The Secret(s) of Life, the Universe and Everything


Jay B. Gaskill

After all this time, Plato still makes much more sense than the opposing view of the arch-materialists. These minds still cling to the view that the behavior of matter and energy can provide the total explanation of life, the universe everything. Not only do I believe that the arch-materialists are fundamentally wrong in this, I suggest that their notion that everything is reducible to some branch of the physical sciences is actually toxic. Yes, the arch-materialists still hold center stage in the academy. Yes, reductionism and deconstructionist thinking are still the vogue. Yes, many nominally intelligent people still seem to believe that even a Bach fugue is just a series of fluctuations in air pressure that interact with our hormones to produce the illusion of beauty. But, really, can everything else of value – hope, morality, beauty and goodness – be fully explained as bio-electric fluctuations in the brain? If you still believe this – and most intelligent people do not – be warned: Arch-materialism peaked in the 20th century.

We can grant that ultimate ontological questions will always elude absolute proof. And that this situation will always provide a convenient refuge for those cynical souls who fear to live in hope because they live in fear of all hope being proved wrong. But life’s truly large questions can be settled for each of us as individuals when we grasp one simple principle: Our whole lives are conducted on foundations on which we act in reasonable confidence. Real life rarely offers more. Arch-materialism, when taken seriously, omits far too much that is necessary for the pursuit of authentic life. A commitment to arch-materialism as comprehensive doctrine is a pathology because so much more is worthy of our reasonable confidence.

From the perspective of the early 21st century, how real and relevant is Plato’s Realm of Forms? [In this discussion, we’ll use two special terms, Event Space and Form Space, the latter for the Plato’s realm of “pure”, a-temporal, non-material entities. Of course this uses the term space in a special sense (discussed below * ↓).] A single question exposes the hollowness of the arch-materialist world view: How is it that human cognition so powerfully mirrors the underlying architecture of reality? The remarkable predictive and explanatory power of this mirror effect is both hard to ignore and deeply significant. Cognition became increasingly powerful via the use of systematic, self consistent relational structures (the most formal of which are logic and mathematics). Our cognitive power was greatly enhanced in the mid 20th century though the development of increasingly rapid computation technologies. Our species’ growing suite of conceptual tools generated very fertile and useful metaphors (think of software and hardware from information processing technologies and space as mathematical metaphor↓). After 2,200 years, Plato’s core vision remains remarkably robust.

At the beginning of this millennium, three views of the ontological status of Plato’s Form Space are still in competition:

  1. All form/order/pattern is merely derived from the material/physical domain, and not otherwise existent. In other words, form/order is abstracted from the physical universe by the mind, enjoying (at best) a wholly dependant ontological status, a secondary reality.

  2. All physical/material existent “things” are merely imperfect, corrupted and transient versions of the “perfect” and “eternal archetypes in form Space where they enjoy a fleeting, utterly impermanent existence in “Event Space” The merely material is “descended” from the Platonic realm, a fleeting and dependent ontological status, a secondary reality.

  3. Form Space and Event Space have co-equal ontological status in the context of an overarching Reality. [The exposition and development of the various explanatory scenarios is an ongoing human project as are the various attempts to resolve the tensions between 1 and 2.]

My usage of the term “space” (in Form Space and Event Space) is not a reference to the venue of distance, direction or size in the space-time continuum. This usage of space belongs to a family of terms like “phase space”, “design space” and “gene space” in which space is a relational field or grid that can be described or represented in visual form in a way that dramatically reveals sub-relationships and adjacencies. [Think of a 2 dimensional graphic representation of all the possible the paths of a given pendulum or class of pendulums.]

This usage probably started with the term “phase space”, a conceptual metaphor that originated in the mathematics of chaos mapping and fractals. The shapes of Euclidean, geometry – square, circle, cube, and sphere – are regular. Fractals are irregular geometric shapes that contain recursively tinier versions of themselves exhibiting self-similarity such that a small portion of the whole is reduced scale replica of original. The “father of fractals”, Benoit Mandelbrot (1924), demonstrated how fractals are generated from deceptively simple mathematical equations, and that they occur both in mathematics and nature (think of zebra stripes and snowflakes). One special class of fractals, the “Mandelbrot set” generates self-similar shapes at first glance, but on smaller and smaller scales, the shapes are only approximately similar. Every Mandelbrot set generates infinite ordered variety, all based on simple equations of the general form: Z = Z2 + C. These amazing and beautiful fractal shapes can be generated and displayed graphically on a home computer.

