Saturday, June 29, 2013

Extraordinarily ordinary


There are no such things as tables, only “particles arranged tablewise.”  Or so say certain contemporary metaphysicians, who in the name of science deny the existence of the ordinary objects of our experience.  In her book Ordinary Objects, philosopher Amie Thomasson rebuts such arguments.  (Her work is part of a recent salutary trend, which includes Crawford Elder’s Familiar Objects and their Shadows and Kathrin Koslicki’s The Structure of Objects.)  Thomasson is interviewed over at 3:AM Magazine.
 
A couple of passages from the interview deserve special comment.  Thomasson says:

[T]he arguments for the existence of ordinary objects (and many other things) are very easy. The hard part is defending that ‘easy’ methodology… and showing where the eliminativists’ arguments go wrong…

These include arguments that ordinary objects would be causally redundant, would violate metaphysical principles against co-location (for example), or would run into trouble with Sorites arguments (given the vagueness of the concepts involved). They also include arguments that accepting such objects would run afoul of the demand for parsimony, the need to accept a scientific ontology, or the demand to find a clear and consistent answer to the special composition question.

End quote.  This is an extremely important point that applies to areas far beyond the one Thomasson is addressing -- to ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophical anthropology, you name it.  The arguments for common sense views in all these areas -- for the existence of God and for traditional sexual morality, for example -- are in themselves not all that difficult to see.  (I hasten to add that as far as I know Thomasson herself would not necessarily agree with me about those two particular examples.)  What is difficult is clearing away all the dust that has been kicked up by several centuries of bad metaphysics and epistemology (rationalist, empiricist, Kantian, etc.), which keeps people from understanding the arguments and seeing their power. 

Though in some respects Thomasson’s views are the sort any Aristotelian or Thomist would find congenial, in other ways her approach seems too beholden to the modern, post-Cartesian assumptions we philosophically reactionary types think need to be overcome.  She says:

I think of metaphysics as capable of doing conceptual work (and generally undertaking this in the object language): work in determining the relations among our concepts, what follows from them, detecting problems or inconsistencies, and perhaps also (as Carnap would have had it) in conceptual engineering—building new conceptual systems as needed to serve different purposes. But I don’t think of metaphysics as properly engaged in quasi-scientific work of discovering what ‘really’ exists or what the ‘real’ natures of things are.

The trouble with this, in my view, is that it seems to buy into the standard contemporary assumption that if you aren’t doing “empirical science” then the only thing left for you to be doing is “conceptual analysis,” and that that is what metaphysics consists in.  But for the Scholastic, that is a false choice, born of the desiccated conceptual landscape we’ve inherited from the rationalists and empiricists.  For the Scholastic, metaphysics does in fact give us knowledge of real things and their essences -- and not just of our concepts of things -- and knowledge that goes beyond what modern empirical science tells us (even if, where it concerns material substances, it must be supplemented by what empirical science tells us).  I have addressed these issues in earlier posts (e.g. here and here).

44 comments:

Debilis said...

I'm starting to feel that science documentaries, and the whole culture of science "fanboydom" (which is quite a different thing than science) does nothing so well as to prepare people for the idea that science will perpetually offend our common sense.

This seems a dangerous thing, as it insulates crank pop-science claims from any possible criticism: "You're bothered that my position runs counter to all knowledge, including the most basic things people know about reality? Then you obviously don't understand science."

Good science, as much as good metaphysics, gets lost in all this. Really, it seems to be a kind of surrogate religion based on Enlightenment propaganda.

And it is hard to imagine a more flimsy stance for denying our basic experience of reality.

ingx24 said...

Maybe I'm alone in this, but Aristotelianism offends my common sense way more than the claims of modern science do. The idea that morality depends on conforming to your "essence" rather than on how you treat others; the idea that (some) composite objects are something over and above the stuff they're made out of; the idea that mental images, memories, and emotions are bodily rather than mental; the idea that unconscious things can have "goals" - these things, to me, are wildly implausible and run directly counter to everything my common sense tells me is true. Maybe I'm just corrupted by Enlightenment propaganda, but I just find the whole Aristotelian system impossible to believe.

BeingItself said...

"Maybe I'm alone in this, but Aristotelianism offends my common sense way more than the claims of modern science do."

