Structure of Explanation

When we explain a thing, we give a cause; we assign the thing an origin that explains it.

We can go into a little more detail here. When we ask “why” something is the case, there is always an implication of possible alternatives. At the very least, the question implies, “Why is this the case rather than not being the case?” Thus “being the case” and “not being the case” are two possible alternatives.

The alternatives can be seen as possibilities in the sense explained in an earlier post. There may or may not be any actual matter involved, but again, the idea is that reality (or more specifically some part of reality) seems like something that would be open to being formed in one way or another, and we are asking why it is formed in one particular way rather than the other way. “Why is it raining?” In principle, the sky is open to being clear, or being filled with clouds and a thunderstorm, and to many other possibilities.

A successful explanation will be a complete explanation when it says “once you take the origin into account, the apparent alternatives were only apparent, and not really possible.” It will be a partial explanation when it says, “once you take the origin into account, the other alternatives were less sensible (i.e. made less sense as possibilities) than the actual thing.”

Let’s consider some examples in the form of “why” questions and answers.

Q1. Why do rocks fall? (e.g. instead of the alternatives of hovering in the air, going upwards, or anything else.)

A1. Gravity pulls things downwards, and rocks are heavier than air.

The answer gives an efficient cause, and once this cause is taken into account, it can be seen that hovering in the air or going upwards were not possibilities relative to that cause.

Obviously there is not meant to be a deep explanation here; the point here is to discuss the structure of explanation. The given answer is in fact basically Newton’s answer (although he provided more mathematical detail), while with general relativity Einstein provided a better explanation.

The explanation is incomplete in several ways. It is not a first cause; someone can now ask, “Why does gravity pull things downwards, instead of upwards or to the side?” Similarly, while it is in fact the cause of falling rocks, someone can still ask, “Why didn’t anything else prevent gravity from making the rocks fall?” This is a different question, and would require a different answer, but it seems to reopen the possibility of the rocks hovering or moving upwards, from a more general point of view. David Hume was in part appealing to the possibility of such additional questions when he said that we can see no necessary connection between cause and effect.

Q2. Why is 7 prime? (i.e. instead of the alternative of not being prime.)

A2. 7/2 = 3.5, so 7 is not divisible by 2. 7/3 = 2.333…, so 7 is not divisible by 3. In a similar way, it is not divisible by 4, 5, or 6. Thus in general it is not divisible by any number except 1 and itself, which is what it means to be prime.

If we assumed that the questioner did not know what being prime means, we could have given a purely formal response simply by noting that it is not divisible by numbers between 1 and itself, and explaining that this is what it is to be prime. As it is, the response gives a sufficient material disposition. Relative to this explanation, “not being prime,” was never a real possibility for 7 in the first place. The explanation is complete in that it completely excludes the apparent alternative.

Q3. Why did Peter go to the store? (e.g. instead of going to the park or the museum, or instead of staying home.)

A3. He went to the store in order to buy groceries.

The answer gives a final cause. In view of this cause the alternatives were merely apparent. Going to the park or the museum, or even staying home, were not possible since there were no groceries there.

As in the case of the rock, the explanation is partial in several ways. Someone can still ask, “Why did he want groceries?” And again someone can ask why he didn’t go to some other store, or why something didn’t hinder him, and so on. Such questions seem to reopen various possibilities, and thus the explanation is not an ultimately complete one.

Suppose, however, that someone brings up the possibility that instead of going to the store, he could have gone to his neighbor and offered money for groceries in his neighbor’s refrigerator. This possibility is not excluded simply by the purpose of buying groceries. Nonetheless, the possibility seems less sensible than getting them from the store, for multiple reasons. Again, the implication is that our explanation is only partial: it does not completely exclude alternatives, but it makes them less sensible.

Let’s consider a weirder question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Now the alternatives are explicit, namely there being something, and there being nothing.

It can be seen that in one sense, as I said in the linked post, the question cannot have an answer, since there cannot be a cause or origin for “there is something” which would itself not be something. Nonetheless, if we consider the idea of possible alternatives, it is possible to see that the question does not need an answer; one of the alternatives was only an apparent alternative all along.

In other words, the sky can be open to being clear or cloudy. But there cannot be something which is open both to “there is something” and “there is nothing”, since any possibility of that kind would be “something which is open…”, which would already be something rather than nothing. The “nothing” alternative was merely apparent. Nothing was ever open to there being nothing.

Let’s consider another weird question. Suppose we throw a ball, and in the middle of the path we ask, Why is the ball in the middle of the path instead of at the end of the path?

