Abstract Objects and Reductionism

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 12, 2009 in Reviews

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) In my previous post, I began the discussion of What Everything is Made of: spacetime, matter-energy, and physical laws. Now we move on to something less scientific and more philosophical: III.5.4 Abstract Objects.

There is much confusion about the “existence” of abstract objects, and it is all Plato’s fault.

Plato thought that ideas like “bee” and “rectangle” and “2″ existed as perfect Forms in a special realm of perfect objects, and that particular bees or rectangles we see on earth are only pale imitations of the perfect Forms.

But we need not resort to such silliness. Ideas like “bee” and “rectangle” and “2″ are abstractions – they are “abstracted” from particular things. They are potential patterns of experience. For example, we might see an apple and a Midwestern barn and a Dodge Viper and notice that they all share the pattern of experience of reflecting lightwaves with wavelengths of 625–740 nanometers. We have abstracted from all these things a pattern of experience they have in common, one that we decided, for convenience, to call “red.”

Of course, we do not name or think of many potential patterns of experience. At one time in the distant past there were 4 bacteria, before there were human minds to contemplate the pattern of experience we now call “4.” But this does not require us to suppose that “4″ exists in some kind of magical realm of perfect objects. Nor does it require us to think that “fourness” exists in any sense beyond particular instances of it, or our thoughts about that potential pattern.

All of mathematics is about these patterns. It’s a language of symbols we developed for talking about certain patterns and relations. The same is true of colors (a pattern of lightwaves with a particular wavelength) and other processes. A color is a process of photon oscillation. Likewise, “running” is a pattern of leg movement. There is no object called “running” in some other realm where perfect objects are stored.

And we invent new abstractions all the time. Dan Savage invented an abstraction called “saddlebacking” as a handy shortcut for a pattern of experience that could otherwise be described as “Christian teens engaging in unprotected anal sex in order to preserve their virginities.” (The term is named after fundamentalist Christian megachurch Saddleback Church.)

Modal properties

There is another type of property called a “modal” property, which we can call “possibility” or “ability.”

For instance, Ed Norton can survive a trip to Paris but cannot survive a trip through a meat grinder. Ed Norton’s ability in either case is a modal property: because of what he is, he has certain capabilities and limitations, his pattern contains certain possibilities

Modal properties are the causal consequences of a particular pattern of matter-energy in space-time… Even if Ed Norton never suffers the horrible fate of falling through a meat grinder, we can say that if he did so, he would be destroyed, and what came out the other side would not be Ed Norton, but a pile of good. We can say this because the pattern of matter and energy instantiated by Ed Norton is such that this is what will result when it collides with the pattern of matter and energy instantiated by a meat grinder. It is a geometric inevitability.

(“Instantiated”, by the way, is a fancy word that means “to represent an abstraction with a concrete example in the real world.” So, the idea of “Ed Norton” is instantiated in the real world by such things as a particular set of arms and legs and water and bacteria and neural connections.)

So, Ed Norton’s modal property of being unable to pass through a meat grinder and remain what we call “Ed Norton” is simply our prediction of what will happen if Ed Norton goes through a meat grinder – namely, that what comes out the other end will lack the arrangement of matter-energy that we refer to as “Ed Norton.” Instead, it will possess the arrangement of matter-energy we might call “pile of goo.”

All modal properties – properties about possibility – are like this. They are all causal predictions about what will happen if one pattern of experience interacts with another pattern of experience in a particular way. So, we need not dream up a special non-natural realm for modal properties, either.

Abstract objects do not “exist” as anything more than potential patterns of experience. For this reason, I prefer not to call them abstract objects, which makes it sound like they are things that might exist somewhere. I prefer to call them abstractions, which is clearer.

Reductionism

Carrier ends section III.5 What There Is with some thoughts on reductionism.

Carrier believes that literally everything can be reduced to matter-energy in spacetime. Why does he believe such an arrogant notion? Well, simply because that fits with everything we have discovered so far, and nothing we have discovered contradicts it.

We’ve discovered that the solar system reduces to masses under gravity in spacetime, which Einstein reduced simply to masses in spacetime, which now look as though they may reduce simply to spacetime geometry. We’ve discovered that genetic “factors” reduce to proteins, which reduce to chemicals, which reduce to atoms, which reduce to subatomic particles. We know that society reduces to humans, which reduce to cells, which reduce to chemical machines, which reduce to atoms, which reduce to subatomic particles. Think of that! Continent-sized societies reduce to subatomic particles! Everything we’ve discovered so far fits this pattern.

But this doesn’t mean that humans “are just” subatomic particles bouncing around randomly. There is obviously a difference between Ed Norton and “pile of goo,” even if both are made of the same subatomic particles. Why? Because the arrangement is different.

