Comes the Dawn: A Substantial Epiphany

I had thought I knew what substances were, metaphysically speaking. A substance is a being, something that exists. (Please note, I’m speaking of primary substances here, not secondary substances.) From the examples I’d seen, I’d come to think of a substance as being a thing, an object, that has its own identity. Dogs are substances. People are substances. Chairs are substances. Laptop computers are substances. It turns out that I was mistaken, as Brendon explains in passing in a post about Artificial Intelligence.

Things that are physically composed of multiple pieces organized in a particular way, such as machines and other artifacts, are not substances; they are made of pieces which are substances, or which are themselves composites of substances.

Living things are different: they are alive by virtue of having a soul (vegetative, sensitive, or rational, as the case may be), and this soul is in fact their substantial form. Machines have no substantial form.

This leads me to a bunch of other questions:

  • When an animal dies, it loses its soul, and hence its substantial form. Though perhaps it would be more correct to put that the other way round. But anyway, a live dog is a substance; a dead dog is a composite of substances. Yes?
  • An axe, made of a blade and a handle, has the form of an axe. The axe is not a substance and has no substantial form. Brendon says it has the accidental form of an axe; and yet I would have thought that the axe had the essence of an axe, would belong to the species axe. Is “axe” not even a secondary substance?
  • Brendon points out that a bronze bust only accidentally has the form of the person it resembles; the appearance can be changed without changing the underlying substance, bronze. But is bronze a substance, metaphysically speaking? As an alloy, isn’t it a composite?
  • Can we, as human beings, bring new substances into existence by our own power, by any means other than procreation? I live with four substances of whom I’m the proud father; are there any other substances I can claim to be responsible for creating? It would seem not. I might breed animals or raise plants, but in such cases the substance is generated by its parent substance(s).
  • Consider a bar of pure iron. Is that a substance? Or is it only made of a substance, iron. If it is a substance, what happens when I cut it in two? Do I now have two substances?

I understood all this better last night, before I started thinking about it.

4 Responses to “Comes the Dawn: A Substantial Epiphany”

  1. Niggardly Phil says:

    Substance is said in many ways, among them the matter, the form, and the composite of the two (a “this something”). This is the overarching difficulty you’re having, I think. But you are well on your way – failure to grasp substance is a major obstacle for modern scientists, who tend to deny it outright and posit that only heaps or piles of things exist.

    You are correct, a dead dog is no longer properly a dog. We call that a corpse, now an accidental arrangement of matter, or as you said a composition of substances (accidental arrangement would probably be more precise). Properly speaking, it is not a substance in the primary sense of that word (a “this something”).

    An accidental form is something we give to things, in accord with a purpose we have for them. You could see it as a weak analogy to God the creator. Where we require pre-existing materials to be organized according to an idea we have, he does not, and the form he gives them continues to organize the substance.

    Natural things are substances properly speaking, and artifacts (products of art) are only imitations of those, having an accidental arrangement or form given from outside them.

    Properly speaking, you cannot create substances. Any creation of man is an accidental arrangement, differing in degree of complexity but not in kind. We may supply material conditions for life (substance) to be properly created, but only God can properly be said to create. (and here it may be useful to purify your notion of God, lest we come to imagine him as an old white male waiting behind some curtain for us to turn away so he can wave his magic life wand – we are all given to such crude imaginations and must constantly fight against them. God is pure act and utterly simple, ipsum esse subsistens). We have no way of breathing in to a thing that does not exist.

    So really, there is no “interior” for any man-made thing – they are accidental arrangements of varying degree of complexity.

    A bar of iron is not properly a substance, again an accidental arrangement. Is the iron itself or a rock in a field a substance? yes, it’s not a quality, quantity or relation etc. But it doesn’t have a real unity or interior, it’s a heap or pile, an accidental arrangement.

    Is a thought a substance? No, a thought is a relation. The only thing in the mind are relations or negations, neither of which is substance.

    What about male and female gametes? are those substance? Yes, they are alive with a form and contain within themselves a principle of motion after their own fashion.

    Substance, by the way, is the object of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, as a principle of being.

  2. Will says:

    Thanks once again. This confirms a lot of the conclusions I’ve come to over the last 24 hours.

    This still leaves the question: an axe, as an accidental arrangement of matter, has the form of an axe. Does it have the essence of an axe? Or does it simply have an accidental form, and no essential form? I’m gathering that the latter is the case, which is going to mean rearranging what I thought I understood about genus, species, and other terms.

    And then, of course, having figured it out I’m going to need to contrive some way to remember it all. I wrote a post last June in which I mentioned the difference between primary and secondary substance. Both the post, and the dinstinction, had completely slipped my mind in the mean time.

  3. brendon says:

    But is bronze a substance, metaphysically speaking? As an alloy, isn’t it a composite?

    I would say that bronze is a substance, since, if I remember my chemistry correctly, alloys are not simply created by placing two substances in relation to each other, but are rather created when, under the right conditions, two the nature of two substances causes them to become one substance.

    For example, that water is a substance can be easily recognized, correct? And yet water can also be considered a composite of hydrogen and oxygen. But water does not come into being simply when hydrogen gas and oxygen gas are in close proximity to each other. Rather, water comes into being when, under the right conditions, the nature of hydrogen and the nature of oxygen cause the two to undergo a substantial change and create water. An alloy would be similar, I think.

    While he did not possess our periodic table, St. Thomas, following Aristotle, did believe that things were made up of elements, namely the four classical elements of earth, air, fire and water. Yet this conclusion caused neither he or Aristotle to lapse into the errors of the Atomists, who believed that only atoms had substantial being, while all other things were accidental arrangements of these atoms. St. Thomas devoted a short treatise to the issue of how larger substantial beings can be in some sense composed of some blend of the elements: De mixtione elementorum.

    Consider a bar of pure iron. Is that a substance? Or is it only made of a substance, iron.

    I would say that it depend on your emphasis. If you are considering the iron bar as a bar, then you are considering it under an accidental form of shape, a species of quality. If you are considering it as iron, then you would be considering it as a substance. The being iron is substantial, being a bar is accidental.

    If it is a substance, what happens when I cut it in two? Do I now have two substances?

    You would have two substances in the primary sense, i.e. two individual beings that exist per se. Since both would share the nature of iron, you could say that you only have one substance in the secondary sense, i.e. only one species of subsistent being.

  4. Will says:

    Yes, water is clearly a substance, I can see that. I’m not sure that an alloy is in the same category: I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a molecule of bronze. But if metaphysical atomism doesn’t work, I suspect that “molecularism” wouldn’t either. So perhaps that doesn’t matter.

    The being iron is substantial, being a bar is accidental. So my iron bar is a substance whose essence is iron and that has the accidental form (shape) of an iron bar.