Why do you think 'common sense' should be your arbiter of what is true? (Not that I buy into Feserian metaphysics. I think it's bollocks.)

Anonymous said...

ing,

Quick question.

"the idea that unconscious things can have "goals""

If mental states can inherently "point at" something (intrinsic intentionality), then why can't physical objects also inherently "point at" something? For example, an electron in a high energy shell "points at" a lower energy shell (points at a more stable state.)

Crude said...

The idea that morality depends on conforming to your "essence" rather than on how you treat others

How you should treat others is wrapped up with your nature on Aristotileanism.

the idea that (some) composite objects are something over and above the stuff they're made out of

I've said before, but - you already believe something like this, as near as I can tell. You're sympathetic to forms of dualism, which means humans some composite objects (living things) are something over and above what they're made of.

the idea that mental images, memories, and emotions are bodily rather than mental

They are only 'bodily' on the A-T view with an understanding of matter and body that is damn different from the Cartesian understanding.

the idea that unconscious things can have "goals"

This one boggles me most of all. I just don't see why this is a problem - they have "goals" in that they are directed towards ends. At the very least, in an imperfect way, simple experience with a computer should make that seem something other than alien to you.

Just some quick comments for now.

Edward Feser said...

ingx24,

Your remarks are aimed at straw men and oversimplifications. E.g. no Aristotelian claims that ethics is a matter of conforming to our essence "rather than" how we treat others. On the contrary, for the Aristotelian, man is a social animal, which entails that how we treat others is absolutely crucial to ethics. The point is just that our social needs are themselves grounded in our essence, which is why they are important for ethics. That is to say, our social needs are not the foundation of ethics but rather something built on that foundation (and not the only thing either, since there are also moral obligations that have nothing to do with how we relate to others, even if many of our moral obligations do involve our relations to others).

There are problems with your other remarks too, but that's enough to make the point.

BeingItself,

Have you ever, once, said anything substantive? It's always "I think it's bollocks" etc. without ever giving a reason, or at least without giving a non-question-begging reason that isn't aimed at a straw man.

Or so it seems to me. But you're the well-informed and coolly rational one, so what do I know...

ingx24 said...

Your remarks are aimed at straw men and oversimplifications. E.g. no Aristotelian claims that ethics is a matter of conforming to our essence "rather than" how we treat others. On the contrary, for the Aristotelian, man is a social animal, which entails that how we treat others is absolutely crucial to ethics. The point is just that our social needs are themselves grounded in our essence, which is why they are important for ethics. That is to say, our social needs are not the foundation of ethics but rather something built on that foundation (and not the only thing either, since there are also moral obligations that have nothing to do with how we relate to others, even if many of our moral obligations do involve our relations to others).

I understand this - what I meant was that the idea that our natures (rather than our relations to others) is the foundation of ethics goes against what I regard as common sense. The remarks I made were admittedly unclear and oversimplified, as it was intended as a quick comment rather than a substantial critique.

I've said before, but - you already believe something like this, as near as I can tell. You're sympathetic to forms of dualism, which means humans some composite objects (living things) are something over and above what they're made of.

But these forms of dualism do not claim that this "something extra" is the human being itself as opposed to the matter composing it - the "something extra" is an extra entity (the mind) altogether. The cases are disanalogous.

They are only 'bodily' on the A-T view with an understanding of matter and body that is damn different from the Cartesian understanding.

I will admit that this one was *incredibly* badly worded and inexcusably simplified. What I meant is that the Aristotelian system "separates" the mind into two parts: sensation/imagination/emotions/etc. on the one hand, which are dependent on bodily organs, and pure intellect on the other, which can survive the death of the body. What I meant was that putting the former on the "body" side and the latter on the "mind" side is counterintuitive, as it seems to split the mind in two. Again, this is probably only counterintuitive in the context of the modern conception of both mind and matter, but it is counterintuitive to me nonetheless.

This one boggles me most of all. I just don't see why this is a problem - they have "goals" in that they are directed towards ends. At the very least, in an imperfect way, simple experience with a computer should make that seem something other than alien to you.

If anything, the computer analogy only makes things worse - as an Aristotelian, even you have to admit that the "goal-directedness" of computers is only derived and not intrinsic.

Again, my comment was only that Aristotelianism is counterintuitive to me (despite claims that it is "common sense"), and that I have incredible difficulty accepting it the more I learn about it. I didn't mean my comment to be a substantial critique of it in any way; I'm saving that for a post on my own blog.

