Thursday, August 2, 2012

Concretizing the abstract

Eric Voegelin famously (if obscurely) characterized utopian political projects as attempts to “immanentize the eschaton.”   A related error -- and one that underlies not only political utopianism but scientism and its offspring -- might be called the tendency to “concretize the abstract.”  Treating abstractions as if they were concrete realities is something Alfred North Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World, labeled the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” and what has also been called the “Reification Fallacy.”  It has been an occupational hazard of philosophy and science since the time of the Pre-Socratics.  The Aristotelian strain in Western thought formed a counterpoint to this “concretizing” tendency within the context of ancient philosophy, and also more or less inoculated Scholasticism against the tendency.  But it came roaring back with a vengeance with Galileo, Descartes, and their modern successors, and has dominated Western thought ever since.  Wittgenstein tried to put an end to it, but failed; for bad metaphysics can effectively be counteracted only by good metaphysics, not by no metaphysics.  And Aristotelianism is par excellence a metaphysics which keeps abstractions in their place.

We abstract when we consider some particular aspect of a concrete thing while bracketing off or ignoring the other aspects of the thing.  For example, when you consider a dinner bell or the side of a pyramid exclusively as instances of triangularity, you ignore their color, size, function, and metal or stone composition.  Or to borrow an example from a recent post, when aircraft engineers determine how many passengers can be carried on a certain plane, they might focus exclusively on their average weight and ignore not only the passengers’ sex, ethnicity, hair color, dinner service preferences, etc., but even the actual weight of any particular passenger.  

[Modern Scholastic writers often distinguish three “degrees” of abstraction.  The first degree is the sort characteristic of the philosophy of nature, which considers what is common to material phenomena as such, abstracting from individual material things but retaining in its conception the sensible aspects of matter.  The second degree is the sort characteristic of mathematics, which abstracts not only the individuality of material things but also their sensible nature, focusing on what is intelligible (as opposed to sensible) in matter under the category of quantity.  The third degree is the sort characteristic of metaphysics, which abstracts from even the quantitative aspects of matter and considers notions like substance, existence, etc. entirely apart from matter.]

Abstractions can be very useful, and are of themselves perfectly innocent when we keep in mind that we are abstracting.  The trouble comes when we start to think of abstractions as if they were concrete realities themselves -- thereby “reifying” them -- and especially when we think of the abstractions as somehow more real than the concrete realities from which they have been abstracted.  

Mind and matter

I have suggested in a couple of recent posts (e.g. this one) that the “mind-body problem” is essentially a consequence of Descartes’ reification of two abstractions.  He first abstracted from the notion of matter everything but its mathematical features, relocating all qualitative features to the mind; and he then treated this mathematical abstraction from actual concrete matter as if it captured everything that really is there in actual concrete matter.  Matter generally came to be regarded ever afterward as inherently devoid of anything but the sort of thing expressible in the mathematical language of a physics textbook.  And this included the matter that makes up plants, animals, and human bodies, all of which were -- necessarily, if lacking anything except what could be captured in mathematical language -- to be regarded as utterly devoid of consciousness, thought, meaning, teleology, or like.

Not that Descartes was alone in making this first abstraction -- Galileo had set the stage for it and other moderns put their own spin on it.  But what was distinctive about Descartes was the other abstraction he added to it.  Having removed colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat, cold, and the like (at least as common sense understands them) from matter and relocated them into the realm of human consciousness -- making of them the “qualia” so much discussed by contemporary philosophers of mind -- Descartes faced the question of where consciousness itself was to be found.  His answer was to take conscious thought -- which had for common sense and Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy alike been something properly attributed only to a human being as a whole -- to abstract it from the rest of human nature, and then to reify this second abstraction.  For Descartes, what thinks is not a human being, but a res cogitans; that is to say, what thinks is just a “thinking thing,” thought made into a substance in its own right rather than an activity of a substance.

And there was little else to do with thought once you’d characterized matter the way Descartes had.  The only alternatives to making thought a substance in its own right would be to make of it a collection of little quasi-substances (essentially the solution of the property dualist) or to deny its existence altogether (the position of the eliminativist).  And that is precisely why all the various brands of materialism, which chuck out Descartes’ res cogitans while essentially keeping his conception of matter, inevitably come across as disguised versions of either property dualism or eliminativism.

Suppose aircraft engineers had got it into their heads that the average weight of airline passengers was all there is to airline passengers.  And suppose the people responsible for planning the flight entertainment had determined that all airline passengers like to watch action movies during a flight, and got it into their heads that this was all there is to airline passengers.  Then suppose that the two groups compared notes and decided that since each side had some pretty strong evidence in its favor, they faced a thorny “average weight/preference for action flicks problem.”  Perhaps the entertainment planners would decide that average weight and a preference for action movies are both real aspects of airline passengers, and interact causally in a way we don’t understand.  And perhaps the engineers would declare that the really scientific and hardheaded thing to do would be to reduce the attribute of preferring action movies to the attribute of having such-and-such an average weight.  Or perhaps they’d decide that in light of the success of aircraft engineering practices compared to the questionable methods of the flight entertainment planners, maybe we should just bite the bullet and conclude that action flick preferences don’t really exist after all.

I’m not saying the debate over the mind-body problem is as silly as that, but it is in my view based on a similar set of errors.  The solution to the “average weight/action flick preference problem” is just to stop reifying the abstractions that generated the bogus problem in the first place.  And that is essentially the solution to the dispute between materialists and Cartesian dualists.  That is not to say that mind doesn’t raise important philosophical questions.  Indeed, like other Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosophers I think that our intellectual powers, though not our perceptual or imaginative powers, are immaterial.  But the meaning and justification of these A-T claims, and the relation between the immaterial and bodily aspects of human nature, are deeply misunderstood by philosophers whose thinking about these matters is framed by the Cartesian way of carving up the metaphysical territory.

Scientism

Again, I do not mean to deny that abstractions of the sort in question may have their uses.  On the contrary, the mathematical conception of matter is extremely useful, as the astounding technologies that surround us in modern life make obvious.  But contrary to what some proponents of scientism suppose, it simply doesn’t follow for a moment that that conception gives us an exhaustive conception of the material world, for reasons I have stated many times (e.g. here).  

Nor are the abstractions of physics the only ones we must be wary of concretizing.  The neuroscientist who tells us that it is the brain or parts of the brain (hemispheres, “modules,” or whatever) that “interpret,” “perceive,” or “decide” this or that are making the same mistake Descartes was insofar as they abstract mental activities from their proper subject -- the human being as a whole -- and relocate them to an invented subject (albeit a material rather than immaterial one).  In fact the brain and its components are not substances in their own right but are properly understood only in relation to the whole organism of which they are parts, and the “higher-level” features of a human being -- including conscious thoughts and choices -- are no less real or fundamental than the “lower-level” neurological features.  It is only when we abstract out and reify the latter -- treating them as if they had a fundamental or independent status relative to the whole organism, which is the reverse of the truth -- that the former, “higher-level” features come to seem problematic.  Those who suppose that neuroscience has “shown” that free will or the self are illusions, on the grounds that no such phenomena can be found at the level of neurons and neural structures, are like aircraft engineers who think that the utility of their data about passengers’ average weight “shows” that passengers have no other attributes except weight, on the grounds that passengers’ sex, ethnicity, food preferences, etc. cannot be read off from the data about weight.  (M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker, Raymond Tallis, and others have made similar points.  But the pop neuroscience industry hasn’t gotten the message, or doesn’t want to get it.)

Then there is social science.  When we abstract from concrete human beings their purely economic motivations, ignoring everything else and then reifying this abstraction, the result is homo economicus, a strange creature who, unlike real people, is driven by nothing but the desire to maximize utility.  Nietzschean analyses of human motivation in terms of the will to power are less susceptible of mathematical modeling (and thus less “scientific”), but are variations on the same sort of error.  Evolutionary psychology often combines abstractions of the natural scientific and social scientific sort.  Like the neuroscientist, the evolutionary psychologist often treats parts of human beings as if they were substances independent of the whole from which they have been abstracted (”selfish genes,” “memes”), and adds to this reification the abstractions of the economist (e.g. game theory). 

As the neuroscientific and sociobiological examples indicate, the Reification Fallacy is often combined with other fallacies.  In these cases, parts of a whole substance are first abstracted from it and treated as if they were substances in their own right (e.g. brain hemispheres, genes); and then a second, “Mereological Fallacy” (as Bennett and Hacker call it) is committed, in which what is intelligibly attributed only to the whole is attributed to the parts (e.g. the left hemisphere of the brain is said to “interpret,” and genes are said to be “selfish”).

Naturally, New Atheist types commit fallacies of this sort with regularity, and add some of their own.  In particular, they first fallaciously generalize from the irrationality and ignorance of some religious believers to all religious believers, no matter how obviously intelligent and educated.  Then they abstract this fantasized universal irrationality and ignorance from every other aspect of real religious people and reify it into a demonized homo religiosusAll religious believers, no matter how decent their behavior and no matter how apparently clever and well-informed their arguments, are made out to be “really” just stupid bigots.  This licenses the New Atheist to devote his attention to attacking this figment of his own imagination rather than actual defenders of religion.

