Realism vs. Anti-Realism IV: (some) Objections to realism—Guest Post by G. Rodrigues

Dr Johnson refutes naturalism thusly

Johnson did not answer …; but talking for victory and determined to be master of the field, he had recourse to the device which Goldsmith imputed to him in the witty words of one of Cibber’s comedies. “There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”

— J. Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

Dr. Johnson had an unwieldy frame, a face scarred by scrofula, the laughter of a hippopotamus, always left home with a solid stick to defend himself from hoodlums and always argued for victory. After having shot blanks[1], the anti-realist with something like Johnson’s tenacity will go after the realist with the butt end of his pistol. Even if he concedes that realism about universals is very hard to evade as I tried to argue in the previous post, maybe he can find an objection powerful enough to force the realist into a stalemate.

In this fourth installment, I will consider some of the objections put forward against realism. The first two are somewhat technical; they are here because they illustrate the ways in which anti-realists find universals abhorrent, and also to pave the track to the last three, which form the spiritual core of the post.

A. Identity conditions

Some philosophers (Quine in particular, pressed this objection) argue that compared to classes, the identity conditions for universals are obscure. The identity conditions for classes are clear: two classes are identical iff they have exactly the same members. But no such condition exists for universals, and if there are no identity conditions for the posited entities, then how can there be such entities in the first place? This argument can be interpreted in two ways, an ontological and an epistemological one.

The former does not pose a special problem as the realist can always use a variation of Leibniz’s law of the indiscernibility of identicals now applied to universals. If the latter, then the objection seems to be a variation of methodism applied to the identity conditions of universals, that one must know how one knows before one can know, and if one cannot answer the skeptical question of how one knows, then the skeptic becomes the master of the field.

A first possible response is to deny the need for specifying identity conditions for universals. One reason for doing this is that providing non-circular and informative identity conditions for material objects is equally fraught with problems. For example, certain facts of quantum mechanics make the identity conditions for elementary particles highly problematic. Presumably, this does not bother anyone so why should we be bothered by the absence of explicit identity conditions for universals? Following this, we could adopt some form of epistemological particularism, which seems unavoidable anyway on pain of infinite regress. To see how it can be done, consult J. P. Moreland, Universals, chapter 5, pg. 118 ff.

B. Vicious regresses

Some vicious regress arguments have been aimed at realism. The Third Man argument is a particularly notorious one directed against the Platonist version of realism. Since I favor the Aristotelian-Thomist stripe, I will not bother with it and instead focus my attention on an argument devised by F. H. Bradley. It goes like this. The core of the realist doctrine is the instantiation relation, call it R, between concrete particulars, say x, y, etc. and universals X, Y, etc. Now Bradley says the following: for the relation x R X to obtain, and given the realist ontological commitments, then both x and X must enter into a relation with R and so on ad infinitum, and the realist has a vicious regress in his hands.

But the realist can respond that just as one does not need superglue to connect two objects to normal glue in order to tie them together with normal glue, relations do not need to enter in relations with their relata for they to relate those relata to each other. In the same way, the fact that x instantiates X does not need putative higher-order relations R’, R” such that x R’ R and X R” R’ if R is to relate x and X. As a primitive metaphysical fact, the instantiation relation, or nexus or tie if we want to avoid any confusion, connects particulars and universals and does not need any mediators for the relation to obtain.

The two previous objections are admittedly of a technical kind. The next three on the other hand are probably what hover on most anti-realist minds. They usually come tied together by some prior metaphysical commitment, for example, to naturalism. This is spelled out in the fifth and last objection. To be fair though, the problem, from a Thomist point of view, lies in assumptions going back to Descartes and co., naturalism just being the logical outcome of rejecting the Thomist essentialist picture. It is not, as many ignoramuses think, that the Thomist will want to hold on to his metaphysics with its “ghostly” entities as the last bulwark against the onslaught of materialist science that explains, and explains away, everything as congeries of particles in motion. For the Thomist, the modern metaphysical conception of matter is just as wrongheaded, if not more, as the conceptions of the soul or the mind. And just in case it is not clear, let me repeat that the bone of contention is metaphysical, not scientific.

The concept of Ockham’s razor is yet another universal
C. Ockham’s razor

One common complaint is that the realists’ ontology is bloated, dragging in together with the common objects of our experience an extravagant abundance of abstract objects like universals, relations, properties, etc. The anti-realist might even say that universals, for example, are invoked to explain features of language, and that a wielding of Ockham’s razor should instead cut them off. But what are we to make of this suggestion? Given the arguments to the effect that an appeal to universals is necessary to not only explain linguistic features such as predication and abstract reference but that it is also the ground for a robust correspondence theory of the truth, Ockham’s razor only applies if the anti-realist can offer a better and simpler account of such phenomena. However one judges realism, it is clear that such an account has not emerged so the argument has little force.

D. The epistemological objection

A fourth objection is the so-called epistemological challenge. If universals are abstract objects as the traditional realist contends, then they do not exist in space-time[2]. If they do not exist in space-time then they are causally inert. And if they are causally inert how can we ever perceive them and come to know them? In the philosophy of mathematics, the epistemological challenge was launched in the influential article of P. Benacerraf, “Mathematical Truth”. If you are like me and favor an Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics, reading the article followed by a reading of modern responses to it such as B. Hale and C. Wright’s “Benacerraf’s Dilemma Revisited”[3], for all the undeniable virtues of these articles, it makes for something of an infuriating exercise, for you will note just how much they are suffused with metaphysical assumptions that a Thomist will outright reject.

What do people mean when they say that abstract objects are causally inert? Usually, it is meant in the sense that abstract objects have no efficient causal powers, but efficient causality is just one of the four modes of causality, and its modern usage is a narrow construal of the classical one at that. But why assume that to know the abstract universals greenness or triangularity, there must be a physical chain of efficient causation involved?

For Aquinas, when we sense-perceive that Fido is green, followed by the intellectual act of abstracting the universal greenness[4], the same universal that exists in re in Fido comes to exist post rem in the intellect, in a different mode of being. For Aquinas, an intellect just is the kind of thing that can grasp or get a hold of universals without instantiating them, that is, that can grasp greenness without itself becoming green[5]. This is not only what guarantees the objectivity of knowledge but its truth, the correspondence between the universals abstracted by the mind in act and the universal as instantiated in the concrete particular.

