The Metaphysics of a Fork Original Post: September 9, 2009
One evening, a good friend and I, a friend who had spent some time in Tibet after some tough turns in life, were talking about Zen Buddhism. I mentioned one of my favorite books, “God, Zen and the Intuition of Being” by James Arraj. In it, Arraj explores the similarities between Eastern and Western traditions of mysticism and Catholic metaphysics; specifically the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. The discussion turned toward a specific example of metaphysics and we used a common kitchen fork as our subject of analysis. Let’s revisit that analysis here to drill down through the details of a fork to arrive at the most fundamental aspect of “being.”
I’ll start this installment with a snippet from the introduction to Part One of Arraj’s wonderful book. He quotes the experience of a friend, thus:
“Early one morning when I was busy making breakfast the sun came over the horizon and its first rays streamed through a window and struck a red cup sitting on the kitchen table. I had seen that cup hundreds of times before. I had washed it, put it away, drunk from it, and let my fingers get warm around it, but until that morning I had never truly seen it. The sun seemed to illuminate the cup from within. It was no longer a simple kitchen utensil, but sat there in the middle of the table aglow with being. I felt, ‘This isn’t just a cup. It is!’ And the radiance of this “is” took my breath away.”
With “Metaphysics of a Fork,” I want to “look behind the curtain” of intuitive feelings such as this one and the many others that were blogged about on Shared Reflections. (ref: http://sharedreflections.ning.com/)
I’ll start with a similar experience that happened during my sophomore year at Xavier. It was the Spring of 1976 in a Philosophy of Science class taught by Prof. Alvin “Rocky” Marrero. My experience that day was more of an academic epiphany of a theoretical nature, whose foundation was my then-current class load including University Physics, Rocky’s class and Dr. Walter Clark’s class, History and Systems of Mysticism.
In the midst of the lecture that day, I realized that scientists and mystics were likely describing the same “ultimate reality,” yet from their respective, unique perspectives. One of empirical pursuit, one of deep faithful listening. It was a personal “Summa” moment, where something had been stirring in my subconscious; a million-piece puzzle coming together from the corners and edges, working inward toward an evolving, complete picture. It was the red cup on the table screaming out its unique existence, awaiting my comprehension.
I took this eureka moment to Prof. Marrero at the end of class and we looked at each other with a shared “wow.” We both knew that there was not then (nor still) an applicable scientific method that made such a theory testable. So it quietly became part of my philosophical “self appropriation,” as advocated by then Philosophy department head Dr. Bernard Gendreau in his personal philosophical systematic.
Quantum theory is a form of mysticism. A rational mysticism. Vice versa: Mysticism: an ancient method for exploring the world. ~ Lothar Schafer, Infinite Potential
Scientists, specifically the high energy physicist, astrophysicist and cosmologist, work tirelessly to study and understand the ultimate “stuff” of reality. The Large Hadron Collider is just such an effort: science looking for the so-called “god particle.” It’s a quest that goes back to ancient thinkers in the earliest recorded history regarding the identification of fundamental elements of existence, e.g., earth, air, fire and water. By 1976, scientists had Einstein’s General Relativity, and more recently solutions such as the Friedmann Equations, now confirmed by recent observation and measurement of the Cosmic Microwave Background. The Friedmann Equations estimate the total amount of “stuff” in the entire universe. Wow, how far we’ve come! (ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedmann_equation)
The mystic, on the other hand, regardless of cultural or religious tradition, is seeking out and encountering the pure experience of raw perception, of life, or our very being found in a disciplined, ascetic quietude. In a sense, it can be thought of as a person “tuning in their natural, cosmic radio,” sometimes referred to as an extra sense, or lifted mind or the wound of love. (ref: http://www.innerexplorations.com/catew/3.htm)
Both Catholic metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas and today’s cosmology describe a fundamental unity that permeates and connects all things. That which forms the most fundamental core “being,” or primal substance, upon which a diverse reality is built and presents itself to our senses, both physical and transcendent. (ref: http://www.innerexplorations.com/chmystext/christia.htm)
My personal summary comes in the simple word, “participation,” a sense I had developed and a word confirmed in my reading of the W. Norris Clarke, SJ interview, linked to in Woods Walking #1. It is what we experience and expressed on — Shared Reflections. These are intuitive moments, feelings of instantaneous participation and belonging as expressed so well by Raissa Maritain early in the Twentieth Century: “At the sight of something or other, a soul will know in an instant that these things do not exist through themselves and that God is.” Yet, as Fr. Clarke suggests in his interview, “A Taste of Existence,” we can “drill down” into these intuitive feelings and come to appreciate why they are so dear to us.
