philosophy of mind

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.


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!

‘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 :)