June 4, 2021

Luke Breuer kindly responded to my request and provided a critique of my position of conceptual nominalism recently. I hope to look at his claims and analyse them in my reply here today.

I have a forthcoming book that sets out my position with a lot more depth and clarity (Why I am Atheist and Not a Theist), so you’ll have to grab that out to get to greater grips with my position. For other background reading, see the links at the bottom of this piece or throughout.

One of the first things he implied is that the position is not common:

Jonathan is a pretty big fan of ‘conceptual nominalism’, saying that “the discussions [about concepts/​universals] are crucial to the rest of metaphysics”. It’s not a common term: google: "conceptual nominalism" returns only 1250 results, of which 92 come from Tippling. See for example The Pertinence of Nominalism to Religious and Philosophical Debates.

Just to clarify, the term is most often used as “conceptualism”, which itself returns a much bigger 593,000 results, so is a lot more common as an idea when termed in this way.

Definitions

My position is that abstracta – and these can include “universals” like redness, as well as “morality”, “justice”, “hero” and “chair” – exist only in the minds of conceivers. When we agree, we write dictionaries and encyclopedias, and when we feel strongly about certain (moral, but also definitional) abstracta, we encode them into law, and ideally enforce them. When we disagree on previous encoding, we change documents (e.g. Amendments to the Constitution), change laws or vote governments out in order to do this.

Life and history have been a constant battle towards agreement. We tend towards agreement. Or do we? Look at the polarisation of US politics and then ask whether we do. One side claims they have access to objective morality because they have God on their side, the other sometimes claim they have it because they have inalienable human rights on their side. Of course, even if objective abstracta such as morality did exist, neither side can indubitably know that they have jibed with it in their beliefs. And so we continue to argue, using philosophy and rationality (hopefully) to try to arrive at reasonable conclusions.

It is interesting that he rightly links conceptualism to morality since the term refers to abstracts and abstract ideas, and morality is arguably one of the most important members of this set. He lays it out in this way:

  1. Objective

    1. There is some cosmic enforcer of justice who will ultimately get his/her/its way.
    2. There is some mind-independent Form of Justice we can (and will) access increasingly well.
  2. Subjective/Relative

    1. Human concepts of justice will change over time and they will judge the situation to be closer and closer to the contemporary notion of justice as time goes forward.

Where he is using justice qua morality as his exemplar, one could substitute any abstract idea or network of ideas. His option I.1 is interesting. Perhaps it is only because he is exemplifying justice, but it seems he is only seeing objective justice in terms of a divine entity enforcing their will, or some form existing in, I presume, some naturalistic aether. This may be the distinct quality of justice such that it is only a thing when it is enforced? But, still, we have the idea of justice. And the idea, I would argue, is conceptual, and would not exist if there were no sentient minds that could conceive of it. We disagree on exactly what justice entails, as I did on the blog with Dave Armstrong and Paul Hoffer recently.

For objective abstracta, the options appear to be:

  1. Some cosmic enforcer (divine entity) instantiating whatever abstract is being considered, in some way either benchmarking it, or having it exist in their form, somehow.
  2. Abstracta existing in some non-material aether, either
    1. in a supernaturalism framework (with, say, a god existing), or
    2. in a naturalistic framework.

2.1 and 2.2 are essentially synonymous to me: you would have to posit some other realm – some non-material realm – were abstracta could exist independent of sentient minds.

1. is certainly interesting. What does it really mean for abstracta to be objective if they exist in the form of another sentient entity, even if that is a divine being? To me, it is still subjective – just that the subjective mind is way more impressive than mine. I can’t really make much sense of this because it suffers from the Euthyphro Dilemma issues: If something is good because it inheres in God’s nature, then it is devoid of moral reasoning. It is good because God (might makes right). But if it is good because moral reasoning argues for it being good, then it is grounded in moral reasoning. Objective morality existing merely because it is in God’s nature (devoid of moral reasoning) then makes such objective morality incoherent or deeply undesirable.

This is more obviously the case here for morality and perhaps this won’t make much sense for all abstracta. What does this say about redness, as a universal, or hero-ness, or chair-ness? Are we to understand that these abstracta are grounded in God in some way? How does God hold the key to their perfect Platonic forms? Can you even conceive of a perfect chair (devoid of functional contexts to one chair is better suited as a chair on one scenario, but worse in a second scenario)? Let alone a perfect chair being grounded in God or some cosmic enforcer, or, failing that, existing in some naturalistic aether?

What happens when I make up a new abstract idea, like a phnackstarg: the peeling edge of kitchen sideboard if it is over 103 years old, but under 107? Does this now exist in an objective aether, or is it grounded in God? What nonsense is this?

God makes no sense of abstracta to me because objectivity makes no sense of abstracta to me. They are contextual and/or conceptual by nature.

If we refer to Luke’s II.1, then his definition jives perfectly with what we actually experience in the world, over time and place:

  1. Human concepts of justice will change over time and they will judge the situation to be closer and closer to the contemporary notion of justice as time goes forward.

Of course things will tend toward our contemporary understanding since that is how we arrive at understanding – that is how thought and development, human history and philosophy work. And we see differences in understandings of justice over time and place precisely because there appear to be no objective values existing in some other aether – or if there are, we can’t access them or even know we are accessing them.

This pretty much dovetails with criticisms of divine command theory (see my piece “16 Problems with Divine Command Theory“). There really are so many parallels there (go read it).

So just dealing with Luke’s definitions, I broadly agree – though with some refinements – and think that conceptualism is prima facie, at least, evidenced in the world through time and place.

Luke’s disagreements

Luke starts out his disagreements with this one:

(A) Conceptual nominalism is self-undermining. Consider the attempt to affirm both:

  1. Concepts are about reality, but never refer perfectly.

  2. Conceptual nominalism is a concept about concepts, and refers perfectly.

So A.i takes one heck of a lot of unpacking, epistemologically speaking, for such a simple sentence. What is reality? This gets back to our idealism vs materialism debate, and how sure we can be that a material world even exists outside of our mental experiences.

Luke’s point, as we will see, is actually an epistemological one, as opposed to an ontological one (or its an epistemological statement about ontology):

That means conceptual nominalism is ostensibly about a whole bunch of space-time regions of matter-energy. Either it refers perfectly excepting itself, or it does not refer perfectly and is false.

The word “refers” is a verb concerned with epistemology, as opposed to an actual state of affairs. And, considering epistemology, Luke also assumes (and fairly understandably and commonly) a correspondence theory of truth (CToT). That is:

a) a material world exists outside out minds.

b) that we have concepts and beliefs about that external world.

Whereby Luke believes/assumes that truth is where a belief or claim corresponds perfectly with the external world. But…

c) (as per Kant) we can never know the external world in itself, as conceptual subjective beings

d) we cannot know how accurate our beliefs about the external world are, even if it does exist.

So whilst the CToT may or may not hold, we can never know whether anything is true within that framework.

Now, Luke tries potentially a fast one here in saying that, in a Cartesian sense (cogito ergo sum – I can only indubitably know that I, some kind of experiencing entity, exist, by point of fact of experiencing), we cannot know that conceptualism holds. I always hold that everything outside of cogito ergo sum is a probability, in terms of knowledge, and based on a whole load of axioms. That my partner and children exist is a probability, not a certainty. I could be dreaming, living in The Matrix, and what-have-you (that I am not, I hold as an axiom). I can’t prove I am not, even if I really believe I am not. I cannot be indubitably certain about this.

So, probability.

How does this affect conceptualism?

Well, just like any other claim, it could just be a probability such that I am pretty sure, but not certain, that it holds. Sure. So?

Or, perhaps it can be even more fundamental than that. Perhaps conceptualism is indeed the most certain of claims outside of cogito. It is Kantian in its epistemology. I can’t prove anything beyond experience, and conceptualism is, in a sense, experience about stuff. And in experiencing things (including other minds), I build up frameworks and maps about reality. But my maps are not the terrain – your maps are not the terrain either. So we can’t know that the terrain exists, but whatever does or doesn’t exist in reality, we build maps to navigate ourselves through experience.

I can’t know (in a Cartesian sense) whether morality exists, just like I can’t know if a chair exists. Conceptualism is to say that no objective (mind-independent) abstracta exist. To say they do is to say there is “mental” or abstract reality outside of our minds. But, in a Kantian sense, just like we can’t know a material thing in and of itself (say, the matter of a chair), we can’t know an external mental thing in and of itself.

So there is subjective interpretation and conceptualisation of external entities, no matter what those external entities are made of.

The only other option, if you really, really want to argue for objective abstracta (e.g. morality) is to say that they exist naturally within one’s mind. So I can access objective morality because it somehow inheres within me as a mentally experiencing entity. But, then, how does this explain everyone’s often different moral evaluations, or experiences and beliefs about these abstracta? And this also defies the definition of objective abstracta where objective means mind-independent.

But to refer back to Luke’s original claim (“Concepts are about reality, but never refer perfectly”), concepts might well refer perfectly; we just don’t know. So, this is arguably just an incorrect premise.

This should be enough to discount such an approach as Luke’s.

I will return to look at his second objection in a further piece.

For background, see:


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May 29, 2021

I have a long history in my writing and philosophy here and elsewhere of adhering to a position called “conceptual nominalism”. If you want more details, check out:

Today, responding to my invite, regular (Christian) commenter, Luke Breuer, has produced a counter-argument guest blog piece against my position. Thanks muchly, Luke. Really appreciated. Here it is – a consumable size – and I look forward to getting my teeth into it going forward. Over to Luke:

What is conceptual nominalism?

Jonathan is a pretty big fan of ‘conceptual nominalism’, saying that “the discussions [about concepts/​universals] are crucial to the rest of metaphysics”. It’s not a common term: google: "conceptual nominalism" returns only 1250 results, of which 92 come from Tippling. See for example The Pertinence of Nominalism to Religious and Philosophical Debates. Traditional introductions to ‘universals’ tend to be highly abstract, so I’ll try something rather unusual by quoting MLK Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. There are several ways to understand this:

  1. Objective
    1. There is some cosmic enforcer of justice who will ultimately get his/her/its way.
    2. There is some mind-independent Form of Justice we can (and will) access increasingly well.
  2. Subjective/Relative
    1. Human concepts of justice will change over time and they will judge the situation to be closer and closer to the contemporary notion of justice as time goes forward.

