The Mystery of Matter

Chapter 7: Formative Causation and Formal Causes


We ought to be grateful to Rupert Sheldrake for the clarity with which he has demonstrated the limits of an overly mechanistic approach to biology, and for his robust rediscovery of formal causality. This gratitude mirrors the appreciation that Maritain had for the work of Hans Driesch in the early years of the century. Maritain had spent 1906-1907 in Heidelberg studying new developments in biology in Germany under Driesch's direction, and had introduced Driesch to the French public in his first published article in 1910. But Maritain was careful not to confuse Driesch as a biologist rediscovering a notion similar to Aristotle's entelechy with Driesch the philosopher subsequently trying to elaborate a philosophy of nature. This is a distinction that is well worth looking at in more detail because it will give us a framework in which to better appreciate Sheldrake's work.

Maritain had familiarized himself with the proponents of the new vitalism in Germany, for example, Gustav Wolff who had experimented with removing the lens of the eye of a newt without disturbing the surrounding tissue. A new lens grew, but one which did not follow the original embryonic path of development, but rather, emerged out of the surrounding tissue. This was a result at odds with a mechanistic view and a demonstration of another kind of principle at work (as well as an experiment that Sheldrake, himself, was to recall later.) But of all the practical experiments and theoretical discussions that passed for vitalism that Maritain reviewed, it was Driesch's work that most impressed him both because of the rigor and clarity of its scientific methodology and results, and because Driesh's properly biological work led him to rediscover, at a time when he did not know Aristotle, the basic idea of entelechy.

Driesch had carried out a whole series of experiments on the embryos of sea urchins, dividing them in various ways and in various stages of their development with a variety of methods, and he had watched these fragments give rise to normal adults, although of reduced size. These results went against his own expectations, for he had been deeply embued with the mechanistic view of biology common at the time. Now he had to come up with a new explanation. He reasoned that normally a particular cell in the early embryo would give rise to a particular tissue. It had a certain perspective significance (prospective Bedeutung). But if normal development were disturbed, then it could give rise to something else, as his experiments had shown. It possessed a wider potential than its normal development indicated, a prospective potency (prospektive Potenz). It was here that mechanism broke down. There was a factor that guided the cell to its new destination. Driesch called it factor E, which can be considered the final end of the organism, or its morphic field in Sheldrake's terms. This factor had to transcend in some way the material parts of the organism, and so Driesch, without becoming an Aristotelian, called it entelechy.

Maritain in his 1910 article, "Le néo-vitalisme en Allemagne et le darwinisme" concludes: "The entelechy is neither material nor spatial. In itself it is simple, but since it manifests its action by a diversity of operations of the organism, Driesch calls it an intensive manifoldness. It is that which orders each part to the whole and gives to the organism its reality as a living being. It is the principle of life, the ordering "form" of the living body. Finally, it acts as the final cause." (1)

In 1921 Maritain wrote the preface to the French edition of Driesch's The Science and Philosophy of the Organism. His admiration of Driesch's work was undiminished, but he had developed his own philosophical position significantly, and he took a critical view of Driesch's still Kantian philosophical development. In Maritain's mind Driesch's discoveries announced nothing less than the restoration of the philosophy of nature in the sense of Aristotle and the scholastics. Maritain saw in this not only the "inexhaustible fecundity" of this tradition, but also its power of assimilation, witnessed by the fact that it could enter into dialogue with these modern findings. Therefore, Driesch should not be considered part of the vitalist school that preceded him, but an animist in the Aristotelian sense. His vitalism is not one in which the vital principle intervenes in the phenomenon of the organism as an efficient cause would, but it is an "immanent principle of specific determination in itself simple and unextended" which determines the living body in its very being as a substantial form. (2) In short, Driesch's biological work rediscovered the Aristotelian idea of formal cause, but Driesch does not explore its meaning in that philosophical context.

We find much the same situation when we turn to Sheldrake. His biological work led him to the notion of formal causality, and he recognized the similarities between his own conceptions and that of many of his predecessors, among them Driesch and Aristotle. But Sheldrake is not a philosopher, and makes his philosophical remarks more or less in passing. We, however, have to scrutinize them, perhaps with excessive intensity, because they hold some clues that will help us rediscover the meaning of form in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

When Sheldrake looked at Aristotle, he saw that there was a close parallel between Aristotle's efficient and formal causes and the distinction that he, himself, was making between the energetic causality that physics was accustomed to and his own formative causation. But there was something that prevented him from identifying his formative causation with Aristotle's formal cause. Sheldrake felt that his notion differed "radically" from Aristotle's because Aristotle was talking about "eternally given forms." (3) Plato had placed these eternally given forms in the heaven of the forms from which they influenced the concrete things on earth. Aristotle had taken Plato's form and placed them in actual things, but they were still eternally given forms. Even science with its reductionistic and mechanistic tendencies spoke of the universal laws of nature. But in Sheldrake's mind they were all misguided because the whole context of our thought had changed. We were no longer in a static universe that could be thought of as being ruled by these eternal forms and laws, but in a dynamic evolving one, and this called for a new way of thinking. Sheldrake is going to update the idea of formal causality to fit this evolving universe by linking it with the idea of morphic resonance. Then the forms of things would no longer be determined by eternal archetypes or universal laws, but by the actual form of previous similar organisms which effect the present forms by morphic resonance, which is a "non-energetic transfer of information." (4)

