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.)

Perfectly Random

Suppose you have a string of random binary digits such as the following:

00111100010101001100011011001100110110010010100111

This string is 50 digits long, and was the result of a single attempt using the linked generator.

However, something seems distinctly non-random about it: there are exactly 25 zeros and exactly 25 ones. Naturally, this will not always happen, but most of the time the proportion of zeros will be fairly close to half. And evidently this is necessary, since if the proportion was usually much different from half, then the selection could not have been random in the first place.

There are other things about this string that are definitely not random. It contains only zeros and ones, and no other digits, much less items like letters from the alphabet, or items like ‘%’ and ‘$’.

Why do we have these apparently non-random characteristics? Both sorts of characteristics, the approximate and typical proportion, and the more rigid characteristics, are necessary consequences of the way we obtained or defined this number.

It is easy to see that such characteristics are inevitable. Suppose someone wants to choose something random without any non-random characteristics. Let’s suppose they want to avoid the first sort of characteristic, which is perhaps the “easier” task. They can certainly make the proportion of zeros approximately 75% or anything else that they please. But this will still be a non-random characteristic.

They try again. Suppose they succeed in preventing the series of digits from converging to any specific probability. If they do, there is one and only one way to do this. Much as in our discussion of the mathematical laws of nature, the only way to accomplish this will be to go back and forth between longer and longer strings of zeros and ones. But this is an extremely non-random characteristic. So they may have succeeded in avoiding one particular type of non-randomness, but only at the cost of adding something else very non-random.

Again, consider the second kind of characteristic. Here things are even clearer: the only way to avoid the second kind of characteristic is not to attempt any task in the first place. The only way to win is not to play. Once we have said “your task is to do such and such,” we have already specified some non-random characteristics of the second kind; to avoid such characteristics is to avoid the task completely.

“Completely random,” in fact, is an incoherent idea. No such thing can exist anywhere, in the same way that “formless matter” cannot actually exist, but all matter is formed in one way or another.

The same thing applies to David Hume’s supposed problem of induction. I ended that post with the remark that for his argument to work, he must be “absolutely certain that the future will resemble the past in no way.” But this of course is impossible in the first place; the past and the future are both defined as periods of time, and so there is some resemblance in their very definition, in the same way that any material thing must have some form in its definition, and any “random” thing must have something non-random in its definition.

 

Discount Rates

Eliezer Yudkowsky some years ago made this argument against temporal discounting:

I’ve never been a fan of the notion that we should (normatively) have a discount rate in our pure preferences – as opposed to a pseudo-discount rate arising from monetary inflation, or from opportunity costs of other investments, or from various probabilistic catastrophes that destroy resources or consumers.  The idea that it is literally, fundamentally 5% more important that a poverty-stricken family have clean water in 2008, than that a similar family have clean water in 2009, seems like pure discrimination to me – just as much as if you were to discriminate between blacks and whites.

Robin  Hanson disagreed, responding with this post:

But doesn’t discounting at market rates of return suggest we should do almost nothing to help far future folk, and isn’t that crazy?  No, it suggests:

  1. Usually the best way to help far future folk is to invest now to give them resources they can spend as they wish.
  2. Almost no one now in fact cares much about far future folk, or they would have bid up the price (i.e., market return) to much higher levels.

Very distant future times are ridiculously easy to help via investment.  A 2% annual return adds up to a googol (10^100) return over 12,000 years, even if there is only a 1/1000 chance they will exist or receive it.

So if you are not incredibly eager to invest this way to help them, how can you claim to care the tiniest bit about them?  How can you think anyone on Earth so cares?  And if no one cares the tiniest bit, how can you say it is “moral” to care about them, not just somewhat, but almost equally to people now?  Surely if you are representing a group, instead of spending your own wealth, you shouldn’t assume they care much.

Yudkowsky’s argument is idealistic, while Hanson is attempting to be realistic. I will look at this from a different point of view. Hanson is right, and Yudkowsky is wrong, for a still more idealistic reason than Yudkowsky’s reasons. In particular, a temporal discount rate is logically and mathematically necessary in order to have consistent preferences.

