does it Take to Formalize Processes?
“General Process Theory” (GPT) – a mono-categoreal process ontology – is envisaged as a contribution to ‘formal’ analytical ontology, i.e., the exploration of precisely formulated domain theories for (sections of) ‘languages’ or conceptual systems. In previous work I have explored some of the explanatory benefits of GPT – I argued that GPT can offer promising interpretations of persistent things (“recurrence account of persistence”; 1997, 2000, 2008, 2017a,b), biological individuals and feedback ‘mechanisms’ (2018), field quanta (2002, 2005), and social interactions involving artificial agents (2017, 2021); a particular asset of GPT is that ‘ways’ of processing can count as new concrete process individuals, which makes GPT well-suited as framework for a metaphysics of non-reductive naturalism (2016). In my contribution to this workshop I will focus on the conceptual ‘costs’ for these putative explanatory benefits. I will discuss what ‘it takes’ to do process ontology – i.e., to operate with a process-based domain theory and aim for the precision provided by a formal theory. If we wish to operate with a basic category of concrete entities that captures what arguably is the core sense of ‘process’,  we need to relinquish three core commitments that so far have facilitated the application of common formal theories, namely, (i) extensionalism, (ii) particularism, and (iii) determinatetism. The basic entities of GPT, “general processes” or “dynamics”, are functionally individuated, concrete, but determinable entities; since their identities are context-bound, they are formally presented as collections of partitions formulated with a non-classical mereology, using a non-transitive part-relation (“Levelled Mereology”, Seibt 2015), in terms of which we can define the parameters of a five-dimensional classification or taxonomy of processes. I will discuss what the given formalization of process structures can and cannot accomplish. It appears that the project of formal process ontology forces us to reconsider the fundamental methodological question precisely what we expect from a formal ontological domain theory that can “model” our inferences in common sense and/or scientific reasoning.

Barbara Vetter (FU Berlin): Knowledge of Abilities
Abilities matter to philosophy, from semantics through epistemology to ethics. But knowledge of abilities matters too, or so I will attempt to convince you in this talk. I begin by looking at the philosophy of action to argue that as intentional agents, we must have substantive knowledge of our own robust, general abilities. I then ask how that knowledge might be explained. Since abilities are modal (they concern what we can do), the epistemology of modality is a natural place to look. However, none of the extant theories in the epistemology of modality quite explain how it is that we can know about our own robust, general abilities. I end by suggesting that we should turn the tables, and think of ability knowledge as a source of our modal knowledge. In this way, the philosophy of action becomes central to modal epistemology.


Thomas Müller (Konstanz)
Antje Rumberg (Aarhus)

The workshop is a collaborative initiative of the DFG research network “Change and Change-Makers” and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie project “Reasoning about Processes: A Logico-Philosophical Investigation”.