Conceptual nominalism rules out I.2., while naturalism rules out I.1. Combine the two and we have that notions of justice in our minds have no timelessly stable referent. Back in Aristotle’s day, slavery was considered perfectly just. Any belief that we will forever Progress as time goes on is a mere fabrication of mind, according to conceptual nominalism. Furthermore, the mismatch between the concept in the mind and its instantiation in reality can be arbitrarily great. It’s not like the concept is grabbing a hold of what is mind-independent – that is expressly denied. The only stability concepts have are the # and influence of humans who hold them. Other minds can help give shape to the concepts in your mind, but mind-independent reality cannot. Or to be more precise, there is a crucial one-way operation going on, from mind to reality.

Two Problems

N.B. For brevity, let’s limit the concepts discussed to those which are supposed to be about reality, or concepts about concepts which are about reality. So for example, concepts about Harry Potter and [some?] concepts in mathematics are excluded.

(A) Conceptual nominalism is self-undermining. Consider the attempt to affirm both:

  1. Concepts are about reality, but never refer perfectly.
  2. Conceptual nominalism is a concept about concepts, and refers perfectly.

Once naturalism is assumed – and Jonathan is assuredly a naturalist – any given concept is instantiated in matter-energy. That means conceptual nominalism is ostensibly about a whole bunch of space-time regions of matter-energy. Either it refers perfectly excepting itself, or it does not refer perfectly and is false.

Now, one could try to rejigger things and say something like “first-order concepts [those directly about reality] do not refer perfectly”. However, this violates the implicit idea that the further a concept is from reality (the more levels of indirection/​abstraction there are), the less assuredly it refers. Such a redefinition of conceptual nominalism would be highly rationalist/​idealist and very much not empiricist.

(B) Conceptual nominalism suffers from No True Scotsman. Either:

  1. Entity E instantiates concept C because I/we say so.
  2. Entity E instantiates concept C because that’s how to correctly apply C.

Conceptual nominalism prohibits ii., for the rules on how to apply the concept cannot be 100% mind-independent, on pain of the concept itself thereby becoming mind-independent.

Closing Thoughts

After writing the above, and toying with questioning whether Sean Carroll’s The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood violates conceptual nominalism, I started thinking about the connection between conceptual nominalism and fallibilism. One way for us to be wrong about the world is for our concepts to fail to perfectly refer. However, conceptualism nominalism goes further than this: our concepts never perfectly refer. Except for conceptual nominalism itself, which is infallibilist to the core.

Conceptual nominalism severs our access to reality, while nevertheless requiring access to both concepts and reality, in order to determine that there is [always!] a mismatch. It stands as sole mediator between mind and reality, with a sign that says, “You shall not [all] pass!” Unfortunately, it is a pure assertion of will which self-undermines. Or fortunately, for those who know where radical skepticism leads. (Just try explaining which parts of a concept refer, without ending up with a concept which cannot perfectly refer.)

[JP: Thanks, Luke; I guess I need to counter this counter, now!]

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July 13, 2020

In my first video in this series on the Kalam as pertaining to leading light of internet atheism, CosmicSkeptic, I looked at running a commentary that hoped to highlight the need for clarity in many of the points that Alex O’Connor made in a vide debunking his former self. In the second video, I have continued this but concentrated far more on his excellent interview of William Lane Craig that he recently gave.

This video focusses largely on the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the way proponents fail to deal adequately with criticisms from a conceptual nominalist position.

My last one in this three-part series will deal with God’s supposed free will and decision-making ability within a timeless and causeless scenario.

 


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June 26, 2019

I have said this many times before in different ways and as part of different posts, but I thought I would explicitly make this point on its own. Natural Law Theory and the essentialism upon which it depends, as part of a Thomistic/Catholic philosophy, depends on the negation of nominalism, and depends on the clarity of categories. Without these, the whole project falls apart. I wrote about this in my previous post:

Natural Law Theory (NLT) is an ethical theory derived from the thinking of people such as Thomas Aquinas that attempts to establish that humans, for example, have an ideal form or essence that dictates how they should act. The form of a particular species of bird is that it has feathers, a beak, two eyes, can fly, has a particular colouration and so on. The essence of a bird can be described by listing, one assumes, its properties. There is, in reality (so they would say), some objective notion of what these properties are.

For all of these thinkers, literally everything has this kind of essence, though those essences will differ between things. The idea that homosexual humans (I use this as an example, many other properties could also be used) are morally wrong is derived from the notion that they have an essence, a natural form, to which they should adhere, but do not. A good badger is a badger that most resembles the essence of a badger. A good human is a human who most resembles the nature or essence of a human. Homosexuals or some other group of supposedly morally bad people are morally bad because homosexuality is not a property of the human essence, or essential property.

To confuse matters, we could subcategorise humans in terms of male and female as well. In fact, one of the problems with essentialism and Thomistic philosophy is that you could subcategorise anything further and further to create more and more essences until you eventually have an individual instantiation of a thing. For example, you could subcategorise humans into males and females. But why not continue with other categories? Age, hair colour, size, geographical distribution, skin colour and so on but each of these categories could be sliced and diced even further. Who gets to define the categories? Of course, such advocates of NLT or Thomism would say that God gets to define this, but how do we know what those categories are? We can look around us at the natural world, but as I have at length set out before, categorising the natural world in light of evolution is utterly problematic.

There were some good comments on the piece. For instance:

Since almost everyone goes through a phase in childhood where they lie, should we categorize those who don’t go through that phase as unnatural or wrong?

and

They seem to allow variation in physical characteristics but not in mental characteristics.

I guess we should take some comfort in the fact that they’re only partially bigots. It’d be much worse if such Thomists also happened to see a dark skin color or epicanthal folds as “intrinsically disordered.”

Evolutionarily, of course, its the pale skinned humans (with a mix of neanderthal genes, no less) which adhere the least to what we might think of the essential, original (physical) form of homo sapiens. Something I take great joy in thinking about, when considering white supremacists. The folks arguing loudly about ‘mongrels’ turn out to be the mongrels. Oh, thank you nature for that delicious turn. :)

Nominalism, or conceptual nominalism, is the denial of such categories as abstract entities; such categorisations are invented by humans and exist only in our minds for pragmatic reasons. The simple fact of the matter is that we can invent and do invent any category we want. We categorise foetus through baby, infant, toddler, child, adolescent through to adult, pensioner and so on.

The simplified development of a human.

But it doesn’t mean that these stages have objective existence. I could invent any category I want but it doesn’t mean I magic that delineated category into existence. As I wrote in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions (UK – presently on offer):

424. Many argue that there is no such thing as objective morality, because any idea is subjective, as I will set out. Abstract ideas (such as objective morality) do not and cannot exist objectively. It is anthropocentric to imagine they do. Imagine a more intelligent alien life-form comes to earth and sees a table. They have somehow not invented tables. This table is not a table to them. In other words, a table only has properties that make it a table within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items – i.e. tableness. Without humans existing on earth, for example, ‘tables’ would not exist. Thus the label of ‘table’ is a result of ‘subjectively human’ evolution. If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. For example, a ‘forqwibllex’ is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have ‘made-up’). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does – have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned ‘mental labels’, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A table, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely they same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker. Therefore, the question, God, is: do abstract ideas exist outside of the subjective mind of the thinking entity?

425. In what location do these abstracts exist?

426. What happens when we argue over the properties of an object / family of objects? I say a ‘hero’ has properties x, you disagree and say heroes have properties y. Who is right, and which abstract objectively exists?

The whole enterprise comes down to arguing that God must then design, create and thus define these categories. That is the only way to properly establish these categories in any objective fashion because we clearly can’t do it subjectively. This isn’t, then Natural Law Theory, but Divine Law Theory whereby things don’t arise naturally but under the guidance and resulting from the will and creative input of God.

As such, this all comes down to epistemology. How do we know a) what the categories are (human or homo sapiens, but not homo australopithecus, for example) and b) what the properties for each of those categories would be (homosexuality, lying as a kid, lying for the greater good – to stop a murder, etc.). And I am not sure that the only viable source of data on this, the Bible, is at all clear.

So, how does the Thomist navigate the epistemological minefield of essentialism? Do they, themselves, subjectively define the categories and properties to which we must adhere? It looks rather similar to the project of subjective morality!

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October 21, 2017

I have written about nominalism quite a number of times, both here at the blog and in my books (most recently in Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument). For those of you unfamiliar with the topic, let me briefly explain:

Abstract Objects

Abstract objects are incredibly important aspects within the context of philosophy. They include all of the labels and categories of things (tokens). These types are abstract. So, for example, a chair is both the token (actual chair) and the type (an abstract labeling as such). This can include numbers, universal ideas like redness, ideas like courage and justice, and even individual humans, such as Jonathan Pearce.

Because of their very nature, in being abstract, they can cause headaches for physicalism (and naturalism) and causality. Ever since the Greek times, there has been the famous problem known as the Problem of Universals. This deals with the problem in defining what the properties of objects are, ontologically speaking (i.e., what existence they have). Universals are common (universal) properties contained by more than one object. Two cars and a ball being red – what is redness? How can these different objects have an identical property and is that property real or in the mind of the conceiver, or indeed, contained within speech? Are these abstract objects and universals causally potent? Can redness take a position in a causal chain or relationship?

Platonism (realism)

Realists claim that these abstracta are real – that they exist in some tangible way. Plato, from whom the term came, believed that universals, like redness, existed separately from the particular objects (particulars) which contained said property. Platonic realism states that such entities exist independently from the particular, as opposed to Aristotelian realism states that the universals are real but dependent on the particulars.

Some arguments propose that, in order to have truth value in statements, universals must exist, such that “This apple is red” implies that the universal of redness exists for the proposition to be truthful.

One fundamental issue for such theories is: where is the locus of these universals? Where can they be found and what is their ontology?

Nominalism

Nominalism stands in stark contrast to realism in that the adherents state that only particulars exist, and not universals. Properties of particular objects can account for eventual similarity between objects (such as the green of grass and the green of a painted wall). Universals do not exist.

