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?

February 6, 2020

I have a very lax approach to banning and censorship here, as well you know. And you may or may not like this as threads do, indeed, get filled up with comments from those we disagree with. Sometimes, I get asked to ban so-and-so, and there can be merit in banning the more trollish ones, but it also comes down to what the definition of a troll is and who gets to arbitrate the definition and qualification.

Sometimes the reaction to certain comments is, “Well, your opinion is sooo antithetical to mine that I find it (morally) reprehensible, and therefore you should be banned.” Quite often, it comes down to axioms: whatever you put into the function machine will determine the outcome. But we shouldn’t just ban people, I believe, because their views are merely antithetical to our own. We should be able to point the issues out, correct them, or at least allow them to hoist by their own petard.

However, the issue is that people generally don’t change their minds but instead tend to entrench in their original positions by employing large dollops of cognitive dissonance. This can mean huge frustration as we seemingly provide ample good reason and counter-arguments, but to no avail. Because positions are so often arrived at psychologically and not rationally.

I can confidently say the following (but please do not confuse it with arrogance): I have never knowingly run away from a difficult conversation, thread or comment that I cannot resolve in my head. I may run out of time, forget about them, or get sidetracked. But there really is no area of philosophy (everything) that presents problems of coherence for any of my beliefs. I am completely honest with myself, and hopefully with my readers. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that some cornerstone of my entire matrix of beliefs and philosophy was incredibly weak or fraught with issue.

I believe that ost divergence in beliefs actually boils down to ontology. You will find that most people who disagree with me on morality, politics (i.e., morality), God, religion and so on can actually have their disagreement mapped back to ontology. I have written before how conceptual nominalism vs (Platonic) realism is essentially the primary debate, and everything else follows. These are the axiomatic building blocks we feed into our function machines that produce wildly different outcomes. Just refer back to those massive threads here about the Second Amendment and the gun nuts who came here to defend their right to carry and use guns. They, to a man, failed to understand that the thrust of the articles was about ontology – what rights are made of. They happily asserted the conclusion – that natural rights exist – but utterly failed to show that/how such rights exist.

I am really comfortable with my beliefs; they are on solid ground because I build from the bottom up. So many religious people build from the top down.

I have found that, when it comes to commenting, atheists and freethinkers really are more freethinking. As bloggers, we are far more likely to have open threads, less moderation and a willingness to deal with naysayers. We kinda live for it.

On the other hand, and I have been personally on the end of many examples of this, Christian/religious bloggers hardly ever allow open and frank comments and conversations that challenge their cherished views.

I simple terms: the higher your religiosity is, the more blinkered you seem to be. And, basically, religious bloggers are far less open to challenge and freethinking than nonreligious ones. I can tell you this from a Patheos viewpoint: the whole  Disqus filter issue was one that was broadly not an issue for the countless religious bloggers here at Patheos because so many either didn’t allow comments at all, or heavily moderated them anyway. It was all the nonreligious bloggers who kicked up a right stink. It was boards like mine that were most affected. Because boards like mine really do allow free speech. Right-wing, often religious types complain so often about centralised authoritarian behaviour from the left, but they are so often the most guilty. Yes, there are exceptions on both sides, but the averages are clear to see.

I would be interested to hear people’s experiences of religious vs nonreligious comment forums and blogs. Do you agree?


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February 3, 2020

Short answer, probably not.

Long answer, read my book Did God Create the Universe from Nothing?: Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument and whilst you’re at it, please post a nice review or two on Amazon to counter those typical Christian reviews that give 1 star whilst not offering any substantive critique… Grrr.

