Forms

Visible light is just one small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic waves vary continuously from very high frequency, short wavelength gamma rays to very low frequency, long wavelength radio waves.

The only thing that differentiates visible light from the rest of the spectrum is the fact that it so happens that the human eye is sensitive to that range of electromagnetic waves, from approximately 400 to 790 THz. Other animals, equipped with different sensory apparatus, are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum. For example, bees are sensitive to electromagnetic waves of a higher frequency than those which we can perceive (we call that range “ultraviolet”, since it is just beyond the violet end of the spectrum visible to us) while pit vipers have an organ capable of perceiving lower frequencies of electromagnetic radiation (which we call “infrared”, since it is just beyond the red end of the spectrum visible to us).

Thus there is nothing inherent in visible light that differentiates it from the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is separated from the rest of the spectrum solely because of the way that our sensory apparatus, in this case our eyes, function.

Similarly, that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that we call visible light is itself, of course, continuous. However, when white light (a mixture of different wavelengths of visible light) is separated into a visible spectrum by means of a refracting crystal or the water droplets that cause a rainbow, we see distinct bands of colour. Again, these discrete bands are not a property of the light itself but rather a feature of the way that our eyes perceive colour.

We can identify an analogous phenomenon in the way that we differentiate between different species of animal. There is nothing inherent in an animal itself that causes it to belong to one species rather than another, but rather we have devised a categorisation of animals for our own purposes into which we place the animals that we encounter. There is nothing in nature itself that corresponds to our concept of species, which is actually a rather vague concept anyway.

If one asks for a definition of species, one is usually told that animals of the same species breed with one another but do not breed with animals of other species. This is a fairly good working definition — good enough that it is still found to be practically useful — but it does not hold up to careful scrutiny.

There is a population of red deer in Richmond Park in London and there is another population of red deer, that resemble them in every respect, in the New Forest. These deer are usually reckoned to be of the same species and yet they never come into contact with one another so they never breed with one another. Are they then different species? Surely not. Presumably it is not the mere fact that one population does not breed with another that differentiates species, but rather that they cannot interbreed, even if they were to come into contact with another.

But then how do we account for the offspring of tigers and lions? A male lion may mate with a female tiger to produce what is called a liger. A female lion may mate with a male tiger to produce what is called a tigon. Unlike mules, ligers and tigons are fertile and can successfully breed. Actually, for that matter, some female mules are fertile too. Lions and tigers (and horses and donkeys) are generally reckoned to be different species, and yet they can successfully interbreed to produce fertile offspring.

So the fact that two different populations do not interbreed in the wild is not enough to make them different species, otherwise the red deer of Richmond Park would be a different species from those of the New Forest. And the fact that two populations can interbreed to produce fertile offspring is not enough to make them the same species, otherwise lions and tigers would be the same species. (Not to mention wolves, coyotes and dogs.)

Perhaps it is not merely the geographical separation of wild lions and tigers that prevents them interbreeding in the wild, as appears to be the case with the deer, so maybe we can save the definition by reference to some notion of natural interbreeding, as opposed to interbreeding in zoos. However, this too becomes hard to define rigorously:

As we look at the herring gull, moving westwards from Great Britain to North America, we see gulls that are recognizably herring gulls, although they are a little different from the British form. We can follow them, as their appearance gradually changes, as far as Siberia. At about this point in the continuum, the gull looks more like the form that in Great Britain is called the lesser black-backed gull. From Siberia, across Russia, to northern Europe, the gull gradually changes to look more and more like the British lesser black-backed gull. Finally, in Europe, the ring is complete; the two geographically extreme forms meet, to form two perfectly good species: the herring and lesser black-backed gull can be both distinguished by their appearance and do not naturally interbreed. [1]

We might attempt to save the idea of species by augmenting the definition in some way. Perhaps we should stipulate that animals of the same species resemble each other closely? This would allow us to continue to claim that lions and tigers are different species, but it might cause some consternation at Crufts. Maybe we should turn to genetic science for an answer? Unfortunately, even there the boundaries between species are quite fuzzy.

The point is simply that “species” do not exist as categories in any objective sense, any more than the distinct bands of colour in a rainbow exist in the electromagnetic spectrum, but rather they are just a convenient concept that we find practically useful. In the case of the bands of colour we cannot help but perceive rainbows that way (at least, assuming we are using our natural eyes) and in the case of animal species we just find it useful to categorise them that way, even if we do not have a rigorous definition.

This point may be made even clearer by considering the tomato. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? A biologist would say that it is a fruit, since it meets the scientific definition of a fruit rather than a vegetable, but a cook would say that it is a vegetable, since that is how it is commonly used in recipes. Our categorisations depend upon the use to which we put them. Neither the cook nor the biologist is mistaken, though the use of the cook’s definition in biological research or the biologist’s definition in a kitchen may well be mistaken.

Consider sheep. They all look the same to me. But a shepherd, so I am told, can identify each individual member of his flock. The shepherd has learned to categorise his sheep in a different manner from my own. That does not mean that the differentiating features were not there when I looked at the sheep; it is merely that I did not notice them. It is not the shepherd’s or my perceiving that creates those features but it is our perceiving that assigns significance to them.

Similarly, electromagnetic radiation between the frequencies of 400 and 790 THz exists whether or not humans are there to perceive it. However, it acquires a special significance, that of “light”, in the minds of humans that do perceive it.