Conceptualism is sometimes called conceptual nominalism, such that universals and abstracts exist, but only in the individual minds of the conceivers (as concepts). (German) Idealism is close to this (think Kant, Hegel and Schelling) in believing universals to be in the minds of rational beings.

Nominalism can become VERY in-depth and confusing (when talking about the different types such as trope theory and resemblance theory). My opinion is that the discussions are crucial to the rest of metaphysics; it is just unfortunate that the discussion can be quite dry and dull. Here is an excerpt from the wiki entry on nominalism:

Nominalism arose in reaction to the problem of universals, specifically accounting for the fact that some things are of the same type. For example, Fluffy and Kitzler are both cats, or, the fact that certain properties are repeatable, such as: the grass, the shirt, and Kermit the Frog are green. One wants to know in virtue of what are Fluffy and Kitzler both cats, and what makes the grass, the shirt, and Kermit green.

The realist answer is that all the green things are green in virtue of the existence of a universal; a single abstract thing that, in this case, is a part of all the green things. With respect to the color of the grass, the shirt and Kermit, one of their parts is identical. In this respect, the three parts are literally one. Greenness is repeatable because there is one thing that manifests itself wherever there are green things.

Nominalism denies the existence of universals. The motivation for this flows from several concerns, the first one being where they might exist. Plato famously held, on one interpretation, that there is a realm of abstract forms or universals apart from the physical world (see theory of the forms). Particular physical objects merely exemplify or instantiate the universal. But this raises the question: Where is this universal realm? One possibility is that it is outside of space and time. A view sympathetic with this possibility holds that, precisely because some form is immanent in several physical objects, it must also transcend each of those physical objects; in this way, the forms are “transcendant” only insofar as they are “immanent” in many physical objects. In other words, immanence implies transcendence; they are not opposed to one another. (Nor, on this view, would there be a separate “world” or “realm” of forms that is distinct from the physical world, thus shirking much of the worry about where to locate a “universal realm”.) However, naturalists assert that nothing is outside of space and time. Some Neoplatonists, such as the pagan philosopher Plotinus and the philosopher Augustine, imply (anticipating conceptualism) that universals are contained within the mind of God. To complicate things, what is the nature of the instantiation or exemplification relation?

Conceptualists hold a position intermediate between nominalism and realism, saying that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.

Moderate realists hold that there is no realm in which universals exist, but rather universals are located in space and time wherever they are manifest. Now, recall that a universal, like greenness, is supposed to be a single thing. Nominalists consider it unusual that there could be a single thing that exists in multiple places simultaneously. The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

Finally, many philosophers prefer simpler ontologies populated with only the bare minimum of types of entities, or as W. V. Quine said “They have a taste for ‘desert landscapes.’” They attempt to express everything that they want to explain without using universals such as “catness” or “chairness.”

As ever, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on nominalism is great – here.

As is the SEP entry on abstract objects – here.

As is the superb SEP entry on properties found here.

Other useful SEP entries are Challenges to Metaphysical Realism, Platonism in Metaphysics, and the wiki entry on the Third Man Argument (an argument from Plato that shows an incoherent infinite regress in relational universals, which can be found in the SEP here).

How the area is relevant to the philosophy of religion – Craig and the Kalam

DidGodCreatetheUniverseI have written in the aforementioned book that largely deals with the idea of nominalism and how it affects the Kalam Cosmological Argument. As I set out in a post a few weeks back, this excerpt starts to set out the importance of nominalism/realisn to the debate:

Firstly, the only thing, it can be argued, that “has begun to exist” is the universe itself (i.e. all the matter and energy that constitute the universe and everything in it). Thus the first premise and the conclusion are synonymous—the argument is entirely circular.

So how do I establish that the only thing which has begun to exist is the universe? We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter/energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of “rock” or “chair”, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism. Platonic realism, in simple terms, is the position that universals such as redness or doghood and abstractions (kinds, characteristics, relations, properties etc.) are not spatial, temporal or mental but have a different ontology, existing separately from the objects which instantiate such properties.[ii] The opposite position to this is nominalism, which can mean the denial of the existence of these abstract labels in some sense.

For example, in order for the statement “John Smith is a gardener” to hold a truth value, there must be some existence property defined by “gardener” such as “gardenership”. This universal is different from the instance of the universal property found in John Smith. This is not a position that Craig adheres to. All we have on a nominalist or conceptualist worldview (as opposed to realist) is a transformative coming into existence. What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some form or other before the “chair” came to be. So the matter or energy did not “begin to exist”. This merely leaves the label of “chair”.

The nominalist, as stated, adopts a position which denies the existence of universals, such as redness or gardenership, and claims that only individuals or particulars exist. Conceptualism or conceptual nominalism, on the other hand, is a position which claims that universals only exist within the framework of the thinking (conceiving) mind. Most philosophers agree that abstract objects are causally inert, by definition. This means that, at best, the abstract label is unable to have causal power anyway (regardless of its ontology).

To illustrate this, let’s now look at the “label” of “chair” (in a very cogent way, all words are abstractions that refer to something or another, but nominalists will say that these abstractions, or the relationship between them and the reference points, do not exist, out there, in the ether). This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair—i.e. it is subjective. The concept is not itself fixed. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person (or sentient creature) on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything or anyone.[iii] The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items—i.e. chairness. The ascription of these properties to another idea is arguable and not objectively true in itself. Now let’s take an animal—a cat. What is this “chair” to it? I imagine a visual sensation of “sleep thing”. To an alien? It looks rather like a “shmagflan” because it has a “planthoingj” on its “fdanygshan”. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

What I mean by this is that I may see that a “hero”, for example, has properties X, Y and Z. You may think a hero has properties X, Y and B. Someone else may think a hero has properties A, B and X. Who is right? No one is right. Those properties exist, in someone, but ascribing that to “heroness” is a subjective pastime with no ontic reality, no objective reality.

This is how dictionaries work. I could make up a word: “bashignogta”. I could even give it a meaning: “the feeling you get when going through a dark tunnel with the tunnel lights flashing past your eyes”. Does this abstract idea not objectively exist, now that I have made it up? Does it float into the ether? Or does it depend on my mind for its existence? I can pass it on from my mind to someone else’s using words, and then it would be conceptually existent in two minds, but it still depends on our minds. What dictionaries do is to codify an agreement in what abstract ideas (words) mean, as agreed merely by consensus (the same applies to spelling conventions—indeed, convention is the perfect word to illustrate the point). But without all the minds existing in that consensus, the words and meanings would not exist. They do not have Platonic or ontic reality.

 Thus the label of “chair” is a result of human evolution and conceptual subjectivity (even if more than one mind agrees).

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. Without wanting to labour my previous point, a “forqwibllex” is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have “made-up”). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does—have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned “mental labels”, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label as such (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely the same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker! Perhaps it can, but it just seems to get into more and more needless complexity.

When did this chair “begin to exist”? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it become not-a-chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune (hey, it looks the same, and with no discernible difference, I cannot call it a different category), then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continua (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a “species’” evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text that you can see, a large paragraph[iv] which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer—or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective (depending, indeed, on how you define “blue”).

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

You see, once we strip away the labels and concepts, all we have left is matter and energy which is only ever involved in what has been called transformative creation, meaning it doesn’t begin to exist, but is being constantly reformed throughout time. It only began to exist at the Big Bang or similar (in Craig’s model).

So where does this leave us? The implications are twofold. Firstly, as Grünbaum illustrates, with all effects being merely transformative creations (i.e. nothing comes into existence but is transformed from already existing matter or energy), then we have an equivocation of the term cause. In Premise 1 we are talking about transformative causality, whereas in the conclusion we are talking about creation ex nihilo or creation out of nothing.

What I eventually go on to show is the further ramifications of this:

This has some fairly crucial implications for the KCA necessitating a reformulation as follows:

1) The universe that begins to exist has a cause for its existence;

2) The universe begins to exist;

3) Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

If we then project the syllogistic changes from Section 3.1 over this reformulated syllogism then we get an even more tautologous and incoherent argument:

1) The universe that begins to exist has the universe as the causal condition for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore, the universe had the universe as a causal condition for its existence.

For this and other reasons, sorting out the abstracts debate is crucial as to whether the KCA holds.

Other relevant arguments

But nominalism is not restricted, in its relevance, to the KCA alone. It is pertinent to pretty much all areas of philosophy and theology that are connected to metaphysics. Let’s take morality. This is the ultimate abstract idea. Many religionists believe in an absolute, objective morality. However, if they fail to give a coherent account of objective, realist abstracta, then their account of objective morality falls apart.

This is replaying Kant’s thoughts about ding an sich – things-in-themselves. These things refer to nuomenon as opposed to phenomenon. The noumenal world may exist, but it is completely unknowable through human sensation.

We, as subjective minds, cannot access a thing-in-itself – say, a chair. We cannot know the chair since we are not the chair. We merely subjectively interpret it, its properties and its chairness. That is the best we can hope for. In this way, all experience is necessarily subjective. This has knock-on effects to truth or fact, depending on how we define them. What is the true colour of a fox? Well, it depends on who the observer is. The fox merely has properties – that much could be “objectively” (with caveats) established, at a fundamental level. But how those properties ontologically manifest is dependent on the sensor.

Even if God existed, and had some ideal moral law, it could only ever be interpreted subjectively. Moreover, there is little coherent way that it could be a  law in the Platonic sense – some floating ethereal thing out there in the ether. Objective morality fails from the very outset in that there cannot be “objective” – the metaphysical notion of these universal abstracta is flawed.

This is the case for any number of ideas, such as human rights. I have long argued that human rights don’t exist objectively, that they are conceptually constructed by human minds and codified into laws or charters. People argue over them – you only have to look at freedom of speech and hate speech to see the difficulty in defining such nebulous abstracta – and these arguments are reflective of the subjective properties of such ideas.

Any abstract notion (and there are so many) that theologians invest their time in expounding, explaining and re-jigging falls into the scope of arguments concerning nominalism. Theologians assume the building bricks and construct logical arguments therefrom. But if the building blocks literally don’t exist, then the edifices are equally fictive. Morality, atonement, and so on…

We live our lives as though this abstract reality really does exist alongside us, but that reality is inside our collective minds. The realisation of this is fundamentally terminal for much of what religion is based on – the ontic reality of metaphysics. Without a coherent case for some kind of ontic realism, then the basic foundations of religion and theology disappear, evaporating into conceptually, subjectively constructed phenomena.

