On Philosophy

April 9, 2009

Ontology as Metaphilosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy,Ontology — Peter @ 5:56 pm

Ontology is something of a fad in philosophy; sometimes it is regarded as the core and foundation of metaphysics, and at others it is held up as an example of what not to do. But what is ontology? Ontology, like philosophy in general, is an activity – something that philosophers do. The practice of ontology produces a system of categories, a division of the world into distinct kinds of things. What these categories are supposed to reveal is debatable. Many say that the category system sheds light on the nature of being by revealing what kinds of being there are. (This is where the word “ontology” comes from, it literally means the study of being.) Others of a less metaphysical bent say instead that the categories reflect fundamental divisions in the world. In any case the results are taken to be deep and important in some way.

Ontology as it is customarily conceived is a questionable practice. Focusing in the results rather than the process, as is common, some ask the ontologist “how do you know?” Where does the knowledge of how to divide up the world into parts come from? And what sort of reasons are there to favor one proposed category system over another? For there certainly are an abundance of them. The ontologist has no good answers to these questions. He has many bad ones of course – bad answers seem popular in the defense of philosophy. He might say that he has some special insight into the nature of the world that his ontology reflects. The questioner obviously lacks this insight, if he is raising such questions, and so this answer doesn’t go far. Since some special insight is about the only way to justify claims about the fundamental nature of reality that are not obvious to everyone the ontologist often retreats at this point. Ontology is presented as merely a study of concepts, or of language, or of the forms of experience. These answers are equally unsatisfying, this time because they make ontology significantly less interesting, and possibly not philosophy proper at all.

The root of these problems does not lie in ontology though, but in the ontologist and his questioner. And their problems are rooted in the history of philosophy. Before the modern era there was no such thing as philosophy, and no such thing as science. There was instead philosophy-science, which was called philosophy. Philosophy-science is both like and unlike philosophy as we know it, and like and unlike science. It is like both of them because it encompasses the topics and questions of both science and philosophy. Philosophy-science asks questions about ontology and ethics. It also asks questions about the nature of the heavens and the origins of life. But this does not make philosophy-science philosophy or science any more than the shaman is the same as a doctor just because they both may offer opinions about what made a man sick. Philosophy-science is different than philosophy and science because it uses methods appropriate to one to address the questions of the other, and vice versa. It treats their questions and problems as amenable to the same sort of solutions. It treats philosophical questions as matters of fact that we can discover answers to, and it treats scientific questions as things that we can figure out by reasoning about them.

Both science and philosophy came out of philosophy-science, but science made out better because science was seen as breaking away from philosophy, rather than the other way around. The first scientists still were burdened by the legacy of philosophy-science and assumed that the world made rational sense, and thus that they could discover scientific truths by uncovering what was rational. This was science as Descartes pursued it. This was often bad science. Scientists eventually were able to move beyond this, in part because they saw themselves as breaking away from the tradition of philosophy-science. This gave them sanction to challenge the paradigm they found themselves in, and eventually to reject many of the ideas they inherited from philosophy-science about how their questions could be answered. Philosophers, unfortunately, did not find themselves in this position. They conceived of themselves as still doing the same sort of things the philosopher-scientists before them had done, minus a few topics and questions that the scientists had taken as their own (an ever-growing list, in actuality). Indeed this is how most modern philosophers read authors such as Aristotle and Descartes: they read the bits and pieces of them that have to do with philosophical issues, and largely ignore the pieces that have to deal with scientific ones. This is a strange way to read these authors. They certainly didn’t see themselves as engaging in two very different sorts of activities; they saw their work as a single continuous project that involved the same investigative skills applied to different topics. Is it not strange to pick out only pieces of their work as properly philosophical, and worth reading, when the authors themselves didn’t make that distinction? Why should their work be philosophically respectable and enlightening some of the time and irrelevant at others?

In any case, the long and short of it is that modern philosophers carry with them a legacy from philosophy-science that leads them to view every philosophical question as a scientific one (i.e. one where there is a discoverable matter of fact) and to apply methods to answering them that turned out to be next to useless when dealing with those same sorts of questions about different topics. Once what they are doing has been framed in this way it seems impossible that anyone could take it to be a good idea, although I must admit that I myself once subscribed to it. So, to return to ontology after this lengthy digression, the problem at the root of ontology that leads to those annoying questions discussed earlier is the assumption that ontology deals with some discoverable matter of fact. With that assumption questions along the lines of “how do you know?” are more than justified, and obviously answers that appeal to the ability of reason alone or some special insight will be unsatisfying, since reason alone/special insight isn’t any good elsewhere.

Solving ontology’s problems requires coming to understand it in a way that doesn’t presuppose ontology is seeking to uncover some matter of fact. Rather than taking ontology to be an act of discovery we can take it to be an act of creation. If ontology was art it wouldn’t be the kind that attempts to capture some existing scene on the canvas, but rather that which aims to create some new beauty that has never before existed. Admittedly this doesn’t say much about what ontology is about, it just opens up new possibilities. Here is my suggestion: ontology is a kind of metaphilosophy – ontology sets up a framework or structure for other philosophy to be done within.