But even leaving Aquinas’ epistemological account aside, it is simply not clear why abstract objects cannot be the objects of thought. For we can think about non-existent objects, such as unicorns, a thing which even the anti-realist must concede. The anti-realist may retort that such fictional objects like unicorns, if they existed would be material objects and thus capable of being perceived and it is precisely because we do not perceive them that we have grounds to say that they do not exist. But this is muddleheaded; for given that abstract objects do not exist in space-time, our failure to perceive them tells us nothing whatsoever. Moreover, given that we can think about them, even pose the question of whether they do exist or not as extra-mental entities, it seems it is at least metaphysically possible that they do exist[6]. And given that we can reason about them, as we surely can, it seems at least possible that we can reason to their existence, which is precisely what the realist will contend he
has done.

E. The naturalist objection

An elaboration of objections C and D is the naturalist charge and contain the metaphysical commitment underlying not only most of the objections but the very rejection of realism. Naturalism is notoriously hard to define; here I will take it to be the view that the spatio-temporal physical universe of entities studied by science, especially the hard empirical sciences, is all there is. Everything that exists is located in space-time and is part of the efficient causal system known as the universe. If naturalism is true, then it is clear that the traditional realist account must be false.

But what arguments are there for naturalism? As far as I can glean from what the Prophets of the Sect affirm, it all boils down to two arguments: first, non-naturalists have no evidence for the existence of non-physical entities and second, the inductive successes of the modern empirical sciences give strong evidence that concrete particulars are the only thing that exist.

Starting with the former, the claim is patently false. This series of posts is evidence for the existence of one type of non-physical entities, universals. And this is just one, rather paltry example. But even if we granted the truth of the claim (which to repeat myself, I do not, not even for a second), the only thing you could squeeze from it is that all the purported arguments for the existence of non-physical entities fail. This does not by itself give warrant to believe in the claim P = “non-physical entities do not exist”. For if it did, it would mean that you would be warranted in believing in P without the least shred of evidence in favor of it which is absurd. So by itself, it is useless.

And we come to the second argument. This argument only has force if we judge the modern, hard empirical sciences to either exhaust the field of knowledge, in the sense that everything can be ultimately reduced to scientific explanations, or that the empirical sciences are the ultimate epistemic arbiter of warranted knowledge. The first is patently false; mathematics cannot be reduced to the empirical sciences. It is false, if the arguments in this series are correct. There are other arguments that purport to show this, but here, the only thing I need to notice is that this is nothing more than a promissory note, something like “We have not pegged it yet, but just you wait”, so the appropriate response is to call on the bluff.

Axioms? Doesn’t that mean…?
The second take is either circular or self-refuting. To put it in a different way: what is the object of proper study of the hard empirical sciences? Material bodies in motion or change. Is it a great wonder that the hard empirical sciences have not found anything besides their object of proper study? This is like a man trying to convince us that there are no stars by saying to look through the microscope and point out that there are none to be found upon looking. This is one of the reasons why many science-fetishists when pressed against the wall to justify their metaphysical foundations, will retreat more often than not to a bizarre concoction of relativism and pragmatism, which itself is ultimately circular or self-refuting. The ultimate irony being that this stance is what most undermines the science to which they pay lip service.

Maybe the naturalist will retort that I am mischaracterizing the argument. What he is saying is that if such non-physical entities existed, then we should expect to see physical effects of their existence. Facepalm. No, we do not expect to see such a thing, because the traditional realist will concede that abstract objects are causally inert, causality understood in the sense of efficient causality operative in the empirical sciences. So what is the naturalist asking? Maybe the naturalist intends the request only against God and such “personal”, “supernatural” entities. The argument is still worthless, but as far this post is concerned, discussion is over.

Oh what the heck, I still want to know what is this particular brand of science-beholden naturalist asking? Let us plumb these depths of irrationality. A personal intervention from God in his life? That is putting the evidential bar a little too high, methinks. I would advise such a person to read the epistle of James 1:5-8. And even if he did witness a miracle what is to stop him from saying that aliens with ultra-advanced technology are just goofing around and thus give a completely naturalist explanation?

Maybe the naturalist is asking for something more modest, a state of affairs that is not explainable by natural science. But what would this be other than a gap argument? Gap arguments are fallacious. There are now three options. One, the naturalist is asking for a gap argument not knowing that it is fallacious, in which case he is clueless. Two, he does know it, in which case it is a mere rhetorical ploy and he is intellectually dishonest. The third and last option is that he knows that gap arguments are fallacious, but given his (self-refuting) epistemic strictures he then must say that there can be no evidence for God. This I presume, is what in some quarters passes for being open-minded and committed to evidence and reason…

Since naturalists tend to be science-fetishists, here is a final argument in favor of realism. Consider any given scientific law, say Newton’s law of gravitation, and for the sake of simplicity assume it obtains exactly in our universe. If the anti-realist is right and only concrete particulars exist then this law is a law about pairs of concrete particulars, concrete material bodies with specific mass and at a specific distance from each other. But if the law is merely a law about concrete particulars it could be a mere “cosmic accident” and there would be no reason why it applies to any future contingent, existent pair of concrete particulars.

In other words, it fails to account for the truth of the corresponding counterfactual conditionals. But what becomes of the predictive power of science if it cannot account for counterfactual conditionals? Vanished, poof, gone with the pigs[7]. To avoid this and other difficulties, we must accept that a law is a relationship between universals and that it applies to all concrete particulars instantiating the relevant universals. For example, in case of Newton’s law the universals involved are mass, force and distance. And insofar as the aim of science is to uncover objective, mind-independent truths, the subjects of those truths, universals, must be objective and mind-independent. Thus, it seems acceptance of science commits us to the existence of universals[8].

As the saying goes, one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. Realism is true so naturalism is false. Good riddance.

—————————————————————————————————-

Endnotes:

[1] There is an obvious joke lurking here. But serious, sober philosophical discourse is above such petty vulgarities. (He He He He He).

[2] Sometimes one hears that abstracts objects exist outside of space-time, but this is confused and confusing as “outside” implies a spacial relationship which contradicts the fact that abstracts do not exist in space-time.