October 13, 2017

As many of you will know, I have recently written a new book concerning the Kalam Cosmological Argument (Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument), which has had some cracking reviews. This post is an extract from the book that looks at the term “universe” and one of my favroutie topis: nominalism.DidGodCreatetheUniverse

The Kalam, as most commonly formulated is:

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence
  • The universe began to exist
  • Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence

So, over to the book:

3.2 Nominalism and “everything” being “the universe”

Authors of the KCA, such as Craig, see the argument as dealing with the beginning of existence of all discrete objects as being the set described by the term “everything”. In other words, a chair, a marble, a dog and a mountain all begin to exist and have causes for their respective existences. This would be, admittedly, the commonsense understanding of the ontology of these objects—that they begin to exist at a particular point in time from having not existed at a previous point in time. What I am going to set out is very similar to one of Adolf Grünbaum’s objections that he set out in his 1990 essay “The pseudo-problem of creation in physical cosmology “.[i]

The problem for the KCA is the definition of “everything”. My claim is that everything is in fact “the universe” itself. As Grünbaum states:

…consider cases of causation which do involve the intervention of conscious fashioners or agents, such as the baking of a cake by a person. In such a case, the materials composing the cake owe their particular state of being in cake-form partly to acts of intervention by a conscious agent. But clearly, the very existence of the atoms or molecules composing the cake cannot be attributed to the causal role played by the activity of the agent. Thus, even if we were to assume that agent-causation does differ interestingly from event-causation, we must recognize that ordinary agent-causation is still only a transformation of matter (energy).…

Even for those cases of causation which involve conscious agents or fashioners, the premise does not assert that they ever create anything out of nothing; instead, conscious fashioners merely TRANSFORM PREVIOUSLY EXISTING MATERIALS FROM ONE STATE TO ANOTHER; the baker creates a cake out of flour, milk, butter, etc., and the parents who produce an offspring do so from a sperm, an ovum, and from the food supplied by the mother’s body, which in turn comes from the soil, solar energy, etc. Similarly, when a person dies, he or she ceases to exist as a person. But the dead body does not lapse into nothingness, since the materials of the body continue in other forms of matter or energy. In other words, all sorts of organization wholes (e.g., biological organisms) do cease to exist only as such when they disintegrate and their parts are scattered. But their parts continue in some form.

We can, here, start to see an issue with the idea, in the first premise, of things beginning to exist with the notion of transformative creation as mentioned previously. We have already discussed how all causes can be reduced to a single cause. Now I will set out, as Grünbaun hints at, to show that “everything” is a term which also refers to a singular object.

Firstly, the only thing, it can be argued, that “has begun to exist” is the universe itself (i.e. all the matter and energy that constitute the universe and everything in it). Thus the first premise and the conclusion are synonymous—the argument is entirely circular.

So how do I establish that the only thing which has begun to exist is the universe? We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter/energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of “rock” or “chair”, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism. Platonic realism, in simple terms, is the position that universals such as redness or doghood and abstractions (kinds, characteristics, relations, properties etc.) are not spatial, temporal or mental but have a different ontology, existing separately from the objects which instantiate such properties.[ii] The opposite position to this is nominalism, which can mean the denial of the existence of these abstract labels in some sense.

For example, in order for the statement “John Smith is a gardener” to hold a truth value, there must be some existence property defined by “gardener” such as “gardenership”. This universal is different from the instance of the universal property found in John Smith. This is not a position that Craig adheres to. All we have on a nominalist or conceptualist worldview (as opposed to realist) is a transformative coming into existence. What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some form or other before the “chair” came to be. So the matter or energy did not “begin to exist”. This merely leaves the label of “chair”.

The nominalist, as stated, adopts a position which denies the existence of universals, such as redness or gardenership, and claims that only individuals or particulars exist. Conceptualism or conceptual nominalism, on the other hand, is a position which claims that universals only exist within the framework of the thinking (conceiving) mind. Most philosophers agree that abstract objects are causally inert, by definition. This means that, at best, the abstract label is unable to have causal power anyway (regardless of its ontology).

To illustrate this, let’s now look at the “label” of “chair” (in a very cogent way, all words are abstractions that refer to something or another, but nominalists will say that these abstractions, or the relationship between them and the reference points, do not exist, out there, in the ether). This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair—i.e. it is subjective. The concept is not itself fixed. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person (or sentient creature) on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything or anyone.[iii] The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items—i.e. chairness. The ascription of these properties to another idea is arguable and not objectively true in itself. Now let’s take an animal—a cat. What is this “chair” to it? I imagine a visual sensation of “sleep thing”. To an alien? It looks rather like a “shmagflan” because it has a “planthoingj” on its “fdanygshan”. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

What I mean by this is that I may see that a “hero”, for example, has properties X, Y and Z. You may think a hero has properties X, Y and B. Someone else may think a hero has properties A, B and X. Who is right? No one is right. Those properties exist, in someone, but ascribing that to “heroness” is a subjective pastime with no ontic reality, no objective reality.

This is how dictionaries work. I could make up a word: “bashignogta”. I could even give it a meaning: “the feeling you get when going through a dark tunnel with the tunnel lights flashing past your eyes”. Does this abstract idea not objectively exist, now that I have made it up? Does it float into the ether? Or does it depend on my mind for its existence? I can pass it on from my mind to someone else’s using words, and then it would be conceptually existent in two minds, but it still depends on our minds. What dictionaries do is to codify an agreement in what abstract ideas (words) mean, as agreed merely by consensus (the same applies to spelling conventions—indeed, convention is the perfect word to illustrate the point). But without all the minds existing in that consensus, the words and meanings would not exist. They do not have Platonic or ontic reality.

 Thus the label of “chair” is a result of human evolution and conceptual subjectivity (even if more than one mind agrees).

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. Without wanting to labour my previous point, a “forqwibllex” is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have “made-up”). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does—have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned “mental labels”, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label as such (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely the same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker! Perhaps it can, but it just seems to get into more and more needless complexity.

When did this chair “begin to exist”? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it become not-a-chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune (hey, it looks the same, and with no discernible difference, I cannot call it a different category), then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continua (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a “species’” evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text that you can see, a large paragraph[iv] which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer—or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective (depending, indeed, on how you define “blue”).

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

You see, once we strip away the labels and concepts, all we have left is matter and energy which is only ever involved in what has been called transformative creation, meaning it doesn’t begin to exist, but is being constantly reformed throughout time. It only began to exist at the Big Bang or similar (in Craig’s model).

So where does this leave us? The implications are twofold. Firstly, as Grünbaum illustrates, with all effects being merely transformative creations (i.e. nothing comes into existence but is transformed from already existing matter or energy), then we have an equivocation of the term cause. In Premise 1 we are talking about transformative causality, whereas in the conclusion we are talking about creation ex nihilo or creation out of nothing. As Grünbaum reasons[v]:

Since the concept of cause used in the conclusion of the argument involves creation out of nothing, we see that it is plainly different from the concept of cause in the premise. And for this reason alone, the conclusion does not follow from the premise deductively.

This amounts, then, to a fallacy of equivocation whereby the author is using two distinct meanings of the same term in a syllogism. This makes the argument logically invalid or fallacious.

The second ramification of this line of argument is that it means that the term “everything” is actually synonymous with “the universe”, with the universe being a set of finite energy and matter that has remained, in accordance with the Law of the Conservation of Energy, constant over time. We have agreed, then, that abstract concepts might begin to exist, but these are causally inert and do not exist objectively—only in the minds of the conceiver. One can then take this a step further and claim that, for a whole host of reasons (most of which I will not get into now), mental conceptions supervene on physical matter. That means that my mental states, and all the abstract concepts which they obtain, depend on the physical. One simple way of knowing this is whether my mental concept of a chair remains the same if I was to stick a fork into my eye and through into my brain. Our consciousness, in some way, is dependent on our brains states and matter. If you don’t believe me, try it out.

So that leaves matter and energy, which have existed for all of time because they are, in effect, the universe itself (as is time, when understood as spacetime). It is not that the universe is “made up” of lots of matter and energy making it something, it simply is a quantity of matter and energy. We can refer back to our previous talk of conceptual nominalism. The “universe” is not some distinct thing from what it is made up. “Universe” is an abstract concept made up by humans to refer to “everything”. Everything in existence that we can observe, that we can infer, and so on. This has some fairly crucial implications for the KCA necessitating a reformulation as follows:

1) The universe that begins to exist has a cause for its existence;

2) The universe begins to exist;

3) Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

If we then project the syllogistic changes from Section 3.1 over this reformulated syllogism then we get an even more tautologous and incoherent argument:

1) The universe that begins to exist has the universe as the causal condition for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore, the universe had the universe as a causal condition for its existence.

As we can plainly see, if we delve into the actual meaning of these terms and input these definitions back into the syllogism we are presented with an argument that amounts to little more than nonsense.

One could claim, however, that this argument relies at least partially on the establishment of nominalism, conceptualism or some other form of non-realism in order to work. To this we shall now turn.

[i] Adolf Grünbaum’s objections that he set out in his 1990 essay “The pseudo-problem of creation in physical cosmology “.

[ii] Aristotelian realism proposes that universals, such as redness, exist but are contingent upon the objects which instantiate them (such as a red apple).

[iii] Wittgenstein, in his later thought, would have claimed meaning in a word from its use. This of course hints at no objective overarching meaning for groups of things, but meaning derived from each individual usage of language in each context. If anything, this plays into the point I am making. Things only have meaning to the conceiver, thus don’t ‘exist’ objectively outside the mind of the conceiver, as abstract ideas.

[iv] This text is variously available online. I picked it up from: http://www.christianforums.com/t7536666/#post56778897 (Accessed 09/12/2015)

[v] Grünbaum (1989)

November 4, 2015

I am a conceptual nominalist, which I explain to some extent here. One of my favourite images to explain this is below. Also good for explaining the species problem, which reflects or exemplifies the nominalism/realism debate.

sorites

 

February 18, 2013

So having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions meant. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

The second question, having covered a priori in the last post, the next question in the survey was:

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

Accept or lean toward: Platonism 366 / 931 (39.3%)
Accept or lean toward: nominalism 351 / 931 (37.7%)
Other 214 / 931 (23.0%)

So what are abstract objects? What are Platonism and nominalism?

