Friday, January 2, 2015

Postscript on plastic


What better way is there to start off the new year than with another blog post about plastic?  You’ll recall that in a post from last year, I raised the question of why old plastic -- unlike old wood, glass, or metal -- seems invariably ugly.  I argued that none of the seemingly obvious answers holds up upon closer inspection.  In particular, I argued that the “artificiality” of plastic is not the reason, both because there are lots of old artificial things we don’t find ugly and because there is a sense in which plastic is not artificial.
 
On that latter point, it was fun recently to read the Bruce Jones and Adolpho Buylla story “Plastic” in Alien Worlds #5 (from which the illustration above is taken).  Set in a war-torn and plastic-filled future, it features a character who complains that the everyday plastic objects that surround them “ain’t even real plastic” but are made from the hides of the alien creatures that are central to the story.  A world with fake plastic.  Wrap your mind around that!

On the question of why old plastic is ugly, a novel possible answer is suggested by a passage in Donald Fagen’s book Eminent Hipsters.  Fagen writes:

A lot of the malls and the condos are much nicer now than when I was a kid in postwar New Jersey, at the beginning of all that.  But, like many of my generation, I’m afraid I’m still severely allergic to all that “plastic,” both the literal and the metaphorical.  In third world countries, lefties associate it with the corporate world and call its agents “the Plastics.”  Norman Mailer went so far (he always went so far) as to believe that the widespread displacement of natural materials by plastic was responsible for the increase in violence in America.  Wood, metal, glass, wool and cotton, he said, have a sensual quality when touched.  Because plastic is so unsatisfying to the senses, people are beginning to go to extremes to feel something, to connect with their bodies.  We are all, Mailer thought, prisoners held in sensual isolation to the point of homicidal madness. (p. 130)

As with pretty much everything Mailer said, the only sane reaction is: “Seriously?”  The idea that plastic has anything to do with an increase in the murder rate is obviously too stupid for words.  However, the suggestion that plastic lacks the sensual appeal that wood, glass, etc. have might seem plausible. 

But it isn’t, really.  Think of small children, who are the most sensation-oriented of human beings and whose taste for plastic is pretty obvious.  Some of my most vivid memories from childhood have to do with the strange appeal certain plastic toys had.  There was, for example, that Fisher Price Milk Bottle set that so many kids in the late 60s and early 70s cut their teeth on.  I’ll be damned if that orange bottle in particular doesn’t still look pretty good.  Even adults chew on plastic all the time -- pen caps, straws, the frames of their glasses, etc.

So, once again it’s Mailer 0, Reality 1.  My own suspicion is that the correct explanation of the ugliness of at least the most extreme cases of ugly old plastic -- such as the detritus that washes up on beaches -- might lie in a consideration raised in another post from last year, on technology.  Recall that from the point of view of Aristotelian metaphysics, the distinction between what is “natural” and what is “artificial” is more perspicuously captured by the distinction between what has a substantial form and what has a merely accidental form.  For some man-made things (e.g. new breeds of dog, plastic) are “natural” in the sense of having a substantial form, even though the usual examples of man-made things (e.g. tables, chairs, machines) have only accidental forms.  And some “natural” things (e.g. a random pile of stones) have merely accidental forms, even though the usual examples of natural objects (e.g. plants, animals, water, gold) have substantial forms.  (Full story, as usual, in Scholastic Metaphysics.) 

Now, things having substantial forms are metaphysically more fundamental, since accidental forms presuppose substantial forms.  But as I noted in the post on technology just linked to, in a high tech society, the metaphysical priority of the “natural” world (in the sense of the world of things having substantial forms or true Aristotelian “natures” or essences) is less manifest, since in everyday life in such a society, we are surrounded by objects whose raw materials are so highly processed that it is their accidental forms rather than the underlying substantial forms that “hit us in the face.”  Furthermore, many of these objects consist of materials -- such as plastic -- which have substantial forms and are thus in an Aristotelian sense “natural,” but nevertheless don’t have the “feel” of being natural in the way wood or stone do, since unlike those substances, they don’t occur “in the wild.”  So, in a high tech society, the forms of things we encounter in everyday life -- the order they exhibit -- can easily seem to be all of the “accidental” kind (in the technical Aristotelian sense), and in particular of the man-made kind.

Now, consider what happens when something having an accidental form but nevertheless made out of manifestly natural (in the sense of substantial-form-having) materials decays -- an old castle or wooden shack, say, or a tank rotting in Truk lagoon.  The accidental forms disappear, but the underlying substantial forms only become more evident.  This may be the reason they don’t seem ugly, and can even seem beautiful.  For as Aquinas says, “beauty properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause.”  As the relatively superficial accidental forms give way, but the very well-known to us and metaphysically deeper substantial forms of things like stone, wood, and metal become more manifest, the objects seem no less beautiful.

Contrast that with objects made out of plastic.  Here the raw materials also have a substantial form, as all raw materials underlying accidental forms do.  However, it is a kind of material -- and thus a kind of substantial form -- which does not occur “in the wild” but takes much human effort to bring into being.  Hence it doesn’t have the feel to us of a natural kind of stuff.  It is also a very protean stuff.  There is no one shape, texture, or color that plastic tends to have.  So, it can seem that the only form -- the only order -- a plastic object has is the kind we have imposed on it for our particular purposes.  When it loses that -- as when a plastic toy becomes seriously damaged or a plastic bottle melted or a plastic plate brittle and missing pieces -- it can intuitively seem like something having no “formal cause” or principle or order at all.  And thus it seems ugly.

If this explanation is right then it would seem to follow that if plastic occurred “in the wild” in the way that stone, metal, and wood do, we might tend to find decaying plastic objects no more ugly than we do decaying wood, metal, or stone objects.  It would be hard to test that implication, since we just know too much about plastic ever to get it to seem like a wild kind of stuff on all fours with rocks, wood, etc.  But maybe Fagen would disagree.  He laments that, unlike people at the time Mailer was commenting, “the Babies seem awfully comfortable with simulation, virtuality, and Plasticulture in general” -- where by “Babies” he means the “TV Babies” born after about 1960, for whom television has been “the principal architect of their souls.”  So, perhaps the Babies, or the babies of the Babies, or maybe the babies of the babies of the Babies, will eventually come to see broken old plastic the way people have always seen old stone and wood.  Maybe yellowing cracked plastic lawn furniture will become a regular sight in high end antique shops, and old broken pocket calculators and telephones will become highly sought-after conversation pieces for the coffee table.

Nah…

89 comments:

Mathematica Magistra Mundi said...

Another Catholic author on plastic (he is writing of a character based on himself):

His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz — everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom... ― Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal Of Gilbert Pinfold (1957).
But his lifetime coincided with the rise of modernism and triumph of Entzauberung.

Irish Thomist said...

Just look up 'natural polymers'. interesting stuff.

Irish Thomist said...

He abhorred... jazz Feser's nemesis?

John said...

