Essences, fuzzy or firm

In this post, on the possibility of “adamic man” living with some other kind of “humanity”, I dropped in a passing comment on the difficulty for Darwinian gradualistic evolution of being able to come to grips the meaning of a word like “human” at all.

Merv picked this up (remembering at least one exchange on universals we’ve had in the past):

Does the fact that we can’t look at our continuous visible spectrum and point precisely to where it stops being red and starts being orange (other than by arbitrary selection of a cutoff frequency) mean that there can be no sustainable category of “red” colors?

It just doesn’t seem to follow that an inability to define precise boundaries negates entire (and nevertheless important!) categories.

I intend to move on in the vein of that previous post soon, but I think this point is worth addressing again first, as I’ve read some more philosophical texts since the last conversation that suggest that Darwinism does have a real problem with universals and essences, as I had argued before. It predisposes to a stringent nominalism – ie that there are no universals that aren’t simply arbitrary labels for things that happen to have certain similarities. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten the arguments put forward in those sources, so I’ll have to wing it from first principles.

spectrumLet me start with Merv’s example of colours, which does lay out the problem. We assume that light is actually a continuum of different frequencies of radiation. According to Merv’s analysis, although we cannot closely circumscribe the limits of a colour like red except by some arbitrary convention of a cutoff frequency, that does not destroy the reality of the universal we call “redness”. What he’s proposing might be called a “fuzzy essence”, a concept that has long been recognised in philosophy in the question, say, of how much wood you can remove from a chair  before it loses its “chair” nature – it’s the basis of “fuzzy logic”. There is, nevertheless, a true category of “chairs”.

But we need to look at what constitutes redness qua redness for us, and that is that it is light that stimulates our long-wavelength photoreceptors in a certain way, together with the “smart” processing of their responses thereafter. It’s not even as neat as a wavelength range: as the colour theory website of David Briggs says (who joined us here in the discussion of spectral colour last November), the colour we judge as the purest red cannot even be evoked by a single wavelength of light – only a mixture stimulates our “red” response maximally. Also, colours well outside the range can be re-interpreted as red in the context of a scene. So, scientifically at least, redness is a property purely of the human nervous system and mind – it’s a subjective essence. But, one might argue, if all people have the same photoreceptors, is the category not a genuine universal, despite the fuzy boundaries?

Well, clearly not necessarily. Certainly different kinds of animal have different long photoreceptors with different frequency responses. Indeed the signs are that the third of our photo-pigments – that which gives primates alone of mammals tri-colour vision – arose by a mutation of the second. Supposing 50% of the human race had a mutated long-wavelength receptor that responded to some of the usual “red” frequency range weakly, but far more in the blue. Where would the universal “red” exist then? I suggest that the arbitrary cut-off points would become the only valid criterion.

Let’s look at that by another example. The British TV station Channel 4 has a series of wonderful “ident” clips. I can’t resist linking a few:

You’ll see that random elements in the landscape, at one point only, coalesce to form the channel’s logo, “4”. It’s a pretty good analogy for gradualist evolution: at some point we see the form of the “4” begin to emerge from the scene, and recognise it for awhile until it begins to disintegrate. It is only a perfectly formed logo for a frame or two, just as we might recognise a Stegosaurus or a species of trilobite appearing for a brief span of gelogical time before changing into something different.

But, we might say, while it is briefly visible it has the true nature of the figure “4” – a numerical universal as well as, in a more limited way, a universal logo for the company’s productions. But think again – the only reason that particular arrangement of moving shapes is significant is because we attribute an arbitrary semantic value to it. The conceit of the graphics is that “really” the phenomenon is a pareidolia – an illusion of the channel logo. But the only reason it is not completely formless, and that that particular assemblage has an “essence” in a way that the assemblages before and after do not, is because our minds (arbitrarily) assign it a place with all the other “figure 4s” we have seen. Intrinsically it is no more significant than all the other patterns in the sequence. In other words, to be a universal essence, a mind needs to have created the idea – and in fact it then becomes a teleological target at which the video aims. If it has no teleology, there is no universal.

