Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2011

Cosmonomy II – Stuff

Quick review: in previous posts, I talked about cosmonomy, the study of the little pictures/models of the cosmos we all carry around inside our heads. I reflected on ontology (the study of what exists) and commented on how that’s a complex question because it deals with the set of things that might be represented, the set of things we care to represent, and the set of things it is possible to represent in our model. We started with the idea of a field (the set of things in our cosm, likened to the board for a board game, the canvas for a picture, and the plot line of a story. Fields may be subdivided into regions, with different types of objects or different general rules in each.

How are cosms filled? As usual we have the immediate question – what types of pieces are there? You might look at a chess board and say it has 6 types of pieces: Kings, Queens, Bishops, Knights, Rooks, and Pawns; each in one of two colors. You can also ask meta-level questions – what constraints do pieces have? For instance, a chess board will not meaningfully allow a piece that covers more than one square. The two types of question seem intimately related. You can only make pieces within the parameters or rules of your field. Thus a canvas only admits of paint – it won’t take fruit or pushpins or chess pieces. That would be to add another dimension to your cosm, which you can do, but you must admit that you’re doing it. The field expands beyond a canvas, to a three dimensional space in which the canvas rests. Likewise, a story admits of characters and events. An object that does not effect the character or the sequence of events has no place.

It seems particularly important to me that we recognize this connection between fields and objects. They might appear at first to be independent, but one affects (and effects) the other. Introducing a new type of object may radically alter the rules of the field.

Let us look at a couple examples. For Plato, there were two regions, the field of ideas that exist eternally and the world of appearances. For Plato the world of appearances mapped perfectly onto the world of ideas, such that appearances were only imperfect reflections of ideas. This kind of thinking leads us to categorize (illusory) experiences in terms of the (real) objects to which they point.

Aristotle on the other hand, believed that real objects were compounds of form and matter, such that every thing in existence had both a physicality and structure/end/content. His cosm had only one region, but in it lay complex objects. No form without matter, no matter without form.

We’ve gotten into trouble through the ages by confusing Plato and Aristotle. Plato was a monist; he thought there was only one fundamental kind of thing – ideas. Aristotle was a complementarian – each thing had two components, matter and form – but he also expressed an idea that each thing had a substance, an underlying itness. Alas, Aristotle never resolved whether form or matter was more fundamental, more substantial. We usually apply Plato’s monism – it must be one or the other – to Aristotle’s distinction, leaving us monist materialists or monist “form”-ists (idealists). This puts us out of touch with both thinkers.

For centuries this led Western thinkers to posit two regions of the cosmos: the heavens – perfect, ideal, and incorruptible – and the sublunary sphere (below the earth) – imperfect, observable, and ever changing. Ideas ruled the heavens and matter the earth. The two kinds of objects were considered fundamentally different until the seventeenth century, when Galileo and others decided that heavenly objects must obey earthly rules. This was one of the great triumphs of science because it extended empirical reasoning (learning from observation of particular entities) into the heavens. Previously, abstract philosophy and math were considered better tools for understanding the stars. Galileo collapsed two regions into one.

Notably, Galileo’s simplification changed both the field (two regions into one) and the objects in people’s cosms. The marker/symbol of “planet” remained the same, but the meaning changed radically. It no longer conveyed a perfect sphere, traveling in perfect circle in a crystalline sphere (all abstract perfections) and started to convey a lump of matter zipping through space around the sun. Still later, the marker planet would change again to represent a ball of rock and gas held together by gravity and moved along by gravity and momentum.

Do the three concepts of planet represent three different kinds of markers, or just the evolution of a single symbol? It’s hard to tell. The name stayed the same and it seems likely that all three meanings attempt to explain the same experience of seeing a pinprick of light moving against a field of stars. The phenomena (the appearances) remain the same, but the cosm changes radically.

We tend to think that everything should work this way. Planets are real things right? Planets are what I would call a natural category. Leaving aside the difference between Planets and lesser planets (and the demotion of Pluto), there seem to be actual heaps of matter in space. Anyone could see that they are separate objects right? Perhaps.

The real question rests heavily on definitions. If matter is the most important attribute, the substance even, of things, then of course, we would differentiate based on matter. But consider the perspective before Galileo. Jupiter and its moons were a single point of light in the sky; telescopes were much less accurate. If your idea of planet is a wandering point of light, you could never differentiate between Jupiter, Io, Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede. They are all the same thing. Their position in the sky was important for navigation (and their relative position among the stars was considered important for astronomy). You could call them 5 things, but you’d still think of them as one – just as we call the man organs one body, and think of it as one most of the time.

The stuff of cosmonomy is not only about the abstract question, “what really exists?” It’s about the concrete question, “what categories do I use to think about things?” Do I treat the cliff face a single entity or a formation made up of many deposition layers? Do I treat the watch as a time-piece or a collection of parts? Do I treat the staff as a single mechanism for my convenience or as a collection of people? These questions can have profound moral and practical consequences when we get around to values, to rights and obligations. It is not trivial to ask what constitutes a human being.

We begin with things like rocks and planets because they seem easier, but we do it in order to hone our ability to draw distinctions – to think clearly.

Is a planet a lump of silicon, iron, and carbon (matter) in the shape of a ball (form)? Is it a wandering star moved by love? A strange light in the heavens? The home of aliens? A portent of fate or laughter or love? I know which answer I’d go with. What about you?

Now ask: Is a human a collection of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen… (matter) with a particular DNA sequence (form)? Careful how you answer that one; a sperm and an adult human may have the same DNA. Is it a mind in a body? A conscious will acting in society? A site of infection? A locus of fate or laughter or love?

Material reductionism sounds simple at first. The things in the cosm are matter shaped into forms. But once you start getting into details, real problems emerge. What’s more, regardless of how we think, we act in ways that belie our reductionism. It’s great for scientific discovery, but may not address practical questions in our lives.

What sorts of things inhabit your cosm?

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