I'm just beginning to get into Thomism. So far I've usually found Feser very convincing when he attacks another position and rather unconvincing when he advances his own. E.g. when I read Philosophy of Mind, I agreed with him the whole way through when he was tearing down materialism, but when he finally got to hylemorphism, I said, "I don't see how that solves any of the problems you've brought up with the other theories."
The distinction between accidental and substantive forms is part of what I'm as yet unconvinced by. Why would a new dog breed of all things have a substantial form? You see all kinds of stuff like this at the borders- for example, people claiming that the white German Shepherd isn't a true GSD, or X breed can't have floppy ears and then a floppy eared dog is born. And of course, I can breed two runt Great Danes today and people would say, "That's just a small Great Dane," but if I do that for several generations, eventually, I can call that a new breed. When does that become a substantial form? Or what about the breeds that a crosses between pre-existing breeds, like the Dobermann or the bull terrier. Do they have substantial forms? If so, does your typical mutt have the substantial form of being a dachshund/terrier/poodle mix?
I am not at all trying to be dismissive-I genuinely hope that someone will have a good explanation for the distinction between substantial and accidental forms, because so far, I either don't understand it or I don't agree with it (unless there's the possibility that, as Feser suggested in the comments, the only substantial forms are the fundamental particulars and the form of living vs. non-living and rational vs. irrational. That seems more plausible.)

Scott said...

@John:

A substantial form is the form of a substance. Every living thing is a substance and thus has a substantial form, whether or not it passes along exactly the same substantial form to its biological descendants.

(I also wouldn't be inclined to regard a dog breed as having its own substantial form anyway; I'd be more inclined to say that every dog has the substantial form of a dog. But that would just push your "borders" question up a level.)

John said...

Thanks Scott. I think that goes back to my comment that Feser's comment that some had suggested that there is a formal distinction between the living, the non living and the rational, but there weren't other substantial forms seems more convincing. If you want to say there's a real distinction between living and non-living and living but irrational and the rational, that seems sensible.
But otherwise I don't see where this line between "accidental pile of rock" and "the substance of a sedimentary rock" gets made. (A sedimentary rock would start out, presumably as an "accidental" pile of sediment, and then it becomes a "substance" once it becomes what one would call "a rock," but that seems very, very gray to me and makes me inclined to nominalism.)
And as you acknowledged, even the question of boundaries among living things gets very hairy. (Any biologist will tell you that the question of what is a species gets very difficult at the borders. For example, a strong majority of biologists now acknowledge the wolf and the dog as the same species.)
I don't expect commenters to guide me the whole way through. Is there a good article-length introduction to scholastic metaphysics that deal with these border issues? I'd buy Scholastic Metaphysics, but I've read a good amount of Feser and again, either I don't understand his explanations or I don't agree with them. (Not to knock him; it could be me or it could be just that he dumbed it down too much in TLS and Philosophy of Mind in which case I should probably buy SM.) The boundary issue is probably my biggest impediment-when does this pile of sediment cease to have an accidental form and become its own substance? When does this group of animals become distinctive enough to have their own substance? The gray areas in between incline mean to conclude that there isn't a substantial distinction-we could draw the lines anywhere and we draw them where they're most helpful to us. But I'm still very open to convincing and I know nominalism leads to equally hard philosophical difficulties.

John said...

Also, if people will bring out the biological definition of species to say, "No, there's no boundary problem on substantial form for living things," there are lots of blurry lines on the borders and anyway, it doesn't work for asexual species.

Brandon said...

John,

I suppose I'm a bit unclear about what you take the distinction to be. For instance, why do you think that the fundamental-particulars-and-living-beings view is "more plausible"? What's the ground of plausibility here? Continuity is out, because the claim is an explicit denial of continuity, requiring a big jump between fundamental substances and living substances; analogy seems out, because on pretty much any analogy you could build, living substances and fundamental substances are not obviously going to be immediate analogues, without any intermediary analogues. Likewise, the view seems to run directly afoul of the same problem of borders that you give -- particularly at the border between things-that-are-fundamental-substances-in-accidental-unity and living-things-in-substantial-unity -- so it doesn't obviously resolve any problems that might exist on another view. There are principles on which it would be more plausible, of course; my point is that making this sort of plausibility judgment seems to require that a rather robust and non-minimalist view of the distinction is already on the table, and it would be necessary to know what it is in order to say anything significant.

John said...

Sorry, Scott, I got hung up on your parenthetical and didn't respond to your main post. By saying each living thing is a substance and thus has a form, you almost seem to be suggesting that each living thing is its own form. Am I understanding you correctly? I guess that might make sense although I'd have to discuss the implications further, but what about (another boundary problem) for example, those cancer cells that can grow indefinitely in a petri dish. It seems strange to either conclude that "They have the substance of Bob," when they are in the petri dish, or that they are a distinct substance even inside of the person, but those would seem to be the only possible conclusions.

John said...

Brandon, I guess by saying "more plausible," I mean that I can see why living things and non-living might be distinct, and I can see why there is a jump between the rational and irrational, but I don't really see why we would regard any other subdistinctions as in some sense real rather than nominal. But I guess it's more of a gut thing. Like I said, I think I need a more general introduction

Scott said...

@John:

"The boundary issue is probably my biggest impediment-when does this pile of sediment cease to have an accidental form and become its own substance?"

I'm speaking only for myself here, but I'd say it doesn't. A sedimentary rock seems to me to be a mere aggregate, not a substance.

A chemical compound is another matter. I would say that water has its own substantial form, different from those of hydrogen and oxygen; likewise, table salt has one that differs from those of sodium and chlorine.

But as Ed has argued elsewhere, even if that's wrong, there would still be substantial forms at the "bottommost" level of physical matter.

"[Y]ou almost seem to be suggesting that each living thing is its own form."

Well, I'm saying that every living thing has its own substantial form. One dog doesn't literally have the same substantial form as another dog; they're formally identical, but not numerically.

"[W]hat about (another boundary problem) for example, those cancer cells that can grow indefinitely in a petri dish. It seems strange to either conclude that 'They have the substance of Bob,"'when they are in the petri dish[.]"

Sure, and no Aristotelian or Thomist would say that. Even Bob's hand is a "hand in name only" when it's severed from Bob's body. What has Bob's substantial form is Bob.

John said...

Scott, I used the example of cells in a petri dish because they go on living (as opposed to the hand which dies). Do they "gain" a new substance when separated? (They were a part of Bob; now they have their own substance) Or do they become some accidental group of cells, each with their own substance? Or what?
I guess my question really comes down to what is the principle by which we distinguish substances to say, "This difference makes these two things different substances, whereas this other characteristic is only an accidental difference, and they are substantially the same."? The examples Feser has used don't seem to clarify that principle.

Scott said...

@John:

For living things, the usual principle is that a substance exhibits "immanent causation" and not just "transeunt causation." (See for example here.)

That's a pretty standard A-T understanding of "life," and the reason I invoke it here is that we can use it in a rough and ready way to find the "boundaries" of a living organism: the organism is at the level at which such causation makes sense. To take a silly example, "the top half of a dog" isn't an organism (living substance) because some of its causal processes terminate in the bottom half of the dog and vice versa. We don't get full-blown immanent causation unless we take the entire dog into account.

