Throwing Down the Gauntlet on the Hard Problem of Consciousness (3): The Physics of Natural Philosophy

In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle had delineated four causes—material, efficient, formal, and final—which he believed together could encompass the necessary conditions for a given phenomenon.* Evidently, “cause” in this sense transcends the common usage of that term, which today refers only to the efficient one in Aristotle’s more comprehensive conception. In this respect, Aristotle’s causes might be thought of as the four “becauses.” To illustrate Aristotle’s notion of causality, we may imagine the very chandelier that, in the autumn of 1602, sparked Galileo’s insight into the laws of isochronous motion of a pendulum. The object’s material cause (causa materialis, or ΰλη) is precisely the matter “out of which” the thing is made. For simplicity’s sake we can say it is bronze and glass. The efficient cause (causa movens, or κινήσεως) appears as the force “by which” a thing comes to be. Alternatively, it could be understood as the necessary change in order to impress the realisation of the formal cause (causa formalis, or είδος) into the material one. Bacon denied that the former were more than “figments of the human mind,” as we noted in the quotation from the last section, and the spectre of his denial at the beginning of the modern period still haunts the science and philosophy of its end. Returning to our illustration of the efficient cause, we can include the craftsman’s technique, or skilled application of force, as well as the furnace or kiln that was enlisted to liquify the materials in preparation for their moulding in this principle. With the material and efficient causes, we have concluded our survey of that which Bacon set forth as the scope of scientific inquiry.

In delimiting the domain of natural science in this manner, Bacon openly excluded formal and final causality from its scope. A brief consideration of these causes will reveal the relevance of their exclusion to the phylogeny of the hard problem of consciousness, as well as many other domains of knowledge today (Most notably, biology, which in its peremptory exclusion of teleology from its theories, establishes itself as a study of life (bios) without the principle of life (i.e. teleology, or immanent causation) and thus a contradiction in terms. ). Taking up again our example of Galileo’s swinging body, which happened to be a chandelier, the formal cause (causa formalis, idea, or είδος) is the quiddity of chandelierness which makes it an actual chandelier instead of a potential one (i.e. mere glass and bronze), or something else brazen and glassy altogether. Aristotle describes the formal cause in Metaphysics when he explains that “by form (είδος) I mean the being of each thing, its primary reality.”**

One way to understand the perspective of modern thinkers in the tradition of Bacon and Galileo is to recognise the manner in which they invert, and even controvert, the view of Plato and Aristotle. Where the latter conceive of matter as a container (or vessel, or vehicle, or medium, etc…) for form as the content or the reality, since the time of the scientific revolution, it is more common to see this situation reversed. Thus, the contemporary standard is to conceive of matter, not form, as the content or “being of each thing, its primary reality,” and form as something less real, like an epiphenomenon of material configuration (which is a common conception of mind in relation to brain activity). For this reason, it is generally assumed that nature will be understood through an analysis or anatomisation of matter. In respect to the subject of this investigation, this way of thinking leads as a matter of course to the expectation that the mind will be understood by an analysis of the brain and brain activity.

To recapitulate the classical notion of causality: the material cause is that “out of which” a thing comes to be, the efficient cause is that “by which” it comes to be, and the formal cause is that “which” comes to be. In this application, the formal cause is the design, or the intelligence that informs the application of the material and efficient causes. It is also the idea, pattern, paradigm, or intelligible form (Platonic είδος) that allows any intellect to recognise the thing as just that thing which it is and not some other thing that it is not. Thus formal cause is also the ground of logic, since the laws of non-contradiction, self-identity, and excluded middle are implicit in a thing’s intelligibility. The formal cause, therefore, possesses the power both to actualise its being in matter and in mind (i.e. the intellect of the percipient). While only the craftsman possess the material and efficiency to render the form substantially, thereby actualising it in matter, anyone who recognises the chandelier as such participates the formal cause with his intellection, thereby actualising it in mind.