Happy to have recieved this Tweet the other day, not least to confirm that people out there actually read my books, but that they are appreciated and have some use:

Posts relating to this are:

 


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December 15, 2019

In editing a book called The Unnecessary Science, I have been looking into natural law theory and Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Here, natural law’s big modern proponent, Ed Feser (at whom the book is aimed as a critique) locks horns with Graham Oppy. My issue for such debates like this, that are very narrow and metaphysical in nature, is that they are (to me, granted) eliminatable with something like conceptual nominalism. I, personally, would have just taken issue with opening premises that include arguable ideas such as “potential”, as I did here and here. Indeed, it took 54 minutes to bring nominalism up.

 


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November 15, 2019

Some weeks back, I posted a short piece on act and potency, “Criticising the Idea of Potential and Actuality in Natural Law Philosophy” in which I quoted extensively from a book I am presently editing by Gunther Laird.

Recently, I have received a response on this (“Response To A Tippling Philosopher On Act and Potency”) from Harrison Jennings at Quaestiones Disputatae.

Whilst Jennings admits that conceptual nominalism is incompatible with Thomistic philosophy, which I assert in my post, it is not the thrust of his criticism:

Pearce is certainly correct that conceptual nominalism, as he understands it, is incompatible with Thomistic philosophy generally and the act/potency distinction specifically. However, since Pearce does not argue for conceptual nominalism here (although he does direct us to a different post where he does provide some such arguments), we will leave this objection alone for the time being. Suffice it to say that the Thomist (or those generally sympathetic with Thomism) will of course already reject conceptual nominalism, and so will not be too impressed with an argument from conceptual nominalism against the act/potency distinction.

I did not argue for it there because I have done that in so many other posts here that it would have been simple repetition and was actually unnecessary for the point of the piece, unnecessarily adding to its length.

My main point in the piece was to undercut the differentiation that Thomists have between actuality and potentiality, such that something (X) could be potentially A or B; I say, under causal determinism (adequate or otherwise), X will only ever be A, and so there is no potential (in reality) to be B. The only thing that allows for that potentiality is from human theorising given an incomplete knowledge of all of the variables.

I talk about this in terms of a simple coin toss (there is a potential to be heads or tails, but knowing every single variable, it will predictably always be, say, heads in causal circumstance Y), and in terms of Laird’s example of a butterfly:

This butterfly could be of this particular colouration or that particular colouration, it could be of this size, or that size. We line up all the theoretical futures that this butterfly could have given that we don’t know the initial conditions with our limited human minds. However, if we knew every single condition down to every single wave function of the world, then we could predict with surety what the outcome would be.

Jennings replies:

Pearce’s argument confuses epistemological possibility (or bare “logical possibility”) with ontologicalpotential. Pearce’s argument makes use of the former, while it is the latter which is the understanding of potentia appealed to in the Thomistic act/potency thesis.

Let’s take his example of tossing a coin. Pearce argues that there is not really a “potential” for the coin to turn up either heads or tells, since the outcome is already causally determined. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that this is correct. It still does not follow that the coin does not really have an intrinsic, ontological potentia for its determined outcome. Indeed, it must have this potentia, if the outcome is to happen at all. Suppose the coin is causally determined to turn up heads. We still must say that the coin has the intrinsic potentia to turn up heads; otherwise it wouldn’t be able to turn up heads at all. Even if we were to suppose that the coin lacks any other potential (i.e. cannot possibly have any other outcome), it still must have at least that onepotentia, the potentia for its determined outcome. This is so merely by virtue of the fact that, at the present moment (before we toss the coin), the coin has not actually landed heads up yet.

Here, to me, we have the ungrounded assertion, in my opinion, of any kind of meaningful account, ontologically, of “intrinsic potentia”. It sounds lovely, but it is, to me, a mere assertion that this object, a coin, has some real, ontic property attached to it of turning up heads in causal circumstance (CC) Y. Somewhere, in some realm, this particular coin has the property of H in Y. And if it is subsequently flipped again, it has T(ails) in Z. And it also has the same potential to be at a 1-degree slant on the horizontal plane. Indeed, I can name any potential (possibly infinite) property it will have in the future and this will be its intrinsic potential. All that this means, however, is that “intrinsic potential” just means “future property”. “I have the power to do this” becomes “I will inexorably do this”.

