Pure Objective Reason

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

As immanent, being-itself is just the ultimate nature of every natural thing.  So, how does this immanent being-itself manifest itself?  It manifests itself in all the categories of nature.   These are the categories of naturalistic ontology.  To use some language from Nicholas of Cusa, these categories are derived from the self-unfolding of being-itself.  This unfolding is a self-sundering which in which being-itself splits into subordinate universals (which contrast with one another).  Another name for this self-unfolding is the Greek term physis, from which we get our concept of nature and from which we take the name physics.

The categorical structure of an ontology is traditionally presented in a taxonomic tree.  The root of the tree is the most generic universal (the deepest universal); as the tree branches, the more general categories divide into more specific categories.  The tree is a genus-species taxonomy.  It’s like listing the taxons of an organism: Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species.  For instance, being-itself splits into the categories of universal and particular; within the category of particulars, it splits into the mathematical , geometrical, and material; within the material, it splits into the simple and the complex; within the simple, it splits into quarks and leptons and bosons; within quarks it splits into the types of quarks.  Thus, after a long series of divisions, being-itself manifests itself in the types of entities found in our best physical ontologies.

Any immanent universal is a form; it is a logos.  As the ultimate immanent universal, being-itself is the ultimate logos.  A logos is an immanent rational pattern or structure – it is the logic of some domain of being.  The logos is an old Stoic concept (that is, it is an old pagan concept).  As the ultimate logos unfolds into contrastive categories, each category has its own logos – the logic of its own specific partial domain of being.  Scientific theories describe these specific logoi.  Thus biology is the logos of the category that contains all living things.  The axioms of set theory encode the logos of containment.  Tillich (1951: 23) gives a nice description of the logos and its relation with pure reason:

The philosopher looks at the whole of reality to discover within it the structure of reality as a whole.  He tries to penetrate into the structures of being by means of the power of his cognitive function and its structures.  He assumes – and science continuously confirms this assumption – that there is an identity, or at least an analogy, between objective and subjective reason, between the logos of reality as a whole and the logos working in him.  Therefore, this logos is common; every reasonable being participates in it, uses it in asking questions and criticizing the answers received.  There is no particular place to discover the structure of being; there is no particular place to stand to discover the categories of experience.  The place to look is all places; the place to stand is no place at all; it is pure reason. (1951: 23)

For those atheists who are positivists, all this is anathema.   All this is metaphysics, and positivists hate metaphysics.  But not all atheists are positivists.  Some atheists are likely to affirm the power of pure reason – those atheists are rationalists.  Being-itself is identical with its own logos; it is pure objective reason.  It is the object of scientific study.  And thinking or acting in which the logos in you corresponds to the logos of being-itself is truthful. And, despite its abstractness, all this reasoning remains wholly within nature.  Atheists who are naturalists are certainly free to agree with it.

It is entirely consistent with atheism to affirm that being-itself is real, and that it is sacred or holy.  To be sure, terms like sacred and holy are merely valuational – the sacred is that which has ontological value, while the holy is that which arouses aesthetic-affective reactions like wonder and awe.  The affirmation of the sacredness or holiness of being-itself is equivalent to the affirmation that reason and truth are sacred or holy.

Some atheists might be willing to refer to being-itself as divine.  For others, that affirmation is too close to thinking of being-itself as a god.  However, it would be an error to think of being-itself as a god of any kind.  It cannot be either anthropomorphized or even reified.  Being-itself is not an idol. If gods are the objects of worship, then being-itself cannot be worshipped.  That would be idolatry.  Perhaps some atheists would say that, since it is sacred or holy, it can be revered, where reverence is a positive attitude towards that which has value.   Reverence for being-itself is entirely consistent with atheism.

References:

Tillich, P. (1951) Systematic Theology.  Vol. 1.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • felicis

    How can something be ‘holy’ (see definition) or ‘sacred’ (definition) in the absence of a god? You use another meaning for these words (see below), but I fail to see any justification for doing so other than to avoid the obvious problem re: atheism.

    “It is entirely consistent with atheism to affirm that being-itself is real, and that it is sacred or holy.”

    Clearly not if you use the definitions for these words commonly used by non-philosophers (and, for all I know, most philosophers as well).

    “To be sure, terms like sacred and holy are merely valuational – the sacred is that which has ontological value, while the holy is that which arouses aesthetic-affective reactions like wonder and awe.”

    What on earth does it mean to ‘have ontological value’? And why don’t you use ‘wonderful’ or ‘awe inspiring’ instead of misusing ‘holy’?

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Thanks for the comment! But watch out when embedding multiple links – the WordPress spam filter put your comment in the spam bucket, from whence I retrieved it.

