Form and Reality II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Ether Ether divine, by Fire destructive Fire,

By Love Love, and Hate by cruel Hate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

It Is The Way It Seems To Be

As another approach to the issues in the last post, we might consider the meaning of the above phrase, “It is the way it seems to be.” What does “the way” modify in “it seems to be”?

If it modifies “seems,” then the meaning is: “In some way of seeming, something seems to be. In that way of seeming, it is.” And this is false, since it attributes a way of seeming directly to the being of things in themselves. “It is not the way it seems to be,” in this particular way, is the Kantian truth in the previous post, and Kant rightly said that it would be a contradiction for things to be the way they seem in this sense.

If it modifies “to be,” then the meaning is: “Something seems to be in some way of being. In that way of being, it is.” And this is quite often true, although not in every case, since people can be misled. “It is not the way it seems to be,” in this particular way, is the Kantian error in the previous post.

As I said there, Kant may not have clearly understood the distinction, or he may have accepted both the truth and the error. But his opinion is not important in any case. Nonetheless, we can see why even the Kantian truth is disconcerting to some people. Consider the above applied to an example. “The banana seems to be yellow.” In the natural understanding of this, “yellow” belongs with “to be,” so that the banana seems to actually be yellow, and there is nothing from preventing things from being the way they seem here: the banana seems to be yellow, and it is in fact yellow.

But we could reinterpret the sentence to discuss the way of seeming as such. Perhaps we should also rephrase the sentence, saying something like, “The banana seems yellowishly to be something,” where now “yellowishly” refers to something specific about the way of seeming, along the lines of qualia. In this case, it is quite impossible for the banana to be yellowishly, because this would mean that a way of seeming would be in itself a way of being — the situation Kant described as asserting that experience itself exists independently from experience.

Why might one still find the above disconcerting? Perhaps it is because if we ask “why does the banana seem to be yellow?”, one wishes to respond, “Because it is in fact yellow,” and the answer is quite appropriate. But if we ask, “Why does the banana seem yellowishly to be something?”, we cannot respond, “Because the banana is yellowishly,” because this is false, and likewise if we respond, “because the banana is yellow,” the response will seem inadequate. It does not fully explain why it appears yellowishly.

But this is quite correct, and in this respect Kant saw the truth. A yellow banana would not appear “yellowishly” to every animal, and thus “because it is yellow,” is in fact an inadequate explanation for its appearance, even if it is part of the explanation. Part of the explanation must refer to the animal as well. And Kant is quite right that we can make no distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities here. If we ask why a body appears to be extended, “because it is extended,” is a quite appropriate answer. But if we ask why a body appears extendedly to us, “because it is extended,” is part of the answer, but insufficient. Another part of the answer might be that we are extended ourselves, and the parts of our organs can receive parts of an image. Things might well seem extended to a partless intellect, but they would not seem extendedly.

Thing In Itself

The last two posts might feel uncomfortably close to total skepticism. “Wait,” you might say, “doesn’t this seem to imply that we don’t know anything about the real world, but only about our experiences?”

We can consider a similar claim with a similar argument, taken from Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (§52c):

If I speak of objects in time and space, I am not speaking of things in themselves (since I know nothing of them), but only of things in appearance, i.e. of experience as a distinct way of cognizing objects that is granted to human beings alone. I must not say of that which I think in space or time: that it is in itself in space and time, independent of this thought of mine; for then I would contradict myself, since space and time, together with the appearances in them, are nothing existing in themselves and outside my representations, but are themselves only ways of representing, and it is patently contradictory to say of a mere way of presenting that it also exists outside our representation. The objects of the senses therefore exist only in experience; by contrast, to grant them a self-subsistent existence of their own, without experience or prior to it, is as much as to imagine that experience is also real without experience or prior to it.

There could be a way of understanding this to say something true, but it is more easily understood as asserting something deeply erroneous. Kant may in fact have both the truth and the error in mind, or perhaps he is ambivalent concerning the correct interpretation.

Consider the distinction between the way things are known by us and the way things are in themselves. It is possible to fall into error by asserting that since things are known by us in a certain way, they must be that way in themselves. Thus we know things in a general way, and thus some Platonists might conclude that things exist in themselves in a general way, but this is an error.

But another way to fall into error would be to admit that our way of knowing is distinct from the way of being, and then to conclude from the fact that our way of knowing does not correspond precisely to the way of being, that our knowledge is false, or that we do not know at all. This is the deeply erroneous claim that Kant seems to be making above.

Consider the meaning of the statement: “We know things as they are in themselves.” If we take the phrase, “as they are in themselves,” as expressing our mode of knowing adverbially, just as we might say “We know things in general terms,” and then intend to assert that our mode of knowing is the same as the mode of the being of the thing, then the statement that we know things as they are in themselves is surely false. For the meaning would be that the things exist in our knowledge in exactly the same way as they exist in themselves — thus for example it would be implied that our knowledge is not general but particular. But more precisely, it would imply that there is no distinction whatsoever between our knowledge and the thing. In other words, if we know a horse, our knowledge is actually a horse, physically and literally. And this is manifestly false.