[3] Benacerraf’s article appeared in Journal of Philosophy, 70 (1972) 661-680 and is reprinted in Philosophy of Mathematics: Selected Readings, ed. by P. Benacerraf, H. Putnam. The article of B. Hale and C. Wright can be found here.

[4] I am glossing over many details, such as the difference between sense and perception, the role of phantasms, etc. The crucial point is that Aquinas is adamant on a distinction in kind between the animal powers of sensation and perception, memory and imagination on the one hand and the intellectual activity proper on the other, to which the powers of abstraction, concept formation and the various modes of reasoning belong. This distinction, lost to many modern philosophers, is at the heart of many (misguided) objections against realism.

[5] Aquinas’ epistemology follows his metaphysics, as one should expect in a realist. A good starting point to know more about it is S. MacDonald, “Theory of Knowledge” in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. by N. Kretzmann and E. Stump.

[6] A modal argument for the necessary existence of abstract objects, numbers more precisely, parallel to Plantinga’s modal ontological argument can be found in S5, God and Numbers by Chad McIntosh. One obvious difference between the two arguments is that the crucial premise in the case of numbers is much harder to dispose of, and is in fact practically all but granted by many (most?) philosophers.

[7] And thus, by shedding a sound, realist metaphysics and philosophy of nature, another typical modern “problem” is born, the problem of induction.

[8] For an elaboration of the argument from science in favor of realism, see D. M Armstrong, What is a law of nature?

46 Comments

  1. There is a certain amount of harmless fun to read objections to realism. Though to become gleeful or proud watching people argue earnestly that there are no truths but particular truths, and that this proposition isn’t self-refuting is probably a sin.

    But I think I can resist: so, materialists, just what kind of a belief is it to say that we know materialism is true because our laws/predictions match reality?

    Lesser known (except to regular readers) is the dreary “problem” of induction. This is an academic belief, one which is argued for earnestly, but only in “learned” journals. Every single soul who rejects induction also uses it.

    I once wrote a paper, for a statistical journal, saying induction is not a problem and that even those who use p-values—creations intended to dispose with the “problem” of induction—use induction. The reviewer rejected this saying that my arguments could not be true because, obviously, induction was a problem. He showed me, boy.

  2. Tom, Ken,

    By your brilliant refutations, you have convinced me to switch to materialism. I now believe this metaphysical position is always true—d’oh!

  3. “For if it did, it would mean that you would be warranted in believing in P without the least shred of evidence in favor of it which is absurd. So by itself, it is useless.”

    Very true. Now apply it to realisim. A logically valid argument is not by itself evidence. To prove the conclustion true you must prove each and every premis to be true.

  4. MattS,

    “A logically valid argument is not by itself evidence. To prove the conclustion true you must prove each and every premis to be true.” That so? If so, why? Meet you at the ground level.

  5. G. Rodrigues,

    For Aquinas, an intellect just is the kind of thing that can grasp or get a hold of universals without instantiating them, that is, that can grasp greenness without itself becoming green[5]. This is not only what guarantees the objectivity of knowledge but its truth,…

    My intellect seems to be able to grasp the universal dragon without itself becoming dragon. So, this guarantees the objectivity of knowledge and its truth? No, I don’t think so. (It’s likely that dragons only exist in Chinese fairytales.) What am I missing here?

    (Kindly please cut the unnecessary crap such as “the question is misguided” (by whom or by what?) or “you don’t know what you are talking about”? Please just point out what’s wrong with my logic. Love to be corrected but don’t like your misinterpretation (of my question) that allows you to belittle me. Thanks.)


    Briggs,
    “A logically valid argument is not by itself evidence. To prove the conclustion true you must prove each and every premis to be true.” That so? If so, why? Meet you at the ground level.
    I think Matt S simply points out the difference between a sound argument and a valid argument. No?

  6. Let me second the comment made by MattS. Just because an argument for realism is logical, does not mean that realism is true. The premises of realism may be false. To be blunt, a sense of conviction about a premise, no matter how intense, may have nothing to do with reality. And I assume this matters. To argue that your premises are better than my premises seems vacuous.

    Too little attention was paid to non-realist premises. For example, Rodrigues assumes that all scientific theories must be causal (“the efficient causal system known as the universe”). However, logical consistency, not causality, is an assumption of the scientific method. Traveling backward in time is thought impossible not because a person would arrive at a place uncaused by earlier events, but because of the logical inconsistencies that might arise from subsequent events. (BTW, since I believe in free will, I obviously believe in a non-causal universe.)

    I am one naturalist that does not argue for naturalism. I assume it. The required assumptions are straightforward, consistent, and have been shown to be of great practical utility. Why change?

  7. JH,

    Quite right. That there are sound, valid arguments verifies universals (of the kind being discussed here); hence my quip.

  8. @JH:

    Kindly please cut the unnecessary crap such as “the question is misguided” (by whom or by what?)

    It is hardly fair to ask me to cut “unnecessary crap” when you make crappy arguments or misguided questions. If you demonstrably do not know what you are talking about, that is what I will say: you do not know what you are talking about. If you feel that is belittling you, what can I say? Since you have a thin skin and my tone may upset you, certainly not my desire, my only reply is: want to know what Aquinas’ had to say about the subject? I provided references. As I make clear in my post, even if you disagree with his theory of knowledge, the epistemological objection can still be met. For what concerns me in this post, that is enough.

    @George Crews:

    Just because an argument for realism is logical, does not mean that realism is true. The premises of realism may be false. To be blunt, a sense of conviction about a premise, no matter how intense, may have nothing to do with reality.

    I am one naturalist that does not argue for naturalism. I assume it.

    I have juxtaposed these two quotes from your post. No further comments are necessary.

  9. The purpose of science is to find out which theories are demonstrably not true, and reject them. One is then left with theories that are wrong but not yet proven to be wrong (the majority, maybe even all of them) and maybe, just maybe, one or more true theories.

    So, yes, any theory could be a cosmic incident. There is no reason at all to assume a theory will always predict the right outcome. Theories say therefore nothing about there being actuals only, or also universals. A theory says why actuals behave like they do, and they define universals as they see fit.

    For instance. Newton says the are forces, and force is a universal. Quantum Mechanics says there are no forces, everything is interacting quantum particles, which make it look like there is a force acting on particles.

