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.

 

Advertisements

Form is Not Matter

I have touched on this at other times, as here, here, and here. In the present post I am simply emphasizing the point more directly potentially for future reference.

If you receive an IKEA table in the mail, you have the parts that go to make up a table, but they are not yet put together in the form of a table. But very obviously, the form is not an additional part that you need to make the table. One does not say, “We need six parts for the table: the four legs, the tabletop, and the form of the table.” The form is something additional, but it is not an additional part. It is the “being put together as a table” that the parts require in order to be a table.

To say that the parts exist “in the form of a table” is also an informative expression here. One speaks as though “the form of a table” were a place, somewhat like Newton’s absolute space, in which the parts of the table exist together. This idea is helpful because just as Newton’s absolute space does not actually exist, so there will be analogous errors about form, as for example the idea that form is an additional part. Likewise, understanding the actual truth about place will help us to understand the truth about form.

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.

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.

An Existential Theory of Relativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some Complaints about Parts and Wholes

In the comment here, John Nerst effectively rejects the existence of parts and wholes:

In my view, there must be a set of fundamental rules that the universe is running on and fundamental entities that doesn’t reduce to something else, and everything else is simply descriptions of the consequences of those rules. There is a difference between them, what we call it isn’t important. I don’t see how one could disagree with that without going into mystical-idealist territory.

The word “simply” in “simply descriptions of the consequences of those rules” has no plausible meaning except that wholes made out of fundamental particles, as distinct from the fundamental particles, do not exist: what really exists are the fundamental particles, and nothing more.

John denies that he means to reject the common sense idea that wholes exist by his statement:

I do mean different things by “humans exist” and “humans exist in the territory”, and you can’t really tell me what I mean against my saying so. I haven’t asserted that humans don’t exist (it depends on the meaning of “exist”).

But it is not my responsibility to give a plausible true meaning to his statements where I have already considered the matter as carefully as I could, and have found none; I do not see what his claim could mean which does not imply that humans do not exist, and I have explained why his claim would have this implication.

In a similar way, others reject the existence of parts. Thus Alexander Pruss remarks:

Parthood is a mysterious relation. It would really simplify our picture of the world if we could get rid of it.

There are two standard ways of doing this. The microscopic mereological nihilist says that only the fundamental “small” bits—particles, fields, etc.—exist, and that there are no complex objects like tables, trees and people that are made of such bits. (Though one could be a microscopic mereological nihilist dualist, and hold that people are simple souls.)

The macroscopic mereological nihilist says that big things like organisms do exist, but their commonly supposed constituents, such as particles, do not exist, except in a manner of speaking. We can talk as if there were electrons in us, but there are no electrons in us. The typical macroscopic mereological nihilist is a Thomist who talks of “virtual existence” of electrons in us.

Pruss basically agrees with the second position, which he expressed by saying at the end of the post, “But I still like macroscopic nihilism more than reductionism.” In other words, it is given that we have to get rid of parts and wholes; the best way to do that, according to Pruss, is to assert the existence of the things that we call wholes, and to deny the existence of the parts.

In effect, John Nerst says that there are no wholes, but there are fundamental things (such as particles) that have the power to act as if they were wholes (such as humans), even though such wholes do not actually exist, and Alexander Pruss says that there are no parts (such as particles), but there are simple unified things (such as humans) which have the power to act as if they had parts (such as particles), even though they do not actually have such parts.

To which we must respond: a pox on both your houses. In accord with common sense, both wholes and parts exist, and the difficulty of understanding the matter is a weakness of human reason, not a deficiency in reality.

Parts and Parmenides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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