The irony is that while New Atheists and others beholden to scientism pride themselves on being “reality based,” that is precisely what they are not.  Actual, concrete reality is extremely complicated.  There is far more to material systems than what can be captured in the equations of physics, far more to human beings than can be captured in the categories of neuroscience or economics, and far more to religion than can be captured in the ludicrous straw men peddled by New Atheists.  All of these simplifying abstractions (except the last) have their value, but when we treat them as anything more than simplifying abstractions we have left the realm of science and entered that of ideology.  The varieties of reductionism, eliminativism, and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” are manifestations of this tendency to replace real things with abstractions.  They are all attempts to “conquer the abundance” of reality (as Paul Feyerabend might have put it), to force the world in all its concrete richness into a straightjacket.

Voegelin’s analysis of utopian politics was for a time transformed by intellectually inclined young conservatives into a catchphrase: Don’t immanentize the eschaton!  Aristotelians, Wittgensteinians, Feyerabendians, and other anti-reductionists might consider a catchphrase of their own: Don’t concretize the abstract! 

88 comments:

Gene Callahan said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Another great post! Btw Dr Feser I have just finished reading this wonderful book, The Greek Philosophers From Thales to Aristotle by WKC Guthrie. I got it from an old books sale and I had no idea at first if it was a good book or not, but the fact that it had Aristotle in it's title interested me. Was it ever a great bargain! It's such a powerfully written and informative book I never imagined how perceptive the ancient Greeks were, and e amazing feats of deduction they were able to accomplish without the aid of applied science! It also traces the development of philosophy very well, and explains it nicely. I have recommended your books to my friends and this one too. Long live AT philosophy! P.S. Have a safe trip and a great talk at Australia! ~ Mark

Anonymous said...

Ooops, should have typed *its*, and not *it's* :-) ~ Mark

Anonymous said...

PPS I'm sharing this on my facebook network. I wonder if you'd like to make an online presence on fb? There are a very good AT philosophers there (like Francis Beckwith). Thanks again! ~ Mark

SR said...

Why isn't prime matter considered an example of the reification fallacy? It is not needed to account for change, as one can do the action/potential thing by assigning form to the notion of potential, while the actual is "that which provides an act of existence to a form", i.e., God, or in the case of thoughts, our thinking. Prime matter is just a reification of the common sensical notion that the things we sense are made from something, but on analysis, that "something" is always more form.

Arthur said...

Another helpful post, professor Feser.

It's funny, but I've seen the "reification" accusation go the other way, too. Many atheists seem to think that God is a reification, for instance.

I suppose one should ask, how do you tell the difference between a legitimate idea and a mere reification?

Anonymous said...

"Voegelin’s analysis of utopian politics was for a time transformed by intellectually inclined young conservatives into a catchphrase: Don’t immanentize the eschaton!"

National Review had for sale in the 70's a set of badges with slogans including: "Don't Let THEM Immanentize the Eschaton!" and "Eat Grapes".

hype said...

yo Feser!
Hijacking your post..

You have to watch the movie "The Tall Man" you will flip over the leftist interventionist theme of the movie.
It's good philosophical ground too.... maybe.

Thomas said...

I've always like what Hegel had to say: "Philosophy is war on abstraction." Also, I think his distinction between concrete universals and abstract universals is helpful.

MagicMarker said...

A marvelous post. A good example that comes with suspecting that all your mental and/or physical facts are illusions can be seen here:

http://blog.muflax.com/algorithmancy/ontological-therapy/

In Ontological Therapy, blogger muflax throws out physicalism for it's inability to account for cognition and replaces it with a computational idealism which opens himself up to believing in a pantheon of evil gods like in Hinduism.

The choicest quote comes from here:

"Have people ever considered the implications of straightforward analytical philosophy? You have no self and there is no time. All person-moments of all persons are as much future-you as what you think is future-you. Normal consequences don’t matter because this is a Big World and everything exists infinitely often. The Universe Does Not Forget. Prevention? Totally impossible. Everything that can happen is happening. Any reference to something is not literally impossible is actually resolved. This is not just the minor disappointment we felt when we realized Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. This time, the universe isn’t the center of the universe, if you catch my drift. Instead of changing the world, you are reduced to decision theory, intentions and dependencies, forced to interact with everything that it is possible to interact with. Life, death, a body, a will, a physical world - all delusions. This is like unlearning object permanence!

I think the bloody continentals were right all along. Analytical philosophy is fundamentally insane."

An example of having to interact with everything possible is given by Oxford University Professor Nick Bostrom's Pascal's Mugging thought experiment here: http://www.nickbostrom.com/papers/pascal.pdf .

I link this to show that if people actually took their beliefs about philosophy serious, a lot more than abortion would be at stake. In fact one who has read Chesterton after reading the above linked posts would remember some choice remarks about Reason, Fantasy and Hanwell.

Will said...

O'Callaghan's correction of Kenny's discussion of Aquinas's philosophy of mind is interesting in this connection - 'what Kenny misses is that Aquinas does not share the Cartesian obsession with consciousness, precisely because he does not share the Cartesian obsession with the mind.'

http://www2.nd.edu/Departments//Maritain/ti00/ocallagh.htm

For Aquinas, there is no such thing as the mind. I'm not sure I understand this properly, but I think he's just saying that the view of the mind as something other than the body moving it around like an efficient cause is wrong. There is no such mind.

As the SEP article on Aquinas puts it, for him 'the soul is not other than the body, but simply one with it as its form, one as act to potency are one. So according to Aquinas, while it is true that the activities of intellect and will are not the actualities of any physical organs, they are nonetheless the activities of the living human animal. It is Socrates the animal who knows and wills, not his mind interacting with his body.

Glenn said...

There is far more to material systems than what can be captured in the equations of physics, far more to human beings than can be captured in the categories of neuroscience or economics, and far more to religion than can be captured in the ludicrous straw men peddled by New Atheists. All of these simplifying abstractions (except the last) have their value...

To put it another way: In the abstract there is nothing inherently wrong with concretizing abstractions. (Incidentally, there exist examples of abstractions having been wrongfully concretized.)

...but when we treat them as anything more than simplifying abstractions we have left the realm of science and entered that of ideology.

Ah, the realm of ideology...

Some FAQs, and an exercise:


FAQs (abridged)

What are some of the governing principles in the realm of ideology?

One governing principle in the realm of ideology is that reality is useful to the extent that it is serviceable to the preservation, maintenance and/or propagation of an ideology. Another governing principle in this realm is that when a conflict exists between reality and an ideology, it is reality which is in need of change.

How might one know whether another has set in this realm?

One not infrequently may hear the gentle of hum of an IDS operating in the background.

What is an IDS?

An IDS is an 'intrusion detection system'.

What is the function of an IDS?

All IDSs worthy of the name have a primary function and a secondary function. The primary function of an IDS is to detect immanent and/or attempted intrusions by reality. The secondary function of an IDS is to instigate the mobilization of a rapid response to the attempted intrusion.

What should I do if I hear the gentle hum of an IDS?

Head for the hills.

Suppose one lives on the Great Plains? There are no hills to run to. What then?

Reread Don Quixote.


Exercise

Abstract from the following joke having to do with induction one or more basic principles underlying the primary and secondary functions of an IDS:

Look at mathematician, said a logician. He observes that the first ninety-numbers are less than hundred and infers hence, by what he calls induction, that all numbers are less than a hundred.

A physicist believes, said the mathematician, that 60 is divisible by all numbers. He observes that 60 is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. He examines a few more cases, as 10, 20, and 30, taken at random as he says. Since 60 is divisible also by these, he considers the experimental evidence sufficient.

Yes, but look at the engineers, said the physicist. An engineer suspected that all odd numbers are prime numbers. At any rate, 1 can be considered as a prime number, he argued. Then there come 3, 5, and 7, all indubitably primes. Then there comes 9; an awkward case, it does not seem to be a prime number. Yet 11 and 13 are certainly primes. 'Coming back to 9' he said, 'I conclude that 9 must be an experimental error.'

(The joke--from George Poyla's Mathematics And Plausible Reasoning, Vol 1: Induction And Analogy In Mathematics--is not at the expense of mathematicians, physicists, and/or engineers, but, rather, about the misapplication / misuse of induction (by whomsoever).)

Glenn said...

Yes, I did mean 'imminent'. But I suppose there is a nuanced sense in which 'immanent' works just as well.

Christian said...

Great post Dr. Feser.

Michael Brazier said...

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." - attributed to Yogi Berra

Hunt said...

"Selfish" in "Selfish Gene" was always meant metaphorically, as genes will at "as if" they are they are the selfish inheritors of those phenotypes that best serve them. It's actually not terribly apt even as a metaphor, but Dawkins' original purpose for the title was to underscore the fact that selective inheritance must originate gene modification, not somatic modification, which is Lamarckism.

I like your example of reifying the "ignorant believer." That type of reification is the heart of all bigotry. Unfortunately this seems to be a universal human susceptibility due to way our brains operate by abstraction.

21st Century Scholastic said...

Hi Glenn,

nothing to do with the post or your comments, but - do you have a web site, or some other similar "space" where i can read your thoughts? :)

Thanks,

21srCS

Anonymous said...