We could respond in terms of a sufficient material disposition: it is in the middle of the path because you are asking your question at the middle, instead of waiting until the end.

Suppose the questioner responds: Look, I asked my question at the middle of the path. But that was just chance. I could have asked at any moment, including at the end. So I want to know why it was in the middle without considering when I am asking the question.

If we look at the question in this way, it can be seen in one way that no cause or origin can be given. Asked in this way, being at the end cannot be excluded, since they could have asked their question at the end. But like the question about something rather than nothing, the question does not need an answer. In this case, this is not because the alternatives were merely apparent in the sense that one was possible and the other not. But they were merely apparent in the sense that they were not alternatives. The ball goes both goes through the middle, and reaches the end. With the stipulation that we not consider the time of the question, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

The above considerations about the nature of “explanation” lead to various conclusions, but also to various new questions. For example, one commenter suggested that “explanation” is merely subjective. Now as I said there, all experience is subjective experience (what would “objective experience” even mean, except that someone truly had a subjective experience?), including the experience of having an explanation. Nonetheless, the thing experienced is not subjective: the origins that we call explanations objectively exclude the apparent possibilities, or objectively make them less intelligible. The explanation of explanation here, however, provides an answer to what was perhaps the implicit question. Namely, why are we so interested in explanations in the first place, so that the experience of understanding something becomes a particularly special type of experience? Why, as Aristotle puts it, do “all men desire to know,” and why is that desire particularly satisfied by explanations?

In one sense it is sufficient simply to say that understanding is good in itself. Nonetheless, there is something particular about the structure of a human being that makes knowledge good for us, and which makes explanation a particularly desirable form of knowledge. In my employer and employee model of human psychology, I said that “the whole company is functioning well overall when the CEO’s goal of accurate prediction is regularly being achieved.” This very obviously requires knowledge, and explanation is especially beneficial because it excludes alternatives, which reduces uncertainty and therefore tends to make prediction more accurate.

However, my account also raises new questions. If explanation eliminates alternatives, what would happen if everything was explained? We could respond that “explaining everything” is not possible in the first place, but this is probably an inadequate response, because (from the linked argument) we only know that we cannot explain everything all at once, the way the person in the room cannot draw everything at once; we do not know that there is any particular thing that cannot be explained, just as there is no particular aspect of the room that cannot be drawn. So there can still be a question about what would happen if every particular thing in fact has an explanation, even if we cannot know all the explanations at once. In particular, since explanation eliminates alternatives, does the existence of explanations imply that there are not really any alternatives? This would suggest something like Leibniz’s argument that the actual world is the best possible world. It is easy to see that such an idea implies that there was only one “possibility” in the first place: Leibniz’s “best possible world” would be rather “the only possible world,” since the apparent alternatives, given that they would have been worse, were not real alternatives in the first place.

On the other hand, if we suppose that this is not the case, and there are ultimately many possibilities, does this imply the existence of “brute facts,” things that could have been otherwise, but which simply have no explanation? Or at least things that have no complete explanation?

Let the reader understand. I have already implicitly answered these questions. However, I will not link here to the implicit answers because if one finds it unclear when and where this was done, one would probably also find those answers unclear and inconclusive. Of course it is also possible that the reader does see when this was done, but still believes those responses inadequate. In any case, it is possible to provide the answers in a form which is much clearer and more conclusive, but this will likely not be a short or simple project.

Violations of Bell’s Inequality: Drawing Conclusions

In the post on violations of Bell’s inequality, represented there by Mark Alford’s twin analogy, I pointed out that things did not seem to go very well for Einstein’s hope for physics, I did not draw any specific conclusions. Here I will consider the likely consequences, first by looking at the relationship of the experiments to Einstein’s position on causality and determinism, and second on their relationship to Einstein’s position on locality and action at a distance.

Einstein on Determinism

Einstein hoped for “facts” instead of probabilities. Everything should be utterly fixed by the laws, much like the position recently argued by Marvin Edwards in the comments here.

On the face of it, violations of Bell’s inequality rule this out, represented by the argument that if the twins had pre-existing determinate plans, it would be impossible for them to give the same answer less than 1/3 of the time when they are asked different questions. Bell however pointed out that it is possible to formulate a deterministic theory which would give similar probabilities at the cost of positing action at a distance (quoted here):

Moreover, a hidden variable interpretation of elementary quantum theory has been explicitly constructed. That particular interpretation has indeed a grossly non-local structure. This is characteristic, according to the result to be proved here, of any such theory which reproduces exactly the quantum mechanical predictions.

