This past term I’ve been teaching a capstone class in which students are supposed to write a longer paper on some topic that means a lot to them. It’s meant to be a culminating event for their undergraduate work in philosophy. The class is always a fun exchange of ideas in which I can just participate rather than lead. It’s unfortunate that the COVID-19 virus came along – for many more serious reasons, of course, but also because it meant our seminar meetings were cut short, and we didn’t get to continue having the fun we were having.
I decided this term to write my own “undergraduate thesis on a topic that means a lot to me”, and came up with the following treatise on the nature of reality. I may as well post it here!
Structure, energy, reality
(from the ICERM website at Brown University)
In this brief essay I will advocate the view that reality is a collection of possible mathematical structures infused with energy. There are many important questions I will not answer, such as what determines the range of mathematical possibility, what energy is, how a possible structure comes to be infused with energy, or whether there are any mathematical structures not infused with energy, in some universe or other. These are vital questions, but I do not know the answers to them. Still, one has to start somewhere. To provide a clear account of my view, I will divide this essay into three sections: (1) math as form; (2) energy as matter; and (3) the differences levels of interpretation make.
1. Math as form
Aristotle was right to think of substances as form united with matter, and right again to think of form as the more important of the two. When we seek to explain natural things or events, we always must turn to the form or structure of the things or events. When some atoms combine to form a molecule, what really matters are the structures of those atoms and their valences; the brute matter composing the atoms does not enter into the explanation, except as that matter is represented through structural and electrical properties. In this sense, materialism, understood literally as the view that everything is composed of matter, is false. If it were true, one would never be able to explain anything. There must be form as well as matter, and in any explanation, form matters more.
It might seem like form is not as real as matter, because form is usually not available to our senses except by being present in matter. We never see sphericality, but we see billiard balls and planets, and we might think of sphericality as a property that depends for its existence on some material substrate that has greater ontological weight. But this is an illusion that comes from the ways we are taught to talk about our sensory experience. When we become more serious about reality, we learn to talk about objects in the world independently of how they appear to us, and we try to talk about the world as it is in itself. As we do so, we begin to speak exclusively of the formal properties of objects: their structures, how they move, what other powers or properties they have, the range of ways they can affect other objects, and so on. The language of science is a language ranging over nature’s formal properties, and learning to speak it means leaving behind the ordinary supposition that material substrates are more important than the forms or structures they have.