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.

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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.

January 21, 2009

Ownership And Its Paradoxes

Filed under: Society,The Good Life — Peter @ 1:14 pm

Ownership is a strange thing. Unlike possession, ownership is not easily defined in physical terms. Possession we can define as having physical control over something. Thus if I hold a thing in my hand I possess it. But I also possess it if I keep it locked in my safe, since that keeps it under my control, even in my absence. Ownership is not the same as possession. It is quite possible to possess something that you do not own, and to lack possession over something that you do own; if it were impossible there would be no such thing as theft.

Because ownership, unlike possession, cannot be defined in purely physical terms we are faced with three possible strategies for defining it. First, ownership could be a matter of convention, such that to own something is to have ownership of it according to some rules (the conventions), which lay out in more detail what conditions, physical or otherwise, grant and transfer ownership. This is the legal view – that of the courts, which appeal only to the law to decide matters of ownership. Thus if the law changes so does who owns what. Secondly, ownership could be defined in terms of the popular or prevailing attitude, such that you would only own something if it was the consensus that you owned it. Finally, ownership could be defined as a personal attitude: essentially that you own something if and only if you think that you own it.

Let’s consider the first possibility, that ownership is a matter of convention. Suppose this were so. Then the question arises: which convention? There are so many conventions, both existing and possible, that for any object we could find some convention under which I own it and another under which I don’t. For this to be a meaningful definition of ownership we must pin down which conventions, exactly, determine what I own. And to do that there are two natural possibilities: the prevailing conventions or those that I personally choose accept. If it is the first then this option essentially reduces to the second strategy for defining ownership; I own something only if it is the prevailing opinion that I own it. And if it is the second then this option reduces to the third strategy; I own something only if I think that I own it. And so we are left with only two possibilities to consider.

Now let’s turn to the second possibility, that I own something only if it is the prevailing opinion that I do. Of course the prevailing opinion is subject to change, people change, and conventions change. Thus whether I own something would change as well, independent of any changes in me, the thing, or my relationship to it. Which is to say that one day I may own the items in my safe because it is generally agreed that this is so, but upon waking up the next day it may not be so because the general agreement had changed while I was sleeping. Such is the nature of things that are socially constructed. This means that, under this definition, my ownership of something is itself determined by, controlled if you will, by the majority opinion. And thus the majority would possesses my ownership, as strange as that may sound. They would possess my ownership of a thing because it is within their power to take it away from me. Can I really own a thing if I don’t possess the ownership itself? Or, in other words, can I maintain that I own something when my ownership of it is so vulnerable? It would appear that under this view it is the majority who really own things, and that they simply let me borrow them for a while. Thus, under this definition there really is no such thing as individual ownership.

If we wish to maintain that personal ownership is possible it looks like we are left with the third possibility: that I own something if I think that I own it. So defined, I do possess my ownership of things, because it is fully under my control, modulo scenarios of mind control, whether I do or don’t conceive of myself as owning a thing. Well, at least it is under my control to a certain extent. I am still free to abdicate that control to the majority or to some convention; I could come to believe that I only owned something when that convention dictated that it was so, or when the majority agreed with me. If I abdicated my choice of what to view as owned in this way I would indeed lack control over my beliefs about ownership. The result would be a contradictory situation where I would both own something because of my belief that I owned it, and lack ownership because I lacked control over my beliefs about what I owned. (This contradiction is merely verbal, though.) However, this still leaves the possibility open for other people to seize their freedom (seize control over their beliefs rather than abdicating them to the majority or to convention), and thus individual ownership may still exist.

The other factor that influences whether I believe that I own something is my ability to exercise my ownership over it. Exercising your ownership over something is to bring it into your possession. For example, suppose that I have loaned one of my books to a friend. I do not possess that book – it is out of my control – but I still think that I own it. Eventually I may want the book back, thus I will attempt to exercise my ownership; I will attempt to make my friend return it to me. If my friend agrees to certain conventions of ownership, or is simply a nice guy, then he will return it to me. And if he doesn’t I may attempt to have society at large recover that book for me (e.g. via the police), which is another way to exercise ownership. But if all those methods fail, and I am unable to regain possession of the book when I want to, i.e. if the exercise of my ownership fails, then I will come to believe that the book is lost to me. In other words, that I no longer own it. Thus what we can own is also limited by a conjunction of external circumstances and situations in which we want to exercise our ownership. We are free to believe that we own whatever we want, but as soon as we try to exercise that ownership we are reduced to being able to own only what the situation, other people, and society in general, will grant possession of to us. Any attempt to exercise our ownership limits our ownership, in cases where we don’t currently possess a thing, to the limits set by convention and the majority opinion.

