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?

June 22, 2020

Alex O’Connor is a bit of a star in the atheist world right now, with a huge internet following, getting invited to conferences and getting huge names to discussions, from Richard Dawkins to, now, William Lane Craig.

So here he is talking to William Lane Craig. And I am sure as hell O’Connor has read my book on the Kalam because he uses my conceptual nominalistic analogies of chairs and species.

About three-quarters of the way through, he uses my argument on the circularity of the KCA as set out here and elsewhere:

Kalam Cosmological Argument: Causality and a Circular Argument

I have never before seen WLC give so much ground as I did here. His approach to mereological nihilism (similar to conceptual nominalism I often talk about) was initially (as it is elsewhere) to be incredulous and mocking of such an anti-realist approach. But as O’Connor goes on, he almost seems to understand it more and take it more seriously.

Which makes me think that WLC needs to do some more work on the Kalam and properly investigate some of the bigger criticisms against it. Personally, I think O’Connor should have really pressed WLC on this subject.

He can start with my book: Did God Create the Universe from Nothing?: Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument (UK).


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June 12, 2020

It’s my favourite philosophical thought experiment. There is a reason that I find the Sorites Paradox compelling, insightful and very important: it is everywhere and has ramifications right across the board. I’ll get onto it later.

In my opinion, it goes hand in hand with conceptual nominalism – the belief that universals and abstract ideas do not exist “out there” but exclusively in our minds, constructed by them, whether agreed to by consensus or not. But before we get onto these matters, let’s rewind over the last week or so.

Colston

In the UK recently, we had our own Black Lives Matter moment when the statue of Edward Colston was ripped down in Bristol. We had many people saying “about time” and many others questioning this very “un-British” act of rebellion. Many of this latter group had never heard of Colston, much less knew the horrors he caused or represents. His plaque reads:

“Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895.”

For those of you who don’t know, Bristol is the main UK port that is closest to America, and so it became a crucial trading spot for centuries, most notably concerning the trade in slaves. The FT’s excellent article from a few years ago explains:

Edward Colston’s past was no secret. He had risen to the highest levels of the Royal African Company, which then held the British monopoly on the transatlantic slave trade. During his time there, some 84,500 people were forced on to the RAC’s slave ships from west Africa to the Caribbean.

Conditions on board were so poor that, according to research by historian Roger Ball, about a quarter died en route. Yet the city continued to celebrate the slave trader until as recently as two years ago. He has been called the “father of the city” and its “patron saint”. In 2016, schoolchildren were preached a sermon in which his family motto was quoted: “Go, and do thou likewise.”

It is only now, more than 200 years after the abolition of the slave trade, that the anti-Colston movement has gained momentum. Lake, 38, is part of a new protest group energised by global efforts to bring down symbols of racial oppression, from statues of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa to Confederate statues in the southern United States. Bristol campaigners have won significant victories, such as persuading the city’s biggest music venue, the Colston Hall, to change its name. Their current target is the statue of Colston, which still stands. But the campaign has exposed deep divisions. For many African-Caribbean Bristolians, the dethroning of Colston is a first step in recognising both their contribution to the city and the continuing discrimination they face: according to a report last year, the Runnymede Trust think-tank found that Bristol shows a greater disparity between white and minority ethnic groups than any other part of the UK outside London on measures of education, employment, health and housing.

Parts of the white population are infuriated by the anti-Colston movement. “When you talk to a lot of Bristolians, like I do, you find they want to move on, they don’t want to keep going on about slavery. They don’t want to be made to feel guilty or ashamed,” says Mark Steeds, a pub landlord and anti-Colston campaigner. “But the problem is, it hasn’t been addressed.”

There are many connections to poverty, Brexit, tradition and so on with these debates, and the article does a good job at presenting them. For many, Colston’s abhorrent slave trading is balanced with him being a philanthropist. Well, he was a sectarian one at that, and being a mass-murdering philanthropist still means you are a mass murderer.

I had to have conversations recently with people close to me to explain this. They thought the tearing down of the statue was terrible. I asked, “If you were a Jew, how would you feel about having to pass a statue of Hitler or Himmler every day of your working life?”; so on and so forth. I explained the stats above and what he did, and the beliefs he had to have in order for him to be able to justify his activity. I explained that statues are idols, and that this man, his actions, were being idolized. I explained the context of Bristol to them, and its deep and divisive connection to slavery.

And yet, it was water off a duck’s back. They were unconvinced.

Cognitive dissonance, eh!

For me, this statue being torn down was a no brainer. I wonder what detractors felt about Saddam Hussein’s statue being torn down with the help of US Marines. And Hitler? Stalin? It’s well worth reading this article on the history of tearing down statues.

The Kaepernick Effect: “Don’t tear it down, do it peacefully and put it in a museum!”

These same people with whom I was arguing had never heard of Colin Kaepernick and presumed taking a knee, in the States, was all about Floyd. There’s a nice double-edged interpretation of the knee. I had to explain that Kaepernick peacefully protested police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games and was castigated for it, publicly by the POTUS and the VP and every conservative lawmaker and commentator you could think of. Remember Laura Ingraham’s gun with “stand” on it? That’s FOX News for you.

He lost his job and was publicly eviscerated.

Peaceful protest is what white people call for and promptly ignore, and then scream for in the face of large scale, less respectful protests.

This is what happened with Colston. Nothing happened. For a long time. And so the people took matters into their own hands, and, all of sudden, action is taking place regarding all number of statues and whatnot.