A different arrangement can be causally different. Ed Norton interacts with other things in the universe quite differently than a pile of goo does. Likewise, a tree affects things differently than a pile of ash or a stack of boards.

Carrier finishes with two examples: a game of chess and Microsoft Windows.

A game of chess is reducible to binary mathematics, so a computer can play chess. But a pawn is not “just” electrons on a microchip. The arrangement of those electrons makes causal, modal, and other differences.

…it is manifestly false to say that the pawn doesn’t exist. It plainly does – it just took your knight! It is just as absurd to say that the pawn exists in some higher abstract reality. As any… computer engineer can show you, it only and entirely exists as a pattern of electrons in motion on a grid of transistors. Yet that pattern is causally different than any other, distinctly a pawn in its placement and behavior in the game.

Or consider using Microsoft Windows which, in an earlier version, was wholly reducible to DOS, which in turn was wholly reducible to 0s and 1s, which in turn were reducible to electrons on a grid. Windows was composed of nothing else but electrons on a grid, and yet these things called “folders” and “icons” really do exist: they are causally distinct from other arrangements of electrons on a grid.

Next, we are ready for section III.6 The Nature of Mind.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Derek July 12, 2009 at 6:47 pm

“So, Ed Norton’s modal property of being unable to pass through a meat grinder and remain what we call “Ed Norton” is simply our prediction of what will happen”
The following propositions are true:
 
“Possibly, the laws of physics could have been (or can be in the future) different than they actually are.”
 
“Possibly, there are no laws of physics.” 
 
“Possibly, there is a causal property Q such that if S is a person, and S passes through a meat grinder, S’s body will be restored to the state S was before S went into the meet grinder.”
 
All three of these propositions are true.  To say otherwise is to say that they are necessarily false.  But what evidence could there possibly be that they are necessarily false?  As such, 
 
(1) If “unable” is to be construed as a modal property, then we must say that E.N. is able to pass through a meat grinder.
 
(2) Modal properties cannot be reduced to actual world nomological truths, lest nomological modalities are the broadest possible, which is false. 
 
Hence, it’s false to say that modal properties are merely (or are reducible) to predictions about what will happen under supposed actual world nomological facts.
 
 
 

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Dave July 12, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Could Carrier be using the word “modal” in a slightly different way than the modal logicians use it? For instance, could he be referring to metaphysical possibility rather than logical possibility?

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lukeprog July 13, 2009 at 5:40 am

Derek,

I don’t think there is any evidence that those propositions are necessarily false. Why? Because they are not necessarily false.

I don’t think it’s necessarily false to say that Ed Norton can pass through a meat grinder. Rather, it is contingently false to say so.

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cartesian July 13, 2009 at 8:15 am

Luke,
>>Ideas like “bee” and “rectangle” and “2″ are abstractions – they are “abstracted” from particular things. They are potential patterns of experience.>>
 
You should say more about these so-called “potential patterns of experience.” They sound a LOT like platonic universals that you’re trying to reject.
 
You say:
>>potential patterns of experience exist even when we don’t notice or name them. At one time in the distant past there were 4 bacteria, before there were human minds to contemplate the pattern of experience we now call “4.”>>
 
So it sounds like these potential patterns of experience are mind-independent. And they’re multiply located/instantiated. And they’re abstract.
 
Guess what? You’ve just described a full-blown universal. Welcome to realism about universals. Plato and I are glad to have you in the club.

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cartesian July 13, 2009 at 8:18 am

>>Ed Norton’s modal property of being unable to pass through a meat grinder and remain what we call “Ed Norton” is simply our prediction of what will happen if Ed Norton goes through a meat grinder>>
 
Not quite. The property of being unable to survive a trip through a meat grinder is logically stronger than the property of being such that one will not survive the trip. The former property entails that, necessarily, if Ed passes through the meat grinder, he will not survive. The latter property only entails that, if Ed passes through the meat grinder, he will not survive. There’s no necessity there.
 
So you’ve misconstrued modal properties, removing any trace of modality. You’ve therefore failed to engage the real issue here. :-(

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cartesian July 13, 2009 at 8:36 am

lukeprog: I don’t think there is any evidence that those propositions are necessarily false. Why? Because they are not necessarily false.

Were you serious here? Or was this a joke? If it was a joke, please forgive this criticism:

(1) p is not necessarily false.
(2) Therefore, there is no evidence that p is necessarily false.

This is a really bad argument. Here’s a counterexample:
There is evidence in favor of Goldbach’s conjecture, and there is evidence against it. Either it’s true or it’s false. And if it’s true, it’s necessarily true, and if it’s false, it’s necessarily false. Call Goldbach’s conjecture “p” and call its negation “q.”