But for all that, biologists (we might say) have no trouble recognising distinct taxa, even whilst recognising they have fuzzy boundaries in time (as they evolve), and even across populations (for no two share all the same characters). But in fact this is a case of philosophical double-think, akin to the way that teleology is denied whilst being universally employed in the study of function. In fact, it’s really another case of teleology, because biology inherited its whole concept of taxonomy from those like Linnaeus who based their entire system on the reality of fixed essences.

Because species did exist as real essential natures (conceived, ultimately, by God), all the taxonomist had to do was select the best fixed expressions of that nature – the proportions of certain bones, say, or the number of petals – and use them as criteria to define the taxon. By so using characters as indicators of a true essence, the variations could be ignored as (in Aristotelian parlance) “accidents”. And so black fur from a mutant gene doesn’t exclude an animal from being a rabbit, but sabre teeth and lack of incisors would.

Modern biology inherited this general view of classifications (what is a clade but a hierarchy of defining characters?), whilst denying that fundamental natures actually exist – what we call “rabbit” is merely a description of a gene pool in flux whose examples share certain arbitrary “key” characteristics, that we have chosen for convenience. It has no actual boundaries at all – rabbits 100K years ago had a somewhat different spread of genes, and will do so in 100K years time. At some point they were and will be a different species – “species” being defined by purely mental criteria rather than anything definite in nature.

nonrabbitWe only get away with this because of the apparently fortuitous discontinuities in the continuum at any point in time: we can talk about rabbits and non-rabbits, as if there was a rabbit “essence”, only because we can set the arbitrary taxonomic criteria that make it distinctive in this present world. In other words, we make it, like the Channel 4 logo, a target at which evolution has, briefly, arrived, provided we pass over the individual variations that make each rabbit unique. It is as if we could define red easily because only hydrogen-spectra existed in our world.

specfigNeedless to say, biologically the same is true of the present human species: we know people from non-people (provided we are not 18th century anthropologists, class-conscious soviets or aborters of “pre-implantation zygotic material”). But apart from arbitrary demarcation criteria, evolutionary science can only recognise “human nature” by the teleological target-setting it has offically rejected as invalid.

Now, such “irrational” and “subjective” human assessments may be of use to us in practice, but can’t be granted the status of universal truth (so pngarrison’s original difficulties with Adam’s rubbing shoulders with “non-humans” would purely be a matter of subjective judgement). The only let-out I can see for that is if we introduce God back into the picture (and why would we ever exclude him?). We must say that he has in mind something that he regards as a truly objective universal human nature: that in creating “man” he creates more than just similar biological entities, but variations on a true essence – a teleological target.

In taking human flesh to redeem it, The Son does not just take on a particular individual entity, nor a minimum set of taxonomic criteria, but through an individual the core of what it means to be “man”. He becomes “The Man” (or Adam in Hebrew).

prplelgcThat means two things. Either God himself defines the boundaries of mankind by some arbitrary, nominal, criterion – perhaps one that matches our self-perception, or by some other Linnaean-type key characters. That would be his prerogative as Creator, but hardly seems worthy of him. “Christ died for all with a cranial capacity in excess of x cc” has something distinctly wrong about it.

Or gradualistic Darwinian evolution is not an adequate explanation for the arrival of mankind and his essential nature: somehow a target or template, like the schema of the “4” in the videos, was “smuggled” into the creative process as well. That could happen in several ways:

1 Most naturalistically, by macro-evolution being saltational rather than gradualistic: the natures biology studies would then be real and distinct, rather than being merely human artifacts.
2 By directed evolution: God has his own “fuzzy essences” centred on true teleological targets. And he has his own demarcation criteria.
3 By the endowment of the first man with a separately-created rational soul, as in Roman Catholic teaching
4 By the calling of one or some men into some kind of ontologically transformative relationship with God.