When mathematics is used to describe a dynamic system (think of the swings of a pendulum), “phase space” represents the mathematical depiction of all possibilities of motion in the particular system. Locations in phase space appear as paths, trajectories, or orbits, typically represented on a 2 D surface. An “attractor” is the end state of a system. For a pendulum (a non-chaotic dynamic system), the attractor is the rest point, the locus of perfect equilibrium.

Chaotic systems are characterized by such exquisite sensitivity to their initial conditions that the eventual trajectories in phase space can’t be predicted (remember this is mathematical modeling, not “actual’ turbulence in nature we’re discussing) except over a very short time span. When chaotic systems are graphed in phase space, an interesting result emerges from the “randomness”. A different sort of “attractor” emerges from the infinitely variable number strings — much like a mountain emerges in the fog. This is the “strange attractor”, a cluster of infinitely variable solutions, graphed in phase space, that are all contained within a definite range. While no one solution is ever the same and nothing exactly repeats, there is a convergence that produces a Form in phase space. In this mathematics, chaos yields emergent order.

After the notion of “space” caught on as a relational field that can be graphically depicted on virtual plane, other usages quickly followed. Evolutionary biology has generated a sub-field of mathematical molecular genetics, a discipline that incorporates aspects of statistics, information science, including some of the language (“genetic coding theory”) and geometry (molecular genetics as differential geometry), and finally the language of physical cosmology (genetics as a “space-time manifold”). The organization of genetically coded information is understood as occurring in “gene space”. Other theorists have begun to use the term “design space.” All of these usages – whether intentionally or unintentionally – pay homage to Plato. In this spirit I adopted the terms Form Space and Event Space.

Before going further, I will outline the gradual evolution of ideas about the nature and contents of Plato’s realm. I see five major developments:

(1) Ancient Plato. Pythagoras of Samos (569-475 BCE ) and Plato (427-347 BCE, student of Socates), shared the mindset. Form Space was seen as including ideal archetypes, perfect forms and – as Pythagoras had discovered – harmonic relationships. The realm was geometrical and relational, both eternal and static.

(2) Clockwork Plato. This is “Plato/Pythagoras Form Space” as augmented by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Form Space now includes the realm of natural law and the mathematics of the calculus. In effect, the classical mechanics of motion, the laws of celestial behavior, the mathematical architecture of the gravity effect, acceleration and momentum were presumed to be fully and perfectly described by eternal equations. Almost without exception, 18th century mathematicians were Platonists in this expanded sense.

(3) Transitional Plato. This is the Plato of pre-quantum physics, of the bent clock painted by Salvador Dali, of Vernor Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle”, and of Albert Einstein who rejected the random indeterminate quantum implications on (Newtonian) principle (“God does not play dice”). A few Platonists jumped ship here. But others hung on. After all, the original shockwave posited only quantum uncertainty, the idea that quantum sized entities might be un-measurable to any perfect degree of precision, but were nevertheless operating according to some cognizable variation of Newtonian law that was just “hidden” from us. Newtonian rules were not valid under certain conditions, but Einstein’s were. Predictability survived. Dynamic processes took place according to laws that were fully describable in mathematics and fully predictive, even if – as Einstein correctly postulated – space and time were no longer absolute axes of measurement, but formed a somewhat elastic mutually correlated set, space-time.

(4) Quantum Disturbance. Then two aftershocks arrived: (a) true quantum weirdness: the realization that the uncertainty particle physics was finding in “Q-World” was not a measurement problem at all, but represented a sort of “both-and” // “either-or” ontological zone that completely eluded Newtonian description; (b) chaotic processes: the discovery that some aspects of nature are too “turbulent/chaotic” to generate predictable outcomes. At this point, several boatloads of Platonists jumped ship. Those Platonists who stayed on board were mostly mathematicians who took solace in the fact that the mathematics of quantum mechanics are predictive to an impressive degree of accuracy, as long as the exercise is understood as a series of probability calculations.

  1. Hard Drive Plato. Two things happened (both in the late 20th and early 21st centuries) that seemed to weaken Platonism as a useful description of reality but actually strengthened it. The good news: We discovered algorithmic processing (essentially step-instruction, “brute force” mathematics). Using huge computer arrays and immense memory storage, algorithms have been able to model complex dynamic processes in nature so successfully that we can reasonably imagine that anything in nature is capable (at least in principle) of mathematical description. Since all the steps of an algorithm can be stored in a hard drive, Plato’s realm could be re-imagined as an immense non-material information storage medium. The “bad” news: As the mathematician-physicist Roger Penrose has persuasively pointed out, some deceptively simple mathematical problems are inherently non-computable in the sense that any conceivable supercomputer would take all the time in the universe to arrive at a solution. This notion inspired the late Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker of the Galaxy” series in which Earth is a supercomputer designed to solve the meta-problem: “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” [Adams’ answer was “42” (probably because the computer was at 6’s and 7’s).]

