A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, March 25, 2013

What's the Matter With Matter

A reader at the Auld Blogge on LiveJournal who goes by the caligosian name haunterofmists has engaged in an extended conversation on form, spinning off the orthodox reaction to Nagel's Darwinian heresy, the gist of his questions, like the fogs he haunts, appeared inchoate. Suspecting that the disagreement -- if there even was one -- was due to terminological slippage over the centuries, TOF will here endeavor to lay out as best he can his understanding of the nature of natures.

The first thing to note is that "natural" has taken on a fuzzier meaning in the Late Modern ages, encompassing something like "it happens to to physical causes."  The Late or Post Modern thus is unable to grasp why a baseball thrown by a pitcher exhibits unnatural motion while one falling off a shelf exhibits purely natural motion.  It has to do with "natures" as opposed to Nature.

Yee-haw!  Run, turtle, run!

Turtles All the Way Down

Parmenides, you may recall, concluded that motion/change/multiplicity in the world was an illusion because it led to paradoxes.  From nothing comes nothing, he said.  So from not-red can not come red.  From rest can not come motion.  And so on.  His paradoxes are not refuted by modern mathematics, because they are not problems in mathematics (let alone in physics!)  

Ol' Parm and Kid Zeno knew quite well that Achilles would be making turtle soup -- knowledge of which undoubtedly impelled the testudinite to his hermetic efforts -- or that a green apple would change to red, but they concluded that the underlying reality, the Really Real, was One -- something undifferentiated and unchanging.  Some folks thought the One was water.  Some thought it was fire.  Some thought it was tiny little identical bee-bees called atoms. They were all wrong. 

Parmenides' gauntlet was picked up by Plato and Aristotle, who contended that change and multiplicity were fer shure real and are hence called Realists.  Their solutions were different, so let's ignore Plato and go with Aristotle.  Much of what follows will strike Late Moderns as "useless" because it comprises answers to questions we have forgotten were ever asked, and supports things which we now take for granted. Nor can they be used directly to conquer the universe and subordinate Natura to our masculine will as envisioned by Bacon, Descartes, and the other revolutionaries. 

Potency and Act

To explain change Aristotle proposed a third mode of existence.  In addition to IS NOT and IS there is POTENCY.  Consider an unripe apple.  It is actually green, but it is potentially red (and potentially yellow).  Something does not come from nothing; it comes from its potential.  This potential is something Real in the object. 

The redness of apples
The skin of the apple contains a chemical called anthocyanin, whose form is shown schematically to the right.  When activated by light in the 3,600 to 4,500 Å range it absorbs the near-ultraviolet, violet, blue and green regions of the spectrum, thus reflecting red.  (Without light, the apple will become yellow).

In the common course of nature, red is a τελος, or final cause, of the ripening: it is that toward which the apple is predisposed.  In a less common course, i.e., in the absence of light, yellow is the end of the process; so the telos is {red, yellow}.

But TOF (I hear you say), why not blue apples?  We can paint the apple, can we not?  TOF is glad you asked, since this demonstrates the difference between natural and unnatural motion.  But, first, "motion." 


Newton, happy not to be
under coconut tree
The change from green to red (or yellow) is called κινεις (kinesis) by Aristotle or motus by Aquinas.  Often translated as "motion," it more precisely means "in change."  Motion is the reduction of potency to act; that is, X moves from being potentially A to being actually A.  It is not restricted to motion in location. A ripening apple is in motion; a growing tiger cub, likewise. 

This usage is preserved in physics.  The apple clinging to the branch above Newton's head has "potential" energy but while it is actually falling it has "kinetic" energy.  Another example comes from quantum mechanics, where the reduction of potency to act is called in modern lingo "the collapse of the wave function," as when Schroedinger's cat is reduced from potentially alive or dead to actually alive or dead by the act of observation (standard model).

The apple is also potentially blue -- we could paint it.  It is also potentially a missile -- we could throw it at someone.  It is even potentially applesauce.  But potency does not mean anything goes, as some people seem to think.  An apple is not potentially an armadillo.
But note that the potency toward red or yellow is inherent in the nature of the apple while that toward blue is imposed by art.  Hence the distinction between "natur-al" and "art-ificial." Turning an apple red requires only "the common course of nature."  Turing it yellow requires a less common course.  But turning it blue requires unnatural or violent motion.  (TOF is tempted to say that turning something blue requires violet motion, but will manfully refrain from such an ignoble pun.)

