Form and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matter, Form, and Disposition

Suppose we have four straight lines, each equal in length to the others, each in contact with one of the others at each of its endpoints, and each at right angles to the lines with which it is in contact.

We can see that these lines form a square. And if we consider the square as the boundary formed of the four lines (it would also be possible, and perhaps more common, to consider the bounded area as a square), then the lines are parts and material causes of the square. And those parts cause the whole by having squareness, the formal cause.

What is squareness? Someone might say it is simply the properties described in the first paragraph above. And this is close to the truth, but it is not exactly right. For a square is one figure, and the properties described are many, and insofar as they are many, they do not sufficiently explain the unity of the square. Squareness is rather the shape that a thing has which has those properties; and that shape is one shape, not many shapes.

The properties described, then, are not squareness itself, but can be called the disposition to squareness. By having these properties, the four lines are disposed to have squareness, and consequently to form a square.

The Error of Parmenides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining Order

Earlier I discussed Aristotle’s senses of before and after. Using yesterday’s discussion of one and many, we can now find a more exact definition of the same terms.

We can define “second” as the formal part of something two, namely the part by which the two is two.

Thus “first” is the part of something two which is not the second. This way of defining first and second may seem backwards, but it is analogous with how we defined the unity of a thing by negating division.

Something first, as such, implies the existence of something second, and likewise something second implies the existence of something first. However, the existence of two implies the existence of one (as a part), while the existence of one does not imply the existence of two. This corresponds to the difference in the definitions of first and second given above. The second is the part by which two is two, while the first is a part, but not the part by which two is two. If first and second are considered only with respect to what is formal in them, then, as “not that by which two is two”, and “by which two is two”, then according to this consideration the first does not imply a second, but the second implies a first.

From this we can see that being before by nature, or as Aristotle says, “what does not reciprocate according to consequence of being,” if not the first thing to which the words before and after are applied, is nonetheless first in the nature of things to possess the before and after.

We can also see that this sense of before and after must be found in some way in all other senses, for every case of before and after will involve something first and something second.

This can be illustrated with the order of time, the first thing to which the words before and after are actually applied. At first it might seem that such a before and after are completely separate from the idea of reciprocation according to consequence of being, since one day can exist without another, nor is it evident that the existence of one day implies that another day existed or that another will exist.

If we consider our actual experience of the past and present (since we have no experience of the future), however, we find something different. Our experience of the present includes our memory of the past, and in this respect implies the past existence of the past. But our experience of the past, namely not the present experience of remembering the past, but the remembered experience of the past that was once present, does not include anything of the present. In this way the present implies the past, but the past does not imply the present, and thus according to these considerations the past is before the present even according to consequence of being.

This is not to deny that according to other considerations the present might be before the past. Rather, these considerations show why the past is considered to be before the present, namely because the present seems to build on the past, as though the past were one block of wood, with the present being a second block of wood stacked on top of the first block. We will find that something similar is the case in every way in which we can say that one thing is before or after another thing.

One and Many

“Many” has two meanings:

  1. That which is divided, namely something and something else such that the something is not the something else. Taken in this way, the idea of many comes before the idea of one, because many in this sense is simply defined by distinction.
  2. A whole composed of ones as parts. In this sense many comes after one.

Using the second definition, we can define numbers according to what sort of parts they have. Thus for example two is something many in the second way, such that it does not have any part which is itself many. Similarly, three is something many such that it has a part which is two, but does not have any part which has a part which is two. One can define other numbers in a similar way. Of course such definitions will quickly become nearly unintelligible as one increases the value of the number. This is not so much a problem with this kind of definition, as a sign of the fact that numbers are not very intelligible to us in themselves, and that we grasp them in practice mainly by the use of the imagination.

Being and Unity

The unity of a being is simply a certain negation of distinction or division. As was said in the last post, distinction consists in the fact that this thing is not that thing. To say that a thing is one is to say that it is “this thing” rather than “this thing which is not that thing, and that thing which is not this thing”. Thus saying that the thing is one does not deny all distinction, since “this thing” remains “not that thing.” But it denies the distinction within “this thing and that thing,” since this is not one thing.

Or with a concrete example, if I am talking about an apple and an orange, the apple is not the orange, and the orange is not the apple. By reason of this mutual distinction, “the apple and the orange” does not constitute something one. But the apple is one precisely because it is not something like this; “apple” does not name a distinct something and something else. Likewise the orange is one, for the same reason, despite the fact that the apple is not the orange.

St. Thomas explains that it follows that one and being are in some way the same:

“One” does not add any reality to “being”; but is only a negation of division; for “one” means undivided “being.” This is the very reason why “one” is the same as “being.” Now every being is either simple or compound. But what is simple is undivided, both actually and potentially. Whereas what is compound, has not being whilst its parts are divided, but after they make up and compose it. Hence it is manifest that the being of anything consists in undivision; and hence it is that everything guards its unity as it guards its being.

In other words, if you cut the apple into two halves, there is no longer an apple, but one half and another half. And just as you no longer have an apple, you no longer have the being that you had, since that being was an apple. The apple is always one apple; and one apple is always an apple. In this way being and unity are convertible.

On the other hand, just as there are many ways of being, there are many ways to be one. Thus although the two halves are not an apple, and consequently not one apple, they are a pair of apple halves. And being a pair of something is being something at least in some way; and consequently they are also one pair.