Just as the shepherd employs categories of greater specificity when perceiving and thinking about his sheep, so other people and, more dramatically, other species might employ categories of lesser specificity. I strongly suspect that very small creatures, such as insects, do not distinguish between sheep and horses when attempting to negotiate a field without being stepped on.

All of the above suggests that at least some things which we generally consider to be ontologically distinct are in fact, like the bands of colour in a rainbow, merely facets of our perception or our modes of cognition. They are patterns in some underlying substrate, such as species in the continuum of the animal kingdom, or distinct colours in the continuous spectrum, rather than individual things whose individuality is inherent in themselves. Their individuality, that which makes them distinct from others, is a feature of our perception or thought.

Consider yourself. You presumably believe, as do most people, that you are the same person now that you were twenty years ago. (Unless you are less than twenty years old, in which case I hope you get the idea anyway.) However, most of the molecules making up your body, probably all of them, are different now from those that made up your body then. Physically, speaking in terms of the matter out of which you are constituted, you are a completely different person now from the person you were then. So what has persisted? How can I refer both to the person then and to the person now as ‘you’ if those two people are completely different materially? What persists is a pattern. Even if your appearance changes, as it probably did over the last twenty years, we can still perceive a continuously existing, if gradually changing, pattern. It is this pattern that is you.

In the St. Lawrence river, between the island of Montréal and the south bank of the river, there is a dangerous stretch of water known as the Lachine Rapids. The rapids consist of a number of dramatic standing waves caused by the shape of the rocky riverbed. As the river swells and subsides, the waves sometimes vary in magnitude but never in shape. Each wave has been given a name and tourists can take a boat out into the rapids to get to know each individual wave intimately. Clearly these waves, although they are named and are considered to persist through time, are not composed of the same water molecules from moment to moment. It is the pattern that the flowing water makes which is named and which is considered to persist. So it is with you: the material of which you are composed is ever changing, but the pattern that we identify as you persists.

It is this pattern which makes you what you are, not the material of which you happen to be composed at any one moment. Richard Dawkins made a similar point in a talk at TED in which he compared a person’s existence to the existence of migrating sand dunes:

Steve Grand, in his book Creation: Life and How to Make It, is positively scathing about our preoccupation with matter itself. We have this tendency to think that only solid, material things are really things at all. Waves of electromagnetic fluctuation in a vacuum seem unreal. The Victorians thought the waves had to be waves in some material medium, the aether. But we find real matter comforting only because we’ve evolved to survive in [a world] where matter is a useful fiction. A whirlpool for Steve Grand is a thing with just as much reality as a rock.

In a desert plane in Tanzania, in the shadow of the volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai, there’s a dune made of volcanic ash. The beautiful thing is that it moves bodily. It’s what’s technically known as a barkahn and the entire dune walks across the desert in a westerly direction at a speed of about seventeen metres per year. It retains its crescent shape and moves in the direction of the horns. What happens is that the wind blows the sand up the shallow slope on the other side then as each sand grain reaches the top of the ridge it cascades down on the inside of the crescent. And so the whole horn-shaped dune moves. Steve Grand points out that you and I are ourselves more like a wave than a permanent thing. [2]

This “preoccupation with matter itself”, about which Steve Grand is apparently so scathing, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Aristotle, nearly two and a half millennia ago, taught that the material cause of a thing — the matter out of which the thing is composed — is but one part of the explanation of the thing. Among the three other types of explanation that he listed, Aristotle included the formal cause, which is a concept very similar to what I have described above as a pattern. [3]

It is the formal cause that makes a thing the kind of thing that it is. It is the essence of a thing, in conformity with which the matter out of which the thing is composed is arranged.

For example, you are not the matter out of which you are composed: you cannot be, else you would not exist from one moment to the next for the matter out of which you are composed is constantly changing. Your essence, that which makes you you rather than someone or something else, is the form that the matter takes.

However, despite the fact that it is form that defines a thing, we still have a tendency to think that forms are not real in the same sense that matter is real. As Dawkins put it, we don’t think that patterns are “really things at all”. We think that a pattern requires a material medium and is therefore dependent on matter for its existence. A pattern is a certain arrangement of matter, so surely matter is real while a pattern is just a way of talking about a certain bit of matter. [4]

This can perhaps be most succinctly illustrated by asking whether or not the pattern would exist if there were no-one to recognise it. In what sense would animals be categorised into species if there were no biologists to categorise them? In what sense would visible light be significant if there were no eyes sensitive to that range of electromagnetic radiation?

The existence of patterns appears to depend on the existence of somebody that recognises them. On the other hand, patterns are in fact the primary objects of our perception. Although formless matter is a coherent concept that we can consider and reason about, we can never actually perceive matter except as the constituent of a form. For example, one cannot perceive wood in an abstract, formless sense: it must always be the wood of which a table is made, or the wood of a tree, or the constituent wood of a plank, etc.

This sort of consideration should be enough to make us think twice about leaping to naïve conclusions. Many great thinkers, Aristotle among them, concluded that in fact form is more basic than matter. Where I, above, wrote that “surely matter is real while a pattern is just a way of talking about a certain bit of matter”, others might reply that the very fact that I have made reference to a “certain bit of matter” belies my claim that matter can be real without a form: formless matter may be a coherent concept in itself but it is not something of which the human intellect can actually conceive.

