Forms and Essences

In the past, I’ve written about the origins of religion and how belief in gods likely arises from one of humanity’s most common psychological fallacies, the tendency to attribute agency where none exists. (When was the last time you got angry at your computer and felt as if it was trying to balk you? It happens to me much too often – even when I know there’s no one inside there.)

There’s another, related tendency that often manifests in religious belief, which is that human beings are concrete, categorizing thinkers. Our ability to create abstractions and parse the world into categories is a very successful strategy, one that forms the basis of our science, but it can be taken too far. That point is passed when we lose sight of the fact that our abstractions and categories are just mental conveniences, and begin treating them as if they were real things in their own right. In short, we’re susceptible to reification.

One species of reification is the belief that things of this world inherit their nature from cosmic archetypes that exist on another plane. This, of course, is Plato’s idea of “eternal forms”, and the influence it’s had on religion has been enormous. In all the offshoots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we find beliefs about how things that exist on Earth are imperfect reflections of perfect processes in Heaven. Thus, in Christianity, we encounter beliefs that the ritual animal sacrifices of Temple Judaism were inferior precursors to Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice of himself. In Islam, each earthly copy of the Qur’an is thought to be a mirror of a preexistent heavenly copy.

But more than anything else, the belief in forms has been the underpinning of creationism. To the naive observer – and the most creationists past and present certainly fall under that category – most living species appear to be distinct, and this supports their conclusion that all life can be classified into “created kinds”, which are divided from each other by boundaries beyond which evolution cannot go. Of course, if you include all living species and not just a few carefully chosen representatives, many of the seemingly wide gaps shrink by a significant margin; if you include the many more extinct species known to us by fossils and other traces, those gaps contract still more; and if you examine the genetic commonalities that form a nested hierarchy of descent, the gaps disappear entirely.

A similar concept is the idea of the “essence”, as if the qualities that define a thing had an objective existence all their own and could be distilled and extracted like a rare liquid. Again, it seems to be natural for us to think in this way. Consider how easily we accept the notion that Cupid’s arrows could be coated with the pure essence of love or that a particular stone or plant could be impregnated with good luck, or how many tribes have believed that they would acquire the qualities of animals by consuming those animals. Or consider the classic sci-fi plot, dating back to Robert Louis Stevenson, of splitting a person into their “good side” and “evil side” – as though these were two separate essences mixed together in the same body, and one or the other could be made to precipitate out of solution by the right technique.

But most of all, the idea of essences gave birth to the notion of the soul. It causes people to think erroneously that the information-processing activity of the mind is not just the product of the brain’s functioning, but a separate thing in its own right that can exist independently and survive the death of the body. Given what we now know about how the brain works, this makes about as much sense as believing that a computer could continue to process data and display programs after its hard drive and CPU have been melted down. But when our tendency to reification is not checked by evidence, humans are natural dualists, and find little difficulty in believing in ghosts in the machine.

When well-chosen, our mental patterns accurately capture the way the world is organized and may even point to hidden truths. Consider the twin nested hierarchy of evolution, or Mendelev’s successful prediction of undiscovered elements based on the gaps in his periodic table. But even in this case, we must take care to resist the trap of reification. Many superstitions have been born in the minds of people who failed to realize that the patterns they saw were descriptive conveniences, artifacts of human perception, and not things in their own right.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Maynard

    Ghost in the machine, dualism, soul, whatever you call it, has always been a nagging thought that I find hard to shake. I’ve even explained it to myself that the energy in the brain and nerves doesn’t transfer after death but can somehow cling together to create an outside body experience. Science just isn’t able to measure that energy yet! Of course I never could figure out how the energy was able to process new information without stimulus receptors like eyes, ears, skin, etc.
    Luckily I have found blogs (and commentors) like this that remind me that such leaps to a conclusion aren’t good and I should wait until science proves me right. (Or wrong. Probably wrong.)

