Fire, Water, and Numbers

Fire vs. Water

All things are water,” says Thales.

“All things are fire,” says Heraclitus.

“Wait,” says David Hume’s Philo. “You both agree that all things are made up of one substance. Thales, you prefer to call it water, and Heraclitus, you prefer to call it fire. But isn’t that merely a verbal dispute? According to both of you, whatever you point at is fundamentally the same fundamental stuff. So whether you point at water or fire, or anything else, for that matter, you are always pointing at the same fundamental stuff. Where is the real disagreement?”

Philo has a somewhat valid point here, and I mentioned the same thing in the linked post referring to Thales. Nonetheless, as I also said in the same post, as well as in the discussion of the disagreement about God, while there is some common ground, there are also likely remaining points of disagreement. It might depend on context, and perhaps the disagreement is more about the best way of thinking about things than about the things themselves, somewhat like discussing whether the earth or the universe is the thing spinning, but Heraclitus could respond, for example, by saying that thinking of the fundamental stuff as fire is more valid because fire is constantly changing, while water often appears to be completely still, and (Heraclitus claims) everything is in fact constantly changing. This could represent a real disagreement, but it is not a large one, and Thales could simply respond: “Ok, everything is flowing water. Problem fixed.”

Numbers

It is said that Pythagoras and his followers held that “all things are numbers.” To what degree and in what sense this attribution is accurate is unclear, but in any case, some people hold this very position today, even if they would not call themselves Pythagoreans. Thus for example in a recent episode of Sean Carroll’s podcast, Carroll speaks with Max Tegmark, who seems to adopt this position:

0:23:37 MT: It’s squishy a little bit blue and moose like. [laughter] Those properties, I just described don’t sound very mathematical at all. But when we look at it, Sean through our physics eyes, we see that it’s actually a blob of quarks and electrons. And what properties does an electron have? It has the property, minus one, one half, one, and so on. We, physicists have made up these nerdy names for these properties like electric charge, spin, lepton number. But it’s just we humans who invented that language of calling them that, they are really just numbers. And you know as well as I do that the only difference between an electron and a top quark is what numbers its properties are. We have not discovered any other properties that they actually have. So that’s the stuff in space, all the different particles, in the Standard Model, you’ve written so much nice stuff about in your books are all described by just by sets of numbers. What about the space that they’re in? What property does the space have? I think I actually have your old nerdy non-popular, right?

0:24:50 SC: My unpopular book, yes.

0:24:52 MT: Space has, for example, the property three, that’s a number and we have a nerdy name for that too. We call it the dimensionality of space. It’s the maximum number of fingers I can put in space that are all perpendicular to each other. The name dimensionality is just the human language thing, the property is three. We also discovered that it has some other properties, like curvature and topology that Einstein was interested in. But those are all mathematical properties too. And as far as we know today in physics, we have never discovered any properties of either space or the stuff in space yet that are actually non-mathematical. And then it starts to feel a little bit less insane that maybe we are living in a mathematical object. It’s not so different from if you were a character living in a video game. And you started to analyze how your world worked. You would secretly be discovering just the mathematical workings of the code, right?

Tegmark presumably would believe that by saying that things “are really just numbers,” he would disagree with Thales and Heraclitus about the nature of things. But does he? Philo might well be skeptical that there is any meaningful disagreement here, just as between Thales and Heraclitus. As soon as you begin to say, “all things are this particular kind of thing,” the same issues will arise to hinder your disagreement with others who characterize things in a different way.

The discussion might be clearer if I put my cards on the table in advance:

First, there is some validity to the objection, just as there is to the objection concerning the difference between Thales and Heraclitus.

Second, there is nonetheless some residual disagreement, and on that basis it turns out that Tegmark and Pythagoras are more correct than Thales and Heraclitus.

Third, Tegmark most likely does not understand the sense in which he might be correct, rather supposing himself correct the way Thales might suppose himself correct in insisting, “No, things are really not fire, they are really water.”

Mathematical and non-mathematical properties

As an approach to these issues, consider the statement by Tegmark, “We have never discovered any properties of either space or the stuff in space yet that are actually non-mathematical.”

What would it look like if we found a property that was “actually non-mathematical?” Well, what about the property of being blue? As Tegmark remarks, that does not sound very mathematical. But it turns out that color is a certain property of a surface regarding how it reflects flight, and this is much more of a “mathematical” property, at least in the sense that we can give it a mathematical description, which we would have a hard time doing if we simply took the word “blue.”

So presumably we would find a non-mathematical property by seeing some property of things, then investigating it, and then concluding, “We have fully investigated this property and there is no mathematical description of it.” This did not happen with the color blue, nor has it yet happened with any other property; either we can say that we have not yet fully investigated it, or we can give some sort of mathematical description.