Confederate Leaders

Where getting rid of the Colston statue is obvious to me, the same logic should apply to the Confederate leaders. Think what they stood for – the breaking up of the Union, the sustaining of slavery and thus the slave trade, and so on. Why the US should have statues and military bases named after these guys is not only deeply inappropriate, but wholly bizarre. You would only commemorate the losers in such a way if they stood for something utterly noble and morally righteous.

Which they most certainly did not. Unless you are racist.

So these statues need to come down.

As a result, in London, the statue of Robert Milligan (merchant and slave owner – 500 at his plantations at his death) was proactively removed.

Now, there is talk about all sorts of statues. In the UK, there is talk of statues of:

  • Winston Churchill (who wanted his 1955 re-election slogan to be “Keep England White”)
  • Nelson’s Column (outspoken in his opposition to abolition, tried to stop William Wilberforce)
  • Sir Thomas Guy of Guy’s Hospital fame (amassed his fortune largely on selling slaves)
  • Jan Smuts
  • Robert Clive
  • Earl Mountbatten
  • Charles James Napier
  • William Beckford
  • Robert Geffrye

You get the picture. Go research the names to get more information on them.

We have also had Gone with the Wind temporarily removed from HBO Max until they can find accompanying material, as well as the “Don’t mention the war!” episode of Fawlty Towers due to the language/racial slurs and opinions of the Major in it (as well as other concerns). It gets messy because the point of the episode seems to be punching up at the opinions of people like the Major. It’s whether it’s necessary to even express it in those ways any more, I guess. This sort of behaviour is not unusual, just more marked in this day and age:

While traditional TV channels used to simply quietly stop repeating old shows that were no longer considered appropriate, the advent of streaming means catch-up services need to constantly reassess their back catalogues, attracting publicity in the process.

But where do we draw the line as to what is okay for a statue and what is inappropriate?

The Slippery Slope and Sand Dunes

My favourite philosophical thought experiment, if you can call it that, and as many of my readers might know of me, is the Sorites Paradox. It can be defined as follows:

The sorites paradox[1] (sometimes known as the paradox of the heap) is a paradox that arises from vague predicates.[2] A typical formulation involves a heap of sand, from which grains are individually removed. Under the assumption that removing a single grain does not turn a heap into a non-heap, the paradox is to consider what happens when the process is repeated enough times: is a single remaining grain still a heap? If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?[3]

The paradox arises in this way:

The word “sorites” derives from the Greek word for heap.[4] The paradox is so named because of its original characterization, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus.[5] The paradox goes as follows: consider a heap of sand from which grains are individually removed. One might construct the argument, using premises, as follows:[3]

1000000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1)
A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2)

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grain) eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand.[6]). Read (1995) observes that “the argument is itself a heap, or sorites, of steps of modus ponens“:[7]

1000000 grains is a heap.
If 1000000 grains is a heap then 999999 grains is a heap.
So 999999 grains is a heap.
If 999999 grains is a heap then 999998 grains is a heap.
So 999998 grains is a heap.
If …
… So 1 grain is a heap.

What this means is that there are no definite, objective lines of demarcation. When things exist on continua, we pragmatically invent lines to separate one idea from another. Baby, toddler, child, adolescent, young adult, adult, middle-aged, pensioner: test ideas and lines differ from time to time and from society to society. Abstract ideas, like such categorisations, and such as morality, personhood, heroes, chairs (as ideas), redness and so on, only exist in the minds of the agents who conceive them. There is no realm “out there” where these abstract ideas exist.

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

What this means is that every single abstract idea is constructed by the conceiver.

This is what is going on with the statues. I can easily see where the statues at this end of the line are inappropriate – Colston – but it gets harder in the middle where we have an arbitrary and subjective line that demarcates the movement from unacceptable to acceptable. There is no definite right or wrong here. There are the personal opinions and offence taken by people subjectively, all of which need, or need not, be reflected in society around them and us, though laws, behaviour and culture.

We are seeing living evidence of these ideas of conceptual nominalism and issues of sand dunes and the fact that they are at least pragmatically and prima facie true. You might believe in some aether where these moral absolutes and categories exist, but no one can access that aether even if we did believe it existed (it doesn’t); so in the meantime, let’s assume it doesn’t and go about the wrangle in trying to achieve a consensus on these moral issues.

Who Gets to Define and Arbitrate Offense?

This debate has been raging for some time now, and both sides get very irate. Who decides if something is offensive or not? One online piece opines:

And that’s why the examples of Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe, and Gauguin are such good ones. The professor could claim that these pictures are art, or inspirational, or kitsch and genuinely mean it, while the student could claim that the objectification or the overt sexuality is immoral, and hold to the belief with all his or her heart. Both genuinely believe their claims and both want the best for the other person, but this doesn’t resolve the issue, because one of them is going to have to give way. If it is the professor, than he or she is being “censored” and the student is being “intolerant,” but if the student has to endure the images, then he or she is facing a “hostile environment” and the professor is being “insensitive.” Certainly, someone has to win and someone has to lose, but a more interesting scenario is the possibility that one of them might be right and one of them might be wrong.

Which is it? Are there objectively offensive images and if so, who decides what they are? I’d love to read your thoughts below.

No there aren’t and this is the problem for many people who are trying to navigate these waters with abject certainty. The one comment to the piece nails the important questions in this debate, if it also misses the mark in places:

Who determines what is offensive and what is not, in my view, is perhaps the first question related to this issue. An offending act causes anger, resentment, or affront. In other words: being offended is an emotional reaction. In other, other words: “I’m offended” equals “My feeling are hurt.”

So the first follow-up question is: Who’s feelings matter more? Let’s suppose I say or do something that you find offensive. If my words or actions make me happy, but anger you, who’s feelings are “more important” ? My happiness, or your anger? The offending symbol or the offending word inflict no tangible damage, so it’s difficult for the offended to say they are hurt by the offense. This is not to say that emotional pain is not real, but strong words from one’s father, spouse, or boss is in a different category than a bearded stranger in the swamp quoting the Bible.