Admittedly, even that isn’t saying much. To explain why we need ontology allow me to describe some fictitious philosophy. Suppose someone presented us with an ethical theory that explained why we shouldn’t harm other people by appealing to the fact that they are featherless upright bipeds with binocular vision. In one sense this theory fits the “facts”, it picks out human beings in general as a class that gets special moral treatment. But is it a satisfactory explanation? Of course not; properties such as “bipedal” simply aren’t philosophically or ethically significant. On the other hand properties such as “rational” are. If someone said that people deserved special ethical treatment because they had the capacity for reason we would take their proposal seriously, even if we disagreed. Deciding which properties are philosophically significant is the task, or at least one of the tasks, of ontology.

Of course no ontology consists of a giant list with every property, each marked as significant or not. That would be both absurd and impractical. Ontologies tend to deal with the big picture, and more specific matters are left to common sense. For example, it is common to divide properties from substances at the top level of an ontology. This can be taken to indicate two things. First that it is philosophically acceptable to appeal to the fact that something is a substance or a property to explain something about them. For example, you could say that a chair is in at most one place because it is a substance (versus a property, which can be in many places at one time). Secondly it describes what needs to be explained (or at least what is worth thinking about). The aforementioned ontology would be holding up substances and properties as in need of explanation, meaning that some philosopher should come up with a theory about the nature of substances, and that another should come up with a theory of properties. This of course goes hand in hand with the first point, since what you can explain by appeal to substance or property depends on what you think is always true of those categories.

This process can be iterated to get down to more specific issues, such as whether “bipedal” is admissible in a philosophical explanation. By iterated I mean that each of the categories of the ontology can be given their own ontology, and so on. For example, we might give an ontology of properties and divide them into the mental and non-mental. We might then give an ontology of mental properties and divide them into the intentional, the qualitative, and so on. Just as with the most general ontology, each time we do this we commit ourselves to the divisions being philosophically significant (i.e. a good thing to give philosophical explanations in terms of) and we hold each up as being worth of philosophical investigation (into their nature, i.e. “what is the nature of non-mental things (such that they are distinct from the mental)?”). Given the unpopularity of ontology philosophers rarely do this; and given that each sub-ontology is less significant than the one that came before it there is a point where it doesn’t make much sense to. However, I think that in doing philosophy we often end up committed implicitly to ontologies with metaphilosophical import, which finds an expression in our selection of topics and problems that we consider worth theorizing about and in the kind of theories we bother to consider.

Perhaps this view can be best summarized by saying that under it ontology becomes a lot like an agenda for philosophizing. The ontology describes a grand plan which describes both what is philosophically important and what future work needs to be done. Then the actual work of philosophy can get started, inspired and directed by this ontology, which aims to give a philosophical treatment to every item in the ontology. When everything was said and done and compiled into one very large book the ontology would be the table of contents. For every item there would be a corresponding chapter that described its nature and philosophical import. This analogy also suggests that the ontology might come last. After the book has been written then the author or editor goes back over it, organizing it and dividing it into sections. This doesn’t make ontology, so understood, any less a metaphilosophical project. Metaphilosophy can, and often does, come last, prompted by the desire to reflect on and understand what has come before.

April 6, 2009

A Reasonable Form of Dualism

Filed under: Mind,Ontology — Peter @ 12:15 pm

I have never been fond of dualism. I have confidence in the ability of science to explain the world, and so when I was first exposed to the mind-body problem it seemed plausible to me that science could explain consciousness. And this means that in some way consciousness and the mind must reduce to or be explainable in terms of the physical; in other words, that materialism is essentially correct and dualism essentially mistaken. From that perspective dualism seems unscientific or anti-scientific; it takes one of the phenomena we find in the world and says that it is off limits to science, that science will never be able to explain it. But does dualism have to take that form? Can’t we separate the ideas in dualism that make it attractive from this anti-scientific position? My goals in this paper are twofold: first to illustrate how I see the common arguments for dualism, and thus the common forms of dualism, as lacking; and secondly to describe a form of dualism that manages to avoid those problems.

A: Arguments From Ignorance

The major arguments for dualism are, at their core, arguments from ignorance. An argument from ignorance is one that proceeds from the fact that we don’t know how to do or explain something to the conclusion that it can’t be done or can’t be explained. This is what gives many forms of dualism their anti-scientific flavor; from the fact that science hasn’t yet explained that mind and the mind body connection it is concluded that science can’t explain the mind and the mind-body connection. Such arguments have no merit; our ignorance reveals nothing about the world, only our lack of knowledge about it. To reasonably argue that something can’t be done or can’t be explained by science requires some understanding of the things involved, and to show that this understanding rules out the proposal. This is, of course, not how dualism is argued for. The dualist does not come to the table with a fully developed and well supported theory of the mind and the mind-body connection which precludes a scientific theory.

Consider, for starters, the argument for dualism from the existence of the explanatory gap. The explanatory gap, in brief, is our current inability to explain the phenomenal character of consciousness – qualia, as some call it – in non-mental terms. And from this gap in our knowledge some conclude that there must be something non-physical involved that such explanations simply can’t capture. This is obviously a fallacious argument. The fact that we don’t yet know how to capture the mental in physical terms doesn’t say anything about whether the mental can – or can’t – be explained in such terms. There are many things we can’t yet explain, such as how quantum mechanics fits with general relativity (another explanatory gap that has been with us for quite some time). It would be absurd to leap to the conclusion that we can’t explain something every time we encounter difficulty in doing so.

