Thursday 27 October 2011

Why I resisted fields and forms


Having recently become convinced by Rupert Sheldrake's ideas of morphic resonance made me wonder why or how I resisted their validity for so long.


I came across the ideas of morphic field from a lecture by Sheldrake in about 1986, then around five years later began to read about the branch of theoretical biology which focused on form - first in the historical writings of Timothy J Horder, then in Science as a Process by David L Hull - I realized this went back to Aristotle, via Goethe up to Conrad Waddington (the king-maker of British biology mid 20th century).

A few years after this, from about 1993, I read some popular accounts of chaos and complexity theory, with their field-like thinking in terms of strange attractors etc. - scientists such as Stuart Kauffman and Brian Goodwin

But I instinctively - and I think correctly - recognized that most of these thinkers evaded the fundamental questions of: 1. where these forms or fields came from (Did they evolve? Were forms 'just there'.); and 2. how we knew about them.

The material I read either evaded this question altogether, or else dealt with it so obscurely and inexplicitly that I never could discover anybody's real views. The argument boiled down to something like:

"Look, it's obvious, there are forms: see this, and this, and this - they all have the same form!"


Presumably forms were finite in number, but how could we discover the nature of a form or detect a field, how could an assertion be proved or disproved? And what were forms or fields made of?

The answer came when I encountered Thomas Aquinas for whom (I simplify, but then my own understanding is simplistic) the forms were in God, and we knew about them because such knowledge was put into us - built-into usby God.

This, of course, propels the whole discourse away from science and into theology, which most modern philosophers will not do. Nonetheless, it seems the only coherent answer to the question which stopped me from accepting forms and fields; and I think only someone who will accept this kind of answer can consistently proceed.

(Sheldrake also argues that forms can evolve - though I am unsure to what extent. Presumably the major and basic forms are finite and intrinsic to the universe (although not necessarily all actual or possible forms are active at any time or place), but new versions of old forms can evolve and strengthen e.g. by morphic resonance).


What emerged, for me, was the idea that forms are prior to all else, and they exert their effect on matter (or substance) by fields which organize the matter. The matter is stuff, the field is what shapes the stuff.

Before I began thinking in terms of fields as the main cause of things, then I had pretty much a 'billiard ball' model of causation, of one thing as causing another in long chains of cause and effect.

But now it seems to be obviously impossible to account for the regularities of the world in terms of such chains of cause and effect; because there are innumerable interacting chains of causation in the world, and each chain is exquisitely sensitive to the specifics of its initial event - such that imprecisions expand with each step in the chain or with distance from the cause - to become chaotic and/ or noise overwhelms the signal.


We could never make sense of the world (or so it now seems), could never predict or control things, if reality really was constituted from vast numbers of interacting causal chains.

Isolating, studying and understanding one specific linear causal pathway out of dozens which also interact is futile (looking for a needle in a haystack), yet studying them all would take too long and even if we did then how could we understand the vast possibilities for interaction including the interaction of imprecision and error?

Only if these multiple specific and interacting causal pathways are ordered by larger scale principles (fields) could we make sense of such overwhelming complexity and indeterminacy as the world present.

For the world to be understandable, predictable and controllable I therefore think that (if we insist on such meta-explanations - as apparently I do) we rationally need to assume a metaphysic which begins with form, where forms are finite (in principle), and where we ourselves begin with an inbuilt knowledge of (at least some) forms.


Sheldrake emphasizes that we understand the world (when we do understand it ) in nested hierarchies.

So we understand biology in terms of living things, the various families, order, species etc, individual organisms and their organs, cells and the cellular components.

But for such understanding to be more than detached factoids, the explanation must include (whether implicitly or explicitly) form, fields, or principles of organization which descend from the higher to lower levels.

Such forms are not detected, nor discovered, they are recognized.

Once recognized they can be used. If there has been an error, and a form falsely recognized and ascribed, then they imputed forms will not be very useful - will lead to internal contractions, failed predictions, inability to control.


And it seems that the different sciences, the different specialties, and sub-specialties within science, could never amount to anything ordered (anything comprehensible) unless they were in nested hierarchies of fields.

Lacking this, the different scientific disciplines or specialisms (such as the scores of branches of 'neuroscience' or 'brain science') are incommensurable, atomic factoids (as, in practice, they currently are).