Has the Platonic model finally really outlived its time? The problem flows from our discovery that the universe is not absolutely predictable. Either we are to conclude that Plato’s realm can never perfectly mirror physical reality (Plato never said that it did, since mere physical reality fell shot of the perfection of the real of “pure” forms), or we must find a way to integrate the realms of Form Space and Event Space. I propose to do that by accounting for the traces of “randomness” that stubbornly appear in both realms.

This sort of discussion is complicated by that fact that randomness is a difficult term to define with precision. For purposes of our discussion, I opt for a functional definition: Randomness is the property of any sequence (whether of events or of calculation steps), however putatively ordered, such that the next step(s) cannot be accurately predicted — other than within the actual, unfolding time frame of the event sequence in question, or in the case of purely computational sequences, within the time span of the universe. Thus the notion of randomness imports a contextual framework in which the attempt to obtain perfect advance knowledge is perfectly frustrated. I’ve intentionally finessed the notion of infinity here, taking heart that we 21st century humans have pushed the limits of “functional” infinity far beyond the aboriginal counting system that inspired the title of the physicist George Gamow’s popular book first published in 1947 and reprinted for four decades. [The life of this brilliant Ukrainian-American (1934-57) was proof that not every genius wins the Nobel Prize. Dr. Gamow first predicted DNA coding and did the seminal work on the origin of physical elements following the Big Bang. One Two Three, Infinity, his most popular book, was an overview of modern science.]

Followers of Newton and Kepler believed in a universe that would allow science eventually to predict everything. As soon as we were able to precisely determine the exact position and momentum of every particle in the universe (Newtonians thought), we would, in principle, be able to predict the entire future.

Enter Ilya Progigine (1917-2003, 1977 Nobel Prize for chemistry). Dr. Progigine persuasively demonstrated that chaotic variation can be so powerful and initial conditions so exquisitely sensitive to minute variation, that detailed prediction is impossible for such systems. His was not a trivial finding, because the most unpredictable systems in this sense are the weather and human behavior. Progigine dethroned Newtonian determinism.

Quantum and chaotic uncertainty have conspired to keep Newtonian determinism from ever regaining the throne. At the same time, Dr. Prigogine is credited with establishing the balancing proposition that large scale order emerges from otherwise chaotic systems. We are left with the understanding that random and chaotic processes exist in nature, and that mathematical chaos seems to mirror this. But, at the end of the day, the processes of nature are mostly predictable. So we have traveled from the deterministic innocence of Newton-Kepler to the stochastic sophistication of Prigogine-Penrose.

Therefore Plato’s realm of form, taken as a powerful model of reality, must either be stretched to accommodate these new understandings, or simply accepted (as Newton’s view has been) as a limited reality model with limited application. So this brings the discussion back to the first issue: How do we resolve the ongoing tension between Form Space and Event Space as competitors for primary ontological status? Can we imagine their mutual integration into some larger, more universal reality? I am advocating that we stretch Plato’s conception a bit because when you do that it yields a wonderful integration of these otherwise incommensurate reality models.

Before embarking on that discussion, we need to return briefly to acknowledge the growing power of mathematics (in all its strange forms) as an amazingly powerful conceptual tool for generating predictive and explanatory models of nature and natural processes, especially in cosmology, quantum physics and probability theory. Over and over again, mathematical theory has leapt beyond experiment and experience only later to be validated. This has happened because the universe is not organized along arbitrary or incomprehensible lines; its architecture has steadily been revealed (often many years before experiment of observation could have done) by mathematics. To the extent that Plato’s realm holds all of mathematics (including its as yet undiscovered branches) all the modern, post-Newton developments represent a window into two aspects of Form Space:

(a) Form Space is the container of a staggering depth and complexity of interrelated non-material form/order/design, perhaps to the extent that we might consider expanding the term “form” itself.

(b) The entire contents of Form Space is a repository of information whose contents are discoverable via cognition, yet remain deeply entangled with observable features of Event Space. We humans can do science because Form Space is strikingly predictive of yet-to-be observed features in Event Space.

Now we are ready to entertain whether we can find an overarching reality model that can persuasively integrate or subsume Event Space and Form Space. Prior to the 20th century there were just two general models that purported to resolve the conflict:

The “final” triumph of arch materialism;

The notion of a common creator of both realms, whether seen an extrinsic creation agency (as in classic theism and deism) or an intrinsic one (Spinoza’s Natural God).