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com Superhappyjen

    Actually, computers (and all other mechanical devices) are inhabited by tiny little elves and gremlins who control all the machines functions. Elves do things for us, and gremlins create problems and errors. I have proof!
    - even though I only have a couple Cher songs on my iTunes, the computer elves will play these over and over while on random.
    - the elves and gremlins in my husbands computer hate me and will perform better for him, even if I am using the same commands.
    -The recorded voice on my answering machine sounds angrier if I haven’t checked messages in a while.
    And there are many more examples that conclusively prove the existence of these tiny creatures.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Actually, computers (and all other mechanical devices) are inhabited by tiny little elves and gremlins who control all the machines functions. Elves do things for us, and gremlins create problems and errors. I have proof!

    Fairy ’nuff! I believe you :)

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Ebon, very thoughtful post and would agree with the argument that categorical thinking could inform creationism. I’m slightly at a loss with this though:

    One species of reification is the belief that things of this world inherit their nature from cosmic archetypes that exist on another plane. This, of course, is Plato’s idea of “eternal forms”, and the influence it’s had on religion has been enormous. In all the offshoots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we find beliefs about how things that exist on Earth are imperfect reflections of perfect processes in Heaven. Thus, in Christianity, we encounter beliefs that the ritual animal sacrifices of Temple Judaism were inferior precursors to Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice of himself. In Islam, each earthly copy of the Qur’an is thought to be a mirror of a preexistent heavenly copy.

    could you clarify for me why “eternal forms” should also be a result of this kind of mind? I mean I understand (I think) Plato’s cave analogy etc. but I’m not sure how it fits into your thesis.

  • Christopher

    could you clarify for me why “eternal forms” should also be a result of this kind of mind?

    According to Plato, all that is seen on earth is a mere immitation of a “higher form” – a form that exists in a relm that is incorruptable and can only be accessed through the mind (as he thought that “mind” was distinct from matter: a *huge* mistake on his part). Supposedly, as the mind exercies its “higher reasoning” it would gain a window into this world and see how the versions of those things we know differ from their “true form.”

    I’m in the opposite philosophical camp – I see any “essence” of a thing to be merely a construct of the mind (which isn’t separate from matter, BTW) and I see it as being all too pliable; merely getting people to accept a differing concept of a thing (ex. a new definition for a word or a different outlook on an action) is enough to alter said thing’s “essence.” Rather than things immitating a “perfect essence,” the “essence” immitates how things are perceived – and said “essence” is destroyed along with the mind that conceives it (as it can’t exist all on its own).

  • Reformed Agnostic

    Awareness of universals is called conceiving, and a universal of which we are aware is called a concept.

    –Bertrand Russell

    I like Aristotle’s refinement of eidos–his is still aspatial and atemporal, but grounded in nature, causality and is non-teleological. Ernst Mayr suggested when translating Aristotle you use “genetic program” for eidos

  • Leum

    Good post. I’d like to see more along these lines, please (especially with respect to debunking the soul).

    Buddhism takes this idea to it’s antithesis: the very concept of self (not an eternally existing one, the idea that you can say “I” and “me” and “you” and be saying something meaningful) is considered an illusion.

    The idea of essence also has a negative effect on our society. We see people as being essentially criminal or poor or hardworking. We can’t imagine our friends (or enemies) changing. When we find new aspects of people we feel they’ve been lying or concealing their true self from us.

  • Alex, FCD

    Buddhism takes this idea to it’s antithesis: the very concept of self (not an eternally existing one, the idea that you can say “I” and “me” and “you” and be saying something meaningful) is considered an illusion.

    I’ve never been able to understand how this idea can peacefully coexist with reincarnation.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Or consider the classic sci-fi plot, dating back to Robert Louis Stevenson, of splitting a person into their “good side” and “evil side”…

    And consider another widespread popular culture trope: switching bodies. Same thing. It’s a useful and funny device (well, sometimes — they did it well on Buffy), but it only works if you assume that the essence of the self is somehow separate from the brain and body. I mean, what would it even mean to be yourself in another person’s brain? Wouldn’t you have their memories, their reflexes, their emotional responses, their synaptic pathways?

