Structure of Explanation

When we explain a thing, we give a cause; we assign the thing an origin that explains it.

We can go into a little more detail here. When we ask “why” something is the case, there is always an implication of possible alternatives. At the very least, the question implies, “Why is this the case rather than not being the case?” Thus “being the case” and “not being the case” are two possible alternatives.

The alternatives can be seen as possibilities in the sense explained in an earlier post. There may or may not be any actual matter involved, but again, the idea is that reality (or more specifically some part of reality) seems like something that would be open to being formed in one way or another, and we are asking why it is formed in one particular way rather than the other way. “Why is it raining?” In principle, the sky is open to being clear, or being filled with clouds and a thunderstorm, and to many other possibilities.

A successful explanation will be a complete explanation when it says “once you take the origin into account, the apparent alternatives were only apparent, and not really possible.” It will be a partial explanation when it says, “once you take the origin into account, the other alternatives were less sensible (i.e. made less sense as possibilities) than the actual thing.”

Let’s consider some examples in the form of “why” questions and answers.

Q1. Why do rocks fall? (e.g. instead of the alternatives of hovering in the air, going upwards, or anything else.)

A1. Gravity pulls things downwards, and rocks are heavier than air.

The answer gives an efficient cause, and once this cause is taken into account, it can be seen that hovering in the air or going upwards were not possibilities relative to that cause.

Obviously there is not meant to be a deep explanation here; the point here is to discuss the structure of explanation. The given answer is in fact basically Newton’s answer (although he provided more mathematical detail), while with general relativity Einstein provided a better explanation.

The explanation is incomplete in several ways. It is not a first cause; someone can now ask, “Why does gravity pull things downwards, instead of upwards or to the side?” Similarly, while it is in fact the cause of falling rocks, someone can still ask, “Why didn’t anything else prevent gravity from making the rocks fall?” This is a different question, and would require a different answer, but it seems to reopen the possibility of the rocks hovering or moving upwards, from a more general point of view. David Hume was in part appealing to the possibility of such additional questions when he said that we can see no necessary connection between cause and effect.

Q2. Why is 7 prime? (i.e. instead of the alternative of not being prime.)

A2. 7/2 = 3.5, so 7 is not divisible by 2. 7/3 = 2.333…, so 7 is not divisible by 3. In a similar way, it is not divisible by 4, 5, or 6. Thus in general it is not divisible by any number except 1 and itself, which is what it means to be prime.

If we assumed that the questioner did not know what being prime means, we could have given a purely formal response simply by noting that it is not divisible by numbers between 1 and itself, and explaining that this is what it is to be prime. As it is, the response gives a sufficient material disposition. Relative to this explanation, “not being prime,” was never a real possibility for 7 in the first place. The explanation is complete in that it completely excludes the apparent alternative.

Q3. Why did Peter go to the store? (e.g. instead of going to the park or the museum, or instead of staying home.)

A3. He went to the store in order to buy groceries.

The answer gives a final cause. In view of this cause the alternatives were merely apparent. Going to the park or the museum, or even staying home, were not possible since there were no groceries there.

As in the case of the rock, the explanation is partial in several ways. Someone can still ask, “Why did he want groceries?” And again someone can ask why he didn’t go to some other store, or why something didn’t hinder him, and so on. Such questions seem to reopen various possibilities, and thus the explanation is not an ultimately complete one.

Suppose, however, that someone brings up the possibility that instead of going to the store, he could have gone to his neighbor and offered money for groceries in his neighbor’s refrigerator. This possibility is not excluded simply by the purpose of buying groceries. Nonetheless, the possibility seems less sensible than getting them from the store, for multiple reasons. Again, the implication is that our explanation is only partial: it does not completely exclude alternatives, but it makes them less sensible.

Let’s consider a weirder question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Now the alternatives are explicit, namely there being something, and there being nothing.

It can be seen that in one sense, as I said in the linked post, the question cannot have an answer, since there cannot be a cause or origin for “there is something” which would itself not be something. Nonetheless, if we consider the idea of possible alternatives, it is possible to see that the question does not need an answer; one of the alternatives was only an apparent alternative all along.

In other words, the sky can be open to being clear or cloudy. But there cannot be something which is open both to “there is something” and “there is nothing”, since any possibility of that kind would be “something which is open…”, which would already be something rather than nothing. The “nothing” alternative was merely apparent. Nothing was ever open to there being nothing.

Let’s consider another weird question. Suppose we throw a ball, and in the middle of the path we ask, Why is the ball in the middle of the path instead of at the end of the path?