But in all four cases the boundaries of human form would be distinct, and the human race would have a clearly demarcated beginning, in God’s eyes. We could, perhaps, call that beginning “Adam”.


Is this what makes you see red?

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Adam, Creation, Philosophy, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Essences, fuzzy or firm

  1. pngarrison says:

    To complicate things, we don’t all the same opsin genes. There are variants which may have small effects on spectral characteristics. Because they are on the X, women can have 2 different alleles at each gene. I haven’t looked up what the different alleles are and what their population frequencies are. There was a big net controversy last week about a picture of a dress which some people (including me) saw as white and gold and others as blue and black. I never found an explanation of why the different perceptions, but it did provoke some articles on color perception, some misleading as usual.

    I found an article on line that brings up a further interesting distinction. Anthropologists have found that despite most people being basically functionally trichromatic and able to perceive the spectrum, cultures vary a lot in how many basic color words they use. Some tribes only distinguish light and dark, with some additional qualifiers or each of those. Some have 3 color words, white, black and red. If a third color is distinguished, it is always red. Beyond that they may distinguish blue/green and yellow/orange and finally they distinguish blue from green and yellow from orange. English has 11 basis colors, which the highest, except that Russian and one other distinguish 2 types of blue. I’m giving this from memory so I may have some details off. Apparently color words are developed out of practical need, raising the question of where does the “essence” of a color lie, in the perception or in the use of the word and where its perceptual boundaries are drawn in a culture. The article is here: and the relevant section is The Human World of Color.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Preston – that muddies the water in line with my thinking! My Irish forbears have fifty shades of green, and of course modern westerners prefer fifty shades of grey…

      I thought of David Briggs when that dress story came out. The clue, I think, is in the ambiguous lighting in the pictures – when I caught sight of it flicking through the news pages online it sometimes looked blue and black, and sometimes white and gold, showing that colour perception (as I said in the OP) is contextualised by our minds. The odd thing was that I couldn’t shift my perspective on any one occasion. If people do differ, I suspect it’s something to do with their usual environment related to the lighting rather than their hardware.

      • pngarrison says:

        I saw a paper from V. S. Ramachandran recently in which they identified certain patients whose sexual identity appears to oscillate over time between male and female. No doubt this should not be compared to seeing the dress in both color combinations at different times. 🙂

  2. pngarrison says:

    On the question of “essences” it seems likely that whether we regard something as being within the bounds of an essence is determined by the output of a neural network computation with everything we can observe about the “thing” as input to the network. It is an entertaining philosophical game to try to produce a definition or set of rules that will give the same output as the relevant neural network, but hard cases show that it can be very difficult to simplify things down to a definition. What is “classical” music? An ostensive definition was possible when you could say, “anything in the classical section of the record store,” but of course that assumes that someone has a functional definition or at neural network.

    It has always seemed to be me that only certain certain things should be viewed as “real” vs. nominal. For love, justice, sin, prudence, etc. there is an essence defined by God’s conception of these things. But chairs, baseballs, classical music and non-human species, the “essence” is just the neural network that determines yes or no in a given culture. This is all just thoughts off the top of my head, from a philosophy student who was always a little puzzled by the realist/nominalist controversy.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      My current thinking is that “meaning” is a higher form of thought that can’t be reduced to algorithmic information.

      Yet I suspect that there’s some kind of conguence between the natures that God conceives and those which we, created in his image, conceive – much in the way that science has always depended on a correlation between the reason we possess and that intrinsic to the creation. And so the world of common sensation and thought is, at root, the “real” world.

      Yet as you’ve discussed, there are many differences of perception, just as reason can lead to different conclusions. Perhaps ultimately the harmonization of our perceptions with Gods – as surely must be the case in God’s Image himself, Christ – is the goal of life.