Crude said...

But these forms of dualism do not claim that this "something extra" is the human being itself as opposed to the matter composing it - the "something extra" is an extra entity (the mind) altogether. The cases are disanalogous.

I'm not sure they are. At least insofar as they both post 'something extra', they're analogous. They differ about what the 'extra' is, not that 'extra' is required.

I will admit that this one was *incredibly* badly worded and inexcusably simplified.

No big.

If anything, the computer analogy only makes things worse - as an Aristotelian, even you have to admit that the "goal-directedness" of computers is only derived and not intrinsic.

I think Aristotileans would definitely say that, but I also recall Ed regarded a form of computationalism that disagreed to be 'broadly Aristotilean' regardless. Like I said, imperfect comparison, but I think it helps more than hinders.

By the way - just what have you read regarding Aristotileanism? TLS? Aquinas? Some of Ed's posts?

ingx24 said...

I've read many, many of Ed's posts, as well as posts on other Thomistic blogs (including Martin's blog, which is absolutely amazing). I regret never having read TLS, although I very badly want to (I've heard really good things about it). I've also done some independent research on Aristotelianism on the internet for some of the posts I've done on my blog, and have taken note of comments on said posts correcting misunderstandings I have made. So I'm far from an expert, but I've tried to represent it as accurately as possible.

Glenn said...

imgx24,

So I'm far from an expert, but I've tried to represent it as accurately as possible.

Don't you mean to say, "I've tried to represent it as accurately as a non-expert like me might be able to"?

If you treated bits and bytes the way you treat words, your profile would read, "I'm a fired video game speedrunner."

(Not meant as an insult, but as a helpful intimation.)

Edward Feser said...

ingx24 wrote:

I understand this - what I meant was that the idea that our natures (rather than our relations to others) is the foundation of ethics goes against what I regard as common sense.

There's a fatal ambiguity here, though. If you are saying that it is contrary to common sense to say that morality does not crucially depend on how we treat others, then of course you are right, but no Aristotelian would disagree with you about that in the first place.

But if, on the other hand, you are saying that it is contrary to common sense to say that our nature is the foundation of ethics (including the importance of how we treat others), then I submit that that is simply false, and certainly unsupported. Consider the two following claims:

1. How we treat others is morally important because our need for other people is grounded in human nature; if we were by nature like other, more solitary animals instead (e.g. like armadillos or bears) then how we treat others would be less important to ethics.

2. That how we treat others is morally important has nothing crucially to do with human nature. It would be just as important to ethics even if our tendency to be social was the result of contingent and changeable cultural and historical factors, and indeed even if human beings had no natures.

Are you seriously suggesting that (2) is more in line with common sense that (1) is? I'd love to see the evidence for that.

Christian said...

Hello Dr. Feser,

I just wanted to let you know I'm anxious for the second post in your series about Avicenna's argument for a necessary existent. I was also reading your post entitled, "Putnam on causation, intentionality, and Aristotle" at the end of that post you said you'd explore Putnam's reasons for opting for Pragmatism in a future post. Is this post still in the works? I hope I'm not being annoying, I know you're busy but I find your posts very interesting and helpful in my own philosophical studies. I hope all is well and I look forward to your next post.

Glenn said...

If you treated bits and bytes the way you treat words, your profile would read, "I'm a fired video game speedrunner."

I've a nagging suspicion I messed this up by not properly understanding what a 'speedrunner' is (I, er, equated it with being a certain kind of programmer).

So, if anyone cares to say, "Glenn, if you could understand what you read as well as you think others should write..." then I'd have to concede.

But then I'd go on to say that the correction itself successfully makes the basic point that was intended.

(Whew.)

ingx24 said...

I think that's a false dichotomy: to me, the reason it's important to treat others well is because causing physical or emotional harm is intrinsically bad. If I consider suffering bad when it happens to me, I should consider it bad when it happens to others as well; ergo, suffering is intrinsically bad, and causing it in others is intrinsically wrong. (Of course, this needs qualification: obviously, something can only really count as "suffering" over a certain threshold, as Crude kindly pointed out to me a while back :P )

I'll let you guys have the last word here; I really would rather quit this discussion for now.

Brandon said...

