Form and Reality

In a very interesting post Alexander Pruss discusses realism and skeptical scenarios:

The ordinary sentence “There are four chairs in my office” is true (in its ordinary context). Furthermore, its being true tells us very little about fundamental ontology. Fundamental physical reality could be made out of a single field, a handful of fields, particles in three-dimensional space, particles in ten-dimensional space, a single vector in a Hilbert space, etc., and yet the sentence could be true.

An interesting consequence: Even if in fact physical reality is made out of particles in three-dimensional space, we should not analyze the sentence to mean that there are four disjoint pluralities of particles each arranged chairwise in my office. For if that were what the sentence meant, it would tell us about which of the fundamental physical ontologies is correct. Rather, the sentence is true because of a certain arrangement of particles (or fields or whatever).

If there is such a broad range of fundamental ontologies that “There are four chairs in my office” is compatible with, it seems that the sentence should also be compatible with various sceptical scenarios, such as that I am a brain in a vat being fed data from a computer simulation. In that case, the chair sentence would be true due to facts about the computer simulation, in much the way that “There are four chairs in this Minecraft house” is true. It would be very difficult to be open to a wide variety of fundamental physics stories about the chair sentence without being open to the sentence being true in virtue of facts about a computer simulation.

But now suppose that the same kind of thing is true for other sentences about physical things like tables, dogs, trees, human bodies, etc.: each of these sentences can be made true by a wide array of physical ontologies. Then it seems that nothing we say about physical things rules out sceptical scenarios: yes, I know I have two hands, but my having two hands could be grounded by facts about a computer simulation. At this point the meaningfulness of the sceptical question whether I know I am not a brain in a vat is breaking down. And with it, realism is breaking down.

I am not completely sure what Pruss means by “realism is breaking down,” but he is looking at something important here. One question that needs to be addressed, however, is what counts as a skeptical scenario in the first place. In the rest of the post, Pruss makes an interesting suggestion about this:

In order for the sceptical question to make sense, we need the possibility of saying things that cannot simply be made true by a very wide variety of physical theories, since such things will also be made true by computer simulations. This gives us an interesting anti-reductionist argument. If the statement “I have two hands” is to be understood reductively (and I include non-Aristotelian functionalist views as reductive), then it could still be literally true in the brain-in-a-vat scenario. But if anti-reductionism about hands is true, then the statement wouldn’t be true in the brain-in-a-vat scenario. And so I can deny that I am in that scenario simply by saying “I have two hands.”

But maybe I am moving too fast here. Maybe “I have two hands” could be literally true in a brain-in-a-vat scenario. Suppose that the anti-reductionism consists of there being Aristotelian forms of hands (presumably accidental forms). But if, for all we know, the form of a hand can inform a bunch of particles, a fact about a vector or the region of a field, then the form of a hand can also inform an aspect of a computer simulation. And so, for all we know, I can literally and non-reductively have hands even if I am a brain in a vat. I am not sure, however, that I need to worry about this. What is important is form, not the precise material substrate. If physical reality is the memory of a giant computer but it isn’t a mere simulation but is in fact informed by a multiplicity of substantial and accidental forms corresponding to people, trees, hands, hearts, etc., and these forms are real entities, then the scenario does not seem to me to be a sceptical scenario.

A skeptical scenario, according to Pruss, is a situation where the things we normally talk about do not have forms. If they do have forms, we are not in a skeptical scenario at all, even if in some sense we are in a computer simulation or even if someone is a brain in a vat. On the face of it this seems a very odd claim: “form” seems to be a technical philosophical explanation, while asking if we are in a skeptical scenario seems to be asking if our everyday common sense understanding of things is mistaken.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of truth in his explanation. First let us consider what is meant by a skeptical scenario in the first place. In terms of his example, it is supposed to go something like this: “Is it possible that you are a brain in a vat without realizing it? If so, then almost everything you believe is false, since you do not have hands, the people you speak to are not real, and so on.”

In the post Pruss is pointing out a problem with the skeptical question. The skeptical question is like a skeptic in the remote past asking, “Is it possible that the earth is spinning without us realizing it? If so, then our everyday opinion that the sun rises every morning is false, since the sun does not move.”

The response to the second skeptic is evident: our everyday opinion that the sun rises every morning is not false, not even if the earth turns out to be spinning, because “the sun rises every morning,” is to be understood in whatever way is needed in order for it to be true. It refers to what happens every morning, whatever that actually happens to be.

Pruss is pointing out that we can answer the first question in the same way: our everyday opinion that we have hands is not false, not even if we are in a computer simulation or in a vat, because “I have two hands” is to be understood in whatever way is needed in order for it to be true. It refers to these two things in front of me right now, whatever they actually are.

