A Note on Reductionistic Materialism

Reductionistic materialism began way back in ancient Greece, and it was resurrected again in the modern world thanks to Rene Descartes. It began with a genius, Parmenides, the first metaphysician -- metaphysics is the study of being and its properties, as opposed to physics (physis), which is the study of nature. Parmenides argued that the world as we see it is an illusion. Multiplicity is an illusion, as well as change and time. He argued that what all things have in common is "being" (being or 'is' is the most fundamental thing we can say about all things). If all things have being in common, what is to distinguish one being from another? It will have to be something outside of what things have in common; for we distinguish one thing from another not on the basis of what the two have in common, but on the basis of what two things do not have in common. Now, since all things have being in common, what distinguishes one being from another will be something outside of being. But outside of being is "non-being". And non-being is "nothing". Hence, nothing distinguishes one being from another. Thus being is one, and multiplicity is an illusion of sensation.

He also argued that change is impossible, because to change is to "come into being" and to "go out of being" (from 'is' to 'is not'). But outside of being is "non-being" or nothing, and it is impossible to go into nothing, for there is nothing to go into. It is also impossible to come into being, because that implies that what came into being was outside of being, but outside of being is "non-being" or nothing. And since time is grounded in change, time is likewise an illusion.

If this sounds strange, then you know how many of the early Greek philosophers felt in the face of this. But they were unable to refute Parmenides. His logic seemed irrefutable. In fact, his logic is sound. Some of the premises, however, are mistaken. Nonetheless, the sentiment was that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. So they went half way. Empedocles and Democritus were both convinced that change was not an illusion and that it can be explained. So what Empedocles did was simple. He saw that Parmenides argued convincingly that being is one, unchanging, material, spherical (for a reason that is difficult to explain), and indivisible. To preserve common sense (the reality of change), Empedocles reversed a few things and argued that being is therefore matter, and matter is spherical, and it is unchanging and indivisible. Being now becomes the particle of matter (a small sphere of indivisible matter). And according to Empedocles, there are four types of particles, namely the elements: air, earth, fire and water (Empedocles would readily accept that now there are over 114 of them, and that fire and earth and water are not elements). So, for Empedocles, change is now explainable. These particles of matter conglomerate and form wholes (i.e., cats, dogs, people, trees, etc). The particles do not change. Why? Because Parmenides reasoned that being does not change. But the "wholes" do change. The whole is nothing other than the sum of its parts. So everything is merely a conglomeration of the particles of elements. We see this today in the ordinary chemistry book that depicts man as 65% Oxygen, 10% Hydrogen, 18% Carbon, 3% Nitrogen, etc.

Democritus comes along and notes that Empedocles does not explain the differences in the elements themselves. How does one account for the fact that one element is different than another? Democritus employs the same reasoning, that wholes come to be and pass away, but the constituent parts do not. But he goes back to the Pythagoreans, who argued that number was the substance of things. Everything is reducible to number, and number is ultimately the geometric point. The line is made up of points, and the surface is made up of lines, etc. Even numbers produce oblong figures, odd numbers produce square figures, etc.

The elements are really arrangements of number. Fire is a composite of whole numbers (which form triangles), earth is a composite of square numbers, etc. Democritus was drawn to this. But he too was unable to refute Parmenides. So he joined the two together, endowing the numbers of Pythagoras with the properties of Parmenides' being. So, at the basis of reality we have these discrete quantities, that are indivisible, unchanging, impenetrable, have shape and position in empty space. And so reality is made up of being and non-being. Non-being is the void, or empty space, and being is the "indivisible", or in Greek "atomai", or atoms. The atom is the indivisible particle that is a pure quantity. What distinguishes one atom from another (i.e., air from fire) is quantity and shape (like Pythagoras, quantity is the basis of reality). The only properties an atom has are size, shape, impenetrability and position in space. The atoms of one element are alike in size and shape. The rest of the world is merely a conglomeration of atoms, which move through empty space and cluster and mechanically link up with one another by accident. So, the whole changes, but not the parts.