Nonetheless, I have set aside action at a distance to be discussed separately, and I would argue that we should accept the above surface appearance: the outcomes of quantum mechanical experiments are actually indeterministic. These probabilities represent something in the world, not merely something in our knowledge.

Why? In the first place, note that “reproduces exactly the quantum mechanical predictions” can be understood in two ways. A deterministic theory of that kind would say that because the details are unknown to us, we cannot know what is going to happen. But the details are there, and they in fact determine what is going to happen. There is still a difference on the object level between a world where the present fixes the future to a single possibility, and one in which the future is left open, as Aristotle supposed.

Of course there is no definitive proof here that we are actually in the situation with the open future, although the need for action at a distance in the alternative theory suggests that we are. Even apart from this, however, the general phenomena of quantum mechanics directly suggest that this is the situation. Even apart from violations of Bell’s inequality, quantum mechanics in general already looked exactly as we should have expected a world with an indeterminate future to look.

If this is the case, then Einstein was mistaken on this point, at least to this extent. But what about the deterministic aspect, which I mentioned at the end of this post, and which Schrödinger describes:

At all events it is an imagined entity that images the blurring of all variables at every moment just as clearly and faithfully as does the classical model its sharp numerical values. Its equation of motion too, the law of its time variation, so long as the system is left undisturbed, lags not one iota, in clarity and determinacy, behind the equations of motion of the classical model.

The answer is that this is deterministic not because the future, as we know it, is deterministic, but because it describes all of the possibilities at once. Thus in the case of the cat it includes both the cat living and the cat dying, which are two possible outcomes. It is “deterministic” only because once you have stated all of the alternatives, there is nothing left to say.

Why did Einstein want a deterministic theory? He openly admits that he does not have a convincing argument for it. It seems likely, however, that the fundamental motivation is the conviction that reality is intelligible. And an indeterministic world seems significantly less intelligible than a deterministic one. But this desire can in fact be satisfied by this second kind of “determinism”; thus Schrödinger calls it “one perfectly clear concept.”

In this respect, Einstein’s intuition was not mistaken. It is possible to give an intelligible account of the world, even a “deterministic” one, in this sense.

Einstein on Locality

Einstein also wanted to avoid “spooky action at a distance.” Admitting that the future is indeterminate, however, is not enough to avoid this conclusion. In Mark Alford’s twin analogy, it is not only pre-determined plans that fail, but also plans that involve randomness. Thus it first appears that the violations of Bell’s inequality absolutely require action at a distance.

If we follow my suggestion here, however, and consequently adopt Hugh Everett’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, then saying that there are multiple future possibilities implies the existence of multiple timelines. And if there are multiple timelines, violations of Bell’s inequality no longer necessarily imply action at a distance.

Why not? Consider the twin experiment with the assumption of indeterminacy and multiple timelines. Suppose that from the very beginning, there are two copies of each twin. The first copy of the first twin has the plan of responding to the three questions with “yes/yes/yes.” Likewise, the first copy of the second twin has the plan of responding to the three questions with, “yes/yes/yes.” In contrast, the second copy of each twin has the plan of responding with “no/no/no.”

Now we have four twins but the experimenter only sees two. So which ones does he see? There is nothing impossible about the following “rule”: if the twins are asked different questions, the experimenter sees the first copy of one of the twins, and the second copy of the other twin. Meanwhile, if the twins are asked the same question, the experimenter sees either the first copy of each twin, or the second copy of each twin. It is easy to see that if this is the case, the experimenter will see the twins agree, when they are asked the same question, and will see them disagree when they are asked different questions (thus agreeing less than 1/3 of the time in that situation.)

“Wait,” you will say. “If multiple timelines is just a way of describing a situation with indeterminism, and indeterminism is not enough to avoid action at a distance, how is it possible for multiple timelines to give a way out?”

From the beginning, the apparent “impossibility” of the outcome was a statistical impossibility, not a logical impossibility. Naturally this had to be the case, since if it were a logical impossibility, we could not have coherently described the actual outcomes. Thus we might imagine that David Hume would give this answer:

The twins are responding randomly to each question. By pure chance, they happened to agree the times they were asked the same question, and by pure chance they violated Bell’s inequality when they were asked different questions.

Since this was all a matter of pure chance, of course, if you do the experiment again tomorrow, it will turn out that all of the answers are random and they will agree and disagree 50% of the time on all questions.

