The Form of Things: A Timeless Problem

Entities Part 2B: A note on THE FORM OF THINGS: a timeless problem

What allows us to recognize “bare and higher truths”, truths that emerge only after we have logically tested conclusions against specific principles, those we agree would also lay bare falsehoods? Every truth publicly declared also declares its opposite, namely, what is false. It creates a universe of opposites — of truths and falsehoods — which may lead to the conclusion that whatever is NOT true, must be false!

One may call this imperative falsity, that something is held to be untrue/false because its truth-value has been inferred, not empirically demonstrated. Because we lack reliable, tested, or documented means which allow us to decide between what is false and what is true (ultimately) it may force us logically to talk about “possibilities” rather than with “truths”.

This inadvertently creates a new universe, the world of Possibilities. Possibilities, however, are a form of “speculations”, something done by humans, which is quite strong in some individuals although weak — even absent — in most others. An example of a speculative product is the notion, at first timidly suggested by Greeks during the Iron Age (prior to 600 BC) that the world as known to them had a past, a history during which humans interacted with Gods, who were themselves somewhat “human-like” except that they were opined to have greater powers of control over many more features of the world, e.g. the condition of the seas, the calmness or turmoil of the “elements”, the life and death of other creatures including their existence, even the extinction of all living things. Enter an early version of “Science Fiction”!

Thus, the atoms of Democritus, small, unobservable, and presumably indestructible entities invented c. 600 BC, were entirely speculative. Their nature was unknown but were guessed at. Democritus put out ideas, based on speculations of earlier thinkers, including seers and poets, which others of course were free to accept on the basis of its intuitive appeal, as well as any force of arguments advanced in their favour!

Democritus had very few followers, but his ideas resonated with other teachers and poets, and did not, as far as is known, draw ire from the religious establishment of his time. Thought-control — although rampant and widely practised throughout preliterate societies — was mainly enforced about matters which affected public policy and religious matters. However, efforts to divert discordant ideas and expunge these from the market place required some form of “thought police”.

As the later history of the Jews shows, the formation and acceptance of a thought-police required a shift in the social status of “prophets” from individuals who were accepted as spokespeople of a God — like Moses was — or of Gods — or of being super-natural forces themselves, those who loudly proclaimed themselves to be superior to existing authorities, on the grounds that they were directly in contact with supernatural forces.

From phenomenological, personal insights to possessing public knowledge: the impossible path

The problem which early thinkers addressed was how the complex phenomenological world — the world of daily experience, the world of our encounters which we claim to know — could be construed from visible but also invisible, inherently insensate, events, the things seen and those behind the screen! How do we develop ideas about a world which contains both solids and ephemerals, which could also influence, or “cause”, other events? “The gods at play” are of the latter kind: we guess at their existence on the evidence that things are not as anticipated.

Our anticipations are based on what has happened reliably in the past: however, we need to distinguish *signs* from *omens*. *Signs* presage a future based on earlier experience. *Omens* on the other hand, indicate that the future is likely — or is apt — to depart from the past, that the future is not like the past. So we start from the outset with a view of a corruptible world, where the future is not necessarily like the past.

We do not know what accounts for corruptions. Is there an answer? Early thinkers were bold enough to answer such questions affirmatively: they often were certain that their unique answers were correct! But such guesses were based on insupportable sources of inspiration — and therefore could not survive criticisms. These would fall apart whenever visions of the future fail to materialize which has been all to often — and with great frequency.

Comments on foundational substances

Plato, as successor to Pythagoras, and shortly thereafter Aristotle — thought by many as perhaps the most influential philosopher in Western history and himself a former student of Plato — suggested that regardless of conjectures about foundational substances — the building blocks, like the atoms of Democritus — there were also forms.

Forms serve to give structure to the perceived (subjective) world, a world which necessarily include objects. Some objects were pre-determined, whereas other were “construed”, or seen as themselves products of the elusive mind. But which?