We are thus left with something of a conundrum. Forms, or patterns, do not appear to exist in any objective sense in the physical world. But fluid and arbitrary though the patterns we use may be, we cannot help but use them. We do not merely use forms frequently, we always use them: we cannot perceive or conceive of matter except as the constituent of some form. Thus, at least in our thought and perceptions, form is at least as primal as matter.

The conundrum is this: if form is a basic element in our thought, but there are no forms inherent in the physical world, in what sense, and where, do forms exist?

The obvious answer, at least to someone schooled in modern science and philosophy, is that forms are an artifact of the manner in which our brains process information. They exist only in the sense that our brains are capable of consistently recognising them. They are communicable — that is to say, we can talk about them and others will understand what we are talking about — only because those with whom we communicate have similar brains capable of recognising the same forms.

Thus the form of a dog, i.e. the pattern to which certain bits of matter conform which we call dogs, is a property that matter may possess. More specifically, it is the property of being able to be consistently recognised as a dog by human observers who have been taught to recognise dogs. Of course, dogs possess this property whether or not anyone is actually there to do the observing. The situation is analogous to that of the sheep described above: the shepherd and I are both looking at the same sheep but where I see a flock of clones he sees individuals; we are both looking at the same sheep but he has learned to assign significance to aspects of their appearance that I have not. Similarly, dogs possess the property of ‘dogness’ whether or not anyone is around to notice it. However, it is the human observer who decides what ‘dogness’ actually is.

So we return to the question of which is more basic, form or matter. Which, logically speaking, comes first? For example, consider a dog. There are various things we could say about the dog, such as that it is black, it is large, it has a tendency to drool, and so on. But these are all so-called ‘accidental characteristics’ of the dog: we can analyse the sentence “The dog is black” such that there is a subject – “The dog” – and a predicate that we apply to that subject  – “is black”. Thus there is a sense in which “the dog” is a more basic element of thought than “the black dog”. Another way to think about this might be to consider painting the dog white: now his accidental characteristic of being black is no longer true but he is still the same dog.

But what is it that makes the dog a dog? Is it the matter out of which he is constituted? Is it his property of ‘dogness’, according to which he is recognised as a dog by people who have learned to recognise dogs? Or is it some combination of the two?

Just as we broke down “the black dog” into the subject “dog” and predicate “black”, and so decided that “dog” is a more basic element than “black dog”, we might try to do the same with respect to matter and form. “Dog” could be interpreted as “matter in the form of a dog”: therefore just as “black” is a predicate of “dog”, so we might say that form is a predicate of matter. This would suggest that matter is more basic than form. In fact, this is exactly the same line of thought, although expressed slightly differently, as the one that I expressed earlier as “a pattern is a certain arrangement of matter”.

However, there is a problem with this analysis. As soon as we remove the predicate “in the form of a dog”, we are no longer talking about a dog. We could fill a bucket with all the atoms and molecules necessary to constitute a dog but we wouldn’t have a dog: we’d just have a bucket of organic gloop. Not unless that matter were arranged into the form of a dog would we have a dog. Thus although there is a sense in which form is predicated of matter, it does not follow that matter is the most basic element of thought when we wish to consider actual things. Matter alone cannot be a thing: it requires a form.

Furthermore, we know that the matter out of which a dog is composed is constantly changing; so the matter cannot be part of what it is to be a dog. It seems that there is nothing special, significant or distinct about any particular clump of matter unless it constitutes a form — i.e. unless it possesses the property of conforming to a certain pattern that observers recognise as a particular sort of thing.

So if we are to accord reality to things – if we are to accept the rather common sense proposition that things exist – then what we are really saying is that forms exist. If you and I exist, then it is because we are forms.

[1] Ridley, M. 1985. The Problems of Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p. 5 quoted in  Dennett, D. 1995. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster) p. 45

[2] The talk can be viewed on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1APOxsp1VFw); I quote from 08:54 to 10:28

[3] This only seems like a novel idea to Dawkins because he is ignorant of any philosophy before the modern era. Modern philosophy can be distinguished from the philosophy of the medievals by its revolutionary rejection of Aristotle’s formal and final causes.

[4] Regarding electromagnetic waves, Dawkins said, “The Victorians thought the waves had to be waves in some material medium, the aether.” We now know that this is not true. There is no aether: electromagnetic waves propagate through vacuum. Dawkins seems to be implying that our intuition that a wave must have a material medium is not that reliable.

However, I think the apparent failure of our intuition is actually the result of a confusion of terminology. Dawkins has been talking about matter in the vague, everyday sense of “solid, material things”. But as soon as we begin to consider electromagnetic radiation we need to clarify our meaning. If by matter we mean that which physically exists, then electromagnetic radiation is matter. If we wish to signify something else by the term matter, we need to define precisely what we mean. Whatever we choose, we will necessarily now be talking in the mathematical language of modern physics and not in the everyday language of our intuitions. Of course, this is part of Dawkins’ point: our intuitions are evolved heuristic approximations that only really work in the everyday world of human experience. But the fact that electromagnetic radiation propagates through vacuum tells us nothing interesting about the ontology of waves or patterns.

