An Existential Theory of Relativity

Paul Almond suggests a kind of theory of relativity applied to existence (section 3.1):

It makes sense to view reality in terms of an observer-centred world, because the only things of which you have direct knowledge are your basic perceptions – both inner and outer – at any instant. Anything else that you know – including your knowledge of the past or future – can only be inferred from these perceptions.

We are not trying to establish some silly idea here that things, including other people, only exist when you observe them, that they only start existing when you start observing them, and that they cease existing when you stop observing them. Rather, it means that anything that exists can only be coherently described as existing somewhere in your observer-centred world. There can still be lots of things that you do not know about. You do not know everything about your observer-centred world, and you can meaningfully talk about the possibility or probability that some particular thing exists. In saying this, you are talking about what may be “out there” somewhere in your observer-centred world. You are talking about the form that your observer-centred world may take, and there is nothing to prevent you from considering different forms that it may take. It would, therefore, be a straw man argument to suggest that we are saying that things only exist when observed by a conscious observer.

As an example, suppose you wonder if, right now, there is an alien spaceship in orbit around Proxima Centauri, a nearby star. What we have said does not make it invalid at all for you to speculate about such a thing, or even to try to put a probability on it if you are so inclined. The point is that any speculation you make, or any probability calculations you try to perform, are about what your observer-centred world might be like.

This view is reasonable because to say that anything exists in a way that cannot be understood in observer-centred world terms is incoherent. If you say something exists you are saying it fits into your “world view”. It must relate to all the other things that you think exist or that you might in principle say exist if you knew enough. Something might exist beyond the horizon in your observer-centred world – in the part that you do not know about – but if something is supposed to exist outside your observer-centred world completely, where would it be? (Here we mean “where” in a more general “ontological” sense.)

As an analogy, this is somewhat similar to the way that relativity deals with velocities. Special relativity says that the concept of “absolute velocity” is incoherent, and that the concept of “velocity” only makes sense in some frame of reference. Likewise, we are saying here that the concept of “existence” only makes sense in the same kind of way. None of this means that consciousness must exist. It is simply saying that it is meaningless to talk about reality in non-observer-centred world terms. It is still legitimate to ask for an explanation of your own existence. It simply means that such an explanation must lie “out there” in your observer-centred world.

This seems right, more or less, but it could be explained more clearly. In the first place Almond is referring to the fact that we see the world as though it existed around us a center, a concept that we have discussed on various past occasions. But in particular he is insisting that in order to say that anything exists at all, we have to place it in some relation to ourselves. In a way this is obvious, because we are the ones who are saying that it exists. If we say that the past or the future do not exist, for example, we are saying this because they do not exist together with us in time. On the other hand, if we speak of “past existence” or “future existence,” we are placing things in a temporal relationship with ourselves. Likewise, if someone asserts the existence of a multiverse, it might not be necessary to say that every part of it has a spatial relationship with the one asserting this, but there must be various relationships. Perhaps the parts of the multiverse have broken off from an earlier universe, or at any rate they all have a common cause. Similarly, if someone asserts the existence of immaterial beings such as angels, they might not have a spatial relationship with the speaker, but they would have to have some relation in order to exist, such as the power to affect the world or be affected by it, and so on. Almond is speaking of this sort of thing when he says, “but if something is supposed to exist outside your observer-centred world completely, where would it be?”

Almond is particularly concerned to establish that he is not asserting the necessary existence of observers, or that a thing cannot exist without being observed. This is mostly a distraction. It is true that this does not follow from his account, but it would be better to explain the theory in a more general way which makes this point clear. A similar mistake is sometimes made regarding special relativity or quantum mechanics. Einstein holds that velocity is necessarily relative to a reference frame, so some interpret this to mean that it is necessarily relative to a conscious observer, and a similar mistake can be made regarding quantum mechanics. But a reference frame is not necessarily conscious. So one body can have a velocity relative to another body, even without anyone observing this.

In a similar way, a reasonable generalization of Almond’s point would be to say that the existence of a thing is relative to a reference frame, which may or may not include an observer. As we are observers in fact, we observe things existing relative to our own reference frame, just as we observe the velocity of objects relative to our own reference frame. But just as one body can have a velocity relative to another, regardless of observers, so one thing can exist relative to another, regardless of observers.