Scott said...

As for the cells in the Petri dish, sure they go on living, and so at least each cell now has a substantial form. As with the hand, though, that's only because they're no longer part of Bob. When they were part of Bob, they existed only "virtually" as cells (though of course they really did exist as parts of Bob!).

Brandon said...

John,

The reason I asked is that we are all in danger of flailing in the dark as to what might be useful to you without some clearer idea of what the difficulty is. It isn't clear where the locus of the confusion lies.

For instance, your original statement was in terms of the distinction between accidental and substantial forms; but your arguments don't seem to be about the distinction itself at all: boundary questions are not about a distinction, but about how we know how to apply it in some (but not all) individual cases. Likewise, when we talk about substantial forms, every individual substance has its own distinct substantial form; so what you must mean is something like 'typical substantial form, considered abstractly', but what is typical is relative to population (like breeds or species), and thus will not be purely a matter of substantial forms themselves.

"This difference makes these two things different substances, whereas this other characteristic is only an accidental difference, and they are substantially the same."

Sensible differences are all accidental differences; identifying substantial differences requires causal reasoning about what accidental differences imply. But it doesn't sound like the locus of your problem is at such an abstract level.

John said...

Brandon, actually, I see that my examples are not helpful. I guess I need help figuring out what my questions are. I use the examples to say that he boundary issues makes "substance" seem unreal or arbitrary, which itself would lead to nominalism. (Whether you draw the line here or here, or whether you classify everything according to color or weight or what have you, it's just a mental classification system and doesn't reflect any deeper reality. Maybe it's the reductionist mindset's unstated assumptions.)
The example given of the substance of a dog breed was part of what set this discussion off. Perhaps Feser shouldn't have used an example that apparently doesn't have universal agreement among Thomists. But I think that discussion does get to part of my problem-what is the rule that Thomists are applying that some say that a dog breed is its own substantial form and Scott says "the dog" is its own substantial form, and apparently some other Thomists say that each living thing is its own substantial form?
Your reply about a substantial differences and causal powers does seem useful, so I'd like to know more about that if you can go further. I think it is the abstract question I want to know.

Irish Thomist said...

@John

A problem you might bump up against is that the essence of a thing is isn't at all easy to know completely, since in a sense that is almost an empirical matter.

So I'm guessing you are viewing forms in a rather Platonic fashion and don't realize it comes down to the 'essence' of a thing. So the 'boundaries' at some point will move from creature A and then become creature B. Within the variations of a population you might find very few have the greatest instantiation of an essence. Maybe 'Evolution' (mutation) might be required for some member of a species to get there.

This is another area where I fell I have moved slightly away from the mainstream Thomist view. After all united substances do seem to exist and a greater explanation of what it means for something to be virtually participating in a substantial form is a question worth coming back to again in metaphysical speculation.

Scott said...

@John:

I think you're seeing disagreements where there are none because of some carelessness with terminology. No Thomist in the world would ever say that a dog breed, a dog, or a living thing is a substantial form. Every Thomist in the world would say that each living thing has its own substantial form. There might be minor disagreement here and there about whether two dogs of different breeds have substantial forms that are exactly alike or just very very similar, but that's about it.

(Also, and less importantly, making substances unreal or arbitrary needn't lead to nominalism. Substantial forms are far from the only candidate for real universals.)

Irish Thomist said...

* is that what the essence of a thing is

John said...

Thanks Irish Thomist.
Brandon, Scott, and Irish Thomist: Scott says that "For living things, the usual principle is that a substance exhibits "immanent causation" and not just "transeunt causation." "
Is it safe to conclude that in the Thomistic view, there are different principles in which to discern what is a substance for things qua things, living beings, and rational beings?
If so, why are they all called "substantial forms"? What's the unifying principle?

Scott said...

Also, Ed didn't say that a dog of a new breed necessarily has a substantial form different from that of other dogs; he just said it has a substantial form, period, even though there's a sense in which the new breed is man-made.

John said...

Scott, that really does clear up a lot. So would this mean that the individual dogs within a new breed would each have substantial forms as living things and Feser's point is simply that human manipulation does not take away that substantial form?
Similarly, the polymer that constitutes the plastic would have a substantial form in a way that a physical mixture (rather than a chemical compound) would not?

Scott said...

@John:

"So would this mean that the individual dogs within a new breed would each have substantial forms as living things and Feser's point is simply that human manipulation does not take away that substantial form?"

Pretty much. At any rate, if a dog of a new breed really does have a substantial form that differs from that of previous dogs, that's not relevant to Ed's point. But as far as your questions are concerned, the key point is that, yes, each individual dog of any breed has its own substantial form, just as any living thing (or non-living substance) does.

"Similarly, the polymer that constitutes the plastic would have a substantial form in a way that a physical mixture (rather than a chemical compound) would not?"

Yes.

Scott said...

(I'll be away from my computer for the rest of the afternoon, so I won't be able to reply further. Cheers.)

Scott said...

@John:

Just time for one more point.

"If so, why are they all called 'substantial forms'? What's the unifying principle?"

The substantial form of any "thing" is that by which the thing is what it is. It's basically the same as the thing's "formal cause."

Scott said...

And they're all called "substantial forms" because—wait for it—they're the forms of substances. ;-)

John said...

(Realizing that Scott won't answer for some time, but he can answer later or others can answer now):
Most of Scott's reply is very helpful, but the part where he says, "The substantial form of any "thing" is that by which the thing is what it is. It's basically the same as the thing's "formal cause."

How then, practically, do we distinguish differences that distinguish two different substances as different substances, and merely accidental differences that seem important to the thinker?

And by what principle do we say that plastic has the substantial form of plastic and a bacterium as a living thing has a substantial form, but a solar clock has no substantial form (per Feser in this post), it is just an accumulation of metal and plastic and what-have-you?

Vince S said...

Scott, John:

Yes I think I must echo John's questions here. It's one thing to be on the ontological level (substantial forms exist). No argument there from me. It's another to be on the epistemological level and say we know exactly what they are. I'm going to stick to non-living things for the moment. The "classical" A-Tist position as I see it seems to be putting substantial form at the level of the molecule. (E.g. a pile of rocks is an aggregate, not a substantial form in itself, similarly for artifacts like automobiles, computers, etc. But a (plastic) polymer is a substantial form, not an aggregate of the monomer. Wait, actually the monomer would be the substantial form here.) Anyway, what is the justification for this, or is all this purely ad hoc?

Irish Thomist said...

Depends on what ad hoc can possibly mean if in terms of epistemology one anticipates the thing which they speak of to be unfalsifiable. Philosophy can develop that way (sometimes).

An essence is not the same thing as a particular instantiation of a given essence in a substantial form or what have you.

Pardon me if I am using terms and language very loosely.

I think there is confusion here not about the metaphysics but about the epistemology.


Then again I believe in a variant of the standard view of what a substance is or rather I'm pondering a different line of thinking.

Anonymous said...

Ed introduces in Scholastic Metaphysics page 164 the difference between a natural object and artifacts produced by accidental arrangement.