I think that's a false dichotomy: to me, the reason it's important to treat others well is because causing physical or emotional harm is intrinsically bad. If I consider suffering bad when it happens to me, I should consider it bad when it happens to others as well; ergo, suffering is intrinsically bad, and causing it in others is intrinsically wrong.

I can't see how this is a response; Ed's obvious next questions would be, "Why is it rational to consider suffering bad when it happens to me in such a way that would thereby then be intrinsically bad rather than (say) just subjectively so as a matter of taste? And what licenses the inference that others are similar enough to me that considering something bad when it happens to me requires that we should consider it bad when it happens to others as well?" And the ultimate thrust of the questions would be, what would you be appealing to other than human nature to answer these questions?

Crude said...

For the record, let me vouch for ingx24. He asks sincere questions and he's someone who is literally capable of discussion about these topics, and who will try to read and understand what he's discussing. He's a cut above many critics, and has a unique POV himself.

Mr. Green said...

Ingx24: Maybe I'm just corrupted by Enlightenment propaganda, but I just find the whole Aristotelian system impossible to believe.

No maybe about it... after all, modernism is all around us, it's practically impossible not to have absorbed some it (or a lot of it!). That certainly colours what seems "obvious" to us — and it's worth pointing out that "common sense" does not simply mean what's obvious or instinctive or easy to grasp. But more than that, learning about Aristotelianism in contrast to other views can make it seem more extreme or more "strange" than it really is. It can take time for the concepts to settle down into a comfortable-enough understanding to appreciate how they relate to common-sense.

So it's metaphysically possible that all the other people you see around you are actually hallucinations or some sophisticated computer-simulation into which your brain is plugged — but common sense tells you that they are in fact real people. Aristotelianism is "common-sensical" in that it naturally accommodates this view. Likewise, it accommodates the idea that morality has something to do with how we treat others (without simply saying that that is the basis of ethics, which would be a naive view).

I do think that in general, Aristotelianism takes a while to click — or several whiles for various different concepts. Of course, different people respond to ideas in different ways; and some people just see things differently from others. Common-sense isn't the foundation, but it is a guide to avoiding positions that are technically-possible-but-nonetheless-crazy.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Christian,

No problem. I'll get to the second Avicenna post soon. The follow-up Putnam post got lost in the shuffle, in part because the original post didn't seem to get much feedback and so I felt little urgency in writing up the second, and eventually it just fell off the radar screen. But I think you are the second reader to ask about it, so I'll try to get to that.

I get lots of requests, including requests to write on the "same-sex marriage" controversy. For any readers who are wondering, I am going to get to that, and in fact have a long philosophical paper on general sexual morality written for an anthology which I believe should be coming out fairly soon. Anything I have to say about "same-sex marriage" would be supplementary to that paper, so I would like to have it available to refer to when I write on the subject.

Anonymous said...

There are no such things as tables, only “particles arranged tablewise.” Or so say certain contemporary metaphysicians...

I am astonished that there are grown adults who can't figure out the answer to this sort of retarded pseudo-question.

Honestly, the entire field of philosophy ought to be ashamed of wasting the valuable time of humanity.

machinephilosophy said...

Hi ingx24

"The idea that morality depends on conforming to your "essence" rather than on how you treat others; the idea that (some) composite objects are something over and above the stuff they're made out of; the idea that mental images, memories, and emotions are bodily rather than mental; the idea that unconscious things can have "goals" - these things, to me, are wildly implausible and run directly counter to everything my common sense tells me is true."

This is my stab at an A-T explanation.

First, how we treat others is necessarily based on the degree to which we conform to our essence, namely, in conforming to the ideality of rationality and morality that is built into our nature. This is the image of God in us. Since the universe is in a state of entropy, we can only approximate the ideality of God's being, and for that among other reasons, have a tendency toward self-contradiction.

Second, the fact that we must identify composite objects as composite objects already assumes their transcendental unities. Otherwise we would never make such initial identifications. In fact, essential differences between objects of any kind, even if they were irreducibly atomic in themselves, are material-transcending distinctions. I believe this was one of 11 or so basic categories specified by Aristotle, namely essential difference.

Concerning common sense in general, this is where Thomistic metaphysics really shines, for the grounding architectonic of that view is both consistent with and based on some very ordinary common sense notions that necessarily must be started with in order to get to the fundamental and detailed fleshing out of the way the world is. A perfect example of this is mathematics, which starts with common sense notions and definitons to isolate and clarify its basic axioms of definitions, relations, properties, and operations.

