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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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