  3. pngarrison says:

    The output of neural network is complex, but it isn’t meaning itself, or at least it doesn’t seem to my philosopher side that it could be. That’s the old mind/brain conundrum that no one has ever come close to solving. The mind is utterly dependent on the wetware’s function, but no matter what the magnification of the microscope (or electrode or fMRI) we aren’t going to see brain resolve into mind/soul.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Incidentally, Preston, reading your link above they made a distinction between what has been named as the basic colours in the various cultures/languages, and what can be perceived: in other words, those who have only black white and red aren’t inhibited from seeing green as we do, but presumably it becomes “coca-leaf red”, and blue “cloudless sky-white” etc.

      At the same time naming something like a colour creates the thoughts that surround it – if you do have names for 50 shades of green, you’re bound to become more discriminating (like the eskimos with 6 names for snow, and the taxonomist with 1 million names for “creeping thing”). I noticed how “weeds” acquired a richer existence for me when I started syudying wild flowers.

      But classification has always been considered an attempt to recognise real essences, and not just to make a boundariless reality more tractable. Certainly science depends on the universals being named corresponding to a physical reality, or scientists wouldn’t get so lofty about the ancients classifying whales and clams as fish based on a different set of universals.

      I’ve incidentally just remembered another another problem of nominalism in relation to human nature, this time regarding the individual. Given the ageing process, and the turn-around of cells and molecules, the continued existence of “me” throughout life (as a different kind of universal) is problematic. And so picking up the theme of Incarnation in the original post, one requires a theory of essences to account for how the baby born of a virgin has any relevance at the human level to the crucified one raised from the dead.

      Without such universals, the individual who lives a sinless life is perhaps a completely different individual from the one who offers himself on the cross.

      But that’s a critique of the whole atomist philosophy, rather than Darwinian gradualism as a subset of that.

  4. GD says:

    An interesting report on the BBC site is relevant to the discussion on how we may achieve colour vision. It is “Shape of eye’s ‘light pipes’ is key to colour sorting” on

    “And more than just piping light to the back of the retina, where the rods and cones sit, they selectively send red and green light – the most important for human colour vision – to the cone cells, which handle colour.

    Meanwhile, they leave 85% of blue light to spill over and reach nearby rod cells, which specialise in those wavelengths and give us the mostly black-and-white vision that gets us by in dim conditions.

    The work was done in the lab of Dr Erez Ribak from Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, an astrophysicist”

    I have not read the original research paper so I will not comment, but controversy continues, as shown by Mark Hankins, a professor of visual neuroscience at the University of Oxford, who “admires Dr Ribak’s work but is not convinced that the light funnelling phenomenon is the “driving force” behind the reverse-wired vertebrate eye.”

    • Jon Garvey says:


      I saw that work too – just adds another layer of sophistication to what is already an exceedingly elegant system.

      The interesting thing (to me) about Hankins comment above is that it seems to embody an assumption that “driving force” is the same thing as “good function” – which I guess is necessary if your thinking has to exclude teleology. I too haven’t read the original paper, but my impression is the angle is “this is how the eye works, and jolly efficient it is too.” To reply, “That doesn’t explain its evolution” seems in the end only to sacrifice the presence of mechanism on the altar of evolutionary theory.

      • GD says:


        Meaning and scientifically understood mechanisms (such as the eye, signals to the brain, and colour in our mind) is a fascinating field of thought. I tried to get some insight on this from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, but there I was left with Aristotelian categories as the basis for understanding, and thought as sensations, with “I” as the person and meaning, left as imo too obvious for further discussion. I am drawn to the notion of the intelligibility of the world, but I am still inclined to consider from this, the very essence of meaning to border on the mysterious (and more in keeping with our religious outlook and understanding). Some thoughts from analytical philosophy left me unimpressed, as one thinker (from memory) obsessed with visualising an interface between external stimuli with the outer fringes of the eye or skin, to give a description of I guess meaning, as that which sustained a materialistic outlook (ie. if we can describe a mechanism, we have meaning – very odd, and I guess they link this to some version of evolution and presto, it is all understood). However science gives us clarity when we discuss specifics (eg. the wavelength corresponds to what we term that colour, and so on).

