Words, Meaning, and Formal Copies

There is quick way to respond to the implicit questions at the end of the last post. I noted in an earlier discussion of form that form is not only copied into the mind; it is also copied into language itself. Any time you describe something in words, you are to some degree copying its form into your description.

This implies that Aristotle’s objection that a mind using an organ would not be able to know all things could equally be made against the possibility of describing all things in words. There simply are not enough combinations of words to relate them to all possible combinations of things; thus, just as a black and white image cannot imitate every aspect of a colored scene, so words cannot possibly describe every aspect of reality.

Two things are evident from this comparison:

First, the objection fails overall. There is nothing that cannot be described in words because words are flexible. If we don’t have a word for something, then we can make up a name. Similarly, the meaning of a single word depends on context.  The word “this” can refer to pretty much anything, depending on the context in which it is used. Likewise meaning can be affected by the particular situation of the person using the word, or by broader cultural contexts, and so on.

Second, there is some truth in the objection. It is indeed impossible to describe every aspect of reality at the same time and in complete detail, and the objection gives a very good reason for this: there are simply not enough linguistic combinations to represent all possible combinations of things. The fact that language is not prime matter does mean that language cannot express every detail of reality at once: the determination that is already there does exclude this possibility. But the flexibility of language prevents there from being any particular aspect of things that cannot be described.

My claim about the mind is the same. There is nothing that cannot be understood by the mind, despite the fact that the mind uses the brain, because the relationship between the brain, mind, and world is a flexible one. Just as the word “this” can refer to pretty much anything, so also the corresponding thought. But on the other hand, the limitations of the brain do mean that a perfectly detailed knowledge of everything is excluded.

Our Interlocutor Insists

In a sense, the above account is sufficient to respond to the objection. There does not seem to be a reason to hold Aristotle’s account of the immateriality of the mind, unless there is also a reason to hold that language cannot be used to describe some things, and this does not seem like a reasonable position. Nonetheless, this response will give rise to a new and more detailed objection.

A black and white scene, it will be said, really and truly copies some aspects of a colored scene, and fails to copy others. Thus right angles in the black and white scene may be identical to right angles in the colored scene. The angles are really copied, and the angles are not. But language seems different: since it is conventional, it does not really copy anything. We just pretend, as it were, that we are copying the thing. “Let the word ‘cat’ stand for a cat,” we say, but there is nothing catlike about the word in reality. The form of the cat is not really copied into the word, or so it will be argued. And since we are not really copying anything, this is why language has the flexibility to be able to describe all things. The meaning of thoughts, however, is presumably not conventional. So it seems that we need to copy things in a real way into the mind, the way we copy aspects of a colored scene into a black and white image. And thus, meaning in the mind should not be flexible in this way, and a particular material medium (such as the brain) would still impede knowing all things, the way the black and white image excludes color.

Formal Copies

The above objection is similar to Hilary Lawson’s argument that words cannot really refer to things. In the post linked above on form and reality, we quoted his argument that cause and effect do not have anything in common. I will reproduce that argument here; for the purpose of the following discussion it might be useful to the reader to refer to the remainder of that post.

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.

Lawson’s basic argument is that any particular effect could result from any of an infinite number of different causes, and the cause and effect might be entirely different: the effect might be ringing of a bell, but the cause was not bell-like at all, and did not have a ringing sound. So the effect, he says, tells you nothing at all about the cause. In a similar way, he claims, our thoughts cause our words, but our words and our thoughts have nothing in common, and thus our words tell us nothing about our thoughts; and in that sense they do not refer to anything, not even to our thoughts. Likewise, he says, the world causes our thoughts, but since the cause and effect have nothing in common, our thoughts tell us nothing about the world, and do not even refer to it.

As I responded at the time, this account is mistaken from the very first step. Cause and effect always have something in common, namely the cause-effect relationship, although they each have different ends of that relationship. They will also have other things in common depending on the particular nature of the cause and effect in question. Similarly, the causes that are supposedly utterly diverse, in Lawson’s account, have something in common themselves: every situation that rings the bell has “aptness to ring the bell” in common. And when the bell is rung, it “refers” to these situations by the implication that we are in a situation that has aptness to ring the bell, rather than in one of the other situations.

It is not accidental here that “refer” and “relate” are taken from forms of the same verb. Lawson’s claim that words do not “refer” to things is basically the same as the claim that they are not really related to things. And the real problem is that he is looking at matter (in this case the bell) without considering form (in this case the bell’s relationship with the world.)