Two unusual conclusions follow from this analysis of ownership. First, that the more we attempt to exercise our ownership over things the less we will actually own. Many such exercises (where we don’t already possess the thing) grant control over our ownership to society at large, since if they chose they could prevent that exercise from being successful. These exercises of ownership amount to giving up the thing in the hope that it will be given back, which is far from certain. Thus the less we try to exercise our ownership the more we will keep. From this the second unusual conclusion follows: that the man who desires nothing owns everything. Because, desiring nothing, such a man would never be inclined to exercise his ownership. And thus he would be free to own whatever he wanted, since his ownership would be constrained only by his choices about what to believed that he owned, which themselves are completely unconstrained.

October 31, 2008

Guzen and Hitsuzen

Filed under: Free Will,The Good Life — Peter @ 11:35 pm

Let me begin this piece by introducing two technical terms, guzen and hitsuzen. Both are stolen from Japanese, and their translations come out to being something like coincidence or chance and fate or destiny, respectively. While I could simply repurpose the English terms “coincidence” and “fate” I think they are already too loaded with meaning, and thus that our intuitions about them are bound to get in the way. So, as an aid in avoiding confusion with our intuitive conceptual scheme, I introduce guzen and hitsuzen. By guzen I will designate things that happen by chance, not in the sense that occur probabilistically, but in the sense that they occur by happenstance and aren’t part of some larger scheme. Thus events that fall in the domain of guzen are meaningless, in the sense that that they are unconnected to other events and thus signify nothing beyond themselves, certainly not some larger scheme or goal. In contrast hitsuzen is the opposite of guzen. Events that fall under the domain of hitsuzen happen in accordance with some scheme, plan, or design. Thus hitsuzen is meaningful in exactly the way that guzen isn’t. Events that fall under hitsuzen can be understood as connected to other events within that scheme, and thus signify the scheme and its ends as a whole. To speak in philosophical terms for a moment: hitsuzen manifests teleology, i.e. goals or ends, while guzen does not.

Once the categories are defined the next question to consider is how to deploy them. Three possibilities immediately present themselves. First everything, or at least everything important might be hitsuzen, i.e. part of some larger plan. Secondly the world could be a mixture of hitsuzen and guzen. Finally, there may only be guzen; with any appearance of hitsuzen being simply a kind of delusion or illusion.

If everything, or everything significant, is hitsuzen then the natural question to ask is: what is the overarching plan? The obvious religious answer is that the overarching plan is a divine one. In fact a religious perspective would seem to necessitate that everything is hitsuzen. If god is omnipotent and interested in what happens in the world then the idea that some things go against god’s intent contradicts his supposed omnipotence (since omnipotence cannot be opposed). Or, if god falls short of being omnipotent because he is opposed by some equally powerful, but evil, divinity, then it would seem that everything is still hitsuzen, although whose plan an event is in accordance with becomes an open question. I don’t, however, think the implicature in the other direction holds; it is not necessary to have a religious perspective in order to believe that hitsuzen dominates. It is possible to look at the natural laws as a kind of hitsuzen, for example. More plausibly, some see large-scale events as being the work of historical, social, or evolutionary forces that are beyond the control of individuals. These forces can be seen as creating a kind of hitsuzen connecting major events.

Of course not everyone finds the idea of universal, or near universal, hitsuzen plausible. There is something undeniably compelling about seeing the natural world as being devoid of hitsuzen. Sure, there are natural laws that determine which events occur, but those laws are devoid of meaning. They don’t appear to stitch together the events into a plan. Meaning, it would seem, is a purely human construction. But the world is not composed simply of things bumping up against one another in the dark. People do exist, and people can impose meaning on the world. Thus under this view the world is naturally all guzen, but in this world of guzen people create hitsuzen though their choices. Naturally this view sparks further questions. What happens when the domains of hitsuzen generated by individual lives come into contact with each other? Do they come together to form a unified hitsuzen, one that structures society as a whole? Or do they conflict, reducing the areas where they rub up against each other to guzen again? Such questions are beyond the scope of this piece.

