Part Two

Modes of Energy

Section 1


Chapter 1

The form of activity

We come now to a discussion about single, individual finite activities themselves--which in practice will turn out to be either parts or aspects of that complex finite being called a body or even of a system of bodies; but it would be useful to look at the single act first, because in fact it is limited in complex ways, and at various levels.

Here, we are going to be combining, as it were, three branches of what used to be taught in philosophy: metaphysics (the study of being as such), natural theology (the study of the infinite being), and philosophy of nature (the study of being as material). The last area is included because it turns out that the "materialness" of what is material is its measurability, which (as we will see) is a level of limitation of being.

We saw already in the preceding Part that our perceptions are not simply similar among themselves as forms of consciousness (as opposed, e.g., to periods of consciousness) and as reactions as opposed to spontaneous, but that some forms are similar among themselves as forms and different from other sets of forms of consciousness. We now have to explore the implications of this with respect to what it reveals about existence.

What I am speaking of here is the fact that we can classify our reactions into groups of similar types of reactions, the most obvious being seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and the various kinds of "feeling": felling pressure, pain, heat, cold, etc. It is not my purpose here to try to make an exhaustive list of all of the ways we can group these reactions, but just to mention that we have them.

The first thing to note, I suppose, is also something that deals with what was said in the preceding Part: that we never have any of these reactions in isolation. Each of them is always included within some more complex consciousness which is the consciousness I am having at the moment, and I "abstract" them, as Aristotle would say, by recalling other moments of consciousness which are similar in one respect with the one I am having and different in other respects, as well as by noticing that I have different organs or nerves in different parts of my body which seem to be responsible for the different aspects of the complex reactions. Thus, I can shine light on the back of my head and get no response at all; but when I shine it into my eyes, I get the "seeing" type of response, and so on.

But this means that we must proceed a little cautiously here. In practice, we must discover whether the aspects of the conscious forms by which they fall into different classes are due to the different organs by which we react to existence or differences in the existences themselves. We already saw one case where the reaction "getting hot" was at least in some cases due to an existence not, apparently, different in kind from the class of reactions called "seeing." In other cases (such as feeling the heat of the air of a room or the heat of some hot object you are holding) this does not seem to be the case, since what scientists think you are reacting to in these cases is the degree of vibration of the molecules, not electromagnetic radiation. Again, some if not all of these questions can be answered by devising instruments.

Fortunately, as philosophers, we don't have to worry about the details of these investigations; all that need concern us is the fact that certain similarities among only some of our forms of consciousness cannot be explained except on the grounds that the existences in question are similar.

Let me define a term here that might be helpful:

An external sensation is the aspect of a perception which reacts to a single activity or aspect of an object.

A perception is a complex unity of external sensations.

As we will see in another part of this treatise (on living bodies), sensations are a special type of form of consciousness, one which has what might be called an "energy-component" (which in fact is the electrical output of a nerve or nerve-complex in the brain). Sensations as such, therefore, include perceptions and also acts of imagining and emotions; sensations are distinguished from acts of understanding, which cannot have this energy-component--for reasons we don't have to go into here. Acts of understanding, of course, are those conscious acts by which we know the relationships between sensations and between the objects perceptions point to.

This is the reason I have used the term "external sensation" here and not simply "sensation"; "external sensation" is what the Scholastics use to refer to the aspect of a perception which points to a distinct act of some object, or which is the response to input from one of the "five senses."

What I am trying to say here is that you can't actually have an external sensation as such. You can't, for instance, have an act of consciousness which is just seeing a color. The color will be seen as a certain shaped area of color at a certain distance from you and integrated within a moment of consciousness that contains many other things in the visual field (even if isolated, it will appear as surrounded by blackness), various auditory and tactile sensations, recognition of the color as familiar, an emotional overtone connected with it as it appears, and so on.

The reason for this is that the brain has a good deal of energy in it all the time (which, as we said, is why we can imagine), and the nerves are active in a kind of rhythmic pulse throughout the brain. Any input from one of the senses goes not simply to the particular nerves in question, but also spreads through the brain, integrating that input with other information coming in and information that is stored.

