You ultimately have to immerse yourself in symbolism to really “get it”. You have to read stories, and furthermore read about their interpretations. As you start to see the recurring patterns, you will also start to notice them in your own life. Before long, you realize that the world actually holds together in patterns. There is no clear line between our lives and the stories we tell within them. There is also no clear line between our perception of simple objects, like tables and chairs, and our perception of more complex patterns, like people and their emotions, and even their stories.

That was how ancient judeo-christian people spontaneously saw the world, as did most ancient peoples in general. It’s a ground-up way to a symbolic worldview if you will. In likeness with a child growing, learning how to apprehend the world, you keep trying and trying to interact with the patterns, and your symbolic sight improves. Things naturally start to reveal themselves before your eyes.

But for some modern people, it can be useful to take a detour. A lot of us are recovering from a naively materialistic worldview in which there are only particles and fundamental laws. In that worldview, all the human-level conscious patterns we detect are dubious 1. If not completely illusory, they are at most psychological, and shared only as part of our social and evolutionary heritage. If we had been born in different societies, or had evolved differently, we would see wildly different patterns. Ultimately, all that really exists are particles, and laws governing them. That’s it, or so the story goes. And it’s hard to dive into symbolism and to take it seriously with that starting point. Mind you, it can still work, but it’s definitely harder.

That’s why, in this blog post, I want to take you on a detour. The fact is that there is actually a rich philosophical literature, and today even scientific literature, which can help facilitate the transition to a symbolic worldview. More precisely, I will bring up the ancient Greek idea of hylomorphism, which asserts that the world is made of matter (hylo) and form (morphism), and I will explain how to get there from materialism. Then I will take an example from St-Paul to show how hylomorphism and symbolism go hand in hand.

Let’s start with a famous passage from Plato’s Republic. When trying to understand the form of justice, i.e., the pattern of justice, Plato makes the interesting move of turning from the individual to the city, because the same form applies (368e-369a). The abstract pattern of justice can take shape on the concrete matter of an individual person just like it can take shape on the  concrete matter of a city of individuals. Ultimately, the role of the philosopher is to come to a higher and higher understanding of the forms. As he comes back down to matter, he is then better able to discern the patterns of things (514a–520a). The philosopher king, as put in the Republic, strives to see justice in the abstract so that he can incarnate it in his city, and in his own body.

Several philosophers have since followed in Plato’s wake, not without disagreements of course, in affirming that broadly hylomorphic idea that the world is made of matter and form. In other words, that the world is made of potential and patterns. We can notably name Aristotle, Plotinus, and St-Thomas Aquinas.

Bringing it closer to today’s materialistic worldview, we can actually see a nice path back to that hylomorphism. Recall that the materialist will grant that there are particles and laws governing them. That’s not such a terrible start. What if we said that particles are matter and the laws are forms? The world is made of particles which have the potential to be aggregated and informed by the laws of physics. Particles can make up rocks, plants, humans, cities, etc.

But we see that this is not quite getting to what the Greeks were pointing to. The materialist elevates matter too highly, and brings forms down too low. On the one hand, why say that the building blocks of matter are fundamental particles, and not something even lower? Even from the standpoint of the sciences themselves, we have good reason to abandon materialism. These reasons are especially clear following the important revolutions which occured in the 20th century 2. Einstein taught us that matter is interchangeable with energy, and much of particle physics today is about fields from which said particles can probabilistically emerge. Bare matter has been looking more and more like the pure potential the hylomorphic tradition was talking about.

And the materialist also has concessions to make as far as forms are concerned. Why say that the only forms that exist are the laws of fundamental physics? Why couldn’t there be higher-level patterns? In fact, even within physics, we haven’t yet succeeded in integrating the cosmic pattern of general relativity with the microscopic patterns of quantum mechanics. At least for now, we have to view those as ontologically distinct forms.