Suppose you have the chance to save 10 lives a year from now, or 2 years from now, or 3 years from now etc., such that your mutually exclusive options include the possibility of saving 10 lives x years from now for all x.

At first, it would seem to be consistent for you to say that all of these possibilities have equal value by some measure of utility.

The problem does not arise from this initial assignment, but it arises when we consider what happens when you act in this situation. Your revealed preferences in that situation will indicate that you prefer things nearer in time to things more distant, for the following reason.

It is impossible to choose a random integer without a bias towards low numbers, for the same reasons we argued here that it is impossible to assign probabilities to hypotheses without, in general, assigning simpler hypotheses higher probabilities. In a similar way, if “you will choose 2 years from now”, “you will choose 10 years from now,” “you will choose 100 years from now,” are all assigned probabilities, they cannot all be assigned equal probabilities, but you must be more likely to choose the options less distant in time, in general and overall. There will be some number n such that there is a 99.99% chance that you will choose some number of years less than n, and and a probability of 0.01% that you will choose n or more years, indicating that you have a very strong preference for saving lives sooner rather than later.

Someone might respond that this does not necessarily affect the specific value assignments, in the same way that in some particular case, we can consistently think that some particular complex hypothesis is more probable than some particular simple hypothesis. The problem with this is the hypotheses do not change their complexity, but time passes, making things distant in time become things nearer in time. Thus, for example, if Yudkowsky responds, “Fine. We assign equal value to saving lives for each year from 1 to 10^100, and smaller values to the times after that,” this will necessarily lead to dynamic inconsistency. The only way to avoid this inconsistency is to apply a discount rate to all periods of time, including ones in the near, medium, and long term future.

 

Open Future

Let’s return for a moment to the question at the end of this post. I asked, “What happens if the future is indeterminate? Would not the eternalist position necessarily differ from the presentist one, in that case?”

Why necessarily different? The argument in that post was that eternalism and presentism are different descriptions of the same thing, and that we see the sameness by noting the sameness of relations between the elements of the description. But if the future is open, as Aristotle supposed, it is hard to see how we can maintain this. Aristotle says that the present is open to either having the sea battle tomorrow or not having it. With an eternalist view, the sea battle is “already there” or it is not. So in Aristotle’s view, the present has an open relationship to both possibilities. But the eternalist view seems to be truly open only to the possibility that will actually happen. We no longer have the same set of relationships.

Notice the problem. When I attempted to equate eternalism and presentism, I implicitly assumed that determinism is true. There were only three states of the universe, beginning, middle, and end. If determinism is false, things are different. There might be beginning, middle, and two potential ends. Perhaps there is a sea battle in one of the potential ends, and no sea battle in the other.

This suggests a solution to our conundrum, however. Even the presentist description in that post was inconsistent with an open future. If there is only one possible end, the future is not open, even if we insist that the unique possible end “currently doesn’t exist.” The problem then was not eternalism as such, but the fact that we started out with a determinist description of the universe. This strongly suggests that if my argument about eternalism and presentism was correct, we should be able to formulate eternalist and presentist descriptions of an open future which will be equivalent. But both will need to be different from the fixed “beginning-middle-end” described in that post.

We can simply take Aristotle’s account as the account of presentism with an open future. How can we give an eternalist account of the same thing? The basic requirement will be that the relationship between the present and the future needs to be the same in both accounts. Now in Aristotle’s account, the present has the same relationship to two different possibilities: both of them are equally possible. So to get a corresponding eternalist account, we need the present to be equally related to two futures that correspond to the two possiblities in the presentist account. I do not say “two possible futures,” but “two futures,” precisely because the account is eternalist.

