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Experiencing the Triple Existence

by William McGaughey


I used to be a philosophy major in college. I remember reading about the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. They were trying to discover basic substances from which the world was made. Thales, the father of Greek philosophy, thought that the world was made of water. Anaximenes thought it was made of air. Heraclitus thought fire was the primal substance. Another philosopher, perhaps Empedocles, thought it was earth. These were the classical “four elements” of natural existence.

Scientific knowledge has greatly increased in the 2,500 years since the Greek philosophers lived. Today, we know that the world is more complicated than what was once thought. There is no primal substance as such. We know that physical objects are made of various kinds of atoms and molecules. The DNA molecule, which has billions of atoms in its double-helix chain, governs the generation of life. The laws of physics, chemistry, and biology give a more complete understanding of what comprises the world.

And yet such questions as those that the pre-Socratic philosophers asked ignited a great curiosity that led to other kinds of knowledge. Pythagoras, in Italy, thought that the world was made of numbers. Influenced by him as well as by Socrates, Plato thought the world was created by ideas or forms. Mind became associated with reality. Aristotle, who was Plato’s student and also the tutor of Alexander the Great, took a more empirical approach to science. He collected strange objects from faraway places visited by Alexander’s armies and tried to produce knowledge by studying such things.

Aristotle said we could not know what a thing was until we understood why it came into being. He identified four “causes” to explain its existence: (1) the material cause, (2) the formal cause, (3) the efficient cause, and (4) the final cause. All but the second is relevant to the analysis being proposed here. The material cause tells what substance the thing is made of. The efficient cause is what “caused” it to be. The final cause would be the purpose for which the thing exists, relevant both to the products of manufacturing and to the biological tendency of seeds.

I bring up the Greeks to suggest that it is time for a new burst of curiosity. I would therefore propose a new scheme of elements. This is not going to increase scientific knowledge, but it may help to bring the knowledge home to people and make our situation on earth more understandable. So here goes:

Everything around us in this world consists of one or more of three elements: matter, life, and thought. Matter is physical substance, made of atoms and molecules. Life is a particular type of matter, made of DNA, RNA, proteins, and other chemicals. Its existence involves a life cycle with a beginning and an end and a mean of perpetuating the species. Thought is an element that arises from the brain activity of particular animals, especially human beings. In the sense used here, however, it is activity that arises from the collective thought of humanity directed through technology to create somethingin this world.

I am proposing here a series of exercises to make the tripartite nature of human existence more apparent. Through these exercises, people will become more aware of the world around them. They will be engaging in analytical thinking that increases understanding. Instead of perceiving the world as a blur, they will see how each object in the world consists of matter, life, and thought, separately or together.

Some objects are pure matter, some are pure life, and some are pure thought. We will consider examples of each. But the more interesting situation involves hybrids of these three elements. Some objects are a hybrid of matter and thought. Some are a hybrid of life and thought. Some are a hybrid of all three elements - matter, life, and thought. There is no hybrid of matter and life, as such, because all life also consists of matter. Pure life would describe this type of being.

If this seems rather confusing, let me explain. Everything that exists physically in this world is matter, whether pure matter or in hybrid with another element. Life is any creature, dead or alive, that has the DNA or RNA molecule, whether plant, animal, or microbe. It can also be a product of life, such as the shell left by a shell fish after it has died. If a living creature helped to create something that would not otherwise have existed, this is a hybrid of matter and life. Unless it is confined to the brain, thought is also known through its material product. It is a hybrid with matter, with life, or perhaps with both. If thought helped to create a particular object, the object is a hybrid of thought and something else. That is because thought helped cause this thing to be.

Let me give an example. I am looking at a wood table. This object represents a hybrid of matter, life, and thought. How so? First, the table consists of matter. Its substance is comprised of atoms and molecules that allow it physically to exist. Second, the table consists of life. That is because it is made of wood and wood comes from trees. Living trees produce wood. The wood is harvested from dead trees, but it is still a product of life. Third, the table was created by the application of human thought. A furniture maker took raw wood, cut it, assembled the pieces in various ways, and so fashioned the table according to a certain design. Its manufacturer created the table for a purpose, knowing how it would be created and what would be the end product. The table that we see is therefore also a product of thought.