Arguments for dualism are rarely put in that form, to accuse most dualists of using the argument above as I have described it would be uncharitable. But certain arguments that have made it into print are really just disguised versions of it. There is a class of arguments for dualism that attempt to refute the possibility of an explanation of the mind in physical terms by asking us to imagine such an explanation at work. Imagine someone without the ability to see colors, or without the ability to sense objects through sonar. No matter how much they study the mind of someone with such sensations they will never know what it is like to have those sensations. Thus we are asked to conclude that such explanations will never in principle capture the phenomenal character of consciousness. But how do we know that they won’t end up knowing what those qualia are like through such an explanation? Obviously we couldn’t, but we don’t know yet how to explain the consciousness in physical terms. Since we don’t know what such an explanation would look like we can’t know what knowledge it will or will not give us. Thus the argument is asking us to conclude, on the basis of our inability to imagine how a scientific explanation of the mind could give us knowledge of what various sensations are like, that it can’t possibly provide such knowledge. In other words, it is an argument from ignorance.

Dualism is also argued for on occasion by claiming that consciousness has some special property, such as subjectivity, phenomenal character, or a first person ontology, that simply can’t be explained in terms of of objective, non-phenomenal, things with a third person ontology. On the face of it this doesn’t look like an argument from ignorance, because it seems to be asserting that there is some logical incompatibility between two kinds of properties that prevents either from explaining the other. But what reason do we have to believe that such explanations are impossible? Certainly we don’t know how to explain one in terms of the other. Nor have we ever seen such an explanation. But – unless better reasons can be provided – this means that at its root the claim that these two sorts of properties are incompatible rests on an argument from ignorance, ignorance of how properties of one sort might be explained in terms of another. And thus, again, the argument as a whole is nothing more than a disguised argument from ignorance.

A third popular argument to consider is the conceivably argument. In its simplest form the argument runs as follows: we can conceive of the mind as distinct from the body, thus it is possible for the mind to be distinct from the body, and thus the mind is not identical to the body. So materialism, which claims that the mind is in some way identical to the body must be false, and dualism true. But why can we conceive of the mind as distinct from the body? Indeed, what in general limits how we conceive of things? One limiting factor, among many, is how we understand them, which in turn involves how we explain them. Allow me to illustrate with gravity as an example. In modern times the phenomena of gravity is reduced to the curvature of space-time. Thus, if the argument for dualism presented makes sense, we must not be able to conceive of gravity as distinct from curvature in space-time. But of course not everyone is so conceptually bound; someone who lived before Einstein might have conceived of gravity as caused by tiny and invisible springs connecting things. They can conceive of gravity as distinct from curved space-time. If we can’t it must be because our explanation of gravity in terms of curved space-time puts limits on what we can conceive. But this means that the non-existence of an explanation of the mind in physical terms is a hidden premise in the argument (that underlies the claim that we can conceive of it as distinct from the body, along with whatever other factors limit conceivability). So either the argument begs the question or, more charitably, it essentially rests on an argument from ignorance.

Such arguments for dualism make it look like a very unappealing theory, at least in my eyes. They make dualism look like a theory that takes intuitions and superstitions more seriously than scientific inquiry, such that they can set the limits of what science can and cannot explain. They make dualism look like a theory cast from the same mold as vitalism, inasmuch as vitalism claimed that there was something special and irreducible about life that could never be explained in merely chemical terms. I don’t think that this has to be true of dualism; dualism does not have to be an anti-scientific philosophical position, and by casting it in such a light the arguments from ignorance discussed above do much more harm to the theory than good.

B: Ontological Dualism

So what then might a reasonable argument for dualism, and a reasonable form of dualism, look like? The first step towards such an argument is to stop playing the materialists’ game. The materialists cast the question as about how consciousness can be explained. They argue that it can be explained physically, and thus scientifically. Which means that if the dualist agrees to fight them on their own terms he or she will fall into a position that entails that consciousness is something outside the ability of science to explain (at least not unless some new basics mental entities or properties are added to science).

The dualist can and should deny this characterization of the question and of the difference between materialism and dualism. The materialist, so described, is not even doing philosophy proper. It is not the job of philosophy to explain how things work in terms of simpler things; that is a scientific problem (or at least it hasn’t been ever since since science was split off into its own discipline). What the materialist has been doing is no more than asserting that a scientific problem can be solved scientifically. But the task of philosophy is to say what things are; an explanation in philosophy is one that tries to explain the nature of things, not how they work. The mind-body problem, as a philosophical problem, is an ontological one – one that deals with how we categorize the world – which is orthogonal to whether consciousness can be explained in terms of or reduced to purely physical entities and properties.

Ontologically we are interested in what kinds of things there are in the world. Now we could construct a scientific ontology, where we divide the world along the lines of scientific explanations. But nothing forces us to adopt such an ontology – it is just one possibility. With an ontology we are trying to capture significant differences and similarities between things; even if one object in our ontology reduces to or can be explained in terms of some other items in it we aren’t forced to place them in the same category. A computer, for example, is nothing but silicon and electrons at the physical level. However, computers are of great interest to us. There are a number of properties that are peculiar to computers, such as the ability to run certain pieces of software, and often computers as a class are pertinent in ways that silicon and electrons in general are not. Thus it could be argued that it makes sense to treat computers as an ontologically different kind of thing than silicon and electrons in some contexts, despite the fact that there is nothing in a computer over and above silicon and electrons, and even though every property that the computer has can be shown to ultimately arise from properties that the silicon and electrons have.