Let's look at Sheldrake's reasoning in more detail. There is order in the universe, and thus laws of nature. There are laws, for example, that govern the crystallization of sugar. These laws have an existence that transcends particular times and places and is independent of human behavior, "and even independent of the actual existence of the crystals themselves." (5) At least that is how science tends to conceive them. But isn't this a metaphysical assumption, Sheldrake asks? Isn't it a holdover from the old cosmology before we discovered we live in an evolving universe? Do these laws exist before the Big Bang, or did they come into existence with the creation of the universe? In the past universal laws were tied to God as the lawgiver, but even though many scientists ceased to believe in the lawgiver, they still believe in the laws. But what can these laws be if they are not material and lie beyond the realm of sense experience? Wouldn't it be better to say that they evolve with nature itself and should be looked at as habits? Sheldrake feels that it is morphic resonance that fits formal causality for an evolving universe and makes room for creativity and spontaneity in a way that was not possible with the old static view.

Morphic fields have much in common with Driesch's entelechy, and before him with Aristotle's, but even here Sheldrake distinguishes his view from theirs. They are part of a vitalistic tradition, which means their conceptions are inherently dualistic. Entelechy in their theories is "essentially non-physical," but then how can it act on material systems? There are, then, two dimensions of Sheldrake's formal causality, and both of them are different from the old formal causality. The first is morphic fields in contrast to the old entelechy or form, which is dualistic, and the second is morphic resonance in contrast to the old static eternal essences. (It is interesting to note, however, that when F.D. Peat, who had examined both Bohm's work and Jung's synchronicity, looked at Sheldrake's morphic fields, it is dualism in their turn that he accused them of. (6)

Perhaps a deeper view of formal causality will help clarify some of these issues. Sheldrake rightly insists that form is much more than the outer appearance of something. It is the inner structure and organization of the thing. He goes so far as to take over a classical style example of causality in the old philosophy of nature. In building a house the boards and bricks are the material cause, and the carpenters the efficient cause. But the blueprint can be called a cause, as well, even though it does not have to be a physical object and might only exist in the mind of the architect. Morphic fields as plans of organization are in one sense non-material, but are in another an aspect of matter which is now taken in a wider sense. But is this really different than what Driesch or Aristotle were saying? Sheldrake, for example, describing Driesch's work, calls entelechy a natural causal factor, (7) and yet a non-material causal factor. (8) And when he comes to Aristotle he says, "in the Aristotelian understanding the sources of material forms are immanent in nature, rather than transcendent. The forms of all kinds of organisms arise from non-material organizing principles inherent in the organisms themselves." (9) So it is hard to say from Sheldrake's scattered remarks just how his views in this matter are to be distinguished from Driesch's and Aristotle's.

Let's look more deeply at what Aristotle had to say. Certainly Aristotle could call a form non-material, but his idea of matter has to be carefully distinguished from the notion of matter we have today. Matter as the physicists understand it would be described as both matter and form by Aristotle, and his matter and form would not be equivalent to their matter and energy. What was matter for Aristotle? This question will capture our attention in more detail later, but it is enough to say now that matter meant a potency for form. Potency in this context is in contrast to act, which in this case is form. The form of any inorganic or organic thing is its act. Form is not inserted in some already existing body, but constitutes the body to be what it is from within, so to speak. Form for Aristotle is the highest expression of being, and matter is never found without form. So if we say in an Aristotelian sense that a principle is non-material, we don't mean it is non-material in opposition to being a material being, but it is non-material in the sense that it is form or act. In Aristotle's mind there was no dualism in this. He dismisses the question of how the human soul interacts with the body as meaningless once we are in this context of matter and form, and compares their union to that of a signet ring and the wax that it imprints.

Neither do the eternal forms exist in things for Aristotle precisely as eternal. In things, forms exist in an individual singular fashion, and far from being eternal, they can undergo either slight modifications or substantial ones in which they are corrupted and new forms take their place. The only place that the forms manifest universal or eternal qualities is in the minds that know them by abstracting them from concretely existing things.