"The basic idea is that a natural object is one whose characteristic behavior - the way in which it manifests either stability or changes of various sorts - derives from something intrinsic to it."

And on page 165:

"Now the difference between that which has such an intrinsic principle of operation and that which does not is essentially the difference between something having a substantial form and something having a merely accidental form."

I hope this helps.

Cheers,
Daniel

Tony said...

How then, practically, do we distinguish differences that distinguish two different substances as different substances, and merely accidental differences that seem important to the thinker?

The epistemic issue of how we know that this oak tree in my yard is a different substantial thing than that oak tree in your yard, and how we know both have different KINDS of substantial forms than that dog Fido is partly explained, I think, by recalling to mind the progression of coming to know. Certainly the first stage is that we have sense experience of them. Any single sense experience (be it sight, sound, touch, whatever) will not, normally, be enough in the beginning to sort out what things are distinct and how. But you mix in multiple sense experiences of the same object, the sight of the tree with the smell of the leaves with the sound of the breeze playing in the branches and the creak of limbs, and put them together over time with many more such experiences. And you have a similar complex of experience of Fido. The mind of its own capacity reaches out to grasp the essential likeness of the two oak trees, the intellect apprehends the commonality of the trees as like in basic kind. The mind is not merely assigning to a collection of similar sense experiences a comfortable "basket" of
likenesses that it enjoys classifying as "oak", it is _discovering_ the likeness and apprehending that the likeness is more deeply rooted than merely some sense experiences. As Socrates and Plato insisted, the person apprehending isn't the cause of the unity of form, there is an independent cause that is there whether the human mind apprehends it or not.

It is in order to explain that fulsome intellectual experience of coming to apprehend the like natures of 2 oaks, and their difference with Fido, and their passing away into ash in a fire, that we draft "substantial form" as the underlying commonality of the essences. Every child grasps the "what it is" of many things without reflecting on "how do I come to know this", the knowledge is real before he understands why.

Glenn said...

Tony, you've been scarce around here of late. Not nice. (I'm being selfish.)

Vince S said...

Daniel,

"The basic idea is that a natural object is one whose characteristic behavior - the way in which it manifests either stability or changes of various sorts - derives from something intrinsic to it...

Now the difference between that which has such an intrinsic principle of operation and that which does not is essentially the difference between something having a substantial form and something having a merely accidental form."

Fine, but the same epistemic problem presents. One can claim that water is a substantial form insofar as its characteristic behavior or principle of operation is intrinsic. Or, one can claim it is only extrinsic, deriving from the "intrinsic" properties of hydrogen and oxygen.

Anonymous said...

Hey Vince,

Ed adds this quotes Eleonore Stump as a further possible criteria for determining a substantial form on page 168: "Stump's rationale is that it seems to be essential to a thing's having a substantial form that it has properties and causal powers that are irreducible to those of its parts. (Cf. Stump 2006 and 2013) Hence water has properties and causal powers that hydrogen and oxygen do not have, whereas the properties and causal powers of an axe seem to amount to nothing over and above the sum of the properties and powers of the axe's wood and metal parts. When water is synthesized out of hydrogen and oxygen, then, what happens is that the matter underlying the hydrogen and oxygen loses the substantial forms of hydrogen and oxygen and takes on a new substantial form, namely that of water. By contrast, when an axe is made out of wood and metal, the matter underlying the wood and the matter underlying the metal do not lose their substantial forms. Rather, while maintaining their substantial forms, they take on a new accidental form, that of being an axe."

Cheers,
Daniel

Scott said...

@Vince S:

"Fine, but the same epistemic problem presents. One can claim that water is a substantial form insofar as its characteristic behavior or principle of operation is intrinsic. Or, one can claim it is only extrinsic, deriving from the 'intrinsic' properties of hydrogen and oxygen."

As I've said in a recent thread, I basically agree, but this doesn't seem to me to mean anything more than that we can be empirically mistaken about what inanimate "substances" do and don't have substantial forms. I think water and salt do, but if that turns out not to be the case, so what? What's riding on this question?

Irish Thomist said...

@Scott

As I've said in a recent thread, I basically agree, but this doesn't seem to me to mean anything more than that we can be empirically mistaken about what inanimate "substances" do and don't have substantial forms. I think water and salt do, but if that turns out not to be the case, so what? What's riding on this question?

Exactly. I think we've got things distinguished enough to have clarified that the question relates to epistemology and that is what most people have arrived at although they are stating it differently.

Irish Thomist said...

I'm tempted to start a bit of a debate about what it means for something to reside virtually
in a substance over at my blog some time because of this line of thinking. I want to see what people think of my less than orthodox position because this is an important question I see people raise.

Anonymous said...

Ed's point in this thread is to highlight, I think, that ugliness versus beauty of a thing often depends on whether the first thing we sense about that thing is its accidental form rather than its substantial form. Beauty seems to reside in the metaphysically prior substantial form.

I think the reason he hints at is that the human mind seeks order, and when plastic loses its imposed accidental form that mimics a real substantial form, we are left with a sense of the artificiality or fakeness of the form that remains even though plastic in itself has its own substantial form that in other contexts can appear desirable or even beautiful.

If I look at the question of whether water is a substantial form over hydrogen or oxygen in the light of the beautify versus the ugly, I am immediately inclined to believe that water is a substance on a purely emotional level even if from the level of chemistry or physics, water may not be a substantial form. So in this sense, our feelings may be deceptive. But perhaps we are attracted to certain things like water, not because they have a substantial form, but because they are so much a necessary part of our own human substantial form. We have an inherent tendency to need food and water for our own survival. Therefore we are attracted to it. Beauty exists, then, in the water, because it serves the ends of our own substantial form. The water becomes a part of us when we absorb it. In the same way, most normal human beings feel a repulsion or ugliness in the urine of feces because it no longer has any value to our substantial form once it is expelled from our bodies.

Psychological and biological factors play a huge role in our determining what is beautiful. But on a rational level it also really drives our search for the truth in general. We desire to know the truth of things for reasons of self preservation. On the other hand, some people avoid unpleasant truths also for reasons of self preservation.

I suppose my whole post comes back to the issue of how rational human beings are? Was Freud right? Are we primarily driven by irrational desires and motives with only a thin and very weak veneer of rationality. It seems that even in the realm of science, we are motivated by selfish desires for financial gain, or more altruistic desires for the betterment of the human race. As a theist, I believe that this driving desire that underlies our strivings for truth end in God.

Cheers,
Daniel

Vince S said...

Scott:

What's riding on the question?

First, after having determined substantial forms exist, it would be nice to know exactly what they are, or how to determine what they are, just because, you know, we like to know things.

Second, while I have gained much from the ID threads, the crux of the A-Tist argument against it is that even things like cells or bacteria have substantial forms and are therefore not artifacts. But it could always be claimed that they actually are artifacts, the level of substantial form being at a lower level. In fact, if the level of substantial form is all the way down at the level of quarks, then A-Tism does not really differ all that much from the mechanistic/reductionist philosophy Dr. Feser spends so much time arguing against.