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Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 4:14 pm  Comments (11)  

11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Forms are the thing!

    By the way, on the matter of matter, have you ever read Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World? If not, here is a snippet. (The full book is available at the Internet Archive, though, you will be pleased to hear, it is one I own in printed first-edition form!) Very interesting chap, Eddington.

  2. I have not read Eddington’s book, although I shall now add it to the list of books to be read soon. I am still working my way through The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science at the moment, in between reading Cadfael and Simone Weil.

  3. Hi, Google pricked up its ears at mention of my name (vanity, sheer vanity), so I read your post. I really enjoyed it. The standing waves in the St. Lawrence and the circular gulls are lovely examples!

    I agree with much of what you said about Aristotelian form, but I think there is a sense in which *certain* forms have an objective existence, independent of the observer, and this has a bearing on the primacy or otherwise of matter (which, as you’ve seen, I’m so scathing about! So much so that I’m currently writing a book on it).

    If we take “form” (Aristotle’s definition notwithstanding) to refer to a pattern of cause and effect, not merely an arrangement of something in space, then some such patterns loop around on themselves in such a way that they persist – they are self-maintaining. Those standing waves are a simple example of this, in that they are a resonant system – wave motion that reflects back on itself in a self-reinforcing way. An organism is a vastly more complex and multifaceted pattern of cause and effect that ensures it’s own persistence – an eddy in a stream of matter. These are very different forms to “the form of a chair”, although even a chair’s form persists memetically – it’s good for sitting on and so more and more chairs are made.

    This is a way in which “species” means something, too. It’s very fuzzy, as you say, but *in general* it’s still true that lions give birth to lions while tigers give rise to things rather more tiger-like. Once species have diverged they have a strong tendency not to reconverge (although there’s nothing hard and fast in biology). So one way in which the form of an organism persists is by making more of itself (metabolism; autocatalysis), while another is by making copies of itself (reproduction). The latter is the preservation of what a programmer would call the class declaration, rather than the instance.

    And matter itself IS form. It is a tension in the fundamental fields which has the property of persistence. Matter isn’t really made from little solid lumps that float in space, it’s made from tensions in the electromagnetic and other fields that resonate in a self-perpetuating way. A photon can be seen as a superposition of electromagnetic waves that constructively interfere only in a comparatively localized area (the actual QM interpretation of all this is something I’d challenge, but the principle is there). An electron “orbiting” an atom has a great deal in common with standing waves on the St. Lawrence. So if it comes to a competition between form and matter, I think the problem simply dissolves – there IS only form. Matter is also form. This begs questions about the nature of fields, but never mind that! Whatever the fundamental fabric of the universe is, matter is not that fabric – matter is a set of forms that have been drawn in it, and once drawn continue to persist (while other “shapes” just dissipate). Molecules are then drawn using atoms, cells are drawn using molecules and minds are drawn using cells. They all have the same ontological status, in my view; all of them are self-perpetuating eddies in the fundamental field(s).

    How much of this Richard grasps, I’m not sure – we’ve never actually discussed it in any depth – but his work in memetics and his concept of the gene both involve self-perpetuating patterns in which the nature of the pattern is what makes it persistent – it’s not just a pattern in the eye of the beholder.

    Aristotle tangled with this a long time ago, as you say, and Plato before him, but they didn’t know what we know, so I think the notion of form needs updating. It WAS lost, as you mentioned. The rise of Newtonian Mechanics and the math that drives it minimized the form of things and focused almost exclusively on the substance. It’s time to bring it back – hence my next book :-)

    Interesting post!

    – Steve

  4. Well, if Google can bring an author into contact with a blogger who mentions him, perhaps I shouldn’t rant against technology too much…

    Thank you very much for commenting: your comment actually got caught by my spam filter so it was quite exciting to find such an interesting message in amongst the online viagra dealerships!

    My knowledge of physics is pretty dire (not as bad as it could be but certainly pre-university level) so I am very grateful for your description of matter as form. It is certainly the case that form, understood as a pattern of cause and effect, has a part to play in any complete description of the history of an entity. Have you encountered the theories of Humberto Maturana? He is a Chilean biologist who describes living things as autopoietic systems, which seems to me to be quite similar to what you’re talking about. Randall Whitaker has an ugly but informative website about autopoietic systems theory at http://www.enolagaia.com/AT.html.

    However, I am not (yet) convinced that the idea of a pattern of cause and effect quite captures everything denoted by the term ‘form’. For example, although a dog might be objectively described as a resonant, self-perpetuating system, there is no reason for us to be interested in that particular system unless it has already been identified as an independent thing by one or more of our senses. There is no particular reason why we should identify that bit of the world as a thing rather than the bit of the world made up of, say, the dog’s rear left leg and a bit of the ground it is standing on — except that the former bit of the world triggers some pattern-matching part of our nervous system and the latter does not. It is probably more useful for us to identify the former than the latter, so it would not be surprising if natural selection had given us a nervous system that identifies the former as entities rather than the latter.

    So in this sense of form, i.e. the pattern that differentiates an individual from its context, which I believe is closer to the ancient/medieval concept of form, it is the perceiver that determines what constitutes dogginess (or whichever form is in question). Of course, the ancient and medieval philosophers did not talk about pattern-matching nervous systems in those terms. Aquinas put it this way: “The nature is said to be in the thing inasmuch as there is something in the thing outside the soul that corresponds to the conception of the soul”.