And so we have a mechanism by which motion exists in the world; viz.:

To be fully in Act is to be in what moderns call a state of equilibrium or what Aristotle called a state of rest.  Rest means an end to kinesis.  To leave an equilibrium state requires a perturbation.  Aristotle regarded repetitive motion as a state of rest.  Thus the heavens are at rest because they move in repeating orbits.  Other examples include Belusov reactions in chemistry and cycles in predator-prey populations. This leads us to Newton's Law:

Whatever is Moving is Being Moved by Another

A body at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  That is, nothing can be reduced to act except by a body that is already actual.  The apple is moved to redness by the sunlight acting on the anthocyanin.  Since a cause cannot give what it does not have, the sunlight already contains redness, at least in some eminent sense: that is, light is in part actually red, and moves the anthocyanin to absorb the blue end of the spectrum.  Nothing moves itself because "from nothing no thing comes."  The apple can not make itself red.  A body at rest cannot move itself to another location.  Even when it appears to do so, it is one part of the body (e.g., legs) moving the whole (e.g., dog).

Matter and Form

The principles of potency and act are seen in the duality of matter and form.  Matter is the principle of potency and Form, the principle of act.  (Lat. princeps, "that which takes first.")  That is, Matter is potentially any thing; Form makes it some thing.   Together, the two explain Being.

Matter: The Principle of Potency

Matter answers the first "make" question "What is X made of?"  For example, the matter of a house may be bricks (and other stuff, of course; but let's keep matters simple).
The matter of a brick is clay.
The matter of clay is phyllosilicate molecules.
The matter of phyllosilicate is aluminum, silicon, oxygen, and hydroxide.
The matter of a silicon atom is protons, neutrons, and electrons.
The matter of a proton is quarks (two up, one down, different colors).  
And so, we presume, on.  (Quarks must also be made of parts, otherwise they would be indistinguishable.)  It would not be correct to say that a house is "made of" quarks.  Down in the bone, matter is very mysterious, hard to grasp, despite being something we encounter every day.   

Form: The Principle of Act

The form of sodium (schematic)
Form is what makes inchoate matter actually something.  The bricks are arranged in the form of a house rather than the form of a wall or the form of a planter, etc.  Prior to formation, the bricks were potentially many different things. 

When we talk about the formal cause of a thing, we mean the arrangement, shape, and/or motion of the matter.  Formal cause answers the second "make" question "What makes this an X?"  For example, a pile of bricks is not a house; what makes them a house is the arrangement of the bricks.  Henri Poincare famously made the comparison of bricks with a science: a pile of facts is not a science; but the arrangement of the facts is what makes a science.  Amusingly, the Latin for "an arranging, a shaping" is fictio.
The subject matter of Moby Dick is the destructiveness of vengeance (along with the science/technology of whaling).  It is in the form of a novel.   The same matter could have been cast in the form of a tract or textbook, an epic poem, a sermon, et al. 

It is the form that gives a thing its powers.  For example, both chlorine and sodium are made of the same matter: neutrons, protons, and electrons.  What makes one a poisonous gas and the other a flammable metal is the number and arrangement of those parts -- the form of the atom.  The modern term for formal cause is "emergent properties."  The whole has properties that the parts do not. 

Other words often used for form are nature and essence.
Here is an odd thing: Matter, which seems as if it should be the most evident of things, is something hard to grasp and, in its purest mode, is not even actually existent; whereas Form, which is inherently immaterial, is the thing which to our senses is most evident.  The first thing we know about a thing is that it exists (actual, informed), next that it is red, or hot, or sweet, or something proper to the senses.  

Atificial and Natural Forms

There is a distinction between artificial and natural.  In the natural form, the parts come together by their own immanent powers.  In the artificial form, the parts must be forced together by transient powers.  That is why a mousetrap is a lousy analogy for a biological creature.  It reinforces the silly Cartesian notion that matter is "dead" and can only act the way an artifact acts.  In reality, art imitates nature; but nature is under no obligation to imitate art. 

