Skeptical Scenarios

I promised to return to some of the issues discussed here. The current post addresses the implications of the sort of skeptical scenario considered by Alexander Pruss in the associated discussion. Consider his original comparison of physical theories 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.

If we consider this in light of our analysis of form, it is not difficult to see that Pruss is correct both about the ordinary chair sentence being consistent with a large variety of physical theories, and about the implication that it is consistent with most situations that would normally be considered “skeptical.” The reason is that to say that something is a chair is to say something about its relationships with the world, but it is not to say everything about its relationships. It speaks in particular about various relationships with the human world. And there is nothing to prevent these relationships from co-existing with any number of other kinds of relationships between its parts, its causes, and so on.

Pruss is right to insist that in order for the ordinary sentence to be true, the corresponding forms must be present. But as an anti-reductionist, his position implies hidden essences, and this is a mistake. Indeed, under the correct understanding of form, our everyday knowledge of things is sufficient to ensure that the forms are present: regardless of which physical theories turn out to be true, and even if some such skeptical scenario turns out to be true.

Why are these situations called “skeptical” in the first place? This is presumably because they seem to call into question whether or not we possess any knowledge of things. And in this respect, they fail in two ways, they partially fail in a third, and they succeed in one way.

First, they fail insofar as they attempt to call into question, e.g. whether there are chairs in my room right now, or whether I have two hands. These things are true and would be true even in the “skeptical” situations.

Second, they fail even insofar as they claim, e.g. that I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat. In the straightforward sense, I do know this, because the claim is opposed to the other things (e.g. about the chairs and my hands) that I know to be true.

Third, they partially fail even insofar as they claim, e.g. that I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat in a metaphysical sense. Roughly speaking, I do know that I am not, not by deducing the fact with any kind of necessity, but simply because the metaphysical claim is completely ungrounded. In other words, I do not know this infallibly, but it is extremely likely. We could compare this with predictions about the future. Thus for example Ron Conte attempts to predict the future:

First, an overview of the tribulation:
A. The first part of the tribulation occurs for this generation, beginning within the next few years, and ending in 2040 A.D.
B. Then there will be a brief period of peace and holiness on earth, lasting about 25 years.
C. The next few hundred years will see a gradual but unstoppable increase in sinfulness and suffering in the world. The Church will remain holy, and Her teaching will remain pure. But many of Her members will fall into sin, due to the influence of the sinful world.
D. The second part of the tribulation occurs in the early 25th century (about 2430 to 2437). The Antichrist reigns for less than 7 years during this time.
E. Jesus Christ returns to earth, ending the tribulation.

Now, some predictions for the near future. These are not listed in chronological order.

* The Warning, Consolation, and Miracle — predicted at Garabandal and Medjugorje — will occur prior to the start of the tribulation, sometime within the next several years (2018 to 2023).
* The Church will experience a severe schism. First, a conservative schism will occur, under Pope Francis; next, a liberal schism will occur, under his conservative successor.
* The conservative schism will be triggered by certain events: Amoris Laetitia (as we already know, so, not a prediction), and the approval of women deacons, and controversial teachings on salvation theology.
* After a short time, Pope Francis will resign from office.
* His very conservative successor will reign for a few years, and then die a martyr, during World War 3.
* The successor to Pope Francis will take the papal name Pius XIII.

Even ignoring the religious speculation, we can “know” that this account is false, simply because it is inordinately detailed. Ron Conte no doubt has reasons for his beliefs, much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses did. But just as we saw in that case, his reasons will also in all likelihood turn out to be completely disproportionate to the detail of the claims they seek to establish.

In a similar way, a skeptical scenario can be seen as painting a detailed picture of a larger context of our world, one outside our current knowledge. There is nothing impossible about such a larger context; in fact, there surely is one. But the claim about brains and vats is very detailed: if one takes it seriously, it is more detailed than Ron Conte’s predictions, which could also be taken as a statement about a larger temporal context to our situation. The brain-in-vat scenario implies that our entire world depends on another world which has things similar to brains and similar to vats, along presumably with things analogous to human beings that made the vats, and so on. And since the whole point of the scenario is that it is utterly invented, not that it is accepted by anyone, while Conte’s account is accepted at least by him, there is not even a supposed basis for thinking that things are actually this way. Thus we can say, not infallibly but with a great deal of certainty, that we are not brains in vats, just as we can say, not infallibly but with a great deal of certainty, that there will not be any “Antichrist” between 2430 and 2437.

There is nonetheless one way in which the consideration of skeptical scenarios does succeed in calling our knowledge into question. Consider them insofar as they propose a larger context to our world, as discussed above. As I said, there is nothing impossible about a larger context, and there surely is one. Here we speak of a larger metaphysical context, but we can compare this with the idea of a larger physical context.

Our knowledge of our physical context is essentially local, given the concrete ways that we come to know the world. I know a lot about the room I am in, a significant amount about the places I usually visit or have visited in the past, and some but much less about places I haven’t visited. And speaking of an even larger physical context, I know things about the solar system, but much less about the wider physical universe. And if we consider what lies outside the visible universe, I might well guess that there are more stars and galaxies and so on, but nothing more. There is not much more detail even to this as a guess: and if there is an even larger physical context, it is possible that there are places that do not have stars and galaxies at all, but other things. In other words, universal knowledge is universal, but also vague, while specific knowledge is more specific, but also more localized: it is precisely because it is local that it was possible to acquire more specific knowledge.

In a similar way, more specific metaphysical knowledge is necessarily of a more local metaphysical character: both physical and metaphysical knowledge is acquired by us through the relationships things have with us, and in both cases “with us” implies locality. We can know that the brain-in-vat scenario is mistaken, but that should not give us hope that we can find out what is true instead: even if we did find some specific larger metaphysical context to our situation, there would be still larger contexts of which we would remain unaware. Just as you will never know the things that are too distant from you physically, you will also never know the things that are too distant from you metaphysically.

I previously advocated patience as a way to avoid excessively detailed claims. There is nothing wrong with this, but here we see that it is not enough: we also need to accept our actual situation. Rebellion against our situation, in the form of painting a detailed picture of a larger context of which we can have no significant knowledge, will profit us nothing: it will just be painting a picture as false as the brain-in-vat scenario, and as false as Ron Conte’s predictions.

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Replies to Objections on Form

This post replies to the objections raised in the last post.

Reply 1. I do not define form as “many relations”, in part for this very reason. Rather, I say that it is a network, and thus is one thing tied together, so to speak.

Nonetheless, the objection seems to wish to find something absolutely one which is in no way many and which causes unity in other things which are in some way lacking in unity. This does not fit with the idea of giving an account, which necessarily involves many words and thus reference to many aspects of a thing. And thus it also does not fit with the idea of form as that which makes a thing what it is, because it is evident that when we ask what a thing is, we are typically asking about things that have many aspects, as a human being has many senses and many body parts and so on.

In other words, form makes a thing one, but it also makes it what it is, which means that it also makes a thing many in various ways. And so form is one in some way, and thus called a “network,” but it also contains various relations that account for the many aspects of the thing.

Someone might extend this objection by saying that if a form contains many relations, there will need to be a form of form, uniting these relations. But there is a difference between many material parts, which might need a form in order to be one, and relations, which bind things together of themselves. To be related to something, in this sense, is somewhat like being attached to it in some way, while a number of physical bodies are not attached to each other simply in virtue of being a number of bodies. It is true that this implies a certain amount of complexity in form, but this is simply the result of the fact that there is a certain amount of complexity in what things actually are.

Reply 2. “Apt to make something one” is included in the definition in order to point to the relationships and networks of relationships that we are concerned with. For example, one could discuss the idea of a mereological sum, for example the tree outside my window together with my cell phone, and talk about a certain network of relationships intrinsic to that “sum.” This network would have little share in the idea of form, precisely because it is not apt to make anything one thing in any ordinary sense. However, I say “little share” here rather than “no share”, because this is probably a question of degree and kind. As I said here, “one thing” is said in many ways and with many degrees, and thus also form exists in many ways and with many degrees. In particular, there is no reason to suppose that “one” has one true sense compared to which the other senses would be more false than true.