So, let’s partake in Fr. Clarke’s analysis by looking at the metaphysics of a fork, wherein we will drill down in detail concerning a specific thing. In this case something handy and familiar, much like the red cup. Borrowing from the toolbox of Thomistic metaphysics, we’ll look at a fork on the order of causality – that which makes it “to be.”
The order of causality includes:
Intrinsic Causes: Material & Formal Causes, i.e., the substance and form of a fork; and
Extrinsic Causes: Efficient & Final Causes, i.e., the how and why of a fork.
With your fork in hand, consider in as much detail as you care these causes.
Formal Cause: The formal cause is the design, or concept of the fork. With its long narrow tines it is meant to provide a firm grip on food with a stabbing motion while both cutting and carrying the cut piece to the mouth. Imagine eating meat using a spoon instead of a fork. On the other hand, we eat peas with a fork when a spoon would be better suited to the job of scooping and shoveling. But that’s convention and convenience. Now consider the form of your everyday fork versus fine silverware; one inexpensive, plain and sturdy, the other ornate, cherished and reserved for special occasions. The “form” of our forks runs from drive-through plastic designs to Corelle and Oneida.
Material Cause: What is your fork made of, what is the “stuff” giving the form or design considered above its material? Sterling silver, stainless steel, tin, plastic, wood, or we can go back in the history of cutlery to ivory or bone. Consider the “stuff” of your fork in as much detail as you care even down to the chemistry and molecular structure of the plastic, or the coefficient of expansion of the metal, or its bending modulus. Even the heat conductivity – if you hold a sterling silver fork in a hot bowl of stew, you will readily feel the heat of the food conducted into the handle. It’s a rare property that contributes to the perceived value of silver tableware. Meanwhile, at Fermi Labs, or at the Large Hadron Collider, the particle physicist is searching for the smallest possible building blocks that compose the stuff of your fork. Perhaps they are bosons, fermions or even the aforementioned “god particle.” And these will be amazingly simple. Consider what a child can build with Legos, or a computer programmer can achieve with binary ones and zeroes…
Material and formal causes are essential to the being of your fork. Without material, the fork is merely a concept or drawing. Without form, your fork is chunks of raw metal or plastic pellets, or a block of unhewn wood or a piece of bone.
Efficient Cause: This is the “efficient agent” that acts on the substance to give it form. Who makes the form “to be”? Who gives shape to the ivory, bone, wood, stainless steel, plastic or silver? From a caveman with a sharp-edged stone to today’s silversmith working with metal in a foundry, or injection molding of plastics, these are the people who give shape to the stuff of your fork. Without someone acting on the material, your fork would never come to be as it is in your hand. Even once the fork is made, it has to be distributed to a store or shipped direct to your door. Digging even deeper in the instance of a metal fork, someone had to mine the raw metal oxide. A plastic fork requires crude oil that was drawn from a well, refined and processed to create the plastic pellets used in the molding process. The efficient cause acts on the material to realize the form envisioned.
Final Cause: You can impress – or confound – your friends with this statement: “The Final Cause is the first cause in the order of causes.” The final cause is the why, the intent or the will behind the creation of your fork. It begins with a need or a desire. In the case of your fork, an efficient means to handle food that protects the consumer from the heat of the cooked food, and/or keeps the hands of the preparers off of the meat you are about to enjoy and hold the food firmly in place as it is cut and consumed. The final cause is the “prime mover,” or the first cause in the process of making your fork come to be. From the caveman who wanted to stop burning his hands on the cooked bison to the chief designer at Oneida, there is some one person with a vision or a need that conceives the form based on the founding intent.