    Back in my woo days, I read something that struck me as really deep at the time, about how it’s a mistake to say that you have a soul: you are a soul, the writer said, who has a body. But now I’m with Walt Whitman. The body is the soul. Given the wealth of evidence we now have, no other explanation makes sense.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    My problem with your post is that you essentially attack the currently unfalsifiable, and that makes you no better than creationists and ID’rs who embrace the unfalsifiable, IMO.

    You simply handwave and make the broad claim that all instances of perceived design or metaphysicisim can be successfully relegated to pareidolia or apophenia. I, personally, don’t have any evidence that the idea of essences gave birth to the notion of the soul, so I’ll leave that well alone, noting that you take liberty which I do not. Secondly, I disagree that the activity of the mind is just the product of the brain’s functioning, I found A Ghost In The Machine badly unconvincing, and would love to hear a detailed response to any point in the (so far) three-part critique. Also, in light of some of the comments on the Annivesary #3 thread, let me offer that I’m willing to participate in a controlled debate on this forum regarding this or any other issue.

    I don’t understand why so many science-lovers get closed-minded when it comes to post-mortem thinking. After all, the general trend of science has been to reveal that reality is exponentially bigger, infinitesimally smaller and vastly more complex than what was once beyond our weirdest and wildest dreams, right? I mean come on, beer galaxies? Instead of producing insurmountable discontinuities, the horizons of human knowledge and objective reality tend to expand astronomically. We used to think this world was all there was. We were wrong. We used to think this solar system was all there was. We were wrong. Some of us think that this universe is all there is. Especially in light of emerging evidence, isn’t there a good chance that they, too, are wrong?

    Seriously. We hide behind Carl Sagan and discredit as veridically worthless that which we cannot currently falsify, yet thousands of years before we proved the existence of asteroids, their relevance to our lives was of paramount importance. Truth is, nearly every time we try to put a limit on what Nature can do, it is us who ends up looking the fools, often badly.

    When we die, one of at least two things is going to happen: We’re either going to re-awake in another of who-knows-how-many possible places, or our consciousness is simply going to cease to exist. Now, of course there’s no scientific proof either way; I’m not talking about proof, I’m not talking about evidence, and I’m not even talking in the context of making a specific truth-claim for anything, rather, asking a question that I think skeptics and atheists cannot honestly answer in the negative: Given the fact that nearly every time scientists have tried to set limits on reality, they’ve been wrong, is this trend not sufficient preliminary justification for the idea that perhaps life, death and this universe themselves are not discontinuities, that perhaps, as our Earthist views of life eventually crumbled, that perhaps one day our Universist views of life will also crumble, too?

    Point is, there’s always been far more to reality than we imagine, and to insist otherwise seems out-of-character, especially from anyone who knows anything about the history of science.

  • Leum

    cl, there is one area in which science has not expanded, that of the ability of the mind to perceive the world in ways the sense cannot (e.g. telepathy, telekinesis, divination, mind-reading, etc). Whenever we’ve looked into the nature of how the mind can interact with the world outside the senses, the result has consistently been that no such abilities exist. The idea of a soul–and post-mortem existence–at it’s essence, is that there is something about us not-touch, not-taste, not-sight, not-smell, not-hearing that can interact with the universe. In this area science has been a consistently limiting factor.

    Alex, I also don’t understand how Buddhists resolve anatta (the doctrine of no-self) with rebirth. I’ve talked with a Buddhist who sees the idea of rebirth as purely metaphorical, but have also read long, convoluted essays attempting to reconcile the two often without ever admitting that there might be a contradiction (it’s a strange position, like reading an explanation of how the problem of evil and God’s omnibenevolence fit together without even acknowledging that some people see a contradiction).

  • silentsanta

    I’d just like to add that I think it is this same adamant, childish faith in these mental categories that underscores anti-homosexual bigotry.
    Anyone with even an ounce of appropriate training knows that human sexual categories are not discrete, even phenotypically. People with Kleinfelter’s syndrome, or Androgen insensitivity syndrome demonstrate that our conventional ideas about ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ break down when looked at closely.
    Once we understand that even the physical manifestation of gender is a blurry continuum, it becomes absurd to expect peoples behaviors to fit in little boxes we learned in children’s books.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    could you clarify for me why “eternal forms” should also be a result of this kind of mind? I mean I understand (I think) Plato’s cave analogy etc. but I’m not sure how it fits into your thesis.