Reply 3. A network of relationships could be an accidental form. Thus the form that makes a blue thing blue would normally be an accidental form. But there will be a similar network of relationships that make a thing a substance. If something is related to other things as “that in which other things are present,” and is not related to other things as “that which is present in something else,” then it will exist as substance, and precisely because it is related to things in these ways. So the definition is in fact general in comparison to both substance and accident.

Reply 4. This objection could be understood as asserting that everything relative depends on something prior which is absolute. Taken in this sense, the objection is simply mistaken. The existence of more than one thing proves conclusively that relationship as such does not need to depend on anything absolute.

Another way to understand the objection would be as asserting that whatever we may say about the thing in relation to other things, all of this must result from what the thing is in itself, apart from all of this. Therefore the essence of the thing is prior to anything at all that we say about it. And in this way, there is a truth here and an error here, namely the Kantian truth and the Kantian error. Certainly the thing is the cause of our knowledge, and not simply identical with our knowledge. Nonetheless, we possess knowledge, not ignorance, of the thing, and we have this knowledge by participation in the network of relationships that defines the thing.

Reply 5. The objection gratuitously asserts that our definition is reductionist, and this can equally well be gratuitously denied. In fact, this account includes the rejection of both reductionist and anti-reductionist positions. Insofar as people suppose that these positions are the only possible positions, if they see that my account implies the rejection of their particular side of the argument, they will naturally suppose that my account implies the acceptance of the other side. This is why the 10th objection claims the opposite: namely that my account is mistaken because it seems to be anti-reductionist.

Reply 6. I agree, in fact, that we are mostly ignorant of the nature of “blue,” and likewise of the natures of most other things. But we are equally ignorant of the network of relationships that these things share in. Thus in an earlier post about Mary’s Room, I noted that we do not even come close to knowing everything that can be known about color. Something similar would be true about pretty much everything that we can commonly name. We have some knowledge of what blue is, but it is a very imperfect knowledge, and similarly we have some knowledge of what a human being is, but it is a very imperfect knowledge. This is one reason why I qualified the claim that the essences of things are not hidden: in another way, virtually all essences are hidden from us, because they are typically too complex for us to understand exhaustively.

An additional problem, also mentioned in the case of “blue,” is that the experience of blue is not the understanding of blue, and these would remain distinct even if the understanding of blue were perfect. But again, it would be an instance of the Kantian error to suppose that it follows that one would not understand the nature of blue even if one understood it (thus we make the absurdity evident.)

Reply 7. God is not an exception to the claim about hidden essences, nor to this account of form, and these claims are not necessarily inconsistent with Christian theology.

The simplicity of God should not be understood as necessarily being opposed to being a network of relationships. In particular, the Trinity is thought to be the same as the essence of God, and what is the Trinity except a network of relations?

Nor does the impossibility of knowing the essence of God imply that God’s essence is hidden in the relevant sense. Rather, it is enough to say that it is inaccessible for “practical” reasons, so to speak. For example, consider St. Thomas’s argument that no one knows all that God can do:

The created intellect, in seeing the divine essence, does not see in it all that God does or can do. For it is manifest that things are seen in God as they are in Him. But all other things are in God as effects are in the power of their cause. Therefore all things are seen in God as an effect is seen in its cause. Now it is clear that the more perfectly a cause is seen, the more of its effects can be seen in it. For whoever has a lofty understanding, as soon as one demonstrative principle is put before him can gather the knowledge of many conclusions; but this is beyond one of a weaker intellect, for he needs things to be explained to him separately. And so an intellect can know all the effects of a cause and the reasons for those effects in the cause itself, if it comprehends the cause wholly. Now no created intellect can comprehend God wholly, as shown above (Article 7). Therefore no created intellect in seeing God can know all that God does or can do, for this would be to comprehend His power; but of what God does or can do any intellect can know the more, the more perfectly it sees God.

St. Thomas argues that if anyone knew all that God can do, i.e. everything that can be God’s effect, he would not only know the essence of God, but know it perfectly. This actually supports our position precisely: if you have an exhaustive account of the network of relationships between God and the world, actual and potential, according to St. Thomas, this is to know the essence of God exhaustively.

Reply 8. I concede the objection, but simply note that the error is on the part of Christian theology, not on the part of this account.

In this case, someone might ask why I included this objection, along with the previous, where even if I consider the theology defensible, I do not consider it authoritative. The reason is that I included objections that I expected various readers to hold in one form or another, and these are two of them. But what is the use of addressing them if I simply reject the premise of the objection?

There is at least one benefit to this. There is an important lesson here. Religious doctrines are typically defined in such a way that they have few or no undue sensible implications, as I said for example about the Real Presence. But philosophy is more difficult, and shares in much of the same distance from the senses that such religious claims have. Consequently, even if you manage to avoid adopting religious doctrines that have false scientific implications (and many don’t manage to avoid even this), if you accept any religious doctrines at all, it will be much harder to avoid false philosophical implications.

In fact, the idea of an immortal soul probably has false scientific consequences as well as false philosophical consequences, at least taken as it is usually understood. Thus for example Sean Carroll argues that the mortality of the soul is a settled issue:

Adam claims that “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that’s only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn’t true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon’s interior, you don’t really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.

Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.

Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that “new physics” to interact with the atoms that we do have.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

There are certainly different ways to think about this, but this is in fact a common way of thinking about the soul in relation to the body. For example, consider this discussion by James Chastek:

Objection: Conservation laws require that outcomes be already determined. By your own admission, life has to be able to “alter what would happen by physical causes alone” and therefore violates conservation laws.

Response: Again, laws and initial conditions do not suffice to explain the actual world. Life only “alters” physical causes under the counterfactual supposition that physical causes could act alone, i.e. in a way that could suffice to explain outcomes in the actual world.

Objection: It is meaningless to describe life acting on physical laws and conditions when we can’t detect this. Life-actions are vacuous entities about which we can say nothing at all. What’s their Hamiltonian?

Response: Physical laws and conditions as physical are instrumental or partial accounts of the actual world. The interactive mechanisms and measurement devices appropriate to establishing the existence of physical causes are not appropriate tools for describing all causes of the actual world.

Chastek is deliberately ignoring the question that he poses himself. But we know his opinion of the matter from previous discussions. What physics would calculate would be one thing; what the human being will do, according to Chastek, is something different.

This almost certainly does imply a violation of the laws of physics in the sense of the discussion in Chastek’s post, as well as in the sense that concerns Sean Carroll. In fact, it probably would imply a violation of conservation of energy, very possibly to such a degree that it would be possible in principle to exploit the violation to create a perpetual motion machine, somewhat along the lines of this short story by Scott Alexander. And these violations would detectable in principle, and very likely in practice as well, at least at some point.

Nonetheless, one might think about it differently, without suggesting these things, but still suppose that people have immortal souls. And one might be forgiven for being skeptical of Sean Carroll’s arguments, given that his metaphysics is wrong. Perhaps there is some implicit dependence of his argument on this mistaken metaphysics. The problem with this response is that even the correct metaphysics has the same implications, even without considering Carroll’s arguments from physics.

It is easy to see that there still loopholes for someone who wishes to maintain the immortality of the soul. But such loopholes also indicate an additional problem with the idea. In particular, the idea that the soul is subsistent implies that it is a substantial part of a human being: that a human is a whole made of soul and body much as the body is a whole made of various parts such as legs and arms. If this were the case, the soul might not be material in a quantitative sense, but it would be “matter” in the sense that we have argued that form is not matter. In this case, it would be reasonable to suppose that an additional substantial form would be necessary to unify soul and body, themselves two substantial parts.

Reply 9. There in fact is an implicit reference to matter in the definition. “Apt to make something one” refers to what is made, but it also refers to what it is made out of, if there is anything out of which it is made. The form of a chair makes the chair one chair, but it also makes the stuff of the chair into one chair.

There is more to say about matter, but my intention for now was to clarify the concept of form.

Reply 10. The network of relationships is most certainly not a construct of the mind, if one places this in opposition to “real thing.” You cannot trace back relationships to causes that do not include any relationships, if only because “cause” is in itself relative.

I have argued against reductionism in many places, and do not need to repeat those arguments here, but in particular I would note that the objection implies that “mind” is a construct of the mind, and this implies circular causality, which is impossible.