From this we can see both the truth and the error. The truth is that we do not know things as they are in themselves in the above sense, precisely because our knowledge is distinct from the thing known. And the error would be the conclusion that therefore we do not know things at all. Kant seems most clearly to assert the error when he says, “I am not speaking of things in themselves (since I know nothing of them), but only of things in appearance.” The Kantian may insist that this follows necessarily from the truth that we do not know things as they are in themselves in the above sense.

But it is easy to see why this is wrong. We do not know things “as they are in themselves” by having a mode of knowledge identical to the mode of their being. But this does not mean that there is anything that we do not know; in fact, having an identical mode of knowing and being would precisely mean not knowing at all, but being the thing instead. In other words, it does not follow that there is any knowledge that we are missing out on; on the contrary, knowing requires a specific mode of knowing which is different from the mode of being of the thing. It is not that the difference between mode of knowing and being implies that we do not know, but rather this difference is the very condition for knowledge to exist at all. Ayn Rand rightly said of this matter:

Even apart from the fact that Kant’s theory of the “categories” as the source of man’s concepts was a preposterous invention, his argument amounted to a negation, not only of man’s consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such. His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; 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.

Again, the Kantian may insist that perhaps we know the things. But again, we are just admitting we know the things as they appear to us, not as they are in themselves. So even if we know all things, we do not know their mode of being. The response is that we can know both the things and their mode of being, but we know both according to our mode of knowing, not according to their mode of being. This is similar to knowing someone else’s mode of knowing; when you do this, you do not therefore know with their mode of knowing, but with your own. Likewise, when you know the mode of the being of things, you know not with their mode of being, but with your own mode of knowing.

How does this answer our original question? Okay, you might say, there is no proof that there is anything that we cannot know in principle. But in practice it seems clear that our knowledge is entirely superficial, and thus hardly seems to be knowledge at all.

There is a large difference, however, between the assertion, “Most of our actual knowledge is rather superficial,” and the skeptical assertion, “Our knowledge is superficial in principle, and it is therefore impossible to know things as they truly are.” The first assertion is largely correct, and the second is quite wrong. It is true that the understanding of things that we attain “automatically,” as it were, from common experience, is a superficial knowledge, and thus ordinary language about ordinary things expresses such a superficial knowledge. It does not follow that a deep knowledge of things is impossible. However, if someone does not actually have such a deep knowledge, they may also misunderstand what it would even be like to have such a knowledge; and thus for example they might suppose that it would be necessary to have a knowledge of “things in themselves” in the Kantian sense, which of course is impossible, since it would eliminate the distinction between the mode of knowing and the mode of being.

In fact, not only is it not a contradiction to assert that we can know things as they are, but it would be a contradiction to assert, “There is something which we cannot know in any way, even in principle.” For “there is something” purports to refer to the thing and assert its existence, and such reference and assertion, if true, would be a kind of knowledge. Ludwig Wittgenstein makes the similar point, “We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either.”

It is not, however, a contradiction to say that there are some things that we cannot know in some ways. And this is surely true.

Is and Ought

In Book III of his Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume argues that reason and morality are completely independent:

Reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood. Truth or falsehood consists in an agreement or disagreement either with the real relations of ideas, or with real existence and matter of fact. So anything that isn’t capable of this agreement or disagreement isn’t capable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason. Now, our passions, volitions, and actions are basic facts and realities; they are complete in themselves and aren’t in any way about other passions, volitions, and actions; so they aren’t capable of either of those sorts of agreement or disagreement; so they can’t be sorted into ‘true’ and ‘false’, and can’t be either in conflict with reason or in accord with it.

It is true that an action is not true or false, nor can it be the conclusion of an argument. And in that sense there is some separation between action and reason, as Hume says here. Nonetheless, Hume intends to imply something more, namely that reason cannot tell us what we should do. If reason can tell us what we should do, then doing something else instead is an action in conflict with reason, even though it is not a false statement.

Later, Hume clarifies his position:

I can’t forbear adding an observation that may be found of some importance. In every system of morality I have met with I have noticed that the author proceeds for some time reasoning in the ordinary way to establish the existence of a God, or making points about human affairs, and then he suddenly surprises me by moving from propositions with the usual copula ‘is’ (or ‘is not’) to ones that are connected by ‘ought’ (or ‘ought not’). This seems like a very small change, but it is highly important. For as this ‘ought’ (or ‘ought not’) expresses some new relation or affirmation, it needs to be pointed out and explained; and a reason should be given for how this new relation can be—inconceivably!—a deduction from others that are entirely different from it. Authors don’t ordinarily take the trouble to do this, so I recommend it to you; and I’m convinced that paying attention to this one small matter will subvert all the vulgar systems of morality and let us see that the distinction between vice and virtue is not based merely on the relations of objects, and is not perceived by reason.