Neither view was fully satisfying in that we sensed that a very significant part of the picture remained unexplained. The detection of incompleteness haunts the human mind, I suspect, because our innate grasp of explanation (that when lacking we often experience as a thirst) resists discontinuities, especially those that strike us as arbitrary.

Ultimately, those of us who believe in the essential unity and integration of all reality share an a priori faith stance in common with the scientific enterprise itself. As a result, we tend to we arrive at the end of incomplete explanations still convinced in the essential unity of things. We therefore accept the remainder as unity-in-mystery; this is a natural leap of faith, one that I understand as the reasonable faith of the reasonable mind.

We need to drive a stake in the heart of arch-materialism by moving well past several surmountable discontinuities to the point where our intuition of ultimate integration leads to a provisional mystery, the kind that is fully defensible as a reasonable act of faith.

Here are the five fundamental elements of the arch-reality model that folds into itself the sub-domains of Form Space and Event Space in each of the universes:

  1. Reality (with the capital “R”, hereafter “Reality Prime”) is relational in its essential and ultimate nature. Put differently, there is no aspect of Event Space and Form Space that cannot be fully accounted for, described and located in relational terms; the physical/material disappears into its relational description and all the form/order/design that presents to conscious cognition exists as a relational sub-set of Reality Prime, itself whole and wholly integrated differentiation of relationship. Therefore:

(a) Space and time are sets of separation and extension relationships that permit the replication, proliferation, interaction and mutation of otherwise identical form/design modules. Think spheroid here as an exemplar within topology of an archetype that can (provide we have space and time) be resized, relocated and morphed because of the separation and extension venues created by the spatial and temporal relational sets.

(b) Universes are relational “buddings” from Reality Prime in which Event Space and Form Space exist as correlated phase states of the same arch-relational set.

  1. Creative emergence takes place in the universes because Reality Prime holds the “BPR”, the Bohm-Plato Reservoir* of all possible form/design and system architecture that can ever be realized/localized in any universe.

*The “BPR” is my proposal, an idea derived from the insights of the late physicist David Bohm, in his seminal work, “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”. (Routledge,1980, ISBN 0-7448-0000-5) See page 21. For example, in his discussion of the “non-local” relationships between entangled quantum particles in the EPR experiment (Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen), Bohm wrote: “…we may regard the particles constituting projection of a ‘higher dimension reality, rather than a common three dimensional space.” See page 188. And he added, “basically the implicate order has to be considered as a process of enfoldment and unfoldment in a higher dimensional space.” See page 189. Later, in describing biological evolution, he wrote: “….various successive living forms unfold creatively…The law of this unfoldment cannot be properly understood without considering the immense multidimensional reality of which it is a projection…” ID, Page 212.

Bohm juxtaposed his view against the strictly mechanistic model of traditional science. Without venturing into the technically arcane, the following quotation seems to sum up the essence his world view:

“Quite generally, then, the implicate order has to be extended into a multidimensional reality. In principle, this reality is one unbroken whole, enclosing the entire universe with all its ‘fields’ and ‘particles.’” ID, page 189.

I believe that these early insights of Bohm’s foreshadowed the notion that form/relationship/design was somehow encoded in (or tied to) physical reality. I sense that Bohn was very close to a fully integrated view that encompasses the material and non-material, but was held back, perhaps, by the lingering pull of the older materialist mind set. I now see Bohm’s enfoldment and unfoldment as early attempts to describe an expanded Platonic realm as it mediates phases changes between the material domain (Event Space) and non-material domain (Form Space).

  1. Random/chaotic tendencies in the universes form portholes (a metaphor) that permit (given sufficient time and space) the emergence of novel design(s).
  2. Reality Prime is perfectly integrated and unified, while perfectly variegated and diversified.
  3. Conscious being is a three phase emergent in that its ontology subtends non-local form Space, local Event Space and the BPR within Reality Prime.

These five points are the seed ideas of life, the universe and everything. As a famous Rabbi once said, “All else is commentary”. Of course, that commentary will occupy the first half of the 21st century.


The author is an attorney who served 1989-1999 as the Alameda County Public Defender in Oakland, California. He can readily be contacted via email: .

His related essays (below) and personal profile ( ) can be found on The Policy Think Site: .

The Matter of Reality, A Critique of Comprehensive Materialism

Escaping the Dead Universe Paradigm

The Ghosts Outside Plato’s Cave, Implications of The Relational Universe

This book-length work is in pre-publication preparation. Contact the author for more information

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