(1) If p, then necessarily p.
(2) If necessarily p, then not-(necessarily not-p).
(3) Therefore, if p, then not-(necessarily not-p)  [from 1, 2]
(4) Yet there is evidence that necessarily not-p.
(5) Therefore, if p, then p is not necessarily false, and yet there is evidence that p is necessarily false [from 3, 4]

Now do the same for q, to get this conclusion:

(10) Therefore, if q, then q is not necessarily false, and yet there is evidence that q is necessarily false [from 3, 4]

And now, since q is the negation of p we assume:
(11) Either p or q

And we conclude:
(12) Therefore, either p is not necessarily false, and yet there is evidence that p is necessarily false, OR q is not necessarily false, and yet there is evidence that q is necessarily false.

And if either one of those is true, you have a counterexample to your argument.

>>I don’t think it’s necessarily false to say that Ed Norton can pass through a meat grinder. Rather, it is contingently false to say so.>>

Unless you meant to be making claims with compounded modal operators, I don’t think you have a firm grasp on modality yet. And I don’t think you meant to be making claims with compounded modal operators.

Here’s the claim that it’s necessarily false that Ed can survive the meat grinder (with “N” for necessarily and “P” for possibly and “~” for not.):

(A) N~(P(Ed survives the meat grinder))

You deny this. So you think:

(B) ~N~(P(Ed survives the meat grinder))

Yet you go on to say “it is contingently false to say that Ed can survive the meat grinder.”

I’m not sure what you mean. If something is contingently false, that means it’s possibly true and possibly false. So it’s neither necessarily true nor necessarily false.

So I take it you think it’s possibly possible for Ed to survive the meat grinder. In S5 at least, this entails that there is a possible world in which Ed survives the meat grinder.

Would you please describe this possible world to me, given your materialist commitments?

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Dace July 13, 2009 at 3:05 pm

All modal properties – properties about possibility – are like this. They are all causal predictions about what will happen if one pattern of experience interacts with another pattern of experience in a particular way.

Do experiences causally interact?

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lukeprog July 13, 2009 at 7:41 pm

cartesian,

Please do correct me if I’m wrong, but Platonism about universals holds that these ‘patterns of experience’ exist even when they happen to not be instantiated at a particular time in the physical world, right? If so, that’s where I diverge from Plato, since abstractions are only potential patterns of experience, in my book.

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lukeprog July 13, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Dace: Do experiences causally interact?

Patterns of experience interact, yes. I am a pattern of experience. So is a rock. So is a rainbow.

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lukeprog July 13, 2009 at 7:58 pm

cartesian: Were you serious here? Or was this a joke? If it was a joke, please forgive this criticism:

I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but no… in this case I evidently typed something I did not intend! It is indeed a bad argument, though your explanation of why it’s a bad argument is better and more informative than anything I could have come up with. There’s that philosophical training I so envy in you.

What I meant to say was more like: “I don’t think one can prove those statements are necessarily false. In fact, I think they are not necessarily false. They are contingently false.

So yes, I suspect there is a possible world in which Ed Norton survives the meat grinder. For example, there may be a possible world in which God exists and will continuously re-arrange Ed Norton’s molecules as he is passing through the meat grinder such that he stays alive and comes out the other end, whole. Or maybe there is a possible world in which Ed Norton’s cells continuously reach out and reconnect to each other. Or maybe there is a possible world in which Ed Norton’s tissues act like the regenerating tissues of a starfish, except almost instantaneously. Or maybe there is a possible world in which Ed Norton’s body is made out of a material that is denser than the blades of the meat grinder.

Ed Norton will not survive the meat grinder because of contingent physical facts about the universe that happens to be instantiated here and now, not because of any necessary logical truths.

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cartesian July 13, 2009 at 8:18 pm

lukeprog: Please do correct me if I’m wrong, but Platonism about universals holds that these ‘patterns of experience’ exist even when they happen to not be instantiated at a particular time in the physical world, right? If so, that’s where I diverge from Plato, since abstractions are only potential patterns of experience, in my book.

For you, these potential patterns of experience are mind-independent, multiply located/instantiated, and abstract. That makes you a realist about universals. You’re in the club with Plato, Aristotle, LOTS of other philosophers, and me.
 
You’re right that there are kinds of realists about universals. One can believe in ante rem universals, which you describe. That’s to believe that universals exist outside of the things that instantiate them. Plato was into ante rem universals. So am I. (You may be interested in this paper by George Bealer featuring an argument for the ante rem view:
http://pantheon.yale.edu/~gb275/Universals%20and%20Properties.pdf
Bealer’s not a theist, if that makes you less suspicious.)
 
