# Composing Elements

Suppose we have two elements, as for example water and earth (not that these are really elements.) How do we make something out of the elements? We can consider two different possible ways that this could happen.

Suppose that when we combine one part water and one part earth, we get mud, and when we combine one part water and two parts earth, we get clay. Thus clay and mud are two different composite bodies that can be made from our elements.

How do we expect clay and mud to behave? We saw earlier that the nature of the physical world more or less requires the existence of mathematical laws of nature. Now we could say, “Clay and mud are made of earth and water, and we know the laws governing earth and water. So we can figure out the behavior of clay and mud using the laws governing earth and water.”

But we could also say, “Although clay and mud are made of earth and water, they are also something new. Consequently we can work out the laws governing them by experience, but we cannot expect to work them out just from the laws governing earth and water.”

These two claims are basically opposed to one another, and we should not expect that both would be true, at least in any particular instance. It might be that one is true in some cases and the other is true in some cases, or it might be that one side is always true. But in any case one will be true and not the other, in each particular situation.

Someone might argue that the first claim must be always true in principle. If water behaves one way by itself, and another way when it is combined with earth, then you haven’t sufficiently specified the behavior of water without including how it behaves when it is beside earth, or mixed with earth, or combined in whatever way. So once you have completely specified the behavior of water, you have specified how it behaves when combined with other things.

But this way of thinking is artificial. If water follows an inverse square law of gravity by itself, but an entirely different mathematical law when it is combined with earth, rather than saying that the entirely different law is a special case governing water, we should just admit that the different law is a law governing clay and mud, but not water. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to include various potential interactions in your laws governing water, rather than only considering how water behaves in perfect isolation. Thus for example one would want to say that water suffers gravitational effects from all other bodies, rather than simply saying that water attracts itself. Nonetheless, even if the distinction is somewhat rough, there is a meaningful distinction between situations where the laws governing the elements also govern the composites, and situations where we need new laws for the composites.

In one way, the second claim is always true. It is always the case that something is true of the composite which is not true of the elements in themselves, since the composite is a whole composed of elements, while the elements in themselves are not. This is true even in artificial compositions; the parts of a bicycle are not a bicycle, but the whole is. And I can ride a bicycle, but  I cannot ride the individual pieces of metal that form it. Likewise, it is evidently true of living things, which are alive, and in some cases have conscious experience, even though the individual elements do not.

In a second way, the second claim is almost always true. If we consider our laws as practical methods for predicting the behavior of a physical system, in practice we will almost always need special laws to predict the behavior of a complex composite, if only because it would be too complex and time consuming to predict the behavior of the composite using laws governing only the parts. Thus people who wish to predict the weather use generalizations based on the experience of weather, rather than trying to predict the weather simply by considering more general laws of physics, despite believing that the weather is in fact a consequence of such general laws.

In a third way, the first claim is true at least frequently, and possibly always. If we consider the behavior of a bicycle or a computer, not with respect to general questions such as “can I ride it?” or “can it calculate the square root of two?”, but with respect to the physical movement of the parts, there are good reasons to think that the behavior of the whole can be determined from the behavior of the parts of which it is composed. For these are human inventions, and although experience is involved in such inventions, people make guesses about new behavior largely from their understanding of how the parts behave which they plan to put together. So if the whole behaved in ways which are significantly unpredictable from the behavior of the parts, we would not expect such inventions to work. Likewise, as said above, there is little reason to doubt that the weather results from general principles of physics that apply to earth, air, water, and so on.

I say “possibly always” above, because there is no case where the second claim is known to be true in this sense, and many instances, as noted, where the first is known or reasonably believed to be the case. Additionally, one can give reasons in principle for expecting the first claim to be true in this way, although this is a matter for later consideration.

An important objection to this possibility is that the fact that the second claim is always true in the first way mentioned above, seems to imply that the first claim cannot be true even in the third way, at least in some cases. In particular, the conscious behavior of living things, and especially human free will, might seem inconsistent with the idea that the physical behavior of living things is in principle predictable from laws governing their elements.