Third, the idea of "intrinsic" vs. "extrinsic" teleology is intriguing to me, but at the same time a little bit obscure. It is said that my computer is an artifact because it has a teleology imposed "extrinsically" (e.g. by the designer and manufacturer). But I don't understand why it is that a cell's teleology is "intrinsic" if it is imposed on it by God. Again, in other threads Dr. Feser has shown why all sorts of confusion arises when efficient causality is talked about without reference to final causality, which according to him is a teleology "intrinsic" to something.

Vince S said...

BTW I am very interested in the ID topic. It seems to me that, while we live in a milieu where nature is being over-emphasized all the way to denying God, the IDers want to make the opposite error and over-emphasize God all the way to denying nature.

Scott said...

@Vince S:

I said, and indeed was very careful to say, "inanimate substances." I think we can take it as read that an organism has a substantial form.

Vince S said...

Scott:


Aristotle (and St. Thomas after him) wrote well before what we've learned from modern biology. In A-Tism there are four "orders" of being in the physical universe: namely inanimate matter, plants (with nutritive/vegetative souls), animals (with sensitive souls), and humans (with rational souls). Where does a single-celled organism fit in this which reproduces via mitosis or binary fission? Where does a skin cell fit in this?

Brandon said...

Surely there's no mystery about that; skin cells are parts, not independent organisms, and the 'souls' are identified functionally, by standard activities (like respiration, reproduction, directed locomotion), not by what we usually mean in English by 'plant' or 'animal', nor by what biologists usually mean by the words -- that's why animals have 'vegetative' activities and (in Aristotelian accounts allowing plurality of forms) vegetative souls. All single-celled organisms have 'vegetative' activities; some of them are motile in ways directed by interaction with their environment, so have minimal 'animal' functions. These metaphysical orders have very little to do with substantial forms as such; they are all on a level as far as that goes, and we know that there have to be at least some non-living substantial forms as well, so it's not even a point on which living things would ever be distinctive.

Joe K. said...

There's also the Mean Girls "Plastics":

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tP2XtYbIgD0

Irish Thomist said...

@All

This has kind of made me want to clarify what I have been thinking on the topic here .

I'm not totally convinced the final word on this area has been spoken. To me much more metaphysical speculation is required.

Scott said...

@Vince S:

As Brandon says, I'm not seeing the mystery here. And again, as far as strictly inanimate nature is concerned, I still don't see that A-T has anything riding on the precise level at which substantial forms exist. Generally speaking, what we look for in a proposed (inanimate) "substance" is that has properties differing significantly from those of its constituents (like water vs. hydrogen and oxygen, or table salt vs. sodium and chlorine). But even if we're sometimes mistaken, there are still substantial forms in inanimate nature at some level; if it somehow turned out to be only the bottommost, well, c'est la vie.

Vince S said...

Scott:

OK, sticking to inanimate matter for the moment, if the substantial forms are actually at the level of quarks, then a reductionist philosophy is correct insofar as inanimate matter goes. Moreover, I'd press the point and say that it is even correct with animate matter at the level of one-celled organisms and plants. For I would claim, from biology, that their activity is, in principle, explainable via chemical reactions.

Scott said...

@Vince S:

"OK, sticking to inanimate matter for the moment, if the substantial forms are actually at the level of quarks, then a reductionist philosophy is correct insofar as inanimate matter goes."

Yes, if. But that's yet to be shown.

"Moreover, I'd press the point and say that it is even correct with animate matter at the level of one-celled organisms and plants. For I would claim, from biology, that their activity is, in principle, explainable via chemical reactions."

Only if the reactants don't have higher-level substantial forms than quarks, which, again, is yet to be shown. Nor is that alone sufficient, as it's also yet to be shown that (say) an oak tree is nothing but chemical reactions rather than an organism over and above those reactions.

John said...

Well, Scott, your two ifs answer your above question regarding what's riding on the question of how do we determine what truly constitutes a substance versus merely an accidental mixture of substances.

Scott said...

@John:

"Well, Scott, your two ifs answer your above question regarding what's riding on the question of how do we determine what truly constitutes a substance versus merely an accidental mixture of substances."

I wouldn't say so. Again, the first part of this is all about strictly inanimate nature, and I don't see that anything significant in A-T depends on the precise level at which substantial forms exist in such nature. (It would be another matter if the argument were that they didn't exist there at all.)

As for animate nature, so far there are no arguments on the table that threaten the existence of substantial forms there—but even if there were, they wouldn't constitute a reply to my earlier question about inanimate nature; they'd just be something newly introduced to the discussion.

Brandon said...

I think we should be a little more cautious about the first 'if', at least as Vince S states it. A certain kind of reduction would imply that quarks alone are substances, but I don't think the reverse, which is what Vince S actually suggests, follows. In the same way, the fact that a corporate organization is not a substance, but is made up of substances (persons) united accidentally rather than substantially, does not actually imply reductionism about corporate organizations -- it only implies that if they are not reducible it is for some other reason than being substances. I think standard Thomist views of societies have precisely this implication; societies are cooperative (involving mutual action and interaction) and hierarchical (participative), and at least as Thomists usually understand these, I don't think reductionism is consistent with either. To put it all in other words, there are a lot of different ways things can have accidental unity, and not all of them are equally reductionism-friendly.

The requirements of reductionism seem to me to be quite strict (it has to be genuinely asymmetrical and comprehensive, for instance), and lots of things don't meet them.

(None of this, of course, contradicts Scott's basic point about substances. I just want to put into question the idea that putting the level for inanimate things at atoms, or quarks, or what have you, doesn't actually get anyone all the way to reductionism even about inanimate things.)

Brandon said...

Sorry that should read, without the extra negative: "I just want to put into question the idea that putting the level for inanimate things at atoms, or quarks, or what have you, actually gets anyone all the way to reductionism even about inanimate things."

A good example of an accidental unity that is not immediately reductionism-friendly, incidentally, since I'm typing this anyway, is the unity of an artifact. Artifacts don't reduce to their component parts, because they depend on external artifice. The only way to have a reductive account of artifacts is to have a reductive account capable of including both the artifact and whatever gives it artifical unity.

John said...

OK, with regard to inanimate nature, it would seem that if the only substances are fundamental particles, then at the very least, this whole blog post is not true.
Also, as a beginner, it doesn't seem helpful that when I ask, "How do we know what's a substance versus what's an accidental accumulation of substances?" the reply I think I got (and I realize I have misunderstood a lot of this on the way) is "Well, maybe quarks are substances, maybe molecules are substances, maybe polymers are substances. It doesn't matter. None of Thomism rests on this."
Well, that is unfair; the response I got included that a substance has causal powers that its component parts do not. And it seems that the consensus is something like at the molecular level, molecules have causal powers that their component parts don't; but artifacts only have the causal powers that their component parts have.
Living things may have causal powers that their component parts don't, and Thomists think they do have causal powers that its component parts do not.
(I'm not sure I get why that is. What inherent powers does a bacterial cell have that can't be explained by what's going on in the chemicals that make up the cell? How the cell's inherent powers different than say, a robot programmed to mine for metal and oil that it uses to build copies of itself?)