For essentially the same kind of reasons it makes sense to treat the mind as a different kind of thing than neurons and amino acids, even if we admit that in some way every mental property can ultimately be shown to arise from (and thus reduce to) properties of the neurons and amino acids. Only in consciousness do we find genuine intentionality. Only in consciousness to we find a genuine perspective that the world is presented to. Only a consciousness can impose meaning onto the world. If we are interested in such things, and many philosophers certainly are, then it makes sense to treat minds as their own kind of thing. Yes, perhaps we could discuss intentionality one day by referring to some complicated neural structure. Doing so, however, would only serve to obscure the issue. It is intentionality that is interesting philosophically, not the particular neural structure that may or may not underlie it (although it is surely interesting to cognitive scientists). A change in the neural explanation of intentionality should have no consequences for a philosophical theory involving intentionality (which it would if we tried to replace any use of intentionality with such a neural explanation). I call a form of dualism that takes the ontological nature of the problem seriously, and which argues that there is a significant ontological distinction between the mental and the physical, ontological dualism. Ontological dualism is not forced to rest on arguments from ignorance, because ontological dualism is not an attempt to deny the possibility of certain explanations. Rather it aims to demonstrate something positive, namely that there is a philosophically significant difference between mind and body.

Now a materialist may respond to this proposal by claiming that I am merely playing a game with words. If an ontology doesn’t bring with it entailments about how things are to be explained or about what properties are fundamental (in the sense that others can be reduced to them, but they themselves cannot be reduced) then what good is it? What does it matter if I divide the world up into categories if the categories don’t bear on such questions? By asking this the materialist would miss the point. By dividing the world up into categories we make a number of claims, they are just not of the sort the materialist is used to. By proposing an ontology we are making a claim about what the most philosophically significant and interesting divisions between things are. If we place minds in one category and mindless physical objects in another we are asserting that the distinctive properties of the minded category are substantially different than those in the mindless category and are of philosophical importance. This is why we would reject chairs and non-chairs as a division at the top level of an ontology. The difference between some chairs and non-chairs is not very substantial, and, more importantly, whether something is a chair or not is of little philosophical importance. No philosopher has ever given the property of being a chair play important role in their theories, but many have made the property of having a mind, or something only minds do, central. To call this enterprise merely semantic is thus to deny that how we categorize the world is of any importance. But it is of great importance. How we categorize the world shapes what “kinds” of phenomena we are interested in explaining. And how we categorize the world shapes what “kinds” of phenomena we develop our philosophical theories in terms of. Thus our choice of ontology shapes everything else we do in philosophy, both what we investigate, and what we find acceptable as results of such an investigation.

C: Ontological Materialism

Given my presentation of this new variety of dualism I may appear to be claiming that this version of dualism is correct and that materialism is wrongheaded. I do admit to accusing materialists of confusing philosophical issues concerning the connection between mind and body with scientific ones. But most dualists are no better; this is why dualism often ends up seeming anti-scientific. So while I would certainly agree that this version of dualism is more philosophically attractive than existing varieties of materialism there is nothing in principle preventing us from repairing materialism in the same way, of separating it too from scientific questions of reduction. My proposal is not an attempt to end the debate between dualism and materialism by proving one side or disproving the other. My proposal is rather that we shift the content of the debate so that neither side is entangled with scientific commitments.

Materialism can also be construed as a purely ontological theory, as one that proposes that there be no categorical divisions between mental and physical properties or beings with and without minds. Just as ontological dualism implies that the division between the mental and the physical is philosophically significant, ontological materialism asserts that those divisions should play no significant role in philosophical theories. This means, for example, that ontological materialism is incompatible with an ethical theory that limits ethical agency to entities with minds. Such a theory is committed to a substantial divide between the mental and the physical, inasmuch as ethics is only relevant to one of the two. To make this theory acceptable to ontological materialism we would have to characterize the requirements for ethical agency without appealing to minds or mental features. For example, the ontological materialist could make agency contingent on the ability to communicate and reason about ethical concepts. This might still sound like it has a mental flavor, but such a requirement can be understood as behavioral, as being really about how the entity interacts with others, and not about any consciousness, intentionality, experiences, or occurent beliefs it may or may not have.

The debate between ontological materialism and ontological dualism is not easily settled. Is the distinction between mental and non-mental a fundamental and significant part of philosophical theories, or can it be profitably dispensed with (possibly replaced with concepts such as the cognitive capacity to learn, interactions between agents, and linguistic behavior, all of which can be construed as independent from the mental)? Any attempt to definitively answer this question would involve examining theories that lean on a division between the mental and the non-mental and seeing whether that division is an essential and irreplaceable part of the theory. That examination in itself could be of great philosophical worth. To return to ethics again: considering whether having a mind plays an important and indispensable role in agent-hood, or whether it is just an easy way of ruling out rocks and trees, could provide new insights into ethical questions. A cursory inspection, though, makes ontological dualism appear to be the superior theory. Such a large number of philosophical positions appeal to minds or mental features that it is hard to see how the ontological distinction between mind and body could be removed from philosophy as a whole. Certainly ontological materialists have their work cut out for them.

