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On materiality and emergence

What does it mean for some thing to exist?

Amidst a bar brawl one of the drunks picks up an empty bottle and hurls it at the other end of the room. The object travels in a given direction at a certain speed. We can measure those magnitudes. If the bottle hits its target, and if that happens to be another fellow, they feel the impact, experiencing it as pain. Such a phenomenon can also be empirically validated. So we may think that the bottle exists because we can confirm its presence by relying on our faculties of sense. Put differently, we can apply the principle of correspondence to assess whether an impression maps to some event.

What about notions? Can we measure those in such a way? An idea cannot be thrown at you. It will not make you bleed. And so it may not be measured by using the same method that applies to the flying bottle that moves through the pub. Should we then infer that the idea does not exist?

Let us take a step back and consider a parallel to the example with the irate drunk tossing bottles around. Think of a mental stimulus, a phobia, a trauma, or just a dream. The thought of something is sufficient to provide a stimulus which triggers a chain of events in one’s body that are ultimately understood as fear, stress, or some other emotion. Words can hurt your feelings. The sound of an explosion can send shivers down one’s spine who has lived through a certain traumatic experience. Some flatterer’s compliments can boost your ego and, indirectly, alter your behaviour.

If an idea can be traced as the cause of a phenomenon, or of a series of phenomena and their epiphenomena, then we cannot afford to argue that it does not exist simply because it is intangible; at least “intangible” when compared to how a bottle is something you can grasp.

What if ideas are patterns of biochemical activity that are interpreted as meanings, with the latter being functionally equivalent patterns whose application differs from the former in that they are intended to be stored in our memory, else form part of our stock of knowledge? The “stock of knowledge” may itself be reducible to biological processes that render their outcome as permanent, the same way a muscle is said to develop and retain memory. In a world where matter is a form of energy, why can’t ideas be examined in terms of their effective materiality?

While we could employ linguistic means to disambiguate the two types of existence considered thus far, I am of the view that such an exercise concerns a secondary classification. Both are the subject of ontology and my intent right now is to rethink the analytical framework we have for noetic (of the mind or intellect) and empirical presences (of the faculties of sense) rather than directly proceed to delineate and describe that domain.

What distinguishes beings is their mode [of being], their tropos, else the pattern we associate with them. Water and ice can be conceived differently by recognising that one is liquid and the other is solid; that one is between a certain range of temperatures, while the other is below that level. However we go about it, we are essentially discerning patterns in an otherwise uniform, continuous world where water can be liquid, or solid, or vapour, or where the elements that constitute water may be diffused and be fused anew in combination with other elements to derive other forms of being.

This is not to claim that all that exists is essentially the same. That may be the case reductively, though the world as we understand it is not reductive in its actuality. The point is to appreciate the importance of the pattern. That is what matters, in the same way it does in our common tongue where a given combination of the letters, say, “d” “g” “o” can be assembled in such a way as to mean “dog” or “god”. Same constituents, profoundly different concepts as well as diverging narratives and concomitant significations.

One could posit that ideas have an element of subjectivity to them, a kind of arbitrariness or indeterminacy which is not present in the objective world; the world of the bottle (“…. or the dog”, adds the atheist). The argument would be that ideas are in one’s mind and different people may assign a unique meaning to a superficially common concept, to the effect that they no longer denote the same ‘thing’. Someone who is a regular at the local pub associates a bottle of their favourite beverage with socialisation and joy, while another who holds other values only treats it as a dangerous temptation. Such subjectivity must mean that we cannot equate the notion of a bottle with the instance of one.

Equivalence in what sense though? Is it in their capacity to be examined empirically? Sure, they are not the same in that regard. Such is a lateral methodological consideration that may, inter alia, hint at the inadequacy of the method itself in capturing a given truth. Perhaps a one-size-fits-all postulate about methodology is wrong. How about equivalence in the sense that both partake of being? What does that suggest about our pretences to objectivity or our claims on its extent?

Our notion of the objective world consists of the totality of forms of being that are impressed upon us in accordance with what is believed to be the baseline of human faculties of sense and intellect. In other words, when everyone sees a bottle, the bottle is believed to be visible beyond doubt and, by extension, to exist. How does a bottle render itself present to someone who lacks sight and who has never touched neither a bottle nor that particular item that everyone else agrees upon its presence? What is the taste of a beverage to whom has never consumed it or anything of its kind? How does an experience unlike all others reveal its secrets to someone who has never gone through it? And how can the empirically verifiable traits of a certain object be touted as indisputably objective when they too are a function of the agent of the inquiry into their particularities and of the specific method involved? In other words, how can you so blithely remove the student and their instruments from the topic being studied, while insisting that the latter has a standalone, decontextualised presence?