Vince S said...

Brandon, Scott:

There's something more riding on whether and how we can determine where the substantial forms are. Because every substantial form has a teleology - a proper formal cause. As Dr. Feser has shown in another thread, occasionalism - denying secondary causality - has disastrous consequences. But there is also a semi-occasionalism - admitting secondary causality but admitting their efficacy only because they are so willed by God. This does away with the concept of miracle. God could will that I live on cyanide, and only cyanide. Without a certain concept of "proper" secondary causality, you couldn't say this was a miracle.

Vince S said...

Brandon:

If you are a Catholic, you are going to have to - based on the very principles you maintain - say that the Church is not just an "aggregate" or an "artifact", but a substantial form all on its own. It has causal powers its component parts (individual people) do not.

Scott said...

@Vince S:

"There's something more riding on whether and how we can determine where the substantial forms are. Because every substantial form has a teleology - a proper formal cause."

It would be more correct to say that a substantial form is a formal cause.

"As Dr. Feser has shown in another thread, occasionalism - denying secondary causality - has disastrous consequences."

Why do you think precisely locating the level of substantial forms in inanimate nature has any bearing on the question of whether there is secondary causation? If there are are substantial forms at all, then there's secondary causation pretty much by definition.

At any rate, if you think there's any doubt about whether human beings have substantial forms, this is the first time I've seen you raise it. First it was inanimate nature, then it was plants—now you think God could make you live on cyanide alone because, what, you don't have a substantial form?

"If you are a Catholic, you are going to have to - based on the very principles you maintain - say that the Church is not just an 'aggregate' or an 'artifact', but a substantial form all on its own. It has causal powers its component parts (individual people) do not."

I find this statement puzzling in several respects. First of all, and probably least importantly, it makes no sense to say that a thing is its substantial form; it has one. Obviously the Church is not a "substantial form." Nor, from the fact (if it is one) that the Church has causal powers that individual people do not, does it simply follow that the Church has a substantial form. Some such things do, and some such things don't.

Scott said...

@John:

"OK, with regard to inanimate nature, it would seem that if the only substances are fundamental particles, then at the very least, this whole blog post is not true."

Why?

"Also, as a beginner, it doesn't seem helpful that when I ask, 'How do we know what's a substance versus what's an accidental accumulation of substances?' the reply I think I got (and I realize I have misunderstood a lot of this on the way) is 'Well, maybe quarks are substances, maybe molecules are substances, maybe polymers are substances. It doesn't matter. None of Thomism rests on this.'"

Sorry you don't find it helpful, but it happens to be true that Thomism doesn't stand or fall with any particular opinion about precisely which inanimate objects can be empirically determined to have or not to have substantial forms.

"Well, that is unfair; the response I got included that a substance has causal powers that its component parts do not. And it seems that the consensus is something like at the molecular level, molecules have causal powers that their component parts don't; but artifacts only have the causal powers that their component parts have."

Which is why the more common view among Thomists is that chemical compounds do have their own substantial forms. What strikes you as "unfair" about that?

"Living things may have causal powers that their component parts don't, and Thomists think they do have causal powers that its component parts do not."

Right.

"(I'm not sure I get why that is. What inherent powers does a bacterial cell have that can't be explained by what's going on in the chemicals that make up the cell? How the cell's inherent powers different than say, a robot programmed to mine for metal and oil that it uses to build copies of itself?)"

Basically, they differ in the fact that the bits that make up the robot don't have any natural tendency to stick together and make up a robot; they're doing so only because a rational agent other than God intentionally assembled them and set them going.

John said...

Sorry, when I said, "Well that's unfair," I meant my earlier statement was unfair to you guys.
Why does the whole blog post fall apart if only fundamental particles are substances? Then plastics wouldn't have substantial forms any nore than cathedrals or clocks.
The rest of your response does clarify things.

Matthew McCormack said...

"Basically, they differ in the fact that the bits that make up the robot don't have any natural tendency to stick together and make up a robot; they're doing so only because a rational agent other than God intentionally assembled them and set them going.

"Wouldn't the robot have causal powers that its component parts did not have ?

Do the components of the cell have a 'natural tendency to stick together' any more so than the components of the robot ? The components of a cell somehow came together, maybe after long periods of 'trial and error' where maybe you could say that the cell was being assembled, and they now work together in a complex whole.
Is this substantially different from the components of the robot ? If the robot could reproduce itself, wouldn't it then seem that it's component parts had just as much natural tendency to stick together ?

Scott said...

@Matthew McCormack:

"Do the components of the cell have a 'natural tendency to stick together' any more so than the components of the robot ?"

Apparently they do, since they somehow manage to do it without any human intervention.

Brandon said...

If you are a Catholic, you are going to have to - based on the very principles you maintain - say that the Church is not just an "aggregate" or an "artifact", but a substantial form all on its own. It has causal powers its component parts (individual people) do not.

The Church obviously isn't just an aggregate or artifact, since it is a society, but even that aside, this doesn't follow; for one thing (as Scott notes) the Church obviously isn't a substantial form. But even if we change it to 'substance', all the causal powers of the Church that aren't had by its members are in reality proper causal powers of Christ.

But it wouldn't follow in any case; 'having causal powers its component parts do not' is a necessary condition of substances, not a sufficient one, because it matters what the causal powers imply. Two people pushing a rock they can only push together have a causal power that neither person alone has, and despite what some reductionists might want to say, it is at least controversial whether all such cases of cooperation are in any meaningful sense reducible to individual operations of individual people. But this is not a causal power that indicates that the two substances have become one substance. In setting up the situation, that was actually guaranteed, as we didn't do anything to integrate the substances themselves, but simply had them work together in a certain way.

But I don't see at all how your comment responds to mine, so I'm a bit puzzled as to what you are trying to say. My comment was about how there are obviously even accidental unities (like societies and artifacts) that make reductionism difficult (they at least significantly expand how much has to be done to have any kind of reduction at all), so merely stating that all inanimate objects we know are quark-substances united accidentally rather than substantially does not, on its own, get us to any kind of reductionism.

Matthew McCormack said...

They don't manage to stick together any better than the components of a robot. They were assembled over time in a fashion that they now work together to make a cell. But, add cyanide to the cell and they will slowely dissasemble and not go back together on their own.

The robot is assembled, and its parts work together now as well. If it could reproduce itself then it would also seem that the these component parts also had just as natural a tendency to stick together as the cell's components.

What difference does it make as to how it was assembled ?

Brandon said...


Matthew McCormack:

But, add cyanide to the cell and they will slowly disassemble and not go back together on their own.

I don't understand what you are taking this to imply. Obviously cells are destructible; but this on its own doesn't address the issue.

Matthew McCormac said...

I am implying that the chemicals of the cell do not have any more a natural tendency o stick together than the components of a machine. When you add cyanide, they stop sticking together (not necessarily even dissasembling).

How is their working together any different from components of a machine that work together? If the machine components were not naturally able to work together, then they would not work together.