Abstract Objects

Abstract objects are incredibly important aspects within the context of philosophy. They include all of the labels and categories of things (tokens).These types are abstract. So, for example, a chair is both the token (actual chair) and the type (an abstract labeling as such). This can include numbers, universal ideas like redness, ideas like courage and justice, and even individual humans, such as Jonathan Pearce.

Because of their very nature, in being abstract, they can cause headaches for physicalism (and naturalism) and causality. Ever since the Greek times there has been the famous problem known as the Problem of Universals. This briefly deals with the problem in defining what the properties of objects are, ontologically speaking (ie, what existence they have). Universals are common (universal) properties contained by more than one object. Two cars and a ball being red – what is redness? How can these different objects have an identical property and is that property real or in the mind of the conceiver, or indeed, contained within speech? Are these abstract objects and universals causally potent? Can redness take a position in a causal chain or relationship?

Platonism (realism)

Realists claim that these abstracta are real – that they exist in some tangible way. Plato, from whom the term came, believed the universals, like redness, existed separately from the particular objects (particulars) which contained said property. Platonic realism states that such entities exist independently from the particular, as opposed to Aristotelian realism states that the universals are real but dependent on the particulars.

Some arguments propose that, in order to have truth value in statements, universals must exist, such that “This apple is red” implies that the universal of redness exists for the proposition to be truthful.

The problems for such theories are where is the locus of these universals? Where can they be found and what IS their ontology?

Nominalism

Nominalism stands in stark contrast to realism in that the adherents state that only particulars exist, and not universals. Properties of particular objects can account for eventual similarity between objects (such as the green of grass and the green of a painted wall). Universals do not exist.

I am unsure as to whether the philpapers survey included conceptualism in the ‘other’ category or not, since conceptualism is sometimes called conceptual nominalism, such that universals and abstracts exist, but only in the individual minds of the conceivers (as concepts). (German) Idealism is close to this (think Kant, Hegel and Schelling) in believing universals to be in the minds of rational beings.

Nominalism can become VERY in depth and confusing (when talking about the different types such as trope theory and resemblance theory). My opinion is that the discussions are crucial to the rest of metaphysics, it is just unfortunate that the discussion can be quite dry and dull. Here is an excerpt from the wiki entry on nominalism:

 

Nominalism arose in reaction to the problem of universals, specifically accounting for the fact that some things are of the same type. For example, Fluffy and Kitzler are both cats, or, the fact that certain properties are repeatable, such as: the grass, the shirt, and Kermit the Frog are green. One wants to know in virtue of what are Fluffy and Kitzler both cats, and what makes the grass, the shirt, and Kermit green.

The realist answer is that all the green things are green in virtue of the existence of a universal; a single abstract thing that, in this case, is a part of all the green things. With respect to the color of the grass, the shirt and Kermit, one of their parts is identical. In this respect, the three parts are literally one. Greenness is repeatable because there is one thing that manifests itself wherever there are green things.

Nominalism denies the existence of universals. The motivation for this flows from several concerns, the first one being where they might exist. Plato famously held, on one interpretation, that there is a realm of abstract forms or universals apart from the physical world (see theory of the forms). Particular physical objects merely exemplify or instantiate the universal. But this raises the question: Where is this universal realm? One possibility is that it is outside of space and time. A view sympathetic with this possibility holds that, precisely because some form is immanent in several physical objects, it must also transcend each of those physical objects; in this way, the forms are “transcendant” only insofar as they are “immanent” in many physical objects. In other words, immanence implies transcendence; they are not opposed to one another. (Nor, on this view, would there be a separate “world” or “realm” of forms that is distinct from the physical world, thus shirking much of the worry about where to locate a “universal realm”.) However, naturalists assert that nothing is outside of space and time. Some Neoplatonists, such as the pagan philosopher Plotinus and the philosopher Augustine, imply (anticipating conceptualism) that universals are contained within the mind of God. To complicate things, what is the nature of the instantiation or exemplification relation?

Conceptualists hold a position intermediate between nominalism and realism, saying that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.

Moderate realists hold that there is no realm in which universals exist, but rather universals are located in space and time wherever they are manifest. Now, recall that a universal, like greenness, is supposed to be a single thing. Nominalists consider it unusual that there could be a single thing that exists in multiple places simultaneously. The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

Finally, many philosophers prefer simpler ontologies populated with only the bare minimum of types of entities, or as W. V. Quine said “They have a taste for ‘desert landscapes.'” They attempt to express everything that they want to explain without using universals such as “catness” or “chairness.”

As ever, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on nominalism is great – here.

As is the SEP entry on anstract objects – here.

As is the superb SEP entry on properties found here.

Other useful SEP entries are Challenges to Metaphysical Realism, Platonism in Metaphysics, and the wiki entry on the Third Man Argument (an argument from Plato that shows an incoherent infinite regress in relational universals, which can be found in the SEP here).

 

How the area is relevant to the philosophy of religion – Craig and the Kalam

 I have written a 20,000 word paper on the Kalam and its problems, mainly concerning this area of philosophy. I have produced a post here and here detailing a small area of this. Here is a portion:

Authors of the KCA, such as Craig, see the argument as dealing with the beginning of existence of all discrete objects as being the set described by the term “everything”. In other words, a chair, a marble, a dog and a mountain all begin to exist and have causes for their respective existences. This would be, admittedly, the common sense understanding of the ontology of these objects – that they begin to exist at a particular point in time from having not existed at a previous point in time. What I am going to set out is very similar to one of Adolf Grünbaum’s objections that he set out in his 1990 essay “The pseudo-problem of creation in physical cosmology “.

The problem for the KCA is the definition of “everything”. My claim is that everything is in fact ‘the universe’ itself. As Grünbaum (1990) states:

…consider cases of causation which do involve the intervention of conscious fashioners or agents, such as the baking of a cake by a person. In such a case, the materials composing the cake owe their particular state of being in cake-form partly to acts of intervention by a conscious agent. But clearly, the very existence of the atoms or molecules composing the cake cannot be attributed to the causal role played by the activity of the agent. Thus, even if we were to assume that agent-causation does differ interestingly from event-causation, we must recognize that ordinary agent-causation is still only a transformation of matter (energy).

Even for those cases of causation which involve conscious agents or fashioners, the premise does not assert that they ever create anything out of nothing; instead, conscious fashioners merely TRANSFORM PREVIOUSLY EXISTING MATERIALS FROM ONE STATE TO ANOTHER; the baker creates a cake out of flour, milk, butter, etc., and the parents who produce an offspring do so from a sperm, an ovum, and from the food supplied by the mother’s body, which in turn comes from the soil, solar energy, etc. Similarly, when a person dies, he or she ceases to exist as a person. But the dead body does not lapse into nothingness, since the materials of the body continue in other forms of matter or energy. In other words, all sorts of organization wholes (e.g., biological organisms) do cease to exist only as such when they disintegrate and their parts are scattered. But their parts continue in some form.

We can, here, start to see an issue with the idea, in the first premise, of things beginning to exist with the notion of transformative creation as mentioned previously. We have already discussed how all causes can be reduced to a single cause. Now I will set out, as Grünbaun hints at, to show that “everything” is a term which also refers to a singular object.

Firstly, the only thing, it can be argued, that ‘has begun to exist’ is the universe itself (i.e. all the matter and energy that constitute the universe and everything in it). Thus the first premise and the conclusion are synonymous – the argument is entirely circular.

So how do I establish that the only thing which has begun to exist is the universe? We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter / energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of ‘rock’ or ‘chair’, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism. Platonic realism, in simple terms, is the position that universals such as redness and abstractions (kinds, characteristics, relations, properties etc) are not spatial, temporal or mental but have a different ontology, existing separately from the objects which instantiate such properties[1]. For example, in order for the statement “John Smith is a gardener” to hold a truth value, there must be some existence property defined by “gardener” such as “gardenership”. This universal is different from the instance of the universal property found in John Smith. This is not a position that Craig adheres to. All we have on a nominalist or conceptualist worldview (as opposed to realist) is a transformative coming into existence. What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some other form or other before the ‘chair’ came to be. So the matter or energy did not ‘begin to exist’. This merely leaves the label of ‘chair’.

The nominalist adopts a position which denies the existence of universals, such as redness or gardenership, and claims that only individuals or particulars exist. Conceptualism or conceptual nominalism, on the other hand, is a position which claims that universals only exist within the framework of the thinking (conceiving) mind. Most philosophers agree that the part of the definition of abstracts is that they are causally inert. This means that, at best, the abstract label is unable to have causal power anyway (regardless of its ontology).

Let’s now look at the ‘label’ of ‘chair’. This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair – ie it is subjective. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything. The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items – i.e. chairness. These properties are arguable and not objectively true themselves. Thus the label of ‘chair’ is a result of ‘subjectively human’ evolution.

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. For example, a ‘forqwibllex’ is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have ‘made-up’). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does – have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned ‘mental labels’, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely they same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker!

When did this chair ‘begin to exist’? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it not become a chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune, then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continuums (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a ‘species’ evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text, a large paragraph (see end), which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer – or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective.

Now let’s take an animal – a cat. What is this ‘chair’ to it? I imagine a visual sensation of ‘sleep thing’. To an alien? It looks rather like a shmagflan because it has a planthoingj on its fdanygshan. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

You see, once we strip away the labels and concepts, all we have left is matter and energy which is only ever involved in what has been called transformative creation, meaning it doesn’t begin to exist, but is being constantly being reformed throughout time. It only began to exist at the Big Bang or similar (in Craig’s model).

So where does this leave us? The implications are twofold. Firstly, as Grünbaum illustrates, with all effects being merely transformative creations (i.e. nothing comes into existence but is transformed from already existing matter or energy), then we have an equivocation of the term cause. In Premise 1 we are talking about transformative causality, whereas in the conclusion we are talking about creation ex nihilo creation out of nothing. As Grünbaum reasons:

Since the concept of cause used in the conclusion of the argument involves creation out of nothing, we see that it is plainly different from the concept of cause in the premise. And for this reason alone, the conclusion does not follow from the premise deductively. (Grünbaum 1989)

 This amounts, then, to a fallacy of equivocation whereby the author is using two distinct meanings of the same term in a syllogism. This makes the argument logically invalid.

