There is Only Form

Since the time of Greek philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates—it has been believed that the present universe is comprised of two things: form and substance. Forms are the ideas that exist even when substances don’t; the world of things combines form and substance, kind of like the form of a statue exists in the mind of a sculptor and is applied to a substance—e.g., stone—to create statues. Without the form, the material world is amorphous, and without the substance the forms are invisible. This post examines the duality of idea and substance and argues that there are no substances; only forms are real. Whatever we call substance, thing, or object, is also a form—i.e. an idea.

The Problem in Form-Substance Dualism

The divide between form and substance is perhaps the oldest form of dualism in Western philosophy, from which other kinds of dualism—e.g. the mind-body dualism, or the empiricism-rationalism dualism—have sprung. The key issue in each of these kinds of dualism is that neither side of the duality presents a consistent and complete picture of the world around us, and yet we don’t know how to combine them. For instance, the duality between form and substance leads to challenges in reconciling the abstract with the amorphous. How do mind and body interact? If, however, you want to dissolve the duality and replace it with some unity, you have a new set of problems. For instance, how does matter produce our ability to think, feel, will, judge and plan?

Scientific and philosophical materialism rejects the mind-body duality and replaces it with matter, which is then supposed to explain both mind and body. The trouble in such reduction is that we lose the ability to create ideas from matter. Ideas have the property of representation, abstraction, and intentionality, but material objects don’t. Therefore, the reduction of mind and body to just one category—matter—completely discards the mind.

By definition, an idea is something that stands apart—although may be incarnated—in many things. No particular thing is that idea because the idea is the general or abstract that stands independent of those things. If therefore, you want to reduce the ideas to things, you will create a logical contradiction: the general idea spans many objects, but it is reduced to a specific object. The resolution of that contradiction would require you to reject the notion that there is indeed something apart from the things —i.e. ideas. The reduction of mind to matter, therefore, is the rejection of the reality of ideas themselves.

If, however, you reject the reality of ideas, then you must also reject knowledge, perception, cognition, science, and any lawfulness—whether natural or man-made. If ideas are unreal then any generalization from the particulars is also unreal. You can only have specific things, but a general law, idea, or construct that pertains to many objects. I doubt that anyone wants to accept such an alternative—after all, what would you be thinking if thinking itself is unreal? What’s the point of having a belief that I am thinking about when I have already rejected the possibility of generalizing from the particulars?

The Inverted Reduction

This crisis in any kind of dualism—and its proposed alternative, materialism—can be resolved if we invert the reduction: instead of reducing mind to matter, forms to substance, ideas to things, we can now try to reduce matter to mind, substance to forms, and things to ideas. In my previous writings, I have tried to show why dualism and materialism fail for different reasons. This conclusion is, of course, not new. Literature is littered with critiques of both materialism and dualism. My contribution to this debate is the idea that the reduction need not proceed from matter to mind (reducing mind to matter); it can as well begin in the mind and proceed to construct matter from it. I have shown why this approach allows consistency and completeness, unlike dualism or materialism.

Before you confuse this position with Idealism (the notion that the whole world exists in my mind alone), let me just say that the idealist actually does not recognize the existence of a real external world, or at least could not justify it. The alternative I’m proposing is that there is a world out there, but it is idea-like, not thing-like. The idea-like world does not have to exist in my mind; after all, ideas can also be objectively real.

In a sense, I’m an ontological monist (because I reject the mind-body dualism), but my monism is neither materialism nor idealism. My claim is that there are only ideas; even the things that we think are substances or objects are also ideas. Ideas do not just exist in another world of forms (Plato), descend in the world of substances (Aristotle), or merely cast shadows from which they cannot be truly understood (Socrates), but real entities that make up everything around us. To paraphrase this in a modern language: the world around us is information—not of the physical variety but of the semantic variety.

Physical vs. Semantic Information

Physical information reduces to states of material objects, such that their meaning is still in someone’s mind. For instance, a musical composition is not meaning by itself although if the listener is acquainted with the musical tonality, she can derive the meanings. The physical view thus rests upon the mind-body divide: the body is the meaningless sounds and the mind is that which interprets them. Semantic information, on the other hand, is one in which the meanings are in the object itself. Whether or not you know the rules of music, the music will have its effects on your body.