It may be that the theory of special relativity is not merely an example here, but rather an instance of the fact that existence is relative to a reference frame. Consider two objects moving apart at 10 miles per hour. According to Einstein, neither one is moving absolutely speaking, but each is moving relative to the other. A typical philosophical objection would go like this: “Wait. One or both of them must be really moving. Because the distance between them is growing. The situation is changing. That doesn’t make sense unless one of them is changing in itself, absolutely, and before considering any relationships.”

But consider this. Currently there are both a calculator and a pen on my desk. Why are both of them there, rather than just one of them? It is easy to see that this fact is intrinsically relative, and cannot in any way be made into something absolute. They are both there because the calculator is with the pen, and because the pen is with the calculator. These cannot be absolute facts about the pen and the calculator – they are relationships to the other.

Now someone will respond: the fact that the calculator is there is an absolute fact. And the fact that the pen is there is an absolute fact. So even if the togetherness is a relationship, it is one that follows logically from the absolute facts. In a similar way, we will want to say that the 10 miles per hour relative motion should follow logically from absolute facts.

But this response just pushes the problem back one step. It only follows logically if the absolute facts about the pen and the calculator exist together. And this existence together is intrinsically relative: the pen is on the desk when the calculator is on the desk. And some thought about this will reveal that the relativity cannot possibly be removed, precisely because the relativity follows from the existence of more than one thing. “More than one thing exists” does not logically follow from any number of statements about individual things, because “more than one thing” is a missing term in those statements.

This is related to the error of Parmenides. Likewise, there is a clue here to the mystery of parts and wholes, but for now I will leave that point to the reader’s consideration.

Going back to the point about special relativity, insofar as “existence together” is intrinsically relative, it would make sense that “existing together spatially” would be an instance of such relative existence, and consequently that “moving apart spatially” would be a particular way of two bodies existing relative to each other. In this sense, the theory of special relativity does not seem to be merely an example, but an actual case of what we are talking about.

 

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Parts and Parmenides

Much of the difficulty of the topic of the previous post simply results from the difficulty of understanding the idea of part and whole. In our original discussion of these concepts, I noted that in order to be a whole, a thing must be itself, but also in a certain way other things which it simply speaking is not.

There is a temptation to say that this is a contradiction: since we admit that the whole is not its part, it cannot be that part in any way, and therefore it cannot satisfy our definition of a whole. And thus it would be impossible to have a whole and parts.

Parmenides attempts to resolve this problem in a simplistic manner, namely by denying the reality of distinction. Since it is impossible for one thing to be distinct from another, it is impossible to for there to be many things which could be made into a whole. There is only one thing, and consequently no need to make anything out of parts.

A more sophisticated and more common solution is to admit the reality of distinction, but to continue to deny the possibility of forming wholes from parts. By confusing the idea of “fundamental” as the primary material cause with the idea of “fundamental” as most real, Sean Carroll accepts this solution.

Both proposed solutions are contrary to common sense, and both effectively deny the reality of all the things of our common experience. Parmenides makes this denial openly, Carroll by implication, although he at least wishes to avoid it.

There is an additional inconsistency in Carroll’s view insofar as we cannot avoid thinking of the universe as a kind of whole. In other words, just as Parmenides wished to say, “there is only one thing,” Carroll wishes to say, “there are only many things.” But this cannot be done: for there cannot be many things, unless those many are in some way one.

Alexander Pruss attempts to formulate a still more sophisticated solution, which to some extent we have already discussed:

Some people are attracted to nihilism about proper parthood: no entity has proper parts. I used to be rather attracted to that myself, but I am now finding that a different thesis fits better with my intuitions: no entity is (fully) grounded. Or to put it positively: only fundamental entities exist.

This has some of the same consequences that nihilism about proper parthood would. For instance, on nihilism about proper parthood, there are no artifacts, since if there were any, they’d have proper parts. But on nihilism about ontological grounding, we can also argue that there are no artifacts, since the existence of an artifact would be grounded in social and physical facts. Moreover, nihilism about ontological grounding implies nihilism about mereological sum: for the existence of a mereological sum would be grounded in the existence of its proper parts. However, nihilism about ontological grounding is compatible with some things having parts–but they have to be things that go beyond their parts, things whose existence is not grounded in the existence and relations of their parts.