    Sure thing. Plato’s theory of forms held that the objects we see and interact with every day were just imperfect reflections of a higher, ethereal reality of pure archetypes – that there is a perfect equilateral triangle, a perfect table, a perfect tree, a perfect rabbit – and material objects inherit their nature from these pure forms, much as shadows on a cave wall imperfectly convey something of the nature of the true objects whose shadows they are.

    In essence, Plato’s fallacy was to divide the world into categories, and then assume that the categories themselves were real things that existed in their own right.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    I’ve never been able to understand how this idea can peacefully coexist with reincarnation.

    Neither have I, and this is probably the only reason that I’m not a Buddhist.

    could you clarify for me why “eternal forms” should also be a result of this kind of mind?

    Christopher gives a nice, succinct explanation of Plato’s general idea, and here is a simple, specific example. Think about chairs, all the chairs you have ever encountered, and what exactly it is that makes a chair be a chair (aside from “that’s what people call it”). According to Plato, all physical chairs are imperfect Earthly incarnations of some metaphysical “chairness,” a Platonic form of Chair which inheres in chair-like objects and makes them be chairs. It is this “essence of chair” that makes Earthly chairs “chair-like.” This is, of course, metaphysically backwards: it is not any ethereal “chairness” that makes chairs chair-like, but rather that human chair-makers have some idea of a chair in mind when they craft such things, and it is only our familiarity with these patterns which causes us to recognize chairs as chairs – not some mystical chairness. In other words, Plato supposed that chairness is in Earthly chairs, and this essence is what fuels our thoughts of chairs; in reality, Earthly chairs are simply “atoms arranged chair-wise,” and “chair-wise” is nothing but a pattern in our heads which we impose upon the world (mentally, when recognizing chairs; physically, when making chairs).

    After writing “chair” so many times, that word just looks wrong to me. At any rate, the point is that this kind of mindset (that there is a “higher realm” of which this Earthly plane is merely an imperfect reflection, or trial run, or what-have-you) fuels a whole lot of superstitious nonsense. Not just Plato’s forms, but also humanity being made in some deity’s image, or archetypal deities, or whatever your dualistic superstition du jour may be. The dualism is all in our heads – there is no higher realm, there is only the reality in which we find ourselves, however convoluted or counterintuitive it may be (our intuitions, after all, are merely artifacts of evolutionary convenience). Now apply this idea to things like “beer galaxies,” and we see that any supposed “weirdness” we find is also all in our heads: the Universe simply is the way it is, and it is only our preconceived notions of “how things should be” which are shattered upon encountering the mind-blowing reality of… well, reality. There simply is no “way things should be,” metaphysically; there is only the way things are, and the ever-narrowing-yet-never-closing gulf between that and our conceptions of it.

    TL;DR version: Dualism, in all its flavors, is nothing but an attempt to bridge the gap between reality and our conception of it, without actually going to the trouble of empirically traversing it as far as we are able.

    [Is it not reasonable to suppose] that perhaps, as our Earthist views of life eventually crumbled, that perhaps one day our Universist views of life will also crumble, too?

    Perhaps, cl; but that depends on how we define “Universe.” For my own part, I define “the Universe” as “all that exists,” whether or not certain of those existents may interact in any way at all with certain others. In other words, if there are “multiple Universes” (in the common parlance), I see them all simply as “facets” of one single multifaceted Universe. As for whether or not a “multifaceted Universe” is the case, I simply withhold belief one way or another (but I am epistemologically prepared for evidence either way).

    To get at the meat of your question (or at least, as I understand it), a highly qualified “yes” is my answer. Yes, it is possible (as far as I know) for all manner of crazy things to actually be the case, whether or not we have any power to discover, verify, or even conceive of such things – and it is reasonable to recognize that our expectations in any field may yet be wildly defied by reality. However – this is the qualifier I was talking about – whether something actually is the case and whether it is reasonable to believe in that something are two entirely separate matters that depend on a wide variety of factors.