        It seems to me that we would always respond to sensory input, and we may communicate this to each other to sustain a meaning – thus red is meaningful if I use the word to another and point to the object, and the other person agrees. However, the “meaning” is derived from a notion “colour”, instead of “red”, as for example, a colour bling person may still discuss the notion of colour without experiencing redness. Truly a fascinating area.

        • Jon Garvey says:

          Indeed GD

          I’m not sure if there’s any way of drawing boundaries around “meaning” to keep it within any kind of purely rational bounds. For example, if you and I shared an old association with some institution whose emblem included a distinctive shade of red, that would, for us, be as much intrinsic to its meaning as anything purely visual.

          Other such meanings would be nearer universal – for example, the association of pink with femininity, khaki with war etc.

          On colour blindness, I heard man rendered blind in infancy complaining that coloured lights were the biggest curse of his blindness, generated in his brain. So I wonder if red-green colour blind people see red if the right brain cells are stimulated, or whether they’ve never developed.

          • GD says:

            Yes Jon, “..if you and I shared an old association with some institution whose emblem included a distinctive shade of red, that would, for us, be as much intrinsic to its meaning as anything purely visual.”

            I would think the “meaning” in this would somehow appear intrinsic but on reflection, we would be “bundling” many experiences and feelings, so that the “redness” of the emblem would to me, appear more symbolic of these things.

            I am not sure we need to draw boundaries, but rather we may be sufficiently interested in the topic (be it meaning, essence, or universals), for us to explore it – this is reflection which has a lot to do with understanding what “I” means, and we would find that it requires us to also understand what “you” also means.

            I have not heard from any blind or colour blind person, and your statement (if I fully understand it) would be very interesting. Did this person describe coloured lights in his brain while he was totally blind? If so, is this common to blind people?

            • Jon Garvey says:


              My take on the blind guy is that (having developed full vision in infancy) the damage to his optic nerve caused the visual equivalent of a phantom limb pain, ie a central spontaneous discharge of nerves involved at cortical level or below.

              Interesting to me as I used to deal with chronic pain syndromes, which are similar in aetiology. I just wondered whether such things were possible in colour-blindness (or congenital blindness come to that).

              My point about those very personal “meanings” and associations is that they’re formally pretty indistinguishable from the universal associations, such as (presumably, or for the most part) us all seeing wavelength x as red. Both are mental contructs, and they only vary in how public they are. Another variant on the theme that there is “no view from nowhere.”

              That’s a different theme from that of the validity of objective universals, though, so I’ll leave it there.

            • pngarrison says:

              Hallucinations in people who go blind are quite common. My uncle went largely blind from glaucoma, and he found the hallucinations quite annoying.

  5. Stuart Kaye says:

    Jon – will we find Neanderthals in heaven? Will Lucy be there too?

    • pngarrison says:

      Personally, I would be happy if the Peanuts characters were there. 🙂

      On Neandertals, I wonder – more intelligent than we thought before, but little sign of religion that I have heard of, so it may be akin to the question of “doggie” heaven. Sometimes I think the animals (perhaps including a few Neandertals) who had particular relationships with people (beyond just being a member of a domestic herd) may be there, but who knows? I have known a few that I would like to see there.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        pngarrison – the “doggie heaven” issue reminds us that we shouldn’t formulate theology on our sentiment, or even our reason, especially when it’s deliberately not revealed to us what will be in the age to come.

        After all that world is the Lord’s new creation (and I agree with Richard Middleton in not placing it in heaven, but on earth). So he’s the only one with the right to say what takes part in it, and how we will be changed to delight in whatever he has for us.