Note that he states that he was formerly attracted to the view that “no entity has proper parts.” This would assert, like the views of Parmenides and Sean Carroll, that wholes and parts are impossible. Since this seems too opposed to common sense, he formulates a new view, where it is possible for a thing to have parts, but the thing must “go beyond” its parts in some way. The existence of the whole “is not grounded” in the existence and relations of its parts.

It is not clear to me precisely what he means by grounding here, and his position could be true, if this is understood in some ways, and not true, if it is understood in others. It could be taken in a fairly tautological sense: something with parts is real if it is really one thing, and not merely many things. But we could just as well say that many things cannot exist without being in some way one. And this does not seem to be Pruss’s intended meaning, since he denies the reality of artifacts, even in this text, which would not be necessary on this understanding.

In any case there does seem to be some remaining desire to deny in some way the possibility of whole and part, indicated for example in the statement that “only fundamental entities exist.” Of course if we understand “fundamental” to mean “real,” then the statement is that only real things exist, and this is obviously true. But like in the case of Carroll, it is evident that fundamental here is meant to refer in some way to what things are made from, namely to material causes. The difference is that rather than saying that the fundamental things are particles of some kind, Pruss would say that some fundamental things are particles, while others are human beings and so on.

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.

Semi-Parmenidean Heresy

In his book The Big Picture, Sean Carroll describes the view which he calls “poetic naturalism”:

As knowledge generally, and science in particular, have progressed over the centuries, our corresponding ontologies have evolved from quite rich to relatively sparse. To the ancients, it was reasonable to believe that there were all kinds of fundamentally different things in the world; in modern thought, we try to do more with less.

We would now say that Theseus’s ship is made of atoms, all of which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons-exactly the same kinds of particles that make up every other ship, or for that matter make up you and me. There isn’t some primordial “shipness” of which Theseus’s is one particular example; there are simply arrangements of atoms, gradually changing over time.

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about ships just because we understand that they are collections of atoms. It would be horrendously inconvenient if, anytime someone asked us a question about something happening in the world, we limited our allowable responses to a listing of a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged. If you listed about one atom per second, it would take more than a trillion times the current age of the universe to describe a ship like Theseus’s. Not really practical.

It just means that the notion of a ship is a derived category in our ontology, not a fundamental one. It is a useful way of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff of the universe. We invent the concept of a ship because it is useful to us, not because it’s already there at the deepest level of reality. Is it the same ship after we’ve gradually replaced every plank? I don’t know. It’s up to us to decide. The very notion of “ship” is something we created for our own convenience.

That’s okay. The deepest level of reality is very important; but all the different ways we have of talking about that level are important too.

There is something essentially pre-Socratic about this thinking. When Carroll talks about “fundamentally different things,” he means things that differ according to their basic elements. But at the same kind the implication is that only things that differ in this way are “fundamentally” different in the sense of being truly or really different. But this is a quite different sense of “fundamental.”

I suggested in the linked post that even Thales might not really have believed that material causes alone sufficiently explained reality. Nonetheless, there was a focus on the material cause as being the truest explanation. We see the same focus here in Sean Carroll. When he says, “There isn’t some primordial shipness,” he is thinking of shipness as something that would have to be a material cause, if it existed.

Carroll proceeds to contrast his position with eliminativism:

One benefit of a rich ontology is that it’s easy to say what is “real”- every category describes something real. In a sparse ontology, that’s not so clear. Should we count only the underlying stuff of the world as real, and all the different ways we have of dividing it up and talking about it as merely illusions? That’s the most hard-core attitude we could take to reality, sometimes called eliminativism, since its adherents like nothing better than to go around eliminating this or that concept from our list of what is real. For an eliminativist, the question “Which Captian Kirk is the real one?” gets answered by, “Who cares? People are illusions. They’re just fictitious stories we tell about the one true world.”