Lastly, the final cause (causa finalis, or τέλος) is that “for which” a thing tends, as an acorn tends towards and oak, or that “for which” a thing is made, like a bell for ringing or a chandelier for swinging. In living things, formal, final, and efficient causes are nearly identical and they are immanent to the entity in question. For instance, the acorn grows into the oak by a design, goal, and power, which are inherent to it as an acorn. Artefacts, by contrast, depend on an outside agent to impart the formal and final causes into the material cause by means of the efficient one. Thus, planks and beams depend on a carpenter if they are to become a table. For Aristotle, while metaphysics or first philosophy was the study of being qua being (το ὂν ἢ ὀν), physics, from the Greek φύσις (physis), was the study of beings, in their generation, motion, and corruption. ***

A philological method will provide for a closer approach to the Ancient Greek conception of nature than will a purely conceptual one, since the latter will almost inevitably allow for projection of modern modes of interpretation onto ancient structures of consciousness. The word φύσις, from which “physics” is derived, is a verbal noun based on φύω (phye) “to grow, to emerge, to be born, to appear” and it is cognate with English “to be.” In fact, physis is related to genesis both semantically and syntactically, since both are process-nouns, originally condensed from verb stems. This is to say that they indicate conceptual reifications of ongoing events. Thus, physis originally meant something like “becoming,” or “being” as a present participle. This meaning retained some of its vigour in its Latin translation as “natura,” which also relates to being born. Indeed “nature” is a cognate with “natal” and “nativity.” If we consider this connection together with that between materia and mater, whose English cognates are “matter,” and “mother,”**** respectively, we can reach an intimation of the vernal world which pre-modern people inhabited and from which our autumnal world of res extensa gradually precipitated like salt-crystals from solution. Indeed the etymologies still retain vestiges of the past, which can be deciphered in a manner akin to the archaeologist interpreting a fossil record. Modern thinkers invented the concept of “nature,” in its modern sense. The closest equivalent for classical and medieval thinkers was physis or natura on the one hand, and ousia or esse on the other. Nearly all ancient and traditional cosmologies conceived of the earth as the mother goddess. Hesiod, for instance, writes in the Theogony:

And Earth (Γαῖα “Gaia”) first bore starry Heaven (Οὐρανός “Uranus”), equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long hills, graceful haunts of the goddess Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills, etc…

The scientific revolution and thence the birth of modern science was inaugurated when the likes of Bacon and Galileo began to conceptualise nature not as a goddess and also not as an organism, but as an artefact whose form, motion, and creative principle were imposed, as laws, from an intelligence outside of it. We might even say that natural science emerged when the vehicle of φυσις (physis) was interpolated with the tenor of νόμος (nomos, “law”); their meanings substituted in the same manner that one might swap book jackets between Hesiod’s Theogony and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Newton articulated the spirit of early modern scientific thinking in the “General Scholium” from the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica 1729 edition:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being…This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called “Lord God” παντοκρατωρ or “Universal Ruler.”*****

When Newton writes that “this Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world,” he is explicitly rejecting the conception of Aristotelian physics, for which the soul of a body indwellt it as its form and nature, as well as the Platonic conception of “the world soul…crucified on the world body in the form of an ‘X,’” not to mention a mythological account in the manner of Hesiod’s Theogony. The distinction of Newton’s physics from Aristotle’s is tantamount to the constitutive difference between conceiving of the world as mechanism and conceiving of it as an organism. The scientific revolution proceeded first with the methodological separation of the immaterial aspect from the material one, which conception Newton so expressively articulated in the quote above. The governing principles were then conceptualised not as natura naturans or “nature naturing,” or working from within nature as nature, but as natural as laws (νόμοι), which work upon nature from without and she is thus not working but wrought, or natura naturata. Both “law” and “governing principle,” however, are being employed metaphorically, since the matter that such laws are said to govern is not conceived of in the manner of a citizen, which might either oblige or transgress the said law. Instead, nature is conceived of as a mechanism in the sense that she is stripped of immanent formal and final cause. It follows, furthermore, from the definition of “the laws of physics” that nothing breaks them. This is consistent with the mechanistic metaphor. Given, however, that “law” is being employed to refer to the operative patterns of a machine that the scientist who describes the law did not construct, it must be emphasised that the term is being used equivocally, or analogously, and not univocally in respect to the common usage of that term. In the political and legal context, law is a rule that citizens can break but ought not to. Because this is contrary to the definition of “law of physics,” however, “law” in the latter case does not mean the same thing. It must mean something close to “an abstract formula induced from concrete events which it intends to describe:” the law supervenes on the events. In the former case, the events may be said to supervene on the law in the loose sense that it exerts a strong influence on the conduct of citizens. For the reason that natural law is different from positive law, once the concept of causation has been stripped of its Aristotelian valences, it is incorrect to suppose that Newton’s laws cause anything to happen. The things happen whether or not the law is known or legislated. One should rather say, therefore, that the events cause the law, since an abstraction is always an induction from, and winnowing of, concrete events. Though such a statement would stretch the narrow modern meaning of “cause,” the claim would nevertheless be more accurate than its converse. In the introduction to the 1713 edition of Principia, he stated very plainly:

I have not yet been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena and I feign no hypotheses (hypothesis non fingo!)

