Becoming Philosophically Literate Once Again

“It is high time, I would argue, to jettison our Galilean, Cartesian, and Newtonian assumptions and become philosophically literate once again.” —Dr. Wolfgang Smith, in Physics and Vertical Causation, pg. 47.

What follows is a modest effort on my part to help us achieve this much needed philosophical literacy.

The correlative concepts of prime matter and substantial form are essential to any metaphysical grasp of reality. Generally speaking, matter (Greek: ὕλη, hyle; Latin: māteria) is the “stuff” out of which all corporeal reality is made, while form (Greek: μορφή, morphē; Latin: fōrma) is the principle that renders that “stuff” into this or that material body: a rock, a head of cabbage, a dog, or a man. The Greek words literally mean “wood” and “shape,” but Aristotle abstracted from those concrete things to higher and more fundamental philosophical concepts.

A superficial example, using the literal meanings of those words, will help us to grasp the concepts. With the same quantity of wood we might fashion a chair, a chopping block, a piano sound board, or a barrel for aging fine Kentucky Bourbon. It’s the same “stuff” at the beginning that could give us many different things, each of which has its own unique nature and purpose. That example is superficial because the words are used according to their literal meanings, which means that we are not talking about the deeper concepts of “prime matter” and “substantial form.” Those qualifiers are all-important. In this example the “form” we are discussing is technically called an “accidental form,” meaning a non-substantial change imposed upon an already formed quantity of matter, which also immediately implies that the matter is not prime matter. This example is not metaphysics as much as it is physics.

To probe deeper and higher, we will have to conceptualize a more fundamental “stuff” out of which all material realities are made — wood, air, water, iron, or your author. The name for that stuff is “prime matter,” which does not exist as such; rather it only exists in a subsisting material body as already informed by a substantial form. You cannot go to the craft shop to purchase a can of prime matter. So, too, we don’t see substantial forms floating about looking for matter to descend upon and “possess.” We perceive substantial forms in the substances that they inform, giving prime matter this or that nature. Depending on what substantial form is joined to the prime matter, it could be a chunk of good New Hampshire granite, a towering Cedar of Lebanon, a surly Alaskan grizzly bear, or a corpulent Sumo wrestler from Osaka. Same prime matter, different substantial form.

The Latin word for matter, māteria, is related to the word for mother: mater. Prime matter being pure potency or receptiveness, it is the maternal principle upon which descends the paternal principle of substantial form. It is a tangent here, but the Marian implications of this truth are impressive, for Our Lady is both the matrix and māteria sanctitis.

Let us ascend the varying gradations of material creation to explore these concepts along the way. We begin with “artifacts,” which are often called “minerals,” i.e., inanimate material things. These are lifeless substances consisting of prime matter arranged into a specific nature by a substantial form that makes it this or that artifact. If there were not something stable and enduring about this composite, but if it were rather as mobile and non-fixed as a quantum particle, then our firm ground upon which we build houses could suddenly become oceans, or the oceans upon which our ships traverse could instantaneously become gasses, or the air we breathe could become sand. We rely on the humble stability of these elements, as lowly as they are. In his philosophy classes, Brother Francis would ponder the catastrophe that would befall us if all the grains of sand in the world suddenly ceased being solid.

It is this reliability of the form-matter composite that even makes science possible. Laws of gas diffusion, expansion and contraction of solids, etc., all depend on the constancy we see in this arrangement. Nobody could do science without this tenacity of material substance.

When we leap up to the next gradation in creation, we come to plants and trees, that is, to vegetative life. In doing so, we have crossed the important divide between non-living and living things. In vegetative life, we behold the reality of a substantial form which is at the same time the principle of life in a material thing. Some readers may recognize this to be the very definition of “soul.” Yes, plants have souls! This vegetative soul informs prime matter in such a way that it possesses the nature of a living thing that can grow, assimilate, and reproduce — powers beyond the potencies of inanimate substances. It is the substantial form or vegetative soul that makes a quantity of prime matter into a blade of grass, a species of seaweed, or a mighty live oak. As soon as that plant dies, the substantial form leaves it and other forms take over — perhaps the lower forms of minerals, or perhaps the higher, bovine soul of the hungry cow that munches the grass for nourishment.