But don't A-T philosophers also agree with this?
"And this included the matter that makes up plants, animals, and human bodies, all of which were -- necessarily, if lacking anything except what could be captured in mathematical language -- to be regarded as utterly devoid of consciousness, thought, meaning, teleology, or like."

Teleology is not to be found in matter but in form, form being immaterial. Certainly consciousness and thought are not to be found in matter but only in animating souls.

john di said...

N.D Mermin wrote an article in Physics Today about physics and reification entitled "What's bad about this habit".

http://www2.fc.unesp.br/~malvezzi/downloads/Ensino/Disciplinas/IntrodMecQuant/textos/What's%20bad%20about%20this%20habit%20-%20David%20Mermin.pdf

Touchstone said...

I’m not saying the debate over the mind-body problem is as silly as that, but it is in my view based on a similar set of errors. The solution to the “average weight/action flick preference problem” is just to stop reifying the abstractions that generated the bogus problem in the first place. And that is essentially the solution to the dispute between materialists and Cartesian dualists. That is not to say that mind doesn’t raise important philosophical questions. Indeed, like other Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosophers I think that our intellectual powers, though not our perceptual or imaginative powers, are immaterial. But the meaning and justification of these A-T claims, and the relation between the immaterial and bodily aspects of human nature, are deeply misunderstood by philosophers whose thinking about these matters is framed by the Cartesian way of carving up the metaphysical territory.
That is a remarkably dense packing of problems into one paragraph, I have to say.

The silliness of the passenger-weight/action-flick example aside (and that barely even reached as high as silly), it's difficult to see how "stop reifying the abstractions" represents any forward progress at all, even if we accept, arguendo, that a) reification is being posited as you claim, and b) those claims are fallacious as such.

Why should this proposal, to... what? "Keep it abstract" be appealing or useful to us, at all?

Consider a more concrete(!) and applicable (I say) example. We view electrons as being something equivalent to your airline passengers, all of equal weight. As far as we can tell, and having to gone to great length over long periods time to analyze this, all electrons have the same mass, and in fact are all identical, indistinguishable from each other, save for distinctions we might make between their location, motion, etc. As "passengers", they are all precisely the same, based on all our observations.

And it's more than just observations. Variations from being "all the same" would be deeply problematic for our physical models, which work remarkably well and with astonishing precision based on this understanding.

con't...

-TS

Touchstone said...

... con't

But perhaps it isn't, we might suppose. Let's say electrons are "fallaciously reified" as being "all the same", or even as some physicists suppose, all part of one unified, cosmic electron, just manifest in uncountably many local proxies. Maybe all those electrons are actually, really, just as individualized and variegated as human passengers on commercial airlines are.

Now what? Maybe that's true. But we've got perfectly nothing to ground that idea. It might be "true", but we've got no warrant for such a notion, and nothing experimentally that indicates such, and worse, no way to validate or falsify such a notion to us. Could be, but it's a vacuous conjecture. The unicorns we don't think exist might exist, and they might be purple. So?

The examples of passenger weight are good criticisms of the point you are (or appear to be) making. Airline engineers don't need individual weights for the calculations they are performing, within the tolerances allowed by the application. They don't, as you allow, get confused about the abstraction -- abstracted just as a matter of expedient utility -- being a concrete feature of reality, like "average passenger weight" was some kind of physical force in its own right.

A real, concrete (!!) example of this fallacy is conspicuously missing. It's telling, I think, that we get the "passenger-weight/action flick" weirdness, offered here. Maybe a very simple way to fortify your point would be to offer a real world example of the problem in action.

I think this is trouble for you, though. In saying things like this:

Those who suppose that neuroscience has “shown” that free will or the self are illusions, on the grounds that no such phenomena can be found at the level of neurons and neural structures, are like aircraft engineers who think that the utility of their data about passengers’ average weight “shows” that passengers have no other attributes except weight, on the grounds that passengers’ sex, ethnicity, food preferences, etc. cannot be read off from the data about weight.

as I understand it you must either let this stand as naked assertion, or provide a concrete demonstration which would establish the 'non-illusory nature' of free will. Good luck with that, if that is your project. You'll be famous by Tuesday morning if you can do it.

There's a transcendental twist on that claim: how do we know optical illusions *are* illusions, after all, that our senses sometimes trick us (or more precisely, our integrative processing of our percepts produces erroneous conclusions)? Why we rely on the accuracy of those same senses to establish the "illusion-ness" of the illusion.

But this is what you cannot do, and won't even try. To do so, like proving an optical illusion is an illusion, must rely on the "concreteness", the veridicality of the very thing it disputes.

To put it simply, to an A-T thinker who says: but how do you know there isn't more, much more???, the response is: there may be, but we don't see anything more, or have any grounds to identify or detect anything *more*, so we don't posit what we have no warrant for."

Do you think the mass of each electron is the same as every other? If not, why not? If so, why so?

-TS

Anonymous said...

Wittgenstein tried to put an end to it, but failed; for bad metaphysics can effectively be counteracted only by good metaphysics, not by no metaphysics.

Well, if you say so, it must be true.

rank sophist said...

To put it simply, to an A-T thinker who says: but how do you know there isn't more, much more???, the response is: there may be, but we don't see anything more, or have any grounds to identify or detect anything *more*, so we don't posit what we have no warrant for."

Even Scientific American is over reductionism: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2012/07/23/the-higgs-boson-and-the-future-of-science/

But, if you let holism in the door, then you let forms in the door, which means that you let human forms in the door, which means that you let immaterial intellect in the door, which means you let immaterial will in the door, which means that you let free will in the door. Fairly simple.

David T said...

TS,


To put it simply, to an A-T thinker who says: but how do you know there isn't more, much more???, the response is: there may be, but we don't see anything more, or have any grounds to identify or detect anything *more*, so we don't posit what we have no warrant for."

Feser's point is that we do see a lot more, as is evident to common sense, but that materialism/positivism forces us to deny the obvious, like the reality of final causes. But we know by now that you are a falsificationist, and by "grounds to identify or detect" you mean something limited to your falsificationist epistemology.

The problem is your falsificationist epistemology doesn't hold water because it needs something beyond itself to have any purchase on nature. As you put it before:

Falsification can and does appeal to the strength of deductive logic. If my hypothesis is "All swans are white", if I have 10 million white swans in view, and no non-white swans, I've not falsified my hypothesis and that is good. But my hypothesis is still inductive in its proposition, necessarily. Unless and until I can demonstrate that all possible swans have been identified as white (!), induction is all I can appeal to in reasoning about this hypothesis.

This scheme only works if you already know what swans are, otherwise you can't know if those 10 million things out there are swans or something else, or if some novel thing you encounter (a "black X") is actually a swan or something else. For if it's not a swan, it can't really falsify anything about swans, can it? Maybe that black X out there is duck and not a swan and should be falsifying things about ducks rather than swans.

So the question remains: How do you know enough about swans, ducks, dogs and everything else to get your falsification scheme up and running?

reighley said...

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I am personally quite cavalier about concretizing my abstractions. Unfortunately I have at hand very few other tools with which to decide what is real.

By fiat as it were. How does everyone else do it?

Glenn said...

21stCS,

Naught but intermittent comments are available at present. And it is likely to remain this way for quite some time.

My apologies.

Eduardo said...

Well I use to concretize abstractions too, it is just that now I am sort of the team that everything could be concrete or pure abstraction, my head is just a huge mess when it comes to that.

Anonymous said...

I'm getting tired of the pattern I've seen in at least 2 other threads, now threatening to do so again.

TS shows up, bloviates at length.
Others respond, pointing out the problems in his arguments, not to mention multiple points of incoherency in his metaphysics/philosophy. He dodges for several dozen posts, until eventually people ask him to address the tough questions.

Then he abandons the thread without a word.

Wash, rinse, repeat in a new thread.

How about this thread we have a fresh conversation, and TS goes back to the most recent thread he abandoned to continue his defense, instead of repeating the exact same steps that lead to his retreat?

Lacking that, how about David T, RS and company ask the same questions that seem to cause him to abandon threads, immediately, and refuse to engage until he answers? Then he can proceed with the abandoning, and we can actually have a conversation that doesn't involve 100 comments of TS either equivocating or commenters having to unpack his particular brand of deceptive terminology and reasoning?

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that certain groups of people exhibit similar traits inclusive to the group, and not as readily evident within other groups. This is so obvious to common sense that to deny it is to engage in a self-deception (although in liberal society, people, regardless of groups, are often seen as simply interchangeable units, with any differences therefore due to external vagaries-economic, class, education, and so forth).

The question, then, is how to explain these very real behavioral differences among groups? If I understand the Thomist view, the form of man is that of a rational animal. Question: is this form perhaps different for different groups, or is human matter responsible for these inherent group (racial-ethnic) differences?

The latter argues against the ground of liberal equality (found within the prevalent strain of Western political theory since Hobbes, and now manifest to a degree that even Marx would find peculiar). The former would call in to question the notion of an all encompassing univocal human form, itself.

Frank said...

