My young daughter’s precious Labrador puppy, Violet, has grown up, and recently turned two. As a family, we usually traditionally have Schnauzers as pets, and it’s been strange but nice to have a different breed around the home, and Labradors have great personalities. What struck me forcibly when Violet came in to our life, was that while she has a very different shape and form to our two Schnauzers, she is as instantly recognisable as a dog, as all our dogs are. It again struck me when the family watched a program on the most loved one hundred dog breeds in the UK (for those interested Labradors came in first), that while each of the different breeds had very different characteristics – think Chihuahua as compared to a Great Dane, or a Pug compared to a German Shepherd – they are were all instantly recognisable by our family members watching it, and I am sure just about all the folk who watched the program, as being dogs rather than cats, or lamas, or sheep. In the last few years of my academic career (and perhaps at a subconscious level for my entire research career), after having been an Integrative Control Systems scientist for most of my career, trying to understand how our different body systems and functions are controlled and maintained in an optimal and safe manner, I have come to understand, and have been exploring the concept, along with great collaborators Dr Jeroen Swart and Professor Ross Tucker, that perhaps general rules are operating across all body system control mechanisms, whatever their shape or form, and we recently published a theoretical research paper which described our thoughts. In my new role as Deputy Dean of Research at the University of Essex, I am fortunate to be working with the Department of Mathematics, helping them enhance their research from an organisational perspective, and it has been fascinating working with these supremely bright folk and seeing the work they do, and having it reiterated to me that even simple mathematical principles are abstract, and not grounded in anything in the physical world (for example knowing that 1 plus 2 equals 3 does not need any physical activity for it to be always true). All of these recent activities have got me thinking of the long pondered issue of universals, their relationship to rules and regulation governing and maintaining life, and which came first, the rules, or the physical activity that requires rules and regulation to be maintained in order for the physical activity to continue and be both organised and productive.
Universals are defined as a class of mind-independent (indeed human-independent) entities which are usually contrasted with individuals (also known as ‘particulars’ relative to ‘universals’), and which are believed to ‘ground’ and explain the relation of qualitative identity and resemblance among all individuals. More simply, they are defined as the nature or essence of a group of like objects described by a general term. For example, in the case of dogs described above, when we see a dog, whether it is a Labrador, Schnauzer, German Shepherd, or a myriad of other breeds, we ‘know’ it to be a dog, and the word dog is used to cover the ‘essence’ of all these and other breeds. Similarly, we know what a cat is, or a house, or shoes, despite each of these ‘types of things’ often looking very different to each other – there are clearly enough characteristics in each to define them by a universal defining name. Understanding universals gets even more complex though than merely thinking of them as being just a name or group of properties for a species or ‘type of thing’. Long ago, back in the time of antiquity, one of the first recorded philosophical debates was about universals, and whether they existed independently as abstract entities, or only as a term to define an object, species or ‘type of thing’. Plato suggested that a universal exists independent of that which they define, and are the true ‘things which we know’, even if they are intangible and immeasurable, with the living examples of them being copies and / or imitations of the universal, each varying slightly from the original universal, but bound in their form by the properties defined by the universal. In other words, he suggested that universals are the ‘maps’ of structures or forms which exist as we see and know them, for example a dog, or a horse, or a tree, and they exist in an intangible state somehow in the ‘ether’ around us, ‘directing’ the creation of the physical entities in some way which we have not determined or are currently capable of understanding.
In philosophical terms, this theory of universals as independent entities is known as Platonic Realism. After Plato came Aristotle, who felt that universals are ‘real entities’, like Plato perceived them to be, but in his theory (known as Aristotelian Realism), he suggested that universals did not exist independent of the particulars, or species, or ‘things’ they defined, and were linked to their physical existence, and would not exist without the physical entities they ‘represent’. In contrast to realism, Nominalism is a theory that developed after the work of these two geniuses (Nominalists are also sometimes described as Empiricists) which denied the existence of universals completely, and suggested that physical ‘things’, or particulars, shared only a name, and not qualities that defined them, and that universals were not necessary for the existence of species or ‘things’. Idealism (proposed by folk like Immanuel Kant) got around the problem of universals by suggesting that universals were not real, but rather were products of the minds of ‘rational individuals’, when thinking of that which they were looking at.
