Thursday, January 01, 2009

Word of the day: Hylomorphism

Today I learned a new word: hylomorphism. Okay, it's not a new word, just new to me, but encompasses a range of philosophical topics much discussed on the Daily Duck in the past: Platonism, Realism, Nominalism.

I came across the word in this discussion thread from Secular Right:
Another way of putting it is that matter is the principle of extension and form is the principle of order. All things require both extension and order to exist within spacetime. The materialist takes order (form) as a given to declare that extension (matter) is all that we need to understand. It rather like pointing to a pile of building materials while ignoring the need for a blueprint to explain how a house comes into being.

To wrap up, I will note that the hylomorphist is not necessarily a theist. However, hylomorphism, by allowing for form, does subscribe to the idea that entities and processes superior to nature do exist.

I think that the ToE has dispensed with the quaint notion of the need for "blueprints" for explaining seemingly purposive forms. The forms that matter can take are inherent in the properties of matter. Matter self-assembles itself into various forms - stars, raindrops, rivers, organisms, etc. There is no need to invoke some alternate entity to explain the process of aggregation of matter into forms.

Form is really nothing more than a mental category for classifying perceived objects. The problem arises when we attribute "thingness" to these mental abstractions. My car exists, my neighbor's car exists, but "car" has no existence. Only cars exist.

My take on much of Western philosophy, including Christianity is that it is mostly a futile attempt to impart "thingness" to non-things, which is a surprisingly materialistic notion for a class of thinkers that tries its hardest to eschew materialist explanations. The very notion of existence applies a notion of "thingness" that derives from the perceptual experience of material things. It seems to me oxymoronic to refer to the existence of the immaterial.

Our minds cannot escape materialism. All of our cognitive building blocks are built upon experiences of material existence. One cannot even think of alternative forms of existence without invoking materialist metaphors. Alternatives to materialism really aren't driven, I believe, by a need to find a more intellectualy coherent explanation for the world. Anti-materialism is an aesthetic judgment on the universe. Ultimately people don't really like the universe as it is, and would prefer to live in another. The notion of a perfect world of forms provides a more aesthetically acceptable alternative to the universe that we experience. But there is really no logical necessity to invoke forms as an explanation for things. It is only logically necessary given the presupposition that the universe is not what it should be.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The stack of materials before it is made into a house also has a form -- of a stack -- but nobody draws blueprints for a stack of lumber.

January 01, 2009 5:23 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

"nobody draws blueprints for a stack of lumber"

You've obviously never met an operational theorist.

I must also disagree that "car" doesn't exist. I will refer to my mythical post on the subject, but "car" exists, just not in the same way as an instance of "car". The mistake of post-modernism is to conflate these two types of existence, but it's just as much of a mistake to deny the former. After all, the existence of an instance of "car" is only at a particular level of reality. One can take a more reductionist view and not see a car at all, but merely a collection of parts held together by molecular attraction. Or just a subset of the local quantum wave forms.

January 02, 2009 5:22 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

SH, you have to define what "existence" means. What do you mean when you say that car "exists"? Where and how does it exist. Where is it in time and space? Does "car" include a spare tire or not? Is "car" a convertible or hardtop?

January 02, 2009 7:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

If we can recognize a particular instance of "car" as a member of the group, then "car" as a category exists.

January 03, 2009 8:15 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

This is starting to sound like an Object Oriented Programming seminar.

January 03, 2009 9:44 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


The category of car is just an idea. You can create thousands of categories in which to put your car, like the category of metal objects, or red objects, or things that have cost you more than $10,000. We can say that ideas "exist", but it makes no sense to say that they exist independently of physical reality, or that the categories have to exist apriori to the objects in them. Did the inventor of the car (whoever it was) need to identify the category of objects that a future person named David Cohen would spend more than $10,000 for before he could create the first car?

January 03, 2009 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Duck, lay off David. He believes in the idea of "cars" because he doesn't really like the universe as it is and would prefer to live in another. The category of cars provides him with a more aesthetically acceptable alternative, notably 0-60 in under three seconds and an endless stream of foxy babes in the passenger seat beside him. Surely you don't begrudge us hylomorphics our fanatsies?

January 03, 2009 3:29 PM  
Blogger David said...

So you think that ideas don't exist?

January 03, 2009 3:53 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

David, read my comment more closely. Ideas exist, but not separately from the matter and energy of the beings that have them. There is no airy realm of ideas floating about waiting for people to think them. That is where I part with the hylomorphs.

January 03, 2009 5:14 PM  

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