One could argue that structure, the form objects assume, was inherent in these, or one could assume that forms was an attribute assigned to events by the “mind”. Of course, the concept of “becoming assigned” was itself problematic and generated much debate for the next two thousand years. Structure — it seemed to many — was something which was imposed on raw materials, on the analogy that the statue of Athena in Athens was hewn from formless stone. Indeed this analogy is deeply embedded also in the story of the Creation as told by many peoples during the Iron Age, and which was also recorded in their enduring myths.

It seems such myths are part of the history of our own current search for explanations, the search for what is, how things are, and how things become over time: “the past, present, and the indefinite future” as this applies to any event. It appears that during an undetermined earlier moment in our past we transitioned from accepting that some events were indeed time-bound, whereas others others were not. It assumed that some matters were “basic” and “fundamental”, that these events owed their origin to super-human or pre-human agents.

Its history therefore remains beyond our reach — and an explanation for its existence remains on the front-burner of human inquiry, even as I write. We somehow expect that the answers to our root-questions can be gotten. It seems that for the moment, we overlook that any questions raised are themselves culturally determined and that answers to these are therefore “cultural products”, which come and go with time and fashion. (To be sure, there are no fundamental questions — only passing ones and answers: each make their entrances and exits.)

Comments on structure and form

A final word about structure and content: From the point of view outlined so far, the concept of Structure is not self-supporting but is part of a duo: Structure and content are viewed as facets of how we perceive our world. (Note: see also comments in other blogs on “cognize.)

Think of *left* and *right*. But there is also *up* and *down*— and these four concepts define one version of space. The world appears fractionated to us because we employ this perceptual stratagem which permits us to focus on two, four, or more aspects of any experience without regard to raising issue of the origin, or future of the event.

As a result, we invariably create (construct) a world which has self-imposed, limited, dimensions and we therefore deliberately omit two of these — namely, change and passage of time. This creates a contrary-to-fact stance: namely that time stands still, can be tethered but also that the structure of an event can be viewed as timeless, and is close to an “enduring reality”. But is this not a case of the Humpty-Dumpty problem: how to put the pieces together retrospectively, post-hoc, after fall?

One solution may be to accept what had happened and only then back-track, to a pre-event period, before one attempts to reconstruct the world as it was before its fall off the wall and before we construct an alternative end-game, a narrative of its future. In doing so we accept that as observers we have the capacity to write alternative scenarios, no matter at what point the old story was interrupted and diverted.

If form is viewed as that feature of a narrative which gives a story its logical coherence — its rationale — it should be easy to see that any narrative consists of a series of vignettes which could occur in any sequence, or in any order except for the order itself. A story may emerge, but this may happen by chance, like the famed chimps pounding a keyboard and producing the text of Hamlet. Perhaps — but most unlikely.

Structure, it therefore seems, is a property of all things, should be viewed as a universal quality. The world is inconceivable (but only by us) without it, but no more so than a world which is bereft of distinct “instances”. Nevertheless, this world is a convenient fiction whose convenience- value needs to be clearly stated in terms which include the historical moment itself. Thus both Forms and its complementary notion, Substances, are inherently stable but only within limits. That is the conclusion reached here — and it bypasses the religious (pre-empirical) catechism that this is as was ordained! Our conclusion: our perceptions are constrained, but not ordained.

Form and Constructivism (Part 1)

A definition of *entities* given in 1596 states that the word derives from the Latin entitas and was proposed by Julius Caesar as Present Perfect of esse, *to be*.

I interpret this to mean that anything claimed “to be” also exists. Note that terms like *entity*, *substance*, and *object* were already used by Greek writers (before 450 BC) and continued to be used as a vital part of the vocabulary by philosophers from then until the present day. Of course the meaning has changed over time. However our uninterrupted use of the term indicates that we are able to make good use of the it even when its meaning (as in interpretation) changes. As with so many words meaning and interpretations change often, even imperceptibly, throughout the past hundreds of years.

Words are like like sewage pipes: they have to be cleaned out periodically, preferably by certified plumbers. Thus Greek thinkers enjoyed speculating about the nature of “Nature” and raised questions about how and by whom the Nature they knew had been composed and organized. Often they avoided questions about its origin because they lacked acceptable standards of getting clear and authoritative answers to their questions. Indeed, some writers have claimed that the continuing task of philosophers is to propose standards and methods by which we can come to know what is justified and true.