    Newton says there is inertial mass, another universal. General Relativity says there is warped spacetime, which makes it looks like objects have inertial mass.

  10. G. Rodrigues,

    If I have a thin skin, I’d not talk to you at all. I know very well that I can find answers on my own… if I invest some time. Darn I thought I could get an answer from you. No such luck!

    Briggs,

    Quite right. That there are sound, valid arguments verifies universals (of the kind being discussed here); hence my quip.

    Oh, sure, that’s explains it… thinking of your previous answer about Annals of Mathematical Statistics.

  11. Science is the first casualty in the war on realism. And the triumph of Popperism the first flag of surrender.

  12. I was raised to understand that there are no crappy or stupid questions — only crappy and stupid answers. Snideness is among the first indicators of the nagging feeling of being wrong. It’s also a crappy answer.

  13. @DAV
    This one is for you…

    1_There exists a world outside of the mind
    2_To know of it means to have it in mind
    3_Conclusion: what we have in mind cannot be solely of the mind
    4_In sense perception some aspects depend on the subject, others on the object
    5_We can only know which if we take the situation in mind and think about it
    6_If there is nothing extra mental to thoughts the conclusion cannot concern anything but the mind.
    7_Conclusion: Thoughts must have extra mental significance (signify universals)

    (btw I have a lot of colored comments left for you. interested?)

  14. @rembie

    _Conclusion: what we have in mind cannot be solely of the mind

    I have in my mind there is a monster living in my dryer that eats socks. That I’ve never seen it doesn’t mean it’s not there. However, if not, where does it reside?

  15. @renbie

    _Conclusion: Thoughts must have extra mental significance (signify universals)

    But isn’t that contingent on the particular thoughts?

    We may have models of how something works. They may even be a useful until some other thoughts strike us as better. Our models often amount to nothing more than useful fictions. Presumably, they are logically consistent which doesn’t prove existence outside of the mind.

    And that seems to be the argument being presented: we can show what we know about triangles and circles are logically consistent, even True; others see this Truth; therefore triangles and circles must exist outside of the mind.

  16. @JH:

    Darn I thought I could get an answer from you. No such luck!

    You would get an answer if you showed that you put just a little effort in understanding what is being said.

    But my judgment may be unduly harsh, so here it goes: first the objectivity of knowledge thingy was set in a specific context which, conveniently, you threw out altogether. To quote myself:

    For Aquinas, when we sense-perceive that Fido is green, followed by the intellectual act of abstracting the universal greenness[4], the *same* universal that exists *in re* in Fido comes to exist *post rem* in the intellect, in a different mode of being.

    There is an act of sense-perception (we see Fido, a green lizard) followed by an act of intellect that abstracts the universal greenness and forms the true judgment that Fido instantiates greenness. This is important, because for Aquinas all knowledge starts in the senses. It is the same fact that the same universal (greenness) exists in re in Fido and post rem in the intellect, in different modes of being, that is the mark of true and objective knowledge

    Now, do you sense-perceive a dragon? Misunderstanding one.

    How do we come up with the idea of a dragon? Presumably we have all sorts of universals in the intellect (the property of being lizard-like, the property of flying, the property of breathing fire, etc.) and we form the concept of dragon. A natural question ensues, is there a material object out there that instantiates all these properties and is dragon-like? But what the question of whether certain universals are instantiated or not has to do with whether they exist or not as extra-mental realities? Misunderstanding two.

    That you think that forming new concepts (or beings of reason) that are not necessarily, or definitely, not instantiated somehow threatens the cogency of Aquinas’ epistemological theory is misunderstanding three. The nub is not that there is false knowledge, something which nobody disputes, but rather that we do have true knowledge.

    Want to know more? Hit the books. We do not need Aquinas’ epistemological account to successfully meet the epistemological objection.

  17. So, Aquinas only spoke of sense-perceptible universals? The postulation of ordinary physical object can help us explain our ordinary experiences because we have some idea how this casual process works. The misunderstandings are your brilliant work, not mine. If I don’t understand, how can I have misunderstandings? I am not disputing that we have true knowledge. I simply don’t see how that an intellect can grasp or get a hold of universal can guarantees the objectivity of knowledge and its truth. I have also tried to examine it contrapositively, still don’t get it. The logic link is missing. No more questions from me to you, mental efforts is no easy task. Well, it’s better to read a book!

  18. It is the same fact that the same universal (greenness) exists in re in Fido and post rem in the intellect, in different modes of being, that is the mark of true and objective knowledge

    “mark of true and objective knowledge”? Maybe so but a necessary condition doesn’t always mean a sufficient condition.

    Years ago, there was the idea of phlogiston to account for rusting and burning. The consensus was that it existed in reality. It wasn’t unseated until it was shown to be inconsistent with the gain in weight of some metals after burning instead of losing weight.

    Was phlogiston real before this was discovered? If not, how then can we ever say that our models are truly real and objective?

    Are triangles real? We conveniently ignore that every one we view has some inconsistency with our idea of a triangle. We say these inconsistencies don’t matter. So, in the face of these inconsistencies, how can we claim the reality of triangles?

    The claim is others can see them as well. This overlooks or disregards the unsurprising possibility that creatures built alike tend to operate in like manner. So we arrive at “Universals”.

    That everything viewed is an imperfect instantiation of one or more of our “Universals” is not taken as evidence of the non-reality of the universals because of the tacit assumption whatever is being viewed is somehow flawed.

    Imperfect triangle? We aren’t wrong! IT is! Hardly OUR fault the world is f**cked up!

    Wow.

  19. @JH:

    So, Aquinas only spoke of sense-perceptible universals?

    No.

    Do you even read what people write? Or is what I write *so* complicated and obscure that you are unable to get just one thing right?

    I simply don’t see how that an intellect can grasp or get a hold of universal can guarantees the objectivity of knowledge and its truth.

    You do know what is meant by objective knowledge, do you not? To pick my stock example, to assert that Fido is green is to assert a mind-independent fact. But how can we come to know objective, mind-independent facts? The very insertion of *mind-independent* points to a serious difficulty, for how can our ideas and concepts, the product of our minds, correspond to anything real?

