The constituent elements of the Triple Existence are matter, life, and thought. What does this mean?
Matter is a type of being that comprises the physical universe. Along with energy, it exists or operates in particular spatial locations at particular times. We understand the structure of matter primarily through the chemical elements as arranged in Mendeleev’s periodic table. Matter is found throughout the universe although it is only on earth that the Triple Existence occurs.
It is important to realize that the other two types of being, life and thought, must also exist materially for them to exist at all. Plato’s theories notwithstanding, the idea of life or of thought is not enough to support their existence. There must be a physical basis for each.
Life, too, is comprised of chemical elements. However, the RNA and DNA molecules give it a special characteristic which is the ability to break down and chemically alter other physical objects in the environment for the purpose of creating and maintaining its own structure and also to replicate itself. Unlike other physical being, living creatures exist during a limited period of time that is associated with its life cycle.
It is more difficult to understand how thought physically exists. Human beings are aware of certain mental experiences had at certain times. Thought is our sentient interface with the world. Neurologists tell us, however, that what we experience as thought is the result of neuron firings within the brain. Thought is therefore an electro-chemical process that creates certain conscious experiences while it is taking place. It is initially an event rather than a static object or being.
If this were all, thought would hardly merit being included in a trinity of beings that comprise our world but would, instead, be a mere attribute of life. Other animals have similar neural processes that might be considered types of thought. Even plants “know” what they need to do to survive. But human thought is special because of the impact it has had on its physical environment. This is the most active and powerful force operating upon earth today.
There are some hard and fast rules that set boundaries between the three types of being. You breathe matter - primarily nitrogen and oxygen in the air. You drink matter, when it is water, but also water mixed with life’s product in milk or fruit juice. You eat life, both animal and vegetable, although minerals such as salt are also edible. Social mores say that you do not eat the flesh of other human beings; the human species is off limits as food. Thought itself does not provide physical nourishment so far as I know.
Except in primitive religion or ecstatic visions, human beings do not communicate with inorganic matter. If you say something to a mountain or lake, it will not respond. Such things have no mind or sound transmitter with which to communicate. Except for other human beings, life, too, has a limited capacity to interact consciously with us. Animals are more expressive than plants. Domesticated animals speak to us with body language so we have a good idea what they are thinking but can never be sure. It takes another human being to share thoughts with us in a precise and complete way. That is the special ability of the human race, making our species so powerful.
Regarding its role in the Triple Existence, thought is associated with humanity’s collective operation, especially as regards its use of physical resources. What is limited to “thinking” per se does not matter as much as how thought takes charge of those material resources, making the world a different place. So much of what we see in our world is artificial - i.e., man-made - and each such object can be traced to a particular thought or set of thoughts that gave rise to its creation.
If you look around you, you see examples of the three types of being which, together, comprise the Triple Existence. Look at the ocean and you see liquid water. Look at the sky and you see clouds or stars. They are examples of inorganic materials. Likewise, if you look down at the earth, you may see rocks or sand.
Around you is also evidence of life. You and your fellow human beings are examples of this type of being. There are also dogs, cats, cattle, birds, squirrels, insects, worms, and other animals. Even more prominent is the vegetable kingdom which includes plants of various kinds. That part of the earth not inhabited by man is given over to forms of life that we call wild.
When I speak of thought in the trinity of beings, I am thinking primarily of artificial objects found in the world. Natural landscapes have been replaced by urban habitats featuring concrete structures, machines, and utilitarian objects made of metal, plastic, or wood. If you are indoors, you see this type of object almost exclusively. Granted, they are comprised of matter but it is human thought that has given them all their distinctive design and purpose. Thought has created the chair that you are sitting on. It has turned plant life’s wooden residue into a broom handle. It has turned silicon grains into glass that can hold drinking water.
Even if these various objects are products of thought rather than thought itself, I would associate them with that third member of the Triple Existence more than with the material from which they are made. Just as life devours inorganic materials to sustain itself, so thought appropriates both matter and life to suit its purposes. Conversely, the world that we inhabit is substantially comprised of thought’s product.
Think of the impact that life has had upon the earth’s composition. The calcium skeletons left by coral and other sea creatures have produced immense strata of limestone within the earth. The decayed and compressed remains of plants that lived hundreds of millions of years ago have left rich deposits of coal, petroleum, and natural gas. So human intelligence, too, is leaving its residue in the earth’s physical environment. Machines designed, built and operated by thinking persons have transformed the natural world in accordance with purposes transmitted through human society.
Thought’s processes are somewhat unique in that their visibly most prominent creations depend on humanity’s accumulated knowledge. All the inventions or insights had by many different persons become focused in a single, universally accessible system of technology. It is humanity’s unique ability to communicate that makes this possible. And human technology has transformed the conditions on earth.
Humanity is also uniquely aware of the limitation that life’s condition has imposed upon itself in death. Personal thought systems that genetic continuity cannot replace suddenly come to an end. Although the “lower” forms of life also experience death, we alone are able to contemplate that fact well before the time arrives. It is a terrifying feeling to think that we as thinking creatures will some day cease to exist. Can one imagine how it feels to go through a process of ceasing to exist?
For some, religion offers solace in the face of certain death. I end with a mournful tune whose lyrics are attributed to Charles Wesley, the noted Methodist hymn writer. It goes:
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot.
Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my portion be!
Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!”
There is here anguished conflict between eternal thought and perishable life, both part of the Triple Existence. We stand at the intersection of several different realms. Whether thought can exist without life (in artificial intelligence) is a pressing concern of our time.