Meh. With all due respect.

I’m not sure this contains any real usefulness, certainly in terms of the Thomistic framework. It’s potential is its future, which is necessarily so.

He continues:

Or take the example of the caterpillar. Even if the caterpillar’s future butterfly coloration is causally determined, it still must have the potentia for that coloration; otherwise that coloration would be impossible. Even given a deterministic account, we must appeal to a real distinction between actus and potentia. If the caterpillar is a caterpillar at t1 and a butterfly at t2, then at t1 it is actually a caterpillar and potentially a butterfly. At t1 it has the potentia for its future coloration, but it does not yet have this coloration actually. Its potentia for its future coloration must be actualized before it becomes actual. And even if this actualization is predetermined such that it must happen and no other outcome can happen, all that this means is that the caterpillar only has onepotentia, and no others. But it still must have at least that potentia. Its potentia is still a real feature of its being, and is still really distinct from actus.

Necessity entails possibility. If something must be the case, then necessarily it also can be the case. And potentia is that whereby a thing can be or become something. If causal determinism entails that a particular caterpillar must become a butterfly, it also entails that that caterpillar can become a butterfly, and hence that that caterpillar has the potentia to become a butterfly.

Here, it looks like we will have to get into definitional talk as he seems to want to make a hash of modal language. The Oxford Dictionary says of potential (n):

1. Latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.

1.1 (often potential for/to do somethingThe possibility of something happening or of someone doing something in the future.

Words requiring emphasis: may, possibility.

Jennings would be synonymising “possible” with “necessary”, such that to say something has a potential to be something (heads or tails) means the same as to say it is necessarily heads, because its potential is necessarily heads. You are stripping modal language of its modality. Jennings states, “If something must be the case, then necessarily it also can be the case” but I don’t buy this. You would never say of anything “X can be Y” and strip X of all other possibilities. Bob can be funny means that very often, or at least some of the time, he is not funny. It doesn’t mean that he is funny literally every moment of his life bar none. And reversing this, as Jennings looks to do, is merely meaningless. If Bob is literally funny every single moment of his life, then to say he can be funny is to equivocate on, or more accurately misuse, the word “can” in its modal form.

To say 2+2=4 is not to say 2+2 can equal 4 (given regular maths understanding). It means it does equal 4. Always. And forever. It doesn’t have “an ability” to, but “an ability” not to; it means it necessarily is or does.

It becomes even more interesting when you look at the universe in terms of how most modern physicists do: as a 4-dimensional block universe. Jennings’ use of potential requires, it seems, an A-Theory understanding of time, in a linear past (gone), present (fact), future (yet to be [potential?]). These days, however, most philosophers and scientists do not adhere to the A-Theory of time – indeed, only 15.5% of philosophers do, correlating unsurprisingly with the proportion who are theistic, give or take. On the other hand, when harmonising special and general relativity, in a block universe, the whole thing is factual. There is no potential. There just is:

So if the future and past are already encoded into the block universe we inhabit – how does that account for our human experience of life, of our inexorable movement through time?

From this block time perspective, time, as we experience in the block universe, is an illusion. “It’s not a real, fundamental property of nature,” says Cortês. The ticking of time, our experience of time passing, is only because we are stuck inside the block universe, moving forward along the dimension of time. “The fact that we experience moving forward in the block but not outside it comes from the fact that the block picture treats time just as another spatial dimension, and we can step outside of it. Time is not pervasive.”

This leads to fundamental questions that cosmologists today are addressing in their theories describing the nature of our Universe. If our Universe is like this block universe, then everything – past and future – has happened and our experience of time is just a mathematical artefact arising from the equations describing the Universe. [source]

In other words, to uphold Thomism, the Thomist has to disprove or counter the block universe (theory), and of course there are detractors, it’s just that I never see Thomists getting involved here. I could be wrong.