Reply 11. The objection is not really argued, and this is mainly because there cannot be a real argument for it. There is however a rough intuition supporting it, which is that applying this idea of form to immaterial things seems unfair to reality, as though we were trying to say that the limits of reality are set by the limits of the human mind. Once again, however, this is simply a case of the usual Kantian error, mixed together with choosing something that would be especially unknown to us. An immaterial thing could not exist without having some relationship with everything else. As we have suggested elsewhere, “there is an immaterial thing,” cannot even be assigned a meaning without the implied claim that I stand in some relation with it, and that it stands in some relation to me. But evidently I know very little about it. This does not mean that we need some new definition of what it is to be something; it simply means I do not know much of what that thing is, just as I do not know much of anything about it at all.

 

Nature of Form

We add one final claim to the list in the last post:

(8) Form is a network of relationships apt to make something one.

I will approach this in the manner of a disputed question, first raising a number of objections, then giving my explanation and replies to the objections.

Objection 1. According to this definition, form consists of many relations. But form makes a thing one. Thus form should not be in itself many, such as many relationships are, since many things are composed of units.

Objection 2. The definition begs the question by saying “apt to make something one.” Form is supposed to make things one, but if we want to say something about the nature of form, we should explain exactly how and why it does this.

Objection 3. A “network of relationships” might be some kind of form, but it seems to be an accidental form, not a substantial form, while the definition of form should be general enough to include both.

Objection 4. A thing can have the relations it has because of its particular nature. Therefore its nature cannot be defined by its relationships, since this would be circular. Thus form cannot be a network of relationships.

Objection 5. The definition is implicitly reductionist, and therefore opposed to thesis (4). For a composite thing, whether animal or artifact or anything else, will have many relations among its parts which define it, but it can be looked at and considered in many ways, while what appears to be most real must be its most basic parts, such as atoms or quarks or whatever.

Objection 6. Form seems to be unknown to us in a way in which the content of this definition is not, and therefore they must be somehow distinct. For example, whatever might be said about the definitions of blue proposed in the last post, it is clear that something is lacking there. There is something about the nature of blue that is quite unknown to us. So it seems unlikely that blue can be defined in the way proposed, and similarly unlikely that form can be defined as a network of relationships.

Objection 7. Christians, at least, must reject this definition, along with thesis (3), since the essence of God cannot be naturally known by human beings. Therefore God has a hidden essence, and since it is entirely simple, it cannot be a network of relationships.

Objection 8. This definition implies that the human soul is like a harmony, with all the consequences suggested by Simmias in the Phaedo, namely that the soul is mortal. So again Christians, at least, must reject this definition.

Objection 9. Composite things are made of both form and matter, so a relationship to matter should be included in the definition of form.

Objection 10. The network of relationships seems to be a construct of the mind more than a real thing. So one should reject this definition together with rejecting thesis (4), since what a thing really is, is something more basic that causes these relationships.

Objection 11. The definition might be true of material things, but if there are any immaterial things, it will not apply to them. Instead, they might well exist in themselves, without relation to other things, or at least not being defined by such relations. Likewise thesis (3) should probably be denied in relation to such things.

But let us go on to the explanation of this definition. If we consider the question, “what is form?”, one might immediately see a problem. Form is supposed to provide us the answer to the question about what a thing is, so if we ask what form is, we would seem to need a form of form. And even if this is possible, it is a process that cannot possibly go on forever, and therefore we will reach a point where we cannot find a form of form, and therefore we will not be able to answer the question. This is a complex issue which I will set aside for now, simply remarking for now that the question “what is this” needs to be answered in different ways for different things, including for form itself.

At the same time, however, the arguments of the previous post imply that form is accessible to us, and that we can know it both specifically and in general. Essences are not hidden from us, and it is form that both gives a thing the essence it has and that makes us understand. And since it is the very thing that is present in our mind when we understand the thing, it should be just as accessible to us as the contents of our own mind. In other words, we can say what a form is by answering the question, “What does my mind have in common with this thing when I understand it?” And thus we can answer the general question about form by noticing what our minds have in common with things they understand in general.

This answer is implicit in the discussion of thesis (7) in the last post. We noted in the case of “blue” that what both the senses and the mind have in common with things is a certain relation or network of relationships, namely those that correspond to the relations possessed by things apt to be seen by the sight as blue. And this will always be the case whenever we understand anything, since our understanding will always produce a sort of “model” of the thing understood. This is necessary since the understanding does not become an actual copy of the thing; such a becoming would in fact exclude understanding. If your mind literally became a tree when it attempted to understand it, you would understand nothing, since trees do not understand.

This applies at many levels. For example, not only does it apply to meaning and understanding, in some way it applies even to our language on the level of syntax. For example, Word2vec is famously capable of producing analogies which somewhat reflect analogies between the things signified, even though the meanings of the words are absent from its analysis. We should not stress this too much, however, since this takes a very small subset of relationships, even a small subset of relationships found in language, and shows how they will have a structural similarity to their causes. In a sense this does mean that the forms of things are present in linguistic syntax, but it is a very attenuated sense. In contrast, the forms of things are fully present in our understanding to the precise degree that we understand them. The qualification is important: we don’t understand anything perfectly, and consequently no form should be expected to be found perfectly in our understanding.

Others have suggested similar ideas about the natures of things. For example, Sean Collins says:

But for now I will set that aside and come to what I should like to propose as the heart of my thesis. I mentioned a moment ago that Scholastic thought has always acknowledged a dependence of the qualitative on the quantitative. There are many things, nevertheless, which we may recognize without really grasping their full implications. This brings me to what my son Liam wanted to say about form. He proposed, seemingly rather starkly, that there is no such thing as form in material things. But I believe what he meant is that there is cannot be a form in the manner frequently assumed; and I think he is absolutely right. What do I mean by “the manner frequently assumed”? What I mean is that we can cheerfully assert that quality, and therefore also substance, depends on quantity, but yet not see what this really means. What it means – what science proves over and over again – is not just that quality and substance depend on form externally as it were, but that they depend on it much more internally, which is to say structurally. In other words, in material things, form turns out not only to be compatible with an internal structure and heterogeneity, but to depend on it profoundly. I want to say in effect that in material things, to a surprisingly large extent, form IS structure. And so a conception of form which unifies things to the exclusion of a structure is a false conception.

You will perhaps recognize that this solves some problems, but raises others. The biggest problem that it solves is that very Scholastic principle that I have been referring to, which is that quality and substance, the more formal principles, depend on quantity. Now we can start to affirm that we know a little better what that really means. What it means is not just that things have to “be the right size,” but rather that quality and substance depend on quantity internally, because it is quantity that makes structure possible; and structure is, if you will, the intermediary between matter and whatever more abstract kind of form we may have yet to consider. And what I want to insist on again is that this structure is not a negligible thing; in fact it is so important that scientists spend a very large portion of their time examining it. Without it we could know, did know, only the first rudiments of how material things are made. And so this is why the metric part of scientific investigation acquires such a prominent aspect; it isn’t because that is all that the scientists are interested in or that they arbitrarily restrict themselves to it; on the contrary, it is because that is the very condition upon which an understanding of material forms hinges. In various places, Aristotle notes that there is a real difference between a mere dialectical or logical investigation of physical reality, and a truly physical one. The latter, as Aristotle understands it, depends on a sufficient accounting of the material aspects of things so that we can begin to see how forms are truly materialized. Now we can see perhaps a little better how this materialization of forms really happens. It happens especially through the understanding of quantitative structure.

Sean Collins is speaking about material things in particular, and structure as quantitative. My account is similar but more general: if there are any immaterial things, or things without quantity, it applies to them as well. Thus I speak of a network of relationships, of which “quantitative structure” would be more like a particular example.

Paul Almond gives a similar account:

Reality can only be meaningfully described in terms of relationships between things and internal properties of things. That being the case, why do we take the approach of reducing everything to relationships only, so that the “things” being connected by the relationships have no internal properties and all that exists is the structure of relationships itself? The idea of reducing everything to relationships only has been proposed by Tegmark. Suppose reality were viewed as a structure of relationships between things that had internal properties. Those internal properties could themselves only be described in terms of relationships between things. This means that we would have a structure of relationships between “things” and, inside each such “thing” there would also be a structure of relationships between some more basic entities. We would have no reason for declaring a boundary between the relationships outside the “thing” and the relationships inside the “thing”. Instead, we could just take the “edge of a thing” away and say that whatever relationships existed within a thing were just part of the external structure of relationships. The end result of this is that the “things” connected by these relationships have no internal properties at all. All that is left is a structure of relationships between points that have no internal properties. All that remains is the structure itself.