    From this point of view, advances in our understanding of the physical world (such as being able to mathematically describe matter as tensions in various fields) do not make a lot of difference to the question of primacy: we may not have matter in the everyday sense of “tangible stuff” but it is still all matter in the sense of “that out of which things are constituted”.

    You say that we know things which the medievals did not and so the notion of form needs updating. However, although our knowledge of the physical world is much greater than theirs, I am not sure that it is relevant to this particular question. Given that form in the medieval sense is intrinsically linked to our perception and conception of entities, i.e. of individually existing things, I would suggest that they had all the relevant data available to them already.

    But I do not claim any great expertise in these matters and I am of course quite ready to be convinced otherwise: I guess I’ll have to read your book…

    (Incidentally, I just looked you up on Wikipedia and discovered that you created Creatures — I used to love playing that game!)

  5. Hi, um… may I call you Dandy? Or “The”? Um, hi Mr. Highwayman.

    Indeed. I didn’t mean to suggest that this is all there is to form, *especially* as Aristotle defined it (although my ancient philosophy isn’t up to much, so I can’t swear I entirely understand what Aristotle meant). I agree with you that much lies in the eye of the beholder. All I was trying to say was that there’s subset of form, or at least of pattern, which DOES have at least something objective about it, and this is an interesting and important subset.

    You could argue that an electron is not an objective entity – that we choose to delineate it in a certain way and impose a unity and boundary that doesn’t really exist. (And quantum mechanics was obliged to start talking about probabilities to get round the fact that electrons are not that easy to pin down.) But at the same time there IS a reality to an electron (assuming you’re not an idealist) in the sense that there are zillions of them, all quite identical in their physical properties, whereas other apparently no more arbitrary (to our perception) patterns of distortion in the fundamental fields don’t do that.

    Take water: Suppose you could magically freeze a lake and construct a huge range of recognizable 3D shapes out of it – dogs, cars, cubes, beautifully arranged constructions containing golden ratios – any perceptible pattern you like. Then you pull a lever and unfreeze it. Whoosh, almost all those human-defined patterns will disappear, and you’ll be left with ripples and whirlpools, since these are the only two forms that are stable on a static body of water. So SOME patterns have the property of self-maintenance and this is independent of the observer. There were electrons before there were humans, in the sense that there were still repeatable, consistent patterns in the universe (from which humans were made!) even though there was no-one to see or categorize them. Out of the infinity of arrangements that space could be curled up into, only a few have this property of maintaining themselves, but maintain themselves they do, whether we like it or not. I suppose you could even say that they are their own observers – the snakes that eat their own tails, and if the tail is not there the snake dies.

    And matter as we know it is just one level of pattern – one class of self-maintaining form from which others are built. There’s nothing special about it other than the fact that it constitutes the simplest set of examples of pattern that have this property. There are no arrangements simpler than this (whatever “this” is – particles, quarks, strings, quantum foam…). It’s not fundamentally a different KIND of being to, say, an individual mind or an organism. Not as far as I can see, anyway. It’s just that we’ve become conditioned to think of matter as substance; as quite distinct from form. That distinction goes away when you use a powerful enough microscope. All you have left are forces, arranged in a certain pattern that persists. What seems like two solid objects bumping into each other is really more like two magnets repelling each other, except there are no magnets, just the force gradients.

    Anyhow, I wasn’t trying to disagree with you, just point out an interesting subclass that has real physical qualities that many other human-recognizable patterns don’t. It’s perhaps fair to say that philosophy – metaphysics – discusses the entire set of all patterns, and that’s what you were talking about, quite legitimately. Meanwhile physics is distinct from metaphysics in that it only considers that subset of primitive patterns which have an existence beyond human attribution (fuzzy and extended though that existence may be). Biology, then psychology, then sociology study higher levels of pattern, where this distinctiveness gets a lot more fuzzy. But even a dog REMAINS a dog in a way that a dog’s leg plus a bit of ground doesn’t.

    Aristotle was a philosopher and so are you, so your world revolves around human interpretation and you can take “form” to mean whatever you think is appropriate. I think therefore I philosophize! Without thinkers there is no philosophy. Meanwhile physics tries to make sense of things – of order – that still existed before there were thinkers. Philosophers are made from matter, so matter and its regularity predates the minds that now try to make sense of it; it’s not just a set of patterns we invented, otherwise it would never have invented us!

    I’m glad you liked Creatures! That was a product of this perspective and very much in the mold of Maturana and Varela. I wrote a book about Creatures called “Creation: life and how to make it”, in which I loosely outline (for the general reader) this “levels of form” argument in the process of trying to argue that a computer simulation can, under certain circumstances, constitute a kind of reality and therefore artificial life-forms can actually be alive if you build them the right way. It was this book Richard Dawkins was referring to in his TED talk. But artificial life is a topic for another blog post!!!

    So anyway, great post and interesting discussion – I don’t think we disagree, just that we see the world from somewhat different perspectives with different goals in mind.

    Psst wanna buy some… oh no, I’d better not crack a joke about that or I’ll get spam-filtered again!