We could respond in terms of a sufficient material disposition: it is in the middle of the path because you are asking your question at the middle, instead of waiting until the end.

Suppose the questioner responds: Look, I asked my question at the middle of the path. But that was just chance. I could have asked at any moment, including at the end. So I want to know why it was in the middle without considering when I am asking the question.

If we look at the question in this way, it can be seen in one way that no cause or origin can be given. Asked in this way, being at the end cannot be excluded, since they could have asked their question at the end. But like the question about something rather than nothing, the question does not need an answer. In this case, this is not because the alternatives were merely apparent in the sense that one was possible and the other not. But they were merely apparent in the sense that they were not alternatives. The ball goes both goes through the middle, and reaches the end. With the stipulation that we not consider the time of the question, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Additional Considerations

The above considerations about the nature of “explanation” lead to various conclusions, but also to various new questions. For example, one commenter suggested that “explanation” is merely subjective. Now as I said there, all experience is subjective experience (what would “objective experience” even mean, except that someone truly had a subjective experience?), including the experience of having an explanation. Nonetheless, the thing experienced is not subjective: the origins that we call explanations objectively exclude the apparent possibilities, or objectively make them less intelligible. The explanation of explanation here, however, provides an answer to what was perhaps the implicit question. Namely, why are we so interested in explanations in the first place, so that the experience of understanding something becomes a particularly special type of experience? Why, as Aristotle puts it, do “all men desire to know,” and why is that desire particularly satisfied by explanations?

In one sense it is sufficient simply to say that understanding is good in itself. Nonetheless, there is something particular about the structure of a human being that makes knowledge good for us, and which makes explanation a particularly desirable form of knowledge. In my employer and employee model of human psychology, I said that “the whole company is functioning well overall when the CEO’s goal of accurate prediction is regularly being achieved.” This very obviously requires knowledge, and explanation is especially beneficial because it excludes alternatives, which reduces uncertainty and therefore tends to make prediction more accurate.

However, my account also raises new questions. If explanation eliminates alternatives, what would happen if everything was explained? We could respond that “explaining everything” is not possible in the first place, but this is probably an inadequate response, because (from the linked argument) we only know that we cannot explain everything all at once, the way the person in the room cannot draw everything at once; we do not know that there is any particular thing that cannot be explained, just as there is no particular aspect of the room that cannot be drawn. So there can still be a question about what would happen if every particular thing in fact has an explanation, even if we cannot know all the explanations at once. In particular, since explanation eliminates alternatives, does the existence of explanations imply that there are not really any alternatives? This would suggest something like Leibniz’s argument that the actual world is the best possible world. It is easy to see that such an idea implies that there was only one “possibility” in the first place: Leibniz’s “best possible world” would be rather “the only possible world,” since the apparent alternatives, given that they would have been worse, were not real alternatives in the first place.

On the other hand, if we suppose that this is not the case, and there are ultimately many possibilities, does this imply the existence of “brute facts,” things that could have been otherwise, but which simply have no explanation? Or at least things that have no complete explanation?

Let the reader understand. I have already implicitly answered these questions. However, I will not link here to the implicit answers because if one finds it unclear when and where this was done, one would probably also find those answers unclear and inconclusive. Of course it is also possible that the reader does see when this was done, but still believes those responses inadequate. In any case, it is possible to provide the answers in a form which is much clearer and more conclusive, but this will likely not be a short or simple project.

Words, Meaning, and Formal Copies

There is quick way to respond to the implicit questions at the end of the last post. I noted in an earlier discussion of form that form is not only copied into the mind; it is also copied into language itself. Any time you describe something in words, you are to some degree copying its form into your description.

This implies that Aristotle’s objection that a mind using an organ would not be able to know all things could equally be made against the possibility of describing all things in words. There simply are not enough combinations of words to relate them to all possible combinations of things; thus, just as a black and white image cannot imitate every aspect of a colored scene, so words cannot possibly describe every aspect of reality.

Two things are evident from this comparison:

First, the objection fails overall. There is nothing that cannot be described in words because words are flexible. If we don’t have a word for something, then we can make up a name. Similarly, the meaning of a single word depends on context.  The word “this” can refer to pretty much anything, depending on the context in which it is used. Likewise meaning can be affected by the particular situation of the person using the word, or by broader cultural contexts, and so on.

Second, there is some truth in the objection. It is indeed impossible to describe every aspect of reality at the same time and in complete detail, and the objection gives a very good reason for this: there are simply not enough linguistic combinations to represent all possible combinations of things. The fact that language is not prime matter does mean that language cannot express every detail of reality at once: the determination that is already there does exclude this possibility. But the flexibility of language prevents there from being any particular aspect of things that cannot be described.