So, the whole is nothing other than the sum of its parts. Being is the atom, not your dog, or cat, or you, or the oak tree in the backyard (these are accidental effects of what happens on another level). Being is on the level of the particle, or the atom. This is the reductionistic habitus.

What Aristotle shows is that it isn't the atom that is the primary mode of being, but substance. We live in a world of substances. The atom is the smallest part of an element. The atom is really a substance. But so too are you, and your dog, and the apple tree, a molecule of water, etc. A substance, he will argue, is a whole that is not determined by its parts. Rather, it is the whole that determines the parts. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Substances are potency and act unities. Things have form, or intelligible structure, or substantial quality. This is different than the non-substantial qualities, such as color, taste, texture, smell, figure, etc. These non-substantial qualities can change while the substance endures or remains the same. Matter for Aristotle, as you are now aware, is potentiality. He will argue for an ultimate matter, which isn't an atom, but pure potentiality.

Now quantity, he will argue, is the first "accident" of a material substance. Accident is a non-substantial mode of being, such as where, when, posture, quality, action, passivity, relation, etc. These can change, while the substance remains the same. Substances exist in place, for example, and they change place, but they remain the same (walking to the store and back). A substance can change in quality, or posture, but endure through the change. Water freezes, but it is still water. These are non-substantial changes. A substance can change in quantity, and yet remain the same substance. Think of the apple tree, or the human being, or the dog, or cat, etc. If substance and quantity were identical, then a quantitative change would amount to a substantial change. To gain 100 pounds would be to become a different substance. But quantity gives us more of the same thing. Furthermore, the "whatness" of a substance is not its quantity. Rather, the "whatness" is its nature, its substantial form. When we ask the question "what is it?" we are asking about its essential quality, not its accidental quantity.

But to explain substantial change is much more difficult. Aristotle argues that substantial change is not merely the rearranging of atoms on the atomic level. This is because the substance or entity is not merely a multiplicity of atoms, but a real being that is really one and indivisible. Change is a "transformation". Note the word "trans" and "form"; change is a change in form, and not an absolute coming into being and going out of being, as Parmenides thought. The substance is a substantial form existing in what he calls first matter (or pure potentiality). A substantial change involves a change in substantial form. Matter, which has intelligible form, acquires another intelligible form.

A substance, according to this Aristotelian perspective, is far more mysterious than most people tend to think. If substance is distinct from quantity and sense qualities, then how do we come to know substance itself? David Hume played with this and ended up denying substance or things. He argued that things are just conglomerations of sense impressions, a position contrary to common sense, but consistent with his strict empiricism. But for Aristotle, substance is intelligible, and so it is the intellect that grasps substance, while the senses grasp the sensible properties of things. So, if we were to define matter as that which has mass and extension, as our science books typically do, then it would follow that substance is more immaterial than material.

We define matter that way today (mass and extension) thanks to Rene Descartes. He was a mathematical physicist and philosopher who tried to establish an absolutely certain philosophy that everyone would agree with, as they do in mathematics. This led to his famous "method of doubt". Descartes arbitrarily established the principle that we should be able to apprehend one thing clearly and distinctly apart from another to be assured that the two are really different and that the one can be created without the other. He then begins to ask what it is that we perceive clearly and distinctly as an indispensable attribute of material things, so that all other attributes, properties, and qualities are seen to presuppose it and depend upon it. For Desacrtes, this is extension. He assumes that the principal attribute constitutes the nature of the thing. So, matter is essentially quantity, for Descartes.

Aristotle would not have allowed this. Nevertheless, this identification of material substance with extension gave rise to modern atomism (Hobbes, Gassendi, etc), and thus modern reductionism.

Reductionism produced great things for science, but it could not explain "things", or change, as Aristotle demonstrated. Reductionism is good science, but it is not good philosophy. For one thing, it led to that branch of psychology known as "Behaviourism", which ends up denying our ability to make free and self-determined choices, among other things.