The careful reader will already understand the account from the above, but let us be more explicit. The eternalist account that corresponds to the presentist account with an open future has multiple timelines, all of which “exist”, in the eternalist sense. The reader will no doubt be familiar with the idea of multiple timelines, at least from time travel fiction. In a similar way, the eternalist reworking of Aristotle’s position is that there is a timeline where the sea battle takes place, and another timeline where the sea battle does not take place. In this view, both of them “actually” happen. But even in this view, an observer in the middle location will have to say, “I do not, and cannot, know whether the sea battle will take place or not,” just as in Aristotle’s view. For the observer cannot traverse both timelines at once. From his point of view, he will take only one, but since his relationship to the two possibilities (or actualities) is the same, it is indeterminate which one it will be.

Even if one cannot prove my account of equivalence to be wrong, the reader may worry. Time travel fiction frequently seems incoherent, and this suggests that any view with multiple timelines may also be incoherent. But this potential incoherence supports the equivalence, rather than subtracting from it. For as we noted in the post on Aristotle, there is a definite appearance of incoherence in his position. It is not even clear how his view is logically possible. So it would not be surprising, but quite natural, if views which are intended to be equivalent to his position are also not clearly coherent. Nonetheless, the multiple timelines description does have some logical advantage over Aristotle’s position, in the sense that “the sea battle will take place in timeline A” does not even appear to contradict “the sea battle will not take place in timeline B.”

Aristotle on Future Contingents

In Chapter 9 of On Interpretation, Aristotle argues that at least some statements about the future need to be exempted from the principle of Excluded Middle:

In the case of that which is or which has taken place, propositions, whether positive or negative, must be true or false. Again, in the case of a pair of contradictories, either when the subject is universal and the propositions are of a universal character, or when it is individual, as has been said,’ one of the two must be true and the other false; whereas when the subject is universal, but the propositions are not of a universal character, there is no such necessity. We have discussed this type also in a previous chapter.

When the subject, however, is individual, and that which is predicated of it relates to the future, the case is altered. For if all propositions whether positive or negative are either true or false, then any given predicate must either belong to the subject or not, so that if one man affirms that an event of a given character will take place and another denies it, it is plain that the statement of the one will correspond with reality and that of the other will not. For the predicate cannot both belong and not belong to the subject at one and the same time with regard to the future.

Thus, if it is true to say that a thing is white, it must necessarily be white; if the reverse proposition is true, it will of necessity not be white. Again, if it is white, the proposition stating that it is white was true; if it is not white, the proposition to the opposite effect was true. And if it is not white, the man who states that it is making a false statement; and if the man who states that it is white is making a false statement, it follows that it is not white. It may therefore be argued that it is necessary that affirmations or denials must be either true or false.

Now if this be so, nothing is or takes place fortuitously, either in the present or in the future, and there are no real alternatives; everything takes place of necessity and is fixed. For either he that affirms that it will take place or he that denies this is in correspondence with fact, whereas if things did not take place of necessity, an event might just as easily not happen as happen; for the meaning of the word ‘fortuitous’ with regard to present or future events is that reality is so constituted that it may issue in either of two opposite directions. Again, if a thing is white now, it was true before to say that it would be white, so that of anything that has taken place it was always true to say ‘it is’ or ‘it will be’. But if it was always true to say that a thing is or will be, it is not possible that it should not be or not be about to be, and when a thing cannot not come to be, it is impossible that it should not come to be, and when it is impossible that it should not come to be, it must come to be. All, then, that is about to be must of necessity take place. It results from this that nothing is uncertain or fortuitous, for if it were fortuitous it would not be necessary.

The argument here is that if it is already true, for example, that I will eat breakfast tomorrow, then I will necessarily eat breakfast tomorrow, and there is no option about this and no ability of anything to prevent it. Aristotle is here taking it for granted that some things about the future are uncertain, and is using this as a reductio against the position that such claims can be already true. He goes on to give additional reasons for the same thing:

Again, to say that neither the affirmation nor the denial is true, maintaining, let us say, that an event neither will take place nor will not take place, is to take up a position impossible to defend. In the first place, though facts should prove the one proposition false, the opposite would still be untrue. Secondly, if it was true to say that a thing was both white and large, both these qualities must necessarily belong to it; and if they will belong to it the next day, they must necessarily belong to it the next day. But if an event is neither to take place nor not to take place the next day, the element of chance will be eliminated. For example, it would be necessary that a sea-fight should neither take place nor fail to take place on the next day.