And among the natural forms, there is a distinction between inanimate and animate.  The inanimate is moved; the animate moves.  An animate form is in Latin anima, which means "life" and is often translated "soul."  To ask in Latin whether a living thing has a soul is to state a tautology.  The same, I am told, is true in Greek, where anima is rendered ἐνέργεια (energeia) sometimes translated "energy."
Amusingly, one may test empirically whether a soul exists by checking whether a thing is dead.

Πρώτη ὕλη

 If we abstract [in thought] all characters and determinations from body, we arrive at a concept of characterless, undetermined matter, aka "prime matter."  Formless matter, the πρώτη ὕλη (prote hyle or hyle prote), is pure potency and not actually anything.  Down in the bone, matter itself is not material in the common sense.  It is incorporeal because it is no actual body -- though it is the necessary underlying condition for bodies.  (Symmetry demands something that is purely actual at the other end, but we won't get into that here.)
Pure Potency→Compounds→Pure Act
(prime matter)
→sensible matter→(something else)

The prote hyle is what persists through all change of form.  As the apple ripens its matter remains; as Socrates matures he remains Socrates.  This Aristotelian principle has come down to us as the conservation of mass-energy.  Heisenberg thought this equated mass-energy with prime matter, but prime matter is more like "dark matter" or the quantum vacuum (which is constantly producing virtual "particles" or potencies).
Do virtual particles exist materially or only mathematically?  The calculations work out if we assume them; but then the calculations worked out when we assumed epicycles, too.
The schematic to the left shows the trans-form-ation of sodium and chlorine into sodium chloride.  Note that this is accomplished by re-forming: the two atoms now share an electron and have become a molecule.

To the right the schematic shows how the form of uranium is trans-form-ed into lead.  At each step, the matter has been re-formed in the number and arrangement of its parts. 

Hylemorphism: Matterformism

Take hyle - matter - and morphe - form - and put them together.  Whaddaya get?  That's right, hylemorphism.  This dollar-fifty word simply means that in sensible experience, form and matter are always joined together.  This compound is called a substance.  Matter as we experience it always has some form: "Every thing is some thing."  It is essentially the form that we experience -- redness, sphericity, weight, diameter, etc. -- not the matter, as such.
All different, but all Triangle
Furthermore, "there is no red without a red thing."  We can conceive red by abstracting it from the apple but we cannot perceive Red unless we perceive a red thing, such as an apple or a fire engine.  Red, as such, exists mentally but not physically.  A triangle is a substance consisting of a geometric figure with three sides.  But when you see a triangle, you see one thing (a triangle) not two things (a geometric figure and a three-sidedness).

Any triangle you ever see will be a particular triangle made of some tangible matter.  The matter may be white chalk on blackboard or green felt cut with a scissors.  But the form of triangle itself is immaterial.  If triangularity were material, it would have weight.  But if we arrange three apples in a triangle, their combined weight does not increase. 

Matter is not form and form is not matter; the Two are not reducible to One.  Thus do we give Parmenides a wedgie.

Generic Forms

William Wallace, in The Philosophy of Nature, describes some generic forms: inanimate, vegetative, sensitive, and rational and represents them with schematic models. Himself a doctor of physics, he updates the Aristotelian models with modern insights.  He replaces Aristotle's powers with modern forces. "These are the agencies through which elements and compounds, and even subatomic entities, are now known act on each other. All of the forces have potentials and fields associated with them..."  i.e., matter and form. " it is a simple matter to make the transition to powers when labeling them. (The Latin term for force is vis or virtus, and both terms are usually translated into English as power.)"

1. Inanimate Form

In the schematic, protomatter (PM) is shown in the center and the natural form (NF) is shown as a field (the concentric circles).  The four powers are:
  1. Electromagnetic force (EF): explains chemical actions and reactions, indicated by the arrows attached to the box, going in both directions. Associated with the electrons and ions that cause elements and compounds either to combine or to break down." 
  2. Gravitational force (GF): explains most of the phenomena studied in mechanics.  Action and reaction again indicated by a pair of arrows.  Associated with the mass of a body, specifically the Higgs boson.  
  3. Weak force (WF): explains various types of radioactive emission and absorption.  Again, reciprocating.  Associated with the W-boson. 
  4. Strong force (SF):  explains nuclear reactions.  Also reciprocating.  Binds nucleons together in the atomic nucleus.  Associated with gluons.  