But reductionism is rooted in false premises (Pythagoras' number and Parmenides' notion of being and change, as well as Descartes identification of substance with extension). Change, as Aristotle shows, is the fulfillment of what exists potentially insofar as it exists potentially. It is not, as Parmenides argued, coming into being and going into non-being. Nor is it merely the rearrangement of atoms in space. It is the realization of potency to act, that is, potential being to actual being.

Consider what Rudy Rucker says:

"A human body changes most of its atoms every few years. Daily one eats and inhales billions of new atoms, daily one excretes, sheds, and breathes out billions of old ones. Physically, my present body has almost nothing in common with the body I had twenty years ago. Since I feel that I am still the same person, it must be that "I" am something other than the collection of atoms making up my body. "I" am not so much my atoms as I am the PATTERN in which my atoms are arranged. Some of the atom patterns in my brain code up certain memories; it is continuity of these memories that gives me my sense of personal identity."

If Aristotle were to comment on this, he'd say yes, the "I" is the substance that I am, which is not the same as the parts (quantity gives us "parts outside of parts"), or atoms. That "PATTERN" Rucker refers to is what Aristotle would call the substantial form, that determines the substance to be what it is. The parts are what they are by virtue of that form. In other words, your parts are human parts, your DNA is human DNA, human cells, human tissue, etc., because the substantial form is the form of the whole, including the parts of the whole. Or, let's put it this way: one part is outside of another part, and so one cannot say that this part exists whole and entire in every part. But we can say that the form "human" exists in every part, since every part is human. Parts do not determine the whole (substance), as they do in the world of artifacts (ie the computer, the automobile, the television). The whole determines the parts. And so one can say that you are not human because you have human DNA, rather, you have human DNA because you are human. A man is not alive because his organs are alive, rather his organs are alive because he is alive (the whole determines the parts).

On the subatomic level, differences in quantities can and often do lead to differences in quality, such as substantial quality, or substantial form. As we move towards the subatomic level, this becomes more and more the case. And I think there is a reason for this.

Contrary to the reductionist mind frame, "being" is not the atom. It is - I guess you could say - the macroscopic level that is more real than the atomic or subatomic level. The reductionist tends to see the subatomic level as the primary level, the most real and the ultimate locus of causality. For example, we see this in Arthur Eddington's remarks about the table lacking in solidity, because atoms (thus the table) are mostly empty space.

But as we move towards that subatomic level, we are moving towards a level that is poorer in property and more open to determination. For example, the electron is more open to determination (potential) than the atom, the atom more open to further determination than the molecule, the molecule more open or more potential than a flower, etc. Allow me to draw an analogy. Consider the following:

A letter of the alphabet is more open to being determined than is a word, a word more open to further determination than a phrase, the phrase more open than the full sentence, a full sentence more open to determination than a paragraph, etc. For example, consider the letter "t". The letter "t" becomes part of many words in the following three sentences.

This car is mine. That car is yours. But this issue is very difficult to resolve, and that way of thinking is very sound.

Consider now the words "this" and "that". We can't use "this" and "that" as easily as we can use "t". But using "this", as in the sentence "this car is mine", is much easier than taking the entire sentence and inserting that in a new and wider context. For example: "Officer, I am sure that this car is mine. It has the same scratch on the side, and those are the same kind of tires I just purchased." Inserting the sentence into a wider context was not as easy as using the letter "t" or the word "this", but it was easy nonetheless. But take the entire scene above and try to place that into a wider context, and it will prove much more difficult. One has to think up an entire chapter of a story to do so.

A letter is very poor in property and has far less intelligibility than a word. The letter "e" means much less than the word "love" or "truth". When the letter "e" becomes part of the word "love", it becomes part of a larger whole, with far more meaning than the letters "l" "e" "v" "o" taken separately. We can do a lot more with the letter "e" than we can do with the word "love", precisely because "e" has less quality, less intelligibility, less "form" or idea. "Love" has more form, that is, more intelligibility, or more determination (meaning) than the letter "e".