Not every object in this world is so easy to explain. But in this world of the Triple Existence, the world and everything in it is made of matter, life, or thought. We will look at particular objects and decide which of these three elements they represent. The purpose is to make students more aware of the world around them and stimulate thinking about such things.

The best example of pure matter that I can imagine is water. Liquid water can be held in a glass container. But water also exists in solid and gaseous form. Solidified water is ice. Gaseous water exists in the form of steam, an invisible substance, or in partially condensed gases such as what we see in clouds.

Wherever water comes straight from nature, it would be considered to be pure matter - pure H2O, consisting of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen bound together in a molecule. However, what seems to be plain water could be a hybrid with thought. For example, I can make ice cubes in a refrigerator. Tap water is poured into a plastic mold and put in the freezer. After a few hours, we have ice cubes. Each cube would be a hybrid of matter and thought because human thought created the frozen cubes in a particular shape and substance. Far fetched though it may seem, this is the sense in which thought is being used. Thought is a causal agent that helped create the object we see.

I do not want to be too picky with definitions. For example, tap water is not water straight from nature because it runs through municipal sewage systems. Using knowledge of sanitation techniques, certain chemicals were used to clean and purify the water taken into the system. Also, despite our best efforts, tap water contains tiny microbes that represent various species of life. The vast oceans on earth are teeming with life but, by and large, the oceans themselves consist of water mixed with salt and other chemicals. In my book, this is close enough to be considered matter in a pure form. Technically, however, if water is to be pure matter, we should take its substance straight from nature such as water collected in a container after a rainfall or icicles hanging from a gutter or the branch of a tree.

Of course, pure matter also includes substances other than water. It includes rocks found on the earth’s surface as well as metals or metallic compounds and nitrogen or carbon dioxide in the air. One can debate whether the carbon dioxide occurred naturally or is a hybrid with life, being a byproduct of animal activity, or even if it is a product of thought through the process of burning fossil fuels. Rock is pure matter when observed on the side of a mountain cliff or when it becomes sand in a beach or pebbles in a stream. When it is contained in concrete, it is a hybrid of matter and thought.

Now let’s move on to life. If I spot a deer or bear in the wild, it is a pure specimen of life. My dog is also a specimen of life. However, dogs do not occur naturally in the wild; they are the end product of a long process of breeding that began with wolves. Human thought intervened in the process of natural selection. Therefore, dogs are a hybrid of life and thought. Since all life exists in a hybrid with matter, dogs combine the three elements of matter, life, and thought. Squirrels, on the other hand, live close to mankind but I would not consider them a hybrid since humanity took little or no part in creating their species.

Life can also be a hybrid with thought when the object in question contains life’s product rather than being the whole living creature. Anything made of leather, or wool, or cotton, or hair, or bone, or shell, or anything else that a living body has produced would be a hybrid of life, along with matter and thought. It would incorporate the latter if the life-originated material were fashioned into a useful object through human design and labor. On the other hand, if the fabricated object were comprised of synthetic materials, it would be a hybrid only of matter and life if inorganic materials were used exclusively.

The products of human design and fabrication are many. All involve the admixture of human thought. However, some objects are so complicated that it is hard to tell what went into their fabrication. That is what makes this exercise such a challenge. It is not that the exercise will directly increase scientific knowledge but that it provides a structure for inquiring about the nature of things in our world. To get correct information in a particular case, we might sometimes have to consult the manufacturer of a component, or the supplier of materials used to make the product. To explain the origin of physical objects carefully and completely will reveal much about the world in which we live. It will nurture inquiring minds.

At the other end of the spectrum we have pure thought. This is thought unmixed with either life or matter. Definitions may have to be bent a bit here since thought is a product of life. But it is not necessarily a physical product. Thoughts can take place within the human mind that have no worldly presence. Such would be what we call “pure thought”.