In a similar way, to say that the word “cat” is not catlike is to look at the sound or at the text as matter, without considering its form, namely the relationship it has with the surrounding context which causes that word to be used. But that relationship is real; the fact that the word is conventional does not prevent it from being true that human experience of cats is the cause of thoughts of cats, and that thoughts of cats are concretely the cause of the usage of the word “cat,” even if they could in some other situation have caused some other word to be used.

I argued in the post on the nature of form (following the one with the discussion of Lawson) that form is a network of relationships apt to make something one. Insofar as an effect really receives form from a cause in the above way, words really receive meaning from the context that gives rise to their use. And in this way, it is not true that form in language is unlike form in a black and white scene, such that one could say that form in the scene is “real” and form in language is not. Both are real.

Thus the objection fails. Nonetheless, it is true that it is easier to see why it is possible to describe anything in words, than it is to see why anything can be known. And this happens simply because “anything is describable in words” precisely because “anything can be known.” So the fact that anything can be known is the more remote cause, and thus harder to know.

 

Earth By Earth

In an earlier post I quoted 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.

I argued in that post that the mind does have something in common with what is known, and that this common thing is the form of the thing known. However, I took for granted that Empedocles is mistaken in assuming that the thing itself must be in common in order to be known.

I did not directly say why he is mistaken. If form makes a thing what it is, and the form of a thing known is in the mind, why does the mind not become that thing? If the form of earth is in your mind, then why is your mind not literally earth?

We will naturally be inclined to say that the form in your mind is apart from its proper matter, and that you need both form and matter to make a thing. And there is nothing wrong with this answer, as far as it goes, but it seems insufficient. Suppose you have a gold coin: what is its matter? The gold coin is presumably made out of atoms of gold, and since these atoms are not in your head, you do not see gold by gold. The problem is that atoms of gold also have some form, since this is just to say there is an answer when we ask, “What is this?”, and this will be true of anything whatever that you call matter. And there is nothing to prevent you from knowing that thing as well. There is nothing to prevent you from knowing the nature of gold atoms. And thus it seems that the matter will be present, and thus there should be actual gold in your mind.

Perhaps an Aristotelian will suggest that it is prime matter that is missing. But this answer will not work, because humans have this sort of matter in common with other things. And in any case, nothing is meant by “matter” in this sense except the ability to have the form. And since the knower can have the form, they have the ability to have the form, and thus matter. So nothing is missing, and the thing known should be literally in the knower.

Thus it appears that we have a reductio. Either my account of knowledge is mistaken, or earth should actually by known by earth, which it obviously is not.

The conclusion is only apparent, however. We can resolve it by going back to what I said about form in that post and the following one. Form is a network of relationships apt to make something one. But being one not only includes internal unity, but also separation from other things. For example, suppose we now have three gold coins, instead of one: each coin is one coin, and this depends on its parts being together, rather than in a loose heap of gold dust. But the fact that the coins are three depends on their separation from one another, and thus also the fact that each coin is “one” depends on that separation.

In other words, the form of a thing includes not only internal relationships, but also external relationships. This implies that to know the nature of a thing, one must know its external relationships. And to know a thing perfectly would require knowing both its internal and external relationships perfectly.

Now one of the things to which it is related is the very one who knows it. Thus, if the knower is to know the thing perfectly, they must perfectly understand the relationships between themselves and the thing. But this is not possible, for reasons explained in the post on self-reference. The person who attempts to know something perfectly is in the situation of someone attempting to draw a picture of themselves drawing a picture: to make a perfect copy of the gold coin, it is necessary to copy its context, which includes the knower. But this cannot be done; therefore perfect knowledge of the coin is impossible.

A different way to state the same analysis: “perfect copy” is a contradiction in terms, because such perfection would imply identity with the original, and thus not being a copy at all. In other words, perfect knowledge of a thing is impossible because perfect knowledge would imply, as in the argument of Empedocles, that one’s knowledge would literally be the thing known, and thus not knowledge at all.

Place, Time, and Universals

Consider the following three statements:

1. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using are both here in this room.

2. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using both exist in January 2019.

3. The chair and keyboard that I am currently using both came in the color black.

All three claims, considered as everyday statements, happen to be true. They also have a common subject, and something common about the predicate, namely the “in.” We have “in this room,” “in January,” and “in the color black.” Now someone might object that this is a mere artifact of my awkward phrasing: obviously, I deliberately chose these formulations with this idea in mind. So this seems to be a mere verbal similarity, and a meaningless one at that.