    We *do* have objective knowledge (denial of this is self-refuting) and we do have true knowledge of material, changeable things as they exist outside the mind. This is attested by common experience, but most important of all, its rejection implies a divorce of the mind from extra-mental reality in a way that entails its fundamental unintelligibility; a stance which would require, in the name of intellectual consistency, the adoption of a thoroughgoing intellectual silence — to put it bluntly, go home and do something more productive. Therefore, unless we are willing to embrace the notion that extra-mental reality is fundamentally unintelligible, then we must acknowledge that we are capable of knowing things in a way which equates, on some level, with how they stand outside the mind: hence, the classical correspondence theory of truth.

    This *inevitably* leads to something in the neighborhood of what Aquinas’ is saying. To repeat, the fact that Fido is green must be somehow metaphysically linked with me having the thought that Fido is green. Such a connection *must* exist for knowledge to be both objective and true. So how does Aquinas’ articulate this metaphysical connection? He says that the same universal exemplified by Fido (greenness) and that is the truth maker, or the ontological ground of the truth “Fido is green”, comes to exist in the intellect by a process starting in the senses (we perceive Fido is green) and ends in the intellect grasping the universal greenness and making the truthful judgment “Fido is green” or “Greenness is exemplified by Fido”. In the AT jargon, greenness as existing post rem in the intellect, is the concept *by which* we know the “thing” in its formal aspect.

    Also note that universals are crucial here and cannot do away with; this has to do with the contrast between what thought and knowledge is and what things are — two radically different things. A somewhat oblique way to see this is to show how other epistemological accounts fail. Let me get back to one sentence of yours:

    The postulation of ordinary physical object can help us explain our ordinary experiences because we have some idea how this casual process works.

    This leads me to believe that you hold to some form of causal theory of knowledge. Returning to the stock example, photons bounce off of Fido, they hit the retina, and a complex series of neuro-chemical processes in the brain leads us to assert “Fido is green”. Unfortunately, for you this does not work. What causal theories of knowledge propose is that the thought “Fido is green” is efficiently caused by a chain of efficient causation. But what does “Fido is green” refer to in this chain of causation? How do you pick the match in reality of the though to the exact link in the chain, that not only extends forward but also backward. Why is not the thought “Fido is green” about the photons that bounce off Fido, or the photons traveling in space, or the photons hitting the retina, or the neuro-physiological processes in the brain? If instead of choosing a particular link in the chain you say the whole chain, then you are committed to not only saying that “Fido is green” is also a statement about photons traveling, hitting the retina, a complex of neuro-chemical reactions, etc. Not only that, since the causal chain extends backwards in time, it is even more bizarre and implausible.

    The misunderstandings are your brilliant work, not mine.

    That may be the case; and given your awesome intellect and vast knowledge of the matters under discussion, no doubt it is. However, it still is a fact that you do not understand what you are criticizing.

    Well, it’s better to read a book!

    No disagreement from me.

  20. @DAV:

    I would respond to you, but in our last exchange you said (to TomVonk if my memory does not fail me) and I quote:

    Mr. Grrr is contributing in the only way he knows. He has no useful information of his own to share. We should be happy though. What’s a picnic without flies and ants? His presence may indicate we are having a picnic.

    Given your opinion, why you keep addressing me is nothing short of puzzling. Anyway, since you do not show one iota of understanding, any response from me would be nothing but a long string of boring, unnerving corrections, an a priori impossible thing to happen since according to your estimate I have no useful information to share. But this fly (or ant, I do not know what vermin you intended specifically) really does not wish to ruin your happiness or waste your time, so peace be with you and have fun in your picnics.

  21. Let me see if I understand this correctly. If one reasons about a dragon existing, one reasons about the possibility of all the universals that a dragon should instantiate, are in fact instantiated.

    Enumerating: a dragon is big, it can fly, it looks like a reptile, and it can breathe fire. Big is eay. Elephants are big, whales are even bigger. There are big reptiles, the Australian saltwater crocodile, which bags the big and reptililian universals in one go.

    Flying is easy too, birds can fly, insects, even some mammals. Big and flying however is hard. Dragons are apparently not gliding, but use their wings to beat the air, just like birds and bats. But we know quite a lot about flight, and an animal the size of a dragon would be impossibly hard pressed to fly.

    Then there is the fire breathing. No animal that we know of does breathe fire. We can imagine some kind of digestive system rerouting the methane back to the mouth, but given the way evolution seems to work, why would this happen. Dragons spewing fire from their behinds, yes, but from the mouth? Then there is still the missing ignition system. Teeth with firestone minerals, possibly.

    All these objections would go away immediately as soon as a dragon is seen flying and breathing fire. But this hasn’t happened yet. And given what we know about anumals on Earth nowadays, and they way they came to be, changes are we will never see a dragon as an animal that has been born on earth.

    There are options that are more exotic. Extra-terrestrials. And given the technology we think that is needed for interstellar travel, it would not seem unlikely that a race that can build starships can build a dragon-like suit. And that is the catch again, we know that spaceship technology is incredibly hard.

    And again, all these objections will disappear immediately a spaceship with aliens in a dragon suit land on earth. But until that happens, dragons as aliens does not seem very reasonable.

    So, if universals are a good way to reason about knowledge, they would still be subject to the knowledge we have about actuals. Actuals that are big enough cannot fly on Earth, so our knowledge tells us there will not be a dragon actual on Earth. Good thing then, knowledge. Separating the actuals from the imaginables.

  22. …
    He says that the same universal exemplified by Fido (greenness) and that is the truth maker, or the ontological ground of the truth “Fido is green”, comes to exist in the intellect by a process starting in the senses (we perceive Fido is green) and ends in the intellect grasping the universal greenness and making the truthful judgment “Fido is green” or “Greenness is exemplified by Fido”.

    G. Rodrigues,
    Well, you have just described what the causal process I have in mind, which I briefly mentioned before. So it’s not just a matter of just grasping the universal greenness, we also need to make the truthful judgment. That’s it! The missing link.
    Of course, I am very tempted to ask another two questions. Forget it! Thank you, anyway.

  23. Given your opinion, why you keep addressing me is nothing short of puzzling.

    I think I stopped addressing you after the first installment. But I have directly quoted you so I can see your confusion.

    As for my opinion: You have a pompous an overbearing manner. You refuse to answer questions that are beneath you. The question have to be framed your way or the highway. You use word games to find ways to insult the questioners. When you do answer, it usually amounts to “You are Wrong and I am Right. Prove otherwise.”