My claim about the mind is the same. There is nothing that cannot be understood by the mind, despite the fact that the mind uses the brain, because the relationship between the brain, mind, and world is a flexible one. Just as the word “this” can refer to pretty much anything, so also the corresponding thought. But on the other hand, the limitations of the brain do mean that a perfectly detailed knowledge of everything is excluded.

Our Interlocutor Insists

In a sense, the above account is sufficient to respond to the objection. There does not seem to be a reason to hold Aristotle’s account of the immateriality of the mind, unless there is also a reason to hold that language cannot be used to describe some things, and this does not seem like a reasonable position. Nonetheless, this response will give rise to a new and more detailed objection.

A black and white scene, it will be said, really and truly copies some aspects of a colored scene, and fails to copy others. Thus right angles in the black and white scene may be identical to right angles in the colored scene. The angles are really copied, and the angles are not. But language seems different: since it is conventional, it does not really copy anything. We just pretend, as it were, that we are copying the thing. “Let the word ‘cat’ stand for a cat,” we say, but there is nothing catlike about the word in reality. The form of the cat is not really copied into the word, or so it will be argued. And since we are not really copying anything, this is why language has the flexibility to be able to describe all things. The meaning of thoughts, however, is presumably not conventional. So it seems that we need to copy things in a real way into the mind, the way we copy aspects of a colored scene into a black and white image. And thus, meaning in the mind should not be flexible in this way, and a particular material medium (such as the brain) would still impede knowing all things, the way the black and white image excludes color.

Formal Copies

The above objection is similar to Hilary Lawson’s argument that words cannot really refer to things. In the post linked above on form and reality, we quoted his argument that cause and effect do not have anything in common. I will reproduce that argument here; for the purpose of the following discussion it might be useful to the reader to refer to the remainder of that post.

For a system of closure to provide a means of intervention in openness and thus to function as a closure machine, it requires a means of converting the flux of openness into an array of particularities. This initial layer of closure will be identified as ‘preliminary closure’. As with closure generally, preliminary closure consists in the realisation of particularity as a consequence of holding that which is different as the same. This is achieved through the realisation of material in response to openness. The most minimal example of a system of closure consists of a single preliminary closure. Such a system requires two discrete states, or at least states that can be held as if they were discrete. It is not difficult to provide mechanical examples of such systems which allow for a single preliminary closure. A mousetrap for example, can be regarded as having two discrete states: it is either set, it is ready, or it has sprung, it has gone off. Many different causes may have led to it being in one state or another: it may have been sprung by a mouse, but it could also have been knocked by someone or something, or someone could have deliberately set it off. In the context of the mechanism all of these variations are of no consequence, it is either set or it has sprung. The diversity of the immediate environment is thereby reduced to single state and its absence: it is either set or it is not set. Any mechanical arrangement that enables a system to alternate between two or more discrete states is thereby capable of providing the basis for preliminary closure. For example, a bell or a gate could function as the basis for preliminary closure. The bell can either ring or not ring, the gate can be closed or not closed. The bell may ring as the result of the wind, or a person or animal shaking it, but the cause of the response is in the context of system of no consequence. The bell either rings or it doesn’t. Similarly, the gate may be in one state or another because it has been deliberately moved, or because something or someone has dislodged it accidentally, but these variations are not relevant in the context of the state of system, which in this case is the position of the gate. In either case the cause of the bell ringing or the gate closing is infinitely varied, but in the context of the system the variety of inputs is not accessible to the system and thus of no consequence.

Lawson’s basic argument is that any particular effect could result from any of an infinite number of different causes, and the cause and effect might be entirely different: the effect might be ringing of a bell, but the cause was not bell-like at all, and did not have a ringing sound. So the effect, he says, tells you nothing at all about the cause. In a similar way, he claims, our thoughts cause our words, but our words and our thoughts have nothing in common, and thus our words tell us nothing about our thoughts; and in that sense they do not refer to anything, not even to our thoughts. Likewise, he says, the world causes our thoughts, but since the cause and effect have nothing in common, our thoughts tell us nothing about the world, and do not even refer to it.

As I responded at the time, this account is mistaken from the very first step. Cause and effect always have something in common, namely the cause-effect relationship, although they each have different ends of that relationship. They will also have other things in common depending on the particular nature of the cause and effect in question. Similarly, the causes that are supposedly utterly diverse, in Lawson’s account, have something in common themselves: every situation that rings the bell has “aptness to ring the bell” in common. And when the bell is rung, it “refers” to these situations by the implication that we are in a situation that has aptness to ring the bell, rather than in one of the other situations.