The following scene, "Officer, I am sure that this car is mine. It has the same scratch on the side, and those are the same kind of tires I just purchased", has much more meaning than the letter "t", or the word "this", or the sentence "this car is mine". The letter "t" cannot determine the full meaning of "this" because no thing can give what it does not have. The word "this" cannot determine the full meaning of "this car is mine" because the meaning of the latter is not contained in the former, and one cannot get something from nothing. And the sentence "this car is mine" cannot determine the full meaning of "Officer, I am sure that this car is mine. It has the same scratch on the side, and those are the same kind of tires I just purchased", because its meaning exceeds what is contained in "this car is mine", and no thing can give what it does not have. Rather, it is the whole that determines the parts and the meaning they have in the context of the whole.

Now, there seems to be a "range" in quantity with regard to material substances. A person can be 10 pounds, 100, or 300 or 400 pounds, or a range in height, etc. A change in quantity is not going to amount to a change in form or the nature of the thing. More quantity will give us more of the same kind of being. This is also true of a novel, to continue with the analogy. An editor, a good one at least, can edit a novel without changing its fundamental meaning. He can "chop it down" so to speak without altering its essential "quality", its meaning, its form, that is, the idea that governed the entire project from the beginning. But an editor can edit too much, to the point where the meaning is changed. And so we can speak of a range in quantity. The range of a frog is much smaller than the range of quantity for a human (frogs, it would seem, cannot be 200 pounds, or 300 pounds, or 5 feet long, and mosquitoes cannot be the size of frogs). And the range of a chapter is much smaller than the range of the entire novel. It is much harder to edit a sentence and keep its meaning, although it can be done. But once we get to the "word", to change its parts is to change the word and its meaning. For example, consider the word "kind". Take out the "d", and you have "kin" (relatives). "Kind" refers to a moral quality, but "kin" a relative. Take out an electron and a proton from helium, and you have hydrogen.

A word has less "interiority" than a sentence (a word does not literally have interiority. Rather, the interiority is in the mind of the writer), and a letter has much less "interiority" than a word. By interiority I mean determination, meaning, intelligibility, and stability.

Similarly, the elementary particles, like a letter of the alphabet, are much more "general", much more potential, and thus far less "self-centered", that is, less moved from within than the atom. And so the atom is more conservative, that is, it has more interiority, for it is more "moved from within" (more determinate, in short, more formal). All the elementary particles are poor in property and inert. A proton, for instance, is so universal in its action not by virtue of what is has (it has very little), but rather by virtue of what it does not have. If the atom has less interiority than a rose, less determination and meaning, then it is less capable of maintaining itself through changes of quantity. It is more "vulnerable" to being changed by being moved from without, as the word is more vulnerable to being altered by being moved externally than is the entire book (having sentences deleted).

But to conclude that the nature of a thing is determined by the quantity of parts would be a non sequitur. It is the fallacy of reductionism again. The meaning of the word "truth" for example is not determined by the "t" and the "r", etc. The meaning always precedes and determines matter (in this case the letters), just as the idea of the novel determines everything else, i.e., the sentences, chapters, parts, etc. The helium atom has a definite nature, one very different than sodium, for example. It behaves differently, it reacts differently, in short, it is an essentially different substance. It has a different intelligible structure, that is, a different nature. Number alone (without looking at their activity) does not account for this difference, i.e, two electrons and eleven electrons. For we come to understand the nature of a thing by its activity, not its weight or its quantity. And yet because atoms are poorer in property than salt, or fructose, or a sunflower, or a worm, they are more vulnerable to being moved interiorly when there is a change of quantity. For they have less; they are less. They are more potential, and thus have less "actuality", less form.

Our understanding of the relationship between quantity and the essential nature of things begins at the pre-scientific level, and when we do science, we always do science within the framework of a large network of pre-scientific knowledge. At the pre-scientific level, "what a thing is", that is, its nature, is always prior to quantity.

Next Page: Chapter 18: Essence and Existence
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