A-T does not contradict or obliterate common sense but uses its irreducibly basic core to provide a kind of self-correction and sharpening of it in relation to the nature of things it truthfully sees already to some degree.

The best analogy I can give to the whole project of Aristotelian Thomism is the fact that in carrying out a comparative evaluation of theories of truth, there must already be a theory of truth operating to proceed with that meta-theoretic analysis in the first place.

Aristotelian Thomism simply does the same thing in metaphysics as well without the self-referential inconsistencies and other logical muddles that its detractors must necessarily depend on. In fact, Joesph Boyle calls A-T self-referential metaphysics.

rank sophist said...

Mr. Green,

It can take time for the concepts to settle down into a comfortable-enough understanding to appreciate how they relate to common-sense.

In other words, it takes time to inundate yourself with its concepts to such a degree that they feel like common sense. I'm all for Thomism, but ingx24 has a point: what seems like common sense in one time and place is going to be different from what seems like common sense in another, and Thomism's only defense against that charge is an appeal to what seems like common sense to those who already accept Thomism implicitly or explicitly.

Also, for what it's worth, Aquinas himself does not argue from common sense. In many places he rejects the idea that there are universal beliefs that everyone discerns regardless of custom. He uses the term "common sense", certainly, but what he means by that term might better be translated as "apperception".

DNW said...

" ...what I meant was that the idea that our natures (rather than our relations to others) is the foundation of ethics ..."


In all sincerity, what exactly are these others? Are they identifiable? If so how? What is it about our relations with them that conditions moral evaluation?

machinephilosophy said...

The notion of a triangle is itself based on common sense notions of a plane, a side, the number three, a figure, connection, point, line, etc. Furthermore, to distinguish between what is and is not common sense must itself be based on common sense, as must beginning mathematics, geometry, or logic.

Pre-reflective common sense notions are what all more advanced and complex notions are based on. They don't just appear out of thin air. In the same way, calclulus is based on very nested common sense notions on which we build to it from simple arithmetic and concepts used to explain algebraic representation.

JesseM said...

According to the distinction discussed in this post, wouldn't a table be a mere "accidental form" rather than a "substantial form"? In AT metaphysics, does the form of a table have any more intrinsic "reality" than any other collection of particles we might arbitrary choose to lump together conceptually as a single entity?

Edward Feser said...

JesseM,

Yes, a table has a mere accidental form. But the wood, meal, etc. out of which it is constructed have substantial forms, and the particles that make them up thus exist virtually rather than actually. So it is false to say that there are just "particles arranged tablewise."

JesseM said...

Does a dead chunk of a formerly living organism, like a piece of wood used in a table, still have a substantial form? In this post you used the example of a severed hand, saying "it would subsist as an incomplete substance, like a severed hand which subsists at least for a time apart from the body (as can be seen from the fact that the hand can be reattached)." This might be taken to imply that after the cells have died and the hand could no longer be reattached, it would no longer be even an incomplete substance. In any case, I presume that in AT metaphysics, a table would have no more intrinsic reality than any arbitrary set of wood chunks that we might choose to group together conceptually into a set, even chunks that are not attached and may be in completely different locations around the world.

Also, could you (or any other knowledgeable commenter) tell me where to find information about what it means to say particles "exist virtually rather than actually"? Is this something that would be true of any nonliving thing that does not qualify as any sort of substantial form (like a rock, or a metal table) or is their some particular characteristic of particles, like the fact that they are material causes of larger objects, that gives them only a "virtual" existence?

Mr. Green said...

Rank Sophist: In other words, it takes time to inundate yourself with its concepts to such a degree that they feel like common sense.

Probably. That's why I pointed out that by "common sense" I did not simply mean "what seems good to me at the time". It is sometimes used to mean something like that in a very loose sense; of course in its strict technical sense, it refers to uniting different sights, sounds, etc., into a single object of imagination. In between is the relevant meaning: something that is known by us naturally, such as that the seeming appearance of other people means that they really are other people. This isn't something one has to learn or become accustomed to; we're built to see things that way. If you didn't, it would mean there was something wrong with you. Of course, this sort of common-sense does not amount to a strict deduction (which is why I also called it a guide, not a foundation); but faced with a choice, one ought to choose the common-sense one. (Solipsism could be true, in purely logical terms, but it's unreasonable.)

