Vertical Causation (III): Vertical Causality and the “Limit Theorems”

April 6, 2018

Raphael De Paola

According to Wolfgang Smith, modern physics has discovered a unique, hitherto unknown ontological plane, namely the aforementioned “physical” universe. But in his researches he has also resolved a decades-old controversy concerning the interpretation of quantum mechanics. What quantum mechanics studies is akin, if not identical, to what the Scholastics called materia signata quantitate, “matter marked by quantity.” To understand correctly what matter  means is to find, with Aristotle and the Scholastics, that it is the potentiality  of being: matter contains potencies of being contrary things at the same time. So long as it has not yet suffered the actualization by the artisan, the felled wood remains in potency. But obviously it is not the wood itself that causes it to be in the form of a chair or a table; such form comes completely from outside  the wood itself. As long as we take into consideration those forms which are compatible with wood, wood is completely indifferent to the form it will take, because it is only a homogeneous substratum — in potency to all manner of different forms, but restricted by the nature of wood itself  (“wood,” that is to say, is in potency to chair or house, but not  in potency to silverware or iPod).

This principle of delimitation or determination introduces another important point. That which brings the “physical” world of materia signata quantitate  out from indeterminacy and in to a unique determination — such as the experimental physicist witnesses in his “corporeal” laboratory — is the act of vertical causality.  Having identified five “strata” — namely, the four corporeal  strata (i.e., mineral, vegetable, animal, human) in addition to the physical  stratum — and having identified the act that brings the inferior physical domain to the superior corporeal domain, we now inquire: Are there similar “vertical” causations that bring the mineral to the vegetable, the vegetable to animal, the animal to human? On the strength of modern science itself, Wolfgang Smith answers this question in the affirmative. In at least in the first two cases, the superior cannot be scientifically  reduced to the inferior. Modern science has in fact reached what Dr. Smith refers to as “limit theorems.” These theorems demonstrate the limitation of, for instance, the inanimate and the vegetal spheres: In the first case, William Dembski’s theorem concerning “complex specified information” — which leads beyond mathematics into the philosophic theory of “intelligent design” — has proven that neither chance, nor necessity, nor any combination of the two (generally called “stochastic” processes) can possibly generate the complexity necessary for life from merely inanimate matter. In the simplest possible terms, “the origin of biological structures cannot be ascribed to natural causes.”1Wolfgang Smith, “Science and the Restoration of Culture,” Chapter XII of The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology: Contemporary Science in Light of Tradition  (Foundation for Traditional Studies, 2003).

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Another limit theorem concerns James J. Gibson’s “ecological theory” of visual perception. Gibson has shown that the act of visual perception cannot be accounted for in strictly physiological terms: the so-called “perceptual image” of modern philosophy is a spurious concept, “whether it is conceived as existing physiologically in the brain or psychologically in the mind.”2Ibid. In other words, what we as sentient animals perceive is not an “image” but the external environment itself. The material image is formed in the retina, but it is not the case that this is what we perceive. If I am now looking at this screen, what I see  is not merely “an image formed on my retina”; rather, the retinal image stands to perception as matter stands to form — a necessary condition of perception to be sure, but not the perceived object itself. An instance of vertical causation is required to consummate the act of perception.

“In the words of Olavo de Carvalho, form is the ‘working algorithm’ of entity: the principle that limits, structures and determines its corresponding matter which is, in turn, undetermined but determinable by form.”

Something similar occurs in spanning the gap between the animal and the human. In the process of intellection of, say, an apple, what I intuit is not the “concept of apple” produced in the brain, but the form of the apple itself by way of  the concept. Intellection of the essence “apple” says far more about the apple than it does about ourselves; what we know is, so to speak, the apple, and not merely our mode of knowing the apple. The conflation of “the object we perceive (or conceive)”  with “the means by which we do so”  is a fundamental error of modern thought, with the momentous consequence that it leads us to an ever more radical subjectivism and suspicion of the reality of the perceptible world.

In all three of the above cases the situation is the same: Having exhausted the possibilities of temporal or “horizontal” causation, which is limited by the forms of the inferior, material domain, the only remaining possibility of causality comes from the superior, formal domain — that which is determined by vertical causation. When Aristotle argues for the distinction between matter and form, he calls our attention to the distinction between, on the one hand, the most brutal material existence, impossible to be explained or even described in its inexhaustible potentiality; and, on the other hand, the formal, intelligible aspect, at once rational and existential, responsible for the particular mode of operation of each entity. In the words of Olavo de Carvalho, form is the “working algorithm” of entity: the principle that limits, structures and determines its corresponding matter which is, in turn, undetermined  but determinable by form. A stone does not behave in an undetermined way, but as a stone; likewise does a plant as a plant, a wolf as a wolf, and a man as a man. When I am faced with the question, What is the evidence for the existence of the soul?, I am obliged to reply that it is in fact the existence of the body that proves the existence of the soul — for there is no matter where there is no 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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1. Wolfgang Smith, “Science and the Restoration of Culture,” Chapter XII of The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology: Contemporary Science in Light of Tradition  (Foundation for Traditional Studies, 2003).
2. Ibid.