These awkward results and others of the same kind follow, if it is an irrefragable law that of every pair of contradictory propositions, whether they have regard to universals and are stated as universally applicable, or whether they have regard to individuals, one must be true and the other false, and that there are no real alternatives, but that all that is or takes place is the outcome of necessity. There would be no need to deliberate or to take trouble, on the supposition that if we should adopt a certain course, a certain result would follow, while, if we did not, the result would not follow. For a man may predict an event ten thousand years beforehand, and another may predict the reverse; that which was truly predicted at the moment in the past will of necessity take place in the fullness of time.

Further, it makes no difference whether people have or have not actually made the contradictory statements. For it is manifest that the circumstances are not influenced by the fact of an affirmation or denial on the part of anyone. For events will not take place or fail to take place because it was stated that they would or would not take place, nor is this any more the case if the prediction dates back ten thousand years or any other space of time. Wherefore, if through all time the nature of things was so constituted that a prediction about an event was true, then through all time it was necessary that that should find fulfillment; and with regard to all events, circumstances have always been such that their occurrence is a matter of necessity. For that of which someone has said truly that it will be, cannot fail to take place; and of that which takes place, it was always true to say that it would be.

Yet this view leads to an impossible conclusion; for we see that both deliberation and action are causative with regard to the future, and that, to speak more generally, in those things which are not continuously actual there is potentiality in either direction. Such things may either be or not be; events also therefore may either take place or not take place. There are many obvious instances of this. It is possible that this coat may be cut in half, and yet it may not be cut in half, but wear out first. In the same way, it is possible that it should not be cut in half; unless this were so, it would not be possible that it should wear out first. So it is therefore with all other events which possess this kind of potentiality. It is therefore plain that it is not of necessity that everything is or takes place; but in some instances there are real alternatives, in which case the affirmation is no more true and no more false than the denial; while some exhibit a predisposition and general tendency in one direction or the other, and yet can issue in the opposite direction by exception.

Now that which is must needs be when it is, and that which is not must needs not be when it is not. Yet it cannot be said without qualification that all existence and non-existence is the outcome of necessity. For there is a difference between saying that that which is, when it is, must needs be, and simply saying that all that is must needs be, and similarly in the case of that which is not. In the case, also, of two contradictory propositions this holds good. Everything must either be or not be, whether in the present or in the future, but it is not always possible to distinguish and state determinately which of these alternatives must necessarily come about.

Let me illustrate. A sea-fight must either take place to-morrow or not, but it is not necessary that it should take place to-morrow, neither is it necessary that it should not take place, yet it is necessary that it either should or should not take place to-morrow. Since propositions correspond with facts, it is evident that when in future events there is a real alternative, and a potentiality in contrary directions, the corresponding affirmation and denial have the same character.

This is the case with regard to that which is not always existent or not always nonexistent. One of the two propositions in such instances must be true and the other false, but we cannot say determinately that this or that is false, but must leave the alternative undecided. One may indeed be more likely to be true than the other, but it cannot be either actually true or actually false. It is therefore plain that it is not necessary that of an affirmation and a denial one should be true and the other false. For in the case of that which exists potentially, but not actually, the rule which applies to that which exists actually does not hold good. The case is rather as we have indicated.

Basically, then, there are two arguments. First there is the argument that if statements about the future are already true, the future is necessary. If a sea battle will take place tomorrow, it will necessarily take place. Second, there is the argument that this excludes deliberation. If a sea battle will take place tomorrow, then it will necessarily take place, and no place remains for deliberation and decision about whether to fight the sea battle. Whether you decide to fight or not, it will necessarily take place.