I’m going to argue for a different view: our fundamental ontology, the best way we have of talking about the world at the deepest level, is extremely sparse. But many concepts that are part of non-fundamental ways we have of talking about the world- useful ideas describing higher-level, macroscopic reality- deserve to be called “real.”

The key word there is “useful.” There are certainly non-useful ways of talking about the world. In scientific contexts, we refer to such non-useful ways as “wrong” or “false.” A way of talking isn’t just a list of concepts; it will generally include a set of rules for using them, and relationships among them. Every scientific theory is a way of talking about the world, according to which we can say things like “There are things called planets, and something called the sun, all of which move through something called space, and planets do something called orbiting the sun, and those orbits describe a particular shape in space called an ellipse.” That’s basically Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motion, developed after Copernicus argued for the sun being at the center of the solar system but before Isaac Newton explained it all in terms of the force of gravity. Today, we would say that Kepler’s theory is fairly useful in certain circumstances, but it’s not as useful as Newton’s, which in turn isn’t as broadly useful as Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

A poetic naturalist will agree that both Captain Kirk and the Ship of Theseus are simply ways of talking about certain collections of atoms stretching through space and time. The difference is that an eliminativist will say “and therefore they are just illusions,” while the poetic naturalist says “but they are no less real for all of that.”

There are some good things about what Carroll is doing here. He is right of course to insist that the things of common experience are “real.” He is also right to see some relationship between saying that something is real and saying that talking about it is useful, but this is certainly worth additional consideration, and he does not really do it justice.

The problematic part is that, on account of his pre-Socratic tendencies, he is falling somewhat into the error of Parmenides. The error of Parmenides was to suppose that being can be, and can be thought and said, in only one way. Carroll, on account of confusing the various meanings of “fundamental,” supposes that being can be in only one way, namely as something elemental, but that it can be thought and said in many ways.

The problem with this, apart from the falsity of asserting that being can be in only one way, is that no metaphysical account is given whereby it would be reasonable to say that being can be thought and said in many ways, given that it can be in only one way. Carroll is trying to point in that direction by saying that our common speech is useful, so it must be about real things; but the eliminativist would respond, “Useful to whom? The things that you are saying this is useful for are illusions and do not exist. So even your supposed usefulness does not exist.” And Carroll will have no valid response, because he has already admitted to agreeing with the eliminativist on a metaphysical level.

The correct answer to this is the one given by Aristotle. Material causes do not sufficiently explain reality, but other causes are necessary as well. But this means that the eliminativist is mistaken on a metaphysical level, not merely in his way of speaking.

Parmenides the Eliminativist

While the name “eliminativism” is used particularly with respect to the denial of the reality of consciousness or various mental conditions, we could define it more generally as the tendency to explain something away rather than explaining it. The motive for this would be that someone believes that reality does not have the principles needed in order to explain the thing; so it is necessary for them to explain it away instead. In this way we noted that Daniel Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. Since every being is objective, in his view, reality does not have any principle which could explain something subjective. Therefore it is necessary for him to explain away subjectivity.

If we take eliminativism in this general way, it will turn out that Parmenides is the ultimate eliminativist. According to Parmenides, not only is there nothing but being, but nothing can be distinct from being in any way, even in concept. Thus anything which appears to be conceptually distinct from being, including ourselves and all the objects of our common experience, is nothing but an illusion deluding itself. And ultimately nothing at all, since even illusions cannot be something other than being.

Parmenides comes to this conclusion in the same general way as Dennett, namely because it seems to him that reality cannot have any principle which could explain things as they are. It is evident that there cannot be anything besides being; thus if something seems distinct from being in any way, there is no principle capable of explaining it.

Descartes argued that he can know he exists since he thinks. On the contrary , Parmenides responds: you think, but thinking means something different from being; therefore you are not.

The Error of Parmenides

Parmenides entirely identified “what can be” and “what can be thought”:

Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away— the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,— that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all. For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible— nor utter it; . . . . . . for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.

As I pointed out here, the error here comes from an excessive identification of the way a thing is known and the way a thing is. But he does this only in a certain respect. We evidently think that some things are not other things, and that there are many things. So it would be easy enough to argue, “It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. But we can think that one thing is not another, and that there are many things. So one thing can fail to be another, and there can be many things.” And this argument would be valid, and pretty reasonable for that matter. But Parmenides does not draw this conclusion and does not accept this argument. So his claim that what can be thought and what can be are the same must be taken in a more particular sense.