    Some time ago you made a comment on something I addressed to JH. A direct and complete quote: You are wrong. which you refused despite many posts to elaborate upon.

    That you can’t answer simply and concisely is telling. You convey little to no information and wait for something to pounce upon. A teacher you are not. Makes me wonder at the real purpose behind your posts.

    Is it surprising I see you as an annoying pest?

    I’m sure you feel otherwise.

    And, no, common experience is an indication and not a proof of extra-mental reality. You have given zip in the way of proof that mental models do in fact exist outside of the mind and aren’t merely convenient fictions.

  24. @JH:

    Thank you, anyway.

    No problem; and appologies if I came down hard on you. I suppose I suffer from what is known as University Teacher Syndrome: if a student does not understand, the problem can only be in him.

  25. @DAV:

    You have given zip in the way of proof that mental models do in fact exist outside of the mind and aren’t merely convenient fictions.

    Quite apart from whether I did or did not present any arguments for realism in the posts, given what you say, I really do not have to.

    So the concepts we have are merely convenient fictions; this being a universally quantified statement it also applies to your concepts. It applies to your concept of “concept”, to your concept of “proof”, to your concept of “mind”, to your concept of “existing outside the mind”, etc. Since they are *your* concepts, and since by your own admission all they are is merely “convenient fictions”, when you say that I have provided no proof “that mental models do in fact exist outside of the mind” is likewise a “convenient fiction” existing merely as a mental model in your mind, with no objective basis on reality. In fact anything you say is a “convenient fiction” and anything you believe is a “convenient fiction”.

    The semblance of logic you tried to use is also nothing but a “convenient fiction”, and thus every argument you make, in favor of your own position or against my position, is itself a “convenient fiction”. Why? The laws of logic are, by your own admission, merely mental models and “convenient fictions”. This may be the reason why you say I have given “zip in the way of proof”; to you there can be no such thing as proofs and you would not recognize an argument even if it bit you in the nose.

    Of course, you also need to justify your position and tell us how you have come to know that all our concepts are merely convenient fictions and justify it. Have you given any arguments besides just claiming it is so? Nope. Then again, you *cannot* give any arguments, for the laws of logic, deductive rules, etc. are also merely “convenient fictions”. If your position entails that you think all your arguments and beliefs are mere “convenient fictions”, the only thing you can convince us, is not of their truth, but that they are “convenient fictions”. But I would wager that you do not have to do much to convince us of *that*.

  26. I thank you for a genuine response. Just so you know, I don’t claim to possess Truth although I will concede the Truth of mathematics. However those truths concerns a purely mental exercise. You, on the other hand, are trying (or seem to be trying) to claim the truths of mathematics translate to the world outside of the mind.

    you also need to justify your position and tell us how you have come to know that all our concepts are merely convenient fictions and justify it.

    I’ll simply point out that at least one model, phlogiston, was supplanted with another. Phlogiston appeared to work which lead to the belief in its reality. The new model is now the “reality”. I haven’t seen any reason to see why this doesn’t underlie all of our models and, at any given time, they are no better than the phlogiston model was.

    I also pointed out that phlogiston’s replacement came about because of new information that indicated a rather glaring inconsistency. Yet the inconsistencies with “real” triangles and mathematical ones apparently don’t count. Why is that?

    By “convenient fiction” I mean we never now the Truth of Reality but only our models of it. The models are simplifications that allow us to proceed. That we act as if the models truly capture reality is just a convenience. We certainly can’t claim to know that they do. At best, we go with the most probable model.

    This incidentally also applies to what we think our senses tell us. Illusions (I’m sure you’ll have a field day with this word)** are common and some can be induced at will. The term in flying is called vertigo. Nearly everyone in the plane can experience the same one — so much for “common experience”. How to distinguish “illusion” from “reality”? Not generally possible. We do use or try to use other confirmation as a tool.

    New information can change our perceptions. In an airplane, sometimes all that’s needed is to get those experiencing the vertigo to look out the window. Though I can attest from personal experience that it can be devilishly difficult to counter the information from the other senses. Which model of the airplane’s actions are real? Who can say? What’s wrong with just going with the one most likely until something shows the need for change? A matter of convenience.

    Is there a “reality”? Almost certainly. Can we claim to know it even partially? Almost certainly not. We only know how consistent it appears with our models given the available information.

    **An “illusion” is a model with lower likelihood of match with reality — at least when for sensory information.

  27. @DAV:

    Three examples only:

    You, on the other hand, are trying (or seem to be trying) to claim the truths of mathematics translate to the world outside of the mind.

    Actually no, that is not exactly what I am claiming.

    By “convenient fiction” I mean we never now the Truth of Reality but only our models of it.

    So we never know reality but we do know the models. So this applies to you, and it follows that you cannot know reality only the models. Now according to you, models are thoughts in the mind — say, some pattern of neurons firing in the brain or some sequence of neuro-chemical processes or whatever. Now of course, this is also part of reality; after all, your brain, the electro-chemical processes going on in it, etc. are an undeniable part of physical reality. But you admit that you cannot know reality. Since the thoughts in your mind are part of reality, you cannot know the part of reality that are the thoughts in your mind, so it follows you cannot even know the truth of the models of reality. Since you hold that you can only know the models of reality and I have just proved that you cannot even know the models of reality, it follows that you can know absolutely nothing. Since as a matter of logical necessity, you can know absolutely nothing, it follows necessarily that you actually know absolutely nothing. Now, I have the vague memory of making much, much milder claims (that you were wrong about this or that point). Now you have, by your own admission, the proof of it.

    How to distinguish “illusion” from “reality”? Not generally possible.

    Not generally possible to distinguish illusions from reality. Ok. This means that you yourself cannot in general distinguish illusions from reality. If you in general cannot distinguish illusions from reality, you must have an argument for why the statement “in general, we cannot distinguish illusions from reality” is a true statement, something real, instead of an illusion like the examples you gave. But such an argument of necessity relies on the general reliability of the logical laws, of our senses, etc. But since you cannot in general distinguish illusion from reality, it follows that in general you do not know if your argument is valid since to know the validity of an argument you have to know how to distinguish between a wrong, or illusory, application of a deductive rule and a right one — something that cannot be done in general, since in general we cannot distinguish illusions from reality. From this, it follows that you cannot reliably produce a sound, valid argument, from which it follows you have no rational basis to believe “in general, we cannot distinguish illusions from reality” or believe in anything, as a matter of fact. Now, I have the vague memory of making much, much milder claims (that whatever semblance of an argument you mounted was wrong). Now you have, by your own admission, the proof of it.