# Whole, Part, and Element

An element is just a certain kind of material part. Consequently an element is related to that of which it is an element in the same way that part and whole are related in general. As was said in the linked post, the whole is simply speaking not the part, but that which is the whole exists as that which is the part; or in other words, that which is the whole is, in a certain respect although not simply speaking, that which is the part.

This is why not all things are water, namely because the whole which is composed of elements is not the elements, simply speaking, but is those elements only in a certain way.

# Not All Things are Water

The basic point of the post on Thales was that material things are composed of one or more material elements. The ancient materialists were accustomed not only to maintain this position, but also to assert that it also followed that there was nothing but those elements. Thus Democritus is said to have said,

By convention, sweet; by convention, bitter; by convention, hot; by convention,
cold; by convention, color; but in reality, atoms and void.

One could say that this is an example of the attitude of “this or nothing.” If everything is made of atoms, then either a thing is atoms, or it is nothing.

The correct answer here is not to say “this or that,” but “this and that,” that is, that things made of atoms are in some way atoms, but they are also things made of them, and the things made of them are not merely atoms.

# This or Nothing

This (is the) healthy realism of the Catholic Church: the Church never teaches us ‘or this or that.’ That is not Catholic. The Church says to us: ‘this and that.’ ‘Strive for perfectionism: reconcile with your brother. Do not insult him. Love him. And if there is a problem, at the very least settle your differences so that war doesn’t break out.’ This (is) the healthy realism of Catholicism. It is not Catholic (to say) ‘or this or nothing:’ This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.

“Or this or that” and “Or this or nothing” are probably excessively literal translations of the Italian, which would actually mean “either this or that,” and “either this or nothing.”

It is a bit odd to speak of such views as “heretical,” since it would be hard to find a determinate doctrine here that might be true or false. Rather, the Pope speaks of an attitude, and is condemning it as a bad attitude, not only morally, but as leading one into error intellectually as well. We have seen various people with views and attitudes that would likely fit under this categorization: thus for example Fr. Brian Harrison maintains that a person cannot accept both Christianity and evolutionJames Larson maintains that disagreement with his theological and philosophical positions amounts to a “war against being,” thus asserting “either this or nothing” in a pretty immediate sense. Alexander Pruss maintains that either there was a particular objective moment when Queen Elizabeth passed from not being old to being old, or logic is false. We have seen a number of other examples.

The attitude is fairly common among Catholic traditionalists (of which Fr. Brian Harrison and James Larson are in fact examples.) Thus it is not surprising that the blog Rorate Caeli, engaging in exactly the “this or nothing” attitude that Pope Francis condemns, condemns Pope Francis’s statements as heretical:

(1) Either John Paul II and all the Popes who came before him are right, by emphasizing the “absoluteness” of the Church’s moral law and by classifying as a “very serious error” that the doctrine of the Church is only an “ideal”…

…or (2) Francis is right, by qualifying as “heretical” a rejection of the “Doctrine of the Ideal” as well as any affirmation of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions (‘or this or nothing’).

Regardless of the accusations of heresy on either side, however, Pope Francis is basically right in rejecting the attitude in question. I have spoken elsewhere about the fact that in discussion, one should try to look for what is true in the other person’s position. The most basic reason for this, of course, is that there is almost always some truth there. The attitude of “this or nothing” is basically a refusal to consider the truth in the other person’s position.

Strangely, as we will see in future posts, this turns out to be relevant to our discussion of elements.

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# All Things are Water

In book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle comments on earlier opinions about the first causes:

Evidently we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes (for we say we know each thing only when we think we recognize its first cause), and causes are spoken of in four senses. In one of these we mean the substance, i.e. the essence (for the ‘why’ is reducible finally to the definition, and the ultimate ‘why’ is a cause and principle); in another the matter or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the cause opposed to this, the purpose and the good (for this is the end of all generation and change). We have studied these causes sufficiently in our work on nature, but yet let us call to our aid those who have attacked the investigation of being and philosophized about reality before us. For obviously they too speak of certain principles and causes; to go over their views, then, will be of profit to the present inquiry, for we shall either find another kind of cause, or be more convinced of the correctness of those which we now maintain.