February 25, 2009

An Event Ontology

Filed under: Ontology — Peter @ 6:49 pm

It is natural to ground a metaphysical system in objects. The English language, along with most other western languages, is an object centric language. Sentences are constructed primarily by describing nouns and connecting them together. Expressions that describe or refer to some indefinite thing (“the thing in the box”, “something is in the box”) are common, but similar expressions that describe relationships or actions (“the relationship between the watch and the man”, “the effect that the car had on the man”) sound odd. Indeed, in such constructions the relationship or action is often treated grammatically as an object (“the relationship”, “the effect”). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but because it is so natural we are often blind to other alternatives; we reach so readily for objects and properties as tools that we never stop to think what else might be there. Here I want to take a look at one of those other possibilities, and then see whether there are cases where it might be a better fit than our customary objects and properties. This is doing philosophy in reverse, as I understand it, since here we have a solution looking for a problem rather than the other way around, but so be it.

Besides objects what other options do we have? Some possibilities can be found in our language, such as actions, relationships, and properties. These are all viable alternatives, but there is a tendency with all of them to fall back, perhaps unconsciously, into an object ontology. Actions and relationships are between two or more objects, and properties are things that objects have. Thus here I will build my alternative to object ontologies out of events. It is possible to describe all the things we ordinarily think of as objects as events of a very boring kind. A chair, for example, can be described as the event of the chair bring or existing. In this event the components of the chair take only very minimal actions, such that they remain basically the same throughout. A chair doing nothing is an event in the same way that silence is a sound; it is an event where nothing much is happening. Still, it is an event. An event is a characterization of change. Since the absence of change is itself a kind of change (a limiting case) we can talk about an event that describes it.*

Of course just because we can describe the world in terms of events, that we can point at the chair and say it is one kind of event, and at the man falling and say it is another, doesn’t mean that we have accomplished anything significant. If this ontology is to do any meaningful work we need the ability to say things about events. The temptation is, of course, to add properties into the system (or classes of events, event kinds, which amount to the same thing), and thus to say that an event has the property of being such and such. But, however intuitive that may be, there is good reason to avoid it. If we add properties in this way we will have fallen back into an object ontology, albeit under another name. By adding properties we make our events work exactly like objects. Instead of the object chair having the property green we would now have the event of the chair’s being having the property green. Thus events essentially are objects (following the philosophical principle that whatever walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, is a duck); the only difference is that besides the normal set of objects (tables, chairs, cars, etc.) we have what can be thought of as situational objects as well (the car turning a corner, the chair being moved, etc).

So properties aren’t the way to go. What then can we say about events? As usual the place to start looking is with how we ordinarily talk and think about events. One common observation to make of an event is that it produces or causes some other event or events. For example, the car’s failure to start (an event, it failing) caused the professor to arrive late (another event, his arriving). In a similar way we also talk of the interaction between two or more events, often in connection with causation. For example, the forest fire (the forest burning) interacts with the rain (raining); it is caused by the rain to go out. Finally, we often describe an event as being composed of a number of interactions or causal connections, or both. The car’s failure to start, for example, was the event of the key being turned which caused certain events within the engine that interacted to cause the engine to stop. At this point the temptation is, naturally, to go farther along this road and to formalize these relations (and hopefully find a few more in the process). But I think that is going too far for our purposes here. The above examination of the possibilities is enough to show that we can have rich descriptions in an event ontology without resorting to properties.

With some general idea of what an event ontology would be like we can now turn to more substantial questions, such as “what is it good for?” In other words, what can we do with an event ontology that we couldn’t with an object ontology, or at least not easily. Well, consider how we would go about describing a river in an object ontology. Naturally we want to find some object “the river” to which we can ascribe properties, such as fast-flowing, or in-North-Dakota. But this river object is an elusive one; what is it exactly? We can’t identify it with the water because the water flows away. If we did we would never find the same river in the same place, and we would find many rivers in the sea. Indeed this is the problem understood by Heraclitus when he said “one cannot step into the same river twice”. On the other hand, if the river is not the water it is not clear what it is, and its relationship to the water becomes complicated. If the water is hot so is the river, but how can this be if the river is not the water. If the water is only part of the river then what is the rest? There is no uncontroversial object which can be the river for us. At best we will end up with an object that is part abstract, since it isn’t tied to any one bit of stuff, but part physical as well, since it somehow depends on that stuff for some properties. (It is not purely abstract in the same way the number 4 is.)

Of course this problem isn’t limited to rivers. The nature of the mind creates similar issues, since we think that the same mind could, in theory, be embodied in different physical stuff. And, at the same time, it is not independent of the physical stuff it is embodied in. There are also more objects like rivers if we go looking for them. Every organism, for example, is like a river in that its composition is constantly in a state of flux (due to growth, healing, and digestion). Although slower than a river, it is equally impossible to identify a living being with some particular stuff, and equally impossible to separate it from the stuff that composes it.