The extrinsic causes are external to your fork, nonetheless they are as essential to its coming to be, from the desire to have a fork, the final cause, to the external action taken to make the fork, the efficient cause.
There, we have engaged in the metaphysics of your fork! In this process of analysis, one also begins to sense the contingencies necessary to create your fork, from the miners and refiners, to the designers and marketers, there is a long continuum of causality that literally brought your fork to the table.
As with the red cup at the beginning of this installment, your fork “is.” As Fr. Clarke says, that is the most fundamental aspect of your fork – that it is. The real magic begins, as Clarke further describes in his interview, when we’ve drilled down in detail on any one thing and arrive at its unique fact of existence, and then begin to go out horizontally and apply this realization to all things, even to the entire universe. As Clarke suggests, then our mind is “blown” as we begin to appreciate our own “being” and our participation in a greater whole.
Finally, one of the most awe-inspiring aspects realized in this metaphysical consideration is the role of intelligence as the final cause: the role of a sentient, reflective being who conceives and acts to create something of value. This eventually evolves into a discussion in the specific area of philosophy of God and theology, and the “why” of our creation. What is the intent of the Prime Mover “On the first day,” or prior to the Big Bang? Fr. Clarke offers a perspective on this question: to “communicate” the wonder, glory and joy of Being with His creation.
Perhaps that is why beauty touches us at such a deep, intuitive level: it is Gift from our Creator. And from an ecstatic perspective, it is gift with our Creator.
Copyright © 2009 Rudolph Siegel
For further contemplation, I want to provide a couple of compelling links as a followup to Woods Walking #2 and “The Metaphysics of a Fork.” It would seem that two critical contingencies for the making of any “thing” are intelligence and the substance, “stuff” or material cause of that “thing.”
From a human perpsective, intelligence and its personal coming to be is contingent upon a person coming to be — the substance of parents contributing to new life, a new soul and the miracle of a new person.
So I’ve been “drilling down” into the source of our “stuff,” rolling back through anatomy, organic chemistry and physics to cosmology and the Big Bang. Disregarding the science versus religion, and Creation versus evolution controversies for the moment, let’s look at how science views the evolution of “stuff,” i.e., where did the elements of the periodic table come from?
Here is an amazing article from The Wall Street Journal titled “The Making of the First Star,” that looks at the profound, recently published work of Japanese and American cosmologists.
Here is a crucial statement from the article concerning the work of these cosmologists: “Through succeeding generations of stars, these stellar furnaces forged hydrogen, helium and lithium into *all of the other elements of the periodic table*, including the star stuff of which we all are formed.”
So hydrogen, helium and lithium could be considered the “primordial soup” from the Big Bang, that within the environment of “stellar furnaces,” created the stuff of which our sun, solar system and ourselves are made — from which temporal life arose.
To envision this “stellar furnace” process, here’s a link to today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, a.k.a., APOD: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap090915.html
It is an image of the Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888. It is a fascinating picture of a dying star as it yields the contents of its “furnace,” including the blue-green oxygen prominent at the boundaries of the nebula.
Now, if we roll back the cosmological clock to a point 400,000 years before the formation of this theoretical “proto star,” we arrive at the Big Bang. This is where science stops since the Big Bang is the beginning of SpaceTime, to put it in relativistic terms. At this point of consideration, a statement by the Fifth Century BCE philosopher Parmenides comes to mind, “ex nihilo nihil fit,” nothing comes from nothing…
If we were in an imaginative time machine, and we could force the controls back past zero, Who and what is there? The logic of the moment, allowing for theological faith and philosophical projection, suggests a *transformation* of the “Stuff of God” in a Creative Moment that yielded these primordial building blocks of all that is in our known, temporal universe.
Logically, it establishes a “substantial lineage”, i.e., “of stuff.” This implies literally that we are indeed the Children of God, the Creator, formed not only in His image and likeness, but out of a traceable continuum to His very “stuff” of Being. It is consistent, on the order of causality, as we considered in the metaphysics of your fork.
Intelligence and substance are prime contingencies.
All of this yields a prayer for me: “Oh Lord God, truly we are of You, and truly we are for You. Amen.”