Anyway, the point is simply that A-T accommodates common-sense, as opposed to philosophies that deny common-sensical propositions such as, "the things around us are real". So if someone doesn't see how an Aristotelian system fits that kind of common-sense, I reckon that A-T hasn't quite clicked for him yet. (Either that, or he has no common sense!)

JesseM said...

Anyway, the point is simply that A-T accommodates common-sense, as opposed to philosophies that deny common-sensical propositions such as, "the things around us are real".

But A-T does deny that in the case of nonliving material "things" like a table or a rock (or planet Earth or the Moon), as I understand it. See my comment and Dr. Feser's response above--a table does not have its own substantial form in A-T metaphysics, even though the individual planks of wood that make it up might (but see my subsequent questions about that response). So in this area it seems to go against our common-sense understanding of what "objects" there are in the world, even if it does agree with common sense in the case of living things.

I wonder if there is supposed to be any strong philosophical (or religious argument) for choosing this definition of "real objects" over others, or is it just justified by the intuition that living things seem to have intrinsic teleology? For a Christian believer in the A-T philosophy, would it be within God's power to create a world where things like rocks and tables could have substantial forms while still behaving in the same way they do in our world? We could even imagine a world that was completely indistinguishable from ours empirically but differed in its metaphysical truths about which bits of matter were substantial forms (analogous to David Chalmers' thought experiment about a zombie world in philosophy of mind)--and if this is not logically or metaphysically impossible, what basis do we have for believing God didn't make our own universe this way? No empirical observations could distinguish the two types of universes, and the Bible doesn't contain any revealed truths about what objects qualify as substantial forms.

Ben Dunlap said...

JesseM, I'm sure I will be corrected if I am mistaken but I believe that in the A-T tradition it is *artifacts*, not any non-living things whatever, that lack substantial forms.

ingx24, re: imagination and emotion being more bodily than not: Have you ever owned a dog?

JesseM said...

Well, as I said above, Dr. Feser seemed to be implying in that blog entry I quoted that once a severed hand was sufficiently dead that it could no longer be successfully reattached, it wouldn't be a substantial form any more. And it seems to me the problem with non-living things is that there is no relatively sharp boundary like life and death to define when they begin or cease, or where one ends and another begins...if a severed hand did still qualify as the substantial form "hand", at what point in its decay would it cease to qualify? If you split a rock in two, do you go from having one "rock" substantial form to two "rock" substantial forms? What if you just make a large crack in it that nearly splits it in two but there is still a point of connection? Etc. etc.

Ben Dunlap said...

I think that for Aquinas there is no such thing as the substantial form of a hand. There is just the substantial form of a human being, which normally entails the presence of a hand, and another hand, and liver, eyes, lungs, etc.

So for as long as the severed hand is alive enough to be re-attached, it retains, in some sense, the substantial form of human being. When it can no longer be re-attached it has lost that substantial form*.

But it never had, or will have, the substantial form of "human hand" because there is no such thing.

*Of course, even though a dead severed hand is not a human being, it is still some sort of substance (or more probably, an amalgam of substances).

Ben Dunlap said...

Another thing to remember is that for Aquinas both substances and accidents really exist outside the mind. They have different modes of existence, but both are real.

How this maps precisely to composite artifacts like a table, is an interesting question. I just found a 2004 paper by Michael Rota called "Substance and Artifact in Thomas Aquinas" (free to read with a JSTOR account) that looks very helpful on this point.

But in any case I think Aquinas would say that a purely conceptual grouping of several pieces of lumber scattered around the world has no real existence at all.

JesseM said...

How would you decide which groupings of inanimate objects are "purely conceptual" and which are not? There seems to be no objective standard, akin to functional integration in living organisms, that tells us when a collection of inanimate objects is itself a "real" unified object. Is a loose pile of ice cubes, not stuck together but just resting on one another, a single object? If they melt a little and refreeze so all the previously separate cubes are joined together without gaps between them, have they become a single object? Perhaps one could say that there is just a general "water" substance, without chunks of it having any distinct existence as objects--this would actually be closer to the current ordinary-language use of the word "substance"--but if this is how it works for all inanimate substances, then there are no such things as individual rocks, planets, etc.

