Substance and Form

As generalists, we constantly interpret our sensory inputs, improving on our raw senses by relying on our internal model of the world. In our mind’s eye, we typically model the physical world as objects, of various materials and shapes.

In addition to our senses and our big brains, we are uniquely equipped with hands, with which we interact with the various objects that surround us, from the moment we are born. Our hands can turn things around, bring them closer to our eyes or nose, hold them still, or discard them when they no longer hold our interest. We can use our hands to point to the thing that we are talking about, cup water in them, throw and catch objects, dig. Once we have learned to use our hands, they become almost thoughtless extensions of our will in the world.

With our hands, we can change the shape of objects. Cave paintings, bone flutes, stone tools have been discovered, tens of thousands of years old, much older than recorded history. And no doubt most of what we created then has not survived the ages: most pliable materials available, such as wood, leather, feathers, hair, will have rotted long ago and lost its form.

Any ethnographic or anthropological study of the different human tribes reveals the bewildering variety of shapes and forms that humans pose, even on their own bodies. Clothes, dyes, jewellery are a given in any society, visible embodiments of the social drive of humans. But more permanent modifications to the body can also happen, like ornamental scarring or filing of teeth, and even dangerous adjustments of the growing skeletal structure like skull-binding or neck-stretching.

It is natural for us to understand the world in terms of hylomorphism: Take a piece of some readily available material, like wood (hyle), and work (morph) it until it looks like some other object. All things that are real and physical are always combinations of material and form. In other words, matter cannot appear out of nowhere, nor disappear; it can only change form.

The internal model of the world inside the human mind is of course not subject to these restrictions. In the mind’s eye we can easily separate the shape of an object, or the properties of materials, from an object, and regard them as abstract categories of existence. An important feature of the internal model is the ability to consider possibilities that are not actually present. For example, to successfully craft an object to a desired shape we need to have some kind of a plan or idea of how it should look when it is finished.

Now in the 21st century, we can use computers to create just about any object we can think of, from a city to a molecule, view its shape on the screen while doing so, try on different materials and arrangements until we are satisfied; before sending it to a fab, perhaps on the other side of the planet, to be “3D-printed” into an actual physical object. We are not yet even close to the accurate placement of individual atoms in the manufacture of molecules, and we don’t entirely understand how arbitrary DNA might fold into a protein, but these and other details are being worked on.

Since we can use information technology to manipulate non-existing objects, and transmit their shape to the other side of the world, it would seem that information has consumed the ‘form’ part of hylomorphism. In a larger sense, the blueprints of the objects we can manufacture can also be considered mathematical formulas, or some extended category of language. In practice, digital information can be used to represent both.

The part of ‘hyle’ is played by energy in modern physics.

The part of ‘hyle’, the primary substance of all physical objects, is played by energy in modern physics. The quantity of energy in a closed system is constant, only its form can change. All matter is composed of elementary particles, quantums of energy with either mass-like or radiation-like appearance (or both).

Even with these modern refinements, the basic paradigm of hylomorphism stands: in the physical world, substance and form are always intrinsically entangled. Even though it seems that the information we store on a computer and transmit across the globe is completely immaterial, in practice the process of reliably storing or transferring digital information always consumes energy, our new hyle, in some form and quantity.


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