Nothing at the bottom of things

Reading the Presocratics, the idea slowly dawns that all of them are looking for a single substance to reduce all changeable things to. All options were tried: water, the indefinite, fire, air, atoms, homogeneous being, all substances, ideas, etc. and all of them proved incomplete or somehow inadequate. Seen from this angle, Aristotle’s way of solving the problem is simple, but astonishing:  there is no substance that we can reduce physical things to. The thing given in ordinary experience is substantial, and is not analyzed into the substantial (Aristotle in the Categories makes a threefold division between substance, accident, and parts, and each of the two need to be opposed to the remaining one.)

Another way of saying this is that, if we take the substance of something to be what is constitutive of it, then there is no one substance that physical things reduce to. Intrinsic causes are irreducibly multiple and heterogeneous. We will not find anything at the bottom of things, since there is no one thing to find. We might, for all I know, discover some last part of things – a subquark or foundational field of all fields; and this last part might even constitute a sort of total genus that is complete in itself and without any gaps – but it still won’t be the only genus intrinsically constituting the physical thing. Once one adds up all the parts, there is no other part to find, but one still hasn’t found everything that constitutes the physical. Parts obviously cause wholes, and even completely cause wholes, but the whole itself is also causally prior in a different order and causes the parts. This is clearest in the case of living things, which a philosopher friend of mine describes as being like a man juggling blocks with letters, and somehow managing to make the letters continuously spell the same thing while making their arc through the air. In the face of such a bizarre phenomenon, we either posit some unseen ghost (dualism) or declare by fiat that the prodigy is just a brute fact of material interaction (naturalism) but both answers are almost immediately unsatisfying; indeed, both are different ways of saying that nothing is different from the parts – naturalism takes the nothing as absolute while dualism imputes some sort of substantiality to this ghostly nothing. This is just our contemporary way of getting stuck in the Pre-Socratic rut – in fact, we are even trapped with Thales in waffling back and forth between “all things are water” (naturalism) and “all things are full of gods” (dualism).

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