Let’s suppose the skeptic tries to come up with a response. He might say, “Look, computer programs do not have hands, and brains do not have hands. So if you are a computer program or a brain in a vat, then you just do not have hands, period. So those scenarios do indeed mean that your common understanding would be false.”

It is certainly true that according to our common understanding, brains in vats do not have hands. So there is a tension here: the argument that it would be true to say we have hands even in that situation seems like a good argument, but so does the argument that it would be false that we have hands.

The answer to the difficulty is that we need to consider the meaning of “I am a brain in a vat.” Just as the word “hands” should refer to these two things in front of me, whatever they are, so the word “brain” refers to things inside of people’s heads, whatever they are, and the word “vat” refers to other things we sometimes experience in real life, at occasionally, or something very like them. But this means that just as “I have two hands” is to be understood in whatever way is needed to make it true, so also “I am not a brain in a vat,” is understood in whatever way is needed to make it true.

This means that correct answer to the original question was simply, “No, it isn’t possible that I will turn out to be a brain in a vat, regardless of any later discoveries, and it isn’t possible that the sun will turn out not to rise, regardless of discoveries about the motion of the sun and of the earth.”

The skeptic will want to insist. Surely events like those of The Matrix are at least conceivable. And if some such situation turned out to be true, then wasn’t it true that you were in a skeptical scenario and that your beliefs about hands and brains and vats were all false, and especially would it not be the case that your belief that you weren’t in a situation like that was false?

The correct answer, again, is that your original beliefs were not false. But in view of your new knowledge of the world, you might well want to adopt a new mode of speaking, and say things that would sound opposed to your original beliefs. They would not be opposed, however, but would simply be speaking about things you did not originally speak about.

Note however that “your belief that you weren’t in a situation like that” could now be taken in two ways. It could mean my belief that I am not a brain in a vat, and this belief will never turn out to have been false. Or it could mean a belief that there is not some larger view of reality where “he was a brain in a vat” would be a reasonable description, in the way that someone coming out of the Matrix would acquire a larger view. In reality I have the latter belief as well, as I consider it improbable that any intelligent beings would behave in such a way as to make that scenario probable. But I don’t think it is impossible for this belief to be falsified; and if it were, I would not say that my previous common sense beliefs had been false. This corresponds to what Pruss says at the end of his post, where he says that as long as things have forms, it is not really a skeptical scenario, even if in some sense he is in a computer simulation or whatever.

Why the insistence on form? This is related to what we called the Semi-Parmenidean Heresy. There we discussed Sean Carroll’s view, and noted that his position in essence is this: Metaphysically, the eliminativists are right. But it is useful to talk as though they are wrong, so we’re going to talk as though they are wrong, and even say they are wrong, by saying that common sense things are real.

This is ultimately incoherent: if the eliminativists are mistaken, they are mistaken in their metaphysics, since the position is just a certain metaphysical position.

It is not difficult to see the connection. According to a strict eliminativist, it would be literally true that we do not have hands, because there is no such thing as “we” or as “hands” in the first place. There are just fundamental particles. In other words, eliminativism would be even more of a skeptical scenario than the Matrix; the Matrix would not imply that your common sense beliefs are false, while eliminativism simply says that all of your beliefs are false, including your belief that you have beliefs.

And on the other hand, no scenario will be truly skeptical, even one like the Matrix, if it admits that our common sense beliefs are true. And as I said at the end of the post on Carroll’s view, this requires a metaphysics that allows those beliefs to be true, and this requires formal causes.

Alexander Pruss, however, seems to me to interpret this in a rather narrow way in his concluding remark:

If physical reality is the memory of a giant computer but it isn’t a mere simulation but is in fact informed by a multiplicity of substantial and accidental forms corresponding to people, trees, hands, hearts, etc., and these forms are real entities, then the scenario does not seem to me to be a sceptical scenario.

It is not clear what it means to be “real entities” rather than being unreal, given that you acknowledge them in the first place, and it isn’t clear to me what he means by a “mere simulation.” But this sounds a lot to me like, “If the world isn’t Aristotelian, understood in a very narrow way, then that would be a skeptical scenario.” This seems to me a kind of stubbornness much like that of James Larson. Disagreeing with you is not a war against being, and believing that your account of form and matter didn’t get every detail right, is not saying that our common sense beliefs are not true.

As an illustration of the narrowness in question, consider Pruss’s position on artifacts:

Suppose I am a plumber, and I take a section of pipe, insert a blowgun dart, and blow.  I just shot a dart out of a blowgun.  When did the pipe turn into a blowgun, though?