So, instead of merely accumulating findings ad infinitum, science needs to proceed in a theoretically-informed fashion, recognizing that facts are worthless unless organized by form: form structuring fact-finding, facts and what count as facts.


At present, as anyone who works in theoretical branches of biology knows, none of this discussion has any traction - because what counts as 'science' is the bureaucratic process of allocating resources and conferring esteem markers for 'doing' stuff (=employing people and running machines).

But the analysis helps clarify why in - say - neuroscience, decades of international activity on an unprecedented scale has led nowhere (nowhere in terms of scientific understanding, nor indeed of medical breakthroughs - although of course there have been hundreds of thousands of careers built on it).

But to enter this arena and to have this discussion entails stepping outside of 'science' and into metaphysics - into discussing the nature of reality, the nature of science and of the human condition, and from these and the evaluation of science as a human activity.

Yet modern man, especially modern scientists, think (or think they think) that there is nothing outside of science, because they that science fills the whole world - supreme, subordinate-to (or structured-by) nothing else.

Hence un-critiqueable.


(Or, at least, that is what they say when pushed.

(In practice, of course, 'science' is merely professional research subordinated to Leftism, to political correctness; and practiced only within the envelope of careers which means bureaucratic constraint. In practice, nobody (well, hardly anybody) cares a jot for 'science' when it comes into conflict with professional research careerism. Because where peer review is the bottom line, as it certainly is now, then 'science' is nothing more nor less than what professional researchers say it is.

(But I am talking here about real science.)


The excitement of a perspective based on form and fields is therefore that of a wholly different concept of what it is to understand. A move away from the endless business of accumulating empirical data and a clarification of the kind of thing that we should be trying to do - the kind of understanding (the kind of theory) we should be seeking when (in biology) we try to understand the brain, or development, or genetics.

The metaphysics of science has no direct impact on the specifics of science (which is how people get away with ignoring it for long periods); but it is vital for ordering of the whole process of evaluating what counts as the specifics of science, and what to do with specifics if or when you have them.



Kristor said...

Without forms, there is no theory, but rather only an ever-growing body of facts – only natural history, raw data that has not been processed, but rather only collected. When scientists begin to understand the patterns and regularities that to their patient contemplation become apparent in the raw data, and to develop a series of equations that seem to describe them, they have begun to build a *formalization* of the data. They have begun, that is, to discover and express in mathematical terms the *form* of the data, the form of the phenomena under consideration.

The really strange thing about forms, so far as I am concerned, is the fact that some of them are attractive. Physical systems seek to realize them; this is the whole meaning of cybernetic homeostasis and the statistical reversion to the mean. It is seen also in physics, with. e.g., the Pauli Exclusion Principle, or for that matter the conservation laws. That matter seeks out these arrangements, that these arrangements are thermodynamically stable, that they are equilibria, regularities of nature, is deeply spooky. We take it for granted because it is everywhere in the world; but it needn't be so. Which is to say, there needn't be a causal *order,* i.e., a world, at all.

This attractiveness of certain forms comes from – where? It is expressed in Aristotelico-Thomistic metaphysics as final causation: the tendency, the nisus, the urge, of a given state of affairs toward the production of a certain form at some point in the future. Urge, erg, work, ergo: all the same word, at root. Things want to be a certain way, that is typified by justice, or harmony, or krasis, as the Greeks variously expressed the same notion; or as the Hebrews thought of it, righteousness, tsedeq.

It is only a step to infer that physical transactions are without exception transmissions of information - of form - from one event, and about that event, to another. But information is intensional; it is always about something other than itself. It is, that is to say, a sign, and a signal; so that physical transactions are more like accepted proposals or answered prayers than they are like one dead thing bonking into another.

Whitehead added that the forms are attractive because they are beautiful, absolutely beautiful, beautiful as such. I.e., their beauty is an aspect of their essential nature. It is given necessarily, along with what they are, and by definition. I.e., it is eternal.

This is why he, and Augustine and Plato, referred the beauty of the Forms to the Form of the Forms, from which they all derive; which is the Form of the Good – to God. Certain Forms are beautiful and attractive to creatures because God from all eternity finds them beautiful and attractive, and would that they were realized concretely. So that, when we experience the sublimely beautiful, we experience a bit of what God experiences. And, also, so that when creatures actualize a form, they are accepting God’s proposal (at least in part, and even if only poorly, or disagreeably). The pattern evident in matter, then, derives in the first instance from the Pater.