      I’ll admit that it’s annoying for me to use terms in their technical senses rather than in their popular dictionary senses. But my uses of “holy” and “sacred” are standard in philosophy of religion as well as in theology. Religious naturalists also use the terms this way, including such atheistic religious naturalists as Goodenough and Crosby. I don’t have my Dawkins in front of me, but I believe he uses “sacred” in this same sense (tho I don’t recall him ever using the term “holy”).

      Technically, the term “holy” gets its philosophical-theological meaning from Rudolph Otto’s brilliant book The Idea of the Holy. The concept of the “sacred” comes from writers like Mircea Eliade and Emile Durkheim. These concepts are also usually influenced by the writings of William James, in his The Varieties of Religious Experience.

      Sorry if that’s all too academic – but there it is. The sacred is distinguished from the profane; it is that which has the deepest or most profound value, existential or ontological value. And the holy is that which arouses wonder or awe, typically in an extreme way, which breaks down the normal operations of things. The holy is thus an event or thing in which the sacred reveals itself as such. None of this needs to be associated with any god.

      The danger of dictionaries is that they encode only the most culturally dominant meanings. If you look in a dictionary written in a mainly Christian culture, you’ll get Christian meanings.

    • grung0r

      Technically, the term “holy” gets its philosophical-theological meaning from Rudolph Otto’s brilliant book The Idea of the Holy.

      SO “holy” was defined for philosophers by a German theologian in 1917? Was a vote taken? Did everyone get a vote, or did you have to be loyal to the Kaiser? Should we ignore all philosophical or theological texts using “holy” before this 1917, as the meaning had yet to be discovered?

      No, obviously that’s all ridiculous. Votes don’t generally get taken on the meaning of words(“planet” being a notable exception, and you will notice that even within the confines of science, that vote was filled with acrimony and disagreement), and the meaning of words can’t be “discovered”. This is yet another in a long string of incidents involving you suggesting or outright asserting that your favorite little pet theories are universally accepted.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ Russell

    Thus, after a long series of divisions, being-itself manifests itself in the types of entities found in our best physical ontologies.

    I like physical ontologies, because they are part of physical theories, and thus explicitly conjectural and dependent on how well the physical theory holds up to testing. There’s the interesting question for the metaphysician where to marry his philosophical ontology to physical ontologies. What if physics changes, and those parts of the tree no longer match? Kant famously made Euclidean space part of his metaphysical schema. Then, physics left that behind.

    One doesn’t have to be a positivist to be skeptical of metaphysics.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Skepticism is central to philosophy – even skepticism about skepticism. Metaphysics usually is thought of as dealing with the very high-level categories of an ontology, the ones that show up in the background logic (e.g. particulars, universals, abstract, concrete).

      But you raise a good point: every metaphysics has to be open to further scientific refinement. But how is that different from science? Scientific theories are always undergoing revision. Philosophies also have to be open to revision.

      One of the deepest differences between Abrahamic religions and science is that the Abrahamic religions are fixed in time — anchored to old books. An atheistic nature-religion, if such a thing is possible, would have to be open to revision in the same ways that science is open to revision.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      But how is that different from science? Scientific theories are always undergoing revision. Philosophies also have to be open to revision.

      Hmmmmm…

      I would say, in the scientific context, that the ontology serves merely as a way of expressing a theory. And in fact, might change for different expressions of the same theory. Phase space, as in Hamiltonian mechanics, is every bit as real as ordinary space. And classical mechanics is in some sense the same theory, in any of its formulations.

      In my view, there is an important logical (maybe linguistic?) point that exemplifies. Ontologies are an aspect of the language used to discuss a domain. The “labels” are something we invent and apply.

    • Dan L.

      Yes, I was thinking of trying to make a similar point (very well said, by the way). I think there’s a few deeper objections to philosophical ontologies that are accessible to pretty much anyone, not just nominalists and positivists.

      One objection might be to point out that an “ontology” is a particular mathematical structure: a directed acyclic combinatorial graph. But if that’s true then Eric’s ontology as described here must be self-referential: the whole ontology has to appear again within itself a few steps down. If we need the top few nodes of the graph to justify mathematical entities then the argument becomes circular: the primacy of the top-level categories can’t be justified without reference to the structure of ontologies in general which are only justified once we justify the top-level categories (which can’t be justified without reference to the structure of ontologies, etc.).

      This points to another objection which is that perhaps the true structure of the universe is not ontological. For example, what if reality is an undirected cyclic combinatorial graph? If you start from any one vertex in such a graph and try to “map” outwards from that point you’ll end up with something isomorphic to an ontology and that would explain why knowledge seems ontological in many ways. And this shows that one can be “fooled” into thinking an ontology might be the correct data structure to represent reality when in actuality it is not.