    – Steve

  6. Please call me Charles. (The Dandy Highwayman is a sobriquet bestowed upon me by friends for reasons that I won’t expound right now…)

    No, I don’t think we do disagree, I was just attempting to clarify the difference between Aristotelian form and your conception of form. I am intrigued by possible areas of overlap, especially because (as you say) in your sense of the term, forms are entirely objective patterns, independent of observers.

    For Aquinas, forms were also objective. To further abuse my poor example, dogs possess the property of being doglike whether or not someone is there to recognise them. However, whereas I understand this by saying that the human nervous system is what determines what ‘doglike’ actually means (and I tend to think of training neural networks at this point) Aquinas believed that although humans have the capacity to recognise forms, they do not determine the nature of those forms.

    I see some parallels between that and your emphasis on self-maintaining patterns, i.e. that in a meaningful sense the dog does exist independently and humans have merely learned to recognise it. This is important to me because the Aristotelian notion of objective form seems to have a significant problem, which is that it is too rigid: it doesn’t seem to be able to cope with the fact that, for example, animal species are vague, ill-defined things (and, notoriously, it has a hard time coping with evolution). If we redefine (some) forms in terms of autopoietic systems then perhaps they can be rehabilitated somehow. (In which case, I should take back my claim that ‘form’ doesn’t need to be updated.)

    Anyway, the reason that I am particularly interested in forms at the moment is that they seem to have a lot to do with the nature of existence. When we say that something exists, we seem to be talking about a form. It is the form that defines a thing (hence talk about ‘quiddity’, ‘thisness’ etc.)

    I have been assuming that it is the human nervous system that bestows ‘thisness’ upon bits of the world by recognising patterns. I think, from your point of view, this would be correct if we are talking solely about forms such as the form of a chair, which is necessarily completely determined by humans, but that you would argue that there are self-maintaining patterns independent of observation which are also meaningfully individual entities in a sense not wholly determined by humans. Is that fair?

  7. Hi Charles, pleasure to meet you.

    Yes, I’d suggest that there are two levels in ontology, but the junction doesn’t lie quite where people think it does: not between matter and form, since both are form, but between objective and subjective form. It’s a pretty blurry boundary, though.

    I think it becomes clearer if we imagine what these concepts might mean if the human race were suddenly wiped out. A proton would still have exactly the same meaning within the universe at large – it would still be functionally highly distinctive compared to the general milieu and have the same properties. A chair would instantly be rendered completely meaningless, becoming an arbitrary arrangement of atoms. Dogness would still have some level of absolute meaning – at least to another dog (it’s notable that even a Dachshund and a Great Dane seem to regard each other as “us” but a cat as “them”). But as you say, species are pretty fluid.

    I think you’re right that all this has a bearing on existence and when we say that something exists we’re referring to its form. Part of the thesis I want to put forward in my book is that the concept of form was very much de-emphasized as a result of the rise of physics in the 17th Century. Mathematically, physics is astoundingly successful at making predictions about a VERY limited but important subset of the universe. Essentially it can cope with the simple forms we call substance but not form in general. Give it two point masses and it can tell you precisely how they interact. But it has serious trouble with three (since they describe a chaotic orbit) and if the components are nonlinear it is completely lost. But physics has been so successful that we’ve lost sight of how limited its repertoire really is. And physicists as a consequence have become so arrogant that they try to apply their reductionistic toolset in domains where it won’t work – like biology and psychology. Physics as a religion actively suppresses form-related thinking, for instance smothering the young field of cybernetics (reifying it as information theory, where information is basically treated as a substance), and creating absurd notions such as quantum field theories of consciousness. The modern arts/science divide perhaps stems in part from this heavy-handed disregard for any forms more complex than matter (Leonardo would not have seen a distinction at all).

    As an aside, my book is called “Spirit” and I want to explore the notion that perhaps spirit IS form. I think science, ironically in part thanks to Descartes, took the spirit out of things and alienated a lot of people. But if spirit is re-evaluated as form, there’s room for a fusion between rationalism and mysticism. That’s my goal – to explore the science and aesthetics of form.

    But anyway, back to physics. I think electronics is quite instructive. If I gave a physicist two electronic circuits made from the same components, there is little to nothing they could do to distinguish them or predict their properties (without simulating them and seeing what they do, which is not how physics works). They have the same mass, the same constituents, the same complexity. Yet one might be a radio receiver and the other a transmitter. They differ solely in their form, but this has real consequences for their properties and physics is unable to capture this fact. We have no science of form because it is a quality, and science is largely a quantitative discipline.

    But here’s where I have a quandary that maps onto your interests: Suppose I took two microprocessor chips. One of them I split down the middle, rotate one half and then glue it back together. There is NO quantitative difference between them – no way to mathematically predict which is the computer. Yet connect them to a battery and one will compute while the other will just sit there, perhaps doing nothing at all or perhaps doing something. In all probability the behavior of one chip will be complex while the other is simple. What I can’t decide is, do they differ in an objective sense? Or is the difference in their behavior completely arbitrary except in the eyes of a human being? Is computation a real thing or only meaningful to humans? Does it differ fundamentally from random behavior? What, if anything, does one chip possess that the other doesn’t? What do you think?

  8. I propose considering two hypothetical situations. One of which you suggested: the extinction of the human race. I can’t remember who first proposed the other, but I think Richard Dawkins has at least mentioned it: contact with an alien race.