Almond gives this as an account of reality as such, while we give it as an account of form. This is not entirely the same, and consequently Almond’s account could be taken as denying the existence of matter, much like Alexander Pruss. This will be discussed more in my response to objection 9, but my account is not intended to reject the existence of matter. Nonetheless, matter does not contribute to the intelligibility of a thing, and it is therefore true in a sense that form is “most of” reality.

This kind of account is sometimes taken to imply that our understanding is entirely and permanently superficial. For example, Bertrand Russell says in The Analysis of Matter (page 10):

Physics, in itself, is exceedingly abstract, and reveals only certain mathematical characteristics of the material with which it deals. It does not tell us anything as to the intrinsic character of this material.

While mathematical physics as such does have specific limitations, both by reason of the mathematical approach and by the deliberate limitation of subject implied in “physics,” there is a more general problem here. Any account whatsoever of a thing will explain that thing in relationship to everything else, without giving an account of the “intrinsic character of this material.” But this is not because we are necessarily failing to account for something. It is because this is what it is to give an account at all, and because the network of relationships really is the what it is to be of the thing. There is no hidden essence, and the appearance that there must be some other nature, more fundamental, but which cannot be found by us, derives from a temptation towards the Kantian error. The thing does indeed exist in itself, and its mode of existence is not our mode of understanding, but this does not necessarily mean we do not understand it. On the contrary, this distinction is absolutely necessary for understanding at all.

The replies to the objections will be in another post, and as is usual with a disputed question, will clarify various aspects of this position.

Form and Reality II

This is a followup to this earlier post, but will use a number of other threads to get a fuller understanding of the matter. Rather than presenting this in the form of a single essay, I will present it as a number of distinct theses, many of which have already been argued or suggested in various forms elsewhere on the blog.

(1) Everything that exists or can exist has or could have some relationship with the mind: relationship is in fact intrinsic to the nature of existence.

This was argued here, with related remarks in several recent posts. In a sense the claim is not only true but obviously so. You are the one who says or can say “this exists,” and you could not say or understand it unless the thing had or could have some relationship with your mind.

Perhaps this seems a bit unfair to reality, as though the limits of reality were being set by the limits of the thinker. What if there were a limited being that could only think of some things, but other things could exist that it could not think about? It is easy to see that in this situation the limited being does not have the concept of “everything,” and so can neither affirm nor deny (1). It is not that it would affirm it but be mistaken. It would simply never think of it.

Someone could insist: I myself am limited. It might be that there are better thinkers in the world that can think about things I could never conceive of. But again, if you have concept of “everything,” then you just thought of those things: they are the things that those thinkers would think about. So you just thought about them too, and brought them into relationship with yourself.

Thus, anyone who actually has the idea of “everything,” and thinks about the matter clearly, will agree with (1).

(2) Nothing can be true which could not in principle (in some sense of “in principle”) in some way be said to be true.

Thesis (1) can be taken as saying that anything that can be, can also be understood, at least in some way; and thesis (2) can be taken as saying that anything that can be understood, can also be said, at least in some way.

Since language is conventional, this does not need much of an argument. If I think that something exists, and I don’t have a name for it, I can make up a name. If I think that one thing is another thing, but don’t have words for these things, I can make up words for them. Even if I am not quite sure what I am thinking, I can say, “I have a thought in my mind but don’t quite have the words for it,” and in some way I have already put it into words.

One particular objection to the thesis might be made from self-reference paradoxes. The player in the Liar Game cannot correctly say whether the third statement is true or false, even though it is in fact true or false. But note two things: first, he cannot do this while he is playing, but once the game is over, he can explicitly and correctly say whether it was true or false. Second, even while playing, he can say, “the third statement has a truth value,” and in this way he speaks of its truth in a generic way. This is in part why I added the hedges to (2), “at least in some way”, and “in principle.”

(3) Things do not have hidden essences. That is, they may have essences, but those essences can be explained in words.

This follows in a straightforward way from (1) and (2). The essence of a thing is just “what it is,” or perhaps, “what it most truly is.” The question “what is this thing?” is formed with words, and it is evident that anyone who answers the question, will answer the question by using words.

Now someone might object that the essence of a thing might be hidden because perhaps in some cases the question does not have an answer. But then it would not be true that it has an essence but is hidden: rather, it would be false that it has an essence. Similarly, if the question “where is this thing,” does not have any answer, it does not mean the thing is in a hidden place, but that the thing is not in a place at all.

Another objection might be that an essence might be hidden because the answer to the question exists, but cannot be known. A discussion of this would depend on what is meant by “can be known” and “cannot be known” in this context. That is, if the objector is merely saying that we do not know such things infallibly, including the answer to the question, “what is this?”, then I agree, but would add that (3) does not speak to this point one way or another. But if it is meant that “cannot be known” means that there is something there, the “thing in itself,” which in no way can be known or expressed in words, this would be the Kantian error. This is indeed contrary to (3), and implicitly to (1) or (2) or both, but it is also false.

People might also think that the essence cannot be known because they notice that the question “what is this?” can have many legitimate answers, and suppose that one of these, and only one, must be really and truly true, but think that we have no way to find out which one it is. While there are certainly cases where an apparent answer to the question is not a true answer, the main response here is that if both answers are true, both answers are true: there does not need to be a deeper but hidden level where one is true and the other false. There may however be a deeper level which speaks to other matters and possibly explains both answers. Thus I said in the post linked above that the discussion was not limited to “how many,” but would apply in some way to every question about the being of things.

(4) Reductionism, as it is commonly understood, is false.

I have argued this in various places, but more recently and in particular here and here. It is not just one-sided to say for example that the universe and everything in it is just a multitude of particles. It is false, because it takes one of several truths, and says that one is “really” true and that the other is “really” false.

(5) Anti-reductionism, as it is commonly understood, is false.

This follows from the same arguments. Anti-reductionism, as for example the sort advocated by Alexander Pruss, takes the opposite side of the above argument, saying that certain things are “really” one and in no way many. And this is also false.

(6) Form makes a thing to be what it is, and makes it to be one thing.

This is largely a question of definition. It is what is meant by form in this context.

Someone might object that perhaps there is nothing that makes a thing what it is, or there is nothing that makes it one thing. But if it is what it is of itself, or if it is one of itself, then by this definition it is its own form, and we do not necessarily have an issue with that.

Again, someone might say that the definition conflates two potentially distinct things. Perhaps one thing makes a thing what it is, and another thing makes it one thing. But this is not possible because of the convertibility of being and unity: to be a thing at all, is to be one thing.

(7) Form is what is in common between the mind and the thing it understands, and is the reason the mind understands at all.

This is very distinctly not a question of definition. This needs to be proved from (6), along with what we know about understanding.

It is not so strange to think that you would need to have something in common with a thing in order to understand it. Thus Aristotle presents the words of Empedocles:

For ’tis by Earth we see Earth, by Water Water,

By Ether Ether divine, by Fire destructive Fire,

By Love Love, and Hate by cruel Hate.