Hence, even though we can actually map out which areas of the brain receive input (mainly) from the various sense receptors and so on, this does not mean that the consciousness ever separates itself into consciousness of just this isolated input. So even though the various distinct energies that come into the brain are, as it were, first, still, what is first to us is the complex perception, and we know the inputs from comparison of perceptions and noticing relationships among them. You might say that individual acts are "ontologically prior" in our consciousness, but "phenomenologically posterior." We will see in the next chapter that the individual acts are actually "ontologically posterior" in the object itself; they form, as Hegel seems to have seen, a kind of "middle" between the subject and the object, one which in itself is not "really real."

But this need not trouble us, because we are aware that our knowledge of objects is not direct, but through that process of circumventing the subjectivity of our consciousness by adverting to it as the effect on the subject of the object in question.(1)

And we can be assured from our own experience and from science that different sensations, by and large, are due to real differences in the objects. Sounds (air vibrations) cannot be "reduced" to colors (electromagnetic radiation), with the difference accounted for by differences in the organs that receive them. Hence, sounds are different kinds of acts from colors.

It is enough for our purposes, as I said, to know the fact that this happens, without bothering about how often it does, because we are looking for what can be said about existence, and this fact means that there are real analogies among groups of existences by which they are the same as some other existences and different from others.

And since we know that we can get at these real differences at least sometimes, and since we are not interested in correcting errors here, but in discussing the implications of what is actually reported by the "true" sensations, then for our purposes "external sensation" from now on will mean those sensations (aspects of forms of consciousness) which do in fact point to or "talk about" real differences among the existences in question.

That is, we are simply ignoring the sensations of light and radiant heat as not relevant to our investigation, any more than the colorblind person's reaction to red and green is relevant to an investigation into the nature of color. There is nothing underhanded in this, because what we are interested in is what sensations tell us when they do point to differences in the existences, not when they seem to but don't.

With that out of the way, then, let us make a definition:

The form of existence is the analogy among existences by which they fall into groups of existences similar among themselves and different from others.

It seems reasonable to use the term "form of existence" here, since we normally tend to talk this way when we are speaking of the kind of being, but stressing the limitation of it to being "only this kind."

But those who know Scholastic philosophy, and especially Aristotelians, should be aware of what we are doing. For Scholastics, following Aristotle, the "form" was the "form of the matter," not of the existence; indeed, for Aristotle, what is translated as "form" was the existence of the matter: its activity. Aristotle found no distinction between the form or aspect and the existence.

With Plotinus, however, who tried to combine Plato and Aristotle, the form or Aspect was a limited "participation" in the One, and the material object was a limited participation in the Aspect; and St. Thomas took this up and made "potency" into what limited (or perhaps the limitation of) "act," and so the form limited the existence and the matter limited the form. But he still followed Aristotle and spoke of the form as the form of the matter, not the form of the existence.

I have three difficulties with this Thomistic approach. First of all, I don't think "potency" is a useful term here, because if form is (as we will see) a limitation, then it isn't "power to act," really; it isn't anything at all--and it certainly isn't "ability to receive," because there's nothing there until the "receiving" has been done, and even afterwards, there's only the "received" as less than itself. (Not that Thomists would necessarily deny this; I am talking about the impression the terminology gives.)

Secondly, for this reason, "potency" or "limitation" must not be thought of as "that which limits," as if it explained the limited being from within. And that it is thought of as explaining the being is clear from the "material cause," which "explains the material being by limiting it," and answers the question, "why is it this case of X?" But the limit itself can't explain anything because it doesn't exist; it is simply the fact that there is no more of the existence than this. As limit it is the problem, not the "explanation"; it is precisely the unintelligibility of the existence, which demands a cause.