    Dealing with the latter situation first, we cannot assume anything about the aliens. We do not know what senses they have or how they think. For the sake of argument, assume that we find some way to communicate with them: what would we be able to talk about? I would suggest that, since they live in the same universe with the same universal laws of nature, we ought to be able to talk to them about mathematics and physics. This is where your emphasis on self-maintaining patterns would come in: presumably they would also have identified the same pattern that we call a proton. Similarly, at a “higher” level, even if they had never encountered the flora and fauna of Earth before, they would presumably identify our plants and animals as self-maintaining patterns. I think it is in this sense that we can talk about a dog being objectively a dog, or a proton being objectively a proton, regardless of whether or not someone perceives it as such. That is to say, if someone did perceive the world, they would be bound to fix on that sort of self-maintaining (or at least long lasting) pattern, rather than temporary conjunctions of stuff such as my left leg and the bit of floor on which it is standing. In fact, although talk of aliens is intended to make the point dramatically clear, you could just as well point out that dogs recognise other dogs, as you did.

    Now, if rather than considering just the extinction of the human race we instead consider the extinction of all perceiving entities, it is no longer clear that a proton is particularly special. Yes, if someone were there to perceive it they would notice that that particular sort of pattern persists and interacts with other patterns as protons do, but if no-one is there to perceive it then the fact that the pattern persists is not obviously interesting (at least, it is not obvious to me). It is not that protons won’t continue to exist in exactly the same way that they existed when people were around to detect them and theorize about them, merely that their existence as protons depends on their identification by some perceiver as such.

    The reason I bring up the distinction is that I think it is relevant to your question of whether the two chips “differ in an objective sense”. What is an “objective sense”? I think, from what you have said so far, that you will not be particularly bothered by my talk of protons existing as protons. You seem to want to ascribe objective existence to the sort of thing described in the first situation: protons, dogs etc.

    But self-maintaining systems are surely just a subset of systems exhibiting complex behaviour. If a dog has objective existence because it exhibits complex behaviour that leads to its self-maintenance, then surely anything that exhibits complex behaviour is objectively different from that which does not exhibit such behaviour?

    I think, to really understand your question, I would need you to expand upon what you consider to be objective existence. Only then can I form an opinion on whether or not the two chips would “differ in an objective sense”. However, from what I understand of your position so far, it seems to me that it would be incoherent of you to claim that protons and dogs exist independently of human observers but that the two chips in your example are not objectively different.

    Incidentally, the last bit of research that I did in an academic setting was an investigation into isomorphisms between logical calculi and computation. I have since discovered that similar parallels can be drawn between logic, computation and physical theory. There is a sense in which the universe is a computer. There is an interesting paper on this by John Baez and Mike Stay: Physics, Topology, Logic and Computation: A Rosetta Stone.

  9. Oh, I forgot to comment on your idea that “spirit is form”. Were you aware that Aristotle defined the soul as the form of a living being? For Aristotelians, including Aquinas and the medieval Scholastics, souls are a subset of forms. Thus the human soul is the form of a human.

  10. I didn’t know that about souls as forms, no. Thanks, that’s really good to know. At least it means I have Aristotle’s backing for a book about cybernetics and emergence! People in general are terribly keen on the appeal to authority and so they’ll believe Aristotle more than they would me. Maybe he’d even write some blurb for the cover… ;-)

    I think I may have muddied the waters with talk of computation. The thought experiment came from another line of reasoning. But yes, personally I’m fairly happy that a computer is objectively different from an almost identical non-computer, although I’m not at all certain everyone would share my view, so I’m cagey about it. I suppose it’s much the same as the fact that I think a living being is objectively different from one that has just died, even though the difference in terms of their forms may be absolutely minuscule (and there is no difference OTHER than this). What interests me about it is partly that this difference is quite unpredictable and completely opaque to physics. But it’s a bit of an aside, I guess.

    I’m perplexed that you say a proton may not be a proton if there’s no-one there to describe it. I’ve heard this line of argument from philosophers before and I keep feeling there’s some quite deep difference in people’s assumptions here. Obviously it wouldn’t be CALLED a proton. Equally, it wouldn’t have a category assigned to it and a relatively arbitrary boundary placed around it in terms of its spatial extent. Nothing in the universe is truly separate from anything else – there’s just a universe. But our minds tend to carve up a heterogeneous continuum into little chunks and give them names. So to that extent protons wouldn’t exist. But the regions of universe we intelligent beings currently CALL protons won’t have changed in any respect at all. We can say that the IDEA of a proton exists only in the mind of a sentient being but that’s surely immaterial as far as the existence of a proton itself is concerned, as long as existence is not obliged to be discrete? The universe is still heterogeneous, and some portions of it have characteristic physical properties (in terms of how those portions interact with other portions – nothing to do with sentient observers). Those portions are still protons, electrons and neutrons, aren’t they? Whether we’re there to know it or not.