In today’s America if a person is offended, he or she assumes that they have the right to control the “offender”. So the next question we must ask is: What gives the offended the right to control the behavior of the offender? It goes like this: You offend me. I therefore have the right to control you and/or your behavior. Take down that flag; don’t say that word; don’t do what offends me. I’m offended so I’m in charge and I demand the you, as the offender, be fined, fired, or otherwise punished for something I don’t like. But you must stop because I say so! Don’t forget, I’m offended! I contend that offense assumes no rights. Remember, offense is really nothing more than a gripe and a more sophisticated, socially acceptable way of saying: “You hurt my feelings”.

Your next-to-last sentence is very telling about where we are as a society. To state that one of them is right and one of them is wrong assumes a moral standard. So perhaps a third question is: “How is right and wrong determined”? Our society purports that there is no moral standard – what is right for you is right for you. Without an objective source of morality, nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Absent of a moral standard, all we have is opinion. Without an objective moral standard tolerance is no better than intolerance, it’s just your preference.

So in summary – absent of a standard of right or wrong the only measuring stick we have are the hurt feelings of the offended which in turn grant him or her the right to control another person’s behavior. Tell me how this makes sense.

It’s all about consensus. There’s no other meaningful way of arbitrating this. But what if, using decent rational arguments, most of the people are “wrong”?

Education, education, education. Critical thinking. Logic. Rationality.

What about, say, Churchill, then? I guess the point is I don’t have an answer. It’s too tricky to say one way or another. He may annoy some people with his views, but the rest of his history will probably balance the argument for most people to keep statues of him. That’s how consensus works. Will that evaluation change over time for many? Who knows. The problem is that humans love certainty, but so much about this world is uncertain.

Should I buy organic, local or seasonal? Well, there will be pros and cons to each, and it depends what metric you use as an axiom: carbon footprint, convenience, biodiversity, pollution? If I’m feeling biodiversity-y, then I’m lumping for organic. “But all the extra land needed means a lack of biodiversity elsewhere!” “Okay, but if that elsewhere will be built on, better an organic farm…”

Ad infinitum.

Answers are difficult to come by with any sort of obvious certainty and we don’t like a world without answers, a world with unknowns. Heck, that’s part of the reason gods were invented.

Conclusion

Right and wrong are arrived at by consensus, absent of any objective demarcations. Even if you did believe that God underwrites morality, this helps you not one jot in arbitrating this area because you would have to know what God thinks on the matter and then have to subjectively interpret it anyway.

But God is, as ever, silent.

So that leaves us. We need to decide what to do by consensus. This, pragmatically speaking, means getting out to vote for people who most represent our views.

Get out and vote.

Or spread the word and talk to people about these ideas. If you are offended, then you need to educate people as to why and persuade them to agree with you, and vice versa.

But many people are inoculated to reason, stuck in their ways. True. And they get to vote, too. In some lost cause cases, we have to wait for generations to pass before younger, fresher ideas come to fruition. If this takes too long, then expect some bumpy points in the road towards the future. But with every protest, there needs to be understanding and persuasion and a real will to change things (democratically) for the good to accompany them. In reality, though, this simply means that, often, a chunk of people in any given context are going to be annoyed (perhaps vehemently so) with a moral decision or evaluation. Someone will always be offended in some way. It would be nice to be on the right side of history, though. I don’t want to be someone who, viewed decades or centuries down the line, was seen to support Colston and slavery.

In the context of the US, this might look like Biden taking on board ideas from the left (which is already happening), more progressive ideals, whilst Trump bolshily solidifies in his rightist defiance. The polls will decide whose approach will win through. Times, they are a-changin’, one hopes.

In the marketplace of ideas, access to true and proper knowledge is paramount. This is what is so scary about the dictatorial tendencies of people like Trump who want to control the media. The media needs to improve, for sure, but not really in the way that Trump intends…

Life is messy, morality is messy, philosophy is messy. Statues and ideas fall into simple categories: ones that are A-okay, ones that obviously suck, and a whole bunch of those in the grey areas of thought that require a whole heap of arguing over. We can see a sand dune and label it, we can see a few grains and label them, but we get stuck when there is a duneish bunch of sand that could go either way. And more people are going to end up being annoyed at digital decisions regarding those ones in the middle, because, like Brexit, the population will be more evenly split.

My solution? Make abstract statues in future. Anyone can take anything from them, and there won’t be a right or a wrong for sure.

Actually, people will argue over anything. Why build a statue when you could fund a hospital wing…?

Life is tiring.


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May 12, 2020

This is the fifth piece in series debating Clinton Wilcox at the Life Training Institute (a pro-life organisation) with the following chronology:

JP: Abortion: The Human/Human Being Distinction

CW: About the Alleged Human/Human Being Distinction

CW: About the Alleged Human/Human Being Distinction, Part 2

JP: Pro-Life Debate: Answering Criticisms on the Human/Human Being Distinction

JP: Responding to Wilcox #2: “An Embryo Is an Innocent Human Being”

JP: Responding to Wilcox #3: Human, Humans, Human Beings, the Sorites Paradox & Identity

JP: Responding to Wilcox #4: Eggs & Chickens, Acorns & Oaks, Embryos & Humans

This piece is arguably the most important so far, which is what I said last time, because it is where the whole human being debate ends up if you follow the axiomatic premises of my philosophy. I may even finish the series with this one because, once said, everything else defers to this. It’s fundamental, this one.