And this answer is logically possible, but false. This account does not explain the correlation, but simply ignores it. In a similar way, the reason why indeterministic theories without action at a distance, but described as having a single timeline, cannot explain the results is that in order to explain the correlation, the outcomes of both sides need to be selected together, so to speak. But “without action at a distance” in this context simply means that they are not selected together. This makes the outcome statistically impossible.

In our multiple timelines version, in contrast, our “rule” above in effect selected the outcomes together. In other words, the guideline we gave regarding which pairs of twins the experimenter would meet, had the same effect as action at a distance.

How is all this an explanation? The point is that the particular way that timelines spread out when they come into contact with other things, in the version with multiple timelines, exactly corresponds to action at a distance, in the version without them. An indeterministic theory represented as having a single timeline and no action at a distance could be directly translated into a version with multiple timelines; but if we did that, this particular multiple timeline version would not have the rule that produces the correct outcomes. And on the other hand, if we start with the multiple timeline version that does have the rule, and translate it into a single timeline account, it will have action at a distance.

What does all this say about Einstein’s opinion about locality? Was he right, or was he wrong?

We might simply say that he was wrong, insofar as the actual situation can in fact be described as including action at a distance, even if it is not necessary to describe it in this way, since we can describe it with multiple timelines and without action at a distance. But to the degree that this suggests that Einstein made two mistakes, one about determinism and one about action at a distance, I think this is wrong. There was only one mistake, and it was the one about determinism. The fact is that as soon you speak of indeterminism at all, it becomes possible to speak of the world as having multiple timelines. So the question at that point is whether this is the “natural” description of the situation, where the natural description more or less means the best way to understand things, in which case the possibility of “action at a distance” is not an additional mistake on Einstein’s part, but rather it is an artifact of describing the situation as though there were only a single timeline.

You might say that there cannot be a better or worse way to understand things if two accounts are objectively equivalent. But this is wrong. Thus for example in general relativity it is probably possible to give an account where the earth has no daily rotation, and the universe is spinning around it every 24 hours. And this account is objectively equivalent to the usual account where the earth is spinning; exactly the same situation is being described, and nothing different is being asserted. And yet this account is weird in many ways, and makes it very hard to understand the universe. The far better and “natural” description is that the earth is spinning. Note, however, that this is an overall result; just looking out the window, you might have thought that saying that the universe is spinning is more natural. (Notice, however, that an even more natural account would be that neither the earth nor the universe is moving; it is only later in the day that you begin to figure out that one of them is moving.)

In a similar way, a single timeline account is originally more natural in the way a Ptolemaic account is more natural when you look out the window. But I would argue that in a similar way, the multiple timeline account, without action at a distance, is ultimately the more natural one. The basic reason for this is that there is no Newtonian Absolute Time. The consequence is that if we speak of “future possibilities,” they cannot be future possibilities for the entire universe at once. They will be fairly localized future possibilities: e.g. there might be more than one possible text for the ending to this blog post, which has not yet been written, and those possibilities are originally possibilities for what happens here in this room, not for the rest of the universe. These future alternatives will naturally result in future possibilities for other parts of the world, but this will happen “slowly,” so to speak (namely if one wishes to speak of the speed of light as slow!) This fits well with the idea of multiple timelines, since there will have to be some process where these multiple timelines come into contact with the rest of the world, much as with our “rule” in the twin experiment. On the other hand, it does not fit so well with a single timeline account of future possibilities, since one is forced (by the terms of the account) to imagine that when a choice among possibilities is made, it is made for the entire universe at once, which appears to require Newton’s Absolute Time.

This suggests that Einstein was basically right about action at a distance, and wrong about determinism. But the intuition that motivated him to embrace both positions, namely that the universe should be intelligible, was sound.

Form is Not Matter

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

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

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

Really and Truly True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yudkowsky responds:

Absolute existence is inconsistent

Wha?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semi-Parmenidean Heresy

In his book The Big Picture, Sean Carroll describes the view which he calls “poetic naturalism”:

As knowledge generally, and science in particular, have progressed over the centuries, our corresponding ontologies have evolved from quite rich to relatively sparse. To the ancients, it was reasonable to believe that there were all kinds of fundamentally different things in the world; in modern thought, we try to do more with less.

We would now say that Theseus’s ship is made of atoms, all of which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons-exactly the same kinds of particles that make up every other ship, or for that matter make up you and me. There isn’t some primordial “shipness” of which Theseus’s is one particular example; there are simply arrangements of atoms, gradually changing over time.