It is not accidental here that “refer” and “relate” are taken from forms of the same verb. Lawson’s claim that words do not “refer” to things is basically the same as the claim that they are not really related to things. And the real problem is that he is looking at matter (in this case the bell) without considering form (in this case the bell’s relationship with the world.)

In a similar way, to say that the word “cat” is not catlike is to look at the sound or at the text as matter, without considering its form, namely the relationship it has with the surrounding context which causes that word to be used. But that relationship is real; the fact that the word is conventional does not prevent it from being true that human experience of cats is the cause of thoughts of cats, and that thoughts of cats are concretely the cause of the usage of the word “cat,” even if they could in some other situation have caused some other word to be used.

I argued in the post on the nature of form (following the one with the discussion of Lawson) that form is a network of relationships apt to make something one. Insofar as an effect really receives form from a cause in the above way, words really receive meaning from the context that gives rise to their use. And in this way, it is not true that form in language is unlike form in a black and white scene, such that one could say that form in the scene is “real” and form in language is not. Both are real.

Thus the objection fails. Nonetheless, it is true that it is easier to see why it is possible to describe anything in words, than it is to see why anything can be known. And this happens simply because “anything is describable in words” precisely because “anything can be known.” So the fact that anything can be known is the more remote cause, and thus harder to know.


Place, Time, and Universals

Consider the following three statements:

1. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using are both here in this room.

2. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using both exist in January 2019.

3. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using both came in the color black.

All three claims, considered as everyday statements, happen to be true. They also have a common subject, and something common about the predicate, namely the “in.” We have “in this room,” “in January,” and “in the color black.” Now someone might object that this is a mere artifact of my awkward phrasing: obviously, I deliberately chose these formulations with this idea in mind. So this seems to be a mere verbal similarity, and a meaningless one at that.

The objection seems pretty reasonable, but I will argue that it is mistaken. The verbal similarity is not accidental, despite the fact that I did indeed choose the formulations deliberately with this idea in mind. As I intend to argue, there is indeed something common to the three cases, namely that they represent various ways of existing together.

The three statements are true in their ordinary everyday sense. But consider the following three questions:

1. Are the chair and keyboard really in the same room, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

2. Do the chair and keyboard really exist in the same month, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

3. Did the chair and keyboard really come in the same color, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

These questions are like other questions which ask whether something is “really” the case. There is no such thing as being “really” on the right apart from the ordinary understanding of being on the right, and there is no such thing as being really in the same room apart from the ordinary everyday understanding of being in the same room. The same thing applies to the third question about color.

The dispute between realism and nominalism about universals starts in the following way, roughly speaking:

Nominalist: We say that two things are black. But obviously, there are two things here, and no third thing, and the two are not the same thing. So the two do not really have anything in common. Therefore “two things are black” is nothing but a way of speaking.

Platonic Realist: Obviously, the two things really are black. But what is really the case is not just a way of speaking. So the two really do have something in common. Therefore there are three things here: the two ordinary things, and the color black.

Since the Platonic Realist here goes more against common speech in asserting the existence of “three things” where normally one would say there are “two things,” the nominalist has the apparent advantage at this point, and this leads to more qualified forms of realism. In reality, however, one should have stopped the whole argument at this point. The two positions above form a Kantian dichotomy, and as in all such cases, both positions affirm something true, and both positions affirm something false. In this particular case, the nominalist acts as the Kantian, noting that universality is a mode of knowing, and therefore concludes that it is a mere appearance. The Platonic Realist acts as the anti-Kantian, noting that we can know that several things are in fact black, and concluding that universality is a mode of being as such.

But while universality is a way of knowing, existing together is a way of being, and is responsible for the way of knowing. In a similar way, seeing both my chair and keyboard at the same time is a way of seeing things, but this way of seeing is possible because they are here together in the room. Likewise, I can know that both are black, but this knowledge is only possible because they exist together “in” the color black. What does this mean, exactly? Since we are discussing sensible qualities, things are both in the room and black by having certain relationships with my senses. They exist together in those relationships with my senses.

There is no big difference when I ask about ideas. If we ask what two dogs have in common in virtue of both being dogs, what they have in common is a similar relationship to my understanding. They exist together in that relationship with my understanding.