The problem that object ontologies encounter in such situations, as I understand it, is that an object is, fundamentally, a unified thing. An object is one thing, and the same thing over time. Problems arise, however, when “objects” such as rivers and organisms don’t display the necessary unity and sameness over time. A river is not always some one unified clump of stuff. Events, however, don’t presuppose any sort of unity. Thus it is easy to identify a river with a flowing of water (the event of the water moving). We could say that a particular river is really a particular flowing of water, in a certain way, and in a certain area. This solves Heraclitus’ problem, because even though the river, so understood, flows, it never goes anywhere. It is quite possible to step into the same flow or flowing twice, if not the same water.

To speak about the river (to describe its “properties”) is as simple as speaking about any event. Being hot and being cold, for example, are two events. To say that the river is hot or cold is to say that it has certain interactions with other events of being hot or being cold (to say a river is hot is to say it warms cool things). Organisms and minds can be described similarly. A particular organism is a particular kind of living (biological process). A particular mind is a particular kind of thinking, a particular kind of interactions between its components (events). Thus the same mind (the same event) can be found wherever there are the right interactions. This has exactly the right sort of relationship between the mind and its components; the mind is not identical to them, but nor is it independent of them, since it is their interactions that “produce” it. (Produce understood in the sense of determine it to be, not in the sense of one object causally spitting out another object.)

At this point weaker souls than ourselves might be tempted to conclude that an event ontology is strictly better than an object ontology. After all, there are so many problematic “objects” that it can handle better. The measure of an ontology, however, is not the number of object that we can fit into it. It is more important whether the objects we are interested in fit into it, and whether it is a helpful way to think about them. By that standard it is far from obvious that an event ontology is a superior option. The fact that an object ontology is so natural is not some accident; an object ontology is a generally useful tool to understand the world with. Yes many “objects”, such as living beings, aren’t quite objects proper. But, in most cases, little is lost be considering them to be objects proper in spite of their falling somewhat short of the ideal.

Indeed the defect of the object ontology that we have pointed out as generating a need for an event ontology, its identification of an object with some particular stuff and its strict conditions of identity, is also its greatest strength. Often when we mean to talk about something we want to talk about one particular thing. And we want to be able to re-identify that thing in the future. If I speak about my kitchen table, for example, I mean to talk about that one particular table. And if I mention it again tomorrow I mean to talk about the same table. Think about what would happen to the kitchen table in an event ontology. Instead of talking about that table, the object, we would talk about the being of the table. However, this being of the table, no matter how narrowly specified, is not restricted to just one instance. It is always possible for another table to exist that is another instance of the same event. This is an intrinsic feature of events. It is because they only care about what is happening, and not what is doing the happening, that they can describe things such as rivers in which the substances that are caught up in the event constantly change. But this also means that they are necessarily blind to those substances, such that it is always possible for the same event to occur in multiple places at the same time. From this also follows another unusual consequence: an event ontology is blind to what we normally understand as the continuity of objects over time. Yes, in an event ontology you could say that the being of the table at one time is the same as the being of the table at a subsequent time. But the same could be said of two tables that exist at the same time. Indeed the table could exist, be destroyed, and a copy could be built to replace it and we could end up saying that the being of the first table is the same event as the being of the replacement.

Do these problems “refute” an event ontology? Of course not. But they illustrate that an event ontology is not a universally superior option. It seems to me wisest to stick with an object ontology by default, in part because of its simplicity and familiarity, and to resort to an event ontology only when needed. Specifically when the ever changing nature of things cannot reasonably be ignored.

* Some philosophers like to talk about being. When they do they usually conceive of it as an object or a property (or possibly an indeterminate cause). However “being” is simply “to be”, a verb or event, turned into a noun, which is a product of our natural object ontology. But, given this event ontology, we are free to treat being as an event. Thus the being of the chair would naturally be understood as the event that we equate with the chair. The same goes for existing, subsisting, and so on.

October 21, 2008

Varieties Of Objectivity

Filed under: Ontology — Peter @ 12:38 pm

It is natural to divide the world up into two categories: the objective and the subjective. Matters of fact – cases where an assertion can be either true or false – belong to the objective. And, in contrast, the subjective is a domain where everything goes, where we are free to essentially make things up as we go, and where every opinion must be given equal weight. If we look at the world through this perspective it is easy to conclude that what is really important is the objective. And thus that anything which falls short of being objective, to which the labels true and false do not apply, is unimportant, and at best a kind of entertainment. The advantage of this perspective is that it is simple, and if your interests do lie primarily with those things that are unequivocally objective (the objects of rigorous science, for example) then it is probably good enough. However, there are complexities that this simple picture hides, and sticking to it, and its associated value judgments, can lead to confusion, as anything deemed important is shoehorned into being objective.

To get started with separating the different kinds of things lumped into objectivity by the simple dualistic picture discussed above I will start with pinning down what exactly is subjective. In the strictest, most literal sense, to be subjective is to be something that a particular subject can have complete authority about. For example, whether War and Peace is an enjoyable book is subjective, in this sense, because it is up to each individual whether it is an enjoyable book for them. No one has the authority to overrule them and dictate that they did or did not enjoy it, contrary to their experience of it. Note already that, so defined, to be subjective is distinct from being arbitrary. Although there is no way to speak with authority about subjective matters from a universal standpoint, each individual can speak with authority about the subjective as they see it. In contrast, when it comes to things that are arbitrary no one can speak with authority about them.

