Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics

©Fernando Caracena 2014

Motivational Preliminaries

The pair of ideas of substance and form have motivated philosophy for millenia; and, physics as well. Serious discussion involving this pair of ideas leads inexorably to the subject of God and creation. God is far from a fashionable topic in modern philosophy and science. Usually God is treated seriously only on safe religious turf. Most serious scholars avoid the topic like the plague, and  are happy to leave it to the theologians to venture there. Unfortunately, theologians are seriously hobbled in discussing God by being constrained by their various doctrinal positions, to which they are committed to by their faiths. As a result of conflicts of dogma, many serious scholars express skepticism about theological matters, and take up agnostic and atheistic positions, especially since we see the bloody effects of religious fanaticism. Here however, we venture into a serious discussion involving the controversial trio of subjects: God, substance and form. History shows that these concepts have motivated a lot of physics, and physicists still carry a lot of the genetic, mental inheritance issuing from these concepts in their mental veins.

Ancient ideas about Substance and Form


The ancients lacked the necessary conceptual tools, scientific and philosophical, to be able to discuss technically the details of the concepts of substance and form. Instead, they used allegory in place of our modern use of theory. The Biblical book of Genesis presents truths about creation in an allegorical form. Allegory and mythology served the ancients in the same way that theory serves us moderns. Genesis does not equivocate, "In the beginning God created heaven and earth." This first of creation of s substrate was without form. The Bible calls the primordial substance out of which God fashioned all of creation, 'water', explicitly, and implicitly by 'the deep'. Initially, darkness and chaos covered this substrate of creation. God continued the work of creation by creating light, separating darkness from light and waters above from those below. That is, by flowing into his creation (light) he ordered the substrate into two parts, which he irradiated with his living presence.

Transition to theory instead of allegory

Thales (c. 624 –c. 545 bc), often hailed by philosophers as the pioneer who made the philosophical transition from allegory and myth to some kind of scientifically-based theory, himself could not think of anything better to use as a primordial substance than water. And why not? Observations and science did not suggest otherwise. Did not plants take up water through their roots, which through the magic of sunlight they converted into food? Wasn't water observed to switch phases reversibly from solid to liquid and vapor, yet always remaining the same substance through these changes of state?  It was not until the emergence of chemistry through the such work as that of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743 – 1794), that science revealed the details of what was really going with matter.

Thales's idea was that God reshaped the primordial substance into the multitude of various substances from ideas of the divine mind. Somehow, when an ancient Greek philosopher said things similar to those contained in Scriptures his ideas were more acceptable in the world at large–perhaps because what is religious usually requires commitment, but not philosophy, which is a Grand-Central-Station of ideas. However, the realm of really serious thought about what constitutes reality is larger than religion and covers the same territory, which is Spirituality, and has a broader appeal that unites a larger group of human interests.

Ever since the time of Thales , philosophers have wrestled with the idea of a primordial substance, not arriving at any final conclusions, but still making progress. Physics recognizes that the initial substrate of the visible universe was not water. Instead, it does introduce novel ideas into the discussion that philosophers would never have dreamed of from arm chair discussions.

Plato's theory of forms

Plato (c. 424  bc – c. 34 bc), born after the time of Thales,  carried forward and modified Thales's ideas. He saw our world as a collection of objects created by the reception of ideal forms [Forms] impressed onto a passive substance [materia] from an ideal level of reality. Forms existing in an ideal world were the cause of natural objects, which were imperfect representations of the perfect ideal. “ He supposed that the object was essentially or 'really' the Form and that the representative phenomena were mere shadows mimicking the Form; that is, momentary portrayals of the Form under different circumstances.” --Wikipedia article on Theory of Forms.

In his cosmology (contained in his dialog, Timaeus), Plato invokes a creator

"The universe]has come into existence; for it is visible and tangible and possessed of a body; and all such things are sensible."

That creator he described as follows:

"He was good, and in him that is good no envy ariseth ever concerning anything; and being devoid of envy He desired that all should be, so far as possible, like unto Himself."

However, unlike the description in Genesis Plato did not imagine that the creator made every thing including the substrate of creation, he began with that substrate's already existing, on which he did the basic work of creation:

"He took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder."

In other words, Plato's creator was an organizer who built all the structures visible in nature by organizing what already existed in a chaotic state into Forms. This creator simply provided the direction and organization.

Ancient Scriptural tradition

The Book of Genesis of the Bible, which predates Plato, establishes the One Infinite God as the Creator of everything including the substrate, which he first brought forth in a state of darkness and chaos and subsequently shaped into the various objects and living organisms of the world. Perhaps Plato's view of a divine ordering of a pre-existing chaotic state stemmed from his strong adherence to his doctrine of Forms that constrained him into thinking that the objective world came forth by being downloaded from a level of ideals onto a passive substrate.

Plotinus recognized the incompleteness of Plato's thinking about origins, which begins from a formless passive substrate and confines the act of creation to one of organizing everything from Forms in the mind of some agent, or Demiurge. Plotinus called the source of everything, "The One", which brings Plato's thinking more in line with the Book of Genesis. The reorganization of Plato's philosophy wrought by Plotinus's thinking is called neo-Platonism.

Influences of ancient Jewish thought on mainstream philosophy

Jewish thought, dominated by Scriptures, developed a philosophy of creation beginning from an infinite God, who is one and not multiple, which fits Potinus's "The One", and in that way was Platonic in philosophy. This neo-Platonic tradition reached its highest level of development in Spain among Sephardic Jews, who contributed significantly to thought both within Judaism and the world at large. The most recognised of such thinkers is Moses Ben Maimonides (1138-1204) who was born in  Córdoba , Spain at a time that is considered to be near the end of the golden age of Sephardic Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula. Miamonides's thoughts synthesized Platonic ideas (through Aristotle) with those of the Torah tradition. He may have read Plotinus, but did not refer directly to him in his own writings. Basically, Miamonides was a neo-Platonist almost in the tradition of Plotinus, but with a twist that centered on the nature of "The One" and His creation of being having free will.