Newton, therefore, (despite that ulterior motives on his part seemed to have provoked conflicting accounts)****** revealed that he was keenly aware of the fact that he had not explained universal gravitation, but only postulated its existence to describe the behaviour of physical bodies in mathematical ratios.

If we return to the general contrast between Aristotelian and modern physics beginning with Bacon, we can see that the latter’s methodological rejection of formal causes was inherited by the next generation as a metaphysical one. As a consequence, the immaterial aspect of things was increasingly denied altogether. Before we consider the implications of this development in respect to the hard problem of consciousness as it confronts us today, however, there remains a great deal to be explored in respect to the relevance of the scientific revolution to these questions. Specifically, we will seek to understand the new conception of the world of nature—as Bacon enunciated and Newton epitomised—as matter bereft of form.

*The following is a gloss on Aristotle’s texts, especially Nichomachean Ethics, Da Caelo, Physics, and Metaphysics, the understanding of which I am greatly indebted to Latin translations and commentaries by Thomas Aquinas, which various scholars have also translated into English. To triangulate the meaning of a difficult passage between three languages is of immense assistance.

** “εἶδος δὲ λέγω τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι ἑκάστου καὶ τὴν πρώτην οὐσίαν (Meta. 1032b)). (my own laborious translation) On a sidenote, Aristotle is often set against Plato, who was his teacher for thirty years. Diogenes Laërtius even when so far, in Lives of the Philosophers, as to compare Aristotle to the foal that kicked its mother after Aristotle founded his own school alongside Plato’s academy. Diogenes, however, is more of a gossip than a bona fide historian and thus we ought not to value his testimony for more than it is worth. One cannot help but suspect that the persistence of this stereotype today is largely a consequence of the unfortunate habit of translators to render the same term differently. In the quote above, however, Aristotle makes it abundantly clear that the essence of a thing is just its form, while the matter of that thing is akin to a container of it. This is manifestly analogous to Plato’s image of the Receptacle (χώρα chóra) in the Timaeus, which is even likened to a mother, from which the Latin word materia is derived. Thus, Aristotle definitively establishes himself as a disciple of Plato, which he was. The classical scholar Lloyd Gerson phrased this in the most expressive manner:

Many scholars have noticed and argued for a Platonic influence in one or another of the texts of Aristotle. Not infrequently these interpretations are rejected for no other reason than that they ‘make Aristotle too much of a Platonist.’ But when a large number of such texts are put alongside each other, such protestations begin to seem hollow. At some point one might well begin to wonder whether perhaps the reason Aristotle appears to be a Platonist is that in fact he is one.”


From Aristotle and Other Platonists. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.

***Descartes expresses a similar conception in The Principles of Philosophy: “Thus, all Philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all the other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk.”

****In Latin the words “reason” and “reality” are both derived from “res”, which in Latin is “thing” or “object.” In effect, thinking and thinging are siblings. “Reification” reveals their kinship. Now, the golden key to the evolution of consciousness as recorded in language is to understand that the Greek “Rhea” (Wife of Time, called “Chronos”) or “rhei” ( “flow” or “flux”) is cognate with Latin “re,” but “rhei” means “flow” rather than “thing” (hence Heraclitus’s notorious “panta rhei”). As salt crystals precipitate out of solution, so nouns precipitate out of verbs, objects precipitate out of processes, and modern subject-object consciousness precipitates out of a spirit-matter solution in which ancient man still swam.

***** Interestingly, Newton’s notion of the cosmos under the dominion of the Universal Ruler might bear an important and to my knowledge unexplored relation to his affinity for Arianism, which subordinates the Second Person of the Trinity, the Χριστὸς Λóγος (“Christ the Logos”) to the First, to which Newton almost certainly refers with “παντοκρατωρ” or “Universal Ruler.”

For an excellent insight into the sometimes violent evolution of Newton’s own views, one cannot recommend highly enough Steffen Ducheyne’s “An editorial history of Newton’s regulae philosophandi.”

http://www.scielo.org.co/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0121-36282015000100009

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