So that which limits any finite being is not its limit, but God(2)

. We saw that any finite being is unintelligible if you try to describe it by itself; it contradicts itself because it is less than itself, and the limit is simply the lessness or the leaving out of some of itself. Hence, "potency" as "limiting act" cannot be "that which limits" the act, but rather the fact that the act is limited--and if this sounds like a quibble, there is all the difference in the world hidden in it.

Thirdly, this faulty approach is perpetuated by thinking of the form as the form "of the matter," which is nothing but its limit, even in Scholasticism: "matter" is "pure potency," or in other words, nothing but limitation. Hence, there isn't any matter for the form to be the form "of"; the matter is the matter of the form, not the other way round. Talking about the form of the matter is like talking about the table of the surface rather than the surface of the table (i.e. as if the surface "received" the wood and shaped it); what's there is the (surfaced) table, not the "tabled surface." Similarly, what's "out there" is the formed existence, not the existing form.

With that possible confusion disposed of, then, what can we conclude about the form of existence?

Conclusion 1: The form of existence is a mode of the finiteness of existence.

Why is this? Because what makes green objects similar only to each other and different from other objects cannot, obviously, be existence (as existing they are analogous to all objects); hence, it must be some limitation of the existence.

But what this means is that the form of existence is not a "something" at all, but simply the fact that existences are limited in such a way that they fall into categories; and a given form of existence simply means similarity in limitation of a group of existences.

This, I think, calls for another technical definition; and here I borrow a term from Spinoza, but give it a meaning perhaps only remotely connected with what he meant by it:

A mode of the finiteness of something is something about the finiteness of something by which it is analogous to only some other finite existences.

We will see, for example, that quantity is another mode of the finiteness of beings: it is the "level" of limitation by which each individual case of a given form of existence is different from every other one. We have also seen three modes of the finiteness of consciousness already.(3)

But to return to the mode of finiteness I call the "form of existence," color is the fact that existences are limited in such a way that this group of existences affects our eyes and spectrometers; sound is the fact that existences are limited in such a way that they affect ears and microphones--and so on.

Well, but what is the form? Really, it is the fact that color cannot do anything but affect my eyes rather than my ears; it is an inability of the existence to do more than this. This is another reason I don't like the term "potency" when referring to limitation; limitation is an impotence, not a potency; the limitation specifies rather what can't be done rather than what is done; it is the existence which is the "doing"; the doing "only this type" of activity is the existence as "formed," and the form is the "onliness," which is nothing at all.

What I am saying is simply that heat is a different kind of activity from sound; but the "heatness" of heat is not something in addition to the activity, "which limits" it to being heat; the "heatness" (the form) is the fact that it's this kind of activity and not anything else; and the fact that different objects are hot simply means that they are all (in one respect) acting in the same way, not that the "heatness" is anything real.

Hence, the form of activity is not an intelligibility at all; it is a mystery, a real nothing; the fact is that heat is activity, but not any more than heat-type activity, not that the activity has a "heatness" somehow "attached" to it. It is absolutely imperative to grasp this, or everything that is said from now on in this book will be incomprehensible.

I am stressing this because what I am getting at here is that the fact that you can describe something with a given term does not mean that the term makes what you describe intelligible; what you are describing with the term "form of existence" is a precise type of unintelligibility of what causes our perceptions.

Scientists are apt to fall into this trap, and this is why I am warning you against it: the fact that you can put names on something doesn't mean either (1) that the name necessarily refers to something in itself real, or (2) that the name makes what it points to intelligible. For instance, scientists are apt to think that, since the evidence before us indicates that there was an evolutionary development based on the laws of probability operating on genetics, therefore chance "explains" evolution and makes it intelligible. It is no more made intelligible by this than the fact that bodies fall down and not up is made intelligible by being this fact. Chance is just a way of saying that there is no explanation for something, as we will see later.