It might be objected that this is circular. Even if what is in common is a relationship, there is still something in common, and that seems to remain unexplained. Two red objects have a certain relationship of “appearing red” to my eyes, but then do we have two things, or three? The two red things, or the two red things and the relationship of “appearing red”? Or is it four things: two red things, and their two relationships of appearing red? So which is it?

Again, there is no difference between these questions and asking whether a table is really on the left or really on the right. It is both, relative to different things, and likewise all three of these methods of counting are valid, depending on what you want to count. As I have said elsewhere, there are no hidden essences, no “true” count, no “how many things are really there?

“Existing together,” however, is a reality, and is not merely a mode of knowing. This provides another way to analyze the problem with the nominalist / Platonic realist opposition. Both arguments falsely assume that existing together is either logically derivative or non-existent. As I said in the post on existential relativity,  it is impossible to deduce the conclusion that many things exist from a list of premises each affirming that a single thing exists, if only because “many things” does not occur as a term in that list. The nominalist position cannot explain the evident fact that both things are black. Likewise, even if there are three things, the two objects and “black,” this would not explain why the two objects are black. The two objects are not the third, since there are three. So there must be yet another object, perhaps called “participation”, which connects the two objects and blackness. And since they both have participation, there must be yet another object, participation in general, in which both objects are also participating. Obviously none of this is helping: the problem was the assumption from the start that togetherness (whether in place, time, or color) could be something logically derivative.

(Postscript: the reader might notice that in the linked post on “in,” I said that a thing is considered to be in something as form in matter. This seems odd in the context of this post, since we are talking about being “in a color,” and a color would not normally be thought of as material, but as formal. But this simply corresponds with the fact that it would be more usual to say that the color black is in the chair, rather than the chair in the black. This is because it is actually more correct: the color black is formal with respect to the chair, not material. But when we ask, “what things can come in the color black,” we do think of black as though it were a kind of formless matter that could take various determinate forms.)

Perfectly Random

Suppose you have a string of random binary digits such as the following:


This string is 50 digits long, and was the result of a single attempt using the linked generator.

However, something seems distinctly non-random about it: there are exactly 25 zeros and exactly 25 ones. Naturally, this will not always happen, but most of the time the proportion of zeros will be fairly close to half. And evidently this is necessary, since if the proportion was usually much different from half, then the selection could not have been random in the first place.

There are other things about this string that are definitely not random. It contains only zeros and ones, and no other digits, much less items like letters from the alphabet, or items like ‘%’ and ‘$’.

Why do we have these apparently non-random characteristics? Both sorts of characteristics, the approximate and typical proportion, and the more rigid characteristics, are necessary consequences of the way we obtained or defined this number.

It is easy to see that such characteristics are inevitable. Suppose someone wants to choose something random without any non-random characteristics. Let’s suppose they want to avoid the first sort of characteristic, which is perhaps the “easier” task. They can certainly make the proportion of zeros approximately 75% or anything else that they please. But this will still be a non-random characteristic.

They try again. Suppose they succeed in preventing the series of digits from converging to any specific probability. If they do, there is one and only one way to do this. Much as in our discussion of the mathematical laws of nature, the only way to accomplish this will be to go back and forth between longer and longer strings of zeros and ones. But this is an extremely non-random characteristic. So they may have succeeded in avoiding one particular type of non-randomness, but only at the cost of adding something else very non-random.

Again, consider the second kind of characteristic. Here things are even clearer: the only way to avoid the second kind of characteristic is not to attempt any task in the first place. The only way to win is not to play. Once we have said “your task is to do such and such,” we have already specified some non-random characteristics of the second kind; to avoid such characteristics is to avoid the task completely.

“Completely random,” in fact, is an incoherent idea. No such thing can exist anywhere, in the same way that “formless matter” cannot actually exist, but all matter is formed in one way or another.

The same thing applies to David Hume’s supposed problem of induction. I ended that post with the remark that for his argument to work, he must be “absolutely certain that the future will resemble the past in no way.” But this of course is impossible in the first place; the past and the future are both defined as periods of time, and so there is some resemblance in their very definition, in the same way that any material thing must have some form in its definition, and any “random” thing must have something non-random in its definition.


Necessity, Possibility, and Impossibility

I spoke here about various kinds of necessity, but did not explain the nature of necessity in general. And in the recent post on Hume’s idea of causality, it was not necessary to explain the nature of necessity, because the actual idea of causality does not include necessity. Thus for example a ball can break a window even if it would have been possible for someone to catch the ball, but the person did not do so.