Close your eyes and be aware of what you you are thinking. Are you thinking of words or a string of words, or perhaps a melody, or a faint visual perception, or a noise? Whatever thoughts you have would be an example of pure thought. Admittedly, it is difficult to observe thought since, the moment you begin to see it, the original thought disappears. In other words, if you think of thought itself, thought must be an object inside another thought and only one thought can exist in a given time and place. You are really thinking of the memory of a past thought when you perceive the inside thought.

Nevertheless, this type of thought exists. You have thoughts all the time. Most of them represent pure thought unless the thought becomes an instrument to change the world. If you see the world through open eyes or hear it through the ears, this is also pure thought unless the thought is acted upon in some way. Then it becomes an agent of change. Its product becomes a hybrid with matter. Pure thought, being confined to a particular person’s brain, does not become part of the world that humanity inhabits because it has no product that can be seen.

Much of what becomes a hybrid of thought is a product of humanity’s collective thought rather than the thought of a particular person. We call this collective thought “technology”. A certain person may have initiated it and another person may have used it to make an object but, in between, many different people with many different thoughts were involved. Manufactured products generally involve the use of technology. Many different people have put the product together in the manufacturing process.

With this explanation, let me propose an exercise. The teacher will hold up a physical object and ask for an analysis in terms of the triple existence. Does the object in question represent a pure form of matter, life, or thought; or is it a hybrid between two or more elements? The student will first try to answer that question. Then he or she will explain the answer. Why is this object a hybrid between matter and thought, for example?

The explanation can be brief or it can require much information depending on the class assignment or the student’s base of knowledge. Here is where classroom discussion can take place. Errors might be made in the explanations. Additional research may be required. Apart from the philosophical aspect, the exercise would lead to additional acquisition of knowledge. But a simple focus would be maintained.

I would prefer to have a wide variety of examples to be analyzed in this manner. For instance, consider a pancake breakfast, studying separately the buckwheat flour, the butter, and the maple syrup. Hold up a steel hammer, or a piece of paper with printed text, or a pair of eyeglasses, or a feather or brick, or a cup of yogurt, or a glass of beer. Which elements do they include? Large items such as automobiles, however, would probably be beyond the reach of pre-college students. But have fun doing this. Engage in wide-ranging inquiry and discussion.

Students can also imagine being in “worlds” comprised of each type of being. A person riding a camel across the Saharan desert is experiencing a world of sand and air, both inorganic materials. The same is true of a sailor crossing the ocean, except that salt water comprises the immediate terrain. Someone approaching the summit of Mt. Everest would see rock and snow. On the other hand, a hiker walking through jungles near the Amazon river in Brazil or the African rain forests of the Congo would be surrounded by various forms of life, especially trees. A shopper at a suburban mall would be inhabiting mostly a man-made world - i.e., one created by thoughts, especially of how to pry dollars loose from customers. But the point is that we live in all three types of worlds to one degree during our lives. Most of the time we do not think of the difference in environments.

Scientists term the three worlds the “geosphere”,”biosphere”, and “noosphere”, although they all exist together on the surface of the earth. As told in my book, History of the Triple Existence, each has a creation story. The physical world began 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. The biological world began around 3.5 billion years ago when living creatures first appeared on earth. The world of human thought began gradually with the development of the human species several hundred thousand years ago; and collective thought, with the first civilizations five to six thousand years ago. But much of the change in our physical environment has occurred in recent years as man-made cities and towns have eroded the natural landscape.

Humanity will soon need to consider some basic questions. Thought and life do not exist on their own. At the present time, thought cannot exist without life. Life, in turn, cannot exist without a sufficient quantity of materials to support itself, including species lower in the food chain. The rapid progress in human populations and industrialization is threatening to exhaust the natural resources needed to sustain life in its present forms. Greater attention, therefore, needs to be devoted to fundamental questions of being. The above-mentioned exercises should help to stimulate that awareness.



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