This is what Wilcox said in his initial rebuttal:

“Blastocyst” doesn’t meet the dictionary definition of “human being”. But neither does “infant”, so by Pearce’s own definition, an infant is not a human. Although, Pearce glosses over the part about how a human being is a child of the species Homo sapiens, focusing on the part about how humans differ from other animals and arguing blastocysts are not humans because they don’t meet the specific requirements about how humans differ from other animals.

Okay, this is where things get fuzzy, and humans do not like fuzzy. Let’s start with what Christians typically believe. It will be something like this:

  1. A human fertilised egg has the rights of an adult because it is a human and human being. This is due to it having the essential properties of a human, i.e., essentialism.
  2. At fertilization, the zygote somehow develops personhood, whatever this may entail.
  3. A human egg is fertilised and is then “magically” ensouled. At this point, a zygote somehow embodies, or has attached to it, a soul.
  4. All or some of the above in combination.

I have presented, over time, many arguments against these positions. For example, the ensoulment claim suffers from arguments from IVF and monozygotic twins, which can develop weeks after an ovum becomes fertilised. For any given IVF treatment implantation, there are often some dozen or so fertilised eggs in vitro. Where are the souls? And when a zygote splits weeks after supposed ensoulment into two, what happens?

So on and so forth. There are other arguments, not least a demand for the evidence for this, and the mind-body causality issue. See:

As for essentialism, I will be dealing with this next, but these may be of interest:

Essentialism

Essentialism essentially (intended…) is a form of realism that states that there are properties about a human that are necessarily attributed to an entity. In this case “human being” is a very real concept that exists outside of human minds and this entity necessarily and absolutely has a core set of properties that allow it to be identified as “human being” (or “human”). I’m going to have to cover some old ground again here.

Firstly, a “human being” as a distinct entity sits on a foundation of the notion that a “human”, qua “homo sapiens”, is a distinct species.

Categorising stuff

We love to use categories. That’s a blue flower, that’s a red car, that’s an adult, that’s a child. It’s how we navigate reality in a practical sense – it provides our conceptual map. However, you shouldn’t confuse the map with the terrain. Essentially (there it is again), we make up labels to represent a number of different properties. A cat has these properties, a dog these. Red has these properties, blue these. Often we agree on this labelling, but sometimes we don’t. What constitutes a hero? A chair? Is a tree stump a chair?

The problem occurs when we move between categories. It is at these times that we realise the simplicity of the categories shows weakness in the system.

You reach eighteen years of age. You are able to vote. You are now classed as an adult. You are allowed to buy alcoholic drinks (in the UK). But there is barely any discernible difference in you, as a person, physically and mentally, from 17 years, 364 days, 11 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds, and you 1 second later.

However, we decide to define that second change at midnight as differentiating the two yous and seeing you move from child (adolescent) to adult. These categories are arbitrary in where we exactly draw the line. Some countries choose sixteen, some younger, some older. These are conceptual constructs that allow us to navigate about a continuum of time. You can look at a five-year-old and the same person at twenty-eight and clearly see a difference. But that five-year-old and the same person one second later? There is no discernible difference.

And yet it is pragmatically useful for us to categorise, otherwise things like underage sex and drinking would take place with wild abandon, perhaps. Sixteen for the age of consent is, though, rather arbitrary. Why not five seconds later? Four days? Three and a half years?

Speciation is exactly the same. There is no real time where a population of organisms actually transforms into a new species. Because species is a human conceptual construct that does not exist objectively. We name things homo sapiens sapiens but cannot define exactly where speciation occurred. In one sense, it does not occur. In another, if you look at vastly different places on the continuum, it does (at least in our minds).

In philosophy, there is a position called (conceptual) nominalism, which is set against (Platonic) realism. This conceptual nominalism, as I adhere to, denies in some (or all) cases the existence of abstracts. These categories we invent don’t exist (a word that itself needs clear defining), at least not outside of our heads. Thus species do not exist as objective categories. We invent them, but if all people who knew about species suddenly died and information about them was lost, then so too would be lost the concept and categorisation.

When we look at two very different parts of a continuum we find it easy to say those things are different and are of different categories, but when we look in finer detail, this falls apart. There is a fuzzy logic at play.

Species do not exist. Well, they do in our heads. When we agree about them. And only then so we can nicely label pictures in books, or in our heads.

This is a version of the Sorites Paradox.

As I have shared several times, this image below sums it up with aplomb.

So essentialism invents these definite abstract categorisations and makes absolute claims to them. But questions arise:

  • How do they know which entities “exist” and which are just human constructions? (i.e., I can invent forqwiblex – does this now exist objectively with set essential properties?)
  • Who gets to decide and arbitrate these categorisations?
  • What happens at the “edges” of these categorisations?
  • What happens when instantiations of these essences cease to exist or come into existence?
  • What happens when these instantiations start to cease/begin to exist? (i.e, around the “edges”)

Evidence

The simple evidence of the world around us supports conceptual nominalism over essentialism. Most everything exists on continua, and we argue about definitions and categorisations of everything. From morality to language, we argue. There is, descriptively speaking, inarguable subjectivity. The fact that morality broadly changes around the world and that we can see it in evolved forms throughout the animal world points towards this being a construct of the natural world and not some objectively existing Platonic form.

Personhood

What these labels require are properties to be attached to. Because there is no objective fact that a given label applies to a particular set of properties, we need to agree on what ones attach to which properties, and agree by consensus. When we agree, we write dictionaries and encyclopedias codifying that agreement. But these things change. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has adapted to the needs of scientists, and the word “literally” is now a contranym whose meanings also include metaphorically, the opposite to what it traditionally means. “He was literally on fire on the football pitch” has become such a common use of the word such that it can now, according to some dictionaries, be used to mean the opposite of itself.