Did it happen when I formed the intention to use the pipe as a blowgun?  No: I do not have the power to make new material objects come into existence just by thinking about it.

When I picked up the pipe?  There are at least there is contact.  But surely it’s not the right kind of contact.  It would be magic if I could make a new material object come into existence by just picking up a material object with a certain thought in mind.

When I inserted the dart?  Presumably, not any insertion will do, but one with a plan to blow.  For I could just be doing plumbing, using the outer diameter of the dart to measure the inner diameter of the pipe, and that shouldn’t turn the pipe into a dart.  Again, we have some magic here–thinking about the pipe in one way while inserting the dart creates a blowgun while thinking about it another way leaves it a boring pipe.  Moreover, putting the dart into the pipe seems to be an instance of loading a blowgun rather than making a blowgun.

The solution to all this is to deny that there are pipes and blowguns.  There is just matter (or fields) arranged pipewise and blowgunwise.  And for convenience we adopt ways of speaking that make it sound like such objects are among the furniture of the universe.

Pruss is not simply putting out a position for discussion; this is what he believes to be true, as is easily confirmed elsewhere on his blog. Note that he is falling into the Semi-Parmenidean heresy here, except that he is even going farther than Carroll, and suggesting that “there are no pipes and blowguns” is a true statement, which Carroll would rightly deny. In this way Pruss is almost a pure eliminativist about artifacts. (He does also speak elsewhere more in the manner of Sean Carroll about them.)

To the degree that he is eliminativist about artifacts, he contradicts common sense in the same kind of way that someone contradicts common sense who says, “You do not have hands.” He just contradicts it about different things. And why about these things, and not others? I suggest that it is because under the ordinary Aristotelian account, it is likely that a man or a horse has a substantial form, but unlikely that a pipe has one. And although a pipe would have various accidental forms, the idea of a unified form of “pipeness” seems pretty unlikely. If this is actually his reason or part of it, then he is identifying skepticism with disagreeing with his philosophical opinions, even though his own opinions actually contain the skepticism: namely, disagreement with common sense.

My own response to this question would be different: being is said in many ways, and consequently also form and unity. And I reject any disagreement with common sense: men and horses are real, but so also are pipes. If I am not mistaken, all of these will have being and form in the way that is appropriate to them.


3 thoughts on “Form and Reality

  1. Okay, I got through most of it. And I’d recommend that no one study such philosophy without first reading William James “Pragmatism”, specifically “Lecture II What Pragmatism Means”.

    The brain in the vat does not know it is a brain in a vat. And it has no way to put to any good use such knowledge. So, as far as that brain is concerned, reality and truth are precisely as he sees it.

    Same would be true of the master sleeper, who dreams all the rest of us. Unless he has the ability to put such knowledge to use, perhaps by giving himself magical powers, his reality is the only one he will know and his truth is the only truth there is.

    As to reductionism, it comes with a built-in problem, as every particle can be imagined to be made up of smaller particles. So if someone says to me, that table is not really there, because it is really only a collection of atoms, then I can say, well that atom is not really there either, because it is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and they in turn are not there either, because they are made of collections of quarks.

    I can build a “table” from four stacks of cinder blocks and a flat piece of plywood. And if you ask to use my stapler (an instrument previously used to attach multiple flat pieces of “paper”…”look it up in wiki kid”), I can say its over there on my table, and you would know exactly what I meant.

    Words usually mean what they are used for. A table is something I sit at to work, something that I can set a cup of coffee on.

    The view that the table is mostly empty space, being made up of atoms held together by electrostatic forces, but keeping relatively large distances between them, is useless to me. I just want something solid enough that I can set a cup of coffee on.

    But to the physicist building an electron microscope or someone looking for something inside a wooden case with an x-ray machine, then the density of the atoms and the space between them becomes relevant.

    We could be more truthful perhaps by saying the object “appears” to be a table, in the same fashion that the Sun appears to rise in the East and set in the West, but that becomes wordy, and unnecessary, since most people know that the Earth rotates. When we’re lost in the woods, it’s important to know that when “the Sun goes down” that’s West of our current location. But if we’re plotting a course to the Moon or to Mars, then the facts we work with are different.

    The truth of a statement will depend upon its context and how it will be used.


  2. It’s not clear to me how you disagree with Pruss on the blowgun, except that Pruss gives one sort of being a privileged name. How would you answer the “blowgun” question? In what respect is the pipe a blowgun, and under what circumstances?


    • I think the specific questions about pipes and blowguns have vague answers, and in that sense I do not disagree with Pruss.

      I disagree with his argument that the questions have vague answers, and therefore that the things do not exist. I think they do exist, but that their existence is vague, like the answers to the questions.


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