Unfortunately for Aristotle, both arguments fail. Consider the first argument about necessity. Aristotle’s example is that “if it is true to say that a thing is white, it must necessarily be white.” But this is hypothetical necessity, not absolute necessity. A thing must be white if it is true that is white, but that does not mean that “it must be white, period.” Thus for example I have a handkerchief, and it happens to be white. If it is true that it is white, then it must be white. But it would be false to simply say, “My handkerchief is necessarily white.” Since I can dye it other colors, obviously it is not simply necessary for it to be white.

In a similar way, of course it is true that if a sea battle will take place, it will take place. It does not follow at all that “it will necessarily take place, period.”

Again, consider the second argument, that deliberation would be unnecessary. Aristotle makes the point that deliberation is causative with respect to the future. But gravity is also causative with respect to the future, as for example when gravity causes a cup to fall from a desk. It does not follow either that the cup must be able not to fall, nor that gravity is unnecessary. In a similar way, a sea battle takes place because certain people deliberated and decided to fight. If it was already true that it was going to take place, then it also already true that they were going to decide to fight. It does not follow that their decision was unnecessary.

Consider the application to gravity. It is already true that if the cup is knocked from the desk, it will fall. It does not follow that gravity will not cause the fall: in fact, it is true precisely because gravity will cause the fall. In a similar way, if it true that the battle will take place, it is true because the decision will be made.

This earlier discussion about determinism is relevant to this point. Asserting that there is a definite outcome that our deliberations will arrive at, in each case, goes against our experience in no way. The feeling of “free will,” in any case, has a different explanation, whether or not determinism is true.

On the other hand, there is also no proof that there is such a determinate outcome, even if in some cases there are things that would suggest it. What happens if in fact there is nothing ensuring one outcome rather than another?

Here we could make a third argument on Aristotle’s behalf, although he did not make it himself. If the present is truly open to alternative outcomes, then it seems that nothing exists that could make it be true that “a sea battle will take place,” and false that “a sea battle will not take place.” Presumably if a statement is true, there must be something in reality which is the cause of the statement’s truth. Now there does not seem to be anything in reality, in this scenario, which could be a cause of truth. Therefore it does not seem that either alternative could be true, and Aristotle would seem to be right.

I will not attempt to refute this argument at this point, but I will raise two difficulties. First of all, it is not clear that his claim is even coherent. Aristotle says that “either there will be a sea battle or there will not be,” is true, but that “there will be a sea battle” is not true, and “there will not be a sea battle” is not true. This does not seem to be logically consistent, and it is not clear that we can even understand what is being said. I will not push this objection too hard, however, lest I be accused of throwing stones from a glass house.

Second, the argument that there is nothing in reality that could cause the truth of a statement might apply to the past as well as to the future. There is a tree outside my window right now. What was in that place exactly 100 million years ago to this moment? It is not obvious that there is anything in the present world which could be the cause of the truth of any statement about this. One might object that the past is far more determinate than the future. There are plenty of things in the present world that might be the cause of the truth of the statement, “World War II actually happened.” It is hard to see how you could possibly have arrived at the present world without it, and this “necessity” of World War II in order to arrive at the present world could be the cause of truth. The problem is that there is still no proof that this is universal. Once things are far enough in past, like 100 million years, perhaps minor details become indeterminate. Will Aristotle really want to conclude that some statements about the past are neither true nor false?

I will more or less leave things here without resolving them in this post, although I will give a hint (without proof at this time) regarding the truth of the matter. It turns out that quantum mechanics can be interpreted in two ways. In one way, it is a deterministic theory, and in this way it is basically time reversible. The present fully determines the past, but it equally fully determines the future. Interpreted in another way, it is an indeterministic theory which leaves the future uncertain. But understood in this way, it also leaves the past uncertain.

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.