Finally, we are brought to the third possibility. Like the previous picture it accepts the idea that fundamentally the natural world is nothing more than guzen. However, it rejects the idea that people can create hitsuzen. After all, there is nothing ultimately supernatural about people, and so, if nature cannot create hitsuzen, neither can individuals. Of course people see themselves as living in a world of hitsuzen, but that hitsuzen is not real, it is all in the mind. And this view may seem vindicated when things don’t go as they should or events escape control. Such occurrences may seem to demonstrate that hitsuzen is really an illusion.

I advocate the idea that philosophical theories, such as the three that were just mentioned, are really philosophical perspectives, and that there isn’t a definitive answer about which is right and which is wrong; they can only be more or less useful. However, under that view I am obligated to say a bit about how they might be useful, to who, and why. But to do that an additional element needs to be introduced: the human element. Because it is not clear, at least under the first and third perspective, how people fit into the picture, and thus it isn’t clear what implications accepting one of them would have, either in terms of how we go about our business or live our lives. The missing human element, I think, is free will or free choice.

But is free human choice a manifestation of guzen or hitsuzen? The answer will depend on which perspective the question is asked in. The “obvious” answer is that hitsuzen excludes free will, that when events fit into a larger picture the individual is no longer free to choose. Certainly that seems like the kind of answer that would have to be given under the first perspective discussed, where most events are attributed to hitsuzen. Exactly what the significance of this is depends on the precise variation. If hitsuzen is essentially god’s plan then being deprived of free choice can be comforting, because it implies that really everything is directed towards some good end and that it is impossible for individuals to make mistakes or interfere with that end. Thus, even if you make a mistake and do something that appears wrong from a human perspective, it was really all part of hitsuzen, and in the long run will turn out to be good. Alternately, if everything is hitsuzen because of two or more competing divine plans, then there may be room for guzen, and thus free choice, where the two plans rub up against each other. Specifically, it could be the case that under one plan some event is supposed to occur but under the other it is supposed to be prevented. Then, the omnipotence of both agents canceling out, which occurs is guzen, and so might be affected by free human choice. Thus under this perspective free choice plays a small but crucial role in deciding between the two divine plans. Finally, if, under the last version of this perspective, the large-scale events are all directed by hitsuzen, then free choice, and guzen, remains only in the small things. This justifies the view that what is really important is the small things, since only over them do we have a measure of control.

Each of these variations will appeal to different people in different circumstances. The first, where there effective is no free human choice, may be appealing to those who feel powerless; the idea of a divine plan directing things may be comforting. Such a perspective may also be necessary for someone who is being destroyed by guilt, since it assures them that, in the long run, everything will turn out all right. Finally, the perspective may be useful to someone who has rejected conventional morality altogether, since it effectively justifies them doing whatever they please (since whatever they do must necessarily be part of the divine plan). The second variation, in contrast to the first, suits those who want to be empowered rather than disempowered. Some believe that for something to be meaningful it has to be meaningful in a grand way, to contribute to some humanity or universe spanning picture. And this perspective gives them just that, in the form of a role in deciding between divine plans. What could be more important than that? The third variation seems aimed at those who have come to realize how little their life means in the grand scheme of things and are depressed by it. Consider Bob the office worker. Bob realizes that he is nothing more than a cog in the machine at his work. He is easily replaceable. And, more distressingly, the company he works for isn’t even doing something really important. For a long time Bob had his own private ambitions to write the great American novel. However, after a series of disappointments, he has come to realize that he doesn’t have the necessary genius. To feel better about himself he tells himself that what becomes the great American novel is determined by social forces and luck; that it is outside of the control of individual people. Thus Bob comes to think of the world as dominated by hitsuzen; social forces, of which his company is part of, guide what happens, and Bob is simply swept along by them. Naturally this makes Bob unhappy. However, Bob comes to realize that not everything is controlled by these social forces. The details of Bob’s life, for example his choice to maintain a small garden out back, are his and his alone. Bob thus comes to believe that this is the most anyone could ask for; everyone is subject to hitsuzen when it comes to the big things, even the great American novelist. We can only control the small things, and thus to us they are what should really matter. And Bob is making the most out of the small things that he can through his garden. So Bob is leading the best life that can be lived, given the prevalence of hitsuzen.