The second ramification of this line of argument is that it means that the term “everything” is actually synonymous with “the universe”, with the universe being a set of finite energy and matter that has remained, in accordance with the Law of the Conservation of Energy, constant over time. We have agreed, then, that abstract concepts might begin to exist, but these are causally inert and do not exist objectively – only in the minds of the conceiver. So that leaves matter and energy, which has always existed because it is, in effect, the universe itself. It is not that the universe is ‘made up’ of lots of matter and energy making it something, it simply is a quantity of matter and energy. This has some fairly crucial implications for the KCA necessitating a reformulation as follows:

1) The universe that begins to exist has a cause for its existence;

2) The universe begins to exist;

3) Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

If we then project the syllogistic changes from Section 3.1 over this reformulated syllogism then we get an even more tautologous and incoherent  argument:

1) The universe that begins to exist has the universe as the causal condition for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore, the universe had the universe as a causal condition for its existence.

As we can plainly see, if we delve into the actual meaning of these terms and input these definitions back into the syllogism we are presented with an argument that amounts to little more than nonsense.

One could claim, however, that this argument relies at least partially on the establishment of nominalism, conceptualism or some other form of non-realism in order to work. To this we shall now turn.

RELATED POSTS:

#1 – a priori

#2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

#3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

#4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

#5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

#6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

#7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

#8 – Belief in God: theism or atheism?

October 6, 2021

I know this is quite laborious, but I was wondering, am I not making myself clear? I mean, I’ve written a whole heap on this and the ideas behind what I say, and the conclusions aren’t that complex to understand, no?

Of course, we’re back to my conceptual nominalism thing again. Read here if you are not familiar with my claims:

In response to my first piece linked above, regular commenter Verbose Stoic posted a riposte on his own blog. In it, he criticised me for making somewhat grand philosophical proclamations and building a philosophical case and then expecting laymen adversaries to be able to refute that in order to keep to their conclusions. As he stated:

So this expression of his frustration really bugs me:

It’s really frustrating, because I have debunked their position until they can show me I haven’t.

I have to say that philosophy doesn’t work that way, and Pearce should know that.  If he outlines what he considers to be a “debunking” of their position, that doesn’t mean that he can then dismiss them entirely unless they can refute that debunking, presumably to his satisfaction.  If they never accepted his position in the first place, then from their perspective there’s nothing to debunk.  While the best philosophers will want to refute any reasonable challenges to their position, the people he’s dealing with aren’t even philosophers, and so likely won’t be able to and won’t see the need to refute what they consider to be odd and unreasonable positions.  And even philosophers will ignore purported debunkings that they don’t consider worth addressing.  So while I can understand his frustration at seeing the same points raised over and over again, I and others who don’t find his foundation as solid as he thinks it is will also be frustrated at how much he relies on that foundation to dismiss counter-arguments to even his more controversial opinions.

This bugs me, as he would say.

Don’t come to my (or another person’s) overtly philosophical blog and take umbrage with a piece of philosophy without showing the slightest inclination to do any philosophy, including even seemingly being bothered to read my pieces and understand them. Don’t come onto my turf and attack me and my conclusions without showing any willingness to understand how I got there. And my case isn’t tough to understand. I have overtly attempted to lay out the case for payment o understand. Heck, that’s kinda the point of my blog.

I could go on, but I think this criticism is unwarranted. The original commenter and the one below are welcome to their opinion, but keep it to locations other than this one and other philosophical blogs seeking to do philosophy, to discuss it, and to defend it from actual philosophical criticisms.

I wouldn’t go to a quantum physicist’s blog and claim their conclusions were bullsh!t, but provide no understanding of the theory and no willingness to interact with their theory, merely restating time and again that the conclusion is bullish!t.

That’s what trolls do.

Don’t be a troll. And don’t defend them in their trollishness.

On VS’s blog piece, occasional libertarian guns right commenter Cargosquid posted the following comment attacking me to which I will respond interlinearly:

My reply to HIS reply to your post above. He rejects the ideas of inalienable rights altogether. So….

Technically, already wrong. I reject that these rights have ontic existence, and are thus constructed by humans. They then become pragmatically useful when encoded into law and, and then enforced. They become more “real” when manifested as legal rights.

Well, here’s the problem.
Your willful rejection of the fact of inalienable rights.
Weird how you are all so fearful of the idea that humans are limited in their actions with each other.

I literally don’t understand what this means.

No inalienable right to arms?
So…who gave you the privilege to pick up a rock to defend yourself? Who gave you the privilege of living? Who is your superior?

Conflation of terms and some form of fallacy of equivocation. Are we talking objective natural rights that exist in some aether somehow and somewhere, or a privilege, however that is defined and whatever its ontology?

Let’s go with the right to nukes.

Since the author brought up the absurd argument, let’s go with it.

You are an autonomous person.
No other human is your moral superior, thus, no one can disarm you unless you threaten them.

This is utterly devoid of context. Does he suppose this scenario as being devoid of context? So some nebulous scenario of mere self-evident rights or something? I’m confused.

You have the human rights to self defense and to keep and bear arms.

This is precisely what he has not established. This is about the ontology of rights. Please, please, please, please, please stop just arguing back to me by ignoring the whole debate and assuming the very thing I have argued against, and doing it by assertion, by throwing the assumption into a sentence and running with it. FFS.

See the ability to use tools.

What?

You do NOT have the right to harm innocents in that self defense. Self defense includes defense of your freedom.

Explain this. Show this. Don’t just assert stuff over and over again without the faintest interaction with what I have said over and over and over again.

We can all play assertion games. My dad is God; he’s a badger made out of tulips; ginger people are morally superior; helicopters are the spawn of Satan, who is himself a unicorn.

Great. But unless I can in some way substantiate these claims, then this is all meaningless waffle. Some of it may be correct, but it is not rationally justified unless I can at least do something towards rationally justifying any claim.

I wouldn’t go to a political blog and assert, over and over, that socialism or libertarianism or whatever is the best, and then refuse to substantiate my claim with any kind of political thought every time I was challenged, and then just repeated my claim by assertion over and over.

Therefore, the tools you use for that defense are subject to the liability of harming innocents.
You have the right to keep and bear ANY tools for that defense, but not the right to harm others in their use.

Okay. Imagine all history is non-existent. Imagine humans, too. We just have a lion and an antelope. Would there be rights here? Would a lion have the right to harm an antelope? It’s not self-defence, but it needs to do it to survive.

Bring humans back in. No history, just an out-of-context scenario. There’s a baker, he has some loaves of bread. Your family is starving. There is no other way to enable them to live right now than to break the law and steal that bread. Is stealing a form of self-defence? Is self-defence an objectively meaningful term that exists absent of human conception? How does the right exist in war? When there are deemed necessary collateral deaths? What does he make of Hiroshima?

What if the only way for one of two people to survive was to eat the other? So that self-defence (ie, to defend one’s life from death) is to kill the other person?

Right to life? Right to property? Laws vs rights? I can explain all of this in my worldview, but can he? What if you now introduce harm into this sort of thought experiment?

Technically, in principle, if you can use a nuke in self defense, without harming innocents in any way, you can do so. There is no human that has the moral authority to stop you from defending YOURSELF. They do have the moral authority to stop the harm to innocents.

Who gets to declare what an innocent is? What if I think someone is not innocent but they are, or vice versa, or in between? Is there a difference between intent and actuality, such that an individual’s knowledge of a given scenario also has import? Do these things objectively affect an objective right?

Therefore, as the effect of a weapon becomes more indiscriminate, the use of such becomes less legitimate. THAT, however, does NOT rule out ownership or use in the above described conditions.

Of course, I understand the difference between these weapons, and can understand why, for pragmatic purposes, we would legislate them very differently. But that is pragmatics. What we are talking about is a right to, well, anything. He says a right to life, a right to self-defence, and any other such right are somehow natural and objective.

So, can I posit that for other rights? A right to bodily self-autonomy?

He might be an anti-choicer. So he might argue the right to self-defence and life of the foetus trumps this. He would have to show me how he can objectively establish this. How has he got access to the mind-independent realm where these rights exist so that he really knows that one trumps another?

And how does trumping work in a mind-independent realm? Is one right abstractly etched onto the invisible line above the other right…?

In this case, such conclusions would also depend on an objective definition and understanding of a “human being”, “personhood”, “essence” and suchlike. So we can’t get away from this debate about ontology because that is exactly what the pro-choice/anti-choice debate is.

See: What Is Personhood? Setting the Scene.

It’s the same argument.

Outside of war, the above applies to civilized people.

Assertion. How so? And how do you know? How have you confirmed your assertion?

And if you are threatened by another person/government with a weapon, it is perfectly moral for YOU to own and respond in kind.

How so? What does “in kind” even mean? Are you now allowed to kill innocents? How does a soldier now become representative of a government so you can now kill them not in immediate self-defence? How does a right to self-defence, arms and anything else now translate across? How does he know?

Indeed, war makes a whole hash out of such a natural rights assertion.

Our government is authorized to do violence on our behalf, including the use of WMD.

Authorised by whom? Says who? The UN? Charters? Conventions on human rights? Are these not constructed? Can they not be changed? Indeed, what happened before them? And what of unelected governments and dictatorships? What of humans forced into conscription who disagree with their dictator? Do we now have the right to kill them?

I can think of all sorts of different questions and scenarios that make a merry hell of the notion of ontic existence of rights. Indeed, I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to create universalised laws and rules that involve war and every single weird context you could imagine.

It’s nonsense.

If it is moral for them, it is moral for us…because they only have the authority and power DELEGATED to them from the people.

Eh? Do all the people have to agree for that delegation to work? Does a representative democracy have a better delegation than one using first past the post? What if there is corruption involved? What if it’s a theocracy or a dictatorship?

This is just assertion in a rational vacuum. He’s not even trying.

Nowhere is the privilege to use weapons granted to anyone. Society? Show me where. Who has the authority to decide how and why or even if you can defend yourself?

What’s he talking about? What privilege? Where’s he talking about? Who’s doing the granting?