Personhood is the same. It means whatever we agree it to mean. The problem is that so many philosophers, politicians and laypeople thoroughly disagree on what constitutes personhood. And that disagreement, as with any other term (including morality), reflects the lack of objective facticity.

Can we find agreement? Undoubtedly not, because it is wrapped up with so many other things such as abortion, euthanasia, the afterlife and other ideas that have such strong cultural, religious and contextual draw that means you cannot separate it from these other frameworks in which it is set. Thus to objectively (as in neutrally) assess its meaning is almost impossible for many people.

In this way, and for the point of this, I don’t need to establish what personhood actually constitutes (for me) here. We construct it, and we disagree on it, but we could sign up to some kind of consensus if we had a decent enough definition and will for a consensus.

Thomism vs Personhood

I had a debate with a Catholic philosopher a few years ago and he fully admitted that trying to get a pro-life argument from personhood was pretty much impossible for these reasons, and so he opted for a Thomistic (i.e., essentialist) approach.

The issue here is that both approaches suffer from the same problem. Where personhood is difficult to assign to a developmental entity on a continuum over time, it is a form of essentialism. “Personhood” as opposed to “human” or “human being” is the entity that requires absolute properties. The same problem that exists for “personhood” here exist for the other two words, either from evolution and the species problem or from the development of “human being” or the fuzziness around the edges (whether connected to evolution or not).

You might exemplify this in the context of transhumanism and artificial intelligence, or look at it in the context of male and female as essential categories, and introduce hormones, gender fluidity, intersex, hermaphrodites, genetics, trans and psychology.

In short, essentialism struggles to solve the problems of personhood. If personhood or human being required 10 different characteristics or properties, what happens when one or more property is lacking or not in full existence?

What I believe

Personhood has no ontic existence: we construct the idea. Therefore, it doesn’t “materialise” (ha!) at any given point along the line of development from sperm and ovum to, say, soon-to-be-dead adult. None of them have personhood. Or some of them. Or all of them. It’s up to you and how you axiomatically ground your arguments and premises.

Personally, I prefer a collection of characteristics (a sort of bundle theory). But these generally don’t develop in full until quite far down the line, and for some people, never. In other words, under my position, infants, some children and some adults will not have personhood. I also think it is not digital; there is a continuum of personhood (that can be applied to the continuum of development). Some people will have more personhood than others, and some will lose it over time. And we might argue that when asleep or unconscious, we don’t have it.

Therefore, for me, the abortion argument is not solved easily by personhood arguments. It suffices to say that embryos most certainly don’t have personhood. And essentialism fails for all the reasons I have so often discussed.

But, for moral reasons, I don’t want chronically and fundamentally disabled people, infants and children to be killed under the belief that they are no more valuable than rocks or planks, or some such similar claim. I don’t want this argument to be used as ammunition to justify that. I have a whole load of other moral philosophy to add, and politics, and science. If I desire the world to be a certain way, then I set rules of thumb. Morality is, for me, goal-oriented. You need to set out what sort of world you want, first.

For me, one rule of thumb is: you can’t murder human beings. For some people who like capital punishment, they forego this, and even strip certain criminals of their personhood

But where do I draw the line? I could draw it right back at sperm or ova. But that’s ridiculous (or not, depending on how you couch it comparatively). How about zygote? Embryo? 3rd trimester?

Where I draw the line is, at the end of the day, arbitrary in the same way that the age of consent or drinking or voting is somewhat arbitrary and differs from nation to nation and state to state. But I don’t think that you should be able to have sex with children and vote at the age of four. So I accept that lines need to be drawn for societal reasons. It may be fuzzy, but there needs to be demarcation. This argument is recognised in the book “Sorites Paradox (Classic Philosophical Arguments)” by Oms and Zardini, p. 265-267.

In terms of abortion, this line, for me, is the generally accepted line informed by science. I would say that we use arguments to do with heartbeat, organ formation and pain. The term limits were reduced in the UK from 28 to 24 weeks in 1990. The arguments will rage (24 reasons to keep it at 24 and not reduce it further) and these will either concern the rights and situation of the mother, the physiology of the embryo, or both. I accept that there will be little or no difference between 24 weeks, and 24 weeks one day. Indeed weeks are themselves arbitrary constructions of time! That said, I am broadly happy with weeks (I actually think they should be moved to eight days, with three day weekend, one of which is in the middle – but that’s another discussion), and am broadly happy with somewhere around 24 weeks. But, again, that’s a whole other discussion.

in sum, there’s no such thing as personhood, so we invent it and ascribe it, as people in society, to differing entities along the line of development, to differing degrees. But I’m not so sure it is even relevant to the abortion debate. Embryos do not have personhood (either objectively or subjectively for me). Thus the abortion debate is a case of agreeing what rights there are (autonomy and bodily rights for the mother) that we can meaningfully construct, arguing that they have greater value than the rights of a clump of cells or a developing embryo, and going from there.

 


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May 6, 2020

To continue the rejoinder to Clinton Wilcox over at the Life Training Institute, who took issue with one of my posts looking at the pro-life/pro-choice debate concerning abortion. I responded to the initial part of his first piece here. Today, I will look at his comments with regard to points 1-5 from my original post that formed the body of his riposte. Today, I have time for only the first point.