On the other hand, there is also obviously something wrong with this. I don’t need to be a tree in order to see or think about a tree, and it is not terribly obvious that there is even anything in common between us. In fact, one of Hilary Lawson’s arguments for his anti-realist position is that there frequently seems to be nothing in common between causes and effects, and that therefore there may be (or certainly will be) nothing in common between our minds and reality, and thus we cannot ultimately know anything. Thus he says in Chapter 2 of his book on closure:

For a system of closure to provide a means of intervention in openness and thus to function as a closure machine, it requires a means of converting the flux of openness into an array of particularities. This initial layer of closure will be identified as ‘preliminary closure’. As with closure generally, preliminary closure consists in the realisation of particularity as a consequence of holding that which is different as the same. This is achieved through the realisation of material in response to openness. The most minimal example of a system of closure consists of a single preliminary closure. Such a system requires two discrete states, or at least states that can be held as if they were discrete. It is not difficult to provide mechanical examples of such systems which allow for a single preliminary closure. A mousetrap for example, can be regarded as having two discrete states: it is either set, it is ready, or it has sprung, it has gone off. Many different causes may have led to it being in one state or another: it may have been sprung by a mouse, but it could also have been knocked by someone or something, or someone could have deliberately set it off. In the context of the mechanism all of these variations are of no consequence, it is either set or it has sprung. The diversity of the immediate environment is thereby reduced to single state and its absence: it is either set or it is not set. Any mechanical arrangement that enables a system to alternate between two or more discrete states is thereby capable of providing the basis for preliminary closure. For example, a bell or a gate could function as the basis for preliminary closure. The bell can either ring or not ring, the gate can be closed or not closed. The bell may ring as the result of the wind, or a person or animal shaking it, but the cause of the response is in the context of system of no consequence. The bell either rings or it doesn’t. Similarly, the gate may be in one state or another because it has been deliberately moved, or because something or someone has dislodged it accidentally, but these variations are not relevant in the context of the state of system, which in this case is the position of the gate. In either case the cause of the bell ringing or the gate closing is infinitely varied, but in the context of the system the variety of inputs is not accessible to the system and thus of no consequence.

A useful way to think about Lawson is that he is in some way a disciple of Heraclitus. Thus closure is “holding that which is different as the same,” but in reality nothing is ever the same because everything is in flux. In the context of this passage, the mousetrap is either set or sprung, and so it divides the world into two states, the “set” state and the “sprung” state. But the universes with the set mousetrap have nothing in common with one another besides the set mousetrap, and the universes with the sprung mousetrap have nothing in common with one another besides the sprung mousetrap.

We can see how this could lead to the conclusion that knowledge is impossible. Sight divides parts of the world up with various colors. Leaves are green, the sky is blue, the keyboard I am using is black. But if I look at two different green things, or two different blue things, they may have nothing in common besides the fact that they affected my sight in a similar way. The sky and a blue couch are blue for very different reasons. We discussed this particular point elsewhere, but the general concern would be that we have no reason to think there is anything in common between our mind and the world, and some reason to think there must be something in common in order for us to understand anything.

Fortunately, the solution can be found right in the examples which supposedly suggest that there is nothing in common between the mind and the world. Consider the mousetrap. Do the universes with the set mousetrap have something in common? Yes, they have the set mousetrap in common. But Lawson does not deny this. His concern is that they have nothing else in common. But they do have something else in common: they have the same relationship to the mousetrap, different from the relationship that the universes with the sprung mousetrap have to their mousetrap. What about the mousetrap itself? Do those universes have something in common with the mousetrap? If we consider the relationship between the mousetrap and the universe as a kind of single thing with two ends, then they do, although they share in it from different ends, just as a father and son have a relationship in common (in this particular sense.) The same things will be true in the case of sensible qualities. “Blue” may divide up surface reflectance properties in a somewhat arbitrary way, but it does divide them into things that have something in common, namely their relationship with the sense of sight.

Or consider the same thing with a picture. Does the picture have anything in common with the thing it represents? Since a picture is meant to actually look similar to the eye to the object pictured, it may have certain shapes in common, the straightness of certain lines, and so on. It may have some colors in common. This kind of literal commonness might have suggested to Empedocles that we should know “earth by earth,” but one difference is that a picture and the object look alike to the eye, but an idea is not something that the mind looks at, and which happens to look like a thing: rather the idea is what the mind uses in order to look at a thing at all.

Thus a better comparison would be between the the thing seen and the image in the eye or the activity of the visual cortex. It is easy enough to see by looking that the image in a person’s eye bears some resemblance to the thing seen, even the sort of resemblance that a picture has. In a vaguer way, something similar turns out to be true even in the visual cortex:

V1 has a very well-defined map of the spatial information in vision. For example, in humans, the upper bank of the calcarine sulcus responds strongly to the lower half of visual field (below the center), and the lower bank of the calcarine to the upper half of visual field. In concept, this retinotopic mapping is a transformation of the visual image from retina to V1. The correspondence between a given location in V1 and in the subjective visual field is very precise: even the blind spots are mapped into V1. In terms of evolution, this correspondence is very basic and found in most animals that possess a V1. In humans and animals with a fovea in the retina, a large portion of V1 is mapped to the small, central portion of visual field, a phenomenon known as cortical magnification. Perhaps for the purpose of accurate spatial encoding, neurons in V1 have the smallest receptive field size of any visual cortex microscopic regions.

However, as I said, this is in a much vaguer way. In particular, it is not so much an image which is in common, but certain spatial relationships. If we go back to the idea of the mousetrap, this is entirely unsurprising. Causes and effects will always have something in common, and always in this particular way, namely with a commonality of relationship, because causes and effects, as such, are defined by their relationship to each other.

How does all this bear on our thesis (7)? Consider the color blue, and the question, “what is it to be blue?” What is the essence of blue? We could answer this in at least two different ways:

  1. To be blue is to have certain reflectance properties.
  2. To be blue is to be the sort of thing that looks blue.

But in the way intended, these are one and the same thing. A thing looks blue if it has those properties, and it has those properties if it looks blue. Now someone might say that this is a direct refutation of our thesis, since the visual cortex presumably does not look blue or have those properties when you look at something blue. But this is like Lawson’s claim that the universe has nothing in common with the sprung mousetrap. It does have something in common, if you look at the relationship from the other end. The same thing happens when we consider the meaning of “certain reflectance properties,” and “the sort of thing that looks blue.” We are actually talking about the properties that make a thing look blue, so both definitions are relative to the sense of sight. And this means that sight has something relative in common with them, and the relation it has in common is the very one that defines the nature of blue. As this is what we mean by form (thesis 6), the form of blue must be present in the sense of sight in order to see something blue.

In fact, it followed directly from thesis (1) that the nature of blue would need to include something relative. And it followed from (2) and (3) that the very same nature would turn out to be present in our senses, thoughts, and words.

The same argument applies to the mind as to the senses. I will draw additional conclusions in a later post, and in particular, show the relevance of theses (4) and (5) to the rest.

Really and Truly True

There are two persons in a room with a table between them. One says, “There is a table on the right.” The other says, “There is a table on the left.”

Which person is right? The obvious answer is that both are right. But suppose they attempt to make this into a metaphysical disagreement.

“Yes, in a relative sense, the table is on the right of one of us and on the left of the other. But really and truly, at a fundamental level, the table is on the right, and not on the left.”

“I agree that there must be a fundamental truth to where the table is. But I think it is really and truly on the left, and not on the right.”

Now both are wrong, because it is impossible for the relationships of “on the right” and “on the left” to exist without correlatives, and the assertion that the table is “really and truly” on the right or on the left means nothing here except that these things do not depend on a relationship to an observer.

Thus both people are right, if they intend their assertions in a common sense way, and both are wrong, if they intend their assertions in the supposed metaphysical way. Could it happen that one is right and the other wrong? Yes, if one intends to speak in the common sense way, and the other in the metaphysical way, but not if they are speaking in the same way.

In the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Newton explains his ideas of space and time:

I. Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration: relative, apparent, and common time, is some sensible and external (whether accurate or unequable) measure of duration by the means of motion, which is commonly used instead of true time; such as an hour, a day, a month, a year.

II. Absolute space, in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable. Relative space is some movable dimension or measure of the absolute spaces; which our senses determine by its position to bodies; and which is vulgarly taken for immovable space; such is the dimension of a subterraneous, an æreal, or celestial space, determined by its position in respect of the earth. Absolute and relative space, are the same in figure and magnitude; but they do not remain always numerically the same. For if the earth, for instance, moves, a space of our air, which relatively and in respect of the earth remains always the same, will at one time be one part of the absolute space into which the air passes; at another time it will be another part of the same, and so, absolutely understood, it will be perpetually mutable.

III. Place is a part of space which a body takes up, and is according to the space, either absolute or relative. I say, a part of space; not the situation, nor the external surface of the body. For the places of equal solids are always equal; but their superfices, by reason of their dissimilar figures, are often unequal. Positions properly have no quantity, nor are they so much the places themselves, as the properties of places. The motion of the whole is the same thing with the sum of the motions of the parts; that is, the translation of the whole, out of its place, is the same thing with the sum of the translations of the parts out of their places; and therefore the place of the whole is the same thing with the sum of the places of the parts, and for that reason, it is internal, and in the whole body.

