Ontic Structural Realism, forms, and Aquinas’s philosophy of mind

In my last couple posts (first here and second here) I have been looking at what I now know is called ‘Ontic Structural Realism’ — the idea that all that exists are the structures of relationships between things, and that things have no meaningful existence beyond this — and its link to consciousness (which it seems had not been considered before, which is exciting!). I now want to very briefly look at how this idea works with Aquinas’s idea of forms (taken from Aristotle) and his philosophy of mind.

Forms

The form of a thing is simply the account of the “what-it-was-to-be-that-thing”. Eg a human is a bipedal animal that can talk. It’s those properties that make X to be X.

We should be careful not to reify it into something it’s not: it’s not a ghostly separate substance that’s added to the thing to make it what it is. It’s not exactly a thing at all. It’s more like the definition of the thing. And it’s not one more part of the thing, so much as it’s the thing as a whole. In the example of a bronze sphere, it’s the geometry of the sphere.

It’s counterpart is the matter that the object in question is made of. So a bronze sphere is made of bronze (its matter) and made into a sphere (its form).

Now considering the idea of forms from the perspective of OSR, there’s no difficulty in saying that forms are structures of relationships, as OSR says is true for all things. The account of X is the relations proper to X, that make X what it is, as X. So eg a house is a house because it is a man made habitation for humans – it is related to humanity as a product of human work, and as a home. These two relations create a structure of relations, and that relational structure is what we term a “house”.

The intellect, forms, and the brain

Aquinas tells us that, “a thing is known in as far as its form is in the knower” (ST I Q75 a5). It’s a great insight that knowledge of a thing is a question of its form being in the intellect. To know X is to comprehend its essential X-ness. We can say that X exists in the mind. But we have knowledge of things such as fish, and yet we know that there are no fish actually materially swimming around in our brains, such that a neurosurgeon might take one out and have it for dinner. So we can reasonably assert that things exist within the mind according to their forms, and therefore immaterially.

Aquinas took this point and reasoned from it that the intellect itself must be immaterial. But I think this step is unnecessary if you accept the claim that the form of a thing is simply the structure of its relations, and understand that it’s possible for these same structures to be instantiated in various mediums, eg the matter and or processes within the brain. The structures within the brain are capable, I suspect, of taking on any structure that is logically possible, including the structure of forms.

Let me know what you think!

Aristotle on the pointlessness of philosophy

‘But it is clear that this science is not productive also from the early history of philosophy. For it was because of wonder that men both now and originally began to philosophize. To begin with, they wondered at those puzzles that were to hand, such as about the affections of the moon and events connected with the sun and the stars and about the origins of the universe. And the man who is puzzled and amazed is thought to be ignorant (hence the lover of stories is, in a way, a lover of wisdom, since a story is composed of wonders). And so, if men indeed began to philosophize to escape ignorance, it is clear that they pursued science for the sake of knowledge and not for any utility. And events bear this out. For when more or less all the necessary sciences existed, and also those connected with leisure and lifestyle, this kind of understanding began to be sought after. So it is clear that we seek it for no other use but rather, as we say, as a free man is for himself and not for another, so is this science the only one of the sciences that is free. For it alone exists for its own sake.‘ (Metaphysics, Alpha 2)

For Aristotle, philosophy is seeking after wisdom, and wisdom is a matter of the most basic and fundamental principles. It’s a theoretical science rather than a practical science, and is the sort of knowledge that underlies all other knowledge, and the science that underlies the other sciences. And the reason we do philosophy is simply out of wonder and the desire to know.

I love the connection he makes between philosophy and freedom. The free man exists for his own sake and not for another’s, and philosophy does likewise. Its pointlessness is its freedom and its beauty, and in its freedom it ennobles man and even divinizes him.

‘Ontic Structural Realism’ and consciousness

I shared my last post, dealing with metaphysics and consciousness, on reddit and was kindly informed that the heart of what I was proposing is an existing theory in philosophy of science and metaphysics, known as “Structural Realism”, and in particular Ontic Structural Realism (as opposed to merely Epistemic Structural Realism, which limits itself to saying that all we can know about things is the relations between them, rather than that it is solely the relations that actually exist at all). Here’s the article on it from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for those who are interested (it’s really interesting stuff). It even strongly relies on the idea of group theory in mathematics, which I mentioned in my post and played a key part in my own thinking.