In mind-body dualism, there is a world of frequencies that the mind interprets as musical meaning. In material monism, there is a world of frequencies, and musical meaning is an illusion. In the inverted reduction, there is musical meaning from which the notes of its expression are created. That is, the ideas underlying that musical creation are objectively present in that creation; and they will have their effects. Our cognition of that music only helps us explain that effect; the effect does not depend on cognition.

If you go to a temple, church, synagogue, or monastery, you will naturally feel peaceful and relaxed, whether or not you believe in that religion or understand its viewpoint. The goodness in a holy place objectively exists in that place and naturally imbues its inhabitants with it, whether or not they make efforts to understand it. We cannot pinpoint any physical fact that causes that meaning, because the meaning is abstract. And yet, denial of that meaning would make it impossible to explain what you feel. We must acknowledge that something good exists although we can’t perceive it. It has effects that we can perceive, but we can’t attribute them to perceivable causes.

Information and Judgments

The term information derives from the Greek notion of form and is close to the Aristotelian idea of form, where forms were “inside” substances and by their presence in-formed the substances into objects. But that is not the sense in which I use the term information; my usage does not distinguish between form and substance; rather it means that there is only one kind of entity—information—which is both real (i.e. it exists in space-time like we suppose ideas do) and yet it is not some kind of material substance.

The space-time existence of information changes our understanding of matter and space-time itself: like information is hierarchical, material objects too must be hierarchical. Only some of these objects can be perceived—those which are less abstract than our senses. Anything more abstract than the senses cannot be perceived, although it exists, and will have effects—even on things that we can perceive. This new understanding of matter alters our notion of space-time from flat and open to hierarchical and closed. I have previously discussed how this hierarchical space-time structure addresses problems of incompleteness and inconsistency in all areas of science.

While information is material and it exists, it may not necessarily be true. The crucial difference between material monism and informational monism is the relation between existence and truth. In material monism, if something exists, then that very existence also indicates the truth. However, in informational monism, we cannot infer truth from existence: a statement can exist, but its existence doesn’t imply (or deny) its truth. The distinction between existence and truth is collapsed in material monism but that distinction is reinstated in informational monism.

Symbolism and Science

Take, for instance, the images on a TV screen. The images are real because they exist. However, their existence does not mean that they are true. In judging the images on a TV screen, we must ask two kinds of questions: (a) do those images really exist?, and (b) given that the images exist, are they really indicative of truth?

In science, there are only objects and no images. There is no expectation that the TV is about some facts, which are being represented in the TV. The planets, galaxies, or objects in this world are not images of something outside those objects. Therefore, we cannot ask whether the images are true or false; we can only ask if they exist.

In essence, we cannot apply judgments of truth to matter (as described in current science), we can only apply judgments of existence to material objects. This is clearly a shortcoming, because if we took this belief all the way, then the words on this blog would exist but could not be judged to be true or false. Therefore, when science speaks about information in the sense that something exists, judgments of truth cannot be applied to objects. We can say that the world exists, but not whether it is true.

Inverted Reduction and Judgments

The shift to informational monism entails not just a resolution of the problems in dualism and material monism, but also the reinstatement of truth judgments. If someone is lying, you cannot suppose that they don’t exist, although you can claim they are not telling the truth. This shift in the nature of matter entails important revisions to science.

If material objects are not just existents but also have meanings (by which we can judge their truth), then we have a clear problem in measuring both existence and truth. Clearly, we can see, taste, touch, smell, or hear existence, but we cannot know the truth by such sensation. Seeing that a book exists, and knowing that the book is true, are two different judgments; the latter cannot be derived from sensation, and to determine truths, we must now broaden our notions about empiricism to that which perceives the truth.

The Problem of Truth

How do we know the truth of a claim? This is again a very old and contentious philosophical problem and to summarize it in one sentence, to know the truth of a sentence, you must have already known the truth a priori. If you begin as a blank slate—i.e. not knowing any truths—then the first thing you encounter can only be assumed to exist, but cannot be assumed to be true (after all, this is your very first encounter with the world, and you cannot be expected to know the difference between truths and falsities). Every subsequent encounter with the world suffers from the same problem. That is, if you could not know the truth in the first encounter due to the possibility of errors in judgment, then you cannot ever know the truth, because every judgment suffers from errors.

