A reflection on Aristotle’s Categories
Having come further in my reading, I hope to turn again to the difficult question of what is the basis of reality – something that serves as the font of all other thought on aesthetics, ethics and politics. By this, I do not mean to tread into the realms of physics – although I think they will serve as fertile ground in the future – but rather look at the more fundamental question: what exists? This can be broken down into a series of propositions: that only the mental exists, only the physical exists, both exist or neither exist. I will first attempt to deal with proposition one and four, for if I am discussing this with a devout believer of pure idealism or absolute scepticism, I think it impossible to lever them from their entrenched positions with either physical demonstration or logical syllogism. After that, I shall attempt to demonstrate the relationship between thinking and physical reality – and then finish by posing the logical outputs from either an acceptance of materialism or dualism.
The first thing we must examine is those sensory perceptions by which we perceive the universe. Although some more interesting theories posit that either nothing exists, or that only the spiritual exists and that reality as we perceive it is nothing more than an illusion, I believe that our sensory perceptions remain the only method by which we can come to understand the physical world. I fully accept the fallibility of human perception – one only need look at a book of optical illusions to see how sight, perhaps the surest of our senses, can be fooled. However, despite this, the coherent, consistent and rule-based nature of our physical experience suggests that we exist in a physical world – or at least a very robust hallucination.
If we, however hesitantly, accept the inputs of our sensory perceptions it leads us to believe that there exists a physical world – but it leads us to question: what is the physical? From an analytic standpoint, I would suggest that the physical world is best characterised as the complete universe, untethered by the measurements, divisions, temporal fixations and qualities assigned by the sentient observer. In this sense, the physical is all that has been, will be, could be or could’ve been. It is, for want of a better analogy, the Parmenidean ‘One,’ an object which exists in its entirety, devoid of the artificial categorisations that we need to process physical reality cognitively.
Humans, or any sentient mind which does not somehow also simultaneously incorporate all of existence, cannot comprehend physical reality in such a manner – the poor substitute of an explanation above like a monkey aping the understanding of sages. The human mind, like all animal minds, is a product of the biological function that drives forth all life – the need to reproduce and propagate one’s genetic material. As such, the mind we are gifted was designed to comprehend the physical world at the most adequate level of physical reality that could improve our evolutionary ‘fitness.’ Thus, the comprehension that we received was distorted from the start – it was relative.
For the human mind, it is this relativity which forms the basis for our understanding of physical reality. We create labels as a mechanism for dividing this reality into manageable ‘chunks.’ To do this, we overlay on the physically undivided universe a matrix of categories – separating the cosmos into ‘objects’ which we then link with ‘qualities.’ Objects can fall into one of two classes: physical objects or mental objects. Physical objects are a chunk of the physical universe which we mentally carve off the universal whole and distinguish with a label, where mental objects are abstract concepts that we formulate to explain the complex phenomena of cognition and its products.
It is important to understand that I don’t mean that physical things don’t exist without minds to perceive them – a defensible standpoint but not the one I am aiming for. Rather, I suggest that without the labels assigned through the cognitive processing of sensory input, physical reality existed as a contiguous span of substance, morphing and changing through an equally contiguous temporal span. In this sense, the names of physical objects are unnatural – although necessary for any animal mind to comprehend physical reality.
Mental objects are an even trickier subject – for they refer to things that do not exist in the physical domain. Mental objects include the complexities of human behaviours – such as law (even the most dedicated of legal theorists would find it difficult to suggest legal precepts are derived from some form of particulate legislative substance). They also refer to even more esoteric concepts which I have been wrangling with throughout my reflections – such as the idea of good and evil (see on The Good). The most difficult aspect of mental vs. physical objects is the argument as to whether or not they actually exist. Physical objects can at least derive proof of their existence from sensory input, but mental objects are far less convincing.
One could suggest that we experience the effects of mental objects, rather than experience the objects themselves: if one breaks the law they will be arrested, if someone benefits another, they feel the warmth of the good. However, a hard-nosed materialist would suggest rather that these mental objects are nothing more than illusions created by cognition, tricking us into believing that charades we call good, law, courage and charity exist. If this is the case, then it would appear that we should strip back the façade and act only by reality as we perceive it – following the laws of the jungle (see on Materialism). However, I find this interpretation unconvincing, as it rejects the very senses and cognitive apparatus with which we have been fortunate to acquire. If this is the case, then we must accept that something exists beyond physical reality, or at least beyond the perception of our organs and the apparatus which we have thus far constructed.
Vincent van Gogh, Starry night over the Rhône, 1888