Sometimes it is asked whether necessity implies possibility: if it is necessary that Tuesday follow Monday, it is possible for Tuesday to follow Monday? I am inclined (and I think most are inclined) to say yes, on the grounds that to say that something is not possible is normally understood to imply that the thing is impossible; thus if it is not possible for Tuesday to follow Monday, it is impossible. But this is largely a verbal question: regardless of how we answer this, the real point is that the necessary is the same kind of thing as the possible, except that possibilities are many while the necessary is one. And likewise, a count of zero for the same things implies impossibility. Thus there is something that we are counting: if we find none of them, we speak of an impossibility. If we find only one, we speak of one necessity. And if we find many, we speak of many possibilities.

What are we counting here? Let’s take an example. Horses can be white, or red, or brown, among other possibilities. So there are many possible colors for a horse. And on the other hand snow is always white (or so let us pretend.) So there is only one possible color for snow, and so snow is “necessarily” white. Meanwhile, air is always colorless (or so let us pretend.) So it is impossible for air to have a color. Based on this example, we propose that what we are counting is the number of forms that are suitable for a given matter. Someone might object that if we analyze the word “suitable” here it might involve some sort of circularity. This may well be the case; this is a common occurrence, as with desire and the good, and with virtue and happiness. Nonetheless, I think we will find it worthwhile to work with this definition, just as in those earlier cases.


Reductionist vs Anti-Reductionist Dichotomy

I started this post with a promise to return to issues raised by this earlier one. I haven’t really done so, or at least not as I intended, basically because it simply turned out that there was still too much to discuss, some but not all of which I discussed in the last two posts. I am still not ready to return to those original issues. However, the purpose of this post is to keep the promise to explain the relevance of my rejection of both reductionism and anti-reductionism to my account of form. To some extent this has already been done, but a clearer account is possible.

Before going through this kind of consideration, I expect almost everyone to accept implicitly or explicitly an account which maintains one or the other side of this false dichotomy. And consequently, I expect almost everyone to find my account of form objectionable.

Reductionists in general will simply deny the existence of form: there is nothing that makes a thing one, because nothing is actually one. We might respond that if you are reducing things to something else, say to quarks, there still must be something that makes a quark one. The reductionist is likely to respond that a quark is one of itself, and does not need anything else to make it one. And indeed, you might satisfy the general definition of form in such a way, but at that point you are probably discussing words rather than the world: the question of form comes up in the first place because we wonder about the unity of things composed of parts. Thus, at any rate, the most a reductionist will concede is, “Sure, in theory you can use that definition.” But they will add, “But it is a badly formed concept that will mostly lead people away from the truth.” The error here is analogous to that of Parmenides.

Anti-reductionists will admit the existence of form, but they will reject this account, or any other account which one actually explains in detail, because their position implicitly or explicitly requires the existence of hidden essences. The basic idea is that form should make a thing so absolutely one that you cannot break it down into several things even when you are explaining it. It is very obvious that this makes explanation impossible, since any account contains many words referring to many aspects of a thing. I mentioned Bertrand Russell’s remark that science does not explain the “intrinsic character” of matter. Note that this is precisely because every account, insofar as it is an account, is formal, and form is a network of relationships. It simply is not an “intrinsic character” at all, insofar as this is something distinct from such a network. Anti-reductionism posits form as such an intrinsic character, and as such, it requires the existence of a hidden essence that cannot be known in principle. The error here is basically that of Kant.

There is something in common to the two errors, which one might put like this: Nature is in the business of counting things. There must be one final, true answer to the question, “How many things are here?” which is not only true, but excludes all other answers as false. This cannot be the case, however, for the reasons explained in the post just linked. To number things at all, whether as many or as one, is to apply a particular mode of understanding, not to present their mode of being as such.

I expect both reductionists and anti-reductionists to criticize my account at first as one which belongs to the opposite side of this dichotomy. And if they are made aware that it does not, I expect them to criticize it as anti-realist. It is not, or at any rate not in a standard sense: I reject this kind of anti-realism. If it is anti-realist, it is anti-realist in a much more reasonable way, namely about “not being something,” or about distinction. If one thing is not another, that “not another” may be a true attribution, but it is not something “out there” in the world. While the position of Parmenides overall is mistaken, he was not mistaken about the particular point that non-being is not being.

Nature of Form

We add one final claim to the list in the last post:

(8) Form is a network of relationships apt to make something one.

I will approach this in the manner of a disputed question, first raising a number of objections, then giving my explanation and replies to the objections.

Objection 1. According to this definition, form consists of many relations. But form makes a thing one. Thus form should not be in itself many, such as many relationships are, since many things are composed of units.

