Vertical Causation (II): Corporeal Strata and The Distinction

April 5, 2018

Raphael De Paola

All corporeal beings can be classified in one of four levels of the following hierarchical order: mineral, vegetable, animal, and human (i.e., “rational animal”). Following the Scholastic adage that the operation of a being follows upon its nature (operari sequitur esse), it is not difficult to understand these levels in terms of their differentiating operations explained as an interplay of the co-principles of matter and form.  (1) The operations that distinguish animate beings from inanimate are operations of nutrition and reproduction performed by life: nutrition is the material absorption of one substance into another — the assimilation and reorganization of the matter of the former into the matter of the latter — and reproduction is the material transmission  of the same form  from one being to its offspring.  (2) The operations that distinguish the animal from the vegetable are the operations of locomotion and sense-knowledge: locomotion is the material dislocation of a being (rooted in its own form) from one place to another, and sense-knowledge is the material integration of another being into oneself. When a wolf sees  a sheep it captures the sheep’s form, but not its matter; in fact, insofar as the wolf remains hungry, capturing the sheep’s matter is what the wolf expects to do next. The sensible apprehension is called “material” because it occurs within an organ that is also material: e.g., the eye, the ear, the skin, the nose, the tongue.

(3) The operation that distinguishes man from lower animals — which is called intellection — consists in the reception of “form.” This operation is considered “immaterial” because it does not involve reception by a bodily organ, as in sensation. An indication of this immateriality is given by the immutability of the object(s) received by the intellect, in contradistinction to the mutability of objects received by sense experience (and, for that matter, of the sense organs themselves). “Intellection” is called the formal  apprehension of form, and “sensation” the material  apprehension of form, because the latter requires the material presence — and that, moreover, in this  moment — of the object perceived. We can see and touch the apple only in its presence, while the form of the apple is known to the intellect even in its absence. This can only happen because that which we apprehend is objective, meaning that individual things and the relations between them exist irrespective of our knowledge of them. For this reason — namely, objective existence — we are able to talk about things in their absence.

A momentous consequence of the latter is an unending concoction, by human societies throughout history, of “signs” and other systems of reference (e.g., visual markers, symbols, alphabets, languages) used to indicate objectively existing things. Culture in fact largely consists in the transmission of such systems of signification. One reason it is evident that the lower animal species are incapable of intellection is precisely the absence of culture  among them; unlike human societies — which use symbols which are always evolving — each and every animal generation lives exactly in the same way as its predecessors. Moreover, animals apprehend the environment only with respect to themselves  and not the relations of things to each other.  Granted that some animal species do use very simple signs, and even rudimentary language, they nonetheless cannot consciously develop or formulate the idea of what it means for something to “be a sign”: animals give no indication of being aware of things in their material absence — if they did, they would surely evolve symbols to allude to them in their absence, just as humans do; e.g., upon discovering a herd of sheep, the solitary wolf might leave some kind of marker to indicate to the rest of its pack that “there are sheep here!”


“In the end, the most sophisticated mathematical theories about physical reality have to be tested and can only be validated by comparison with brute sense data. It thus appears that this weird ontology has its priorities inverted: for if our scientific data consists in that which is apprehended through sense experience, but this experience is ruled out ipso facto as mere subjectivity, how can we consider the ‘primary’ data to be of any value whatsoever? The only grounds for its validity have been suppressed from the outset.”

These traditional strata receive a fuller illumination via Wolfgang Smith’s distinction between the physical  and the corporeal  planes of manifestation. The “corporeal” domain is precisely the world of the four strata — being that which is accessible via sensory perception and intellection — whereas the “physical” domain is the world simply as described by modern physics.

It is commonly assumed that the world studied by mathematical physics is the same one we apprehend with the senses, but this view is quite mistaken. To conflate the subject-matter of modern physics with the objects apprehended by the senses is to confuse what thinkers of the early-modern period called the “primary” and “secondary” qualities: the primary  comprising the quantitative attributes of bodies — those which we can “count, weigh and measure” — and the secondary  comprising that which we apprehend via sense-experience — i.e., “qualities” properly so called. Materialistic philosophies tend to regard the content of the so-called secondary qualities as subjective, a matter of “opinion.” In such paradigms it is only the primary qualities which have “objective” reality; the secondary qualities are relegated to mere phantasy or psychological fabrication, often considered wholly unreal. But even if we concede, for the sake of the argument, that reality is like this, our only means of access to the primary is through  the secondary! In the end, the most sophisticated mathematical theories about physical reality have to be tested  and can only be validated by comparison with brute sense data. It thus appears that this weird ontology has its priorities inverted: for if our scientific data consists in that which is apprehended through sense experience, but this experience is ruled out ipso facto  as mere subjectivity, how can we consider the “primary” data to be of any value whatsoever? The only grounds for its validity have been suppressed from the outset.