"Continental" philosophers often seem to make a similar argument: The scientific worldview is "derived from and parasitic upon" the phenomenologically given; it is just an abstraction from that given so cannot be used to undermine it. This reasoning suggests that they regard epistemological priority as the criterion of ontology. But this seems to threaten the idealism and "blurring of epistemology and metaphysics" which you deprecate in the anti-Rosenberg post to which you link. How does your criticism differ?
Perhaps your view is that the criterion of what is (to speak loosely) most real, or most fundamental, is not epistemological but explanatory priority or explanatory adequacy.
As I recall, Bernard Williams, in setting out the "absolute conception of the world" (not much different from your "scientism") claimed that its superiority lies in the fact that it can explain everything, including other more limited conceptions as well as itself. I believe he also stated that the concept of "explanation" involved here is one which is associated with the idea of that representation of an event which enables one reliably to produce it. I suspect that you agree with this last statement, but regard it as admitting a limitation. Could you characterize, for purposes of contrast, the conception of explanation involved in your own views?

BeingItself said...

Consider the checkerboard shadow illusion:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9Sen1HTu5o

When we take the image in as a whole, the 2 squares in question seem to be the same shade. But if we cut out the square, or "reduce" the image by removing the shadow that confuses us, we realize the two squares are the same shade.

This is the power of reductionism.

It would be a mistake, however, to then declare that there is no illusion. The illusion is real.

And so with the folk-concept of the self. When we reduce the brain we learn there just ain't no such thing as the naive notion of a self. It is an illusion.

But the illusion is real.

Feser is the one making the reification error here. He wants to make concrete the illusion of the self. He wants to make the abstract concrete.

(Spare me the retort: But how can an abstraction post a comment?! Such questions miss the point entirely.)

Touchstone said...

@rank sophist,

But, if you let holism in the door, then you let forms in the door, which means that you let human forms in the door, which means that you let immaterial intellect in the door, which means you let immaterial will in the door, which means that you let free will in the door. Fairly simple.
Those kinds of ideas have always been available to compete, "in the door", as it were. And if were are judging by "common sense", how things just seem to be, then there are many who will accept such ideas as that of "forms", on that basis.

If "common sense" is not the epistemic criterion, and more objective, scientific thresholds are, then "immaterial intellect" and "forms" can get in line and compete as hypotheses, they just can't get off the ground in terms of building models that perform. They don't add any value to any models.

Concepts of emergence, on the other hand, work from the "bottom up" rather than the traditional "top down" approach of reducing. But they are, in scientific domains, applied according to the same epistemology and the same conceptual priorities -- empirically grounded, model-based, testable, natural. If you read about research into problems of emergence, like the emergence of organic life, for example, "form" is conspicuously NOT useful, any more than "immaterial intelligence" is -- it's a divide by zero as a matter of building a model.

Or, maybe it's more clear to see the problem by accepting the hypothesis provisionally? OK, "immaterial intellect" and the A-T notion of "form" obtains as our model. How do we test that, falsify it, validate it, and build upon it?

We are immediate stopped at "immaterial intellect". How would we establish that as an entity that can bear weight in terms of explanation? Immaterial intellect is something posited -- feel the irony of this in light of Dr. Feser's post -- as the reification of an abstraction, but the intellect as its used there *is* an abstraction, a way of talking about the activity of the brain without getting bogged down in the physiology of the brain. So now, having accepted the hypothesis provisionally, we are stopped, and cannot build a model we can apply, at least because we have committed ourselves to the reification of an abstraction, which is overtly an abstraction, but a point which immaterialists forget, committing the very error Dr. Feser warns against here.

That's why it's not a problem to let all manner of hypotheses "in the door" to compete and be tested for performance. The application and testing of those hypotheses winnows them out. Stand right up and take your shot, Mr. Hypothesis. If you can't perform, it will be shown soon enough.

-TS

Touchstone said...

@David T,

Feser's point is that we do see a lot more, as is evident to common sense, but that materialism/positivism forces us to deny the obvious, like the reality of final causes. But we know by now that you are a falsificationist, and by "grounds to identify or detect" you mean something limited to your falsificationist epistemology.

Here, falsificationist means just that we require semantical distinctions between "false" and "true". Which is itself just a clarification of what "meaningful" signifies for us; the tautology reduces to "for true and false to be meaningful, they must be invested with some meaning".

Common sense is a good, if problematic guide for everyday applications -- the "common" in "common sense". But as our subjects get farther and farther from day-to-day, mundane applications, our intuitions become increasingly problematic and confounding. The "solidness" of a rock in our hand is literally self-evident. But the "solidness" we infer by intuition, that the rock "really is solid, through and through" is discredited by physics, which pays no heed to such common sense notions; the rock is mostly empty space, it turns out.

That doesn't diminish the "solidness" of the rock that is self-evident to us by one bit. But it does drive a wedge between our perceptions and the internal models we maintain based on those percepts. Things aren't what they common seem, many times, when looked at rigorously.


This scheme only works if you already know what swans are, otherwise you can't know if those 10 million things out there are swans or something else, or if some novel thing you encounter (a "black X") is actually a swan or something else. For if it's not a swan, it can't really falsify anything about swans, can it? Maybe that black X out there is duck and not a swan and should be falsifying things about ducks rather than swans.

All that's needed are principles of distinction. "What they are" is problematic, deeply problematic, in a way "does it have these observable features" is not. This scheme depends on discrimination, not exhaustive metaphysical ontologies. I may not know or care at all what a "swan" *is*, or even bother to use "swan". All I need to be able to do is apply a rule -- all things we recognize by these features have this particular other feature (being 'white', for example). That doesn't commit me at all to what that thing *is*. It just requires that I can identify discriminating features upon examination that satisfy the criteria I've set out.

If I find a "thing" that has all the required features F, but does NOT have color C, then I know, deductive, that the rule "all things with features F have color C" is false.

It's perfectly what that thing 'is' for my purposes in applying and testing that rule. We, as the investigators, determine what rules and definitions we want to apply and for what purpose. But no matter what the merits are of those definitions, falsification doesn't depend on the merits of those definitions, it obtains WITHIN the context of those terms.


So the question remains: How do you know enough about swans, ducks, dogs and everything else to get your falsification scheme up and running?

We have all wee need -- perceptual faculties that allow us to test features and characteristics we apply from the categories and definitions we develop conceptually. Falsification is just the identification of proposed rules. No ontological commitment per se is required, or relevant. All we need are terms and conditions for our rules that we can practically apply through our experiences.

-TS

George R. said...

SR writes:
Why isn't prime matter considered an example of the reification fallacy?

Prime matter, when properly considered, is understood to have no existence per se in reality. There are, however, some who are guilty of "reifying" it, describing it as some kind of energy or something. But the concept itself cannot be blamed for those who don't understand it.

rank sophist said...

How do we test that, falsify it, validate it, and build upon it?

How do you text, falsify, validate and build upon your falsificationist positivism? ("Bootstrapping" is circular, by the way.)

Touchstone said...

@rank sophist,


How do you text, falsify, validate and build upon your falsificationist positivism? ("Bootstrapping" is circular, by the way.)

I don't know why you are thinking about positivism, here. Falsification is not positivism. Positivism, on it's own terms, is viciously recursive. Saudi Arabia is hot in the summer, too, and is about as related.

Just as has been pointed out, multiple times now n previous comments, scientific epistemology is grounded in a metaphysical axiom which holds that sensory experience is sufficiently veridical for the intelligibility of the extra-mental world. That's manifestly not a product of scientific epistemology, nor is it a scientific justification for itself. One can look at the axiom and make judgments about its necessity, but there is no circularity.

I know you talking about positivism, but have no idea why that would even come up.

-TS

rank sophist said...

TS,

Let me just quote my post from the last thread.

I didn't realize that falsificationists had started pulling the positivist stunt of applying their methodology outside of science. Popper was smart enough to avoid that pitfall. If Touchstone is claiming that the only knowledge is falsifiable knowledge, then that clearly does not include the concepts behind falsificationism itself. How can you explain that falsificationism is better than, say, verificationism? You can't possibly say that it's because it's the "less false" system, because that is an appeal to circular logic. You can't say that it's because verificationism was "falsified", for the same reason.

You also can't say that it doesn't necessarily relate to reality, but that it's "proved itself to be efficient" (bootstrapping). First, it could only falsify its own efficiency, but even that is circular. Second, none of the information generated by falsificationism may relate to reality. It's a thoroughgoing skepticism that denies truth in favor of pragmatism. Unfortunately, the statement "falsificationism is true" must be made before the system can be used as an objective measure of anything. ("Falsificationism is useful" is either a circular statement or one based on pragmatism, which is also circular.) That statement is beyond the scope of falsificationism. Therefore, a universal application of falsificationism is self-refuting. There's a reason Popper didn't do it.

Touchstone said...

@rank sophist,

I don't see how this attaches to positivism either. What's the connection?

-TS

Chris said...

To my lights, Eric Voeglin got the Gnosticism of Antiquity all wrong.
The charge is always the dualism of flesh and spirit. It seems to me that non-dual "spiritual progressives" make the same charge against classical theists (Creator/creation.) I'm not sure how one can connect the likes of a Valentinus with the scientific materialism of modernity.