The objection seems pretty reasonable, but I will argue that it is mistaken. The verbal similarity is not accidental, despite the fact that I did indeed choose the formulations deliberately with this idea in mind. As I intend to argue, there is indeed something common to the three cases, namely that they represent various ways of existing together.

The three statements are true in their ordinary everyday sense. But consider the following three questions:

1. Are the chair and keyboard really in the same room, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

2. Do the chair and keyboard really exist in the same month, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

3. Did the chair and keyboard really come in the same color, or is this commonality a mere appearance?

These questions are like other questions which ask whether something is “really” the case. There is no such thing as being “really” on the right apart from the ordinary understanding of being on the right, and there is no such thing as being really in the same room apart from the ordinary everyday understanding of being in the same room. The same thing applies to the third question about color.

The dispute between realism and nominalism about universals starts in the following way, roughly speaking:

Nominalist: We say that two things are black. But obviously, there are two things here, and no third thing, and the two are not the same thing. So the two do not really have anything in common. Therefore “two things are black” is nothing but a way of speaking.

Platonic Realist: Obviously, the two things really are black. But what is really the case is not just a way of speaking. So the two really do have something in common. Therefore there are three things here: the two ordinary things, and the color black.

Since the Platonic Realist here goes more against common speech in asserting the existence of “three things” where normally one would say there are “two things,” the nominalist has the apparent advantage at this point, and this leads to more qualified forms of realism. In reality, however, one should have stopped the whole argument at this point. The two positions above form a Kantian dichotomy, and as in all such cases, both positions affirm something true, and both positions affirm something false. In this particular case, the nominalist acts as the Kantian, noting that universality is a mode of knowing, and therefore concludes that it is a mere appearance. The Platonic Realist acts as the anti-Kantian, noting that we can know that several things are in fact black, and concluding that universality is a mode of being as such.

But while universality is a way of knowing, existing together is a way of being, and is responsible for the way of knowing. In a similar way, seeing both my chair and keyboard at the same time is a way of seeing things, but this way of seeing is possible because they are here together in the room. Likewise, I can know that both are black, but this knowledge is only possible because they exist together “in” the color black. What does this mean, exactly? Since we are discussing sensible qualities, things are both in the room and black by having certain relationships with my senses. They exist together in those relationships with my senses.

There is no big difference when I ask about ideas. If we ask what two dogs have in common in virtue of both being dogs, what they have in common is a similar relationship to my understanding. They exist together in that relationship with my understanding.

It might be objected that this is circular. Even if what is in common is a relationship, there is still something in common, and that seems to remain unexplained. Two red objects have a certain relationship of “appearing red” to my eyes, but then do we have two things, or three? The two red things, or the two red things and the relationship of “appearing red”? Or is it four things: two red things, and their two relationships of appearing red? So which is it?

Again, there is no difference between these questions and asking whether a table is really on the left or really on the right. It is both, relative to different things, and likewise all three of these methods of counting are valid, depending on what you want to count. As I have said elsewhere, there are no hidden essences, no “true” count, no “how many things are really there?

“Existing together,” however, is a reality, and is not merely a mode of knowing. This provides another way to analyze the problem with the nominalist / Platonic realist opposition. Both arguments falsely assume that existing together is either logically derivative or non-existent. As I said in the post on existential relativity,  it is impossible to deduce the conclusion that many things exist from a list of premises each affirming that a single thing exists, if only because “many things” does not occur as a term in that list. The nominalist position cannot explain the evident fact that both things are black. Likewise, even if there are three things, the two objects and “black,” this would not explain why the two objects are black. The two objects are not the third, since there are three. So there must be yet another object, perhaps called “participation”, which connects the two objects and blackness. And since they both have participation, there must be yet another object, participation in general, in which both objects are also participating. Obviously none of this is helping: the problem was the assumption from the start that togetherness (whether in place, time, or color) could be something logically derivative.

(Postscript: the reader might notice that in the linked post on “in,” I said that a thing is considered to be in something as form in matter. This seems odd in the context of this post, since we are talking about being “in a color,” and a color would not normally be thought of as material, but as formal. But this simply corresponds with the fact that it would be more usual to say that the color black is in the chair, rather than the chair in the black. This is because it is actually more correct: the color black is formal with respect to the chair, not material. But when we ask, “what things can come in the color black,” we do think of black as though it were a kind of formless matter that could take various determinate forms.)