The only resolution out of this quagmire is if you assume that some things are true, and use those assumptions to test the truth of the other facts. In short, knowledge cannot begin in observations; it must rather begin in the postulates about the nature of reality. We test our postulates against the facts of the world, but who can say whether this testing proves a postulate only because we haven’t yet encountered the contradicting facts? It is a well-known fact that once some idea has been validated, it is used again and again for practical reasons—for example, to build machines using the ideas of classical mechanics. As the use of the “working” ideas becomes dominant, the scenarios in which the idea fails are neglected, and we live in a smaller “universe” where our ideas work. In that sense, postulates distort what we see in the world because pragmatism demands that limit ourselves to the cases when the ideas work, and neglect the cases when they don’t.

Our postulates are the goggles through which we see the world, and they filter out the situations where they don’t work. Since the postulates are essential to understand the world, a wrong postulate ultimately distorts the act of seeing itself.

The Contextuality of Postulates

There is a well-known saying that if you only have a hammer, the whole world appears as nails to you. Similarly, if you believe that the world is comprised of point particles, and you happen to interpret the movement of planets as the motion of these point particles, and the predictions of your postulates are confirmed by observation, then you would be led to believe that the world is indeed point particles. However, this point-particle view may not always work for all phenomena. You might then postulate that the world is waves, and again you will find your postulates are confirmed by observation in many cases.

As we encounter new phenomena, our toolset is broadened—we now include not just a hammer but also a screwdriver, wrench, etc. Each of these tools works in some cases but not in others. Since they are mutually incompatible, you cannot reduce the toolset to a single tool (e.g., the unified theory of everything). You also don’t a priori know which tool to use for which phenomena. Therefore, you try different tools and then find which one works better than the others, and then see the world in terms of that tool—e.g., if a wrench is useful in controlling the world, then the world must be nuts and bolts.

So far, your use of tools is exclusive, and you might say that there is no real problem: after all, nothing tells us that we must have a single tool in our toolset. However, you then run into some scenarios in which you need two or more tools at once—e.g. a hammer and a screwdriver—and the world now appears to be both a nail and a screw. Since your toolset is already divided, you cannot conceive of a new type of object that simultaneously has grooves (like a screw) and doesn’t have grooves (like a nail). In such scenarios, you have to reconcile the opposition between a nail and a screw, and yet any straightforward combination results in a logical contradiction. You have no choice but to throw away both nail and screw conceptions and start with a totally new set of tools and ideas.

The Process of Postulate Selection

Unfortunately, this isn’t very easy—if we have grown up using hammers and screwdrivers, it is not easy for us to suddenly invent new tools, and thereby change our view of the world. And so we continue to use the old tools, in conjunction with probabilities. We claim that that the world doesn’t truly fit our view, although if we try to forcibly fit it into our view, we will need to use probability. For instance, we can say that the world is 50% screw and 50% nail. When you hold a hammer in your hand, the thing becomes a nail, and when you have a screwdriver, it becomes a screw. The fact is that the world is neither nails nor screws—these are the modes in which we are trying to comprehend the world—and probabilities represent not an anomaly in the world but in the conceptual apparatus we use to understand the world. If you are using a certain tool, you only expose a part of the reality to observation and manipulation; other parts remain hidden.

The process of truth, therefore, requires the careful selection of a tool that will expose all the features of reality at once. If the world is a bolt but you think of it sometimes as a screw and other times as a nail, you are neither completely right nor completely wrong. However, as you apply that idea to reality, it will work sometimes and fail at other times. When the idea appears to work, it is not true, and when it appears to fail, it may not be entirely false. The only way you can know if your conception of reality is true is if you have exhausted the phenomena against which it can be tested. This clearly presents serious practical difficulties in confirming the truth of any idea.