However, under the second perspective the connection between free choice and hitsuzen is reversed. Instead of excluding free choice hitsuzen is most naturally understood as the consequence of free choice. Meaning is essentially tied to people, because only people have the kinds of goals and plans that can produce hitsuzen. And these goals are manifested through their free choices (in contrast to their unfree actions, which they are unable to direct towards their own ends). Thus, logically, through a series of free choices hitsuzen is imposed on the world. Now who would this perspective appeal to? Consider James. Unlike Bob, James is a successful author. James is still employed, in a loose sense, by other people, but he has the ability to decide what he wants to write for himself. Moreover James likes being an author; he finds fulfillment in being an author. Perhaps James seems better off than Bob (although I think that natural assumption is highly questionable), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t faced with his own set of issues. Like Bob, the question of what matters and why presents itself to James. James does not want to surrender his life to an all encompassing hitsuzen, as under the first perspective, because that would diminish what he thinks of as most important (his being an author), by subjugating it to some larger purpose. But yet he still wants to find meaning somewhere, in part to justify his being an author and spending so much effort on being an author. Thus this perspective is a perfect fit for James. It tells him that the things he has devoted much of his life to, his being an author, are a kind of hitsuzen, a personal kind of hitsuzen that is centered around the things that he is most devoted to.

Finally, under the third perspective, which says that everything is guzen, free choice can be associated either with guzen or hitsuzen. To associate free choice with hitsuzen under this perspective is to turn it into a kind of nihilism. Specifically it is to assert, as under the previous perspective discussed, that free choices would be a kind of imposition of hitsuzen on the world. However, this perspective denies that the world can manifest hitsuzen, and thus it denies the possibility of free choice, so conceived. And so, under this version of the perspective, there is nothing we can do but be moved by chance from one meaningless event to another. However, we don’t have to be so negative. Free choice could also be associated with guzen under this perspective. What that amounts to is an assertion of absolute freedom. If there is no hitsuzen, no structure, then the freedom we have is complete freedom; every choice can be made as if it was the first choice, independently of any other choices that we have made or will make. While that won’t appeal to Bob, who sees an obvious, and sometimes oppressive, hitsuzen and wants to be able to live well within it, or to James, whose life is centered around a few important things and wants to understand how they can be meaningful, it may suit John. Unlike Bob and James, John’s life is not strongly ordered. He does not keep one job for years on end. Instead John moves from job to job, and many of his jobs are unconventional. And, unlike James, he does not have a single dominating interest. Many things interest John, and even though he is most interested in playing the trombone now he might be big into painting next year. John has a different problem than Bob and James; John probably thinks that his life should have some meaning, but because of his nature to go from one thing to another it is hard for him to interpret his own life as describing some plan or being part of one. Adopting this third perspective allows John to give up those expectations; it’s not that John’s life is falling short by being meaningless, it’s that everything is meaningless. And, moreover, it also picks out John’s life as something special: under this perspective Bob and James are fooling themselves to an extent, to the extent that they see the world as containing hitsuzen. However, free choice is in the domain of guzen, and so their false belief in the existence of hitsuzen is blinding them to their own freedom. Bob doesn’t realize that he is free to leave his boring job for something else, and James won’t allow himself to see that he is free to give up being an author for something else, at any time, without suffering any loss. John, in contrast to those two, is making full use of his freedom.

Thus I have shown how at least one variation on each of the perspectives on guzen and hitsuzen presented may be attractive. But is that enough? My position on philosophy, discussed previously, is that philosophical perspectives are a kind of conceptual/intellectual tool and should be judged accordingly. And it would seem that we could draw a distinction between being attractive and being useful. If I have shown only how these perspectives may be attractive then I haven’t done enough. But I think I have done more than show that they can be attractive, I think I have shown how they can make life better, or at least more tolerable, and that their attractiveness results from that. The perspectives discussed help Bob, James, and John be satisfied with their own lives. And, since dissatisfaction with ones life is a problem, these perspectives are thus demonstrated to be useful, inasmuch as they help deal with that problem. And with that I rest my case.

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