Monday, October 23, 2023

What has form?

On the question of what has a substantial form, I have tended to think something similar to van Inwagen’s answer to the question of what wholes there are. Namely, I assign form to:

  1. organisms, and

  2. fundamental objects in physics that are good candidates for being substances.

Regarding 2, if the correct physics is particle-based (which I doubt, in light of the apparent possibility of the world being in a superposition of states with different numbers of particles), these will be particles, or at least those particles that aren’t part of an organism. If the correct physics is field-based, the substances in physics will be fields (or maybe just one field-like object, namely “the global wavefunction”).

A lot of Aristotelians have substances, with forms, that are intermediate between (1) and (2), such as hydrogen atoms or water molecules or chunks of iron, and maybe astronomical objects like stars or galaxies. While I don’t have a knock-down argument against such substances, I also don’t see any reason to posit them.

My reasons for positing form for organisms and fundamental physical objects are quite different. For organisms, the reasons are largely normative. Parrots and oak trees can flourish or languish; they have ends and proper functions. In the case of humans, the normativity extends much further. Furthermore, we need well-defined boundaries for organisms for ethical reasons—there is reason not to harm an organism, especially but not only a human one—and there need to be well-defined persistence conditions for humans for moral responsibility. Something needs to ground all this. And the best candidate is form.

It is a central commitment of Aristotelianism that all of physical reality is grounded in physical substances and their accidents. But it is false that all of physical reality is grounded in organisms. There was a time when the physical universe had no organisms. So we need other substances. The fundamental objects of physics are the best candidates. They are active and have very clear kind-boundaries. The electromagnetic field is a different kind of thing from the gravitational field (which is just spacetime, according to Einstein). Photons are clearly different from electrons. (Though if it turns out that particle number is indeterminate, then particles won’t be the fundamental objects of physics.)

Granted, it is not obvious (and somewhat counterintuitive) that organisms have well-defined kind-boundaries and identity conditions. And it is not obvious (and somewhat counterintuitive) that fundamental physical objects have norms. But here I just take these to be consequences of the theory. Organisms have well-defined kind-boundaries and identity conditions, but we don’t know where they lie. Fundamental physical objects have normative properties, but I suspect they are perfect instances of their kind, and always do exactly what they should (C. S. Lewis says something like that in Mere Christianity).

Neither of my two reasons applies much to objects like atoms, molecules, chunks of stuff, or astronomical objects. There is no strong independent reason to suppose that they have normative properties in their own right, and their boundaries are, if not quite as fuzzy as those of organisms, pretty fuzzy. How far apart do I get to move a hydrogen atom from two oxygen atoms before I destroy a water molecule? How many sodium and chloride ions do I add to water to change it from water with impurities to a salt solution? (I suppose the concept of impurity pulls in the direction of thinking there are normative properties. But here is a reason to think this is mistaken. If impure water is languishing, then we have reason to distill water independently of any practical benefit to any organism, just for the sake of the water itself. That seems absurd.)

That the reasons don’t apply doesn’t show that there aren’t other reasons to posit substantial forms for these other candidates. But I don’t see such reasons. And so we can apply Ockham’s razor.


SMatthewStolte said...

(1) Maybe intermediate forms have normative implications for scientific investigation. It makes sense for someone to study the properties of water qua water. Water qua water defines the central object of study for water scientists. When hydrogen and oxygen are in the H2O relationship with each other, they are a thing worthy of our attention and investigation. But if there is one hydrogen atom in France, one hydrogen molecule in Germany, and one oxygen molecule in America, it would be a very bad scientist indeed who treated these three things and their being arranged thuswise as an object of study.

(2) Water is needed for baptism. Maybe that suggests it is something and not merely many things arranged waterwise. I’m hesitant to go this route, because bread sure seems like an artifact to me, not a substance. But maybe there is something here.

(3) Should Ockham’s razor only apply to the metaphysical side of the equation or should it also apply to the epistemological side? With the periodic table of elements, we get all these conceptual unities of things like hydrogen, helium, and so on. If there are real metaphysical unities corresponding to each of these conceptual unities, we have an easy explanation for the conceptual unities. But if these are just so many things arranged hydrogenwise and heliumwise, and so on, then we’re going to need to introduce some other apparatus to explain our concepts. I don’t doubt that it can be done. I’m just not sure the final result will be simpler.

Brandon said...

I'm inclined to think that atoms, molecules, and chunks of iron are all better candidates for having forms than are the fundamental objects of physics (which is not to say that the latter aren't, but if they are, a fortiori etc.). The fundamental objects of physics are only known indirectly and are usually very difficult to distinguish from each other -- while we can distinguish photons and electrons under some conditions, in others they change into each other so easily that it takes quite a bit of analysis even to distinguish them, in the case of quantum interactions with virtual particles, even to be able to be sure which is actually there. But even if one concedes that photons and electrons are clearly distinguishable from each other, photons are not easy to distinguish from other photons and electrons are not easy to distinguish from other electrons, to such an extent that (for instance) it is often just easier to think in terms of an electron smear with certain overall measurable values than to distinguish particular electrons.

Historically, the reason for attributing form has always been unified action indicating a single power that is not constituted by mere aggregation; this, I take it, is somewhat indirectly included in the notion of 'norms', but seems a more generalizable mark or note of form than norms are.

Zoe said...

I agree with Brandon here, and his comment seems to align with an important point well made by Wolfgang Smith across the years: that the so-called fundamental objects of physics are less real than corporeal objects, and more like Aristotelian potentiae in need of more determination––or waiting to receive actuality––from the corporeal whole of which they may be considered part(s).

In this case I don't see how quantum entities might be *better* candidates than, say, atoms and molecules.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think we can do science without substantial forms corresponding to the objects of study. We could imagine a scientist who has access to Minecraft as a black box--no access to the source code, but one can explore from the inside. They would then categorize the mobs and materials in the game: iron ore, wool, vilagers, chickens, etc., each with its distinctive behavior. All this makes perfect sense, and does not require any substantial forms.

Now, it may be (I think it is) the case that ultimately everything has to bottom out in substances with forms. The Minecraft world is grounded in a physical world where the computer hardware sits, and that's a world of substances and forms. But note that when the scientist distinguishes the behavior of the chicken from that of the villager, they aren't drawing on any genuine difference in form.

Also, if you're a traditional Aristotelian who thinks that substances can't be proper parts of other substances, then you can't allow both intermediate substances AND astronomical substances. A geologist studies a chunk of iron ore (the real-world kind, not the Minecraft kind). That chunk is a part of the earth. So at most one of the two is a substance. If you say that there are intermediate substances but no astronomical ones, then you have admitted that you can have a genuine science that studies things that aren't substances---stars, galaxies, etc.

The Shadow said...

In the case of minerals, it seems likely that any given chunk is just an accidental form. It's the repeating crystal structure that's the substance, if any.

I doubt very much that planets are substances. I feel a good deal less sure about stars. They *might* just be aggregates of plasma, but they fall into distinct kinds with well-defined properties and "life"-cycles.

In the case of water molecules, they have well-defined average bond lengths, and the vibration of those bonds is very well understood. There aren't really any doubtful cases as to whether a hydrogen atom is part of a water molecule or not.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Continuously move the atom further apart, and you will surely get a doubtful case.