IV. Absolute motion is the translation of a body from one absolute place into another; and relative motion, the translation from one relative place into another. Thus in a ship under sail, the relative place of a body is that part of the ship which the body possesses; or that part of its cavity which the body fills, and which therefore moves together with the ship: and relative rest is the continuance of the body in the same part of the ship, or of its cavity. But real, absolute rest, is the continuance of the body in the same part of that immovable space, in which the ship itself, its cavity, and all that it contains, is moved. Wherefore, if the earth is really at rest, the body, which relatively rests in the ship, will really and absolutely move with the same velocity which the ship has on the earth. But if the earth also moves, the true and absolute motion of the body will arise, partly from the true motion of the earth, in immovable space; partly from the relative motion of the ship on the earth; and if the body moves also relatively in the ship; its true motion will arise, partly from the true motion of the earth, in immovable space, and partly from the relative motions as well of the ship on the earth, as of the body in the ship; and from these relative motions will arise the relative motion of the body on the earth. As if that part of the earth, where the ship is, was truly moved toward the east, with a velocity of 10010 parts; while the ship itself, with a fresh gale, and full sails, is carried towards the west, with a velocity expressed by 10 of those parts; but a sailor walks in the ship towards the east, with 1 part of the said velocity; then the sailor will be moved truly in immovable space towards the east, with a velocity of 10001 parts, and relatively on the earth towards the west, with a velocity of 9 of those parts.

While the details of Einstein’s theory of relativity may have been contingent, it is not difficult to see that Newton’s theory here is mistaken, and that anyone could have known it at the time. It is mistaken in precisely the way the people described above are mistaken in saying that the table is “really and truly” on the left or on the right.

For example, suppose the world had a beginning in time. Does it make sense to ask whether it could have started at a later time, or at an earlier one? It does not, because “later” and “earlier” are just as relative as “on the left” and “on the right,” and there is nothing besides the world in relation to which the world could have these relations. Could all bodies have been shifted a bit in one direction or another? No. This has no meaning, just as it has no meaning to be on the right without being on the right of something or other.

In an amusing exchange some years ago between Vladimir Nesov and Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nesov says:

Existence is relative: there is a fact of the matter (or rather: procedure to find out) about which things exist where relative to me, for example in the same room, or in the same world, but this concept breaks down when you ask about “absolute” existence. Absolute existence is inconsistent, as everything goes. Relative existence of yourself is a trivial question with a trivial answer.

Yudkowsky responds:

Absolute existence is inconsistent

Wha?

Yudkowsky is taken aback by the seemingly nonchalant affirmation of an apparently abstruse metaphysical claim, which if not nonsensical would appear to be the absurd claim that existence is impossible.

But Nesov is quite right: to exist is to exist in relation to other things. Thus to exist “absolutely” would be like “being absolutely on the right,” which is impossible.

Suppose we confront our original disputants with the fact that right and left are relative terms, and there is no “really true truth” about the relative position of the table. It is both on the right and on the left, relative to the disputants, and apart from these relationships, it is neither.

“Ok,” one responds, “but there is still a deep truth about where the table is: it is here in this room.”

“Actually,” the other answers, “The real truth is that it is in the house.”

Once again, both are right, if these are taken as common sense claims, and both are wrong, if this is intended to be a metaphysical dispute where one would be true, the real truth about where the table is, and the other would be false.

Newton’s idea of absolute space is an extension of this argument: “Ok, then, but there is still a really true truth about where the table is: it is here in absolute space.” But obviously this is just as wrong as all the other attempts to find out where the table “really” is. The basic problem is that “where is this” demands a relative response. It is a question about relationships in the first place. We can see this in fact even in Newton’s account: it is here in absolute space, that is, it is close to certain areas of absolute space and distant from certain other areas of absolute space.

Something similar will be true about existence to the degree that existence is also implicitly relative. “Where is this thing in the nature of things?” also requires a relative response: what relationship does this have to the rest of the order of reality? And in a similar way, questions about what is “really and truly true,” if taken to imply an abstraction from this relative order, will not have any answer. In a previous post, I said something like this in relation to the question, “how many things are here?” Reductionists and anti-reductionists disputing about whether a large object is “really and truly a cloud of particles” or “really and truly a single object,” are in exactly the same position as the disputants about the position of the table: both claims are true, in a common sense way, and both claims are false, if taken in a mutually exclusive metaphysical sense, since speaking of one or many is already to involve the perspective of the knower, in particular as knowing division and its negation.

Of course, an anti-reductionist has some advantage here because they can respond, “Actually, no one in a normal context would ever call a large object a cloud of particles. So it is not common sense at all.” This is true as far as it goes, but it is not really to the point, since no one denies in a common sense context that large objects also consist of many things, as a person has a head, legs, and arms, and a chair has legs and a back. It is not that the “cloud of particles” account is so much incorrect as it is adopting a very unusual perspective. Thus someone on the moon might say that the table is 240,000 miles away, which is a very unusual thing to say of a table, compared to saying that it is on the left or on the right.

None of this is unique to the question of “how many.” Since there is an irreducible element of relativity in being itself, we will be able to find some application to every question about the being of things.

Hard Problem of Consciousness

We have touched on this in various places, and in particular in this discussion of zombies, but we are now in a position to give a more precise answer.

Bill Vallicella has a discussion of Thomas Nagel on this issue:

Nagel replies in the pages of NYRB (8 June 2017; HT: Dave Lull) to one Roy Black, a professor of bioengineering:

The mind-body problem that exercises both Daniel Dennett and me is a problem about what experience is, not how it is caused. The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject. That includes dark energy, the strong force, and the development of an organism from the egg, to cite Black’s examples. But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing,’ what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view.

The problem might be condensed into an aporetic triad:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.

Take a little time to savor this problem. Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true.  Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance.  But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.

Which proposition should we reject? Dennett, I take it, would reject (1). But that’s a lunatic solution as Professor Black seems to appreciate, though he puts the point more politely. When I call Dennett a sophist, as I have on several occasions, I am not abusing him; I am underscoring what is obvious, namely, that the smell of cooked onions, for example, is a genuine datum of experience, and that such phenomenological data trump scientistic theories.

Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3).  Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Black, and others of the scientistic stripe, accept (1) and (3) and reject (2).

In order to see the answer to this, we can construct a Parmenidean parallel to Vallicella’s aporetic triad:

1) Distinction is not an illusion.

2) Being has an essentially objective character of actually being that distinction does not share (considering that distinction consists in the fact of not being something.)

3) The only acceptable explanation of distinction is in terms of being alone (since there is nothing but being to explain things with.)

Parmenides rejects (1) here. What approach would Vallicella take? If he wishes to take a similarly analogous approach, he should accept (1) and (2), and deny (3). And this would be a pretty commonsense approach, and perhaps the one that most people implicitly adopt if they ever think about the problem.

At the same time, it is easy to see that (3) is approximately just as obviously true as (1); and it is for this reason that Parmenides sees rejecting (1) and accepting (2) and (3) as reasonable.

The correct answer, of course, is that the three are not inconsistent despite appearances. In fact, we have effectively answered this in recent posts. Distinction is not an illusion, but a way that we understand things, as such. And being a way of understanding, it is not (as such) a way of being mistaken, and thus it is not an illusion, and thus the first point is correct. Again, being a way of understanding, it is not a way of being as such, and thus the second point is correct. And yet distinction can be explained by being, since there is something (namely relationship) which explains why it is reasonable to think in terms of distinctions.

Vallicella’s triad mentions “purely physical processes” and “physical properties,” but the idea of “physical” here is a distraction, and is not really relevant to the problem. Consider the following from another post by Vallicella:

If I understand Galen Strawson’s view, it is the first.  Conscious experience is fully real but wholly material in nature despite the fact that on current physics we cannot account for its reality: we cannot understand how it is possible for qualia and thoughts to be wholly material.   Here is a characteristic passage from Strawson:

Serious materialists have to be outright realists about the experiential. So they are obliged to hold that experiential phenomena just are physical phenomena, although current physics cannot account for them.  As an acting materialist, I accept this, and assume that experiential phenomena are “based in” or “realized in” the brain (to stick to the human case).  But this assumption does not solve any problems for materialists.  Instead it obliges them to admit ignorance of the nature of the physical, to admit that they don’t have a fully adequate idea of what the physical is, and hence of what the brain is.  (“The Experiential and the Non-Experiential” in Warner and Szubka, p. 77)

Strawson and I agree on two important points.  One is that what he calls experiential phenomena are as real as anything and cannot be eliminated or reduced to anything non-experiential. Dennett denied! The other is that there is no accounting for experiential items in terms of current physics.

