Vertical Causation (I): Matter and Form

April 4, 2018

Raphael De Paola

The subject of change and motion has always baffled the human mind, arousing many seemingly unanswerable questions. Depending on the answers given, one may wind up faced with insurmountable aporias. Aristotle was well aware of the dangers posed to Greek thinking before him and strove to address them, appropriating the discoveries of his predecessors and integrating them into a framework that to this day remains definitive, both in its general formulation and in its immense plasticity to accommodate new discoveries, which include those of modern science.

Thales, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus each proposed that the world is composed, respectively, of water, air, and fire; Empedocles then proposed the traditional “four elements” of water, air, fire, and earth. Aristotle understood all of these as answering to the question, What are all things made out of?  Perplexed by the all-pervading experience of change and motion in the world, the Presocratic philosophers sought an anchor — a unique, unitary principle that played the role of substratum  to all change. Their reasoning was that in every change there must be something that persists. In agreement on this basic principle, Aristotle proposed that no change in an object can be so radical as to eradicate everything that existed before the change and produce something entirely new. He proposed that some unchanging principle must be maintained throughout any process of change — something that does not change during the process-of-change itself — and concluded that it was this radical principle that his predecessors, while unconsciously searching for, were unable to fully glean. This principle was dubbed matter  (Gk. hylê;  Lat. materia:  wood, timber): A principle out of which  something can be made — as in how “wood” stands to things like chairs, tables, and shelves. Matter is a necessary principle for the reason that to deny its being at work is to assume that each time an object undergoes a change of some kind, the original object disappears into nothing  whilst a new object springs up entirely from  nothing. Well-versed as he was in the Parmenidean aporias regarding nothingness, Aristotle considered such an interplay between reality and “pure nothing” to be absurd, and thus embraced the material  principle as a necessary explanatory “pole” of reality.

As a principle that bespeaks of the commonality of all beings, one of the marks of the notion of matter  is precisely this: that which remains during the process of change. But this material principle cannot be the whole story. Having established that all reality is, in its material aspect, one in the same, we must also account for the immense variety of the things we see in the world. Given the principle of sameness  on the level of matter, there must also be a complementary pole comprising a principle of difference, a principle of heterogeneity as well as of homogeneity. Now the principle of homogeneity is that which we call matter, which accounts for the fact that things can transform one into another without completely disappearing in to, or emerging from, direct nothingness; the mere fact of change itself is enough to convince us of this.

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“As a principle that bespeaks of the commonality of all beings, one of the marks of the notion of matter is precisely this: that which remains during the process of change.”

Whatever the ultimate constituent of reality is — call it, for the sake of argument, “water” — it cannot be the case that it is the sole principle of reality. To say that “everything is made out of  water” is not the same as to say that “everything is only  water.” At the very moment we say “everything is only  water” we imply that change does not exist at all, because water is already “water,” and nothing can become  what it already is.  All philosophies that tend toward a materialistic monism thus deny the intrinsically undeniable, namely, the existence of change. If, as Democritus held, everything is “just atoms and the void,” then there can be no such events as, say, a cow dying or an apple being digested; the description of such processes as these amounts to mere “opinion” in such a philosophy.

In order to cope with the world as it shows itself to the unprejudiced mind — that is, in order to seriously entertain the reality of change — Aristotle incorporated, as a second  tenet of his explanatory system, the principle of form. If matter  is the principle present indifferently in all things, form  is what differentiates each thing from all other things: matter is the principle of homogeneity, and form the principle of heterogeneity. Referring back to the hypothesis that all matter is aqueous, we would say this red juicy thing here is water in the form  “apple,” and that the blue, noisy thing there is water in the form  of “bird.” While the concept of matter answers the question of what something is made of, the concept of form answers the question of what something is,  its essence. By definition, then, and in opposition to matter, form is an immaterial  principle. Aristotle proposed that every concrete being is a synolon  composed of the co-principles matter and form — more specifically, prime matter and substantial form.


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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