What is slowly emerging here is another view of form which might have allowed Sheldrake to take a more positive view about the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition. We can almost say that form is the material object itself, or the form is the inmost reality of the thing itself. Or in a more refined language, it is in virtue of its form that something is and acts. The form is that which makes the thing to be what it is and is the source of its proper activity. If we return to the classical example that Sheldrake made uses of the building of a house, we will notice that he only mentions three kinds of causality rather than the traditional four. We could say that the very organization of the actually existing building itself can be called its form, just as in a living organism the form is the very life principle of that organism, and that which organizes its various parts. There is an ontological depth to form. Forms are the very things themselves, or as the quote from Maritain had it, the form or entelechy gives to the organism its reality as a living being. When put in this perspective the question that puzzles Sheldrake about the relationship between eternal forms and laws and the concrete objects of experience doesn't arise in the same way. We don't have to ask where these eternal laws reside, or how they can transmit their force to concrete existing things. Forms are written in the very fabric of things. They are the highest principles of the things themselves taken singularly and concretely. Things have ontological texture and grain. They act like they act because they are what they are. The whole notion of law is not ultimately separable from their being.

Here we come to an intriguing possibility. Sheldrake's morphic resonance might be carrying out two distinct tasks. In the first, it is the biological equivalent to Bohm's nonlocality and Jung's synchronicity. There is some kind of non-energetic communication among things that is well worth exploring, and this possibility alone is enough to validate Sheldrake's exploration of morphic resonance. When A New Science of Life first appeared, one of the editors of Nature wrote a negative review under the heading "A Book for Burning?" But Alex Comfort of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, in a letter of support, replied: "Had Sheldrake said that the quantum interconnectedness might extend to macrosystems, including biological systems, I do not think that Nature would have felt that its virginity was in peril. A model of interconnectedness does in fact flow from Bohm's idea of explication." (10) It is to the possible philosophical foundations underlying things like nonlocality, morphic resonance and synchronicity that we are going to turn in the next part of this book.

But morphic resonance is playing another role in Sheldrake's hypothesis, as well. We will remember that Jung first formulated the idea of synchronicity, and then saw it as a special instance of a much wider principle that he called acausal orderedness. But in Sheldrake's case morphic resonance, while it is coupled with morphic fields, has taken over much of their reality. In an Aristotelian-Thomist framework this would not have been necessary. The forms, themselves, are the principles by which the concrete things exist and act. They don't need to receive their morphic fields from past similar creatures by way of morphic resonance because they have already received them from these past forms by normal processes of generation. There is no longer any need to ask the very difficult question of how the morphic fields of the past could influence the present because they have already been transmitted to the present and dwell in things.

Sheldrake's desire to avoid dualism, as well as the difficult problem of how eternal forms could influence concretely existing things, has led him to this conception of morphic resonance in which the morphic fields are first deprived of much of their ontological weight, and then given it back by the fields of the past. A more classical view of form and formal causality would have made this procedure unnecessary and still have left intact the morphic fields themselves and the intriguing question about their resonance. Instead, nature and substance are diminished and habits take their place, but perhaps the substances that Sheldrake is trying to avoid are the static ones that modern science has known since the time of Descartes and not the dynamic ones that exist in an authentic Thomism. In Sheldrake's view memory is inherent in things, and it builds up in them and solidifies and makes them act in certain ways. The regularities of nature are habitual. But this view of habits comes close to rediscovering the original idea of first nature or substance in the classical tradition in which substances underlay habits or second nature.

Sheldrake raises important points about the origin of forms and the role they could play in an evolving universe, and these questions are a difficult challenge for a Greek universe in which the forms are the highest kind of being, and the world is static and eternal. But in the Thomist universe all this has been transformed. Once again we will look at this issue in more detail later on, but it is enough to say that for St. Thomas form is no longer the highest principle of being. Forms, indeed, can be said to be in the mind of God, but only virtually so as possible reflections and refractions of God as the fullness of being. Further, a Thomist view of evolution is, of course, not to be found in St. Thomas himself, but is still entirely possible, and good headway towards creating one has been carried out by Maritain. (11)

Sheldrake's biological work has naturally and organically led him to the frontier that biology shares with the philosophy of nature, and confronted him with a whole series of questions that, while they arise in biology, have a properly philosophical dimension, as well. It is hardly to be wondered at that some of the more profound aspects of the Aristotelian-Thomist school would have escaped him, for not only is he working as a biologist, but we have already seen any number of reasons why this tradition has not been able to put its best foot forward. Yet Sheldrake's remarks could stimulate a Thomist philosophy of nature to present its own ideas more clearly and enter into dialogue with modern biology.

Biology and psychology have a greater and more direct affinity for a philosophy of nature than modern physics does, for physics is formally mathematical while they are not. This does not mean that there will not be an ever growing mathematical dimension in these disciplines. But if they are properly conceived, it will remain subordinate to higher principles that do not readily yield themselves to quantitative analysis, for example, notions like Driesch's factor E and Sheldrake's morphic fields themselves. (12)

This affinity for a philosophy of nature does not mean that it would in any way intervene in the actual methods of the sciences themselves, but as I have said, they would be drawn to the frontiers they share with a philosophy of nature, and that process of attraction would create in them specialized vocabularies filled with ontological resonances. It is in this context that a genuine philosophy of nature could speak of its own more properly philosophical conceptions of these same realities, and if it were a genuine philosophy, it could create a climate in which fruitful dialogue would be possible.



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Chapter 8