2. Vegetative Form

"Plant natures," says Wallace, "are obviously more complex than inorganic natures. Apart from their atomic and molecular parts they are organisms with their own systems and functions to account for."

In addition to the four inanimate powers, the plant adds four more.
  1. the reproductive power (RP): explains production of new organisms.  Affects the Umwelt, as indicated by outgoing arrow.
  2. the developmental power (DP): explains cell differentiation and growth, what is called "morphogenesis" (lit. birth of form).
  3. metabolic control (MC): food and energy conversions directed toward the developmental power and (in mature organisms) the reproductive power. 
  4. homeostatic control (HC): explains environmental actions and reactions, indicated by the arrows attached to the box, going in both directions.  Recent work in genetics have discovered that environmental loadings on the organism may affect the DP and RP as the organism struggles to maintain homeostasis. 
Aristotle was aware of the first three of these, though he used some different terminologies.

In addition to transient powers acting on the outside world (new organisms) or inter-acting with it (environmental reactions), there are immanent powers acting within the plant itself.  Just as an electron in a valence orbit behaves differently from a free electron, "the atomic and molecular structures... are now part of the plant, and they are regulated by its form (mainly through its metabolism power, MC) to meet the energy requirements of the plant's life.  The natural form further determines the way in which this nutritive energy is used, via its developmental power DP, controls the distinctive patterns in which the plant grows and stops growing. And finally, the natural form channels energies of the adult form, over and above those required to sustain its own life, through its reproductive power (RP), for the generation of new organisms."

In short, plants are self-organizing systems, the Aristotelian definition of alive.  When the plant dies, the inanimate powers are no longer "supervised" by metabolic controls and the plant matter reverts to a solely physical-chemical mass. Strange to say, some folks will describe the processes by which the metabolic controls shut down as if this somehow undermined the principle.  But this is like saying a specific Failure Mode Analysis somehow invalidates the observation that machines fail. 

3. Sensitive Form (aka "Animal")

Wallace again: Animals differ from plants in two respects: they possess knowledge of objects external to them, and they are able to move locally, typically from place to place. For these they require four new series of powers:
  1. the outer [external] senses (ES): explain how the Umwelt presents itself to the organism, indicated by the inbound arrow.  These include sense impressions of external stimuli like sight, sound, sonar, infrared heat detection, etc. (depending on species). 
  2. the inner senses (IS): explain how the sensations are converted into knowledge of external objects.  They include the common sense which combines the sensations of photons, sound waves, scent molecules, echo location, et al. into a unified ymago, stores that image in memory and manipulates the image with imagination.  This suite is sometimes summarized under the term "imagination."
  3. the emotional reactions (ER): explain the sensitive appetites, which disposition the organism toward or away from the sense object.  Hence: e-motion (L. emotus (ppp), "that which has the property of having been moved out, agitated.")  In some cases, via the autonomous nervous system, motion comes directly from sensation, as the famous "knee-jerk" reaction.  This is shown by the diagonal arrow connecting IS and MP.
  4. the motor powers (MP): explains the motions of the organism in response to the e-motions toward or away from the sense object, as indicated by the outbound arrow.  The lioness chases the gazelle; the gazelle runs from the lioness.  The chimp eats the banana.  The cockroach seeks the corners and edges.
Animals are receptors and initiators of transient actions: the inwardly directed arrow on the outer senses (OS) box and the outwardly directed arrow on the motor powers (MP) box. They also manifest more immanent actions than plants. The connecting arrows show how each power influences and is influenced by the others. Immanent action is also seen in the hierarchy: the four inorganic powers subserve the four plant powers; the plant powers in turn subserve the needs of animal life. Viewed in another way, the four sensitive powers of the animal kingdom require all eight powers of the vegetative and mineral kingdoms for their proper operation. The ensemble of these powers operating within the animal is what constitutes its nature.
Hey, you looking at me?