But matters are even more convoluted than this. If even the sensible qualities are figments of the subjective mind, the “substantial forms” of things are even more evanescent (and tend indeed to be banned from learned discourse in our time). After all, it is impossible to count, weigh or measure the substantial form of, say, a bird: While what we see is a bluebird singing, modern philosophy tells us that the “blue,” the “song,” and the essence of “bird” are just mental ideations. In this paradigm, the only objective aspects of things are those that can be mathematized and put into equations: space, time, motion, weight, size, geometrical figure, impenetrability, hardness, and other quantifiable aspects. Modern philosophy, that is to say, “bifurcates” the world into what Descartes called res extensae  and res cogitantes — “extended” (i.e., quantitative) things, and (qualitative) things of “thought” (note that these correspond precisely to the so-called primary and secondary qualities, respectively). Under the specter of bifurcation, moreover, the only means of bringing “extension” and “thought” back together is by conjectural physico-mathematical theories. As Whitehead said, the final result of bifurcation is the split of the world into two chimeras: “one is the conjecture, the other is the dream” — i.e., mathematical conjectures, and dreams of sensation.

Returning to the Aristotelian paradigm, we note that what really exists is the material-formal, or “hylomorphic” composite — the synolon. Quantities stand to the side of matter, and qualities to the side of form. Quantity, says Aristotle, is the first accident to inhere in matter. It is not surprising, then, that the purely quantitative study of nature leads us to its material aspects alone. If we keep in mind that matter is the answer to the question, What are things made of?, the interest of the moderns on the question of form tends to vanish completely: it simply does not matter what a tree “is” — after all, we’re going to chop it down and study its inner parts. But the data we acquire from the inner aspects of the tree, its “parts,” is at most ambiguous: as Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho says, it tells us much more about wood than about trees.

The study of nature in its quantitative aspects is what “modern science” — or, as I prefer to call it, simply “mathematical physics” — consists in. This quest to break things down over and again into their constituent parts and investigate things at their “absolute minimum” reached its climax in the 20th century with the advent of quantum theory. Being that not even the Newtonian or “classical” billiard ball is visible to the naked eye — for the “secondary qualities” are not quantifiable and, therefore, do not enter the equations — it cannot come as a surprise to learn that the objects tracked down by the equations of quantum theory are not sensible. However, unlike the classical billiard ball, the particles of quantum mechanics present very “weird” properties, at least during the time they are not detected. The wave equations of quantum mechanics describe particles in superpositions of states that, by the standards of classical physics, imply contradictory facts. For example, a quantum particle is described by the equations — but, again, only when they are not  detected — at two or more positions at the same time, although when an experiment is done only one result is collected.

One of the ultimate, and most curious, consequences of the contemporary philosophic drive to restrict the world only to its quantifiable aspects is the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics (MWI). While the mathematical quantum theory allows us to say that, out of many possibilities given by the equations, only one outcome happens in the real world, MWI states that all possibilities occur. But to the question How is it possible that all possibilities occur if we witness just one?  the MWI advocate simply responds: all of them happen, each one in a different world. But if only  the quantifiable can be said to be “real,” it turns out that everything, properly quantified, “has reality.” The reductio ad absurdum  of MWI leads us to what Wolfgang Smith says about “quantum paradox” — to wit, that it is “Nature’s way of repudiating a spurious philosophy.” In truth the subject matter of quantum physics — that which it studies and its equations track down — does not constitute a concrete “thing,” i.e., something which is composed of both matter and substantial form. Rather, mathematical physics abstracts quantities  from concrete beings which are, fundamentally, hylomorphic substances, and studies these quantitative aspects alone. What quantum physics studies is real, but it is not concrete — in  the world, but not the  world. The solutions of quantum theory would completely coincide with the world if the world was made only  of quantity. And here is the basic mistake the MWI: to abandon the concrete world in which we live, to forsake all its non-quantitative aspects, and create by a fiat  of the pen an infinity of bizarre worlds. You wanted to study only quantities? Well, now you have plenty of them.

Raphael De Paola is a physicist from Rio de Janeiro, where he teaches at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC-Rio). After taking his doctorate in theoretical physics in 2000, he subsequently turned to philosophy. Having long recognized the decisiveness of Wolfgang Smith’s ontological resolution to the quantum reality problem, and the urgency of its need to be as widely disseminated as possible, he took it upon himself to translate The Quantum Enigma into Portuguese in 2011—a book which, in his estimation, might very well have been entitled “The Solution of the Quantum Enigma.”

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