Predictive Processing

In a sort of curious coincidence, a few days after I published my last few posts, Scott Alexander posted a book review of Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty. A major theme of my posts was that in a certain sense, a decision consists in the expectation of performing the action decided upon. In a similar way, Andy Clark claims that the human brain does something very similar from moment to moment. Thus he begins chapter 4 of his book:

To surf the waves of sensory stimulation, predicting the present is simply not enough. Instead, we are built to engage the world. We are built to act in ways that are sensitive to the contingencies of the past, and that actively bring forth the futures that we need and desire. How does a guessing engine (a hierarchical prediction machine) turn prediction into accomplishment? The answer that we shall explore is: by predicting the shape of its own motor trajectories. In accounting for action, we thus move from predicting the rolling present to predicting the near-future, in the form of the not-yet-actual trajectories of our own limbs and bodies. These trajectories, predictive processing suggests, are specified by their distinctive sensory (especially proprioceptive) consequences. In ways that we are about to explore, predicting these (non-actual) sensory states actually serves to bring them about.

Such predictions act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Expecting the flow of sensation that would result were you to move your body so as to keep the surfboard in that rolling sweet spot results (if you happen to be an expert surfer) in that very flow, locating the surfboard right where you want it. Expert prediction of the world (here, the dynamic ever-changing waves) combines with expert prediction of the sensory flow that would, in that context, characterize the desired action, so as to bring that action about.

There is a great deal that could be said about the book, and about this theory, but for the moment I will content myself with remarking on one of Scott Alexander’s complaints about the book, and making one additional point. In his review, Scott remarks:

In particular, he’s obsessed with showing how “embodied” everything is all the time. This gets kind of awkward, since the predictive processing model isn’t really a natural match for embodiment theory, and describes a brain which is pretty embodied in some ways but not-so-embodied in others. If you want a hundred pages of apologia along the lines of “this may not look embodied, but if you squint you’ll see how super-duper embodied it really is!”, this is your book.

I did not find Clark obsessed with this, and I think it would be hard to reasonably describe any hundred pages in the book as devoted to this particular topic. This inclines to me to suggest that Scott may be irritated by such discussion of the topic that comes up because it does not seem relevant to him. I will therefore explain the relevance, namely in relation to a different difficulty which Scott discusses in another post:

There’s something more interesting in Section 7.10 of Surfing Uncertainty [actually 8.10], “Escape From The Darkened Room”. It asks: if the brain works to minimize prediction error, isn’t its best strategy to sit in a dark room and do nothing forever? After all, then it can predict its sense-data pretty much perfectly – it’ll always just stay “darkened room”.

Section 7.10 [8.10] gives a kind of hand-wave-y answer here, saying that of course organisms have some drives, and probably it makes sense for them to desire novelty and explore new options, and so on. Overall this isn’t too different from PCT’s idea of “intrinsic error”, and as long as we remember that it’s not really predicting anything in particular it seems like a fair response.

Clark’s response may be somewhat “hand-wave-y,” but I think the response might seem slightly more problematic to Scott than it actually is, precisely because he does not understand the idea of embodiment, and how it applies to this situation.

If we think about predictions on a general intellectual level, there is a good reason not to predict that you will not eat something soon. If you do predict this, you will turn out to be wrong, as is often discovered by would-be adopters of extreme fasts or diets. You will in fact eat something soon, regardless of what you think about this; so if you want the truth, you should believe that you will eat something soon.

The “darkened room” problem, however, is not about this general level. The argument is that if the brain is predicting its actions from moment to moment on a subconscious level, then if its main concern is getting accurate predictions, it could just predict an absence of action, and carry this out, and its predictions would be accurate. So why does this not happen? Clark gives his “hand-wave-y” answer:

Prediction-error-based neural processing is, we have seen, part of a potent recipe for multi-scale self-organization. Such multiscale self-organization does not occur in a vacuum. Instead, it operates only against the backdrop of an evolved organismic (neural and gross-bodily) form, and (as we will see in chapter 9) an equally transformative backdrop of slowly accumulated material structure and cultural practices: the socio-technological legacy of generation upon generation of human learning and experience.

To start to bring this larger picture into focus, the first point to notice is that explicit, fast timescale processes of prediction error minimization must answer to the needs and projects of evolved, embodied, and environmentally embedded agents. The very existence of such agents (see Friston, 2011b, 2012c) thus already implies a huge range of structurally implicit creature-specific ‘expectations’. Such creatures are built to seek mates, to avoid hunger and thirst, and to engage (even when not hungry and thirsty) in the kinds of sporadic environmental exploration that will help prepare them for unexpected environmental shifts, resource scarcities, new competitors, and so on. On a moment-by-moment basis, then, prediction error is minimized only against the backdrop of this complex set of creature-defining ‘expectations’.”

