Particles, People and Purpose


One reason why it is hard to talk productively about anything, is because everything connects with everything else.  Most obviously, global climate change connects with every other issue we talk about; so too does overpopulation.  We can't say everything we want to about any of these subjects - instead, we aim to say as little as possible while still being useful, creating a web of useful content and pointing out where this subject connects with that one.

The framework we are using divides all of reality (like Caesar divided Gaul) into three parts: physical, social and spiritual.  This is primarily because each area requires a distinct set of tools and disciplines.  What we call the three areas is, to a large extent, arbitrary - we could equally well describe them as the realms of facts, feelings and values.

  • Particles - physical reality.  Roughly, the subject matter of the 'hard sciences' and mathematics; answering questions about particles and forces; asking questions like, "What is happening?"  What we discover here is true (insofar as it is true...) at all times and in all places.  If we ever meet intelligent aliens, we will be able to talk with them about atoms and prime numbers and electrical currents.
  • People - social reality.  Roughly, the subject matter of the 'social sciences' and biology; answering questions about living creatures, people and societies; asking questions like, "Why do they act in this way?"  What we discover here is often true in specific contexts.  If we ever meet intelligent aliens, they will almost certainly have their own equivalents of psychology, sociology, politics and economics, but they will be different from ours, and their answers may not work for us.
  • Purpose - spiritual reality.  Roughly, the subject matter of philosophy and religion; answering questions about morality, identity, values and purpose; asking questions like, "What should be happening?"  The truth we discover here is often paradoxical, with different truths appearing to contradict each other.  Also, it is less likely to be the discovery of new truth, and more likely to be a deeper appreciation of familiar truth.  If we ever meet intelligent aliens, it seems likely that they will have wrestled with the same big questions as us, and we will each seek to learn from and make use of the answers which the other species has found.

We can talk in a meaningful way within each area about the search for truth, but the specific techniques and disciplines we use in the search for truth vary from area to area: we recognize that there are different rules applying to activity in a laboratory and a law court; because they operate in different areas. Different rules apply, again, to the search for truth in the spiritual area.  We sometimes struggle to see what happens here as 'discovering truth', but progress does get made: slavery has been officially abolished in much of the world, and this is not the result of an improved understanding of mathematics or economics. 

Of course, in the real world, everything we do generally involves all three areas.  For example, the experiments in a laboratory are carefully conducted according to the rules of science; but who conducts the experiments, how much they get paid, and how much recognition they get for their work all depend on the social arrangements; and the people will be conducting the experiments for some reason - maybe because they want to build a reputation, or they hope the result will be useful, or they believe that pure knowledge is worth pursuing.

So many activities can be seen from the perspective of any of these areas.  They can be thought of as three different dimensions: we are free to look at any activity from any of these three perspectives, and each perspective is valid in itself, but conversations can get very confused when we start to mix them up.

Searching for Truth

Dividing reality into three parts enables us to talk about each part in a constructive way, because each one requires us to use different techniques and disciplines.  But if we are searching for truth, there are some basic principles which are applicable, for the most part, whichever area you are looking at.  In a way which is analogous to the framework, there are six key questions, which can be divided into three distinct parts - the abstract proposition, the human perspective and the practical priority (see Six Key Questions).

It's Not That Simple

Of course, this division of all reality into three parts is, to some extent, arbitrary.  It is a pragmatic approach, which seeks to use categories which people are already familiar with, and find helpful.

It would be possible to neatly divide all reality into just two parts - the physical and the spiritual (for want of better names).  This would have the advantage of providing clear lines between the two: the physical deals with objective reality, everything which can be counted and measured; and the spiritual deals with subjective reality - everything else.

This twofold division is the default framework used in the ancient worlds we are familiar with, by the ancient Greeks and the Hebrews and (as far as I can tell) every other civilized nation.  So, for example, at the start of Genesis, God creates two things: the Heavens (spiritual reality) and the Earth (physical reality).  In the next chapter, the human race is created by combining these two realities and forming the first person out of spirit and dust.

The middle part, 'social reality', can be seen as being constructed from the overlap of the other two - where you deal with items belonging to the spiritual reality, but handle them (in theory, at least) only in ways which derive from the physical reality.  In practice, the ancient world generally recognized that this required a distinct treatment (see the 'Further Reading' below) so while you can, in theory, work with the twofold division, the middle part is hard to ignore in practice.  Pragmatically, it is hard to resist treating living matter and non-living matter differently, and few people fail to notice that living and non-living matter behave differently, even when their philosophy says there is no essential difference.

So, for example, money belongs to the spiritual reality - the value of a coin, or any other material object cannot be determined by scientific examination.  You can successfully study economics as a strict materialist, but even materialists recognize that money only exists if you believe in it.  Similarly, you can practice law without believing that justice really exists, but the practice of law requires that you act as though you believe in justice.  And you can practice psychiatry without believing that guilt really exists, but you have to accept that people really experience it.  To successfully function it is necessary to act as if money, or justice, or guilt, really exist.  Margaret Thatcher famously told us, 'there is no such thing as society', but that did not prevent her from engaging in social engineering: she may not have believed in society, but she acted as though it was real.

While it is in theory possible, in practice people are generally incapable of dealing with spiritual reality in purely material terms.  We believe in morality and justice, we treat human life as valuable, we recognize the need for a higher purpose - something beyond simple survival and sex.  Our social reality is an ongoing attempt to span the two worlds of the material and the spiritual: each has its own assumptions, terminology, tools and disciplines, and bridging this gap is incredibly hard.

And it is in this middle area where most of our practical challenges lie: few of us will be engaged in the creation of a commercial fusion reactor, or in the development of more efficient batteries from less polluting materials; for most of us, our task is to be a part of the social movements which seek to reshape society in the ways we need to change, to persuade our politicians to create laws which reward the useful activity and punish the destructive activity, and to persuade others that these need to be our priorities.  And, as this is where most of our energy needs to be directed, it is probably helpful to engage with these challenges as a single unit.


The most obvious origin of this threefold division of reality lies in the traditional elements of rhetoric as described by Aristotle: logos, pathos and ethos, but it can be found in many places.  For example, it is easy to find teaching about the importance of getting the right relationship between fact, faith and feelings; and cognitive dissonance is experienced when there is a perceived conflict between actions, feelings and beliefs.

The immediate source material is a couple of articles which were circulated and discussed shortly before Just Human? began.  As with everything on this site, further comment on these articles - or the present one - is welcome.

This division is, not surprisingly, much older than Aristotle.  While we can find the explicit division of our three parts in his work, he was only (for a very specific value of 'only') describing a framework which was very familiar to the people of his time - we can see it used in many places long before he described it.  So, for example, in the ancient world, there was a common literary creation which we now call the 'city lament'.  The earliest ones we know about are five Sumerian city laments, which are dated from the late third to early second millenniums, and they are constructed to bring together physical, social and spiritual concerns.  The same three areas of interest can be seen in the lament over Tyre in Ezekiel 27 - for example, the first verse deals with Tyre's beauty, its domain and its builders (see Delbert R Hillers, “Book of Lamentations” in volume 4, pages 137–141 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1992).

A more recent threefold division is provided by Karl Popper in his 'Three Worlds', although he places the exact division between them in a slightly different place.  There is some overlap with Dooyeweerd's fifteen aspects (or 'modalities'), but no direct mapping between his division and this one.


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