Rights are recognized as existing, not granted.

By whom? What does “recognized” mean? This is an utter jumbled mess. Yes, he may be a layman, but he is commenting on a philosophical blog and not even trying to substantiate a single claim.

If inalienable human rights do not exist, then no human has ANY rights.

This is where he needs to be more specific, because rights do exist, primarily in the form of legal rights. This, her has a right bear arms in the US whereas I don’t, because our legal frameworks are different. Thankfully, otherwise our cities would be rife with gun death.

Therefore, all concerns about slavery and abuse by other governments such as North Korea and Communist China are nonsense. Whatever someone with power wants to do to you, is right and proper. If rights do not exist, you literally have no cause for complaint. Might makes right.

Absolute nonsense. We construct laws within societies, cultures, countries, and internationally. And we improve them if they suck. For instance, slavery used to be allowed in the Bible and in the US, but now we have realised it is abhorrent. And, I would argue, this is evidence for my position and not his.

Might does not make right. Moral philosophy makes right (with caveats of careful definitions here), ideally enshrined within law, and robustly enforced. Sometimes we get laws wrong – look at history – so we have to somehow amend or get rid of sucky ones.

Resistance against abuse could be seen as wrong, since those in power have legitimate authority to do anything they wish.

Confused. If they have legitimate authority, would it be wrong? How is he defining things here? Not really sure what he is trying to say.

If you have no rights, all you have is privileges granted by those in power. And privileges can be withdrawn at any time.”

I would argue that, for the intents and purposes of this piece and this sentence, rights and privileges are pretty synonymous. I would argue that rights, when completely abstract and argued philosophically, are moral desires. They only become a “right” as such when transformed into a legal right.

He NEVER answers those questions as to where these privileges are authorized. Or why any treatment is objectionable if rights don’t exist.

Eh? I most certainly do answer questions. But they need to be coherent and coming from a source of good-faith dialogue. Of course, this is UTTERLY hypocritical since he attempts no engagement, let alone answering my questions, with anything I have written.

Assertion on assumption on assertion on assumption.

 


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September 17, 2021

Make a cup of tea: it’s a big one. But a necessary one.

I have let a thread flow on Emma Raducanu and subtle racism exhibited, unsurprisingly, by the British media. Enter stage right a bunch of race realists racists.

But here’s the thing. You may get bored of me banging on about “conceptual nominalism” (the belief that abstract ideas and universals only exist in the minds of conceivers, not out there in the aether as objective, mind-independent facts) and the importance of getting your ontology right. Well, it’s pretty useful, don’t you know, when talking about…anything and everything, including white ethno-nationalism.

This will be a two-part piece due to the amount of content I will need to present.

There is one particular commenter who wears his colours proudly and openly, and that colour looks to be white. The thread is now 1300 comments long, so it is a job for me to find just a couple that sum up his views. I have thrown some together, highlighting words and phrases that might need some focus:

What is the higher value: the life of the native people on its own soil or the mixing up of all humanity in the living spaces of Europeans?

The survival and continuity of one’s own people is the highest value in human life, and flows from the sublime preference for adaptive traits which abides in us all. All human evolutionary history is built on that. So you are, in fact, standing against the whole of our history as a species, and you are doing it cuz waycism. It’s pathetic and shallow. You are a weak man.

Evolutionary fitness is not subjective, little one. Ethnicity is not subjective. The notion of human sameness, however, is a religious error, Judaic in origin. That’s what you have attached your emotional life to.

The will to power is Nietzschean and I am anti-Nietzschean, so you will have to try to figure out where you’ve gone wrong. Perhaps you mistake human Being for the destruction of human Being.

Child, you are not a mere social product. You are of Nature, you stand in the cosmos and not merely in your social milieu. There is depth and truth in you, and potential to your consciousness; and none of it is found in your present attachments. Neither can you love fully. Neither can you understand the world and power in the world. As you are you’re a weak conventionalist with a shallow set of assumptions you call “politics” which you did not author and do not objectively comprehend. What’s your IQ? 120, maybe less? You can’t think critically. Your thoughts are those of another man, and not yours.

Descent groups have evolved differing skin colour. It’s one of thousands of phenotypical differences. The life of a native people is absolutely consonant with its genetic continuity. Peoples are not merely social groups or cultural or religious groups.

YOU are denying the right to live in peace and security of my English people. YOU are the immoral party. I am arguing for life, you against it.

Manifestly, migration is neither the norm nor that of Nature, or human genetic past would be one of continual churning and in their assays modern-day geneticists would discover only mild clining and not a single cluster. But, actually, humanity clusters and clines at between clusters.

So, account for the clusters, please. Correct your worldview accordingly. Further, explain the universal human attachment not only to peoplehood but to homeland. If all humanity is nothing more than migrants, why this powerful love of the soil … the motherland, the fatherland? Why do tribes fight to defend it when they can just move somewhere else?

There is something anti-human in your assumptions. Unearth that, excise it; live by the truth of Man and not by ideologically anti-white error.

You know nothing about us. The English people you claim to know are probably as malignant as you are.

Like any nationalist I speak for my peoples life-cause … the most fundamental cause in and of the people. You speak for what? All I see is anti-white hatred.

On the contrary, I love my people. I care about them and desire their good. I do not define that in neo-Marxist equalitarian terms, though, or in neoliberal economic terms. I define it in terms of its essential freedom.

This will actually be quite easy to debunk if you even give it a few minutes of thought, but these things take time. There are obvious contradictions and incoherencies in there, but much will have to wait.

This kind of racial categorisation gives rise to a sort of genetic determinism in him:

Man is not a modernist “individual”. He is not created equal. He is not defined by a desire to unfetter his personal will by overstepping the natural bounds. He can’t overstep his natural bounds. He is bounded and, in so much as that gives him the most fundamental and final difference and specificity, he is determined. His life begins from that position of difference and specificity, and all his inhering assets and capabilities are devoted to its preservation and communication to the future. He lives authentically only in so much as he is able to give expression to this most human cause, without the impress upon him of dictates and falsehoods that are foreign.

So it’s not nature and nuture, it’s nature, stupid. One of the common ploys is to try to turn the tables on anti-racists by calling us racist:

So far, you equality boys, you anti-white boys, haven’t come up with a single positive argument for your understanding of human existence. It’s all incredibly shallow and ideological, and revolves around the assumption that anyone who loves his or her people and desires their survival and continuity must be evil cuz waycism. We should be contesting final values, on the basis of which some determination might be made. But just shouting your weedy memes at “the waycist” doesn’t cut it. Your learned, mechanical hatreds don’t cut it.

Now come on, what is the philosophical value which you contend to be the ultimate good in all human history, and which you propose to be the guiding idea today and forever? What?

He would need to establish Heidegger robustly when he comes to a conceptual nominalist’s blog and attempts to splurge his nationalist garbage. Which he hasn’t done. He shouldn’t come here and demand things of us. The burden of proof is on him.

Heidegger in 1933. Interesting facial hair.

I mean, reading his comments sounds very much like 1930s Germany and the rise of Nazism. After all, Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party until the end of the war, had a dodgy (very polite euphemism) attitude towards Jews, famously said nothing about the Holocaust, so on and so forth. Indeed, my interlocutor’s claims seem to come straight out of Heidegger’s “black notebooks” – incredibly controversial as they are. Please read “Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks’ reveal antisemitism at core of his philosophy | Martin Heidegger | The Guardian” for details of his rampant anti-Semitism. A philosopher can say brilliant or interesting things in one area of, say, phenomenology, but still be racist.

The commenter is – in terms of Jonathan-Haidt-style political psychology – a classic political conservative: he is obsessed with purity, traditional and the in-group.

But, in giving in to yet another instance of Brandolini’s Law (taking vastly more time to unpick people’s bullshit than it does for them to defecate it), and doing the good deed for all you decent folk out there, here is how I see it.

To set you up a bit more, here is what he added after my challenge:

Supervenience is pretty much secondary in the mind-body debate now. The weight of opinion is towards one or other variety of emergence. Not that I am relying on that for my argument. Morality is the socialised action of the higher emotions, which exist uniformly among most of racial humanity, and do so to commend adaptive life-choices. That’s its root.

Essentialism is not limited to existence of “the soul”. Essence is there at the very first enduring separation of organic matter from the inorganic….

I might add, the question is not whether essentiality is in the living organism, but whether essence precedes existence or vice versa. Make your stand accordingly

I did laugh at “exist uniformly among most of humanity”, also known as “don’t exist uniformly among humanity”.

Where to start?

I mean, it’s a garbled mess, it really is. That’s not just me being all liberal and offended by him. I am both those things (though saddened more than offended), but it really is a cobbled-together mass of contradiction and faulty axioms. GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out.

So, as ever, we need to start at the bottom, because things built on foundations – built out of those foundational bricks – supervene on those foundations.

I’m obviously going to start with ontology, and belabour the points I have so often belaboured. I hope you understand how important I think these foundations are and why I bang on about them so much. I am just about to release a new book called Why I Am Atheist and Not a Theist in which I build my whole worldview up from the bottom. It’s a touch more philosophical than some of my other religious treatments in establishing my ontological framework, which then informs my epistemology, natural theology and then morality. The problem is, most people do it backwards, or start in the middle. I often talk about bottom-up construction of worldviews rather than top-down. It’s a common thread around here. Indeed, check out last week’s offerings:

And while you’re at it:

This is very much the same argument as the 2nd Amendment argument I have so often had, except my interlocutor substitutes “natural rights” off the pitch and replaces it with “natural race”.

The problem is, someone like this is an essentialist and an ontological realist in terms of abstracts. He thinks “races”, “species”, “moral obligation” and any other number of abstracts exist in some kind of Platonic realm objectively, outside of our human minds, that any given entity has some kind of “essence” it should conform to otherwise it’s not being naturally right. Or, even more bizarrely, those ideas inhere (necessarily?) in all human minds. Except they don’t in mine, so there you go.

“Human rights”, “races”, “species” don’t exist. By this, I mean, as I so often state, they do not have ontic existence – they do not exist outside of our minds. Like all abstract ideas, for a conceptual nominalist like myself, the existence of such mental entities (labels, morality and so on) is entirely in our minds. They, like any aspect of language itself, are arrived at by consensus. When we agree on the meaning of any word, we codify that by putting it in a dictionary. The same with moral abstracts: when we agree, we codify them into law if we can, and they only become pragmatically meaningful when we codify, enact and enforce them. Otherwise, they just sit in whatever mind is conceiving them.