1. A blastocyst cannot be called innocent. It is no more innocent than a rock, because without consciousness or volition it can’t meaningfully be described as innocent. It is true that the early embryo lacks volition, but this is irrelevant. When pro-life people say an embryo is an innocent human being, what we are essentially saying is that this human being has done nothing to warrant being killed. Most people agree that it is wrong to kill human beings except in exceptional circumstances (the only people who would disagree are strict pacifists, who think it’s always wrong to kill a human being). As embryos are human beings, they are innocent, for the same reason that infants and the severely mentally handicapped are innocent. They are incapable of doing anything morally wrong, and they have not committed any act that would warrant capital punishment. Comparing a human blastocyst to a rock means that Pearce is guilty of committing the category error fallacy. The fetus is not non-conscious, like a rock. It is pre-conscious. Pearce is attributing a false category to the embryo.

Right, where to start. Okay, this looks to be about classic essentialism and thus potentiality and actuality; a foetus is potentially a human adult, so therefore we should treat it in the same way as a human adult. A rock is potentially a sculpture, or a seed is potentially a great oak, so we should treat a seed or rock in the same way we should a great oak or sculpture.

Except no. Full points for asserting that embryos are human beings, though.

Let me start with this glaringly obvious point, so obvious that Sophotroph had to point it out in the comments below:

For an “innocent embryo” to be a meaningful concept, the opposite must be equally meaningful. It can’t be “innocent” if it can’t, even in theory, be “guilty”.

That could be the end of the post, but I’ve written all this…

Blastocysts as innocent

His claim about children and the mentally disabled (always interesting to note word choices, eh!) is worthy of some thought. I would say someone who is without rational thought in terms of being severely mentally disabled or a very young child is neither innocent or not innocent, but is amoral (i.e., without morality) because they lack the understanding. This is why these people are treated differently by the legal system. Due to this being on a sliding scale, a continuum, we deal out arbitrary demarcations that differ over time and geography, as I have discussed elsewhere. See What Is Personhood? Setting the Scene. This then creates problematic scenarios, based on Sorites Paradox issues, that come about from having to draw such lines of categorisations for needs of pragmatism. There will be people who are categorised digitally and this can be seen as unfair, given everyone exists on a continuum: a digital judgement for a continuum of behaviour.

In England and Wales, children as young as 10 can be found to be criminally responsible. The UN wants this raised to 12. And these two sentences show the subjective and arguably arbitrary (a caveat use of the word) demarcation that these things end up being. In other words, what we experience in the world around us evidences my position and not an essentialist such as Wilcox, who argues for absolute rules and demarcations. This is all down to intellectual maturity (or capability).

As The Conversation points out:

What is the age of criminal responsibility?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, requires states to set a minimum age “below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe penal law”. The convention does not actually indicate what age level should be set as a minimum.

But in fixing a minimum age, the commentary on the United Nation’s Beijing Rules notes that: “The modern approach would be to consider whether a child can live up to the moral and psychological components of criminal responsibility; that is, whether a child … can be held responsible for essentially antisocial behaviour.”

In this regard all Australian criminal jurisdictions have a modern approach, with two age levels of criminal responsibility: a lower one under which a child is always presumed too young to ever be capable of guilt and can, therefore, never be dealt with in criminal proceedings (currently under the age of 10); and a higher one where the presumption that a child is incapable of crime (termed the presumption of doli incapax) is conditional.

Children in the higher age group, between 10 and 14 years old, can be convicted of criminal offences only if the prosecution can refute the presumption of doli incapax. This can be done by proving the child understood that what he or she had done was wrong according to the ordinary standards of reasonable adults. This requires more than a simple understanding that the behaviour was disapproved of by adults.

Changing views

The presumption that children lack capacity is not new. Its roots can be traced back at least to the time of King Edward III. But in recent years many have questioned it, mainly due to the perceived escalation in youth crime and the changes made to the criminal justice system for dealing with the young.

Indeed, criticism was so strong in England and Wales that doli incapax was abolished for 10- to 14-year-olds in 1998, following the outcry over the James Bulger case. This concerned the abduction, torture and killing of three-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys.

Now in England and Wales, as soon as a child reaches the age of ten, he or she can be convicted of criminal offences without any examination of his or her capacity to understand whether their behaviour is wrong.

This leaves England and Wales with one of the lowest age levels of criminal responsibility in the world and subject to ongoing criticism by the international community.

Wilcox argues: “As embryos are human beings, they are innocent, for the same reason that infants and the severely mentally handicapped are innocent. They are incapable of doing anything morally wrong, and they have not committed any act that would warrant capital punishment.”

The fact that children are not seen as universally innocent (particularly throughout their whole childhood – after all, what is his definition of a “child”?), and it depends what country you are in, undoes Wilcox’s argument. As a parent, I know that moral culpability grows from toddlers upwards – it is not digital in the way he erroneously suggests. Hence the arguments that abound as above. They are capable of doing things morally wrong to a differing degree, and one twelve-year-old may have a different level of brain mechanics and experiences that means they are more culpable than another twelve-year-old outside of legal definitions in any given place.

The legal definition of “innocent” is simply not applicable to a blastocyst:

Innocent typically refers to a finding that a criminal defendant is not guilty of the charges, but may also refer to a finding that a civil defendant isn’t liable for the accusations of the plaintiff, such as being found not negligent in a personal injury case. It is synonymous with acquit, which means to find a defendant in a criminal case not guilty. The decision to exonerate the defendant may be made either by a jury or a judge after trial.

So Wilcox fails here.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it also as:

(of a person) not guilty of a particular crime

This then requires personhood. Exactly the debate we should be having. But he merely asserts that a blastocyst is a human being in order to, I assume, claim it has personhood so that it can be innocent is circular. So, a failure here, unless he is begging the question.

Cambridge add:

having no knowledge of the unpleasant and evil things in life:
She has such an innocent face that I find it hard to believe anything bad of her.
This is either the personhood argument again, or you can apply it to a rock, too. In which case, the claim of innocence is meaningless.