Of the first philosophers, then, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things. That of which all things that are consist, the first from which they come to be, the last into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing in its modifications), this they say is the element and this the principle of things, and therefore they think nothing is either generated or destroyed, since this sort of entity is always conserved, as we say Socrates neither comes to be absolutely when he comes to be beautiful or musical, nor ceases to be when loses these characteristics, because the substratum, Socrates himself remains. just so they say nothing else comes to be or ceases to be; for there must be some entity-either one or more than one-from which all other things come to be, it being conserved.

Yet they do not all agree as to the number and the nature of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.

Some think that even the ancients who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, had a similar view of nature; for they made Ocean and Tethys the parents of creation, and described the oath of the gods as being by water, to which they give the name of Styx; for what is oldest is most honourable, and the most honourable thing is that by which one swears. It may perhaps be uncertain whether this opinion about nature is primitive and ancient, but Thales at any rate is said to have declared himself thus about the first cause.

It is possibly for polemical motives that Aristotle portrays Thales as asserting that water alone is the principle of all things, to the exclusion of other kinds of cause besides the material cause. That is, most materialists, ancient and modern, do not believe that matter is the sole principle of reality. They may think it is the most important principle, but they recognize that other principles are involved, much as Lucretius recognizes that his atoms alone are insufficient to explain the world, but he must add something:

We wish thee also well aware of this:
The atoms, as their own weight bears them down
Plumb through the void, at scarce determined times,
In scarce determined places, from their course
Decline a little- call it, so to speak,
Mere changed trend. For were it not their wont
Thuswise to swerve, down would they fall, each one,
Like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void;
And then collisions ne’er could be nor blows
Among the primal elements; and thus
Nature would never have created aught.

We can understand however that even if Aristotle’s account may not be a completely accurate account of Thales’s opinions, Aristotle likely has a charitable motive for his presentation, namely the education of the reader, as by beginning by discussing the position that matter alone is the first cause, it becomes easier to see the necessity of other principles. And it is also possible that Thales did not mention any other principles simply because his interest was in the material principle, rather than from the wish to deny other principles.

There is some probability to the opinion, mentioned by Aristotle, that Thales’s idea about water had ancient predecessors. For example, there may be something like this in Genesis 1:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

The text speaks of a number of principles, including God, and formless matter. But the formless matter is virtually identified with water; even when the earth is a “formless void,” there is still a “deep”, and there is still a “face of the waters.” And God makes the world by divisions in the waters, creating first sky and world, and then creating dry land by limiting the lower waters.

We can ask whether Thales was right in several different ways:

First, was he right if he is understood as Aristotle understands him? In this way, his position would involve denying all principles other than material principles. And in this way Thales was wrong, since there are other principles.

Second, was he right if he is understood in contrast with other materialist philosophers such as Anaximenes, who said that all things are made of air? We can see that there is a certain difficulty in such a supposition from the beginning. For if there is only one material principle of all things, why call it “water” or “air” in particular? If water contains nothing but the first material principle, and air contains nothing but the first material principle, why is one of them identified with the principle rather than the other?

Nonetheless, we can understand the claim to be something like, “Water is the most basic and natural form of the first material principle.” In this case, what it means to be the most basic and natural would be a matter of investigation, but there is nothing impossible about it in principle. But if we understand it in this way, Thales’s position (along with that of Anaximenes and others) is refuted by modern science, since water is known to be made of other more basic things, namely oxygen and hydrogen.

But we can ask whether Thales and Anaximenes were both right in a third way, a more generic way. If we break composite material things down into their parts, and their parts into their parts, and so on, will we always arrive at one basic material “stuff” which all other things are made out of?

This would necessarily be different from the prime matter of Aristotle, because this matter is understood to be completely formless. So while it may be part of a substance along with substantial form, it is not a part in the way that an arm is a part of a human being, or in the way that oxygen is part of water. A part in the latter sense already has some actuality; an arm has a certain shape even apart from being a part of a human being, and oxygen has qualities that it has even apart from water, while prime matter has no actuality whatsoever.

