Part III: Causal Rivers

Our connection to the world is dependent on how we choose to see it. Sensory perception does not provide us with information about how the world is organized or how one thing affects another. For that, we depend on concepts about how things are related to each other, judgments, and the organization of concepts. Most things we perceive with the senses are attached to a concept we hold: I see an object and immediately associate it with “coffee cup,” I see another and I associate it with “chair.” These concepts are described in language, and it is through the language that we think and organize our world. However, for one who has a scientific understanding of the world, an individual can exercise imagination in conjunction with one’s knowledge and understanding in order to conceive (not perceive) the world in a different light: a light in which the nature of things appears radically different. Is this a more “true” way? I am not sure. But it is an alternative way, and one that shines light on truth in a different way that the sort of immediate naive way that we encounter the world when we are not reflecting like this. And so even if no single view is “more true,” the holding of both ways simultaneously brings us closer to the truth. 

Is an organism’s body a real thing, or is it better understood as a concept for something that is not a distinct thing?

Imagine an ordinary tub of water, calm and flat. No current or variations in pressure. Is there one body of water within that tub, or many? With our intellect, we can imagine the left half as distinct from the right half, and each of those halves divided further, and so on. Or we can divide the water in a different way, conceiving the shape of a cat within the water, and only that water that would compose the cat. (Or start my imagining a regular cat, or a ‘meet-bone-fur cat’ submerged in the water, then imagine all the molecules of the ‘meet-bone-fur cat’ turned into water. You are now thinking of a water cat.) The matter within the water cat is not the same matter as outside the water cat. There are different water molecules within the water cat and without. And using this as a model, we understand that there are infinite water objects and shapes within this tub. There is one shape for the “all-water-in-tub:” one shape that is identical to the sum total of all the water in the tub. But for all other divisions, there are a functionally infinite variety. There are even an infinite variety of shapes that compose 99% of the water, since there are an infinite groupings of 1%. They are composed of exactly similar molecules, but not identical molecules: they do not share identity.

Now imagine a river, with all the molecules moving at the same rate and velocity down a perfectly straight channel, such as a canal. This is never the actual situation–it would require magic–but we start here conceptually.  If all the molecules are moving together, then a water cat in this river maintains its consistency. If we let lose some of the magical binding and water molecules move more naturally, then the water cat loses its consistency as quickly as it does in the river. But now introduce a current, or an eddy, a ripple, or wave: some case in which some water moves at a different velocity–a different speed or direction. The molecules in that current are no different than the molecules outside the current. And molecules enter the current as others leave. The important thing about the current is that the current can be identified as a currentbecause some molecules are moving together in a more determinate way than the molecules outside that current. Identity arises from molecules moving together, not from something distinct or permanent in the current. Think of watching a bonfire, or the fire in a fire place: tendrils of flame come into existence and out, almost too quickly for us to recognize them as distinct things. But they are distinct things–only they move very quickly.

To remind us of our question: how is the body of a living organism like that of the tendril of a flame or the current in a river? Is the body merely a slow moving tendril?

One might say, “but all these things, like the water cat, are not real things. Even though they have their distinct locations and divided the water molecules between those that are internal to the thing and external to the thing, the thing’s distinct existence is dependent on a mind conceiving of it. There is nothing within the body of water that grants existence to the thing. Furthermore, even though we can imagine the water as still, and some molecules being within the thing and others external, there is still a movement within the molecules. And if the molecules that gave shape to the water cat could somehow be tagged and colored without changing its material composition, so that the water cat were visible and recognizable as a cat, we would see that its existence were only fleeting. For the inherent vibrations of water molecules would slowly shake the form of the water cat, and it would slowly disperse, until the water cat were evenly distributed throughout the entire tub, losing all sense of identity.”

This is a fair way of looking at things. It is dependent on a choice of what is meant by “real.” The water cat has material composition. It has a shape. And so if “real” depends on having material existence and form, then the water cat fulfills the necessary conditions for being real. So why would one say it isn’t real? The only option is that the water cat cannot be distinguished from the water around it in the way we normally distinguish objects from the matter around it. There is a coffee cup on my desk. The surface of the coffee cup is entirely surrounded by air, coffee, and my desk.  (We normally say the coffee is inside the coffee cup, but does the coffee cup include the concave recess usually filled with air? In other words, is the coffee cup made mostly of air? Or is the coffee cup just the ceramic body? When we say, “the cup has coffee in it,” do we actually mean the coffee is inside the cup, or is this just a broken convention of our speech?)

But how different is this than any other thing that we encounter? Most things we encounter, we encounter because they move slowly. There is a coffee mug in front of me. It is given to me as a single, stable object. I have owned this coffee mug for about one year, and it looks almost exactly the same as it did when I removed it from its packaging. If I don’t accidentally drop it, it may last years and years. And if preserved well, it could possibly last hundreds or thousands of years. But in all this time, it is still in a slow process of decay. The mug came into existence at some mug factory, built and processed from its composite form. At some point, the clay that it was melded possibly in a large pool or block or some other homogeneous substance from which dozens or hundreds of other mugs were eventually crafted.

In short, the coffee cup as it sits on my desk is simply a instant in a long-lasting river of material causes and effects. At this point in the mug’s existence, the “water” of the river, ie, the shape and form of the ceramic material, is calm, and it looks static to us. But the streams of causation extend back to the beginning of all things, and slowly, without purpose or design, came together: the moment when the mug is given as the mug is now seen as different rivers joining together to form one. And this stream persists through time, still changing, slowly becoming more fragile as bonds loosen and the structure becomes more imperceptibly more brittle over time. And at some point, the cup will come apart, and that is when rivers divide and the mug loses its individuality.

This is just a slower decay than that of the water cat slowly dispersing.

Now we take this conceptual model and move from the relatively slow moving causal river of a coffee mug to the swifter river of a living organism. And we can use our own bodies as a model for this, since the relevant features are common among most species…

~ by Kamran Swanson on May 18, 2016.

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