It’s a relief to see that much of my idea has already been conceived of by better educated people. It reassures me that I haven’t gone completely off the rails! Plus it provides a better foundation for me to work off of. The difficulty with self taught philosophy is that it’s often difficult to know if you are either reinventing the wheel or making an obvious error in your reasoning, or if you really have had an interesting and original thought.

Still, there seem to be a number of important differences, so that my theory remains distinct in a couple ways I find interesting. Firstly, it seems no one else has yet linked OSR with any attempt to explain or understand consciousness. It seems structural realism (in both epistemic and ontic forms) so far has been primarily concerned with philosophy of science, and especially with making sense of modern physics and the question of scientific realism in general (i.e. should we trust the scientific picture of reality, given that it’s had to be radically revised so many times previously?). Meanwhile I arrived at the idea mainly through considering consciousness, philosophy of mind, and especially “qualia“, and only considered it in relation to philosophy of science as an after thought (I may need to elaborate on how I arrived at the idea in this way in another post).

Amateur philosophy

I’m going to keep exploring this idea and sharing my thoughts, since it seems I may have still contributed something new to the discussion. Even if I haven’t, I think it’s still worthwhile because I believe in the value of amateur philosophy. I think philosophy is best approached as a dialogue, and it’s important for it to be open to all. We can’t tell where a new insight might come from, and the best way to test and refine ideas is through dialogue. The less informed can offer fresh perspectives, and give those better informed the chance to improve their understanding by teaching and being forced to explain their ideas in more fundamental terms. Even bad ideas and misunderstandings give the opportunity to make things more clear and approach the question from another direction.

I don’t think it’s possible to study philosophy passively. You have to listen carefully, and then respond and join the conversation. You cannot truly learn anything until you engage with it. And philosophy is an art you learn by doing.

The nature of reality and of consciousness (my new metaphysics)

The problem

What is reality, at its most basic, fundamental, irreducible level? This was once one of the biggest questions of philosophy, with different schools answering that all things are made of fire, or of water, or of numbers (somehow), or of atoms, or of various combinations of these. These days many would give the answer provided by physics, that everything is made up of matter/energy, or perhaps of quantum fields. This is a good answer for physics, but it does not go quite far enough, for the simple reason that we don’t really have any concept of what these things actually are, in and of themselves. Physics has given us great explanations and equations for how one thing (waves, particles, mass, etc) interacts with another, but cannot give any information on what anything is in itself, separate from its actions upon others.

And we could not ask physics (or any other empirical science) to provide such an answer, because there is no conceivable experiment to see what a thing simply is, as opposed to how it might act. The thing as it is in itself can never be directly seen, only its effects on another. We can observe particles through their effects upon our scientific instruments, and we can observe these instruments through their effects upon our senses, but we cannot observe anything without recourse to their effects. We can ultimately only observe effects upon ourselves, but what is behind these effects cannot itself be observed.

The one noteworthy exception to this is consciousness itself, which we experience directly since it is in fact experience itself (although we might equally consider that we can never even conceivably observe consciousness, since consciousness simply is observation, and to observe consciousness/qualia would create an infinite regress).

Bertrand Russell identified this shortcoming of physics, and proposed that the “stuff” of our consciousness (often termed “qualia”) which alone we experience immediately, is the fundamental “stuff” of the physical world, underlying all of the relations studied so thoroughly by physics. Our consciousness is our direct experience of the matter in the brain, and we must suppose that matter outside the brain is of the same nature, despite us having no direct experience of it. This position is known as neutral monism, since it claims that mind and matter ultimately share one nature, which is neutral between being mental and being physical. I believe he was largely correct, but he missed something crucial.

Besides the issue that we cannot observe anything except through its effects, there is the larger issue of what it would even mean to consider a thing in itself, apart from its effects. If I told you that each electron is fundamentally 2 dimensional and square, but that this fact has absolutely no implications for the behaviour of the electron in relation to itself or to anything else, you would do well to ask in what meaningful way this is true at all. It is a statement that does not state anything. If it is meant as saying that if we were to zoom in close enough we would see little squares, or that they behave in a manner that is analogous to a square, it has some meaning, but then we are back to its effects and not the thing itself beneath all its effects. It is simply not possible to speak meaningfully of a thing apart from how it affects something.