Hume suggests that it is “inconceivable” that a statement involving the word “ought” would derive from statements without that word. This can be taken as a mere point of logic: the conclusion of a syllogism will not contain a term which is not contained in the premises. But if we understand it in this way, his point is true but rather unimportant, at least in relation to his argument about morality. For the same thing is true of all terms. In the statement, “Trees have leaves and branches,” the word “trees” cannot possibly be logically derived from statements that do not mention trees. It does not follow that statements about trees are somehow cut off from all the rest of reality. It does not even follow that people cannot explain what they mean by a “tree.” Someone can explain this by referring to various fairly common experiences that people have.

So as a logical point, this proves nothing in particular about morality, although it is a partial explanation for the difficulty of philosophy. I pointed out in the discussion of Spinoza’s Ethics that the fact that philosophy wishes to speak about reality in general implies that it must use a practically unlimited number of terms, and consequently that it cannot be built up as a formal system like geometry.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses ethics as a kind of art which aims at an end:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.

If we understand ethics in this way, this explains what is meant by saying that something “ought” to be done, because we know what is meant when we say, for example, “If you want to attach those boards with a nail, you ought to use a hammer.” This implies that a hammer is useful, or perhaps even necessary, in relation to the goal in question. In fact, “ought” is sometimes replaced with “must,” which is a word directly expressing necessity.

Of course, “you must use a hammer” does not imply that there is a physical necessity that you use a hammer, so that you cannot avoid using one. The necessity is a hypothetical one: given that you are going to obtain the end, you must use a hammer. If you do not use a hammer, you will not obtain the end.

This explains, in a certain way, why Hume has difficulty with the point. A repeated concern in his work is that he cannot see a way to understand the idea of necessity. He says for example that he has a hard time understanding any “necessary connection” between cause and effect:

Having thus explained how we reason beyond our immediate impressions, and conclude that such and such causes must have such and such effects, we must now retrace our steps and pick up again the question that first occurred to us, and that we dropped along the way (near the end of section 2). The question is: What is our idea of necessity, when we say that two objects are necessarily connected? As I have often said already, if we claim to have such an idea we must find some impression that gives rise to it, because we have no idea that isn’t derived from an impression. So I ask myself: In what objects is necessity commonly supposed to lie? And finding that it is always ascribed to causes and effects, I turn my attention to two objects that are supposed to be related as cause and effect, and examine them in all the situations in which they can occur. I see at once that they are contiguous in time and place, and that the one we call ‘cause’ precedes the one we call ‘effect’. In no instance can I go any further: I can’t find any third relation between these objects.

He does go on to say that there is something else, but in turns out to be something like the vividness with which the mind expects the effect, or in other words, a property of the mind, not of the causes and effects. Similar concerns lead him to deny the possibility of probable knowledge about the future, and here to effectively deny the possibility of the knowledge of morals. If moral knowledge consists in knowing that something must be done, even for the sake of an end, then according to Hume, it is not possible to know this. If we cannot even know that the sun will rise tomorrow, we also cannot know that we need to use a hammer in order to attach two boards.

Aristotle’s account of ethics is, I think, the correct account. But people find it troubling, mostly because they suspect that it has unlikely or unpleasant implications. If saying that you “ought” to do something only means that you must do it in order to obtain a certain end, what if you do not care about that end? There will no longer be a need to do that thing. Likewise, if you do want certain ends, then perhaps you ought to do certain things which we really think you ought not do. For example, if you want to inherit money, perhaps you ought to murder your elderly relatives. But this consequence is absurd: of course you ought not to murder your relatives.

In order to be sure e.g. that you ought not to murder your relatives, regardless of what ends you have in mind, people prefer something like Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives. I will not discuss Kant’s moral philosophy in detail at the moment, nor am I necessarily asserting that the usual understanding of his philosophy is correct. But the usual idea is that the rule is absolute: “you must not kill” is not relative to an end, but stands in itself.

This seems to me to be a mistake, and one where Hume’s criticism would be valid. There is obviously no physical necessity that you abstain from killing. It is quite possible to kill people, and it is sometimes done. So if you say that you “must” not kill, and you do not refer to hypothetical necessity, to what do you refer? There does not seem to be anything left here. And this is probably the motivation behind error theory. The obvious interpretation of the theory is that it is saying, “I do not believe in right and wrong.” In reality, however, it seems to be based on the mistaken assumption that right and wrong refer to something like categorical imperatives, and then it proceeds to rightly deny the existence of these things. For no one except an actual follower of Hume would deny the existence of hypothetical necessity, namely that if you want to obtain certain ends, you must use certain means. In this sense, error theory is mistaken, but it is mistaken much in the way that Richard Dawkins is mistaken to suppose that theists intend to speak of something complex when they speak of God.

The objection to Aristotelian ethics, then, is that it is too flexible, and may ultimately imply that people may do whatever they want. I would respond to this by making two claims, although I will not establish their truth in this post.

First, the truth about ethics is in fact more flexible than people suppose. If you take extremely complex situations, the moral truth about those situations will be complicated, not simple.

Second, the truth about ethics is less flexible than people tend to suppose would follow from an Aristotelian account. It does not follow in any meaningful way, for example, that it is sometimes fine to murder your relatives in order to obtain an inheritance.