A live, adult squirrel (to take one specific form) is able to exercise all of these natural powers, and it does so in ways that contribute to the unity and well-being of the entire squirrel.  Its life has an inorganic base in the sense that its bodily components obey all the laws of physics and chemistry. It also is able to provide its own vegetative functions -- it assimilates its food and grows and develops, and eventually procreates its own kind. All of these functions then undergird its sensitive and mobile capacities.
This "integrated stacking" explains one sort of confusion: that animals are "moist robots."  Those who are focused on the inanimate and are fascinated and gratified by the precise workings out and mathematical descriptions of physics and chemistry dream that the higher forms may one day be understood solely in terms of the inanimate.  But that a squirrel (or a petunia) exhibits inanimate powers does not mean that it exhibits only inanimate powers.  Naturally, the vegetative and sensitive powers will also have physical and chemical aspects to them, and we can describe these physico-chemical aspects probably better than the more complex ones.  But a the late physicist-philosopher Stanley Jaki once noted: physics does not exhaust chemistry, chemistry does not exhaust biology, and biology does not exhaust anthropology/psychology. 
But a squirrel differs from a robot. The squirrel is self-developing and self-activating -- another way of saying that it is alive. Robots work only when they are externally powered or energized, since its parts do not naturally come together.  The squirrel is energized by nature. Its parts grow and develop from internal instructions.  Still, the concept of "being energized" casts light on the function of the natural form. Just as a robot is inert or dead when it lacks a source of energy, so the squirrel is dead when it is no longer animated.  When it no longer has its nature, the powers deriving from that nature are inoperative. Its structure disintegrates and the organism itself decomposes into inert chemical substances.

4. Rational Form

Lastly, we recognize that a human being is a substance with a rational nature.   (In particular, H. sap. is defined as "a rational animal."  Note that this differs from the biological definition, which, naturally enough, considers only the biological aspects of a thing.)  This does not mean that every human is proficient in logic and reason.  Consider teenagers, liberals, talk-radio fans, and followers of the Chicago Cubs.  Consider too your great aunt Matilda, who is napping just now; or cousin Ben, who is in a coma.  Just as a squirrel is a squirrel even if born with only three legs (or deprived of a leg by a predator), so too is a human a rational substance even if his reason is impaired, undeveloped, or injured. 

"Rational" means not the bravura performance of the clever debater, but the potential to abstract concepts from percepts.  This is shown schematically in the next of Wallace's diagrams -- provided we keep in mind that the inorganic and vegetative forms are also part of the picture.  A rational animal is still in fact an animal, and much of what one does is set in motion by the imagination or even the metabolism.  Most of life is run on automatic pilot.  This confuses some people into thinking that all of it is. 

The diagram shows the sensitive and rational components.  The rational part consists of intellect and will and is appended to the sensitive form as shown. 

As before, a cascade of photons, compression waves, odor molecules, and the like crash against the sense organs like a tsunami.  These sensory inputs all reach the brain at different times, microseconds apart.  (We instinctively rub a boo-boo because the sensation of touch reaches the brain before the sensation of pain, and so the touch masks the pain, at least a little bit.) 

The internal "common" sense, integrates these separate sensations into a single "ymago."  Red, tart, crunchy, smooth, etc. somehow become "an apple."  The higher animals (at least) also possess intentionality.  That is, they can not only see, they can look; or more properly look atThere is nothing in the nature of the photons themselves that privileges the photons off this apple over those off that apple or off the banana or the table or the wall.  Likewise, a dog can follow a particular scent among many; a dolphin or bat, a particular sonar echo. 

But rational animals can take a further step.  They can reflect on their perceptions (memories, imaginations) and abstract (lit. "pull out") concepts.  This is shown by the arrow "reflecting off" the perceptions (incl. memories and manipulations of memories).  In addition to perceiving those three shiny, red, smooth, tart, crunchy apples, they can conceive of "apple" or "red" or "three," none of which has material existence.  This is the act of intellection.  Just as the brain is the seat of perception, the intellect is the seat of conception.
Because nearly all intellection occurs in tandem with imagination, concepts will almost always be accompanied with brain activity.  For example, when we conceive of triangularity, even though there is no such material thing as triangularity, we will usually imagine a triangle of some particular sort.  (I default to an equilateral triangle, even though I am not conceiving of an equilateral triangle per se.) Perhaps we might remember the sound of the word "triangle" or some other sensory memory.  The point is that the imagination runs in parallel with the intellect and it can be hard to distinguish the two. 