Before we go on, I think I should mention that there is not going to be the neat sort of classification in my view that there is in Aristotle or the Scholasticism which followed him. With Aristotle, the form was the aspect (translated in Latin as "species") which put the object into its "real niche," while the genus (Greek for "kind" or "class") was supposed to have come from the matter. Thus, for Aristotle, "quadruped" was something you got from noticing the "stuff" horses and dogs were made of, and "horse" was the act of this "quadrupedal stuff" in one case, and "dog" was the act in another case--giving us what became biological genus and species, of course.

I think, however, that Aristotle was dead wrong in talking about a "stuff" that things were "made of" as "matter" (things are "made of" existence, if anything); and "matter" belongs on the level of finiteness by which numbers apply to objects and acts.

But what this means for me is that there can be various levels of formal limitation, by which objects belong to smaller and smaller subclasses (i.e. are related to fewer and fewer other objects) before we get down to the level of limitation by which a given object is unique.

That is, since the "form" is not a reality in itself anyway, and is simply an in itself unknown similarity among how some objects are limited, and is due to the indirect way in which we know about objects, then I see no reason for asserting with traditional Scholasticism that there are "really" only two levels of limitation (called "form" and "matter" or perhaps more generally--as we will see shortly--"form" and "quantity").

The traditional view has had a great deal of trouble in dealing, for example, with sexual differences between humans. If the "form" is "humanity," then obviously the difference between men and women has to be on the level of the "matter" or "body," or in other words be quantitative--from which it follows that one sex is "greater" or "more human" than the other. I think that observation does not support this. There may very well be evidence for saying that a very talented human being is "more human" (less limited in his humanity) than a crippled moron--though I hasten to add that this implies nothing with respect to rights or how each should be treated--but Plato's contention in Republic that "men can do anything that women can do and do it better" is pure prejudice, which at the time had nothing but the fact that women were forbidden to do most things to support it. No, it seems that women are different qualitatively from men, not quantitatively, and so there are different levels of formal limitation.

Hence, a limitation is formal when it is a qualitative limitation, and not one to which numbers apply meaningfully.

That is, we call things "qualitatively" different when (a) numbers do not apply to the differences (they are not differences in degree) and (b) we can classify objects (put them in groups) because of the "quality" as an "aspect" of the object.

That is, the quality or form (the two henceforward will mean the same thing) is the similarity in limitation which is in fact the aspect by which the objects in question are similar. Aspects, then, are really just similarities in limitation--with one exception; the "aspect" of existence by which all objects are similar as objects is not, of course, a similarity in limitation, but a similarity in the fact that they are all active (or the cause of a perception).

That is, the existence is the "aspect" of an object by which it is related to a mind (by which it is the cause of some form of consciousness); but it is only in a kind of secondary sense, really, an aspect by which objects are similar to each other, and it does not imply that you can classify objects as "existing" as opposed to the other class of "imaginary" ones. The reason for this is that there is nothing which "is imaginary." Imaginary "objects" are not "objects" at all; they are nothing whatsoever. All there is is the form of the consciousness (which in itself, of course, is an existence).

It is the confusion of existence as an aspect which leads to problems like the "ontological argument." Existence is an aspect, because it is the "hook" by which the object (which is acting on the consciousness) is related to consciousness; and, of course, since all objects known are related to consciousness as its cause, then they are all similar as existing.

But as an aspect it is unique(4); every other aspect, obviously, is some kind of finiteness of existence, by which objects are either (a) unlike any other object, (b) like some objects and unlike others, or (c) related in some other way besides likeness to some other objects. Hence, with every other aspect, you can say that the object "has" the aspect (in the sense that it is limited in this way or to this degree); but with existence, you can't say that the object "has" existence; because it is the existence.

That is, to say that an object "has" existence is a very bad way of speaking, for two reasons: first, because it implies that the object is the "essence-as-different-from-existence": that there is something about the object which "has" existence in a parallel sense to the sense that there is something about the object which "has" color or "has" forty degrees. But this would give you a kind of real essence which is opposed to and "receives" existence.