As Professor Digory said in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: "What are they teaching in the schools these days? It's all in Plato; it's all right there in Plato."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - thanks for that excellent comment.

Given the attractiveness of the forms, the fact they are so widely and systematically violated is indirect evidence of *purposive* evil at work, it seems to me.

Because accidental or random-error violation of the forms would be self-correcting - due to regression to the mean and other phenomena you mention - therefore that there is no regression to the mean over time or generations implies that there is a force maintaining, and increasing, deviation from the mean.

This in turn suggests to me deviant 'forms' - which are presumably partial and/or distorted true-forms (i.e. with some good in them, but unbalanced) - which might stand as a definition of evil.

These deviant forms are (presumably) maintained and amplified by morphic resonance, which is fuelled (and the process would need plenty of fuel) by something akin to 'demonic energy' - a force which is motivated to distortion and disruption of natural forms.

Matias said...

In my field of work, jurisprudence, it is hard to make sense of what most academic lawyers are saying, because there is no structured metaphysical theory of law.

Jurisprudence in the West was birn when the medieval scholars started to study ancient Roman lawyers and recognized the forms (person, property, contract etc.) that they used in legal reasoning. The understanding of such a finite number of legal forms was continued in various modern theories of "natural law" until the 19th century, although the number and status of these forms was debated. One Adolf Reinach had written a good account of the finite number of legal forms and their metaphysical status in the early 20th century. Unfortunately he was killed in the Great War.

In the 20th century, discussion of metaphysical questions has generally been avoided in jurisprudence. The theory of legal positivism stated that the democratically elected parliaments or common law judges can create new rules in whichever forms they like. This corrupted traditional jurisprudence, and now the only theory is deconstruction of law: which means accepting chaos. Basically jurisprudence nowadays is political advocacy or justification of political decisions post factum. Non-political jurisprudence would mean accumulating data on various laws and decisions.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Matias - That is a very interesting and important point, which I had not previously considered.

Modern Law (especially as influenced by the European Union) is actually a kind of anti-Law: it has retained its aspiration for coherence and non-self-contradiction but only achieves this by introducing fundamentally vague and arbitrarily-enforced subjectivity at key nodal points: such as 'hate' laws, the idea of 'offense' and radically-confused notions of 'equity'.

We have the worst of the two basic systems of justice - the old medieval idea of judging people by their reputation and the later medieval idea of procedural justice.

We now have the impersonality and incompleteness of procedural Law to the nth degree (vast numbers of detailed laws); combined with an inversion of judgment by reputation: so that we are more concerned to avoid incorrectly punishing a bad person for something they may not have done; than to avoid punishing a good person for a non-wicked procedural transgression.

And we have indeed inverted the categories of good and bad persons (in order to avoid 'prejudice).

Anonymous said...

I encountered Thomas Aquinas for whom (I simplify, but then my own understanding is simplistic) the forms were in God, and we knew about them because such knowledge was put into us - built-into us - by God.

For the world to be understandable, predictable and controllable I therefore think that (if we insist on such meta-explanations - as apparently I do) we rationally need to assume a metaphysic which begins with form, where forms are finite (in principle), and where we ourselves begin with an inbuilt knowledge of (at least some) forms.

Why waste words?
Geometry existed before the Creation, is co-eternal with the mind of God, is God Himself (What exists in God that is not God Himself?).

Geometry provided God with a model for the Creation, and was implanted into man together with God's own likeness, and not merely conveyed to his mind through the eyes.


Bruce Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristor said...

That quote of Kepler's is pure Augustinian theology. It was the default operating basic assumption of all thought until the 18th century.

Bruce Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristor said...

When Kepler speaks of geometry, he refers to the Pythagorean/Babylonian music of the spheres, the numerical order and harmony that men through most of history saw governing nature both above and below. It is coterminous with the Stoic/Judeo-Christian Logos Judeo-Christian in that John and Philo, both orthodox Jews, used the Greek Logos to refer to the second Person of the Trinity – they both recognized that the Stoic Logos was YHWH. It is the Tao: when the Jesuits were translating the Bible into Mandarin, they translated “Logos” as “Tao” (doubly apt for the Person Jesus described as the Way; the Tao is the Way of Heaven). Note finally that the music of the spheres is sung by the Heavenly Host; the spheres are embodiments of angels. “Sabaoth” means “Cosmos,” and both those terms mean “Host arrayed as for battle.” So the Logos is the Order of Heaven as well as of Earth.