SR said...

@George R,

SR writes:
Why isn't prime matter considered an example of the reification fallacy?

[George R:]Prime matter, when properly considered, is understood to have no existence per se in reality. There are, however, some who are guilty of "reifying" it, describing it as some kind of energy or something. But the concept itself cannot be blamed for those who don't understand it.


If it is just a concept, having no existence per se, then why doesn't the whole Aristotelian "explanation" for change reduce to a molierism: "things can change because they have a potential to change"?

Also, even assuming one has understood it (which, apparently, I don't), what makes the Aristotelian proposal (that is, assigning 'actuality' to form, and 'potentiality' to prime matter) a better hypothesis than the alternative I gave (assigning potentiality to form, and actuality to "that which makes actual", which with further work can be identified as God), since the latter is ontologically simpler?

George R. said...

SR:
If it is just a concept, having no existence per se, then why doesn't the whole Aristotelian "explanation" for change reduce to a molierism: "things can change because they have a potential to change"?

It does.

The question, then, is why do things have the potential to change. It can't be because of the form, because form qua form can't change, for it has no substrate that remains when the form itself is replaced by a different form. In order to have change something must stay the same, while something else must not stay the same.


...a better hypothesis than the alternative I gave (assigning potentiality to form, and actuality to "that which makes actual", which with further work can be identified as God), since the latter is ontologically simpler?

Okay, form in a certain sense is in potency to existence in reality. The problem is that it can not be said to be in potency to anything else, such as motion and change. So you still need to posit another principle (matter) to explain motion. Moreover, it must be understood that natural forms per se no more exist in reality than prime matter. Only the composite of form and matter exists in reality.

SR said...

@George R,

[SR:]..a better hypothesis than the alternative I gave (assigning potentiality to form, and actuality to "that which makes actual", which with further work can be identified as God), since the latter is ontologically simpler?

[GR:]Okay, form in a certain sense is in potency to existence in reality. The problem is that it can not be said to be in potency to anything else, such as motion and change. So you still need to posit another principle (matter) to explain motion. Moreover, it must be understood that natural forms per se no more exist in reality than prime matter. Only the composite of form and matter exists in reality.


This doesn't answer my question (about which is the better hypothesis). Yes one needs to posit another principle, but why posit something called 'matter', when that additional need is provided by simply positing "that which actualizes", which on further analysis, is understood to be God? By analogy (if it is an analogy, and not the same thing on a vastly different scale) for our thought-forms to move and change there is an additional principle involved called thinking.

Glenn said...

BI writes,

When we take the image in as a whole, the 2 squares in question seem to be the same shade. But if we cut out the square, or "reduce" the image by removing the shadow that confuses us, we realize the two squares are the same shade.

This is the power of reductionism.

It would be a mistake, however, to then declare that there is no illusion. The illusion is real.

And so with the folk-concept of the self. When we reduce the brain we learn there just ain't no such thing as the naive notion of a self. It is an illusion.


It sounds like BI is saying:

a) Reductionism can enable one to better analogize;

b) the true state or nature of reality, as it really and truly is, can be approached via analogy; and,

c) since "there ain't no such thing as the naive notion of a self", it must be something other than that naive notion of self which in some way is implicated, as is a cause in an effect, in the 'movement' of one and all (i.e., those who are deluded with said belief, as well as those who are not), for surely it is not the case that one and all are static, stagnant and/or mired in a kind of catatonic state like a mosquito in amber.

One wonders, however, whether BI is cognizant of the fact that countless folks over the past several millennia have--via meditation, philosophy and/or revelation (to name but a few of the 'methods' that have been used)--arrived at the notion that "there just ain't no such thing as the naive notion of a self".

If he is, then he is deluded if he thinks that reductionism, or any of various modern-day '–ists' who embrace reductionism, ought to be credited with having first discovered, uncovered, or arrived at what he takes to be, and perhaps rightly so, a profound truth.

Whether he is so cognizant or not, the best that could be said for reductionism and the various modern-day –ists in this regard is that it / they have managed to succeed in confirming what has long been known.

(But here TouchStone no doubt will be tempted to chime in and say, "No, Glenn, that is not correct. I have already gone on at length as to what counts as 'knowledge'. And the best that can be said for the countless folks you mention is, not that they have known it to be the case, but they have believed it to be the case (indeed, have subjectively believed it to be the case). But because this truth (this profound truth as you suggest it might be labeled) has emerged from the performative models I've also gone on at length about, it is only now--now!--that we can refer to it as knowledge. In other words, once upon a time, it was just another na├»ve folk belief. But it is science—science, I say!--which is responsible for its induction into the pantheon of legitimate knowledge.")

rank sophist said...

TS,

From Wikipedia: "Positivism is a philosophy of science based on the view that in the social as well as natural sciences, data derived from sensory experience, and logical and mathematical treatments of such data, are together the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge. Obtaining and verifying data that can be received from the senses is known as empirical evidence."

Replace the word "verifying" with "falsifying" and we have your position.

George R. said...

Yes, SR, God does actualize pure forms without matter; they're called angels. But the difference between an angel and, say, a rock has nothing to do with God actualizing one and not the other, but with the (rather obvious) fact that one is material, and the other isn't.

That matter is a principle of natural things is self-evidently true, and any thesis denying it is doomed to fail.

SR said...

@George R,

Yes, SR, God does actualize pure forms without matter; they're called angels. But the difference between an angel and, say, a rock has nothing to do with God actualizing one and not the other, but with the (rather obvious) fact that one is material, and the other isn't.

That matter is a principle of natural things is self-evidently true, and any thesis denying it is doomed to fail.


If by "matter" you mean, say, "having certain subforms (electrons, quarks, etc.)" then sure, there is a difference between rocks, which have these subforms, while angels, presumably, do not, nor do our thoughts. But I am inquiring about the existence of prime matter, which earlier you said can be inferred from the reality of change. That which must be inferred is hardly self-evident. I then pointed out that the concept "that which actualizes" also does the job, and hence that inference is questionable.

David T said...

All that's needed are principles of distinction. "What they are" is problematic, deeply problematic, in a way "does it have these observable features" is not. This scheme depends on discrimination, not exhaustive metaphysical ontologies. I may not know or care at all what a "swan" *is*, or even bother to use "swan". All I need to be able to do is apply a rule -- all things we recognize by these features have this particular other feature (being 'white', for example)

You write "all that's needed are principles of distinction" as though it's a trivial task to get them. But the fundamental debate between your falsificationism and A-T philosophy is how you get those principles of distinction. We A-T types think you have no real way to get them without sneaking A-T principles by the back door (and perhaps without knowing it).

"All I need to be able to do is apply a rule". No, you need more than this: You need a way to get the rule in the first place. This is where your philosophy falls down, because you don't really have a way to get it. A swan, for example, has many features: Size, color, number of legs, a bill, power of flight, mode of reproduction, feathers, etc. just to name a few. Some of these features are necessary in distinguishing swans from other types of creatures (e.g. mode of reproduction) and others are not (e.g. color). This difference in features is just the Aristotelian distinction between essential and accidental properties.

The problem for your philosophy is how you get your rule for distinguishing swans from everything else, which means (among other things) picking out those features that are essential to being a swan vs. those that are not. This will be a difficult (well, impossible) task for a falsificationist philosophy. So what you end up doing is simply assuming the Aristotelian principles you claim to deny: "All I need to be able to do is apply a rule -- all things we recognize by these features...". The only way you can get this rule is through Aristotelian principles like form, essence and accident.

If that sounds like merely an assertion, you can prove me wrong by showing exactly how you arrive at a rule for distinguishing swans from other things, without implicitly invoking principles like form, essence and accident.

Touchstone said...

@rank sophist,

"verifying" and "falsifying" aren't interchangeable concepts, though. The difference is profound: verififying depends on induction, and falsification rests on deduction. And you've made quite clear the problems that obtain from deductive reasoning (and which do not obtain from deduction).

-TS

Eduardo said...

the chekered board illusion was really fun. THe check changing color is really awesome. But of course if you reduce/remove the shadow you have created a whole new phenomena, it seems that BI's idea only work with some for of esentialism, otherwise I could just say it changed color, and it was not a illusion. I think the conversation of swans is also related in this case.

Anonymous said...

Eduardo,

THe check changing color is really awesome. But of course if you reduce/remove the shadow you have created a whole new phenomena, it seems that BI's idea only work with some for of esentialism, otherwise I could just say it changed color, and it was not a illusion.

I think the examples just back up Ed's point about reification, really. What's illusory is the reduction, in this case of the self. We think we've reduced the self by reducing to the brain, and the brain to particles, etc. But we haven't. We've made an abstraction, even a useful one, but we've just ignored and put aside the very data that largely fascinated us to begin with.

Eduardo said...

I think the problem always sticks around some sort of correlation. Is like color and frequency. They are obviously two different things, but after you find the correlation, you will inevitably say that: Colors are frequencies, or frequencies are colors.

Science give us this awesome correlations, but the models that we use to explain/describe/predict about these experiments or artifacts are always subject to our philosophical likings. "We" prefer to believe that we are constantly knowing more about stuff in a much simpler way, so we tend to simplify things, then reify them in this simplistic form. The perfect example is our 2D way to think about battlefields even though the 3D is the real thing; with time the 2D battlefield, BECOMES the battlefield, and the only way to understand and know the battlefield is through 2D models

reighley said...