Objection 2. The definition begs the question by saying “apt to make something one.” Form is supposed to make things one, but if we want to say something about the nature of form, we should explain exactly how and why it does this.

Objection 3. A “network of relationships” might be some kind of form, but it seems to be an accidental form, not a substantial form, while the definition of form should be general enough to include both.

Objection 4. A thing can have the relations it has because of its particular nature. Therefore its nature cannot be defined by its relationships, since this would be circular. Thus form cannot be a network of relationships.

Objection 5. The definition is implicitly reductionist, and therefore opposed to thesis (4). For a composite thing, whether animal or artifact or anything else, will have many relations among its parts which define it, but it can be looked at and considered in many ways, while what appears to be most real must be its most basic parts, such as atoms or quarks or whatever.

Objection 6. Form seems to be unknown to us in a way in which the content of this definition is not, and therefore they must be somehow distinct. For example, whatever might be said about the definitions of blue proposed in the last post, it is clear that something is lacking there. There is something about the nature of blue that is quite unknown to us. So it seems unlikely that blue can be defined in the way proposed, and similarly unlikely that form can be defined as a network of relationships.

Objection 7. Christians, at least, must reject this definition, along with thesis (3), since the essence of God cannot be naturally known by human beings. Therefore God has a hidden essence, and since it is entirely simple, it cannot be a network of relationships.

Objection 8. This definition implies that the human soul is like a harmony, with all the consequences suggested by Simmias in the Phaedo, namely that the soul is mortal. So again Christians, at least, must reject this definition.

Objection 9. Composite things are made of both form and matter, so a relationship to matter should be included in the definition of form.

Objection 10. The network of relationships seems to be a construct of the mind more than a real thing. So one should reject this definition together with rejecting thesis (4), since what a thing really is, is something more basic that causes these relationships.

Objection 11. The definition might be true of material things, but if there are any immaterial things, it will not apply to them. Instead, they might well exist in themselves, without relation to other things, or at least not being defined by such relations. Likewise thesis (3) should probably be denied in relation to such things.

But let us go on to the explanation of this definition. If we consider the question, “what is form?”, one might immediately see a problem. Form is supposed to provide us the answer to the question about what a thing is, so if we ask what form is, we would seem to need a form of form. And even if this is possible, it is a process that cannot possibly go on forever, and therefore we will reach a point where we cannot find a form of form, and therefore we will not be able to answer the question. This is a complex issue which I will set aside for now, simply remarking for now that the question “what is this” needs to be answered in different ways for different things, including for form itself.

At the same time, however, the arguments of the previous post imply that form is accessible to us, and that we can know it both specifically and in general. Essences are not hidden from us, and it is form that both gives a thing the essence it has and that makes us understand. And since it is the very thing that is present in our mind when we understand the thing, it should be just as accessible to us as the contents of our own mind. In other words, we can say what a form is by answering the question, “What does my mind have in common with this thing when I understand it?” And thus we can answer the general question about form by noticing what our minds have in common with things they understand in general.

This answer is implicit in the discussion of thesis (7) in the last post. We noted in the case of “blue” that what both the senses and the mind have in common with things is a certain relation or network of relationships, namely those that correspond to the relations possessed by things apt to be seen by the sight as blue. And this will always be the case whenever we understand anything, since our understanding will always produce a sort of “model” of the thing understood. This is necessary since the understanding does not become an actual copy of the thing; such a becoming would in fact exclude understanding. If your mind literally became a tree when it attempted to understand it, you would understand nothing, since trees do not understand.

This applies at many levels. For example, not only does it apply to meaning and understanding, in some way it applies even to our language on the level of syntax. For example, Word2vec is famously capable of producing analogies which somewhat reflect analogies between the things signified, even though the meanings of the words are absent from its analysis. We should not stress this too much, however, since this takes a very small subset of relationships, even a small subset of relationships found in language, and shows how they will have a structural similarity to their causes. In a sense this does mean that the forms of things are present in linguistic syntax, but it is a very attenuated sense. In contrast, the forms of things are fully present in our understanding to the precise degree that we understand them. The qualification is important: we don’t understand anything perfectly, and consequently no form should be expected to be found perfectly in our understanding.