Speaking of which, when we traverse up to the next step, we find not only life, but sentient life. We have arrived among the animals, which have, in addition to the vegetative powers of growth, assimilation, and reproduction, further powers that are proper to sentient life. These are the cognitive faculties of the external and internal senses, as well as those faculties we call “appetitive,” and which, in man, we call passions or the emotions. In addition, sentient life has the power of locomotion, which is proper to beings that can sense, hence feel pain. As Brother Francis remarked, it would be cruel if trees could feel pain and be rooted to the ground where they could be slowly chopped down by the woodsman without any ability to flee or fight back. This is an example of what we call the “harmony of attributes” — yet another of the manifold examples of intelligence at work in the universe.

With sentient life, or animal life, we once more see that the substantial form is a soul, i.e., the principle of life in a material being. The physiology of animals includes the brain, hence they possess the internal senses that are localized in that organ — instinct, sense memory, imagination, and common sense, by which latter the brain coordinates the data of all the external and internal senses into useful cognition.

Yet, it is not the brain that gives life. There is nothing in that tissue or in the tissue of any other animal organ that “powers” the beast to life — “beast battery not included,” we might say. There is no merely material “horizontal causality” at work that can account for life. Has it ever occurred to you that biologists as such cannot explain the difference between a living and a dead chimpanzee? That is not to say that they are incapable of quantifying the points of contrast between the two; rather, it is to say that they cannot, within the clear limits of their science, explain the causality of life. What is it that makes all those complex parts one, such that when it is gone, the thing rots and falls apart into other things? What is it that not only unites that matter, but also animates it? The Latin word for soul is anima, because that is precisely what animates matter into a living being. The reason that the biologist as biologist cannot answer that question is because this substantial form, this soul, is above the physical or corporeal realm; it is metaphysical, and therefore beyond the realm of sheer biology. Even at the level of beasts — whose souls are not rational and are therefore mortal — it is the soul that makes the impressive ensemble of bones, sinews, muscles, nerves, heart, brain, etc., to function as one. When that soul leaves, life is gone and other forms take over.

We see here Dr. Wolfgang Smith’s “vertical causality” at work. Nothing in the chemistry of the grass or the nerve synapses of a dog is sufficient to explain its having the power of immanent activity, which is what life is. (Poor artifacts are capable of only transient activity, not immanent activity.) The complex chemistry of the cell, photosynthesis, the neural firings of the brain, the respiratory or metabolic systems — none of these give life to the other parts of the body. “Life,” then, cannot be found “horizontally” within the living being, but must come into it from above, which is what vertical causality implies, and which is why we need once more to put metaphysics above the physical sciences if our knowledge is to rise to the level of wisdom.

One rung higher on our cosmic ladder and we arrive at man, who has in himself all the powers of the plants and animals, but adds to those twenty-four powers only two more: intellect and will. Such a difference these two powers make! With them come both reason and immortality. The souls of beasts are totally immersed in matter; nothing in them transcends the material. Man, on the other hand, is capable of abstract thought, of reason, of contemplation, of language, of speech; in a word, he is capable of logos. Nothing in his corporeal makeup causes this, though his senses and appetites were so designed as to complement the marvels of his rational soul (more “harmony of attributes” here). If there is no material principle in the body of a chimp that gives that body life, there is nothing in the body of a man which animates, either. A fortiori, there is nothing in the body of man that gives him the power to ask existential questions, to ponder moral matters, to write poetry, or to scribble down Fermat’s Last Theorem in the margins of a Greek text. Try as they might, evolutionary biologists cannot explain any of this, because a higher causality is at work, that higher causality being a substantial form that is also a spiritual soul which has super-organic powers that transcend the material realm these biologists have immersed themselves in so completely.

That higher causality makes man capax Dei — capable of being united to God by supernatural grace.

Philosophy is per se a natural science, or, more properly, an ordered body of natural sciences, the highest of which is metaphysics, also called “ontology” because it studies being as being (the word comes from the Greek ὄν, ὄντος, [on, ontos, “being; that which is”] plus — you guessed it! — λόγος [logos]). While it remains a natural science, it takes us to the very threshold of the supernatural because at its highest point, ontology becomes “theodicy,” which is the study of God as He is known by the light of unaided natural reason. As such, it is like the window Noe cut into the top of the ark, letting into that vessel the light and fresh air of Heaven.

Now, I hope we have become a bit more philosophically literate. Those who would like to drink deep of the Pierian spring are invited to immerse themselves in Brother Francis’ wonderful philosophy course.