A decontextualised being can only be conceived as such. Objectivity of this sort is the idealised midpoint of common subjectivity that is peculiar to the human species and, quite likely, to other forms of life, including animals and plants. There is no variant of an objective reality that is not contingent on the subject’s nature, the subject’s inherent abilities to experience it, reason about it, and draw inferences therefrom.

Such insight does not imply that the world is profoundly subjective, in the sense that it is a manifestation of our mind’s inner operations, whatever such a hypothesis may entail. Rather, the dichotomy we try to introduce between noetic and empirical magnitudes is tenuous as it rests on a tacit medium of interpretation, else judgement, that conceals itself as a prior truth. We should be careful not to fall into the dogmatist’s trap of vindicating the categories we already assume as constant. This requires us to be mindful of what we mean by “objectivity” and to apply the dialectical ethos consistently, so that we remain sceptical of everything, including the adequacy and propriety of our own endeavours (also read The Dialectician’s Ethos (2020-09-30)).

Notwithstanding any remaining theses on the topic of objectivity and related epistemology, there is another sense in which we must critically assess claims on some thing’s existence: emergence. The thought of a dog brings happiness to its human friend, as does the sight of that same canine. Such a form of life is not singular though. It rather stands as a system of systems that collectively manifest as the pattern we interpret as “this dog” or “dog” in general. The supersystem, which we also refer to as the “organism”, consists of subsystems, each of which is governed both by the rules of its environment—the supersystem and its supersystems—as well as its own domain-specific ones. Each of those subsystems is itself a supersystem of yet more specialised subsystems, and so on.

Emergence means that there is a stratum of being that is superjacent to its contributing or underlying strata. Such a stratum can more commonly be understood by approximation, as a domain of application for a given research programme (also read Notes on the modes of Scepticism (2017-07-28)). For example, a canine trainer only operates at the stratum of the dog as a whole, while a veterinarian has expertise in the organs that form part of the specimen’s constitution.

The vulgar notion that the dog exists implies that the animal is a unit, thus ignoring the stratification of emergence here considered. It is, in other words, couched in terms of an arbitrary generalisation about the scope of a certain stratum of emergence (also read On the nature-convention divide (2020-08-10)). Existence of this sort is associated with a life form, to the effect that the dog is perceived as a singular entity. Yet it can just as well be conceived as a being that emerges from the interplay between other forms of life. The emergent tropos of a given dog and of dog in general, is possible because all those subsystems exist; though not merely as being present, but rather in a given configuration, a specific pattern.

To understand this dog or dog in general, we must study the constitution of each case. We must be prepared to treat emergence not as the originator of a life form, but as a stage of modality that defines a subset of the world, which we choose to treat as a standalone, decontextualised presence.

If an emergent form of life can exist as the product of a specific set of interlinked and interlocking operations between subsystems that are, in such particular case, factors of said emergent stratum, then that which may derive from the biochemical processes that yield thoughts must also partake of being. Matter, else a state of materiality, is but a tropos, a pattern in an otherwise universally interconnected space (see Notes on object and environment properties (2019-04-23)).

How do we then draw a demarcation line between sheer fantasy and some scientific hypothesis? Is it impossible to differentiate a fable from a historical event, notwithstanding lies that are recorded as facts? No, do not panic. We can still rely on our heuristics for filtering information and understanding the world around us. The nuanced take is not whether some fantasy conforms with the principle of correspondence, whether it maps to some event that our objectivity can parse, but rather how such a fantasy can have material implications on a given person or a group thereof.

Some athlete firmly believes that they are the best in their league. This unflinching commitment to what may be fantasy, motivates them to perform at the peak of their powers and to always strive for the best possible outcome. Soldiers on the battlefield are indoctrinated into thinking that they are giving their life for their country, with “their country” also attaining a possessive sense of owning something, even though their homeland is nothing more than the fief of some unjust oligarchy. Insofar as the motivation itself is concerned or, more broadly, the effectiveness of an expedient untruth, the principle of correspondence is not only irrelevant, but outright inappropriate as an instrument for studying the phenomenon at hand.

The key is to avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism which, in our example, coincide with naive empiricism or some neighbouring brand of scientism. Instead of trying to draw lines that mark the borders of what our current state of conscience wishes to determine as the province of the intelligible and verifiable, let us adopt an open-ended disposition towards knowledge and learning (also read On nihilism, scepticism, absolutism (2020-02-29)). To rethink everything we have hitherto taken for granted and cast it under a new light.

Are we prepared to step outside our comfort zone? Do we have the mental endurance to relentlessly question ourselves and venture into the great unknown? Can the understandably fearful animal overcome its fears? Though not through knowledge, as you may have been conditioned into believing, but by acknowledging the possibility of not knowing and by managing to live in peace with that notion.

Tranquillity presupposes humility, abstinence from hubris.