The only difference is their history of coming to work together.


(Is it just me, or does it take everyone at least 8 tries to get the Captcha?)

Brandon said...

I am implying that the chemicals of the cell do not have any more a natural tendency o stick together than the components of a machine. When you add cyanide, they stop sticking together (not necessarily even dissasembling).

That's what you said, but again, this is just my point: as it stands, this is obviously a non sequitur. All your premise establishes is that cells stop sticking together under a certain nonstandard condition; your conclusion, however, would have to cover what cells do in non-cyanide as well as cyanide conditions, and is, moreover, comparative.

(I'm not having a problem with the CAPTCHA.)

Matthew McCormack said...

A natural tendency to stick together was provided as making difference between the cells inherent powers over the cumulative properties of its constituent parts. In the following statement:
"Basically, they differ in the fact that the bits that make up the robot don't have any natural tendency to stick together and make up a robot; they're doing so only because a rational agent other than God intentionally assembled them and set them going."

And I am questioning this difference of a 'natural tendency to stick together', by saying that this difference does not exist.

The only difference between a molecular robot and a cell is their respective histories of how the components came together. There is no difference in the cells components being more naturally sticking together than the molecular robots components sticking together.

If a molecular robot could last a few years and reproduce itself, it would seem that its component parts also had a natural tendency to stick together.

(The Captcha is driving me crazy and I am on the East Coast and it is late.)

Brandon said...

And I am questioning this difference of a 'natural tendency to stick together', by saying that this difference does not exist.

Yes, I am aware of this. My point is that your cyanide argument didn't establish this; it just established that there is one condition, not natural to the cell itself, under which the cell doesn't stick together. It didn't establish anything about the cell in its natural conditions, nor did it establish anything about how the sticking-together of cells is compared to the sticking-together of robots.

(Perhaps the issue with the CAPTCHA is a temporary issue with the Name/URL option? CAPTCHA using Google Account is still fine.)

John said...

Brandon, could you recommend a brief source for a beginner with a list of the necessary and sufficient properties of a substance? Because I was wondering about the issues you describe. For example, I know that in Thomism weight is an accidental property, but it seems to me at least that 2 lbs of a metals can do things that 1 lb of metal cannot (e.g. a wall of metal twice as big as a smaller wall could block things that the smaller wall cannot, similar to your example of two men pushing a weight that one man cannot). And my non-technical definition of "causal power" that I've made up in my mind would be "ability to do something," and I realize that's probably wrong.
But of course, I know that two pounds of X is not a different substance than one pound of X.
[Captcha working fine for me. Well besides the perennial annoyance of figuring out a Captcha.]

Brandon said...

I don't think there is any list of necessary and sufficient conditions of a substance; particularly with regard to sufficient conditions, since there are enough different substances that they are legion. But Aquinas's De ente et essentia is actually pretty readable, and although it has been a while since I've read it, I believe Stump's Aquinas (which I think may be what Daniel was quoting above) has some discussion of these matters.

'Ability to do something' is a pretty good first approximation of 'causal power' here; no one really works with anything else except where very technical distinctions are absolutely required. But in the cases we're considering, we are quite clearly talking about kinds of joint ability to do something, and the jointness of the ability requires that there be two distinct things to be joined.

One of the things we can say about substance is that it has to be an active unity greater than mere relation alone (since relation alone, even one resistant to reduction, is not a substance). In the cooperation case, or in the two blocks case, we have deliberately set up situations in which we only set up a relation between two things. Likewise with societies, which can be in many ways highly unified, working in some way as one -- but the way in which they work as one already presupposes that they are in causal terms many distinct people working together.

This is related to why Scott insists on the point that organisms are more easily established as substances than inorganic things -- living things give us much more information indicating unity: they survive a wide range of changes of environment, they self-repair, they are functionally as well as structurally integrated, we can clearly identify their borders, and they act in such a way that we can, and do, often say, "this is one distinct organism capable of operating within many different environments" or "this living thing is working as a whole to survive/reproduce/whatever". We don't get the same range of information if we are considering whether water in a glass or molecules of H2O are substances, although all our evidence about them is still evidence about how they act, so the two kinds of cases are not in the same boat. This is not to say that there is no answer on the subject, or that all answers are equally plausible (most Thomists, e.g., think there's good reason to think that most natural objects we come into contact with are substances, because all the sensible properties we experience present themselves to us as unified together into this object or that, and that the more you go in a fundamental particle direction the less plausible it is that we are dealing with distinguishable substances rather than just incomplete parts or properties of substances). But there's always a lot of empirical evidence going into these things on particular cases, and whether a particular case has the right kind of evidence is not the same kind of question as whether the general principles are sound. And Thomists have always claimed that getting rigorous certainty about the particular cases is often going to take a lot of reasoning.

A common mistake related to this is assuming that because we can divide a substance into parts, we have shown that it is not actually a substance; this merely shows that it is composite, whereas the question of substance is about how the composite works as one thing. Any particular action of a substance can be redescribed entirely as an action of its parts, and there are plenty of situations in which that is more convenient. But the question is what all the actions have to do with each other, and that is something that requires thinking through a lot more.

Irish Thomist said...

@Matthew McCormack, Vince S, John

Lets step back a moment. (before I begin I have a slightly unorthodox view which I won't be trying to explain ore defend here).

I think the real mix up here is what the essence of a thing is not what makes it a substantial form or the formal cause of something. A substance has a unity and potencies and a set of 'teleological powers' or things to which it's nature directs it towards.

Following on from that we have no direct access to any essence qua essence and we only know of what one definitively is i.e. a human is a rational animal. Also determining a substance is an empirical matter which ultimately I think is what Scott was trying to get at i think. I don't really think it's difficult in every case to know what is a substance but again it all goes back to in what sense is it a unity, a form.

The example of the cell versus the robot is good in so far as the cell is self contained and has powers naturally via it's own nature (sorry but the sentence does make sense and is not superfluous to use nature in two senses). The cell moves from within to without so to speak, it just has the ability to reproduce and so forth of it's coming in to being naturally whereas a robot has it's powers coming from being assembled from without by a secondary intelligence i.e. bits of metal don't all decide one day to combine to make a robot and have inherent powers that a secondary intelligence didn't place there.

Correct me if I am wrong on any details or have been less than careful in my use of language.

MookVanguard said...

If a robot were to reproduce itself and maintain itself of its own accord, I would not hesitate to call it a substance, but if it's just running a program its actions seem to be directly caused by the programmer.

Irish Thomist said...

@MookVanguard

I had thought of that but I disagree unless the robot were to have causal powers that were 'natural' so to speak.

I suppose there are limits to language here but bear with me as I try to explain.

The robot still would be an artifact even if it was built by another artifact and programmed by it. The causal chain is temporal and traces its way back to a secondary intelligence and not from powers that were a manifestation of the coming together of natural potencies through natural events.

There is a lot I could say but I'm hoping others might add their opinions after this.