Since every order of causes comes to a first cause, the same will be true if we follow the order of material causality found by asking, “What parts is this made out of?” This cannot be refuted even if it turns out that material things are infinitely divisible, because it will not actually be true that anything is made out of an infinite number of parts. If we say, “this is made out of two halves, and the halves out of more halves, and so on,” this is not an explanation at all, as was pointed out in the post linked above, and so it cannot be a true account of why the thing is as it is. It may be that the thing is potentially divisible in those ways; but it is not actually made out of those parts. Instead, we are asking what we will arrive at if we look at the material composition of things, looking only for things with some actuality, and stopping when we find something which is not made up of other things in this way.

We made a strong argument that there only one first efficient cause. But we cannot duplicate that argument to show that there must be only one first material part of things, since the first efficient cause could be an adequate explanation of two or more first material causes. The theory of the four (or five) elements is an explanation like this. The first material parts are thought be four or five, according to this account, and in this way Thales would have been mistaken.

We can see some motivation for holding such a position. If there is fundamentally only one kind of “stuff,” why do we see various things in the world, such as plants and animals, rocks, chairs, and people? An account with a number elements can say that they form various things by being combined in various proportions and ways, while it is not evident how this question can be answered, if there is only one element.

Nonetheless, this does not really refute the position that there is fundamentally a single material element. If that element can exist in various ways, then it would be possible to explain how it could be used to form more complex substances. It is true that this would still leave something to be explained, namely the nature of those various ways that the element can exist, and how and why they come to be.

The position is neither refuted nor established by modern science. The Standard Model of particle physics contains many elementary particles, but in any case it is not thought to be a complete theory of physics.

Considerations of simplicity would favor the position of Thales. Other things being equal, it should be thought that a theory with a single element is more likely than one with ten elements; one with ten more likely than one with a hundred, and so on. Nonetheless, there does not seem to be any proof of Thales’s general position, nor any refutation of it. But one way or another, there will be one or more simplest material parts that everything else is made out of.

# The Error of Parmenides

Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away— the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,— that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all. For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible— nor utter it; . . . . . . for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.

As I pointed out here, the error here comes from an excessive identification of the way a thing is known and the way a thing is. But he does this only in a certain respect. We evidently think that some things are not other things, and that there are many things. So it would be easy enough to argue, “It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. But we can think that one thing is not another, and that there are many things. So one thing can fail to be another, and there can be many things.” And this argument would be valid, and pretty reasonable for that matter. But Parmenides does not draw this conclusion and does not accept this argument. So his claim that what can be thought and what can be are the same must be taken in a more particular sense.

His position seems to be that “to be” has one and only one real meaning, in such a way that there is only one way for a thing to be. Either it is, or it isn’t. If it is, it is in the only way a thing can be; and if it is not, it is not in the only way a thing can be. But this means that if it is not, it is not at all, in any way, since there is only one way. And in this case it is not “something” which is not, but nothing. Thus, given this premise, that there is only one way to be, Parmenides’s position would be logical.

In reality, in contrast, there is more than one way to be. Since there is more than one way to be, there can be many things, where one thing is in one way, and another  thing is in another way.

Even granting that there is more than one way to be, Parmenides would object at this point. Suppose there is a first being, existing in a first way, and a second being, existing in a second way. Then the first being does not exist in the second way, and the second being does not exist in the first way. So if we say that “two beings exist,” how do they exist? The two do not exist in the first way, but only the first one does. Nor do the two exist in the second way, but only the second one does. And thus, even if Parmenides grants for the sake of argument that there is more than one way to be, he can still argue that this leads to something impossible.

But this happens only because Parmenides has not sufficiently granted the premise that there is more than one way to be. As I pointed out in the discussion of being and unity, when two things exist, the two are a pair, which is being in some way, and therefore also one in some way; thus the two are “a pair” and not “two pairs.” So the first being is in one way, and the second being is in a second way, but the two exist in still a third way.

The existence of whole and part results from this, along with still more ways of being. “The two” are in a certain respect the first, and in a certain respect the second, since otherwise they would not be the two.

Thus we could summarize the error of Parmenides as the position that being is, and can be thought and said, in only one way, while the truth is that being is, and can be thought and said, in many ways.