My proposed new metaphysics, and explanation of consciousness

So then, what do I propose to be the answer? I say that we need to dispose of the idea that there is any basic nature to things, separate from their effects and relations. All that we are then left with, is the effects and relations themselves, and it is these, I’d argue, that are the fundamental, basic nature of all things. That is, each thing is its relations and nothing more, both within itself and within the wider context of the universe. The universe then, is a great network of relations forming a grand superstructure of structures of relations, with each structure made up of relations and relating to other structures of relations. There is simply no need to imagine any underlying stuff that itself makes no difference to anything.

And what of consciousness, that strange part of reality that simply is direct experience itself? Our conscious experience is the reality of structures within the brain (perhaps of neurons or neural events), which represent the things they are experiences of by having structures that are analogous to the structure of the thing represented.

A simple example is a man thinking of a triangle: within his brain there are neural pathways or events, or whatever it might be, that exist in relationships analogous to the relationships that define a triangle. But since a triangle is nothing more or less than these relationships, and these same relationships are present within the brain, the reality of the triangle truly exists within the brain, even if we cannot zoom in and see a physical representation of a triangle.

Why is an analogous relationship sufficient? Because since there is no fundamental nature underlying reality beneath the relations, all that really matters is how A interacts with B and C, and this is what defines A, B and C. But suppose we also have a, b, and c, and their interactions perfectly match those of A, B, and C. In that case, since the sets {a, b, c}, and {A, B, C} are both defined solely by their relations, the two sets work the same: each letter has the same meaning, considered within the context of their set. This sort of relationship between sets is more thoroughly described by the mathematics of group theory and particularly homomorphisms. We could also consider how we might swap each letter of the alphabet with some completely different symbol, and so encrypt a piece of text, and yet since each letter of our new alphabet is positioned relative to the other letters of the new alphabet in the same way that the letters of the old alphabet were arranged, the meaning and information of the text is preserved entirely intact, and the only issue that remains is for us to learn the new alphabet.

The “stuff” of being and the “stuff” of consciousness is one: the structures of relationships between things. In this way, the phenomena of consciousness is as explicable as the phenomena of existence in general (which is to say, we have resolved two hard problems into one, which I think is a big win!). Returning to Russell’s neutral monism, we can say that consciousness and material reality are both composed of the same “stuff”, and add that that “stuff” is structures of relations.

The other sort of “consciousness”

There is another aspect or sense of consciousness that this does not really touch upon, which is that of awareness, self-awareness, and thought. Many things have representations of other things, eg a photograph has a picture of a person, yet we wouldn’t say that it is conscious of that person. Still, I’d argue that something of the person is truly present within the photo, or else we wouldn’t say that it’s an image of the person, nor that we could see them when we look at their image, and by extension we’d have to say that we never see anything at all, since everything we see is received through the images formed upon our eyes.

Still, what to make of awareness, self-awareness, thought, intentionality, understanding, and all the rest? I think these basically concern the relationships of our representations with each other and with ourselves, and the creation of new relationships between them. There is of course a lot more to go into here, but I hope this basic answer will suffice for the moment.


That’s all I’ll say for now. I hope I’ve explained the idea well enough. Let my know any questions or objections you have, or if none of this is new and it’s all been said (and perhaps debunked) before by someone much smarter than me. I’ve been mulling this idea for some years now, and needed to share it with the world at long last.

I’m hoping to write some follow up posts going into more depth and exploring things like how this intersects with the ideas of thinkers such as Aristotle, Daniel Dennett, and Plato, and ideas like the correspondence theory of truth, the theory of evolution, “artificial intelligence”, and “qualia”. And also follow ups clarifying and expanding upon this, especially in response to any questions or objections I receive.