@Eduardo,
"the map is not the territory" is the aphorism I think you are looking for. Even so, just because they are not the same and one is a representation of the other, the map is a real thing too. How do you know that you, and your world are the territory, and not the map.

Couldn't I just as easily flip the entire analogy on its head and say that, in fact, the world is made of objects which are more like numbers than not and the world of matter and motion and mind which we experience so vividly is in the main a simplification and symbolic expression of it. Rather than the other way around.

Of course I do not mean to say that our models are true and correct. Yet how am I to say which features described by the model are features of "the real world" (which, frankly, I have only imperfect access to) and which features are artifacts of the model?

Anonymous said...

Yet how am I to say which features described by the model are features of "the real world" (which, frankly, I have only imperfect access to) and which features are artifacts of the model?

Simple. You do philosophy and metaphysics, keeping yourself aware of A) what your starting points are, B) what the limits, current and in principal, of the method and investigation is, and C) not pretending that you're suddenly doing science just because you like your given model or dislike another.

Eduardo said...

Of course you can flip it around, and say that all there is are entities that we call mathematical equations and they relate to each other in a number of ways, producing new equations and so on and so on. I think the problem of knowing what is "out there", is one that is somehow answered in the very beginning of a person's philosophical enquiry.

Well Reighley I hardly think we have any choice but appeal to concepts like natural knowledge, instinct, you know knowledge that is out there and is accessible by us. You see when you create an epistemological theory, you already HAD knowledge, so... the theory is never really going to be the most primitive theory, and if you pretend it is well, we know how to refute those claim.

So sincerely, I don't know, I can't give you all that certainty which I desire, but definitely we know something, so is like some form of fucked mystery, where the problem begins in our own principles about epistemology.

Did that made any sense?

David T said...

Eduardo,

Have you read G.K. Chesterton's book on St. Thomas? He's got a great passage that speaks to the point you are making:

Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of the endless process of Becoming; the Berkelian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order to adequately addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.

Touchstone said...

@David T,


You write "all that's needed are principles of distinction" as though it's a trivial task to get them. But the fundamental debate between your falsificationism and A-T philosophy is how you get those principles of distinction. We A-T types think you have no real way to get them without sneaking A-T principles by the back door (and perhaps without knowing it).

I don't suppose it's a trivial task. It's just a different task. Falsification is not ontology. That doesn't make ontology trivial, but rather something other than deducing that a rule is false based on observed violations of the rule.


"All I need to be able to do is apply a rule". No, you need more than this: You need a way to get the rule in the first place. This is where your philosophy falls down, because you don't really have a way to get it. A swan, for example, has many features: Size, color, number of legs, a bill, power of flight, mode of reproduction, feathers, etc. just to name a few. Some of these features are necessary in distinguishing swans from other types of creatures (e.g. mode of reproduction) and others are not (e.g. color). This difference in features is just the Aristotelian distinction between essential and accidental properties.

Rules and tools serve us, not the other way around. We deploy terms in such a way that they mean what we want them to mean, by convention and agreement. Biology has no "species" as an organic fact of demarcation. We group different animals in different buckets and labels because it's useful. And that's all it takes -- utility. If my rule has no need for addressing "color" as a feature of a swan, a rule based on that abstraction would not be falsifiable on the basis of color, because the rule made no claims or requirements based on color. What, you say you don't like my abstraction? Who cares, it's my rules, deployed for my own purposes. Utility is where it is realized, and if I'm concerning myself with rules based on skeletal morphology as the distinguish feature of interest, I've got perfectly no concern about color, or what Aristotle or his acolytes think about color being "essential to swan-ness".


The problem for your philosophy is how you get your rule for distinguishing swans from everything else, which means (among other things) picking out those features that are essential to being a swan vs. those that are not.

Essential for *what*? If I'm looking at genetic drift as the basis of some rule I'm postulating about the speciation of swans, and that's my basis for my analysis and my rule, than the frequency of certain genes in various might-be-swan populations becomes the discriminating factor. That is what is essential for the hypothesis I'm trying to develop into knowledge. And if I find experimental results coming in that show that my rule cannot possibly obtain, based on the genetic population factors observed, it's falsified, and I can dismiss that hypothesis forthwith as non-knowledge.

-TS

(con't)

Touchstone said...

@David T,

This will be a difficult (well, impossible) task for a falsificationist philosophy. So what you end up doing is simply assuming the Aristotelian principles you claim to deny: "All I need to be able to do is apply a rule -- all things we recognize by these features...". The only way you can get this rule is through Aristotelian principles like form, essence and accident.
Heh. Well, all I can say is that in all my experience and reading about science and knowledge building, those concepts never come up, and never matter for the models built. It's all per accidens, I guess one would say if the goal was to frame it in Aristotelian terms. If you look over the shoulders of those who engage this stuff for a living, you won't find essence and form as part of the nomenclature, even by other names. An apple, per this epistemology, has no "apple-ness" other than the composite configuration of atoms that correspond to patterns we associate with the label "apple" and the concept it refers to. The apple, the extra-mental thing, that's part of the territory, not part of our "map" in our minds, is aggregated matter configured as it is by chance and law in the location that it happens to be.


If that sounds like merely an assertion, you can prove me wrong by showing exactly how you arrive at a rule for distinguishing swans from other things, without implicitly invoking principles like form, essence and accident.

I have no need or use for the concepts of 'essence' or 'form'. They simply add nothing to my knowledge. The rules I would arrive at, and the whole of science, obtain in mechanics per accidens. I don't even need to think about "per accidens", because that's implicit in the enterprise, it's all per accidens. In science, the only interface to essence is at the perimeter of our knowledge; fundamental particles are so-called because they cannot be further reduced. We have no idea what, if anything "makes them what they are", else they would not be classified as "fundamental". They are brute facts of nature, as best we can determine. But everything else is made up of these fundamental particles, and thus nature, at all levels of description above the brute fact level, is anti-essentialist. "Essence" is a concept describing what is NOT known, knowable, or needed, based on our models.

-TS

reighley said...

@Anonymous and @Eduardo,

I suppose it would have been more honest and more direct if, rather than phrasing the whole thing as I rhetorical question I had just said :

The world as I see it, and myself in the world, is evidently also an approximation to the truth. So the map vs. territory analogy misses the mark completely. One is only ever confronted with two maps. We will never see the territory.

Eduardo said...

@ Reighley

Ahhh someone is a philosophical skeptic, which holds that we can never attain TRUE knowledge, about the territory is this case.

But really You are in all effects, I think, correct. We are not saying we know the territory in all it's dimensions, but we definitely know something of the territory; I wouldn't call it a map too, although I see why you did call it so.

--------------------------------------------

@ David T

David I am as literate in philosophy as Potty... which means: No I haven't read Cheterston just heard some phrases and his name many times.

Now that is a very good quotation, and I was able to understand your critique of Touch the first time. I mean, if it is not part of the structure of reality, then why say it is an egg, say that it is a rock with odd characteristics or as TS is doing right now, call everything as a brute fact and pray for the best XD!

Now, needless to say is always good to argue for decisions when we are on forks on the road, but the idea of natural knowledge seems to be after Feser hammer it on the blog, something that must be or we know absolutely nothing, oh well maybe Idealism is true in the end.

Anonymous said...

If you look over the shoulders of those who engage this stuff for a living, you won't find essence and form as part of the nomenclature, even by other names.

No, but you'll find ideas that borrow from an A-T understanding of the world, even subconsciously. Really, part of David T's point is that you yourself are doing essentially that, if without realizing it.

I mean, if you want to really split hairs, next to no scientists are discussing science or framing it the way you do either. Yours is a really idiosyncratic vision. You just are suggesting that this is what scientists "really mean" by their models and practice.

They are brute facts of nature, as best we can determine. But everything else is made up of these fundamental particles, and thus nature, at all levels of description above the brute fact level, is anti-essentialist.

Nah, it's not. Though it's interesting that you admit that at a particular fundamental level, nature is essentialist.

This is kind of funny to watch. :)

reighley said...

It seems to me that the idea of from is frequently invoked, often explicitly, by the sciences. They do not usually call it that but then scientific jargon and Aristotelian jargon are pretty far apart. They also use the mathematical notion of a "form" without, so far as I know, usually calling it that.

It is not at all uncommon that the behavior of a system cannot be easily analysed by reference to the behavior of the parts of which it is made but can be understood in terms of it's shape and in particular to the group of symmetry transformations under which it's behavior would be the same.

Thus for instance many of the most familiar properties of matter arise from the fact that electrons are all strictly identical. Being "identical" is not a material cause, it does not matter what electrons by themselves are like. What matters is that when two electrons come together nobody can tell them apart. That's a formal cause, regarding the relation of a pair of electrons one to the other.

I don't really understand this frequently repeated trope about science not being concerned with formal and final causes. I think it possible that people are simply repeating what Francis Bacon said without thinking. I see all four kinds of cause in the equations of physics.