    For instance, suppose that Socrates had had a completely accurate vision of the large hadron collider being used to create and observe low-mass singularities (or, in the error-fraught but exciting lingo of today, “tiny black holes”). Would he have been correct to put a huge amount of epistemological stock in this vision coming true? We know today that he would have been. But would it have been reasonable, rational, or justified for him to do so? Absolutely not. Similarly, were I to suddenly have a vision of the Judaeo-Christian deity spouting some noise at me, I am bound by rationality to discard that as a neurological misfiring – it is simply more likely that I went a little crazy for a moment than that such an entity actually exists as laid out in those books. Were I to place any significant amount of belief in the contents of that vision, true or not, I would be behaving irrationally.

    I think we all have times when we’re feeling metaphysically slutty, so to speak, but we need to remember at the end of the day that, for us to remain rational, we must tie down our actual beliefs to evidence and sound argument. Playing fast & loose with our metaphysics makes for exciting sci-fi and fantasy, and fuels the imagination in ways that can benefit real science – but it is no guide whatsoever to verifiable or actionable facts, and we must be careful not to mix up the two.

    At the end of the day, I think the point is that although we can never be absolutely certain whether proposition X is or is not the case (because we cannot have second-order knowledge), it is simply entirely unreasonable for educated persons living at a time such as this to believe in the supernatural, given the overwhelming body of evidence (both formal and informal) that is available to us. At the public level, we must maintain freedom of conscience as a matter of ethics, which means that we are within our rights to believe whatever we want – but to attempt to regulate the lives of others based on epistemologically empty propositions is morally reprehensible, which is why secularism is the way to go.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I’ve never been able to understand how this idea can peacefully coexist with reincarnation.

    My understanding of the matter is that Buddhism believes the human mind to be made up of changeable aggregates, called skandhas, which create the illusion of a self when they combine in certain ways. When you die, those aggregates can dissolve and recombine into new forms, which are not “you” but which bear the causal imprint of actions they took part in in the past.

    The usual analogy is using one candle to light another, and that one to light still another, and so on. You wouldn’t say that later candle flames are reincarnations of the earlier ones in any meaningful sense, but there is still a consistent chain of causality that flows through the entire series.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    “The usual analogy is using one candle to light another, and that one to light still another, and so on. You wouldn’t say that later candle flames are reincarnations of the earlier ones in any meaningful sense, but there is still a consistent chain of causality that flows through the entire series.”

    I like that concept, actually. There is a strong element of continuity in SOCIETY — not an individual soul, but perhaps an aggregate one of sorts. For example, there is an unbroken chain of American Presidents from Washington to Obama. Even though Obama was elected over a hundred years after, say, Lincoln, the votes were tallied in the same way in 1860 as in 2008, through the electoral college. Things have changed — new categories of people are permitted to vote, for instance — but the basic process is still there.

    I feel the same way about individual “souls.” I don’t expect to live on in any way that would allow me to sense things (and I find particularly telling the point that a soul would not, technically, have any senses to do soul-things WITH). But my genes will live on, and so will my ideas and beliefs. Whether I simply share them with others, or teach them to friends and family. My mother lives on not just in my genes but in my memories — the latter is not a tangible sense at all, but it remains meaningful to me nonetheless.

    And what more do I need?

  • Emrys

    In short, we’re susceptible to reification.

    Heh… Rhetorical question: Do numbers “exist”? What kind of “thing” is a number?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Plato’s fallacy was to divide the world into categories, and then assume that the categories themselves were real things that existed in their own right.

    That’s the bit I was missing.Thanks

  • J

    *Actually, computers (and all other mechanical devices) are inhabited by tiny little elves and gremlins who control all the machines functions.*

    I envision it as a tiny monkey (maybe like one of those golden lion tamarind that look like little bearded old men) inside my hard drive furiously switching wires like a 1940′s-era phone operator. Sometimes he gets tangled up. Other times, you tell him to unplug something but he can’t get the plug out and he’s in there with his little feet planted against the wall of the drive, yanking for all he’s worth.