Secondly, it seems to imply that there are objects which don't exist, which makes the form of imagining into a kind of "object," so that you can speak of "unicorns that don't have existence" as if you were actually talking about a something which lacked existence. But this is nonsense; the "unicorn" is the aspect of the act of imagining by which it is this act (i.e., it is the finiteness or form of this conscious act itself); its existence is the act of imagining, and it is not an object at all.

Those philosophers who say, "Existence is not a predicate," therefore, are basically right; but unfortunately they can't explain why existence should seem so naturally to be a predicate. I think my view of existence as "the object looked on as the cause of perception" shows why existence is an aspect, but at the same time why it is not an aspect like any other.

The same, of course, applies to goodness as an aspect of an object; it is "the object looked at as living up to my expectations for it"; and so it is just as bad to say that an object "has" goodness as to say that it "has" existence. Neither goodness nor existence is a mode of the finiteness of an object, but simply the foundation within it of its relation to our consciousness of it: the "hook" by which we can talk about its being so related.

You will notice that what we are doing here is in one sense clearing up difficulties and errors that have cropped up in the course of philosophical investigations. In another sense, we are keeping things obscure when they should be obscure, and not pretending, as I said, that the fact that we can put names on things implies that we know what these names refer to.

Remember when I was speaking several chapters ago about the theorem that similar effects have analogous causes, I pointed out that all you know is that the causes are the same somehow, but you don't know how. When we were discussing finiteness, it became clear that we simply could not divide up what is finite into one "characteristic" that "is possessed in common" by the finite things and another one which "each has distinguishing it from the others."

If we think of the form as an "aspect" in this sense of "something distinguishable" in the object, we fall back into this fallacy. The form is the existence as less than itself, qualitatively. Heat is an existence which is a different kind of existence from sound; but there is no "heatness" as distinct from the existence.

I hope that I have now belabored this sufficiently. In any case, since the form of existence is a mode of the finiteness of existence, we can draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 2: God is not a form of existence.

That is, God does not exist in any way at all; he is existence, not a kind of existence. In God, existence is absolutely unqualified.

I think it can be seen a little more easily here why God is not finite if he is not the only being that there is. Infinite existence means unqualified existence, not "all of existence" in the sense of the sum total of existing beings.

But since all of our input into our brains is by way of our sense organs, each of which is built to react to a different form of existence, then it will follow that

Conclusion 3: God cannot be perceived.

He can be known, but only as the cause of something which we directly perceive; but in order to be perceived, he would have to be some form of activity.

This does not mean that God cannot act directly on our minds, so that we can "know him as he is," as St. John says in his first letter. But this knowledge, if it ever should occur, would have to be a kind of mystical knowledge, and be completely unrelatable to anything else except a kind of general awareness "knowing an object" and not making up whatever this kind of consciousness is--a general awareness of knowing and of being passive in the knowing; but beyond this, it would be "contentless," because any other kind of contents would be a definite form of consciousness which would "point to" some distinct finite existence.



1. We don't do this consciously, at least after our very first few experiences. In fact, as we learn to distinguish perceiving from imagining, we move from regarding the contents of consciousness as "what's there" to recognizing that the contents of consciousness are "in here," and some of them (perceptions) point also to what's "out there," while others (imaginings) do not. But we've done this quite a while before we reach the age of five or six, and from then on, we simply recognize perceptions as "talking about" the real world and imaginings as "made up." And we do this, as I said, by noting the relative vividness of the sensation.

2. For those Thomists who would object, "Well yes, but that's the efficient cause, not the material cause," my answer is that what you are calling the "material cause" is precisely the effect, and is not a cause at all. An unintelligibility cannot be cause of anything. If you want to carp, I suppose, you could say that this particular unintelligibility is the cause of our knowing things as "individuated," and I would agree. But that is not the limitation itself so much as the fact that the existence in question is not all there is to existence. Hence, I think this sense of "cause" just muddies the waters.

3. That is, "formed consciousness" the "period" of consciousness, and "my" consciousness as opposed to yours.

4. Or rather, it and the "transcendental properties of being" are unique, because they are all ways of describing existence in its relation to the mind.