Necessary Connection

In Chapter 7 of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume says about the idea of “necessary connection”:

We have looked at every possible source for an idea of power or necessary connection, and have found nothing. However hard we look at an isolated physical episode, it seems, we can never discover discover anything but one event following another; we never find any force or power by which the cause operates, or any connection between it and its supposed effect. The same holds for the influence of mind on body: the mind wills, and then the body moves, and we observe both events; but we don’t observe– and can’t even conceive– the tie that binds the volition to the motion, i.e. the energy by which the mind causes the body to move. And the power of the will over its own faculties and ideas– i.e. over the mind, as distinct from the body– is no more comprehensible. Summing up, then: throughout the whole of nature there seems not to be a single instance of connection that is conceivable by us. All events seem to be entirely loose and separate. One event follows another, but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem associated, but never connected. And as we can have no idea of anything that never appeared as an impression to our outward sense or inward feeling, we are forced to conclude that we have no idea of ‘connection’ or ‘power’ at all, and that those words– as used in philosophical reasonings or in common life– have absolutely no meaning.

This is not Hume’s final word on the matter, as we will see below, so this has to be taken with a grain of salt, even as a representation of his opinion. Nonetheless, consider this caricature of what he just said:

We have looked at every possible source for an idea of mduvvqi or pdnfhvdkdddd, and have found nothing. However hard we look at an isolated physical episode, it seems, we can never discover anything but events that can be described by perfectly ordinary words; we never find any mduvvqi involved, nor any pdnfhvkdddd.

We could take this to be making the point that “mduvvqi” and “pdnfhvdkdddd” are not words. Other than that, however, the paragraph itself is meaningless, precisely because those “words” are meaningless. It certainly does not make any deep (or shallow for that matter) metaphysical or physical point, nor any special point about the human mind. But Hume’s text is different, and the difference in question is a warning sign of Kantian confusion. If those words had “absolutely no meaning,” in fact, there would be no difference between Hume’s passage and our caricature. Those words are not meaningless, but meaningful, and Hume is even analyzing their meaning in order to supposedly determine that the words are meaningless.

Hume’s analysis in fact proceeds more or less in the following way. We know what it means to say that something is necessary, and it is not the same as saying that the thing always happens. Every human being we have ever seen was less than 20 feet tall. But is it necessary that human beings be less than 20 feet tall? This is a different question, and while we can easily experience someone’s being less than 20 feet tall, it is very difficult to see how we could possibly experience the necessity of this fact, if it is necessary. Hume concludes: we cannot possibly experience the necessity of it. Therefore we can have no idea of such necessity.

But Hume has just contradicted himself: it was precisely by understanding the concept of necessity that he was able to see the difficulty in the idea of experiencing necessity.

Nonetheless, as I said, this is not his final conclusion. A little later he gives a more nuanced account:

The source of this idea of a necessary connection among events seems to be a number of similar instances of the regular pairing of events of these two kinds; and the idea cannot be prompted by any one of these instances on its own, however comprehensively we examine it. But what can a number of instances contain that is different from any single instance that is supposed to be exactly like them? Only that when the mind experiences many similar instances, it acquires a habit of expectation: the repetition of the pattern affects it in such a way that when it observes an event of one of the two kinds it expects an event of the other kind to follow. So the feeling or impression from which we derive our idea of power or necessary connection is a feeling of connection in the mind– a feeling that accompanies the imagination’s habitual move from observing one event to expecting another of the kind that usually follows it. That’s all there is to it. Study the topic from all angles; you will never find any other origin for that idea.

Before we say more, we should concede that this is far more sensible than the claim that the idea of necessity “has absolutely no meaning.” Hume is now conceding that it does have meaning, but claiming that the meaning is about us, not about the thing. When we see someone knock a glass off a table, we perhaps feel a certainty that it will fall and hit the floor. Experiencing that feeling of certainty, he says, is the source of the idea of “necessity.” This is not an unreasonable hypothesis.

However, Hume is also implicitly making a metaphysical argument here which is somewhat less sensible. Our feelings of certainty and uncertainty are subjective qualities of our minds, he suggests, not objective features of the things. Therefore necessity as an objective feature does not and cannot exist. This is not unrelated to his mistaken claim that we cannot know that the future will be similar to the past, even with probability.