    But enough of this. As I said before, I have no intention or desire to pest you with incessant corrections or annoy you with trifles like logic or arguments. Your time is precious, no doubt. Pax vobiscum.

  28. So this applies to you, and it follows that you cannot know reality only the models. … But you admit that you cannot know reality. Since the thoughts in your mind are part of reality, you cannot know the part of reality that are the thoughts in your mind

    I guess it’s my turn: pay attention. I can know what’s in my mind. The problems occur when trying to know what’s outside of it.

    But since you cannot in general distinguish illusion from reality, it follows that in general you do not know if your argument is valid since to know the validity of an argument you have to know how to distinguish between a wrong, or illusory, … you have to know how to distinguish between a wrong, or illusory, application of a deductive rule and a right one

    No I don’t. I only need to be able to distinguish between the likelihood of models. I don’t need The Truth though it would be nice to have it. There is such a thing as “good enough” and “best approximation”. We call them models.

    But you admit that you cannot know reality.

    Indeed. Neither can you. Not with certainty, at least.

    What we see in reality are not imperfect instantiations of Univerals. Instead our ideas of the world are imperfect instantiations of the universe even though we call them ideal.

  29. @DAV:

    I guess it’s my turn: pay attention. I can know what’s in my mind. The problems occur when trying to know what’s outside of it.

    If by reality you meant extra-mental reality you should have said so; I am not a mind-reader and can only go by what you write, not by guessing what you meant to write.

    But to return the compliment, if you had read everything I wrote you would see that your response does not work. So while the thoughts in your mind are an undeniable part of reality, you can know them, but you cannot know extra-mental reality. Is this evasion cogent? What do you mean by when you say you know the thoughts in your mind? According to you, the thoughts in your mind just are a series of physical processes in the brain. But this is an undeniable part of physical reality which you say you cannot know, so how can you know the thoughts in your own mind? Only two options seem open to you: either contrary to what you affirm you can know part of extra-mental reality, namely your thoughts, or your thoughts are not reducible to the physical processes in the brain since the first-person subjective view of them excludes such reduction. Pick your poison.

    But let us leave aside the above and just grant for the sake of argument that your evasion is cogent. Then you must have an argument to back you claims, such as “we can only know models, not reality”. Such an argument will necessarily appeal to universals: you mention several, such as “models”, “proofs”, “concepts”, etc. Such an argument will also of necessity appeal to logical laws and principles, usually of a mathematical nature, that govern such universals. But according to you, these are all concepts on the mind; from this it follows that they never existed before minds appeared in the universe. More modestly, *your* own conceptions of them never existed before you came into existence. Since your mind, while a part of reality, does not create extra-mental reality, such laws of logic, principles, concepts, etc. you use to make your argument are exactly how you termed them: “convenient fictions” you have created and have no objective basis on reality. They are “purely mental exercises” as you said of mathematics. Therefore your arguments of necessity are based on fictions and are invalid. All your arguments.

    Indeed. Neither can you. Not with certainty, at least.

    And yet you affirm with certainty as a truth about reality, that we cannot know reality with certainty. Right.

    The same problems plague your non-response to the self-contradictory nature of your statement that we cannot in general, distinguish illusions from what is real. I won’t rehash them. The plain matter of fact is that your position is unargued-for and unarguable-for because it is incoherent and self-refuting. You could think that maybe if you were just a little more precise, a little more pedantic (like me, for example) your position could be seen as perfectly coherent and salvageable. It is not. Just ponder over the *arguments*. But the last word is yours; use it if you will.

  30. @DAV
    What Rodrigues says is true, you are not very clear with regard to your concepts. For instance, you wrote: I mostly use “real” to mean external to the mind. I take this to mean that you utter the word real with the intention to denote “something” external to the mind. That is not a concept, it is an intention you have when you use the word real, but this intention might not be communicated at all. If you are looking for a concept of reality it is not very hard to come by. You could try it with the dialectic method. First imagine the concept of outer appearance. Next imagine the opposite concept of inner being (hard one for you). Now put these two together in a whole, then you have the outer appearance with the inner being. That is what reality means. As such it has nothing whatsoever to do with extra mental. That is just the bias you introduce.
    I will give you an example: suppose you see a cow next to the road. Is it a real cow? In order for it to be a real cow you must be able to acknowledge that in this case appearance and being coincide. A cow appearance permeated by cow being, that is a real cow. If it is a plastic cow, you do not have the cow being and you are only looking at the appearance of the cow. It is not real. Perhaps a crude example, but it gets the message across I hope. It is the same with arguments: a real argument not only looks like one, but also * is * one. The definition will allow you to use the concept real consistently.

  31. @G. Rodrigues

    Is this evasion cogent? What do you mean by when you say you know the thoughts in your mind?

    Do you really want to wander into Cognitive Psychology and neurology? If so, start with defining what it really means to “know” something or what “thoughts” and “knowledge” really are. And what it means to possess “knowledge” — I mean other than what amounts to just saying we do. I think you will have just as much trouble doing this as you would have explaining how you initiate movement in you limbs.

    But since you asked, I see no way to answer your post without some sidetracking.

    Then you must have an argument to back you claims, such as “we can only know models, not reality”.

    Not in the form you demand.

    The information we receive is filtered by our senses. For sight and sound, the information is effectively a Fourier transform. In the ear, this is necessarily a sampled transform. In the eye, the retina is composed of light receptors, effectively pixels.

    From these we must reconstruct the outside world by inference. Making meaningful connections between the dots to see shapes presented by pixels in the eye requires making assumptions. The perceived color must also be inferred.

    Some (or maybe all) of these assumptions appear hardwired. The eye can be predictably fooled. This hardwiring occurs in various locations depending upon species. For some species, part of it is in the eye. For us, it is in the brain. This seems to allow us to override some assumptions with other information.

    The common experience of color, which you use as an exemplar for Universals, apparently arises from our being of the same species with the same hardwiring and the same built-in assumptions.