One may instead believe in in re universals. That’s to believe that universals exist in the things that instantiate them. On this view, universals are mind-independent and multiply located, but since they’re totally in the things that instantiate them, it looks like they’re totally in space and time. If so, it’s hard to make sense of the claim that they’re also abstract (which you claim). But this depends on how you carve the concrete/abstract distinction. So maybe you’re in this camp, with Aristotle (and not Plato).
 
In any event, like Plato, you’re definitely a realist about universals. That doesn’t seem to sit so well with your thoroughgoing naturalism. You’ve just committed yourself to the existence of very, very many things that are multiply located. Kind of spooky, right? Your ontology is now quite baroque. Not what I’d expect from a diehard scientiphicalist like yourself. ;-)

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lukeprog July 13, 2009 at 8:42 pm

cartesian,

I’d be happy to discover that I’m a realist about universals – it always seemed to me that much of this was confusion about words, anyway. But I don’t think that abstractions ‘exist’ unless they happen to be instantiated, and even in that case all that ‘exists’ are the instantiations themselves. Or, they ‘exist’ in a slightly different way (as representations in a mind) when they are thought about, and then the abstraction no longer ‘exists’ (as a representation in a mind) when it is not being thought about.

Am I still a realist?

I think it all comes down to what you mean by ‘exist.’

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Bill Snedden July 14, 2009 at 4:17 am

@Cartesian – or it may be the case that lukeprog (and/or Carrier) might mean something different than your construction.  I don’t see anything in what lukeprog wrote that I would <b>necessarily</b> deny and yet I am a pretty thorough-going nominalist.  The word “potential” doesn’t necessarily imply that universals have a <b>mind-independent</b> existence, which would be a requirement for realism.  It could be the mere recognition that, not having yet experienced the sum totality of reality, there may be particulars and/or features of particulars we have not yet perceived and thus that there are potential abstractions still to be created.

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cartesian July 14, 2009 at 6:44 am

Hi Luke,
>>There’s that philosophical training I so envy in you.>>
 
Have you looked into enrolling in any philosophy programs in your area? You have a lot of potential (and the right temperament) for philosophy, and I’d like to see it actualized.
 
>>What I meant to say was more like: “I don’t think one can prove those statements are necessarily false. In fact, I think they are not necessarily false. They are contingently false.
So yes, I suspect there is a possible world in which Ed Norton survives the meat grinder.>>
 
Why can’t one prove that these sorts of statements are necessarily false? That seems odd, since you think you can prove that some statements are possibly true (e.g. possibly, Ed survives the meat grinder). But if you’re willing to admit that p is possible, you’ll have to admit that you can know the truth values of some claims of necessity (e.g. you know it’s false that N(Ed doesn’t survive the meat grinder).
 
Also, your statement seems to have self-reference problems. You think statements concerning properties like will survive a meat grinder cannot be proven to be necessarily false. You think it’s false that e.g. Ed will survive a meat grinder, but you don’t think it’s necessarily false. You do this because you’re wary of modal properties like being unable to survive a meat grinder. You want to reduce those to non-modal statements.
 
But your reply entails that there are some such modal properties that you’re trying to avoid. You think that some sentences (or propositions) have the modal property cannot be proven to be necessarily false. You don’t just think it’s false that they will be proven to be necessarily false. No, you make a stronger claim, entailing the existence of a modal property. But that’s inconsistent with your position. Or am I misreading you here?
 
>>For example, there may be a possible world in which God exists and will continuously re-arrange Ed Norton’s molecules as he is passing through the meat grinder such that he stays alive and comes out the other end, whole.>>
 
Um… I’m having a hard time picturing this. How is this meant to work, exactly? Meat grinders are pretty darn destructive. http://www.peteykins.com/sparklepony/MeatGrinder.jpg
 
In any event, you may just not like this particular example. But surely there are others. What your opponent needs in order to defeat your claim is a modal property that cannot be rephrased without loss of meaning into non-modal terms.
 
So how about this one? Ed Norton could not survive vaporization (and/or annihilation). Or, Ed Norton could not survive a trip through a meat grinder, given the actual laws of nature. Or, Ed Norton could not be one atom. Or, Ed Norton could not be the number 4. Or, Ed Norton could not fail to be self-identical.
 
Can you really offer rephrasals of all these sentences in non-modal terms that don’t lose meaning?

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cartesian July 14, 2009 at 7:04 am

Bill Sneden,
>>The word “potential” doesn’t necessarily imply that universals have a mind-independent existence, which would be a requirement for realism.>>
 
OK, but Luke also said: “Of course, potential patterns of experience exist even when we don’t notice or name them. At one time in the distant past there were 4 bacteria, before there were human minds to contemplate the pattern of experience we now call ’4′.”
 