When Kepler says that geometry is co-eternal with God, then, all he is saying is that the Logos is co-eternal with the Father. When he asks, “What exists in God that is not God Himself?,” he asserts the consubstantiality of the Father and His Son, the Logos. Whatever is true of an eternal being is by definition true eternally. Kepler is expressing monotheism.

When he says that geometry provided God with a model for the Creation, he simply rehearses the ancient doctrine that creation is the image of God, or as Plato had it, the moving image of eternity. Because God is the only eternal being, there can be no other being than He that could have operated for Him as a model for His creation. Everything other than God, then, follows upon Him (in every sense of “follows”). Thus is Man – and by extension the whole world that produced him, that forms the proscenium of his existence, and of which he is an integral part – made in the image of God. This is all to say that the forms of things are derived from the aboriginal instantiation of the Forms in God.

All the Forms, then, are present implicitly in everything that exists; for each Form is logically related to all the others (if only by negation: giraffe = ~~ giraffe (so that the explicit expression of the form of the Giraffe in a given actual giraffe = the explicit non-expression of all non-Giraffe Forms = the implicit expression of all non-Giraffe Forms)), so that if we express one of them, we may work our way thence to any other, stepwise. This is how the whole domain of the Forms is made available to our introspection. It is how we are able to recognize them in our sensorium. It is how we are able to reason our way through maths; is how Socrates could elicit from the untutored boy an explicit, precise statement of arcane geometrical truths that had always been apparent to his inherent unconscious apprehension, as aspects of his very being. And this is how the Forms are made available to a new occasion of becoming, so that they may inform it and guide it in the way that it ought to go; it is how morphic fields are present to operate on events that are widely separated in space and time (and evolutionary history – the omnipresence in nature of the formal notion of vision (and, ipso facto, of the potentiality of becoming oneself a seeing thing) accounts for the independent invention of vision by several diverse branches of the morphological tree)(NB: “in-vention” = “in-Spiriting”)(it should also be noted in this connection that with each new moment of a seeing animal’s existential career, that animal re-invents vision, along with every other formal aspect of its substance; continuity is just reiterated quanta of actualization of the same forms). Every concrete recurrence of a Form, then, is an instance of anamnesis.

Dirichlet said...

Isn't it ironic that the modern mind, being extremely formal, cannot think about the nature of the forms?

I used to resist metaphysics like a child who is afraid of the cooties. My modern prejudices made me think that the forms were some kind of "spook" stuff that we cannot see, and I couldn't really understand what the Greeks were trying to get at when they insisted in their existence. The forms seemed unnecessary to me.

The Thomists, with their Aristotelian realism, helped me a lot. Now it is obvious to me that Aristotle's system has been butchered by modern philosophers without any regard for the consequences. Their thorough abuse of Ockham's razor has left us with an inadequate understanding of the metaphysical.

It turns out that, in his Metaphysics, Aristotle was applying an anti-razor: he kept adding one cause at a time until he found out that four (material, efficient, formal and final) were sufficient to maintain a consistent and complete explanation. He was not looking for the minimum, but for the necessary number of entities.

Materialists like to say that their system is the one closest to reality and empiricism, since all that we can experience with our senses is matter. One problem is that their definition of "matter" is not the same one that the Greeks had in mind. Their "matter" is, in fact, a matter-form composite, since they consider the way that objects are structured as parts of their "material" manifestations. That's essentially what physics studies.

But material and formal causes are not enough, unless we accept Platonic realism with all of its problems. Aristotle's extensions, which followed from his rejection of part of Plato's thought, are just right and necessary.

My current opinion is that Aristotle and his successors were the real empiricists and "materialists," since they followed the argument wherever it led to. Even Aquinas said that whatever is in our intellect must have previously been in the senses. These guys, if they were alive today, would put our modern tough-minded empiricists and materialists to shame!

Dirichlet said...

Something else: I have never heard of Sheldrake's metaphysics before. However, I have read some stuff on the work of Saul Kripke and his "New Scientific Essentialism," which is very Aristotelian.

Anonymous said...

@Kristor, Dirichlet: You should start blogs about these themes.

To quote one of my favorite egotists:

Philosophy is written in that great book which is ever before our eyes - I mean the universe - but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written.
The book is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it - without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.