Let me know what you think in the comments :)

On self love

Since charity is a kind of friendship, as stated above (II-II:23:1), we may consider charity from two standpoints: first, under the general notion of friendship, and in this way we must hold that, properly speaking, a man is not a friend to himself, but something more than a friend, since friendship implies union, for Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that “love is a unitive force,” whereas a man is one with himself which is more than being united to another. Hence, just as unity is the principle of union, so the love with which a man loves himself is the form and root of friendship. For if we have friendship with others it is because we do unto them as we do unto ourselves, hence we read in Ethic. ix, 4,8, that “the origin of friendly relations with others lies in our relations to ourselves.”

St Thomas Aquinas, ST II:II q25 a4

I love this passage from the Summa. It’s so deep and affirming, and places proper love of oneself in such a high regard.

“Love is a unitive force.” A lot of Catholics like to always define love as “willing the good of the other”, which is a great definition in its own place, but seems to be used too often to suck the beauty and joy out of love. No, love is a force, a force that unites, the force that takes two and makes them one. This is also implies that our love of God is necessarily directed towards our divinization (or “theosis” as the Greeks call it).

In a sense, “self love” is an inappropriate term, because love is a unitive force between two people. But a man is “one with himself” which is something more than unity or friendship, more than love as we generally use the word. It’s something more, not less.

To love yourself is to be one with yourself, and it’s only from this unity that love of others is possible at all. This is the principle, the form, and the root of all other friendships. We can be united to others only insofar as we are one with ourselves. This is a truth that’s confirmed in all my experience: the best and most reliable friends are those who love themselves best, knowing their own worth and goodness.

This idea of self love as oneness leads to an interesting link between self love and integrity, which is also a matter of being one, whole, integrated. If you love yourself, you won’t deceive or betray yourself. You’ll be true to your own values.

So, how do you actually love yourself?

Some people really struggle with this. I think it’s something most of us are ignorant of in our society, and if anything it’s even worse among Christians, since we place so much importance on sacrifice and dying to self and our own unworthiness of salvation. But God made us good, and it is good to love what is good. God loves us, and it is good to love what God loves. And it is good to love those who are closest to us, such as our friends and family, and no one (besides God) is closer to a man than himself. Accepting this is a good start.

Then, treat yourself like you would treat a good friend in your situation, or like a good friend would treat you. Or as Jordan Peterson puts it in ’12 Rules for Life’, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping” (rule 2). It takes a little time and imagination, but after a while it grows more and more habitual to be good to yourself. It’s not merely indulging yourself, and it’s not just putting in the work to improve. It’s caring for your good as a whole being. You need exercise and sustenance and rest and recreation [what a beautiful word].

As noted above, integrity is critical to self love. You have to recognise your values and live according to them. You have to be honest with yourself and with others, because we can only be one with ourselves to the extent that we hold to the truth of who and what we are.

Going to confession is a good exercise in this honesty and integrity, as is doing penance, because it means facing up to ourselves including our failures, and then working to make things right. It might sound paradoxical to say penance is an expression of self love, but there it is.

Another important part of self love is surrounding yourself with love. Make the effort to stay in touch with family and friends, and to make new ones too. Frequent the sacraments. Read scripture and good books. Make time to pray. Watch wholesome TV (‘Queer Eye’ springs to mind). Spend time in nature (it’s strange to say, but there’s a lot of love in nature).

(image links to a good article on Aquinas’s advice for dealing with sadness)

That’s all I’ve got for now! God bless!

How to be happy – some tips

  1. Live well. It sounds obvious right? But it’s worth saying as a starting point, that happiness will follow from living well.
  2. Live consciously. This ties into my first point, because you need to figure out what it means in practice to live well, and because you need to become conscious of where you aren’t living well so that you can correct it. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Don’t live on autopilot.
  3. Move forwards. That is, make your life better each day. Put in work each day to grow, to learn, to deepen your relationships, to help a friend, to make your life a little easier, whatever. Just keep moving forwards making things better. These things add up, and they have meaning.
  4. Face your problems. This goes back to point 2 and 3. Identify your problems and their roots as much as you can, and find ways to proactively address them bit by bit. Don’t ignore a problem or put off facing it, because it won’t go away.
  5. Love yourself. Self love provides a certain unity to your own soul, which is the basis for all love and friendship with others, according to St Thomas Aquinas.
  6. Trust entirely in Providence. Everything that happens is part of God’s will, and is therefore good. We ought to accept all things, good and bad, that come to us as being directly from God’s hand and give Him thanks for all of it. Especially for suffering, because it means God is bringing us some great blessing that will more than make up for the suffering.
  7. Life is a gift: be grateful and enjoy it. The worst ingratitude is to receive a gift and not enjoy it. Gratitude is arguably the centre of our faith. The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving, and it’s our great sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, offering up all of our lives and the whole cosmos in union with Jesus, in joyful thanksgiving.