Of course, I have only a dim idea of the precise definitions of each of the four causes so my own ignorance may once again be the culprit.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

"immanentizing the eschaton" is more of a religious fault. Many thinkers in the Enlightenment were also influenced by the Kabbala. Christian texts can lend themselves to "immanentizing the eschaton". It is not a problem of philosophy whatsoever. Much of Western philosophy is embeded with Christianity and the Hermetic literature and kabbala. Philosophy does not have an "eschaton" per se. If I remember Plato's ideal was in the past, not a future world to come by the hand of a god!

Plato was interested in the Golden Race in the past.

The "eschaton" is specifically tied to Judaism and Christ's prophecies. You can't "immanentize the eschaton" without knowledge of Jewish and Christian texts.

Sliding "immanentizing the eschaton" as a purely philosophical problem is misguided and erroneous. "Immanentizing the eschaton" is religious--not philosophical whatsoever.

David T said...

Rules and tools serve us, not the other way around. We deploy terms in such a way that they mean what we want them to mean, by convention and agreement. Biology has no "species" as an organic fact of demarcation. We group different animals in different buckets and labels because it's useful. And that's all it takes -- utility.

We've finally gotten to where we would inevitably end up, which is nominalism. And that's the real consequence we face when we give up an Aristotelian understanding of nature. There's nothing modern or scientific about nominalism; the basic debate between Socrates and the sophists concerned the use of language. The sophists sold their teaching on the basis of utility: The arts of persuasion they taught made their students wealthy and powerful. Socrates insisted that the highest value of language is truth rather than utility. I side with Socrates: I prefer to know the truth even if it isn't useful.

This isn't the place to rehash the philosophical problems with nominalism, but I wonder if you have run your nominalist understanding of science past any real scientists. I doubt the biologist at your local university would be happy if you announced to him that biological species don't refer to any actual organic fact, or that the point of his science isn't that it is true but only that it is useful.

But that's finally beside the point, as each of us must decide for himself his basic philosophical commitments. For me, I am convinced that my understanding of the difference between dogs and cats reflects a real distinction in nature, not one that is merely a matter of human convention. So much the worse for any philosophy that insists otherwise, for it insists that I don't know what I plainly do.

When anti-Aristotelians talk about getting rid of useless concepts like form, essence and accident, it is important to understand what they really mean: They mean a lot more than just getting rid of obscure Scholastic distinctions between different types of angels; they mean getting rid of manifest distinctions between swans and ducks, and dogs and cats. It sometimes takes a long time before that meaning is smoked out (I wish they would just say it up front), but it will come out eventually. It must if they are to stay consistent in their rejection of form.

There isn't really anything more to say on this thread, so I'll leave it at that.

rank sophist said...

"verifying" and "falsifying" aren't interchangeable concepts, though. The difference is profound: verififying depends on induction, and falsification rests on deduction. And you've made quite clear the problems that obtain from deductive reasoning (and which do not obtain from deduction).

Again, you can't deduce the truth of falsificationism. Falsificationism can only be falsified: never shown to be efficient. This means that, from the start, your system has no method for determining its own accuracy.

grodrigues said...

@rank sophist:

"Falsificationism can only be falsified: never shown to be efficient."

What do you mean by saying that "Falsificationism can [only] be falsified"?

Anonymous said...

Touchstone you are starting to sound like a broken record with this repetitive pragmatism-meets-falsificationism dogma.

It's been illustrated to you that your system is inept to deal with reality. If you want to deal withmodels and operationalize this and that then go ahead. Many of us see reality as a lot more than that!

In regards to your comments about emergence I think they are both inaccurate and misleading. First of to speak of emergence is to merely reference something that hardly has much to provide for a trully bottom-up ontology. If it's bottom up then reductionism holds. Emergence is in fact irreducible, much like a formal cause. Emergence as O'Connor explains has latent dispositions in microphysical entities directed at certain specific effects, which is precisely the role one would expect from a formal cause, which is intimately tied with teleology (disposition) in classical philosophy. In addition in as much as something is irreducible or holistic as in the case of emergence its ontology must be accounted for. So it either existed in reality as a potentiality or it somehoe magically came into existence (superstition). The former choice is classical philosophy, the latter is naturalism/materialism. So I don't see why you think in any way emergence would help your reductionistic appetite.

Rank Sophist was right about holism and the consequences of what happens if accepted.

Anonymous said...

--“I may not know or care at all what a "swan" *is*, or even bother to use "swan". All I need to be able to do is apply a rule -- all things we recognize by these features have this particular other feature (being 'white', for example).”

This is precisely the problem of the thinking. You have nothing to say about nature/or reality. All you have is arbitrary rules, sense data and more arbitrary rules. You’re not interested in the truth but rather in operating within a very limited and artificial “garden”. Some of us like to take walks outside the garden. There is a world outside the garden and once you abandon your fears (instigated by the false pretentions of the modernists such as hume et al.) you will see just how much fun it is. Once you do, you will also be able to understand the garden better and even see things in the garden that you were unable to before.

Look, we’ve all heard it before many times and we are not impressed. Empiricism is limited and in no way a theory of meaning. Whether you dogmatically state verification of falsification matters not. It’s inept. Unless you have something else, something more interesting to offer than the usual run of the mill stuff, please stop degenerating the threads into this repetitive fiasco.

Anonymous said...

--“It's all per accidens, I guess one would say if the goal was to frame it in Aristotelian terms. If you look over the shoulders of those who engage this stuff for a living, you won't find essence and form as part of the nomenclature, even by other names. An apple, per this epistemology, has no "apple-ness" other than the composite configuration of atoms that correspond to patterns we associate with the label "apple" and the concept it refers to. The apple, the extra-mental thing, that's part of the territory, not part of our "map" in our minds, is aggregated matter configured as it is by chance and law in the location that it happens to be.”

First of all ‘form’ is all over the place in science. It’s just not used explicitly. Second you are now preaching nominalism and then arguing for the “territory” being merely matter configures accidentally by chance. But that is an ontological statement and a reductionist/materialist one at that. So you are well out of your little “garden” now and are making metaphysical statement about what the real apple (territory as you call it) is. Your nominalism feeds your materialism and vice versa. All the while you use forms to make reality intelligible for yourself without realizing it.


--“it's all per accidens”

That’s an ontological statement. Prove it!

--“I have no need or use for the concepts of 'essence' or 'form'. They simply add nothing to my knowledge.”
Oh yes you have and it adds a lot to it. But keep denying it, this is actually starting to get rather comical.

--“"Essence" is a concept describing what is NOT known, knowable, or needed, based on our models.”

This is just an argument from ignorance. It’s exactly the opposite.

Anonymous said...

On topic:

I think this is a very interesting article and one that comes to me as somethign very relevant. I've been reading a lot about cosmology and specifically about all the exotic models available. Many of the terms used and the descriptions made seem to be committing this reification fallacy. It appears that scientists forget that their models are mere abstractions and instead treat the as real entities.

After reading about it, I realized that a lot of the talk was confused even in the mind of the scientist as they were talking about the law itself as creating the universe... I think it was something along th elines of the universe exist because quantum gravity is bound to create it.

Really weird stuff/vergiage. Anyone with a physics background want to provide some input in the latest models available specifically quantum gravity and such?

Johnny Boy said...

Some atheists say that the Kalam is undermined by what math, through set theory, is able to show --that infinity does exist.

My question is: Is this another example of them committing the reification fallacy? Or is math unable to even show, or at least make plausible, through set theory, that infinity can exist, making the claim not a fallacy but just idiocy on their part?

Eduardo said...

something tells me that Grodrigues should answer that one.

Where could he be at a time like this XD.

-----------------------------------------------

I suspect the kalam has more power than just showing that there can't be an infinite regress. It also plays with the dynamics of our universe and other stuff, so is hard to imagine how you undermine the argument by attacking just one of it's defenses.

Anonymous said...

That objection fails. Mathematical infinity is one thing, actual infinity is another. It's impossible to have an actual number of infinite things. Expressing infinity mathematically doesn't change that.

Eduardo said...

My worry is, what exactly set theory says about .... sets.

grodrigues said...

@rank sophist:

"Falsificationism can only be falsified: never shown to be efficient."

What do you mean by "Falsificationism can [only] be falsified"?

grodrigues said...

@Johnny Boy:

"Some atheists say that the Kalam is undermined by what math, through set theory, is able to show --that infinity does exist."

This is the usual go-to defense of the atheist against Kalam: invoke Cantor's transfinite set theory as if mere logical possibility implied metaphysical possibility. Given the paradoxical nature of positing an actual infinity (Hilbert Hotel simulations, reversed Tristram Shandy, etc.) I think if someone wants to go this route they should at least offer some kind of plausibility argument. Until this day I have not seen a single one.