But to get back to the potential/actual discussion, it remains to be seen as to what use this is to the Thomist. If all things (given causal determinism, of course, that they would anyway reject) – including brain states and thus resulting behaviours – have “intrinsic potentiae”, then where does this get the Thomist? If we are denying alternative potentiae in saying that all things have actuality and the future actuality is necessarily dependent on previous actualities, then surely the whole Thomistic framework, as an endeavour of moral philosophy, is rendered impotent?


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October 18, 2019

As some of you may know, I am presently editing a book by Gunther Laird calls The Unnecessary Science. Natural Law philosophy, about which I have talked a great deal recently, owes an awful lot to Aristotle, Aquinas and other thinkers from a bygone era. One of the cornerstones of this essentialist worldview is the pair of ideas of potentiality and actuality:

The concept of potentiality, in this context, generally refers to any “possibility” that a thing can be said to have. Aristotle did not consider all possibilities the same, and emphasized the importance of those that become real of their own accord when conditions are right and nothing stops them.[3] Actuality, in contrast to potentiality, is the motion, change or activity that represents an exercise or fulfillment of a possibility, when a possibility becomes real in the fullest sense.[4]

These concepts, in modified forms, remained very important into the Middle Ages, influencing the development of medieval theology in several ways. Going further into modern times, while the understanding of nature, and according to some interpretations deity, implied by the dichotomy lost importance, the terminology has found new uses, developing indirectly from the old….

In contrast, the position of Western Medieval (or Catholic) Christianity, can be found for example in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, who relied on Aristotle’s concept of entelechy, when he defined God as actus puruspure act, actuality unmixed with potentiality. The existence of a truly distinct essence of God which is not actuality, is not generally accepted in Catholic Theology.

Laird expands on this idea:

What did Aristotle provide in response? The theory of actuality and potentiality. He believed that Parmenides was simply wrong to hold that the only alternative to “being” was “non-being.” Potentiality was another alternative, and one that could ground a much more workable metaphysical framework. Return again to our caterpillar: He exists as a hungry little worm-like creature, or, in other words, he is actually a caterpillar. Parmenides could see no way he could possibly be a butterfly, but Aristotle held that there was something that could influence our little friend despite not existing in the same sense at the same moment. Namely, the fact that the caterpillar was potentially a butterfly. For Aristotle, the ways anything potentially could be—caterpillars, coffee, rubber balls, whatever—occupy sort of a middle ground between existence and non-existence, which is how he could claim that existing things could change without asserting that change could come from non-existence or non-being.[1]

Now, for Aristotle, there was no such thing as an “infinite” number of potentialities. Any actual thing—that is to say, anything that exists in some way or another—is potentially a certain number of ways and not others. So Mr. Caterpillar is potentially a butterfly, or, if he’s unlucky, potentially a meal for a hungry bird. But he is not potentially a dog or a rock or a philosopher. No matter what you do to him or how many leaves you feed him, when he makes his little chrysalis, a dog or a rock will never pop out, and he will never do any sort of philosophy, unless maybe if you ask Franz Kafka. The same applies to any other object in our experience. A cup of coffee might be actually hot and bitter, but it is potentially cool (if you leave it out for a while) and potentially sweet (if you put a lot of sugar into it). It is not potentially blood or radioactive fuel, because nothing you do to it will ever make it capable of conveying nutrients or powering a reactor. A red rubber ball (to use Feser’s favorite example) might be potentially blue (if you paint it) or squishy (if you hold it over a flame), but it has no potential to bounce to the moon or follow someone around by itself.[2]

[1] FP, 18-19, SM, 32-33, TLS, 53-54.

[2] Ibid.