Ben Dunlap said...

There seems to be no objective standard ... that tells us when a collection of inanimate objects is itself a "real" unified object

What's your basis for this claim? Being an A-T beginner myself, I can't tell you off the top of the top of my head what that standard might be, but it seems extremely unlikely to me that there isn't one.

But I do think you're quite right to sense a difficulty in accounting for inanimate substances in general.

It seems to me that living things are the paradigmatic natural substances in the A-T tradition and that the more removed something is from life the less determinate (and thus less intelligible) it is.

I will be reading the Rota paper I mentioned above when I have the opportunity and expect it to shed some light on the overall question, at least indirectly.

Returning to the general theme of common sense, though -- a phrase that I remember recurring often in Aristotle is something like "the way we speak", and I think this idea maps more or less to what Dr. Feser means by "common sense" in his original post.

I think Aristotle means that the ordinary man's informal account of everyday experience is at least a pointer toward the truth about things, even if it needs careful clarification by philosophy.

And likewise when a claim is radically dissonant with "the way we speak", then at least two points follow: (1) there's a good chance the claim won't hold up under careful scrutiny, and (2) the claim is at least likely to entail a more general premise that is just false.

An example of such a claim is this: "the unity of a table made from lumber fastened together by screws is no more real than the unity of any conceived set of real pieces of lumber and screws".

But, not to put too fine a point on it: That just doesn't make any sense.

That said, it sounds like you're asking whether A-T metaphysics, when rigorously examined, can actually oppose that claim. Is that a fair statement of your question?

JesseM said...

An example of such a claim is this: "the unity of a table made from lumber fastened together by screws is no more real than the unity of any conceived set of real pieces of lumber and screws".

But, not to put too fine a point on it: That just doesn't make any sense.


Certainly it differs from ordinary intuitions and ways of speaking, but I would argue that many of our ordinary intuitions are inherently "fuzzy", admitting of ambiguous in-between cases. I agree in ordinary speech it'd be nonsensical to say some disconnected planks of wood have exactly the same "object-ness" as a table, but as an analogy, in ordinary speech it would similarly be nonsensical to say a slug is every bit as "cute" as a kitten; yet that doesn't mean we clearly place everything into either a "cute" or "not-cute" category, there are cases we would consider to be ambiguously "cute" like young fishes or lizards. If you want a metaphysics where things like "substantial forms" are purely objective either-or matters, then you are naturally going to come into conflict with that inherent ambiguity of ordinary speech.

My argument about the difficulty of defining substantial forms in the case of inanimate objects is based on the fact that, for any definition where X collection of parts is deemed a unity while Y collection of parts is deemed to have no objective reality as a unity (a mere "conceptual grouping"), it seems obvious to me that it'll always be possible to come up with ambiguous intermediate cases between X and Y, and any decision about which class to put such intermediate cases will just be a matter of arbitrary say-so, there will be no natural choice forced on us by any sort of "common sense" (and certainly no philosophical argument for where to draw the boundary--if A-T has any definite opinions on these matters, I think they would just come down to accepting the authority of personal intuitions of major thinkers in this tradition like Aristotle). For example, if you say a table held together by screws is a unity while a collection of planks and screws not in contact isn't, what if we find some way to get the legs to stay in place at the corners of the table using a force that doesn't require them to actually touch, like magnetism? (which is not really any different from the microscopic explanation of why the atoms in an ordinary table stay at fixed distances from one another, anyway--at an atomic level no part of an object really "touches" any other part) And if we gradually make that magnetic force weaker and weaker, so that the force required to disrupt the table-shape is lighter and lighter, is there any sharp boundary at which it ceases to have any real existence as a unified "object"? Likewise consider my earlier example of ice cubes melting and refreezing to become one larger chunk of ice--is there any clear point where you go from having a bunch of distinct ice-chunk "objects" to just one? (and obviously at high enough temperatures you can do the same think with rocks or metals...and even planets can collide to form a new larger planet, or a single planet can split apart to form a planet and moon)

Ben Dunlap said...

I have a hard time imagining that this question has never been rigorously addressed in the A-T tradition, considering how staggeringly vast that tradition is (the link is only to commentaries on Aristotle, which leaves out nearly 800 years of commentaries on Aquinas).