In one way, the answer here is a historical one. If you simply ask the abstract question, “would it minimize prediction error to predict doing nothing, and then to do nothing,” perhaps it would. But evolution could not bring such a creature into existence, while it was able to produce a creature that would predict that it would engage the world in various ways, and then would proceed to engage the world in those ways.

The objection, of course, would not be that the creature of the “darkened room” is possible. The objection would be that since such a creature is not possible, it must be wrong to describe the brain as minimizing prediction error. But notice that if you predict that you will not eat, and then you do not eat, you are no more right or wrong than if you predict that you will eat, and then you do eat. Either one is possible from the standpoint of prediction, but only one is possible from the standpoint of history.

This is where being “embodied” is relevant. The brain is not an abstract algorithm which has no content except to minimize prediction error; it is a physical object which works together in physical ways with the rest of the human body to carry out specifically human actions and to live a human life.

On the largest scale of evolutionary history, there were surely organisms that were nourished and reproduced long before there was anything analagous to a mind at work in those organisms. So when mind began to be, and took over some of this process, this could only happen in such a way that it would continue the work that was already there. A “predictive engine” could only begin to be by predicting that nourishment and reproduction would continue, since any attempt to do otherwise would necessarily result either in false predictions or in death.

This response is necessarily “hand-wave-y” in the sense that I (and presumably Clark) do not understand the precise physical implementation. But it is easy to see that it was historically necessary for things to happen this way, and it is an expression of “embodiment” in the sense that “minimize prediction error” is an abstract algorithm which does not and cannot exhaust everything which is there. The objection would be, “then there must be some other algorithm instead.” But this does not follow: no abstract algorithm will exhaust a physical object. Thus for example, animals will fall because they are heavy. Asking whether falling will satisfy some abstract algorithm is not relevant. In a similar way, animals had to be physically arranged in such a way that they would usually eat and reproduce.

I said I would make one additional point, although it may well be related to the above concern. In section 4.8 Clark notes that his account does not need to consider costs and benefits, at least directly:

But the story does not stop there. For the very same strategy here applies to the notion of desired consequences and rewards at all levels. Thus we read that ‘crucially, active inference does not invoke any “desired consequences”. It rests only on experience-dependent learning and inference: experience induces prior expectations, which guide perceptual inference and action’ (Friston, Mattout, & Kilner, 2011, p. 157). Apart from a certain efflorescence of corollary discharge, in the form of downward-flowing predictions, we here seem to confront something of a desert landscape: a world in which value functions, costs, reward signals, and perhaps even desires have been replaced by complex interacting expectations that inform perception and entrain action. But we could equally say (and I think this is the better way to express the point) that the functions of rewards and cost functions are now simply absorbed into a more complex generative model. They are implicit in our sensory (especially proprioceptive) expectations and they constrain behavior by prescribing their distinctive sensory implications.

The idea of the “desert landscape” seems to be that this account appears to do away with the idea of the good, and the idea of desire. The brain predicts what it is going to do, and those predictions cause it to do those things. This all seems purely intellectual: it seems that there is no purpose or goal or good involved.

The correct response to this, I think, is connected to what I have said elsewhere about desire and good. I noted there that we recognize our desires as desires for particular things by noticing that when we have certain feelings, we tend to do certain things. If we did not do those things, we would never conclude that those feelings are desires for doing those things. Note that someone could raise a similar objection here: if this is true, then are not desire and good mere words? We feel certain feelings, and do certain things, and that is all there is to be said. Where is good or purpose here?

The truth here is that good and being are convertible. The objection (to my definition and to Clark’s account) is not a reasonable objection at all: it would be a reasonable objection only if we expected good to be something different from being, in which case it would of course be nothing at all.