And just as perception leads to the sensory appetites, or emotions, conception leads to the intellective appetite, a.k.a., volition or the will.  This is a "hunger for things conceived of" as opposed to a "hunger for things known."  Aristotle put it this way: an animal knows flesh, but a man knows what flesh is.  (And because knowledge is always incomplete, the will is not determined to this or that and so has "freedom" or "play" to it.) 

This Aristotelian schema provides a basis for natural science that is not available in Kant or Hume or Luther.

Hitting the Nagel on the Head

All of which is a very long prologue to the previous commentary on the commentary on Nagel's book with the notion that it will help clarify where Nagel edges closer to the truth and his critics fail to grasp what he was getting at. TOF hopes that he has not gotten it too badly garbled.  If any really truly philosophers happen by, perhaps they can help this poor old statistician.

Meanwhile, a nice article on the problem Nagel confronts and one which shows how the very problem itself is one created by the scientific program (and so not likely to be solvable by it) is this essay by Ed Feser, which TOF commends to your attention. 


  1. I'm going to have to bookmark this, and keep coming back. It reminds me of a Far Side cartoon, where a kid raises his hand in class and says, 'Can I go home now? My brain is full.'

  2. "Amusingly, one may test empirically whether a soul exists by checking whether a thing is dead."

    This doesn't seem to be what Jesus is talking about when he says "Fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell."

    Could I prevail upon you to expand on the subject?

    1. ST Part I, QQ.75-102

      Late Moderns do so want to take things literally. It's the influence of scientism, which permeates the culture. I have also heard it said that certain activities are "soul-crushing," but I don't suppose that souls have Rockwell numbers or can be tested with a durometer.

      A useful essay can be found here:

  3. In a surprising coincidence, the day you posted this I was trying to explain a subset of this bit of Aristotle to my 17 yr old son (he was trapped alone in the car with me - bwahaha!) on the hope that I can fire up his interest in philosophy and arm him against the most egregious nonsense at loose in the world. We were touching on hylemorphism, but not on potentiality. And causes, but definitionally, not functionally, as in how a cause actualizes a potential.

    Now, I must try to digest this (it's deeper than my superficial understanding), and give it another go. My poor son will either learn some philosophy or store major pennies in heaven putting up with me - he's a good kid.

  4. Wow!!! Thanks for that. Parmenides isn't the only one with a wedgie. My mind is compressed by Fruit of the Loom! Nonetheless, a wonderful treatise on, what seems to me, at least Philosophy 101 - 451.

    There are a couple instances of initials that don't match up with Wallace's diagrams (e.g. ER and BR) but it wasn't the bottleneck in my understanding.

    Finally, mechanoreception (~120 m/s)may travel faster than nociception (pain -- 80 M/S), but we don't rub because the mechanical sensation reaches the brain faster (they both still reach), but because of thresholds and accomodations in transmissions in the nervous system.

    1. Hmm. That's what I meant to say. The early arriving sensation squats like an activist in Occupy Neurons and keeps others from using the resources.

  5. The only citation The Duck can find for caligosian is this blog, so I no longer feel quite so stupid for not getting it.

    1. from L. caligo, caliginis N F 3 1 F [XXXBO]
      mist/fog; darkness/gloom/murkiness; moral/intellectual/mental dark; dizziness;

      I made it up just to see if anyone would try to figure out the connection.

  6. You misspelled ἐνέργεια.

    Below is a reference to the word in the LSJ Online:

  7. Comment on: "A body at rest cannot move itself to another location. Even when it appears to do so, it is one part of the body (e.g., legs) moving the whole (e.g., dog)."

    Actually, even if one would include the part of the body to the whole (e.g. legs being part of the dog), it is still NOT the legs that moves the dog. According to Newton's third law of motion (action-reaction), the legs push the ground and the ground "reacts" by pushing the dog forward! It's the ground that moves the dog!

    Thus, the first statement is still correct without exemption.


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