And what about the patterns studied by biology or sociology? Do they exist, are they real? Or what about psychology and human consciousness? The latter is an especially hot issue in philosophy of mind today 3. In fact, the problem of consciousness is amongst the main reasons why reductive versions of physicalism have recently fallen on such hard times. The patterns of human consciousness through which we interact with the world do not seem reducible to mere neuronal networks. Think about the “what it’s like” to experience pain, or to desire something, or even the mere experience of seeing a bright color shade. Granted, a neuroscientist may be able to study the neural networks involved in such events, and may even be able to make several interesting related predictions. But a growing number of philosophers of mind contend that, for all its promise, neuroscience does not, and never will get to the heart of the issue.

The mainstream story is rather that the conscious patterns that animate me, such as my pains, pleasures, and desires, are to be found at the emergent level of complex networks of embodied neurons interacting with an environment 4. This complex causal network is constituted by cells in an environment, but is not strictly reducible to them. In other words, the forms of human consciousness inform and emerge from the matter of embodied neurons in an environment.

This dominant ontology is precisely called “non-reductive physicalism”. That is a rich version of physicalism that is getting quite close to hylomorphism. The world is made of fields of potential (matter) which can be shaped by the different, and to some extent, independent layers of natural laws (forms). Fundamental particles emerge from and inform the fundamental fields. Atoms emerge from and inform the particles. The molecules emerge from and inform the atoms. Cells emerge from and inform molecules. Animals emerge from and inform cells. Societies emerge from and inform animals. Each layer has its matter, and its forms, and the different sciences operate at these continuous but genuinely different levels. Sometimes you can somewhat reduce a layer to the other, like chemistry to physics, but other times you can’t, as in the case of consciousness to neuroscience.

Now, I would not want to pretend that there are no differences between non-reductive physicalism and hylomorphism. But I do hope that I have said enough to help recovering materialists understand the idea of form, and to take hylomorphism seriously.

And if you take hylomorphism seriously, it also becomes easier to take symbolism seriously. The idea is that there is a deep continuity of forms across the different ontological levels just mentioned. By studying the patterns operating at one level, we also learn about the same patterns operating at all the other levels.

Take for instance the symbolism of the head and the body, which St-Paul makes a lot out of, especially in his epistle to the Ephesians. Think about it first at our human level. For the head and the body to hold together, the body has to listen and submit to the will of the head, and the head has to feed and care for the body. We could also add that the head sees outside, while the body senses the inside. The body has to trust that the head sees the outside and can guide the body through that outside, and the head has to trust that the body can alert him to inside issues that need to be taken care of.

Now, St-Paul applies this at the level of a marriage as well. For a husband and his wife to become one person in marriage, the same head-body form has to hold. Thus, St-Paul writes that the husband is the head of his wife, and that conversely the wife is the body of her husband. The husband faces and guides the family through the world. Through his work he feeds his family. The wife has to trust and obey the sight of her husband. But the wife is also more capable  to see the inside of the family, and can signal internal issues, such as with the children for example. The husband must then listen and make the sacrifices required to address the issue.

St-Paul also sees the same form at work in the relationship between Christ and the Church. For the Church and Christ to be united as one in marriage, the Church has to submit to Christ, who must guide her. The Church has to trust that Christ can see further than her, and that he will guide her accordingly. From the inside, the Church has to offer up her troubles to Him, who, as a loving husband, will listen and sacrifice himself up for her. Indeed, the Church was born from His sacrifice, and is still fed today by His Eucharistic sacrifice.

So far, we have taken the pattern of the head and the body and have applied it upwards to husband and wife, and to Christ and the Church. St-Paul will even talk of the relationship of the Father to the Son this way. But that’s a story for another day.

More simply, let us look downwards and seek the pattern there instead. But we should note one thing first. As we go down, the embodiment of the forms becomes more restricted, folded together. Indeed, that is what happens as there is less matter available. In the same way that the relationship between Christ and the Church is richer and more complex than the one between the head and the body in a single human, the relationship between the nucleus of a cell and its organons is even simpler.

And yet, we can still see the same form at play there. The nucleus, which contains the DNA, is what fundamentally leads the cell. Amongst other things, it will determine whether the cell will be a liver cell, a red blood cell, etc. But the nucleus will also respond to inside messages triggered by the various organons, to create whatever enzymes are necessary for them. If the organons listen to the signals of the nucleus, the cell will live and work as one.