Infants not children

Perhaps Wilcox extricates himself from this problem by using the term “infant” as opposed to “child”, but we get the same demarcation problem here over the boundaries. When we are talking about a mentally disabled adult, at what point do we draw the line? Who gets to decide this? Again, the same problem exists.

I just get the sense that Wilcox hasn’t remotely thought this through. He is terribly naive, at least on what is scant justification here.

If he is arguing a blastocyst should be afforded the same rights as an adult human, then this should arguably apply to other scenarios. If killing an adult is murder in the same way as “killing” a blastocyst is (i.e., abortion is murder), a child or infant should then be equally as culpable as an adult, and then his blastocyst can be seen as meaningfully innocent in the way that an adult and child can be equally as guilty. But then, if a blastocyst or embryo causes the death of a mother in utero, we can have them up in court for manslaughter or something… We can then backwards apply all sorts of thing to children, infants and blastocysts that we do adults.

The simple fact is that we treat infants and children completely differently to adults in almost all aspects of society.

Blastocysts are meaningfully different to adult human beings. Therefore, to merely assert that a blastocyst is a human being is a pole vault of a mental jump that is not supported.

This is a whole quagmire of confusion on Wilcox’s part that is in no way explained or justified – it is, as ever, merely asserted.

Personhood

Wilcox merely asserts blastocysts are human beings, and thus brings into play personhood arguments. But personhood is a tremendously complex idea that no one appears settled on. Perhaps Wilcox takes another position, one that I have seen some Catholics do – that this is not an argument over personhood because that is admittedly a properly problematic argument. Thus, it becomes an essentialist one: that blastocysts are born with the essence of being human. That’s a whole can of worms to open, but probably what underwrites his approach. The problem is, he didn’t employ it here.

See Natural Law, Essentialism and Nominalism, or Criticising the Idea of Potential and Actuality in Natural Law Philosophy, or Natural Law Theory, Morality and Rational Beings. I’ve had this argument a number of times.

Rocks

Just to cap things off, let’s look at his final claim:

Comparing a human blastocyst to a rock means that Pearce is guilty of committing the category error fallacy. The fetus is not non-conscious, like a rock. It is pre-conscious. Pearce is attributing a false category to the embryo.

Obviously rocks and blastocysts are not synonymous, but analogous as far as is adequate for the example. Here, he claims a blastocyst is pre-conscious.

This is a typical claim.

Sure, in the right scenario, and with the right inputs from an external agency (the mother, or an artificial womb), a blastocyst can become conscious after it has developed as a result of those consistent inputs.

Like a rock can become a sculpture with consistent external inputs.

Of course, the blastocyst might also die naturally before development (most do) or after development (all others do), or become a psychopathic murderer (some do). Does that mean we should treat it like it is dead already, or like it is a psychopathic murderer already? What special pleading this is that Wilcox chooses one convenient characteristic to claim it is “pre-” so that he can apply the same treatment to the post- as to the pre-? There is a whole host of wrong here. See Criticising the Idea of Potential and Actuality in Natural Law Philosophy, or Act & Potency: Responding to a Critic, or Pro-Life Argument from a Zygote’s Internal Self-Organisation.

To have the gall to then insult my arguments is quite an affront when we have this type of philosophical naivety.

Because Wilcox ends his piece:

This entire article by Jonathan Pearce is just incredibly bad, relying on bad definitions, false claims of wanting to be precise in his language, and a poor understanding of human development.

I have to laugh at this excellent implicit instantiation of Danth’s Law with its own terrible grasp of the ideas about which he is merely asserting. This all comes down to ideas I am constantly banging in about: the ontology of abstracta. Not much more I should say about this other than Wilcox needs to go back to the drawing board.

EDIT: Clinton very, magnanimously commented on one of the threads that he was not being gracious, and has since edited his pieces. I thank him publicly for that. I will no longer refer to these initial more personal comments.

No doubt he is relying on an awful lot more philosophy in his claims, to be charitable. As was I, in my original piece. But if this is how he seeks to show my “incredibly bad” arguments, he has singularly failed in his intentions.

I’ll continue my answering in future posts.


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May 4, 2020

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Jayman, a Thomist who takes his time to argue his case here (and for which I am grateful, because he is a lot more thoughtful and constructive than others) has recently written a short critique of my post discussing naturalism (Concerning Metaphysical and Methodological Naturalism). His piece can be found here.

His main points are as follows:

  1. The Natural/Supernatural Distinction – defining naturalism
  2. Methodological Naturalism Is Not a Presupposition of Science
  3. Primary Causes and Secondary Causes Are Compatible
  4. Methodological Thomism Works Too

I would need him to expand on 4. since he provides no detail there, so let me look at the other three. In this post, I will concern myself with 1. only.

The Natural/Supernatural Distinction

His point is:

The first problem is the division of the world into “natural” and “supernatural” things. The criteria by which it is decided whether a thing goes into the natural category or the supernatural category is rarely spelled out. It is also implied that a thing is either natural or supernatural, but not both natural and supernatural.

The self-described naturalist needs to define naturalism before we can discuss its merits. Pearce may label me a “supernaturalist” but I am under no obligation to defend this nebulous position.

This point has some merit; naturalism is often a term used intuitively, like we somehow just sort of know what it means without being able to robustly define it. And, indeed, the term has no exact definition as used in philosophy. It is an area that is open for debate. You can see this from the nebulous, if nice-sounding Sagan quote. The SEP recognises this:

The term “naturalism” has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy. Its current usage derives from debates in America in the first half of the last century. The self-proclaimed “naturalists” from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing “supernatural”, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the “human spirit” (Krikorian 1944, Kim 2003).