That sounds pretty mind-independent to me. Of course nominalists may think that tropes are mind-independent as well. Luke’s mind-independence claim just distinguishes him from conceptualists. It’s his identity claim (as opposed to a claim of exact similarity) that distinguishes him from nominalists (about universals).
 
Luke wants to say (I take it) that the computer before him and the computer before me instantiate the very same property of computerness, i.e. that very same “potential pattern of experience.” That makes him a realist about universals. A nominalist would say that the computer-ish properties in the computer before me and the computer-ish properties in the computer before Luke are exactly similar, but not identical. (So those properties aren’t shared, i.e. multiply instantiated, i.e. universals.)
 
But I take it Luke denies that there are non-spatio-temporal abstract objects. He doesn’t seem to like anything at all resembling Platonic forms. So he’s probably a nominalist in the other sense of the word, i.e. a nominalist about abstract objects. He seems to be a realist about universals, but a nominalist about abstract objects. If so, he’s just like David Armstrong.
http://books.google.com/books?id=E7o8AAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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cartesian July 14, 2009 at 7:14 am

lukeprog: I don’t think that abstractions ‘exist’ unless they happen to be instantiated, and even in that case all that ‘exists’ are the instantiations themselves. Or, they ‘exist’ in a slightly different way (as representations in a mind) when they are thought about, and then the abstraction no longer ‘exists’ (as a representation in a mind) when it is not being thought about. Am I still a realist? I think it all comes down to what you mean by ‘exist.’

I always took “exist” to be univocal. I can’t really offer any helpful analysis of the word. It’s one of my primitive, unanalyzable terms (like “red”). I can just point to examples: Trees exist, I exist, you exist, chairs exist. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist, unicorns don’t exist, hallucinated daggers don’t exist, etc.
 
When you say that you don’t think these abstractions exist unless they’re instantiated, what do they do in the meantime? Are they constantly coming into and out of existence? That’s a bit weird, if you ask me. In virtue of what is it the same abstraction that comes into existence, after not existing for a while?
 
Say we smash all the computers in the world. So the abstraction computerness goes out of existence, on your view. But then we build some things that are exactly similar to the computers we had before. So now an abstraction comes into existence, on your view. Is this abstraction computerness again? Or is it a completely new abstraction?
 
I should think that the things we’ve built would be computers. So I take it you should answer “yes” to only the first question. But in virtue of what is it computerness again? We don’t think that’s how things work with people. If I destroy you and then build an exact duplicate, you don’t come back. Someone a lot like you comes back, but you don’t come back. So why can abstractions come back from non-existence, but people can’t?

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Rups900 July 14, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Hi everyone,

“OK, but Luke also said: “Of course, potential patterns of experience exist even when we don’t notice or name them. At one time in the distant past there were 4 bacteria, before there were human minds to contemplate the pattern of experience we now call ‘4′.””

I always was unsure of what Carrier meant here when I read him.

You guys may want to check out some of Ross Cameron’s work: http://www.personal.leeds.ac.uk/~phlrpc/research.htm

Ross basically is attracted to a minimal ontology and defends two theses which may be of interest here, (1) trivialism about necessary truths, i.e. necessary truths are those that lack truthmakers, and (2) all that fundamentally exists (i.e.  all that is in our ontology) is truthmakers.

See especially his Necessity and Triviality , How to have a radically minimal ontology, Quantification, Naturalness and Ontology, Truthmakers and Ontological commitment: or, how to deal with complex objects and mathematical ontology without getting into trouble

Cartesian, what do you reckon about the plausibility of holding states of affairs as fundamental, in which case the universal and thin particular involved are “an ontologial free lunch” and not in our ontology. If we hold that states of affairs are concrete, would this not give us concrete truthmakers, and thus if Cameron is correct, a concrete ontology? I’d much appreciate your opinion.

Cheers.

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Rups900 July 14, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Sorry everyone, I think you’ll need to go through Ross’s homepage first as the individual links don’t work.

Also, Cartesian, reading your last post, you may find Cameron’s work interesting as he distinguishs between what exists and what really exists.

I think Jonathan Schaffer also makes a distinction between fundamental and derivative existence, but in a different manner to Cameron: http://rsss.anu.edu.au/~schaffer/Papers.htm

See especially his On What Grounds What.

Cheers.

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lukeprog July 14, 2009 at 8:30 pm

cartesian,

When you quoted my line about “Of course, potential patterns of experience exist even when…” it didn’t sit right with me, so I’ll edit it right now.

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lukeprog July 14, 2009 at 8:50 pm

cartesian: When you say that you don’t think these abstractions exist unless they’re instantiated, what do they do in the meantime? Are they constantly coming into and out of existence? That’s a bit weird, if you ask me.

cartesian, this is a great discussion. You are very, very good at framing the relevant questions. I hope you are a teacher of some kind, or considering it. I learn a lot from you.