Others have suggested similar ideas about the natures of things. For example, Sean Collins says:

But for now I will set that aside and come to what I should like to propose as the heart of my thesis. I mentioned a moment ago that Scholastic thought has always acknowledged a dependence of the qualitative on the quantitative. There are many things, nevertheless, which we may recognize without really grasping their full implications. This brings me to what my son Liam wanted to say about form. He proposed, seemingly rather starkly, that there is no such thing as form in material things. But I believe what he meant is that there is cannot be a form in the manner frequently assumed; and I think he is absolutely right. What do I mean by “the manner frequently assumed”? What I mean is that we can cheerfully assert that quality, and therefore also substance, depends on quantity, but yet not see what this really means. What it means – what science proves over and over again – is not just that quality and substance depend on form externally as it were, but that they depend on it much more internally, which is to say structurally. In other words, in material things, form turns out not only to be compatible with an internal structure and heterogeneity, but to depend on it profoundly. I want to say in effect that in material things, to a surprisingly large extent, form IS structure. And so a conception of form which unifies things to the exclusion of a structure is a false conception.

You will perhaps recognize that this solves some problems, but raises others. The biggest problem that it solves is that very Scholastic principle that I have been referring to, which is that quality and substance, the more formal principles, depend on quantity. Now we can start to affirm that we know a little better what that really means. What it means is not just that things have to “be the right size,” but rather that quality and substance depend on quantity internally, because it is quantity that makes structure possible; and structure is, if you will, the intermediary between matter and whatever more abstract kind of form we may have yet to consider. And what I want to insist on again is that this structure is not a negligible thing; in fact it is so important that scientists spend a very large portion of their time examining it. Without it we could know, did know, only the first rudiments of how material things are made. And so this is why the metric part of scientific investigation acquires such a prominent aspect; it isn’t because that is all that the scientists are interested in or that they arbitrarily restrict themselves to it; on the contrary, it is because that is the very condition upon which an understanding of material forms hinges. In various places, Aristotle notes that there is a real difference between a mere dialectical or logical investigation of physical reality, and a truly physical one. The latter, as Aristotle understands it, depends on a sufficient accounting of the material aspects of things so that we can begin to see how forms are truly materialized. Now we can see perhaps a little better how this materialization of forms really happens. It happens especially through the understanding of quantitative structure.

Sean Collins is speaking about material things in particular, and structure as quantitative. My account is similar but more general: if there are any immaterial things, or things without quantity, it applies to them as well. Thus I speak of a network of relationships, of which “quantitative structure” would be more like a particular example.

Paul Almond gives a similar account:

Reality can only be meaningfully described in terms of relationships between things and internal properties of things. That being the case, why do we take the approach of reducing everything to relationships only, so that the “things” being connected by the relationships have no internal properties and all that exists is the structure of relationships itself? The idea of reducing everything to relationships only has been proposed by Tegmark. Suppose reality were viewed as a structure of relationships between things that had internal properties. Those internal properties could themselves only be described in terms of relationships between things. This means that we would have a structure of relationships between “things” and, inside each such “thing” there would also be a structure of relationships between some more basic entities. We would have no reason for declaring a boundary between the relationships outside the “thing” and the relationships inside the “thing”. Instead, we could just take the “edge of a thing” away and say that whatever relationships existed within a thing were just part of the external structure of relationships. The end result of this is that the “things” connected by these relationships have no internal properties at all. All that is left is a structure of relationships between points that have no internal properties. All that remains is the structure itself.

Almond gives this as an account of reality as such, while we give it as an account of form. This is not entirely the same, and consequently Almond’s account could be taken as denying the existence of matter, much like Alexander Pruss. This will be discussed more in my response to objection 9, but my account is not intended to reject the existence of matter. Nonetheless, matter does not contribute to the intelligibility of a thing, and it is therefore true in a sense that form is “most of” reality.

This kind of account is sometimes taken to imply that our understanding is entirely and permanently superficial. For example, Bertrand Russell says in The Analysis of Matter (page 10):

Physics, in itself, is exceedingly abstract, and reveals only certain mathematical characteristics of the material with which it deals. It does not tell us anything as to the intrinsic character of this material.

While mathematical physics as such does have specific limitations, both by reason of the mathematical approach and by the deliberate limitation of subject implied in “physics,” there is a more general problem here. Any account whatsoever of a thing will explain that thing in relationship to everything else, without giving an account of the “intrinsic character of this material.” But this is not because we are necessarily failing to account for something. It is because this is what it is to give an account at all, and because the network of relationships really is the what it is to be of the thing. There is no hidden essence, and the appearance that there must be some other nature, more fundamental, but which cannot be found by us, derives from a temptation towards the Kantian error. The thing does indeed exist in itself, and its mode of existence is not our mode of understanding, but this does not necessarily mean we do not understand it. On the contrary, this distinction is absolutely necessary for understanding at all.

The replies to the objections will be in another post, and as is usual with a disputed question, will clarify various aspects of this position.