Physical Objects as Ideas
In our experience of the world in common sense and scientific study we seek to understand physical things. We name them, categorize them, enumerate their properties, experience their effects, and perceive their holistic integrity and stability. In considering a physical object, such as an atom or a living cell, we know the difference between its unordered components and the thing itself. In the thing, components are so ordered, integrated and coordinated that they constitute one thing, which possesses its own properties, functions and actions. What makes a natural physical object the particular object it is rather than an aggregate of unordered components or some other physical object?
Natural objects are much more complex and highly integrated than human-made objects. We understand the objects we make better than natural objects not only because they are simpler but because they existed as ideas or design plans in our minds before we gave them actual existence as physical objects. Natural physical objects are living or nonliving. Some nonliving physical objects are aggregates: sand stone, blocks of coal, piles of sand or gravel. The nature of an aggregate is revealed in that by dividing it you do not destroy its properties. Break a block of sand stone into pieces and you do not change its properties. Nonliving things possess their unique properties and inherent integrity only at the molecular or atomic level. Break them apart and they no longer exist. We can gain some knowledge of molecules and atoms by breaking them apart to discover their components and internal relations. But the problem with this approach is that we have to destroy the thing to discover the cause of its integrity! Our understanding of the original thing is an abstraction, memory or model. It’s not the thing itself. We cannot experience a physical thing in its integrity except externally. But that is not the same as experiencing the cause of its integrity, that is, its idea, which can be experienced only from within. Yet physics, chemistry and every other empirical science makes no sense unless it aims at this ideal, that is, to possess the entirety of a thing’s cause as an idea in the mind—a goal that it can never achieve.
The smallest living thing is much more complex than the most complex human made machine. Yet living things achieve much greater integrity, harmony, and unity than human made things. Billions of components are integrated into the whole organism to the degree that each stands in constant communion with all the others and participates in the life of the whole. We can observe the properties and behavior of living things in their natural state and environment or we can attempt to discover how all the components, systems and subsystems relate to each other and the whole organism. We quest for the entire “blueprint” for the organism. Unfortunately, the quest to think the blueprint leads us to destroy the integrity and the life of the organism. And we never really get inside the thing to experience the cause of its unity and life in the act. But unless we imagine that there is such a cause, it would make no sense to search for it.
These reflections lead me to conclude that our quest for knowledge of the physical world makes no sense if the world is purely material, if everything is at bottom only bits of matter related in space. This quest for knowledge assumes that there is a real intelligible aspect to the world and every thing in it, living and nonliving. Only the assumption that our minds can think the blueprint and cause of a physical thing can explain our drive to understand it, that is, that the thing could in principle exist in our minds as an idea.
Hence our quest to understand nature assumes that the ideas of physical things exist and exercise causal force in things before we set out to discover them. When we direct our minds to them we find them thinkable and available to be united to our minds. Our minds can think them even though we did not invent them. What is the explanation for this amazing fit between our minds and the ideas that cause natural things to be what they are? From where did the ideas of things come? How did these blueprints come to be actual physical things?
In our interactions with human beings we encounter other minds. We can understand their thoughts and, since we are embodied in the same way, we can empathize with their feelings. Other minds are not my creations and they are not material any more than my mind is. Yet other minds are not simply ideas either. Other minds affect us in ways bodies and ideas don’t, as active, free and creative, as bearing a likeness to our own minds. The same idea can exist in an infinite number of minds. There exists, then, a community of intelligent minds that share the same mental space, an extra human intelligible world, where they can meet.
The existence of other minds confirms for us the reality, creativity and freedom of our own minds, and underlines what I concluded previously: that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces. By reflecting on how other minds and ours work we become convinced that information can be produced and thought only by minds. But non-human nature is teaming with ideas and loaded with information, which enters our minds through our experience of the world. As I indicated above, the ideal of scientific knowledge is to think the whole world and reproduce its blueprint in our minds.
What is the explanation for this state of affairs? Nonmaterial minds exist and live in a physical world ordered by ideas. Our minds can create ideas or discover them in nature. We can share ideas we create or discover with other minds. The multilayered intelligibility of the world can be in part discovered by experience. In my view the most plausible explanation for the deep-down and far-wide intelligibility of the world is the creative activity of a universal and all-inclusive Mind. The human mind, far from being a by-product of the chaotic movements of unintelligible matter is actually the place where the true nature of reality finally shows itself most clearly in its basic form—creative mind!
And it is this Mind to which Epimenides and Paul referred when they said that “In him we live and move and have our being.” Paul says God made the world in such a way that we could “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:28). And in this series I’ve tried to show that it really matters where you begin your search.