Let’s take your computer example. Let’s say humans nuke themselves. All computers are destroyed, as are all beings that know what a computer is. During this time, the potential pattern of experience that we once  called ‘computer’ is not instantiated. On this we agree. But then you say that even though the pattern of experience once called ‘computer’ does not exist at this time, the potential pattern of experience once called ‘computer’ still does. But I don’t know what it means to say that a potential, non-instantiated, non-conceived-of pattern of experience “exists.” In what sense does it exist at that time? It does not exist like particular trees and rocks and other spacetime oscillations exist. It does not exist like my mental conception of Yahweh exists. It does not exist like a forgotten legend recorded in some undiscovered ancient book exists (on those pages). Unless we are thinking about it, it does not exist in any way about which I can properly use the word “exist.” So I’m confused about your view.

But what is my view? My view is that when all computers, all  records of them, and all thoughts of them are destroyed, then during that time the potential pattern of experience once called ‘computer’ does not exist. Now let us say that some kind of humanoid creature re-evolves, millions of years later, and eventually learns how to make computing machines again. This new species even makes them such that they resemble very closely what, unknown to them, was called a ‘computer’ millions of years ago. As luck would have it, they just happen to use the same sounds and written characters (“computer”) to describe this new (to their knowledge) invention. Now, the abstraction called ‘computer’ exists once again. It exists (in slightly different manifestations, of course) as an idea in humanoid minds. Also, each computer is an instantiation of what thesehumanoid minds conceive of – and speak of – as a ‘computer’.

What has happened to the abstraction of ‘computer’? It ceased to exist for a time, and then it was recreated, in sentient minds. I do not think this is surprising or weird at all.

Throughout this time, the abstraction was always a potential pattern of experience, but I just do not think it sensible to say that something which is merely potential actually existed. For example, a potential victory is not an existing victory. The idea of a potential victory exists, but not the potential victory itself.

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cartesian July 14, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Rups900: You guys may want to check out some of Ross Cameron’s work.

I hadn’t heard of him before this, but from his CV he looks like a very sharp guy. Thanks for the link. Are you studying with him at Leeds?

>>Ross basically is attracted to a minimal ontology and defends two theses which may be of interest here, (1) trivialism about necessary truths, i.e. necessary truths are those that lack truthmakers, and (2) all that fundamentally exists (i.e.  all that is in our ontology) is truthmakers.>>

So bye-bye numbers, sets, etc.? I mean, there are some necessary truths concerning sets. But if necessary truths are those without truthmakers, and only truthmakers exist, it looks like sets don’t exist. Does he believe that? I wouldn’t want to believe that.

And aren’t there some necessary truths involving me? Necessarily, I’m self-identical. Is there really no truthmaker there? I would think that I make that true. And I definitely exist. So here it looks like we have a necessary truth that has a truthmaker.


>>Cartesian, what do you reckon about the plausibility of holding states of affairs as fundamental, in which case the universal and thin particular involved are “an ontologial free lunch” and not in our ontology.>>

You’ll have to spell this out for me a bit more. Aside from Kate Moss, what’s a ‘thin’ particular? (Philosophy joke!) And if a state of affairs ‘involves’ a universal, and our ontology includes states of affairs, how are universals not part of our ontology?

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cartesian July 14, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Hi Luke,
>>cartesian, this is a great discussion. You are very, very good at framing the relevant questions. I hope you are a teacher of some kind, or considering it.>>
 
I’m working on it; thanks for the encouragement. If you’re excited by this sort of super-arcane metaphysics (I know I am), please enroll in a philosophy program immediately.
 
>>All computers are destroyed… But then you say that even though the pattern of experience once called ‘computer’ does not exist at this time, the potential pattern of experience once called ‘computer’ still does.>>
 
If you asked me about my view, I wouldn’t talk about “potential patterns of experience” at all. I’m not really sure what those are, or even if there are any. I’d talk about universals. Yes, I think that the property being a computer exists even if there are no computers.
 
>>But I don’t know what it means to say that a potential, non-instantiated, non-conceived-of pattern of experience “exists.” In what sense does it exist at that time?>>
 
It exists in the same sense of “exists” in which you and I exist. I think “exist” is univocal, at least as I use it. It doesn’t exist in space or time though. So in that sense it’s pretty different from us.
 
>>What has happened to the abstraction of ‘computer’? It ceased to exist for a time, and then it was recreated, in sentient minds. I do not think this is surprising or weird at all.>>
 
My question in my last comment to you was this: But in virtue of what is it computerness again? We don’t think that’s how things work with people. If I destroy you and then build an exact duplicate, you don’t come back. Someone a lot like you comes back, but you don’t come back. So why can abstractions come back from non-existence, but people can’t?
 