So understood, “naturalism” is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject “supernatural” entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the “human spirit”.

Most philosophers will describe themselves as naturalists, but leave the term open enough to act as a large and fuzzy umbrella. I have already talked here a number of times about the difference between methodological and metaphysical (ontological) naturalism, so I will assume a knowledge of both terms.

The SEP continues:

A central thought in ontological naturalism is that all spatiotemporal entities must be identical to or metaphysically constituted by physical[3] entities. Many ontological naturalists thus adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological, social and other such “special” subject matters. They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities.

The driving motivation for this kind of ontological naturalism is the need to explain how special entities can have physical effects. Thus many contemporary thinkers adopt a physicalist view of the mental realm because they think that otherwise we will be unable to explain how mental events can causally influence our bodies and other physical items. Similar considerations motivate ontologically naturalist views of the biological realm, the social realm, and so on.

What is important here is that the mental world needs to be within the remit of naturalism (I will use this term to basically talk about metaphysical naturalism from henceforth). But the general situation here is that naturalists will either adopt some kind of monism, where mental is physical in some manner, or supervenience, where the mental depends necessarily on the physical. This can be in terms of property dualism, where a single physical substance may have mental and physical properties. This is opposed to substance dualism that suggests that there are two fundamental substances (i.e., matter and mind) that inhere two different sets of properties.

There is obviously a connection between the methodological and metaphysical varieties since one might claim that naturalism is all that can be found by the methodology of science, or methodologically finding out about nature. If you can’t test it, it’s not natural, so to speak. We might say that something that is natural is bound by the Laws of Nature (see my post Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #11 – Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?).

This is where methodological naturalism comes in because we might discover a new, unexplained physical phenomenon. Rather than think it might be supernatural, we assume it is natural and part of the natural fabric around us, and we do so based on inductive reasoning.

Steven Schafersman (in “Naturalism is Today An Essential Part of Science”, a paper presented at the Conference on Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise) synthesizes many definitions, which he lists, to create his own (his paper is no longer on the internet, but I have a copy):

In my own definition, a synthesis of those above, naturalism is the philosophy that maintains that (1) nature is all there is and whatever exists or happens is natural; (2) nature (the universe or cosmos) consists only of natural elements, that is, of spatiotemporal material elements–matter and energy–and non-material elements–mind, ideas, values, logical relationships, etc.–that are either associated with the human brain or exist independently of the brain and are therefore somehow immanent in the structure of the universe; (3) nature works by natural processes that follow natural laws, and all can, in principle, be explained and understood by science and philosophy; and (4) the supernatural does not exist, i.e., only nature is real, therefore, supernature is non-real. Naturalism is therefore a metaphysical position opposed mainly by supernaturalism. It is not an ethical system, although a variety–pragmatic naturalism, a synthesis of pragmatism and naturalism–does develop ethical positions. Furthermore, naturalism is a subset of metaphysical realism….

Even though naturalism has two primary sources in philosophy, “materialism in metaphysics and empiricism [and skepticism] in epistemology” (Kurtz, 1990, p. 12), naturalism does not necessitate a commitment to materialism, a philosophy with which it is often confused (more on this below). Materialism recognizes the existence of non-material elements, but claims that they are unconditionally produced by or associated with material elements, that is, the non-material elements would not exist if the material elements did not exist. Certainly most philosophical naturalists today are materialists, and methodological materialism is probably universally adopted among scientists today, but idealism or dualism could be true and naturalism would still be viable.

Naturalism is pretty much a case of Ockham’s Razor, in one sense, being that which is required to understand our physical environment, no more. We have no need of the supernatural hypothesis. There will be a lot of close connection to epistemology here, namely the coherence and pragmatist theories of truth (since there is no way of knowing indubitably whether the correspondence theory holds). Phil Rimmer, here, produced a pretty good working definition:

A good definition of natural is to say it is that which is bound by law, hence a Law of Nature.

All observed natural phenomena are seen to be lawful and lawfully consistent even if the laws are not known. Even radioactivity is statistically lawful.

The supernatural would be that which is not seemingly lawful and is often associated with imputations of unseen agency. Any phenomenon claimed to be innate magic possessed by objects, if seen to be lawful, would need to be re-categorised as natural. Thus sunstones and south-seeking stones.

A spurious claim of supernatural for that which is natural is a technique used by hucksters, often supported by the duped, who in their occasional slow counter realisations often double down for shame or for a little duping of their own.

Metaphysical objects are mental might-bes. These are just thinking tools that, like all mental objects exist in the natural space that includes brains.

Of course, one could defer back again to the example of a newfound phenomenon (any new scientific finding) – how would this fit here? Well, if the phenomenon was predictable, reproducible, observable in some way, then it would fall into the purview of naturalism. This is why, in my essay “The Argument from Format“, I argue that the universe and its laws qua naturalism must be deterministic. I can’t make sense of any other form of reality that gives rise to such complexity as we see around us if it does not work to lawlike behaviour.

Personally, I don’t rule out supernatural activity a priori. Everything outside of cogito ergo sum is an exercise in probability, and more accurately in probability inferred from observations of the world around us, inductively. The probability of the supernatural existing is, therefore, vanishingly small. Our whole worlds are combinations of sensory data collections and conclusions, and so probability is the soup du jour.

You might go down the rabbit hole of wondering whether rather a-causal mental or abstract domains are part of a naturalistic worldview, such as mathematics. I would argue maths is a conceptual language humans have developed to understand and navigate the physical world around us, and falls into the mental -> physical supervenience.

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