From this understanding of subjectivity we can now take a single step towards complete objectivity. Consider shared subjectivity. What could it mean to share something that is subjective? Consider the meaning of the word “oak”. There is a way in which the meaning of the word “oak” is subjective: I experience the word as having a particular meaning, and you cannot overturn my authority about what the word means to me. However, there is also a way in which the meaning of the word is shared, and, despite variations in the way the meaning of the word is experienced, we mean “the same thing” by “oak”. In part this results from my experience of what oak means to me being partially constituted by a desire to mean the same thing as others who use the term. But, even though the meaning of the word is shared between individuals, there is still no perspective from which to make universal pronouncements about the meaning of the word “oak”. It is possible, for example, that there exists another linguistic community that associates a completely different meaning with the word. Thus there is still no universal standpoint from which to authoritatively speak about things shared in this way, although a community’s practices can be considered authoritative about the things they share. Things of this sort I am inclined to call intersubjective. Those things that can be shared from person to person, but would not themselves exist, as such, without people are almost always intersubjective. And so, along with the meaning of words, cultural ideas and values are intersubjective as well.

Another property commonly associated with objectivity is decidability. And I take decidability to be the next step towards complete objectivity. What is decidability? In this context what I mean by decidability is that given a well-formed question a single answer can be produced that everyone will agree on (or, if there is no answer, everyone will agree that there is no answer). Mathematics is decidable in this sense; you can ask “is this a valid proof from axioms A to conclusion B?” and get a definite answer. Note that this should not be confused with mathematical decidability. In some systems there may not be a finite procedure for determining whether a conclusion can be proved or disproved (or neither proved nor disproved) from the premises. I still consider such cases decidable in the sense discussed here because it isn’t the case that in such situations some people will give one answer while others will give another (assuming they haven’t made any mistakes). To go back to the question of “who can speak with authority about such things?” the answer with respect to such domains must be “everyone”, or at least potentially everyone, to the extent that they don’t make mistakes. (And note that for a domain to be properly decidable in this sense whether someone has made a mistake should itself be decidable). Another interesting consequence of decidability is that it implies that the domain can be shared. Fortunately for us this makes the “ascent” to complete objectivity linear, so far, since we don’t have to consider both domains that are decidable but not shared and domains that are decidable and shared.

Now at this point some may think that decidability is as objective as things can get. Mathematics is decidable in this sense, and many assume that it is a paradigm case of objectivity. Granted, mathematics is closer to complete objectivity than the subjective or the intersubjective. But the decidable falls short of being completely objective because of the caveat that the questions asked must be well formed. What does that mean? Well, at least in the context of mathematics, it means that the question must be asked with respect to a certain system or certain axioms. To properly answer “does 2+2 = 4?” one must assume a specific mathematical system that gives meaning to the symbols and provides rules governing their operation. This is not a fact we commonly think about because we are so used to working in particular systems by convention, but the existence of non-standard logics, geometries, and so on demonstrates that it is in fact so. In contrast, when dealing with a question about the physical world, such as “does this glass contain water?” there is no need to pin the question down with respect to a specific system or set of axioms.

Thus the physical world has an extra degree of objectivity that mathematics lacks; it is completely objective. We can pin down the difference by pointing out that, with respect to the physical world, and thus questions about it, there is a single domain of objects that we all have access to. This contrasts with mathematics, where there are as many systems containing points and lines as you like, and so which one we are talking about must be pinned down precisely. But when it comes to the physical world, since there is only one domain of objects that we all are acquainted with, there is no need to pin down which objects we are talking about; our common existence in the physical world pins that down for us. Thus complete objectivity is finally defined: something is completely objective when it deals with a common set of objects we all have access to. And, as with the previous step in our “ascent”, complete objectivity implies decidability, since any question can be definitely answered by appeal to the common world of objects. Thus a hierarchy is established with complete objectivity on top (materially objective), decidability below it (formally objective), intersubjectivity below it, and subjectivity on the bottom (unless we want to include things that are arbitrary below it).

Presented in this way the hierarchy described above surely seems like a rigid ontology, such that everything we experience can be rigidly and finally thrown into one of those divisions. However, in many cases it is possible to move a question from one category to another simply by asking it in a different way. Consider the intersubjective. In its natural form “what is meant by ‘oak’?” belongs to the domain of the intersubjective. But we can rephrase that question by putting it in the form “what does culture X mean by the term ‘oak’?”. Asked in that way it falls under the domain of complete objectivity, since the culture, and the individuals that compose it, are part of that common world of objects we all have access to. Similarly, we can turn questions that fall under complete objectivity into something intersubjective. Normally when we consider a question in the domain of complete objectivity we think only about its content. When asking “are oaks trees?” we are asking about the relations between objects in that common world. However, we don’t have to approach the question in that attitude. Instead we can consider the language the question is asked using to be as important as its worldly content. Thus the question will have the same answer in our native tongue, but will be unintelligible (or possibly have a different answer) in other languages. Under this unconventional approach the question falls under the domain of the intersubjective.