>>Throughout this time, the abstraction was always a potential pattern of experience>>
 
Hm. Here you speak of this abstraction as though it was such and such a way, even when it wasn’t instantiated. I think that commits you to my view: that the abstraction exists even when uninstantiated.
 
>>but I just do not think it sensible to say that something which is merely potential actually existed.>>
 
So, according to you, there is something, it is merely potential, and yet it doesn’t exist. So it is, but it doesn’t exist. That strikes me as incoherent. “Is” has existential implications to my ears. Something is only if it exists. But you seem to disagree. You seem to think that there are things that don’t exist. Tell me more about these bizarre creatures.

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lukeprog July 15, 2009 at 3:38 am

 

cartesian: please enroll in a philosophy program immediately.

Maybe, if I can score a scholarship. I’d love to study under Stephen Finlay at USC, who rejects error theory for the exact same reason I do.

 

 

cartesian: My question in my last comment to you was this: But in virtue of what is it computerness again? We don’t think that’s how things work with people. If I destroy you and then build an exact duplicate, you don’t come back. Someone a lot like you comes back, but you don’t come back. So why can abstractions come back from non-existence, but people can’t?

I don’t think there’s a difference. It’s not exactly the  same abstraction that comes back, but something very similar. Also, in my view, if I died but somebody recreated my body with all the same subatomic particles in the same place, I can’t think of any relevant sense in which that wouldn’t be “me.” I would have all my memories, my desires, my personality, my traits, my body parts…

 

 

cartesian: Hm. Here you speak of this abstraction as though it was such and such a way, even when it wasn’t instantiated. I think that commits you to my view: that the abstraction exists even when uninstantiated.

I really don’t mean it that way. I’m stumbling over ‘is’. What I should have written is something like: “Throughout time, it was always possible for lightwaves with wavelengths of 625–740 nanometers to be instantiated or conceived of, but nothing about ‘lightwaves with wavelengths of 625-740 nanometers’ existed until a sentient being conceived of such an experience its mind, or until such a thing was instantiated.

 

 

cartesian: So, according to you, there is something, it is merely potential, and yet it doesn’t exist. So it is, but it doesn’t exist. That strikes me as incoherent. “Is” has existential implications to my ears. Something is only if it exists. But you seem to disagree. You seem to think that there are things that don’t exist. Tell me more about these bizarre creatures.

Again, I’m having a hard time avoiding the word ‘is’. Maybe I  could say this better in another language, I’m not sure. I gave an example of what I mean, here: “For example, a potential victory is not an existing victory.”

 

The potential victory does not ‘exist’ until it is instantiated. Unless you mean that it exists as an idea in my brain. The first sentence of this statement is ‘true’ (at least in the colloquial sense) even though ‘the potential victory’ serves as a grammatical subject of that sentence.

Which brings us to one of the most attractive features of realism: it allows us to take our sentences more or less at face value. It allows us to make true statements about uninstantiated and (hypothetically) un-conceived-of things. Realism allows for an easier translation from common language to exact philosophical syntax. On my system, common language is less amenable to translation into an exact philosophical syntax. I believe human language did not evolve with any respect for philosophical clarity.

But those arguments are another matter. I’m not sure I’ve even been able to answer the ‘What do you mean?’ question yet, let alone the ‘Why do you think that?’ question.

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Rups900 July 15, 2009 at 5:23 am

“I hadn’t heard of him before this, but from his CV he looks like a very sharp guy. Thanks for the link. Are you studying with him at Leeds?”
I was studying with a former colleague of his at Nottingham, but have had some correspondence with him. Seriously friendly and helpful guy, as well as being very sharp – he recently came joint runner up in the young scholar prize in the Oxford studies in metaphysics prizes. The other runner up and winner were all at Leeds, they have a seriously good, young, cutting edge faculty! He also has a blog: http://metaphysicalvalues.blogspot.com/ but it’s not updated too frequently, and contributes at a new blog with many of the most eminent, current metaphysicians in the world: http://substantialmatters.blogspot.com/
“So bye-bye numbers, sets, etc.? I mean, there are some necessary truths concerning sets. But if necessary truths are those without truthmakers, and only truthmakers exist, it looks like sets don’t exist. Does he believe that? I wouldn’t want to believe that.”
I think that Ross would espouse that, but trivialism does not commit one to that position. Ross in ‘Necessity and Triviality’ is working on the defence of Agustin Rayo (http://web.mit.edu/arayo/www/) in ‘Towards a Trivialist Account of Mathematics’.
Rayo recognises “a four-fold partition of logical space” (p2). Platonists believe there are numbers, nominalists reject this. Committalists believe the truth-conditions of mathematical statements require the existence of numbers, non-committalists deny this. Cameron (p3-4) asks us to further distinguish between:
1.        conservative and non-conservative committalists: the former takes it that the existence of numbers is sufficient for the truths of mathematics, the latter that something further is requisite;
2.       demanding and non-demanding non-committalists: the former believes mathematical truths do demand something, just not numbers, whilst the latter is the mathematical trivialist – the truth of any mathematical claim makes no demand, our ontology need meet no conditions to ensure its truth.
So it’s open to be a Platonist trivialist (although I guess this would be a very strange position to take!).
With respect to sets, I’ll just (at length) quote Ross (p6):
 