Tegmark appears to take the above situation to be surprising. Wow, we might have found reality to be non-mathematical, but it actually turns out to be entirely mathematical! I suggest something different. As hinted by connection with the linked post, things could not have turned out differently. A sufficiently detailed analysis of anything will be a mathematical analysis or something very like it. But this is not because things “are actually just numbers,” as though this were some deep discovery about the essence of things, but because of what it is for people to engage in “a detailed analysis” of anything.

Suppose you want to investigate some thing or some property. The first thing you need to do is to distinguish it from other things or other properties. The color blue is not the color red, the color yellow, or the color green.

Numbers are involved right here at the very first step. There are at least three colors, namely red, yellow, and blue.

Of course we can find more colors, but what if it turns out there seems to be no definite number of them, but we can always find more? Even in this situation, in order to “analyze” them, we need some way of distinguishing and comparing them. We will put them in some sort of order: one color is brighter than another, or one length is greater than another, or one sound is higher pitched than another.

As soon as you find some ordering of that sort (brightness, or greatness of length, or pitch), it will become possible to give a mathematical analysis in terms of the real numbers, as we discussed in relation to “good” and “better.” Now someone defending Tegmark might respond: there was no guarantee we would find any such measure or any such method to compare them. Without such a measure, you could perhaps count your property along with other properties. But you could not give a mathematical analysis of the property itself. So it is surprising that it turned out this way.

But you distinguished your property from other properties, and that must have involved recognizing some things in common with other properties, at least that it was something rather than nothing and that it was a property, and some ways in which it was different from other properties. Thus for example blue, like red, can be seen, while a musical note can be heard but not seen (at least by most people.) Red and blue have in common that they are colors. But what is the difference between them? If we are to respond in any way to this question, except perhaps, “it looks different,” we must find some comparison. And if we find a comparison, we are well on the way to a mathematical account. If we don’t find a comparison, people might rightly complain that we have not yet done any detailed investigation.

But to make the point stronger, let’s assume the best we can do is “it looks different.” Even if this is the case, this very thing will allow us to construct a comparison that will ultimately allow us to construct a mathematical measure. For “it looks different” is itself something that comes in degrees. Blue looks different from red, but orange does so as well, just less different. Insofar as this judgment is somewhat subjective, it might be hard to get a great deal of accuracy with this method. But it would indeed begin to supply us with a kind of sliding scale of colors, and we would be able to number this scale with the real numbers.

From a historical point of view, it took a while for people to realize that this would always be possible. Thus for example Isidore of Seville said that “unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down.” It was not, however, so much ignorance of sound that caused this, as ignorance of “detailed analysis.”

This is closely connected to what we said about names. A mathematical analysis is a detailed system of naming, where we name not only individual items, but also various groups, using names like “two,” “three,” and “four.” If we find that we cannot simply count the thing, but we can always find more examples, we look for comparative ways to name them. And when we find a comparison, we note that some things are more distant from one end of the scale and other things are less distant. This allows us to analyze the property using real numbers or some similar mathematical concept. This is also related to our discussion of technical terminology; in an advanced stage any science will begin to use somewhat mathematical methods. Unfortunately, this can also result in people adopting mathematical language in order to look like their understanding has reached an advanced stage, when it has not.

It should be sufficiently clear from this why I suggested that things could not have turned out otherwise. A “non-mathematical” property, in Tegmark’s sense, can only be a property you haven’t analyzed, or one that you haven’t succeeded in analyzing if you did attempt it.

The three consequences

Above, I made three claims about Tegmark’s position. The reasons for them may already be somewhat clarified by the above, but nonetheless I will look at this in a bit more detail.

First, I said there was some truth in the objection that “everything is numbers” is not much different from “everything is water,” or “everything is fire.” One notices some “hand-waving,” so to speak, in Tegmark’s claim that “We, physicists have made up these nerdy names for these properties like electric charge, spin, lepton number. But it’s just we humans who invented that language of calling them that, they are really just numbers.” A measure of charge or spin or whatever may be a number. But who is to say the thing being measured is a number? Nonetheless, there is a reasonable point there. If you are to give an account at all, it will in some way express the form of the thing, which implies explaining relationships, which depends on the distinction of various related things, which entails the possibility of counting the things that are related. In other words, someone could say, “You have a mathematical account of a thing. But the thing itself is non-mathematical.” But if you then ask them to explain that non-mathematical thing, the new explanation will be just as mathematical as the original explanation.

Given this fact, namely that the “mathematical” aspect is a question of how detailed explanations work, what is the difference between saying “we can give a mathematical explanation, but apart from explanations, the things are numbers,” and “we can give a mathematical explanation, but apart from explanations, the things are fires?”