Of course I am not saying that a robot of some kind could not be a substance but just not as we understand 'robot' with our current technology. I mean if we build (as a thought experiment) 'dna' robots then it would be hard to argue that they have not acquired a power and a potential that is not altogether 'natural' and in this unity that gives to them their powers and formal nature we find a true substance (possibly).

Who knows I'm just having fun with the idea. Might be an interesting thing to work out.

Irish Thomist said...

...of course a 'dna' robot could mean several things, some of which are longer robots.

Irish Thomist said...

*no longer robots

Tony said...

Glenn, I have been ill. And too busy.

As I've said in a recent thread, I basically agree, but this doesn't seem to me to mean anything more than that we can be empirically mistaken about what inanimate "substances" do and don't have substantial forms. I think water and salt do, but if that turns out not to be the case, so what? What's riding on this question?

Actually, while I agree that we can be empirically mistaken about lower substances, I think it very important to distinguish that our PRIMARY conclusions in this area are driven by things for which we have a great deal more reasoned confidence. We really do know that alligators are a different kind of thing than lions or flies. We are in no doubt that an alligator answers to what we intend by "an individual thing", and that its organs (much less molecules or atoms) do not constitute a more rooted "thingness" than the alligator itself. The knowledge of the whatness of "alligator" being a difference sort of whatness from "lion" precedes our understanding of these in the terms of substance, nature, etc.

A second mistake is pointing to "water" as a substance, as if all water is a single substance. There is nothing wrong with saying all things water share in the like kind, "wateriness", without saying they are all the same individual substance.

And things that are instances of lesser kinds of beings will have lesser BEING to them, so that their distinctness will be less and less intelligible. It should not be surprising if at the lowest levels it is virtually impossible to clearly specify where we have "an individual substance".

Glenn said...

Tony,

May you be well (and not so busy it affects your health).

The Masked Chicken said...

Interesting philosophical discussion, but there are simpler reasons why plastics goes bad. One reason is that some plastics tend to lose their plasticity over time creating microfractures that change the way the substance intersects with light. Colors also degrade due to UV exposure,

Wood, by the way, may be considered a semi-plastic biopolymeric conglomerate of long chains of cellulose molecules (called celliobose), three different types of lignin, and hemicelluloses. There is nothing inherent in polymerization, either natural or man-made, that has to lend itself to ugliness. Steel is not natural, for example, but few accuse it of bring uglier than iron. Brass is not natural. Neither is bronze. That they are composed of naturally occurring substances is irrelevant. Soap is a type of polymer made of naturally occurring material and it can age well.

I am not a fan of plastics of the consumer variety because they are often cheaply made and shoddy, but if you want to start a fight among musical acousticians, suggest that plastic oboes and clarinets are not as good as their wood counter parts. Sometimes, the fault lies not in the substances, but ourselves (we could make good plastic instruments).

By the way,made, do you have a comic book collection?

The Chicken

Scott said...

@Tony:

I echo Glenn's wishes for your good health.

"I think it very important to distinguish that our PRIMARY conclusions in this area are driven by things for which we have a great deal more reasoned confidence."

Good point, and I agree. As Brandon has noted, this is exactly why I've kept pointing out that the real empirical uncertainties involve inanimate nature, not animate substances like alligators and flies.

"A second mistake is pointing to 'water' as a substance, as if all water is a single substance. There is nothing wrong with saying all things water share in the like kind, 'wateriness', without saying they are all the same individual substance."

That's a very helpful observation.

"And things that are instances of lesser kinds of beings will have lesser BEING to them, so that their distinctness will be less and less intelligible. It should not be surprising if at the lowest levels it is virtually impossible to clearly specify where we have 'an individual substance'."

And so is that.

Irish Thomist said...

@Scott & Tony

I concur with all you just said in the last comment including wishing Tony well.

Although as you can see I don't share exactly the standard line.

http://irishthomist.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/virtual-reality.html

Would be curious as to what your thoughts are. At least in terms of better articulating my point even if one takes another stance - but hopefully people will see what I am getting at.

The Masked chicken is also right - polymers do exist in nature in different forms (everyday sense of the word). I had posted a link early in this thread I think?

Anonymous said...

So, what do philosophers dream about when asleep.....? Pretty wild stuff. It is like the old math professor ( a Jesuite of course ) who reduced house numbers to prime numbers on his daily walks - perhaps in his dreams too.

Linus2nd

Irish Thomist said...

@Linus2nd

Being haunted by a disinformed act of existence.... *shudders*

MookVanguard said...

@Irish

I see what you are getting at. What I mean by "robot" is something that intrinsically does not depend on its prpgramming to replicate itself. An "analog" construction, in a sense. You're right that it probably would not fit the bill of "robot" by modern standards.

Matthew McCormack said...

"The causal chain is temporal and traces its way back to a secondary intelligence and not from powers that were a manifestation of the coming together of natural potencies through natural events."

Suppose some far away civilization millions of years ago on a planet where life is based on Silicon designed a cell based on Carbon knowing there were places in the universe that could support carbon-based life, put them on 50 rockets and randomly shot them into outer space. One of them hitting planet Earth, releasing the cells of which all life then evolved from.

Is all life an artifact ? Is it just the original cells ?

Mook Vanguard said...

@matt

I think that since DNA encodes itself, in the sense that the proteins that interpret DNA are encoded by the DNA itself, then life as we know it is a substance regardless of its origins, whether natural or artificial. The difference between this example and a programmable robot is that the robot needs to be programmed to reproduce, while a cell cannot avoid reproducing--it's in its very nature.

Matthew McCormack said...

"The robot needs to be programmed to reproduce."

This is also true of all living things. They are led by desires arising from their neurobiological wiring, in the case of higher organisms, to engage in behaviors that result in reproduction. Even for more simpler organisms, if they are not programmed, then how do they continue to reproduce ?

But the early cell was also programmed to reproduce. As evidence for this: it did not always exist, it has no mind of its own, it reproduces.

The method of programming is different between cell and robot, but is this there a real distinction in this difference ?

Irish Thomist said...

@Matthew and Mook


" life as we know it is a substance regardless of its origins, whether natural or artificial"

Mook V. summed up what I was getting at there I think.

The method of programming is different between cell and robot, but is this there a real distinction in this difference ?

The natural potencies built in to the order of the universe - that the type of natural substance we call life would come to be. Robots as I say, as we know them today, would never be assembled from a 'natural' potency. A secondary intelligence puts it there. It isn't an essence or form in and of itself which Gos is holding in being but just a collection of pieces in an artifact.

Anonymous said...

Thomist: Non-musical Socrates becomes musical Socrates. Explain.

Atomist: Well neurons made of...

Thomist: No I meant how does a philosopher learn how to sing? The thing is incredible!

Alexander R Pruss said...

Vintage Macintosh computers look pretty good, even with the plastic discolored with age. I used to own a Mac Plus and Classic II (at a time at which they were already somewhat of a vintage item).

We have a 1950's bakelite ViewMaster set that used to belong to my grandparents and I think the vintage bakelite looks pretty cool.

Irish Thomist said...

@Alexander R Pruss

Older heavy textured plastic does have a nice feel and look sometimes. With this I can relate.