      There are other objections relating to the “being/becoming” distinction, to causality, to the nature of time, the ontological status of concepts like “pressure,” “heat,” “entropy,” and “information.” For each of these things, it’s rather easy to argue that one cannot correctly characterize them by using an atemporal concept of “existence”; these things seem to require explanations in terms of process.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      There’s no reason an ontology has to be a directed acyclic graph; most are, but that’s just the way it turns out. It could be otherwise, tho it would be logically odd. And there’s no reason that any ontology would have any vicious circularity or self-reference. To say that ontologies are things that fall under their own categories need not be vicious. I”m now writing a comment; part of my comment includes “I’m now writing a comment”. That’s both true, non-vicious, and trivial. And “word” is a word. My ontology includes mathematical structures; it therefore includes categorial graphs of various types (DAGs and otherwise). That’s both true, non-vicious, and trivial.

    • Dan L.

      Eric, I think all these things are arguable — which is exactly my point. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about any particular ontology. More to the point there’s good reasons to be skeptical of philosophical ontologies in general.

      There’s no reason an ontology has to be a directed acyclic graph; most are, but that’s just the way it turns out.

      I’m fairly certain ontologies are defined to be directed acyclic graphs. When you say “it” could be otherwise it’s not clear what you mean. Yes, the word “ontology” could be defined to mean something else, trivially. But “ontology” definitely implies directionality — more particular categories nesting within more general categories. I’m not familiar with any more general use of the word “ontology.” Please provide citations if you’d like me to believe otherwise.

      And there’s no reason that any ontology would have any vicious circularity or self-reference. To say that ontologies are things that fall under their own categories need not be vicious. I”m now writing a comment; part of my comment includes “I’m now writing a comment”. That’s both true, non-vicious, and trivial.

      Let me try to be a little clearer about my objection here. You claim that the nature of the universe can be described ontologically — that there is a root node that is some most fundamental concept and then other nodes that “inherit” from that node. In your scheme, we justify the “existence of mathematical entities” from a pre-existing ontology of particulars and whatever else — just imagine the “subontology” that doesn’t YET include mathematical entities.

      But then how can we say we have anything at all? What we’re looking at is a mathematical entity but we haven’t yet justified the existence of mathematical entities. And we’re going to try to use our mathematical entity to justify the existence of mathematical entities. To me that looks like a vicious circle. Perhaps you disagree but you certainly haven’t addressed my objection: that your justification of the existence of “categorical maps” is itself “demonstrated” by using a categorical map (whose existence has not yet been justified).

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I confess that I don’t get it. Consider object-oriented programming: my C++ compiler or Smalltalk interpreter comes equipped with an ontology (it’s class hierarchy). That hierarchy is a directed acyclic graph. Within that ontology, one could easily construct a directed acyclic graph (DAG) class, and one could even directly clone the structure of the enclosing class hierarchy as an instance of that DAG class. No problem.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I should also add that you’re right to raise cautions: vicious circularities have destroyed plenty of ontologies, like naive set theory, with its unrestricted comprehension axiom.

  • SAWells

    Eric, why should I believe that a single one of the things you claim about being-itself, self-unfolding, logoi etc. is actually true?

    And you are still persistently saying that whatever imaginary thing you’re fond of is “entirely consistent with atheism”; but everything other than the existence of gods is compatible with atheism! Stalinism and coprophilia are entirely consistent with atheism, so what on earth is the point of constantly harping on about it?

  • grung0r

    onsider object-oriented programming: my C++ compiler or Smalltalk interpreter comes equipped with an ontology(it’s class hierarchy)…Within that ontology, one could easily construct a directed acyclic graph (DAG) class, and one could even directly clone the structure of the enclosing class hierarchy as an instance of that DAG class. No problem.

    The compiler in your analogy is what allows the escape from circularity. A complier’s “ontology” is justified not by the fact that it’s rational, but because when it complies code, classes and their hierarchies are ultimately symbolically representative of hard-coded binary mathematics.

    A better programming analogy for your ontology would be pseudo- code. Sure, you can write all sorts of rational rules and class hierarchies, but in the end describes nothing, and thus is little more than a masturbatory exercise for your own amusement.

  • KG

    For those atheists who are positivists, all this is anathema. – Eric Steinhart

    As others have said, you don’t need to be a positivist to find the OP repulsive, on a blog in FTB. It consists of nothing but unsupported assertion and waffly religiosity. Ontologies can be very useful, and some encapsulate fundamental features of reality better than others, but the belief that there is one correct ontology is naive in the extreme. As rturpin said:
    “in the scientific context, that the ontology serves merely as a way of expressing a theory.
    And in fact, might change for different expressions of the same theory.”

    • KG

      Sorry, I failed to complete an edit on that. No-one else has said the OP is repulsive; what they have said is that you need not be a positivist to be sceptical of metaphysics.


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