His position seems to be that “to be” has one and only one real meaning, in such a way that there is only one way for a thing to be. Either it is, or it isn’t. If it is, it is in the only way a thing can be; and if it is not, it is not in the only way a thing can be. But this means that if it is not, it is not at all, in any way, since there is only one way. And in this case it is not “something” which is not, but nothing. Thus, given this premise, that there is only one way to be, Parmenides’s position would be logical.

In reality, in contrast, there is more than one way to be. Since there is more than one way to be, there can be many things, where one thing is in one way, and another  thing is in another way.

Even granting that there is more than one way to be, Parmenides would object at this point. Suppose there is a first being, existing in a first way, and a second being, existing in a second way. Then the first being does not exist in the second way, and the second being does not exist in the first way. So if we say that “two beings exist,” how do they exist? The two do not exist in the first way, but only the first one does. Nor do the two exist in the second way, but only the second one does. And thus, even if Parmenides grants for the sake of argument that there is more than one way to be, he can still argue that this leads to something impossible.

But this happens only because Parmenides has not sufficiently granted the premise that there is more than one way to be. As I pointed out in the discussion of being and unity, when two things exist, the two are a pair, which is being in some way, and therefore also one in some way; thus the two are “a pair” and not “two pairs.” So the first being is in one way, and the second being is in a second way, but the two exist in still a third way.

The existence of whole and part results from this, along with still more ways of being. “The two” are in a certain respect the first, and in a certain respect the second, since otherwise they would not be the two.

Thus we could summarize the error of Parmenides as the position that being is, and can be thought and said, in only one way, while the truth is that being is, and can be thought and said, in many ways.

More on Knowing and Being

I promised some examples of the point made in the previous post. I will give just a few here, although the point could easily be extended to many more.

Parmenides argues that nothing can come to be, since “what is not” cannot be or become. He also claims that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be,” and apparently this is intended to cover not only what is, but also the way that it is. Consequently, his position seems to imply a perfect identity between thought and being, even if it is ultimately inconsistent, since he says that human beings are wrong about change and the like, and this implies a discrepancy between thought and being.

Alexander Pruss argues that all words are sharply defined, at least in the mind of God.  He makes the argument, “Words are part of the world, so if there is vagueness in words, there is vagueness in the world.” This is no different, of course, from arguing that since words are part of reality, and some words are universal, there are universal things. There are universal things, if we mean by that universal terms or concepts, and there are vague things, if we mean by that vague words or concepts. But there are no universal cats or dogs, nor are there vague cats or dogs, despite the words “cat” and “dog” being vague.

C.S. Lewis argues, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” As I argued in the linked post, reasons in fact are a kind of final cause relative to their consequences, and they do not exclude efficient causes. This case might be somewhat less evident than the two previous cases, but I would argue that the cause of Lewis’s error here is the fact that, as St. Thomas says, the human mind can understand many things at once only by understanding them as one. Consequently, we can understand that an efficient cause can be for the sake of an end, but if the efficient cause and the final cause are presented as simply two causes, without the order that they actually have, they are not intelligible in this way.

These are examples of speculative errors resulting from confusing the mind’s way of knowing with the way that things are. I asserted in the last post, however, that practical errors can also result from this confusion. There is a very fundamental way this can happen: by nature we know things only if they have some relation to ourselves. The corresponding practical error would be to suppose that those things are real and important only in relation to ourselves. Look around you, and it appears that the world is centered on you. If you take this appearance and attribute an absolute truth to it, you will conclude that everything else has its being and importance in relation to you. Consider that you exist, and that all of the past has past out of existence. It might seem that the past only existed to bring you about.

St. Therese says about humility, “To me it seems that humility is truth. I do not know whether I am humble, but I do know that I see the truth in all things.” This is related to the examples I gave above. Since we know things in relation to ourselves, there is the temptation to suppose that things exist in the very same way. This leads to a false idea about our place in reality. Humility consists, on the contrary, in the truth about our place in reality, as I noted here.