I disagree on whether his mysterian solution is a genuine solution to the problem. What he is saying is that, given the obvious reality of conscious states, and given the truth of naturalism, experiential phenomena must be material in nature, and that this is so whether or not we are able to understand how it could be so.  At present we cannot understand how it could be so. It is at present a mystery. But the mystery will dissipate when we have a better understanding of matter.

This strikes me as bluster.

An experiential item such as a twinge of pain or a rush of elation is essentially subjective; it is something whose appearing just is its reality.  For qualia, esse = percipi.  If I am told that someday items like this will be exhaustively understood from a third-person point of view as objects of physics, I have no idea what this means.  The notion strikes me as absurd.  We are being told in effect that what is essentially subjective will one day be exhaustively understood as both essentially subjective and wholly objective.  And that makes no sense. If you tell me that understanding in physics need not be objectifying understanding, I don’t know what that means either.

Here Vallicella uses the word “material,” which is presumably equivalent to “physical” in the above discussion. But it is easy to see here that being material is not the problem: being objective is the problem. Material things are objective, and Vallicella sees an irreducible opposition between being objective and being subjective. In a similar way, we can reformulate Vallicella’s original triad so that it does not refer to being physical:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely objective processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of objective properties alone.

It is easy to see that this formulation is the real source of the problem. And while Vallicella would probably deny (3) even in this formulation, it is easy to see why people would want to accept (3). “Real things are objective,” they will say. If you want to explain anything, you should explain it using real things, and therefore objective things.

The parallel with the Parmenidean problem is evident. We would want to explain distinction in terms of being, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Parmenides) is tempted to deny the existence of distinction. In the same way, we would want to explain subjective experience in terms of objective facts, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Dennett) is tempted to deny the existence of subjective experience.

Just as the problem is parallel, the correct solution will be almost entirely parallel to the solution to the problem of Parmenides.

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion. It is a way of perceiving the world, not a way of not perceiving the world, and definitely not a way of not perceiving at all.

2) Consciousness is subjective, that is, it is a way that an individual perceives the world, not a way that things are as such, and thus not an “objective fact” in the sense that “the way things are” is objective.

3) The “way things are”, namely the objective facts, are sufficient to explain why individuals perceive the world. Consider again this post, responding to a post by Robin Hanson. We could reformulate his criticism to express instead Parmenides’s criticism of common sense (changed parts in italics):

People often state things like this:

I am sure that there is not just being, because I’m aware that some things are not other things. I know that being just isn’t non-being. So even though there is being, there must be something more than that to reality. So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care about distinctions, not just being; we want to know what out there is distinct from which other things.

But consider a key question: Does this other distinction stuff interact with the parts of our world that actually exist strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of distinction like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that philosophers, possibly excepting Duns Scotus, have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite understandable with existing philosophy. Any interaction not so understandable would have be vastly more difficult to understand than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will understand such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of distinction, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra distinction stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that distinction stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if distinction stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that distinction stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

“Distinction stuff”, of course, does not exist, and neither does “feeling stuff.” But some things are distinct from others. Saying this is a way of understanding the world, and it is a reasonable way to understand the world because things exist relative to one another. And just as one thing is distinct from another, people have experiences. Those experiences are ways of knowing the world (broadly understood.) And just as reality is sufficient to explain distinction, so reality is sufficient to explain the fact that people have experiences.

How exactly does this answer the objection about interaction? In the case of distinction, the fact that “one thing is not another” is never the direct cause of anything, not even of the fact that “someone believes that one thing is not another.” So there would seem to be a “remarkable coincidence” here, or we would have to say that since the fact seems unrelated to the opinion, there is no reason to believe people are right when they make distinctions.

The answer in the case of distinction is that one thing is related to another, and this fact is the cause of someone believing that one thing is not another. There is no coincidence, and no reason to believe that people are mistaken when they make distinctions, despite the fact that distinction as such causes nothing.

In a similar way, “a human being is what it is,” and “a human being does what it does” (taken in an objective sense), cause human beings to say and believe that they have subjective experience (taking saying and believing to refer to objective facts.) But this is precisely where the zombie question arises: they say and believe that they have subjective experience, when we interpret say and believe in the objective sense. But do they actually say and believe anything, considering saying and believing as including the subjective factor? Namely, when a non-zombie says something, it subjectively understands the meaning of what it is saying, and when it consciously believes something, it has a subjective experience of doing that, but these things would not apply to a zombie.

But notice that we can raise a similar question about zombie distinctions. When someone says and believes that one thing is not another, objective reality is similarly the cause of them making the distinction. But is the one thing actually not the other? But there is no question at all here except of whether the person’s statement is true or false. And indeed, someone can say, e.g, “The person who came yesterday is not the person who came today,” and this can sometimes be false. In a similar way, asking whether an apparent person is a zombie or not is just asking whether their claim is true or false when they say they have a subjective experience. The difference is that if the (objective) claim is false, then there is no claim at all in the subjective sense of “subjectively claiming something.” It is a contradiction to subjectively make the false claim that you are subjectively claiming something, and thus, this cannot happen.

Someone may insist: you yourself, when you subjectively claim something, cannot be mistaken for the above reason. But you have no way to know whether someone else who apparently is making that claim, is actually making the claim subjectively or not. This is the reason there is a hard problem.

How do we investigate the case of distinction? If we want to determine whether the person who came yesterday is not the person who came today, we do that by looking at reality, despite the fact that distinction as such is not a part of reality as such. If the person who came yesterday is now, today, a mile away from the person who came today, this gives us plenty of reason to say that the one person is not the other. There is nothing strange, however, in the fact that there is no infallible method to prove conclusively, once and for all, that one thing is definitely not another thing. There is not therefore some special “hard problem of distinction.” This is just a result of the fact that our knowledge in general is not infallible.

In a similar way, if we want to investigate whether something has subjective experience or not, we can do that only by looking at reality: what is this thing, and what does it do? Then suppose it makes an apparent claim that it has subjective experience. Obviously, for the above reasons, this cannot be a subjective claim but false: so the question is whether it makes a subjective claim and is right, or rather makes no subjective claim at all. How would you answer this as an external observer?

In the case of distinction, the fact that someone claims that one thing is distinct from another is caused by reality, whether the claim is true or false. So whether it is true or false depends on the way that it is caused by reality. In a similar way, the thing which apparently and objectively claims to possess subjective experience, is caused to do so by objective facts. Again, as in the case of distinction, whether it is true or false will depend on the way that it is caused to do so by objective facts.

We can give some obvious examples:

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a human being and does what humans normally do.” In this case, the objective and subjective claim is true, and is caused in the right way by objective facts.

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a very simple computer given a very simple program to output ‘I have subjective experience’ on its screen.” In this case the external claim is false, and it is caused in the wrong way by objective facts, and there is no subjective claim at all.

But how do you know for sure, someone will object. Perhaps the computer really is conscious, and perhaps the apparent human is a zombie. But we could similarly ask how we can know for sure that the person who came yesterday isn’t the same person who came today, even though they appear distant from each other, because perhaps the person is bilocating?

It would be mostly wrong to describe this situation by saying “there really is no hard problem of consciousness,” as Robin Hanson appears to do when he says, “People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a ‘hard question’ regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel.” The implication seems to be that there is no hard question at all. But there is, and the fact that people engage in this discussion proves the existence of the question. Rather, we should say that the question is answerable, and that one it has been answered the remaining questions are “hard” only in the sense that it is hard to understand the world in general. The question is hard in exactly the way the question of Parmenides is hard: “How is it possible for one thing not to be another, when there is only being?” The question of consciousness is similar: “How is it possible for something to have subjective experience, when there are only objective things?” And the question can and should be answered in a similar fashion.