Exactly. There isn’t much difference. Nonetheless, I made the second claim that there is some residual disagreement and that by this measure, the mathematical claim is better than the one about fire or water. Of course we don’t really know what Thales or Heraclitus thought in detail. But Aristotle, at any rate, claimed that Thales intended to assert that material causes alone exist. And this would be at least a reasonable understanding of the claim that all things are water, or fire. Just as Heraclitus could say that fire is a better term than water because fire is always changing, Thales, if he really wanted to exclude other causes, could say that water is a better term than “numbers” because water seems to be material and numbers do not. But since other causes do exist, the opposite is the case: the mathematical claim is better than the materialistic ones.

Many people say that Tegmark’s account is flawed in a similar way, but with respect to another cause; that is, that mathematical accounts exclude final causes. But this is a lot like Ed Feser’s claim that a mathematical account of color implies that colors don’t really exist; namely they are like in just being wrong. A mathematical account of color does not imply that things are not colored, and a mathematical account of the world does not imply that final causes do not exist. As I said early on, a final causes explains why an efficient cause does what it does, and there is nothing about a mathematical explanation that prevents you from saying why the efficient cause does what it does.

My third point, that Tegmark does not understand the sense in which he is right, should be plain enough. As I stated above, he takes it to be a somewhat surprising discovery that we consistently find it possible to give mathematical accounts of the world, and this only makes sense if we assume it would in theory have been possible to discover something else. But that could not have happened, not because the world couldn’t have been a certain way, but because of the nature of explanation.

Infinity

I discussed this topic previously, but without coming to a definite conclusion. Here I will give what I think is the correct explanation.

In his book Infinity, Causation, and Paradox, Alexander Pruss argues for what he calls “causal finitism,” or the principle that nothing can be affected by infinitely many causes:

In this volume, I will present a number of paradoxes of infinity, some old like Thomson’s Lamp and some new, and offer a unified metaphysical response to all of them by means of the hypothesis of causal finitism, which roughly says that nothing can be affected by infinitely many causes. In particular, Thomson’s Lamp story is ruled out since the final state of the lamp would be affected by infinitely many switch togglings. And in addition to arguing for the hypothesis as the best unified resolution to the paradoxes I shall offer some direct arguments against infinite regresses.

Thomson’s Lamp, if the reader is not familiar with it, is the question of what happens to a lamp if you switch it on and off an infinite number of times in a finite interval, doubling your velocity after each switch. At the end of the interval, is it on or off?

I think Pruss’s account is roughly speaking correct. I say “roughly speaking” because I would be hesitant to claim that nothing can be “affected” by infinitely many causes. Rather I would say that nothing is one effect simultaneously of infinitely many causes, and this is true for the same reason that there cannot be an infinite causal regress. That is, an infinite causal regress removes the notion of cause by removing the possibility of explanation, which is an intrinsic part of the idea of a cause. Similarly, it is impossible to explain anything using an infinite number of causes, because that infinity as such cannot be comprehended, and thus cannot be used to understand the thing which is the supposed effect. And since the infinity cannot explain the thing, neither can it be the cause of the thing.

What does this imply about the sorts of questions that were raised in my previous discussion, as for example about an infinite past or an infinite future, or a spatially infinite universe?

I presented an argument there, without necessarily claiming it to be correct, that such things are impossible precisely because they seem to imply an infinite causal regress. If there an infinite number of stars in the universe, for example, there seems to be an infinite regress of material causes: the universe seems to be composed of this local portion plus the rest, with the rest composed in a similar way, ad infinitum.

Unfortunately, there is an error in this argument against a spatially infinite world, and in similar arguments against a temporally infinite world, whether past or future. This can be seen in my response to Bertrand Russell when I discuss the material causes of water. Even if it is possible to break every portion of water down into smaller portions, it does not follow that this is an infinite sequence of material causes, or that it helps to explain water. In a similar way, even if the universe can be broken down into an infinite number of pieces in the above way, it does not follow that the universe has an infinite number of material causes: rather, this breakdown fails to explain, and fails to give causes at all.

St. Thomas gives a different argument against an infinite multitude, roughly speaking that it would lack a formal cause:

This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.

By this argument, it would be impossible for there to be “an infinite number of stars” because the collection would lack “a species of multitude.” Unfortunately there is a problem with this argument as well, namely that it presupposes that the number is inherently fixed before it is considered by human beings. In reality, counting depends on someone who counts and a method they use for counting; to talk about the “number of stars” is a choice to break down the world in that particular way. There are other ways to think of it, as for example when we use the word “universe”, we count everything at once as a unit.