Now our ability to transform questions in this way should not mislead us into thinking that everything is subjective, or intersubjective, or completely objective. Nor should we jump to the conclusion that if we can address every question, after appropriate transformations, under one domain that we no longer need the others. When we transform a question in the way described above we change its content. A question that was completely objective is about objects in the common world. Transforming it into a form that is intersubjective also transforms it into being about shared ideas, values, and language. And the content of one domain can never be wholly captured in another, because the intersubjective, for example, is essentially intersubjective and can never be captured, as is, by complete objectivity. At best some of the features of intersubjective things may find a reflection in some completely objective description. To be more precise: part of what a particular bit of intersubjectivity is is how it is experienced, subjectively, by individuals (patterns of how it is experienced). But that “how it is experienced” is necessarily shaved away by any objective treatment, leaving only facts about patterns of behavior and the use of language. Similarly, trying to understand mathematics as an obscure way of talking about how particular things interact loses the sense in which formal mathematics has the ability to be applied to anything and the sense in which the particular formal system being used is an arbitrary choice.

To conclude allow me to briefly discuss some of the benefits of this more complicated picture. Philosophically it can assist us in resolving issues that arise from taking subjectivity and objectivity to be two mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories. For example, intuitions are rejected as a guide to the objective by many. But then mathematics, and mathematical intuitions, become problematic, as it would seem to imply that mathematics is subjective. Since many take the subjective to be the domain of unsubstantiated opinions, and worthless, this may seem unacceptable. Obviously all such problems are eliminated when we have more than two categories. A second benefit of the more complicated picture is that it can help us overcome the idea that the subjective is bad and the objective is good. We can now reject the arbitrary as truly worthless, while accepting that the other levels of objectivity may have something going for them. For example, by being only decidable mathematics is a useful tool since it can theoretically be applied to anything. Similarly the subjective and intersubjective, may capture aspects of the human experience, which may be worthwhile even if we can’t build a bridge with them. Or maybe not. But at least with a more nuanced picture our options are open.

December 6, 2006


Filed under: Ontology — Peter @ 1:07 am

Region are an invention of Husserl, which he defines as a kind of ultimate abstraction. That is to say that when you abstract as much away as you possibly can you are left with the regions. Husserl doesn’t say how many regions there are but he refers to three of them: consciousness, nature, and culture. I think the idea of regions is an interesting one, but it needs some detail work. For example what stops us from abstracting away from both culture and nature with some new generality (like cultural-natural thing)? For that matter why can’t “thing” or “being” be an ultimate abstraction, leaving us with only one region?

To answer these concerns I think Husserl might lean on the content of our abstraction. Generally when we abstract we are taking away properties. For example we abstract from cat and dog to get animal (or mammal, ect) because animal-ness is a property both cats and dogs have. After removing some of the requirements from what it takes to be a cat, and some of the requirements from what it takes to be a dog, we are left with the requirements to be an animal (or a mammal, or any of the categories both cat and dog fall under). So Husserl might block the abstraction to “thing” because there are no requirements to be a thing, and he might block combining regions by arguing that we are doing to opposite of abstraction to combine them, we are adding properties (i.e. it must be A or B).

On the surface this doesn’t seem problematic, and it might be perfectly acceptable for a phenomenological ontology, but when dealing with the real world we have come to realize that sometimes what we thought were simple properties are actually rather complex, and are themselves defined by other properties. For example we might think that being a certain temperature was a simple property. But it turns out that in reality being a certain temperature is defined in terms of average molecular motion, meaning that our temperature property is really built out of properties of molecular motion. And this in turn means that we could abstract from heat, for example by abstracting only one kind of molecular motion. So to avoid mistakenly thinking that we are at the end of abstraction when we are not we need to add the extra requirement that the properties that are “ultimate” be simple, which is to say that they can’t de defined in terms of other properties.

And this creates a problem for some of Husserl’s regions, because we know that we can define the cultural and the mental in terms of the physical. And thus that they aren’t really as abstract as we can get, really everything would fall under the region of nature.

But even if Husserl’s regions were misguided I don’t think the idea was necessarily a bad one, we just might want to draw our divisions in a different place. For example I would think that we could legitimately define a region of sets (or some other ultimate mathematical entity). The justification here is that the property of being a certain number of things (which can ultimately be defined in terms of sets) is a property that can apply to objects that have nothing else in common. Of course we are also still left with the region of nature, which I think we should say includes the fundamental particles that make up all matter and energy. These regions I see as indisputable, but they clearly don’t cover everything, and in covering the rest things become a bit shaky.

Obviously we also want a region that covers the ability of two things to be related. The real question is if this region covers space-time as well. Certainly special relations are a kind of relation, but this leaves us wondering where the geometry of space-time should go. It is also a bit of a tricky question as to where a process should go. We might be able to describe it as a complicated relation, between objects at different times, but I don’t think that we can be completely sure that this isn’t missing something.

And given these regions (I assume with one or more regions covering the ground I have loosely sketched out as relation) we can see how Husserl’s regions can be fitted into them. Nature is still nature, although macroscopic objects are a combination of natural properties (fundamental particles) and the relations between them. Similarly the regions of culture and consciousness are abstracted into a kind of process (relation) that takes place with certain natural objects (people).

Final note for the easily confused: This is not to say that sets or relations have some kind of independent existence (although others, mathematical realists, would make this claim). All this talk of regions is simply ontological musings inspired by Husserl, it is hard to even see what practical import it could have. It is however interesting to occasionally abstractly think about abstraction, and this is all that it is.

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