“The mathematical trivialist will presumably also be attracted to trivialism regarding the truths of set theory: it would be a little victory to avoid commitment to numbers if one was committed to sets. So as above, the trivialist should claim of the truths of pure set theory that they are trivially true: that their truth places no demands on the world. And as above, truths of applied set theory make a demand, but they make no demand that there be sets. So ‘The set of mammals is a subset of the set of all animals’ does not demand of the world that there be sets, only that the mammals be amongst the animals. But as we know, there are limitations to the ability to paraphrase sentences using set talk into sentences eschewing set talk for plural quantification. No problem, says the trivialist: we don’t need to. To show that set talk doesn’t bring an ontological commitment to sets, we don’t have to be able to paraphrase it into set free talk; rather, we just have to show that we can give an account of the demands the truth of such claims makes on the world in such a way that the existence of sets are not amongst those demands. But just as above, I might have to use set talk to state the demands, even though the demands themselves are not demands that there be some sets. ‘The set of the mammals is a subset of the set of all animals’, so there is a set M that contains all and only the mammals and there is a set A that contains all and only the animals and the truth of that sentence demands that M be a subset of A. As before, it is no part of the demands on the world that there be any sets: the quantification over sets occurs outwith the scope of the specification of the demands.
 
“And aren’t there some necessary truths involving me? Necessarily, I’m self-identical. Is there really no truthmaker there? I would think that I make that true. And I definitely exist. So here it looks like we have a necessary truth that has a truthmaker.”
 
Well I guess Ross would say the necessary truth makes no ontological demand of you. We do not need to deny that you exist (although I’m sure Ross has sympathy for mereological nihilism so maybe he would, but that’s another debate!lol). So in every possible world in which you do exist, whatever the ontological differences between you in these worlds, the sentence ‘Cartesisan is self-identical’ makes no demand on the ontology, it is trivially true. It may help to quote Rayo here (p3):
 
“Say that a sentence has trivial truth-conditions if any scenario in which the truth-conditions fail to be satisfied would be unintelligible… We have no trouble making sense of a scenario in which there are no elephants, so we should take `there are elephants’ to have non-trivial truth-conditions. But (most of us) are unable to make sense of a scenario in which something fails to be self-identical. So we should take a logical truth like ‘∀x(x = x)’ to have trivial truth conditions.”
 
“You’ll have to spell this out for me a bit more. Aside from Kate Moss, what’s a ‘thin’ particular? (Philosophy joke!) And if a state of affairs ‘involves’ a universal, and our ontology includes states of affairs, how are universals not part of our ontology?”
 
A thin particular is just what Armstrong calls the thing which instantiates a universal, thus for Armstrong, states of affairs are constituted by a thin particular instantiating a universal in a non-mereological mode of composition (whatever that is!lol).
 
 If then, the states of affairs are the only fundamental things in our ontology, this means the universal and particular are derivative entities existing in virtue of the states of affairs and not parts of fundamental reality. Armstrong held this but never particularly explained what he meant. For Cameron, something exists, but doesn’t fundamentally exist, if our English sentence ‘x exists’ is true, but it is not made true by x, it is made true by y. This is because English does not carve the world at its ontological joints. Thus we could say ‘x is p’ is true, even though the universal p does not fundamentally exist. The sentence is made true by the states of affairs, which is all that really exists.
 
Sorry about the tediously long post!
 
Cheers.

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Rups900 July 15, 2009 at 5:33 am

Oh yeah, Cartesian, a couple of interesting blogposts of Ross’s you may be interested in:
The Trinity and contingent identity: http://metaphysicalvalues.blogspot.com/2009/05/trinity-and-contingent-identity.html

and

Counterpart theory and the incarnation. Cos why not?: http://metaphysicalvalues.blogspot.com/2008/04/counterpart-theory-and-incarnation-cos.html

Cheers

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lukeprog July 15, 2009 at 7:59 am

Great links, Rups900.

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