According to my account here, are some sorts of infinity actually impossible? Yes, namely those which demand an infinite sequence of explanation, or which demand an infinite number of things in order to explain something. Thus for example consider this story from Pruss about shuffling an infinite deck of cards:

Suppose I have an infinitely deep deck of cards, numbered with the positive integers. Can I shuffle it?

Given an infinite past, here is a procedure: n days ago, I perfectly fairly shuffle the top n cards in the deck.

This procedure is impossible because it makes the current state of the deck the direct effect of what I did n days ago, for all n. And the effect is a paradox: it is mathematically impossible for the integers to be randomly shuffled, because any series of integers will be biased towards lower numbers. Note that the existence of an infinite past is not the problem so much as assuming that one could have carried out such a procedure during an infinite past; in reality, if there was an infinite past, its contents are equally “infinite,” that is, they do not have such a definable, definite, “finite” relationship with the present.

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:

00111100010101001100011011001100110110010010100111

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.

 

Revisiting Russell on Cause

We discussed Bertrand Russell’s criticism of the first cause argument here. As I said there, he actually suggests, although without specifically making the claim, that there is no such thing as a cause, when he says:

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have.

This is absurd, and it is especially objectionable that he employs this method of insinuation instead of attempting to make an argument. Nonetheless, let me attempt to argue on Russell’s behalf for a moment. It is perhaps not necessary for him to say that there is no such thing as a cause. Suppose he accepts my account of cause as an explanatory origin. Note that this is not purely an objective relationship existing in the world. It includes a specific relationship with our mind: we call something a cause when it is not only an origin, but it also explains something to us. The relatively “objective” relationship is simply that of origin.

A series of causes, since it is also a series of explanations, absolutely must have a first, since otherwise all explanatory force will be removed. But suppose Russell responds: it does not matter. Sure, this is how explanations work. But there is nothing to prevent the world from working differently. It may be that origins, namely the relationship on the objective side, do consist of infinite series. This might make it impossible to explain the world, but that would just be too bad, wouldn’t it? We already know that people have all sorts of desires for knowledge that cannot be satisfied. A complete account of the world is impossible in principle, and even in practice we can only obtain relatively local knowledge, leaving us ignorant of remote things. So you might feel a need of a first cause to make the world intelligible, Russell might say, but that is no proof at all that there is any series of origins with a first. For example, consider material causes. Large bodies are made of atoms, and atoms of smaller particles, namely electrons, protons, and neutrons. These smaller particles are made of yet smaller particles called quarks. There is no proof that this process does not go on forever. Indeed, the series would cease to explain anything if it did, but so what? Reality does not have to explain itself to you.

In response, consider the two following theories of water:

First theory: water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.

Second theory: every body of water has two parts, which we can call the first part and the second part. Each of the parts themselves has two parts, which we can call the first part of the first part, the second part of the first part, the first part of the second part, and the second part of the second part. This goes on ad infinitum.

Are these theories true? I presume the reader accepts the first theory. What about the second? We are probably inclined to say something like, “What does this mean, exactly?” But the very fact that the second theory is extremely vague means that we can probably come up with some interpretation that will make it true, depending in its details on the details of reality. Nonetheless, it is a clearly useless theory. And it is useless precisely because it cannot explain anything. There is no “causality” in the second theory, not even material causality. There is an infinite series of origins, but no explanation, and so no causes.

The first theory, on the other hand, is thought to be explanatory, and to provide material causes, because we implicitly suppose that we cannot go on forever in a similar way. It may be that hydrogen and oxygen are made up of other things: but we assume that this will not go on forever, at least with similar sorts of division.

But what if it does? It is true, in fact, that if it turns out that one can continue to break down particles into additional particles in a relatively similar manner ad infinitum, then “water is made of hydrogen and oxygen” will lose all explanatory force, and will not truly be a causal account, even in terms of material causes, even if the statement itself remains true. It would not follow, however, that causal accounts are impossible. It would simply follow that we chose the wrong account, just as one would be choosing wrongly if one attempted to explain water with the second theory above. The truth of the second theory is irrelevant; it is wrong as an explanation even if it is true.

As I have argued in a number of places, nature is not in the business of counting things. But it necessarily follows from this that it also does not call things finite or infinite; we are the ones who do that. So if you break down the world in such a way that origins are infinite, you will not be able to understand the world. That is not the world’s problem, but your problem. You can fix that by breaking down the world in such a way that origins are finite.

Perhaps Russell will continue to object. How do you know that there is any possible breakdown of the world which makes origins finite? But this objection implies the fully skeptical claim that nothing can be understood, or at least that it may turn out that nothing can be understood. As I have said elsewhere, this particular kind of skeptical claim implies a contradiction, since it implies that the same thing is known and unknown. This is the case even if you say “it might be that way,” since you must understand what you are saying when you say it might be that way.

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.