He goes on to discuss this in more depth before saying:

Thomists claim we can’t have an “explanatory regress”—that is to say, we can’t just explain the laws of physics by referring to an even deeper law, which would require a deeper law, and so on, ad infinitum. For the purposes of argument and the interests of saving time, let’s say they’re right. So, given what we have discussed about the laws of physics potentially being different, thinkers like Aristotle, or more specifically, his successors (since everything we know about the laws of physics would only be discovered centuries later) would say they involve certain potentialities being actualized. What could possibly actualize those? It would have to be something that was “purely actual,” something with no potentialities at all. This “purely actual” thing would have to be eternal. It would never have come into existence, but would simply exist eternally and necessarily, since coming into being involves a potentiality being actualized (for instance, a butterfly comes into being because the nutrients in leaves actualize that potentiality in a caterpillar). It also couldn’t be changed at all, and would be entirely unchangeable, because change involves actualizing potentials, and anything with potentials wouldn’t be purely actual. It would also be omnipotent, because if it actualizes the laws of physics it must be able to exert control over them—like a flame or an electric coil exerts control over the temperature of a pot of coffee (or, more literally, the person who starts the fire or turns on the stove, since that actor would be actualizing the potential of the flammable materials or the electric coil). If such a being could control the laws of physics, it must be able to do just about anything—send a meteor to destroy a city by changing the laws of gravity for a bit, raining fire from the sky by momentarily changing the chemical circumstances under which flame is produced, and so on.[1]

[1]TLS, 96-97, FP, 30-33. Again, this isn’t exactly the argument Feser uses, but a very simplified one to illustrate his general line of reasoning. We’ll come back to this in much more depth when we discuss miracles in chapter 2.

There is much more I could quote and go on to quote, pertaining to these ideas. The differentiation between potentiality and actuality here appears to be a subtle ploy in order to shoehorn God into the equation. I did, however, want to bring up this point that perhaps invalidates the whole differentiation and categorisation of these two ideas.

First of all, I am a conceptual nominalist, as I have set out umpteen times, and this arguably eliminates such metaphysical contortions anyway by saying such mental categorisations are products entirely of the mind and have no ontic existence independent of the conceiving minds in question. Indeed, such nominalism, in my opinion, destroys the foundation upon which natural law, essentialism and Thomistic philosophy and theology is built.

But let’s ignore that minor digression.

I want to look at potentiality and relate it to a deterministic or adequately deterministic framework. I would argue that such frameworks equally eliminate the idea of potentiality; or, at least, make potential synonymous with “the future”.

Let’s talk about this caterpillar. The caterpillar, it is of a particular species and genus. It has a genetic blueprint. In other words, it will only turn into a certain type of butterfly. Given the environment it is actually born into and given the conditions of the food it eats and the chrysalis it makes, it will invariably turn out in a particular way, with a particular colouration and of a particular science. When we talk about potential, I think we are smuggling in a very human conception about what could be in a very general sense.

This butterfly could be of this particular colouration or that particular colouration, it could be of this size, or that size. We line up all the theoretical futures that this butterfly could have given that we don’t know the initial conditions with our limited human minds. However, if we knew every single condition down to every single wave function of the world, then we could predict with surety what the outcome would be.

If I was to say I’m going to toss a coin, we might both agree that it could potentially flip as a head or as a tail. However, if I was to understand every single initial condition and every single variable at play, on the flip of that coin in that particular instantiation of a coin flip, then actually (pun intended), I would know what the outcome of the coin flip would be. There would literally be no potential head or potential tail but there would be an actual future coin flip of head (for example). I keep coming back to this idea that any contextualized thing really doesn’t have the potentiality to be anything other than the exact thing it will be deterministically caused to become, taking into account the causal circumstance it finds itself in.

Thus to talk about “Pure Act” and other notions that depend upon this differentiation of potentiality and actuality is somewhat meaningless.

Of course, we could get onto a debate about causal determinism and the influence of quantum indeterminacy, if indeed it exists. But given this, my criticism would obtain.

 

 


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