This dilemma of both the existence and nature of universals has to date not been solved, or adequately explained, given that it is impossible with current scientific techniques, or perhaps psychological ‘power’ in our minds, to be able to prove or disprove the presence of universals, and folk ‘believe’ in one of these different choices of universals depending on their world and life points of view. Religious folk would suggest that the world is created in God’s ‘image’, and to them God’s ‘images’ would be the universals from which all ‘God’s creatures’ are created. In contrast, with respect to evolution, which is diametrically opposed to the concept of religion, it is difficult to believe in both evolution and the presence of universals, as evolution is based on the concept of need and error-driven individual genetic changes over millennia in response to that need, which led to different species developing, and to the variety in nature and life we see all around us. In the evolutionary model therefore, the concept of universals (and the creation of the world by a God as posited by many religions) would appear to be counter-intuitive.
While a lot of debate has focused on ‘things one can see’ as the physical ‘particulars’ which are either a product of universals or not, there are more abstract activities which support the existence of universals independent of the mind or ‘things that they are involved with’. For example, the work done by Ross, Jeroen and myself developed from the realisation that a core principle of all physiological activity is homeostasis, which is defined as the maintenance by regulatory control processes or structures of physiological or physical activity within certain tolerable limits, in order to protect the individual or thing being regulated from being damaged, or damaging itself. Underpinning all homeostatic control mechanisms is the negative feedback loop, where when a substance or activity increases or decreases too much, initiates other activity as part of a circular control structure which has the capacity to act on the substance requiring control, and normalises or attenuates the changes, and keeps the activity or behaviour within required ‘safe levels’, which are set by homeostatic control mechanisms. The fascinating thing is that the same principle of negative feedback control loops occurs in all and any physical living system, and without it life could not occur. Whether gene activity, liver function, or whole body activity, all which have very different physical or metabolic regulatory structures and processes, all are controlled by negative feedback loop principles. Therefore, it is difficult not to perceive that the negative feedback loop is a type of universal, but one that works by similar ‘action’ across systems rather than ‘creating’ a physical thing in its likeness. Mathematics is another area in which folk believe universals are ‘at work’, given that even the simplest sums, such as one plus two equals three, needs no physical structure or ‘particular’ for them to always be such, and true. While we all use mathematical principles on a continuous basis, it is difficult to believe that such mathematical principles do not ‘exist’ in the absence of humans, or any physical shape or forms.
So where does all this leave us in understanding universals and their relevance to life as we know it? Perhaps what one’s viewpoint is regarding the existence of universals depends on one’s own particular epistemological perspective (understanding of the nature of knowledge and how it is related to one’s justified beliefs) and world view. Though I can in no way prove it, I believe in universals and would define myself as a Platonic Realist. This viewpoint comes from a career in science and working with exceptional scientists like Jeroen Swart and Ross Tucker getting to understand the exquisite and universal nature of control mechanisms which keep our bodies working the way which they do. However, I do not believe in any God or religion in any shape or form, and have greater faith in the evolutionary model, which is counter-intuitive relative to my belief in the presence of independent universals. Therefore, the potential similarities and differences between religion and universals, and evolution and universals described above is clearly redundant for my specific beliefs, and there is probably similar confusion in core beliefs for many (particularly research involved) folk. However, it is exciting to think (at least for me) that there may be universals out there that have no link to current activities or functions or species, and which may become evident to humans at some point in the future, by way of the development of new species or new ‘things’. Having said that, I guess it could be argued that if universals do not exist, progress and the evolution of ideas will lead us to new developments, species or ways of life in an evolution-driven, error-associated way. One cannot ‘see’ or ‘feel’ a negative feedback loop, or a maths algorithm, or universal for even something as simple as a dog, which is why perhaps to a lot of folk with a different epistemological viewpoint to mine it is challenging to accept the presence, or indeed the necessity, of and for universals. But when I look at our Labrador, and ‘know’ as such it is a dog as much as a Schnauzer, Chihuahua, or German Shepherd is, I feel sure there is the Universal dog out there somewhere in the ether that will perhaps keep my toes warm when I leave this world for the great wide void which may exist beyond it. And surely, given what a stunning breed they are, the Universal dog, if it exists out there, can only be a Labrador!