So as you say, absent such an argument, it is just the reification fallacy again. But here is where things get funny, funny as in delightfully, ironically funny. The existence of an actual infinite w is an axiom of ZF and it plainly must be, because no logical principle, at least no uncontroversial one that does not smuggle in the very existence of w by the back door, allows you to jump from the finite to the infinite. But it just so happens that finitists *deny* the cogency of this axiom. And not just finitists, but formalists, intuitionists, etc. of varied persuasions would deny the *extra-mental* reality of w. But if we are going to appeal to Cantor's set theory, if w has no extra-mental reality but is just a being of reason, it is clear that such an appeal will not help the would-be defeater of the Kalam. So he has to produce a philosophical argument strong enough to defeat finitists, formalists, intuitionists, etc. Good luck with that. The final irony being that finitists, formalists, intuitionists, etc. are usually philosophical nominalists, so any such argument would play right into the hands of realists -- Platonists, moderate realists of the Aristotelian sort, etc. which tends to be the camp of theists. So if anyone out there really wants to take this route, by all means do, because it is a heads I win tails you loose situation.

Glenn said...

Anonymous @ 10:20 PM writes,

I've been reading a lot about cosmology and specifically about all the exotic models available. Many of the terms used and the descriptions made seem to be committing this reification fallacy. It appears that scientists forget that their models are mere abstractions and instead treat the[m] as real entities. After reading about it, I realized that a lot of the talk was confused even in the mind of the scientist[s] as they were talking about the law itself as creating the universe...

This response is a mere footnote.

Outline Of Response

1. Preliminary To The Footnote
2. Footnote Setup
3. Footnote Proper
4. Footnote To The Footnote

1. Preliminary To The Footnote

In Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals (1991), Robert M. Pirsig had something humorous to say about the "scientific reality" platypus. Before getting to this a little set up is required, and I encourage excitable readers to first place their knees in a straitjacket, so as to be restrained from proclaiming, "Scientific reality is not a platypus. A platypus is an aquatic mammal. You can't platypize scientific reality without knowledge of Jewish and Christian texts."

2. Footnote Set Up

Early zoologists classified as mammals those that suckle their young and as reptiles those that lay eggs. Then a duck-billed platypus was discovered in Australia laying eggs like a perfect reptile and then, when they hatched, suckling the infant platypi like a perfect mammal.

The discovery created quite a sensation. What an enigma! it was exclaimed. What a mystery! What a marvel of nature! When the first stuffed specimens reached England from Australia around the end of the eighteenth century they were thought to be fakes made by sticking together bits of different animals. Even today you still see occasional articles in nature magazines asking, "Why does this paradox of nature exist?"

The answer is: it doesn't. The platypus isn't doing anything paradoxical at all. It isn't have any problems. Platypi have been laying eggs and suckling their young for millions of years before there were any zoologists to come along and declare it illegal. The real mystery, the real enigma, is how mature, objective, trained scientific observers can blame their own goof on a poor innocent platypus.

Zoologists, to cover up their problem, had to invent a patch. They created a new order, monotremata, that includes the platypus, the spiny anteater, and that's it. This is like a nation consisting of two people.

In a subject-object classification of the world, [there are a number of things which are] in the same situation as that platypus. [In fact, w]here it is centered around the subject-object metaphysics, Western philosophy can almost be defined as "platypus anatomy".


(cont)

Glenn said...

3. Footnote Proper -- The (Humorous) "Scientific Reality" Platypus

This is a very large monster that has been disturbing a lot of people for a long time. It was identified a century ago by the mathematician and astronomer, Henri Poincare who asked, "Why is the reality most acceptable to science one that no small child can be expected to understand?"

Should reality be something that only a handful of the world's most advanced physicists understand? One would expect at least a majority of people to understand it. Should reality be expressible only in symbols that require university-level mathematics to manipulate? Should it be something that changes from year to year as new scientific theories are formulated? Should it be something about which different schools of physics can quarrel for years with no firm resolution on either side? If this is so then how is it fair to imprison a person in a mental hospital for life with no trial and no jury and no parole for "failing to understand reality"? By this criterion shouldn't all but a handful of the world's most advanced physicists be locked up for life? Who is crazy here and who is sane?


4. Footnote to the Footnote

I'm glad he asked.

David T quotes from G. K. Chesterton,

...the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs [even if they happen to have been laid by a platypus]. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of the endless process of Becoming; the Berkelian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order to adequately addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.

Glenn said...

...Western philosophy can almost be defined as "platypus anatomy".

This is not anywhere near as disparaging at it might at first seem. Given the larger context of what Pirsig wrote (from which it is clear that he was looking for solutions to what he saw as problems, and not seeking to dismantle, overturn, subvert or destroy anything), it is difficult to disagree with his assertion in the sense that it was meant.

While most anything in the beginning seems pure and simple in its general formulation, as time goes on particulars are noted and/or added, which then lead to contradictions and conflicts which call for resolution. And as the resolutions are made, ripple effects not infrequently occur leading to additional contradictions and conflicts, which in turn also require resolution. And as these resolutions are made... so on and so on. This is not endemic to metaphysics, philosophy, science or theology; it happens all over the place--with burgeoning technologies, the 'growing' of businesses, the development of computer programs, etc., etc. It's the nature of the beast, is all.

Anonymous said...

Disclaimer: I have no formal training in philosophy, and I’m just a lurker looking for some insight.

I know this post is about the reification fallacy, but some recent comments about cosmological arguments brought a question to my mind. Couldn’t an atheist deny cosmological arguments for the existence of God by claiming that we simply do not know the actual cause of the universe yet, and thus to conclude that God is the cause of the universe is to commit the God-of the-Gaps fallacy?

Johnny Boy said...

Thanks for that grodrigues! That was an awesome response!

rank sophist said...

Anon at 10:24 AM,

The cosmological argument is not a prediction of the universe's creator, but rather a statement about the metaphysical necessity of an "end point" to the regress of causes. Even if, somehow, we were to discover the truth of the multiverse or somesuch, we would still be forced to ask, "Well, what caused that?" There are certain attributes that an end point must have in order to be an end point--and they inevitably lead us to God.

In the case of Craig's kalam argument, he does indeed argue from the Big Bang backward. However, he attacks competing theories (such as the multiverse) in favor of the simpler explanation, per Ockham's razor. He also invokes the metaphysical side of the cosmological argument discussed above. So, no: cosmological arguments are not "God-of-the-gaps" arguments.

Anonymous said...

thanks rank

Anonymous said...

@rank sophist

Having realized the necessity for God the atheists have now conjured a new myth. In a recent discussion with an atheist I came across the following argument (paraphrasing)...

"OK! It's now most likely that the universe had a beginning (given Vilenkin's recent refutation of models that try to avoid the beginning). Since we need a cause for the universe (already conceeding the 2 first premises of the Kalam) we should not look to anything beyond nature but use something from nature... Well you see sean carroll, stephen hawkings and lawrence krauss have this new idea that the universe was created because of quantum gravity (a theory we don't even have nor something that is testable). So according to these guys there exist a 4 dimensional space (the elemant of time is turned into a spatial dimension using what is known as a wick rotation or something along those lines) or a so-called atemporal boundary condition (whatever that's supposed to mean). So we have an atemporal pre-universe (space/field/physical stuff/whatever you want to call it) + quantum gravity and thus the universe is created and therefore naturalism and no God. He called quantum gravity a transcendent, all-powerful, timeless cause that was impersonal and would be a better choice because it was derived from physical theory (whatever that's supposed to mean) and God was ancient heresay...


Pretty incredible what they can come up with isn't it?

rank sophist said...

Very.

Eduardo said...

I live these New A-Theists types that are showing up. They make ma day!

Mr. Green said...

Reighley: I don't really understand this frequently repeated trope about science not being concerned with formal and final causes. I think it possible that people are simply repeating what Francis Bacon said without thinking. I see all four kinds of cause in the equations of physics.

By the way, I think this is exactly right: it is the modern philosophical lens through which science is typically viewed that dispenses with formal and final causes — and that's why it has problems, such as quantum mechanics seeming all "weird" and "spooky". Physics itself, apart from such philosophical interpretations, is entirely able to deal with QM because form and finality are (implicitly) incorporated at every turn.

Mr. Green said...

GRodrigues: Given the paradoxical nature of positing an actual infinity (Hilbert Hotel simulations, reversed Tristram Shandy, etc.) I think if someone wants to go this route they should at least offer some kind of plausibility argument.

I don't have a problem with Hilbert's Hotel, at least if we take it for granted that the hotel already somehow exists. Infinite casual chains can be problematic, though (as in the Tristram Shandy cases), although even there some kinds of infinite causality are acceptable (such as the per accidens sequences that Aquinas allows for the sake of argument). Of course, such chains only are possible because God is behind them anyway, so we're back to your "heads I win tails you loose situation".

Mr. Green said...

Anonymous: Couldn’t an atheist deny cosmological arguments for the existence of God by claiming that we simply do not know the actual cause of the universe yet, and thus to conclude that God is the cause of the universe is to commit the God-of the-Gaps fallacy?

He could — enough have — but that would be to miss the point of arguments like Aquinas's. One might think of it like this: Aquinas starts out agreeing we do not know what the ultimate cause is, so just call it "X". Then he proceeds to deduce various attributes we can know about this X. Eventually he reaches a point where we can say, hey, this "X" turns out to be just what we mean by "God"! At that point you can back and erase all the X's and write in "God", but that's a convenience. If you left in the (hypothetical) X's. the arguments aren't affected, because he's not arguing from "gaps" in the first place.