Truth, Consistency, and Completeness

While truth is the goal of knowledge, consistency, and completeness are the tests of knowledge. Let’s quickly remind ourselves that we are not speaking about existence which we already saw above does not indicate truth. To know the truth, we must postulate (and believe) in some truths, and then use them to confirm or deny the truth of observations. As this process proceeds, some islands of truths begin to emerge from the sea of existents. These islands are centered around some postulates; some observations confirm one set of postulates, while other observations confirm other postulates. At this point, you can see that some of these islands may reside on opposite positions on the globe: they are both confirmed by experiment, but they are conceptually and logically inconsistent.

To find the truth, we must resolve the inconsistency among the partially successful ideas. If you observe this process long enough, you will find that it constructs an inverted tree in which the inconsistent ideas are the leaves, the more consistent ideas are branches, even more consistent ideas are trunks, etc. The process of knowledge involves traveling from the leaves to the root—the singular idea that reconciles all contradictions. From that singularity, you can create diverse ideas and theories, which are, in one sense, mutually contradictory, but in another sense, are derivatives of the singularity.

The journey from the oppositions to consistency requires us to see something “deeper” or more abstract than the oppositions themselves. If red and blue appear contradictory to you, then “color”—which is something deeper than red and blue—will reconcile that opposition. If color and form appear different notions to you, then “sight” will reconcile that disparity. As you proceed from the leaves to the branches, shoots, and trunks, towards the root of the tree, you find a greater and greater degree of conceptual unification.

The Convergence of Knowledge

One might argue that we have so much conceptual diversity in the world that we cannot be sure whether the varied ideas actually converge into a single original idea. That is, the world may be ultimately contradictory or inconsistent, or unknowable as a single idea. It is practically impossible to refute this idea, although all the evidence around us suggests that this claim is false. Even within the realm of modern science, there have been leaps by which diverse phenomena were unified as two branches emanating from a single trunk. There is no reason to suspect that we might not be able to carry this convergence further—i.e. believe that the universe is a forest of trees rather than a single tree.

The idea that the world is a tree of diversification is therefore the only assumption we need to comprehend the world. And this assumption only amounts to the claim that the world is ultimately knowable, consistent, and the knowledge can be complete. Yes, knowability, consistency, and completeness are indeed postulates which can propel us towards the search for reality. The converse ideas paralyze any search for the truth.

The root of the universal tree is consistent (because there is only one root without a second, so contradictions have been preempted), complete (because everything else sprung from that root, and that root can therefore explain the diversification), and true (because all observable facts will only confirm the reality of that root). While there are practical challenges in traversing the tree—and knowing if we are going towards the root or away from it—it is not hard to see that the process of knowledge can end only if the structure of knowledge is a tree. If the structure of knowing is a maze, then you can never find its end. If the structure of knowledge is a loop, then you can never finish knowing. The only structure in which knowledge ends is if that knowledge is a tree.

Being and Knowing

Greek philosophy drew a wedge between being—the things that exist in the world and are called material objects—and knowing those beings. This wedge has been carried forward in different ways since then. My claim is that this opposition between being and knowing is false; there is a being that is also knowing. We don’t have to separate being from knowing if the world is information—which exists and which is ideas.

This approach dissolves the mind-body duality, but it also rejects materialism. Instead of reducing ideas to matter, we now reduce everything to primordial ideas. The universe did not begin in a material explosion such that upon sufficient complexity creation, after billions of years, we now have ideas. Rather, the universe begins in ideas that create complex objects through combination. This approach radically affects all areas of modern science —mathematics, physics, biology, and cosmology. For instance, numbers are ideas and not properties of collections; if a number is a property of a collection, then objects must exist before we can understand the number; but if the number is an idea, then it can exist even when the objects and their collections do not exist. To speak about numbers, we must be able to conceive existents that are not material objects.

The key point is that dualism and its materialistic rejection are both false. There isn’t form and substance—such that the substance exists in this world and the forms in another. There is only form—and that form exists in this world. This-worldly forms aren’t necessarily eternal or even true. But they are forms nevertheless. The distinction between true and eternal vs. false and temporary forms has to be dealt with as a separate issue, rather than putting the forms themselves in another world. Only when we have rejected both dualism and materialism can we create the possibility of consistency and completeness.