    THAT is what I’m convinced is going on when you tell the Windows Task Manager to shut down a frozen program . . . and nothing happens.

  • bbk

    In essence, Plato’s fallacy was to divide the world into categories, and then assume that the categories themselves were real things that existed in their own right.

    Plato’s Forms are incredible. Plato believed that there was an unmoved-mover creator of the world, the immaterial Forms, and the material world in which all things were imperfect embodiements of their respective Forms. Plato also believed that all material things had a telos, or goal, such as for an acorn to become an oak tree and for an oak tree to become a chair.

    There are several aspects that I love about this. Plato clearly distinguished between all of his concepts. The existance of Forms helped explain somewhat silly questions such as, “How do two different oak trees know what they are supposed to look like as they grow?” Telos explained things such as, “Why does an acorn turn into an oak tree and not into a chicken?” He concluded from this that the goal of humans should be to become as close as possible to the Form of a human. Meanwhile, the creator had nothing to do with any of this.

    What I like about Plato is that his entire theory is actually intended to answer some very basic questions. He doesn’t try to wrap his ideas in mysterious concepts like subsequent religions did. Consider how analogous it is to the Holy Trinity. You have God the unmoved mover, Jesus the perfect Form, and the Holy Spirit, which is how we are related to our Form. We have roughly the same concepts on the one hand to explain the natural order, on the other hand to deify and worship an all-powerful god. I guess my question is how did we go from Plato to Christianity – what happened?

  • bbk

    Let me add one more thing to my comment. When I ask “what happened?”, I really mean that it’s incredibly bizarre. Plato’s student, Aristotle, was the progenitor of modern science and logic. On the one hand, Plato’s ridiculous ideas actually helped us move towards testable theorems and rational thought. On the other hand, they were the root of some of the very ideas which are the mortal enemy of logic and rational thought. It’s just very odd.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    But most of all, the idea of essences gave birth to the notion of the soul. It causes people to think erroneously that the information-processing activity of the mind is not just the product of the brain’s functioning, but a separate thing in its own right that can exist independently and survive the death of the body. Given what we now know about how the brain works, this makes about as much sense as believing that a computer could continue to process data and display programs after its hard drive and CPU have been melted down.

    I think a more apt metaphor would simply be disconnecting the computer from its power source, i.e. turning it off. That would be the equivalent of death to a computer, though it does lend the possibility of resurrection. ;)

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    BTW: I’ve added this blog to the list of links from my blog. So now this is officially a “Super Happy Blog”.

  • Chet

    We used to think this world was all there was. We were wrong. We used to think this solar system was all there was. We were wrong. Some of us think that this universe is all there is. Especially in light of emerging evidence, isn’t there a good chance that they, too, are wrong?

    1) To what “evidence” are you referring?

    2) Whether there may or may not be anything beyond, or outside, the physical universe is irrelevant to what happens to us when we die. To say that the universe is all there is has no implications for human death. And suppose perhaps that there is a universe beyond this one; it does not follow that we go there when we die.

    I would say that the steady march of science is as much, if not more so, about what we know isn’t true about the universe – a contraction of what we believe can be possible – as it is a process of expanding our horizons. Michaelson and Morley proving that there’s no such thing as the luminiferous ether. Einstein proving that the speed of light cannot be exceeded. Bell proving that there’s no hidden determinism. Call it Horatio’s Retort – “there are more things dream’t of in your philosophy, Hamlet, than are in Heaven and Earth.”

  • Cathy Sander

    I also see this essentialist metaphysics as a reason people have some aversion to chemistry [and hence biotech, genetic engineering, etc.] in general, since it breaks some well-entrenched categories, such as ‘life’ vs. ‘non-life’ and ‘natural’ vs. ‘man-made’. This is unfortunately perpetuated indirectly by some chemists, who would say “We learn from nature” and “We ‘improve’ on nature”. Essentialism, thus, is an hinderance to our current efforts to decrease the severity of climate change and preserving biodiversity–for we intuitively believe that we are so different from nature that we are not bounded by its workings.


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