My idea of what a hero is will be different from yours and any other person’s. When I look at the chair, I get a sense of chairness from it and have an understanding of the idea of a chair. However, a chair might feel like a bed to a cat, or to an alien it could be something entirely different, or to someone from the Amazon Rainforest, yet again something different. this is because there is no objective idea of what a chair is that our minds tap into. It is not top-down epistemology but bottom-up mental construction. Definitions are usually functional so that a chair fulfills the idea of being a chair by fulfilling the function it provides to the people who are perceiving it.

When I invent the idea of a grashextiquet (the refraction of early morning sunshine through of a droplet of dew on a honeysuckle plant into the eyes and perception of a badger), it must somehow then pop into the Platonic realm or exist in God’s mind, and this must still take into account people’s disagreement with this definition, perhaps a changing thereof, maybe over time with the development of language and its application by a wide range of people. So on and so forth.

Evolution and Races

Let’s have a look at evolution and what is known as the species problem. Even Charles Darwin understood the nature of nominalism and how it affects how we categorise species and label them in the arena of evolutionary theory. The nature of evolution means that every single organism is part of a transitional journey from one point in time to another in terms of the properties of those organisms. What we do is we attach labels to categories along that continuum of time in an arbitrary fashion. It is like applying a digital idea to a spectrum. Let me remind you of my favourite picture:

Arguably, at no single point along that journey of text from red to blue does the text stop being red and become blue. It’s fuzzy. We kind of intuit it. In a sense, there is no such thing as red and blue (outside of our minds, objectively). We invent these labels and attach them to a range of colours as we see fit. However, there will be disagreement as to what constitutes red and what constitutes blue. In Photoshop, for example, there are individual codes for every instantiation of colour.  The same could be applied to evolution. If we look at the evolution of man, we could apply an individual label for every single generation of organism throughout the whole continuum. Even that has problems because there will be numerous differentiated organisms that coexist contemporaneously.

What we do is arbitrarily draw lines in time and say everything to the left of that line is this species and everything to the right of that line is that species. For example, we might draw a line in time and say that everything to left of that line is homo antecessor and everything to the right of that line is homo heidelbergensis. However, this does not mean that a homo antecessor male and female gave birth to a homo heidelbergensis at a particular point in time. Remember, everything is transitional. Evolution moves in very slow incremental changes.

Because we create these arbitrary categories, we think that these categories really do exist outside of our minds. The layman will think that at some point in time, precisely, one species literally and meaningfully turns into another. However, this is a mischaracterisation of evolution based on the simplistic way that we categorise and chop up the continuous spectrum of change. We do this for human development, species and any number of things. Adults are and have been demarcated and defined throughout the world at anywhere between 12 and 21 or thereabouts, depending on time and place. And that’s not taking into account actual individual differences – they are general blanket labels applied irrespective of whether one has or doesn’t have the host of expected (nebulous) characteristics of “adult” (also irrespective of potential sex differences) at the given specific age. “Adult” is a useful, practical category invention from which we can derive social utility.

This concept applies to anything abstract, either it is digital and we make up the digital categories and decide what properties qualify a given label, or we arbitrarily demarcate different categories along a continuum.

This happens for species. This happens for races.

Does the concept of human ethnic races exist objectively outside of our minds so that if all sentient life were to die, that concept would still exist in the universe?

No.

So these ideas exist subjectively, and when we agree on them, we codify it into some book or law that hopefully has some pragmatic use (or doesn’t – it can be just for fun!).

There is no such thing as a human race or the English race in any objective sense. Goodness, “English” is a term contingent upon the vagaries of history, geography and language! The only way you get such labels is by subjectively and conceptually creating them. And to do this, you need to survey all properties that humans might have, from the phenotypical and genotypical drawers, and choose a bunch that you like and ascribe these to a label. In this case, take the word “race”, and perhaps narrow it down to “white race” or “English race”, and then choose a bunch of properties, and write them in the respective column.

But be warned – others may disagree.

For example, I disagree there would even be a column “English race” – to me, it makes no sense. I’m not just saying this, I really mean it. I know for sure if all humanity suddenly died, such a demarcation would be meaningless. Its meaning is contextual. It has meaning to the person who uses it because they have ascribed their own contextual meaning to it. But if I asked anyone on these threads, or an Amazonian, or someone from the Ivory Coast or Jamaica or Indonesia or Truro or Birmingham or Scotland what “English race” meant, we would have a right variety of definitions.

When he states “ethnicity is not subjective”, he is entirely wrong. It most definitely is subjective. Otherwise, who defines ethnicity? Who arbitrates disagreements? What about ethinicity+ or B-ehtnicity, or any other form of it I make up on the spot? Is it now objective? Of course, the problem here is that my interlocutor does the classic thing (and I was pointing this out on my other thread with a fellow skeptic about moral objectivity) – he is conflating objective properties with objective labels and abstracts.

What I mean here is that a bunch of people might have a bunch of properties that in their fundamental form (before human abstraction) exist objectively. But this doesn’t make the designation of an arbitrary selection of some of those total properties into a criterion for categorising, and that final category, objective. I’m not saying that a human being doesn’t have a particular skin colour (as abstracted and interpreted by my subjective eyes and brain – Kant anyone?) isn’t in some sense an objective piece of data. I am saying using that or some other qualities and applying them to any given label is subjective.

This is the Fallacy of Composition.

(And that’s not to say we can’t get practical utility from categorising things, as long as we understand the method and reality of doing so – it doesn’t make it objective fact, even if we codify it into law. We can change laws, don’t you know?)

If I select twenty people and select the four people between the heights of 5ft 8 and 6ft as “H race” and then disadvantage everyone else on account of not qualifying for that race, I can’t claim I have objective facticity on my side. Yes, we could argue those heights objectively exist, but “H race” does not – that was my conceptual construction. The notion of “race” is obviously a conceptual construction. Because race just means “particular similarities” (or, indeed, “not these differences” – disqualification rather than qualification), and who gets to decide what similarities or properties qualify for any given definition of race?

“My English people” becomes literally what he and it says: “my English people”, or, “what I, a subjective individual, designate as defined by the words ‘English people'”. For him, in his little Englander head.

He owns his concept, for sure, but he doesn’t own mine. And I (all arbitrary lines drawn on rock as an accident of history and geography aside) am English, don’t you know. He doesn’t talk for me, and for an awful lot of other English people. And, yes, we can talk and think for ourselves. Hence this piece.

So this chap can argue what he likes, but if he throws in assertions and terminology without showing that they are universalisable – that there is some element at the very least of something I call universal subjectivism – or that we should all have good reason to assent to such demarcations and definitions, then he is on a hiding to nothing.

He is on a hiding to nothing.

My Previous Challenge on Race Ideology

On a slightly related note, I have previously challenged our resident “race realist”, Otto Goat, in a similar context. He looked at what he understood as race by applying his own choice of properties to the label of “X race” or “Y race”. He said the “black race” was more violent by genetic nature and thus we should restrict black immigration. I said that if a predisposition to violence was his defining metric for evaluation for a group of people he has grouped, then he should consider stopping all men immigrating to the US since men are 882% more predisposed to antisocial violent behaviour than women.

Ah, but, but, but…

Whatever. Jog on racist.

See A Challenge to “Race Realists” – Race vs Biological Sex.

Essentialism

Essentially (hah!), my interlocutor here, if he was religious (I have no idea – probably loves Viking mythology because they are white and almost English), would sit very comfortably within Thomism and Natural Law Theory because what he espouses is essentially exactly that.

Natural Law Theory (NLT) is an ethical theory derived from the thinking of people such as Thomas Aquinas that attempts to establish that humans, for example, have an ideal form or essence that dictates how they should act. The form of a particular species of bird is that it has feathers, a beak, two eyes, can fly, has a particular colouration and so on. The essence of a bird can be described by listing, one assumes, its properties. There is, in reality (so they would say), some objective notion of what these properties are.

For all of these thinkers, literally everything has this kind of essence, though those essences will differ between things. The idea that homosexual humans (I use this as an example, many other properties could also be used) are morally wrong is derived from the notion that they have an essence, a natural form, to which they should adhere, but do not. A good badger is a badger that most resembles the essence of a badger. A good human is a human who most resembles the nature or essence of a human. A good race is a race that most resembles the nature of that particular race. Homosexuals or some other group of supposedly morally bad people are morally bad because homosexuality is not a property of the human essence, or essential property.

To confuse matters, we could subcategorise humans in terms of male and female as well. In fact, one of the problems with essentialism and Thomistic philosophy is that you could subcategorise anything further and further to create more and more essences until you eventually have an individual instantiation of a thing. For example, you could subcategorise humans into males and females. But why not continue with other categories? Age, hair colour, size, geographical distribution, skin colour and so on but each of these categories could be sliced and diced even further. Who gets to define the categories? Of course, such advocates of NLT or Thomism would say that God gets to define this, but how do we know what those categories are? We can look around us at the natural world, but as I have at length set out before, categorising the natural world in light of evolution is utterly problematic.

Initial Conclusion

As you can see, I have not dealt with any actual content to his claims – and my there is so much I could say – because his claims are based upon faulty foundations as discussed here. If he’s wrong at the bottom, he’s wrong at the top.

He’s wrong at the bottom.

So, yeah, he’s wrong at the top.

And my little infographics for when words are too much.

Even if there is a Platonic realm (there isn’t) and even if his abstract ideas of English or white race were to correspond 1-to-1 with that abstract realm, he has quite some job showing how he knows that.

For the time being, and for the rest of us, it’s in his head.

We’ll try and keep it there. We don’t want it infecting others like a virus.

Finally, this is how important the ontological foundations I keep discussing are. If you get it wrong at the bottom, you can get to be a racist at the top, and think you are justified being so because nature, because objective facts, because bullshit.

Hopefully, you see how important this is, how important what I am consistently trying to lay out really is. And hopefully, this might be of use to people in posterity, finding themselves in these sorts of distasteful arguments.

Big love, y’all.

Most y’all.


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