‘Above all we must reacquire confidence about creation’

‘Above all we must reacquire confidence about creation. I mean to say that things — the sacraments “are made” of things — come from God. To Him they are oriented, and by Him they have been assumed, and assumed in a particular way in the Incarnation, so that they can become instruments of salvation, vehicles of the Spirit, channels of grace. In this it is clear how vast is the distance between this vision and either a materialistic or spiritualistic vision. If created things are such a fundamental, essential part of the sacramental action that brings about our salvation, then we must arrange ourselves in their presence with a fresh, non-superficial regard, respectful and grateful. From the very beginning, created things contain the seed of the sanctifying grace of the sacraments.’

(Pope Francis, Desiderio Desideravi n.46)

Thoughts on suffering

Life is suffering.

Gautama Buddha

I believe that the large majority of suffering comes from the refusal to suffer. We refuse to face and properly suffer our own suffering, and we refuse to face and compassionate the suffering of others as well. But in this refusal, we just compound the suffering.

Suffering can be greatly alleviated, both within ourselves and in others, just by giving it some attention and kindness, and allowing it to be what it is. The suffering is trying to communicate that something is wrong, and it needs to be heard and acknowledged. When we compassionately hear out suffering, it will become quieter, because it trusts that its problems have been heard and are being attended to. We also gain some of the understanding needed to attend to problems.

But if we reject suffering, then we are heaping the pain of rejection onto the existing suffering. Whether it’s to our own or to another’s suffering, we are effectively saying, “no one cares about you” to the part of the person that is suffering. No one wants to hear that. It then makes the suffering try to look after itself, either by crying out all the more for attention, or by hiding itself away, becoming unconscious, placing walls around itself, refusing vulnerability and life itself. But the suffering is part of us: if the suffering is hiding, we are hiding; if the suffering is rejected, we are rejected.

We refuse to suffer because we are afraid that suffering will destroy us. And actually, it will.

If you allow it, suffering will break your heart. But hearts are made to be broken. A heart that won’t break is as worthless as a heart that won’t beat. This is how hearts are purified and trained in the ways of a higher love and a deeper joy.

Suffering is a cry for wholeness. When you suffer it properly, with attention and compassion, you bring that cry into yourself, you take on its lack of wholeness. You become the suffering. But in embracing it with attention and compassion, you also grant it something of the wholeness it was lacking, because now it is united with yourself; now it is loved and acknowledged; now it is not alone. Compassion is itself a unifying force, and brings a bit more wholeness to everything it touches.

God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.

St Augustine

It is compassion that brought Jesus to the cross. In His compassion, He united Himself to all of humanity: all of the suffering inflicted on us, and all of the suffering we inflict on others. He took it all into Himself. In this way, He offered all of creation to the Father, forgave our sins, and created a new, united, humanity in His broken body. His radical, ultimate compassion has granted the promise of wholeness to the world.

But we too must embrace the cross, if we wish to be saved. We have to embrace the way of compassion, daring to suffer and have our hearts broken. We must dare to be united to the entire suffering world.

“If we wish to be saved” from what? Hell, of course. But what is hell? I think that hell is the refusal to suffer.

At the judgment, we will each have to suffer all that we are due. What suffering are we due? We are due all the suffering of our fellow humans who we have failed to compassionate. And we are due even more for the suffering we cause. I believe that as long as we refuse this suffering, resisting and fighting against it, we will be stuck with it in its compounded, hellish form, but if we take on the suffering with compassion, we will have our hearts thoroughly broken, pass through the suffering and be purified, before entering into heaven. For as long as we resist suffering, it is hell, but once we accept it with compassion, it becomes purgatory, which is the way to heaven.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(Matthew 5:2-10)