It would be virtually impossible to address every related issue in a simple blog post of this form, so I will simply mention some things that I have mainly set aside here:

1) The issue of formal causes, discussed more in my earlier treatment of this issue. This is relevant because “is this a zombie?” is in effect equivalent to asking whether the thing lacks a formal cause. This is worthy of a great deal of consideration and would go far beyond either this post or the earlier one.

2) The issue of “physical” and “material.” As I stated in this post, this is mainly a distraction. Most of the time, the real question is how the subjective is possible given that we believe that the world is objective. The only relevance of “matter” here is that it is obvious that a material thing is an objective thing. But of course, an immaterial thing would also have to be objective in order to be a thing at all. Aristotle and many philosophers of his school make the specific argument that the human mind does not have an organ, but such arguments are highly questionable, and in my view fundamentally flawed. My earlier posts suffice to call such a conclusion into question, but do not attempt to disprove it, and the the topic would be worthy of additional consideration.

3) Specific questions about “what, exactly, would actually be conscious?” Now neglecting such questions might seem to be a cop-out, since isn’t this what the whole problem was supposed to be in the first place? But in a sense we did answer it. Take an apparent claim of something to be conscious. The question would be this: “Given how it was caused by objective facts to make that claim, would it be a reasonable claim for a subjective claimer to make?” In other words, we cannot assume in advance that it is subjectively making a claim, but if it would be a reasonable claim, it will (in general) be a true one, and therefore also a subjective one, for the same reason that we (in general) make true claims when we reasonably claim that one thing is not another. We have not answered this question only in the same sense that we have not exhaustively explained which things are distinct from which other things, and how one would know. But the question, e.g., “when if ever would you consider an artificial intelligence to be conscious?” is in itself also worthy of direct discussion.

4) The issue of vagueness. This issue in particular will cause some people to object to my answer here. Thus Alexander Pruss brings this up in a discussion of whether a computer could be conscious:

Now, intelligence could plausibly be a vague property. But it is not plausible that consciousness is a vague property. So, there must be some precise transition point in reliability needed for computation to yield consciousness, so that a slight decrease in reliability—even when the actual functioning is unchanged (remember that the Ci are all functioning in the same way)—will remove consciousness.

I responded in the comments there:

The transition between being conscious and not being conscious that happens when you fall asleep seems pretty vague. I don’t see why you find it implausible that “being conscious” could be vague in much the same way “being red” or “being intelligent” might be vague. In fact the evidence from experience (falling asleep etc) seems to directly suggest that it is vague.

Pruss responds:

When I fall asleep, I may become conscious of less and less. But I can’t get myself to deny that either it is definitely true at any given time that I am at least a little conscious or it is definitely true that I am not at all conscious.

But we cannot trust Pruss’s intuitions about what can be vague or otherwise. Pruss claims in an earlier post that there is necessarily a sharp transition between someone’s not being old and someone’s being old. I discussed that post here. This is so obviously false that it gives us a reason in general not to trust Alexander Pruss on the issue of sharp transitions and vagueness. The source of this particular intuition may be the fact that you cannot subjectively make a claim, even vaguely, without some subjective experience, as well as his general impression that vagueness violates the principles of excluded middle and non-contradiction. But in a similar way, you cannot be vaguely old without being somewhat old. This does not mean that there is a sharp transition from not being old to being old, and likewise it does not necessarily mean that there is a sharp transition from not having subjective experience to having it.

While I have discussed the issue of vagueness elsewhere on this blog, this will probably continue to be a reoccurring feature, if only because of those who cannot accept this feature of reality and insist, in effect, on “this or nothing.”

Being and Unity II

Content warning: very obscure.

This post follows up on an earlier post on this topic, as well on what was recently said about real distinction. In the latter post, we applied the distinction between the way a thing is and the way it is known in order to better understand distinction itself. We can obtain a better understanding of unity in a similar way.

As was said in the earlier post on unity, to say that something is “one” does not add anything real to the being of the thing, but it adds the denial of the division between distinct things. The single apple is not “an apple and an orange,” which are divided insofar as they are distinct from one another.

But being distinct from divided things is itself a certain way of being distinct, and consequently all that was said about distinction in general will apply to this way of being distinct as well. In particular, since being distinct means not being something, which is a way that things are understood rather than a way that they are (considered precisely as a way of being), the same thing applies to unity. To say that something is one does not add something to the way that it is, but it adds something to the way that it is understood. This way of being understood is founded, we argued, on existing relationships.

We should avoid two errors here, both of which would be expressions of the Kantian error:

First, the argument here does not mean that a thing is not truly one thing, just as the earlier discussion does not imply that it is false that a chair is not a desk. On the contrary, a chair is in fact not a desk, and a chair is in fact one chair. But when we say or think, “a chair is not a desk,” or “a chair is one chair,” we are saying these things in some way of saying, and thinking them in some way of thinking, and these ways of saying and thinking are not ways of being as such. This in no way implies that the statements themselves are false, just as “the apple seems to be red,” does not imply that the apple is not red. Arguing that the fact of a specific way of understanding implies that the thing is falsely understood would be the position described by Ayn Rand as asserting, “man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.”

Second, the argument does not imply that the way things really are is unknown and inaccessible to us. One might suppose that this follows, since distinction cannot exist apart from someone’s way of understanding, and at the same time no one can understand without making distinctions. Consequently, someone might argue, there must be some “way things really are in themselves,” which does not include distinction or unity, but which cannot be understood. But this is just a different way of falling into the first error above. There is indeed a way things are, and it is generally not inaccessible to us. In fact, as I pointed out earlier, it would be a contradiction to assert the existence of anything entirely unknowable to us.

Our discussion, being in human language and human thought, naturally uses the proper modes of language and thought. And just as in Mary’s room, where her former knowledge of color is a way of knowing and not a way of sensing, so our discussion advances by ways of discussion, not by ways of being as such. This does not prevent the way things are from being an object of discussion, just as color can be an object of knowledge.

Having avoided these errors, someone might say that nothing of consequence follows from this account. But this would be a mistake. It follows from the present account that when we ask questions like, “How many things are here?”, we are not asking a question purely about how things are, but to some extent about how we should understand them. And even when there is a single way that things are, there is usually not only one way to understand them correctly, but many ways.

Consider some particular question of this kind: “How many things are in this room?” People might answer this question in various ways. John Nerst, in a previous discussion on this blog, seemed to suggest that the answer should be found by counting fundamental particles. Alexander Pruss would give a more complicated answer, since he suggests that large objects like humans and animals should be counted as wholes (while also wishing to deny the existence of parts, which would actually eliminate the notion of a whole), while in other cases he might agree to counting particles. Thus a human being and an armchair might be counted, more or less, as 1 + 10^28 things, namely counting the human being as one thing and the chair as a number of particles.

But if we understand that the question is not, and cannot be, purely about how things are, but is also a question about how things should be understood, then both of the above responses seem unreasonable: they are both relatively bad ways of understanding the things in the room, even if they both have some truth as well. And on the other hand, it is easy to see that “it depends on how you count,” is part of the answer. There is not one true answer to the question, but many true answers that touch on different aspects of the reality in the room.

From the discussion with John Nerst, consider this comment:

My central contention is that the rules that define the universe runs by themselves, and must therefore be self-contained, i.e not need any interpretation or operationalization from outside the system. As I think I said in one of the parts of “Erisology of Self and Will” that the universe must be an automaton, or controlled by an automaton, etc. Formal rules at the bottom.

This is isn’t convincing to you I guess but I suppose I rule out fundamental vagueness because vagueness implies complexity and fundamental complexity is a contradiction in terms. If you keep zooming in on a fuzzy picture you must, at some point, come down to sharply delineated pixels.

Among other things, the argument of the present post shows why this cannot be right. “Sharply delineated pixels” includes the distinction of one pixel from another, and therefore includes something which is a way of understanding as such, not a way of being as such. In other words, while intending to find what is really there, apart from any interpretation, Nerst is directly including a human interpretation in his account. And in fact it is perfectly obvious that anything else is impossible, since any account of reality given by us will be a human account and will thus include a human way of understanding. Things are a certain way: but that way cannot be said or thought except by using ways of speaking or thinking.