And we could look even further down, to the way an atom holds together for instance. Things would quickly get unwieldy if we wanted to talk precisely about probability waves and all, so for brevity I’ll just use a classical model. The particles of the atom, i.e., its protons, neutrons, and electrons, are the head which determines the way the atom will interact with the outside, and the electromagnetic field is the body through which the particles will do so. The particles have to listen internally to the electromagnetic field, moving accordingly, lest the atom fragment or collapse, and conversely the electromagnetic field must obey the particles, allowing the whole atom to interact with the outside through that field.

Let us now stop and take stock. We started from a pattern very prominent in human consciousness, namely the relationship of the head to the body. We then found the same pattern at higher levels in marriages and in the Church, and even at lower levels in cells and atoms. There is a deep and non-arbitrary continuity between how an atom holds together, how a cell holds together, how a human holds together, how a marriage holds together, and how the Church holds together.

Let’s restate this hylomorphically. The matter of the atom, i.e., its particles and forces, hold together in the form of the head and the body. The matter of the cell, i.e., its nucleus and other organons, hold together in the form of the head and the body. The matter of a human, i.e., its various members, holds together in the form of the head and the body. The matter of a marriage, i.e., husband and wife, hold together in the form of the head and the body. The matter of the Church, i.e., Christ and his followers, hold together in the form of the head and the body.

We thus see that hylomorphism and symbolism point to the same reality. It is no coincidence that we see this in St-Paul by the way, who was an Hellenized Jew. Studying the story of Christ and the Church allows us to better perceive the form of the head and the body. As such, it gives us a better grasp of ourselves. And conversely, seeing Christ’s relationship to the Church through our own relationship to our bodies allows us to better enter into the story of the Incarnation.

Modern cognitive science comes in as an unlikely ally to explain the power of symbolism here. Symbols allow us to exapt perceptual machinery 5. Let’s reuse the example above to clarify. On the one hand, we have perceptual machinery to grasp the relationship between Christ and the Church, rich with cosmic stories and social interactions. On the other hand, we also have perceptual machinery to grasp our relationships between our heads and our bodies, rich with our own conscious experiences and individual stories. By following St-Paul and establishing a symbolic relationship between the two, we connect both perceptual machineries and increase their power. Whatever neural networks we use for one now also become integrated and usable by the other. That is felt as an epiphany, as eye-opening, as we become better able to see both our individual relationship to our bodies, and the relationship between Christ and the Church. Genuine symbols thus interlock with one another and reinforce themselves.

Let me conclude by summarizing what I covered in this blog post. In the first part, I explained that materialists should take hylomorphism seriously. Indeed, our current scientific ontology suggests that the world is made of potential and patterns, i.e., matter and form. In the second part, I used St-Paul’s treatment of head-body symbolism to explain symbolism from a hylomorphist standpoint. Symbolism is about studying and connecting the forms at work in the different layers of reality. And this is not just an intellectual exercise, but an embodied and existential one as well. As we immerse ourselves in stories and patterns, the goal is to progressively open our eyes to the interlocking and mutually reinforcing patterns that hold the world together, at all its ontological levels. That is why, in this new blog, we invite you to dive into symbolism with us.

I also recorded this essay if you’d like to listen.

  1. Ramsey, William. “Eliminative Materialism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2019. Street, Sharon. “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value.” Philosophical Studies, p.109-166, 2006[]
  2. Feser, Edward. Aristotle’s Revenge. Editiones Scholasticae, November 2019.[]
  3. Weisberg, Josh. “The Hard Problem of Consciousness”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.[]
  4. Marceau, Jean-Philippe and Vervaeke, John. “A Discussion With John Vervaeke on Panpsychism and the Meaning Crisis”. Youtube, July, 2019. Marceau, Jean-Philippe and Vervaeke, John. “Wrestling with Hard Metaphysical Issues with John Vervaeke, Ep. 3”, at 17:21. Youtube, October, 2019. []
  5. Vervaeke, John. “Ep. 34 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – Sacredness: Horror, Music, and the Symbol”, 37:00, Youtube, September 2019.[]