    Everything we know of the world comes to us through incomplete knowledge upon which we must make assumptions and world models. We build these models starting quite early in life and update them with new information. The models tend to (not always it seems) to account for all previously acquired information.

    The idea of Universals is intriguing but overlooks or glosses over known facts about perception — at least in your examples. There may be common perception experiences but there are also demonstrable common perception errors. That these exist is indication we see the world through models.

    Our knowledge of the world seems inevitably faulty given that it’s filtered and sampled by faulty processes. Our models are the only things we can truly say to know about the world in so far as whatever “know” means.

    a little more pedantic

    Bleh! Maybe if I were writing a paper. It’s inappropriate for conversation. Just cut to the chase. If you must be so, at least provide a map beforehand. I personally am suspicious of people who try to lead me by the hand to a conclusion and sidetrack into endless discourse instead of simply stating then offering evidence.

  32. I love how the angry materialists can’t mount an argument in the face of all this quality material. Rodrigues–amazing work. This series has brought up many technical details outside of my own knowledge.

  33. @DAV
    You wrote:
    If so, start with defining what it really means to “know” something or what “thoughts” and “knowledge” really are…

    Excellent suggestion. Let’s leave the truckload of presuppositions behind and do some elementary work. As has been pointed out more than once: if cognitive psychology and neurology give rise to some variant of relativism, they inevitably suffer themselves.

    The facts you bring to the table are very interesting and worthwhile. The only problem is that they are unsuitable as a foundation of epistemology.

    Epistemology should start with the above questions you threw at Rodrigues.. A fair challenge to both realists and nominalists I would say.

  34. The problem that inevitably always appears with philosophical texts is that they mostly ignore modern science and more particularly quantum mechanics.
    So most philosophers still stay stuck with what they consider a “problem” even if we have known for decades that this is not only a problem anymore but has been answered with no ambiguity. The guest post is an amusing exercise on forming sentences by syllogisms but is in contradiction with most scientific results of these last 80 years.

    For instance we have been knowing already for 30 years that the realism was dead and the quantum mechanics has said so for theoretical reasons for even longer. It only took a long time to have the technology to realize Aspect’s experiments and falsify the hidden variables theories.

    Quantum mechanics whether one likes it or not has taught us that only probabilistic statements can be made about the Universe.
    Einstein (who was a realist) thought that this could only be due to incomplete knowledge. God didn’t play dice and there must have been some missing hidden variables that would explain the quantum mechanics in a classical (realistic) way.
    A photon must follow a single trajectory and if we can’t find it then the problem must be with our understanding not with the photons themselves. So thought the realists 70 years ago.
    Well to the contrary of what the QM ignorant philosophers think, this conviction can be put to an experimental test because it has quantitative consequences on photons’ behavior. The experiment has been made with ever more sophistication, accuracy and creativity yet the result has always been the same – the realism is wrong, there can be no hidden variables, quantum mechanics is right.
    It makes no sense to ask through which slit the photon went when we didn’t measure it. It also doesn’t make any sense to ask what spin the electron had or where it was before we measured it.
    And if we measure the slit through which the photon went, we destroy the interference pattern which we wanted to explain.
    This doesn’t mean of course that we do not know what the photon is doing. Quantum mechanics answers accurately and unambiguously – the photon is in a linear superposition of 2 states whose dynamics are clearly described and theyinterfere with each other. The only knowledge we can have of it before measure is probabilistic. Any theory/model/musing which says that the photon is in a well defined (unknown but potentially knowable) state before the measure has already been falsified. Quantum mechanics didn’t kill (local) causality or relativity. It killed the realism.

  35. Well said, Tom. Unfortunately these people take Aristotle more seriously than Bohr. Actual phsyics is too Bohring for them…

  36. DAV
    Some (or maybe all) of these assumptions appear hardwired. The eye can be predictably fooled. This hardwiring occurs in various locations depending upon species. For some species, part of it is in the eye. For us, it is in the brain. This seems to allow us to override some assumptions with other information.

    Most of it is hardwired at birth and for most of it we have the idea about how it gets hardwired during embryogenesis.
    The significant exception is the brain whose hardwiring continues to evolve significantly even after the birth.
    This is obvious – as it is the brain which will serve us for interpretation of the outside data, it needs to adapt to the mass of stimuli that it begins to immediately process after the birth.
    The stimuli are here paramount – the cases of “wolf children” show that some typically human functions (like speech)

    can no more be hardwired when the optimal moment for hardwiring was missed.

  37. @TOM
    I would say: Copenhagen freed realism of physicalism. Realism is about what we grasp in thought. If the stronghold of reality can no longer be found in te particle, it is for the better of realism as it is ment here.

  38. @Briggs

    Why? Because those are the rules of logic. A logical argument is perfectly valid as long as it is logically consistent but the truth of the conclusion is dependent on the truth of the premises.

    A logical argument starting from false premises can still be logically valid.

    Constructing a logically valid argument is only going half way to proving your conclusion. To get all the way there you must demonstrate the truth of all the premises. Even one false premis makes your conclusion false.

  39. Rembie

    I don’t think so and I was not talking about Copenhagen either. I was talking about the falsification of realistic theories.
    Clearly the author of this post doesn’t know much about quantum mechanics (if anything) when he writes :
    .
    A first possible response is to deny the need for specifying identity conditions for universals. One reason for doing this is that providing non-circular and informative identity conditions for material objects is equally fraught with problems. For example, certain facts of quantum mechanics make the identity conditions for elementary particles highly problematic.
    .
    There simply are no identity conditions for photons or for any bosons for that matter. So it is not “problematic” it just doesn’t make sense.
    Almost everything said in this post stands in contradiction with Aspect’s experiments and the fact that only probabilistic statements are possible before the measure.

  40. Btw when you say “what we grasp in thought”, then DAV has already rightly commented on this issue.
    One can “grasp in thought” only something that has been previously observed or as physics would say measured.
    So every discourse about Universe (I much prefer this word rather than “reality”) must be a discourse about observations/measures.
    And as any discourse about observation/measure must be a quantum mechanical discourse, one would mostly say nonsense if one ignores QM.
    Unless one wants to deny a century of science and millions of experimental results.
    Useless to add where something like that leads.

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