    The most persuasive observation to me is that we owe our very existence to THEIR existence. SOMETHING exists, and we call it a proton. It’s fuzzy, yes, and continuous with everything else in the universe, but as a pattern it’s very distinctive. In the semi-literal meaning of “pattern”, that is. In programming terms I’d say there are many instances of a class. The instances really exist; they belong to a common class in the sense that they’re all identical; but there’s no-one there to label the class, that’s all. I can’t see that it serves any purpose to regard existence at this level as being dependent on an observer. That only counts for things that ONLY have meaning in terms of an observer, like chairs. As far as protons are concerned, electrons are their observer, since the two interact. What am I missing here? It reminds me of all the hooh-hah in the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory, where people have drawn the inference that “observing a particle” requires a conscious mind to do the observing (and hence is a form of dualism), whereas any sane person would just say that an observation is a measurement and a measurement is an interaction between that particle and another – nothing more. Do you have any, er, observations on this?

    I’m going away for a few days, so if I go quiet, that’s why.

  11. We have two propositions:

    1) A proton exists.
    2) A proton exists as a proton.

    From your point of view, (1) is the fundamental statement of objective existence and (2) is relatively inconsequential: it merely signifies that someone has noticed the proton and given it a name.

    As I understand it, your argument goes something like this: if the truth of (2) is dependent on observation, which requires an observer, who is composed at least in part of protons, then (1) is in some sense prior to (2). The implicit assumption is that (1) must in some sense already be true in order for an observer, who is in part composed of protons, to exist.

    From my point of view, (2) is the fundamental statement of individual existence and (1) is only true inasmuch as the proton is part of the world and the world exists. There is a distinction to be drawn between the undifferentiated existence of the universe as a whole and the individual existence of particular entities.

    I do not dispute that something must exist in order that the observer exists. But I do question whether that something can meaningfully be said to include protons without anyone identifying them as such. You said, “…as long as existence is not obliged to be discrete”. But if we claim that a proton exists, are we not claiming that some discrete entity exists? In other words, individual existence is obliged to be discrete: that is what makes it individual. However, all that is necessary for the observer to exist is the undifferentiated existence of the universe as a whole.

    Having said that, I will now refute my own argument and end up agreeing with you.

    First of all, the obvious complaint to make about my argument is that it implies an infinite regress. I lied when I said that “all that is necessary for the observer to exist is the undifferentiated existence of the universe as a whole”: obviously the observer himself must also exist as an individual. But if only observers can bestow individual existence, don’t we need another observer to bestow existence on the first observer? And so on ad infinitum? Not if we allow the observer to observe himself. Still, it is all beginning to sound a bit crazy.

    Individual existence must be discrete or it would not be individual. I begin by assuming that only an observer — with the power to choose a certain discrete bit of the world and say, “This is a proton!” — can bestow the sort of discrete existence necessary for individual existence. Without such an observer, all that exists is the continuous and undifferentiated universe. Of course, the bits of the world that would be identified as protons if there were anyone around to do the identifying would still exist, but only as part of the continuous universe, not as distinct individuals.

    However, you say that is not true. You say that protons are distinct individuals, even without someone delineating them, by virtue of the fact that they are instances of a distinctive pattern. The problem I have been having with this claim is that “distinctive” seems to imply an observer. Any similar word, such as “recognisable”, “distinguishable”, “identifiable”, and so on, also seems to imply the existence of someone for whom it is recognisable or distinguishable etc.

    What is missing is a definition of “distinctive” in purely objective terms. I am not sure how best to phrase it but it ought to refer to the idea of being a causal origin. Perhaps something like this: “a distinctive pattern is a pattern which acts as a causal origin purely because of the form of the pattern”.

    It is the idea of a proton being a causal origin that allows me to believe that it has independent existence. Unfortunately, despite my own writings above, I found that I wasn’t treating formal causation as really real.

    I am always aware of the inadequacy of the modern English word ’cause’ when translating the Ancient Greek ‘aition’. As a result, I tend to have in the back of my mind alternative translations, such as ‘explanation’, that capture other aspects of the original Greek meaning. The problem is that this has the unconscious effect of degrading their status in my mind: whereas my thorough immersion in modern thought and philosophy convinces me that efficient cause is real, I have a tendency to think of formal cause as “just an explanation” and therefore not really real. This is an unconscious tendency of course — the whole point of this blog article was to explain why formal cause must be real — but unconscious tendencies do affect one’s thought if one is not rigorous.

    As you have shown with your examples from electronics, formal causation is unambiguously necessary for a complete and accurate understanding of the world. Furthermore, this is exactly the same reason we have for treating efficient causation as real. So if efficient causation is really real, therefore formal causation must be really real, therefore protons must be distinctive in the objective sense defined above, therefore protons exist independently of observation.

    If, rather than arguing with recalcitrant philosophers, you find yourself arguing with recalcitrant physicists instead, you should be able to use that argument backwards. If my reasoning above is correct, then a proton only exists in an independent, objective sense if formal causation is as real as efficient causation. Thus if you are committed to the objective existence of protons, then you must also accept the reality of formal causation.

    So we’re back to where I started, except I was wrong about the importance of observers. If we are willing to concede that things exist, then we must accept that it is instances of forms that exist, because it is only formal causation that can provide us with a definition of objective distinctiveness.

    What amazes me is that such an idea, which was a mainstream philosophical idea for millennia, is now so unintuitive that I can agree with it only to discover later that I continued to unconsciously base my thought on its denial. It only confirms for me two hunches that I’ve had for some time: first, even the most conscientious, intelligent and rational of people cannot help having their thought irrationally defined for them by their philosophical context; second, I am an idiot who doesn’t know his own mind.


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