        I’m dubious about allocating space to Jake the Labrador, companionable though he is, on the basis of my relationship to him – when we’re told by Jesus that even marriage will not be a part of the new situation. (Fortunately he’s lying at my feet and not reading this).

        That said, there is a small value in retaining some ideas of earthly continuity (Peanuts characters, dogs, English ale, my favourite guitar) if it stops one being repelled by some sterile eternal version of a church service on clouds… provided one takes them with a pinch of salt.

  6. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Stuart – and welcome.

    Sadly your question is about the last I can even try to answer! But it’s the right kind of question for the post: what is “man”, in the sense of needing, warranting or even appreciating the age to come.

    As far as anthropology goes, Neanderthals are getting more brownie points now it’s known there was interbreeding – they’ve changed from unkempt savages to artists, it seems, without batting an eyelid. Maybe there’s little difference fron early sapiens in the event. But is that what constitutes humanity in God’s eyes? Fortunately it’s not our problem – unless some clown clones one or they turn up alive in a cave in Sumatra.

    Lucy I’m happier to discount (unless one is one of those who leaves the door of paradise open for dogs, slime moulds and all unnamed lives that live): I see no evidence for Australopithecus being other than a fairly ordinary ape – apparently now found to have been a contemporary of genuine Homo species.

    What think you?

  7. Stuart Kaye says:

    Sapientism is a cruel tool, but I also would draw the line at slime mould. Perhaps a growing awareness of the Unseen, as depicted in the Adamic story, is what separates mankind from animals. Maybe even Lucy looked up at the stars…

    • Jon Garvey says:


      We’re kind of thinking along the lines of animals/sub-humans sharing the reward of the life to come. That really presupposes some awareness of not only God, but self and others: or to put it another way one has to have eternity in ones heart and not want to lose it.

      I kind of doubt that Lucy, in the face of an oncoming carnivore, was thinking “Oh no, I had so much I wanted to do in life.” But my dog certainly doesn’t.

      On the other hand, I see no reason why the next world would not be as populated with life-forms as this one – even Australopithecines, maybe. But for former individuals to be resurrected into Christ’s family, they surely have to be individual selves in communion with others, which doesn’t appear to be the lot of animals… or slime moulds (though of all beasts they may do community best!).

      • pngarrison says:

        I did most of my dissertation research on a plasmodial slime mold, the bright yellow Physarum polycephalum. It is a syncytium – a multinucleated macrocell. On agar or a piece of filter paper they will grow up to 100 million nuclei (12 cm in diameter or more, growing until the medium is depleted, and then crawling out of the dish, fusing with the ones from other Petri dishes, and sliming the walls of the incubator if you forget them. When you shake them in a flash of medium, they break up into smaller, but visible fragments. They have been found it the forest up to 10 or 15 ft in diameter. They take unity to the extreme. 🙂

        • Jon Garvey says:


          I think I may have referred once to a rather desperate analogy I did at a church youth conference when a teenager, in response to the leader’s request for new pictures of the Church. Being immersed in school zoology I suggested “The Church is an Amoeba.” It’s a blessing I hadn’t been introduced to slime moulds at that stage! I’d love to meet one though.

          I feel it incumbent on me to share, at this point, the only song I know written from the viewpoint of an amoeba, here. The Incredible String Band being very much an acquired taste (shared, though, by the former Archbishop of Canterbury), and the piece 13 minutes long, I suggest that non-converts go directly to 8.05-9.22.

  8. Merv Bitikofer says:

    Jon, your excellently developed response here to my question did not go unnoticed or unread –though alas, my further engagement has now been lacking. But still … complete with great visuals and video clips! Wow! My only excuse is that it continues to be a crazy week here at school, so I squeeze in what reading I can as a reprieve during the day or evenings. But thanks for your response. I have fallen behind in the comment streams, but will try to keep up with your main posts.

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