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about ships just because we understand that they are collections of atoms. It would be horrendously inconvenient if, anytime someone asked us a question about something happening in the world, we limited our allowable responses to a listing of a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged. If you listed about one atom per second, it would take more than a trillion times the current age of the universe to describe a ship like Theseus’s. Not really practical.

It just means that the notion of a ship is a derived category in our ontology, not a fundamental one. It is a useful way of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff of the universe. We invent the concept of a ship because it is useful to us, not because it’s already there at the deepest level of reality. Is it the same ship after we’ve gradually replaced every plank? I don’t know. It’s up to us to decide. The very notion of “ship” is something we created for our own convenience.

That’s okay. The deepest level of reality is very important; but all the different ways we have of talking about that level are important too.

There is something essentially pre-Socratic about this thinking. When Carroll talks about “fundamentally different things,” he means things that differ according to their basic elements. But at the same kind the implication is that only things that differ in this way are “fundamentally” different in the sense of being truly or really different. But this is a quite different sense of “fundamental.”

I suggested in the linked post that even Thales might not really have believed that material causes alone sufficiently explained reality. Nonetheless, there was a focus on the material cause as being the truest explanation. We see the same focus here in Sean Carroll. When he says, “There isn’t some primordial shipness,” he is thinking of shipness as something that would have to be a material cause, if it existed.

Carroll proceeds to contrast his position with eliminativism:

One benefit of a rich ontology is that it’s easy to say what is “real”- every category describes something real. In a sparse ontology, that’s not so clear. Should we count only the underlying stuff of the world as real, and all the different ways we have of dividing it up and talking about it as merely illusions? That’s the most hard-core attitude we could take to reality, sometimes called eliminativism, since its adherents like nothing better than to go around eliminating this or that concept from our list of what is real. For an eliminativist, the question “Which Captian Kirk is the real one?” gets answered by, “Who cares? People are illusions. They’re just fictitious stories we tell about the one true world.”

I’m going to argue for a different view: our fundamental ontology, the best way we have of talking about the world at the deepest level, is extremely sparse. But many concepts that are part of non-fundamental ways we have of talking about the world- useful ideas describing higher-level, macroscopic reality- deserve to be called “real.”

The key word there is “useful.” There are certainly non-useful ways of talking about the world. In scientific contexts, we refer to such non-useful ways as “wrong” or “false.” A way of talking isn’t just a list of concepts; it will generally include a set of rules for using them, and relationships among them. Every scientific theory is a way of talking about the world, according to which we can say things like “There are things called planets, and something called the sun, all of which move through something called space, and planets do something called orbiting the sun, and those orbits describe a particular shape in space called an ellipse.” That’s basically Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motion, developed after Copernicus argued for the sun being at the center of the solar system but before Isaac Newton explained it all in terms of the force of gravity. Today, we would say that Kepler’s theory is fairly useful in certain circumstances, but it’s not as useful as Newton’s, which in turn isn’t as broadly useful as Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

A poetic naturalist will agree that both Captain Kirk and the Ship of Theseus are simply ways of talking about certain collections of atoms stretching through space and time. The difference is that an eliminativist will say “and therefore they are just illusions,” while the poetic naturalist says “but they are no less real for all of that.”

There are some good things about what Carroll is doing here. He is right of course to insist that the things of common experience are “real.” He is also right to see some relationship between saying that something is real and saying that talking about it is useful, but this is certainly worth additional consideration, and he does not really do it justice.

The problematic part is that, on account of his pre-Socratic tendencies, he is falling somewhat into the error of Parmenides. The error of Parmenides was to suppose that being can be, and can be thought and said, in only one way. Carroll, on account of confusing the various meanings of “fundamental,” supposes that being can be in only one way, namely as something elemental, but that it can be thought and said in many ways.

The problem with this, apart from the falsity of asserting that being can be in only one way, is that no metaphysical account is given whereby it would be reasonable to say that being can be thought and said in many ways, given that it can be in only one way. Carroll is trying to point in that direction by saying that our common speech is useful, so it must be about real things; but the eliminativist would respond, “Useful to whom? The things that you are saying this is useful for are illusions and do not exist. So even your supposed usefulness does not exist.” And Carroll will have no valid response, because he has already admitted to agreeing with the eliminativist on a metaphysical level.

The correct answer to this is the one given by Aristotle. Material causes do not sufficiently explain reality, but other causes are necessary as well. But this means that the eliminativist is mistaken on a metaphysical level, not merely in his way of speaking.