What is the correct account here? In fact we already know, from the beginning of the conversation, that “necessary” and “possible” are meaningful words. We also know that in fact we use them to describe objective features of the world. But which features? Attempting to answer this question is where Hume’s approach is pretty sensible. Hume is not mistaken that all of our knowledge is from experience, and ultimately from the senses. He seems to identify experience with sense experience too simplistically, but he is not mistaken that all experience is at least somewhat similar to sense experience; feeling sure that two and two make four is not utterly unlike seeing something red. We want to say that there is something in common there, “something it is like,” to experience one or the other. But if this is the case, it would be reasonable to extend what we said about the senses to intellectual experiences. “The way red looks” cannot, as such, be an objective feature of a thing, but a thing can be objectively red, in such a way that “being red,” together with the nature of the senses, explains why a thing looks red. In a similar way, certainty and uncertainty, insofar as they are ways we experience the world, cannot be objective features of the world as such. Nonetheless, something can be objectively necessary or uncertain, in such a way that “being necessary” or otherwise, together with the nature of our minds, explains why it seems certain or uncertain to us.

There will be a similarity, however. The true nature of red might be quite strange in comparison to the experience of seeing red, as for example it might consist of surface reflectance properties. In a similar way, the true nature of necessity, once it is explained, might be quite strange to us compared to the experience of being certain or uncertain. But that it can be explained is quite certain itself, since the opposite claim would fall into Hume’s original absurdity. There are no hidden essences.

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.

Reductionist vs Anti-Reductionist Dichotomy

I started this post with a promise to return to issues raised by this earlier one. I haven’t really done so, or at least not as I intended, basically because it simply turned out that there was still too much to discuss, some but not all of which I discussed in the last two posts. I am still not ready to return to those original issues. However, the purpose of this post is to keep the promise to explain the relevance of my rejection of both reductionism and anti-reductionism to my account of form. To some extent this has already been done, but a clearer account is possible.

Before going through this kind of consideration, I expect almost everyone to accept implicitly or explicitly an account which maintains one or the other side of this false dichotomy. And consequently, I expect almost everyone to find my account of form objectionable.

Reductionists in general will simply deny the existence of form: there is nothing that makes a thing one, because nothing is actually one. We might respond that if you are reducing things to something else, say to quarks, there still must be something that makes a quark one. The reductionist is likely to respond that a quark is one of itself, and does not need anything else to make it one. And indeed, you might satisfy the general definition of form in such a way, but at that point you are probably discussing words rather than the world: the question of form comes up in the first place because we wonder about the unity of things composed of parts. Thus, at any rate, the most a reductionist will concede is, “Sure, in theory you can use that definition.” But they will add, “But it is a badly formed concept that will mostly lead people away from the truth.” The error here is analogous to that of Parmenides.

Anti-reductionists will admit the existence of form, but they will reject this account, or any other account which one actually explains in detail, because their position implicitly or explicitly requires the existence of hidden essences. The basic idea is that form should make a thing so absolutely one that you cannot break it down into several things even when you are explaining it. It is very obvious that this makes explanation impossible, since any account contains many words referring to many aspects of a thing. I mentioned Bertrand Russell’s remark that science does not explain the “intrinsic character” of matter. Note that this is precisely because every account, insofar as it is an account, is formal, and form is a network of relationships. It simply is not an “intrinsic character” at all, insofar as this is something distinct from such a network. Anti-reductionism posits form as such an intrinsic character, and as such, it requires the existence of a hidden essence that cannot be known in principle. The error here is basically that of Kant.

There is something in common to the two errors, which one might put like this: Nature is in the business of counting things. There must be one final, true answer to the question, “How many things are here?” which is not only true, but excludes all other answers as false. This cannot be the case, however, for the reasons explained in the post just linked. To number things at all, whether as many or as one, is to apply a particular mode of understanding, not to present their mode of being as such.

I expect both reductionists and anti-reductionists to criticize my account at first as one which belongs to the opposite side of this dichotomy. And if they are made aware that it does not, I expect them to criticize it as anti-realist. It is not, or at any rate not in a standard sense: I reject this kind of anti-realism. If it is anti-realist, it is anti-realist in a much more reasonable way, namely about “not being something,” or about distinction. If one thing is not another, that “not another” may be a true attribution, but it is not something “out there” in the world. While the position of Parmenides overall is mistaken, he was not mistaken about the particular point that non-being is not being.

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.