Thus, asking relevant questions without having an effective technology to move these beyond what was already known at the common sense level seemed futile. Yet it was (and still is!) a game compulsively played despite its significant and recognized hazards. Some answers were deemed to be better than none! Incorrect solutions or unpopular solutions were actually dangerous — for such might offend the Gods and their worldly representatives, or so it was opined. (Socrates was neither the first nor the last person to face expulsion from his home, even death, for raising such “origin” questions!) By casting doubt on an existing — perhaps even a powerful religious — order and its doctrines, one also cast doubts on the existing socio-political order, an order, it was thought, that was dictated by the Gods and therefore part of a “Divine Order”.

Questions about how the world is composed are, generally speaking, raised by peole who are prone and inspired to give different answers to those already accepted within a community — by so-called dissidents. Surely such men and women are inherently dangerous, and therefore deserve to be neutralized! These questions could easily unravel the tightly woven explanatory tapestry which was completed with great care and over many centuries by wise (but of course not disinterested) thinkers!

An early example of such a challenge occurred in approximately 550 BC when several Ionian thinkers suggested that the physical world — the world of physical objects and their interactions — had been constructed by unknown forces from one or more basic fundamental materials, i.e. atoms, the indivisibles. Two factors were speculated: one, material objects in their most fundamental, most primitive forms; and two, the manner by which these were structurally related. The former (*atoms*) were not considered by Greek thinkers to be pliable, whereas *forms* or *structures*, it was assumed, were. It was not clear by what rules these “atoms” has been assembled to become new entities, new phenomena, but it was assumed that knowledge about how this happened could ultimately be gained — although not how this knowledge could be gathered.

Conceptually Ionian ideas represent an advance over earlier ideas about the origin of the Cosmos, including proposals made within traditional mythologies, such as the widely held suggestion that one or more super-humans had “engineered” and assembled the cosmos! (The origin of science fiction?) Thus with very little evidence to support their ideas, Ionian philosophers put forward a constructivist theory of the origin and composition of nature, about the world of its entities as these exist throughout space and time! The issue about which principles were involved to produce this staggering result was unclear, but the issue was discussed more and more amongst learned and enlightened men, some of who had been officially entrusted by their contemporaries with “speculating about deep matters”, by priests and the lovers of wisdom, those who make good judgements.

Others also participated in these discussions. They offered varying solutions which caused a massive problem, namely, how to adjudicate between different solutions proffered to problems, both problems about the material structure of the world and about how to make good judgements about human actions. How can this be done without first enumerating principles according to which decisions between alternatives can be taken? How does one evaluate alternate solutions offered to such problems? To do so was clearly the task of a meta-discipline, whose task would be to lay down what was possible in all possible worlds. What had to be recognized was that their own thinking was inescapably multidimensional, and therefore not only move forward and backward in time, but could also moved up and down within a multi-dimensional hypothesized conceptual space.

Humans accepted on many occasions that there is an immediate and even a far distant past, and that this does not depend entirely on experience. On the contrary, our experience mainly appears to reflect something that takes place independently of us. But there are also steps which do not involve the passage of time, but which reflect that different events entail one another, in the sense that a strong fierce wind for example is viewed as part of a more extended event, i.e., a storm. The event itself (the storm) has many discernible attributes, but with a certain amount of effort these can be ordered so that some events stand at a different level to others.

When this is done we have the bare bones of a structure of an event. A common example of this is when someone describes the skeleton of a deceased person, perhaps a skeleton found in a burial site in a cave in a district where is is known from other evidence, that humans deposited their dead thousands of years ago. Here is a case where an image of the past is reconstructed from the scattered fragments (remains) found during the dig. The reconstructed image is then the product of someone’s imagination which has been guided by much background knowledge. Of course, it is also subject to commonly accepted corrective standards, such as those incorporated in any currently-espoused methodology of the sciences.