Called a rationalist, Miamonides was both a physician and philosopher, having written a number of books that were influential to both Jewish and Christian thought, the latter influence being mainly through Saint Thomas Aquinas.  According to a Wikipedia article:

"Because of his path-finding synthesis of Aristotle and Biblical faith, Maimonides had a fundamental influence on the great Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas.[45] Aquinas refers specifically to Maimonides in several of his works, including the Commentary on the Sentences."

Another branch of Jewish philosophical thought that emerged in Spain during the Golden Age of Jewish culture was known as the Kabbalah. Believed to have been passed down secretly from ancient Israel as an esoteric Jewish tradition, it blossomed during the Jewish Golden Age in Spain. There is some debate over the question of whether the Kabbalah did or did not influence Maimonides's philospohy. The tone of the Kabbalah is certainly there in his writings and it is hard to believe that someone with the deeply probing and curious mind of Maimonides, who was also deeply embedded in Jewish tradition, would not have looked into the esoteric Jewish tradition contained in the Kabbalah.

Esoteric Jewish tradition

The aim of the Kabbalah was about how to bridge the gap between the Infinity and oneness of God as Creator and His finite creation. It stressed that we cannot know God as He is in His infinite self (Ein Sof) because the endlessness of infinity resists all definition. To define anything is to put limits on it; and Jewish tradition holds that no one must attempt try to put limits on God or construct images of Him.  That is idolitary and is forbidden by the first of the Ten Commandments. Therefore, our finite minds can have no purchase on the infinity of God; and there we must draw a mental blank on the Divine appearance as totally imperceptible behind a curtain of nothingness. The Kabbalah sought to know something about the Infinite God by studying how the Divine is received within finite creation. One of key concept that it used in this pursuit was the idea that Scriptures contained several senses beyond what we read on the surface. This esoteric thinking encouraged the free inquiry into the depths of science and philosophy that has motivated intellectual Jewish tradition. Reading between the lines, the Kabblah suggests that the Divine truths of Scriptures are available not only by penetrating the internal sense of Scriptures, but also through carefully studying the world of nature, which is structured in some image of God, therefore, the study of which would act as an important adjunct to revelation.

It is interesting to note that some western thinkers enthusiastically delved into the ideas of the Kabbalah and probably spread its influence into Christian thought. Saint Ignatius of Loyola, no less, was a student of the Kabbalah, for which he was busted by the Inquisition in Spain and had to flee to France to escape its wrath.

The dualism of Des Cartes

Meanwhile, Christian tradition struggled with trying to reconcile the problem of mind, body and their interaction that was created by neo Platonism that Forms impress themselves onto a passive substrate in nature and the ideas of souls from some higher realm. Descartes (1596-1650) associated the area of Forms in human life with the realm of the mind in a philosophy called dualism. After all, the miind is where the beginnings of human action exist. Therefore, this must be the realm of the soul, which both Plato and Aristotle recognized as existing in the realm of ideal forms. Both had the idea that the human souls themselves had several levels of operation. The difference in their thinking was that Aristotle thought that the human soul was mortal, whereas Plato thought that it was immortal, thus capable of surviving the death of the body. Descartes favored Platonic ideas; and he proposed a solution of the mind body problem by postulating creation as having a dual structure: the level of the mind (above), which has no extension and is immortal, and the level of the physical body(below), which cannot of itself think and is mortal.

Introduction of Jewish thought through Spinoza

After Des Cartes another Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, who lived in Holland, made significant contributions to mainstream European philosophy. By uniting and harmonizing Catesian thought with Jewish tradition.

Baruch Spinoza (born Benedito de Espinosa on 24 November 1632, died 21 February 1677, known the latter part of his life also as Benedict de Spinoza) was a Dutch philosopher whose ancestors were Sephardic Jews expelled from Northern Spain in 1492 into Portugal, where subsequently they were forced into Christinaity (anusim).  Later his family fled to the Netherlands where they could practice Judaism in freedom. His ideas were so far out in relation to both Jewish and Christian traditions that he was essentially "excommunicated" from Judaism and his books were put on the index of forbidden works by the Vatican.

Perhaps the Jewish community sanctioned Spinoza for his ideas about God, which departed significantly from Jewish traditional thought and even esoteric thought. Spinoza reasoned in his book on "Ethics" publish posthumously by his friends, which begins with a section "On God", that God is infinite substance, which is the substrate of all creation and the cause of all existing substances. Thus God did not create all things ex nihilo, but rather, brought them into being from his own substance. This idea was no doubt offensive to the Catholic church because of its contradiction to the churche's doctrine. Spinoza's ideas about God have been since  branded as materialistic, and many think that his god is synonymous with the universe. Perhaps, Spinoza was deeply misunderstood both by Christians and Jews and by many people today. When Einstein spoke about God, many contemporary people express the idea that Einstein was referring to Spinoza's god.

As the Greek ones did, modern philosophers also speak about God, but with various degrees of meaning, ironically, sometimes allegorically.

Spinoza' s god is a term that sometimes used for the idea that god is the same as the universe. Some people say that when Einstein spoke about god and wanting to to know the mind of god, he was actually speaking about the universe and wanting to know how it works. Few remain among serious secular scholars who by God understand the Infinite One Creator of scriptures. Perhaps the last such a luminary was Emanuel Swedenborg whose theology and philosophy covers and harmonizes the whole scope of ideas discussed above. His philosophy and theology are discussed in the following session, which is labeled Part II.

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