In any case a bit of Googling turned up a contemporary specialist in this area: Dr. Christopher Brown of the University of Tennessee at Martin. He has a 2005 book called Aquinas and the Ship of Theseus that is probably worth checking out.

JesseM said...

My point was not that it's never been addressed, just that I find it very unlikely that one could present an argument for how to define the boundaries that didn't depend heavily on the author's personal intuitions (I do wonder if any author has addressed the issue, not just of ambiguous cases, but specifically of cases where there is a continuous transition between connected parts and disconnected parts, like the table held together by magnetism where the magnetic field can be gradually turned down, or the ice cubes which gradually melt and refreeze into a single block). I think this dependence on personal intuitions is even true with the notion of defining living organisms as substantial forms; even if we grant the basic metaphysical idea of of substantial forms, is there any good argument that doesn't rely primarily on common-sense intuitions as to why we should be confident living organisms are substantial forms, as opposed to mere aggregates of other substantial forms such as cells or organs? We do have some scientific knowledge today, that Aristotle and Aquinas wouldn't have had, which shows that even for living organisms there can be some ambiguous cases which call into question any sharp distinction between "parts" and "whole organism". For example there is the case of ameobas which normally behave as independent organisms, but when food supplies are low they form a type of colony which seems to behave as a single very simple type of organism, the slime mold, which can form some simple differentiated structures akin to organs. Probably our own distant ancestors went through a similarly ambiguous period during their evolution from single-celled organisms to multicellular organisms.

Thanks for the book suggestion, I see that while Aquinas and the Ship of Theseus normally goes for very high academic prices, google books does offer a reasonably-priced eBook, so I'll have to pick that up one of these days.

Mr. Green said...

JesseM: But A-T does deny that in the case of nonliving material "things" like a table or a rock (or planet Earth or the Moon), as I understand it. See my comment and Dr. Feser's response above--a table does not have its own substantial form in A-T metaphysics, even though the individual planks of wood that make it up might

But people would tend to say that "wood" and "iron" are substances; but if you asked whether a table was a substance, they'd say, no, it's something made from substances like wood or metal.

would it be within God's power to create a world where things like rocks and tables could have substantial forms while still behaving in the same way they do in our world?
[...] and if this is not logically or metaphysically impossible, what basis do we have for believing God didn't make our own universe this way?


I image that yes, God could create a world like that, one full of false fronts... but of course the point is that common-sense is the basis for believing things are as they seem. (Not always and under all circumstances, of course — but "generally", in the sense of common-sense that I am using.) Again, it's "possible" that everyone around you is a hallucination or a hologram, but unless you have a good reason to believe in the conspiracy-theory, you should prefer the common-sense theory instead.

My point was not that it's never been addressed, just that I find it very unlikely that one could present an argument for how to define the boundaries that didn't depend heavily on the author's personal intuitions

To some degree; but we can make a reasonable attempt to identify particular influences such as cultural bias and so forth. Will we ever have a precise algorithm into which you can plug a few obvious facts and get a determination whether something a substance or not? Of course not... but there of lots of things we cannot know, either in theory or in practice. (Common-sense also tells us that we are bound to have different degrees of certainly about different subjects!) We know that some things have to be substances (e.g. I must be a substance to be the sort of thing I experience myself as being), and some things are not (e.g. two people together do not make one "compound person"), and Aristotelian metaphysics can ground that. And since we've got the metaphysical infrastructure, we might as well make use of it.

Mr. Green said...

Jesse M: I presume that in AT metaphysics, a table would have no more intrinsic reality than any arbitrary set of wood chunks that we might choose to group together conceptually into a set

Not intrinsically, but of course a table has an extrinsic reality too. Tables are quite real, they're just not the same kind of things as substances.

what it means to say particles "exist virtually rather than actually"?

It simply means they seem to be there but aren't really — like "virtual reality", that has the appearance of some real thing even though it isn't. So for A-T a substance isn't reductively made of particles, but of course it acts as though the particles are there because the substance is causing the same effects as individual parts would. (And we'd expect that if you pulled a substance apart into separate pieces, the parts would indeed act in a way corresponding to how they appeared in the substance.)

JesseM said...

Mr. Green:
But people would tend to say that "wood" and "iron" are substances; but if you asked whether a table was a substance, they'd say, no, it's something made from substances like wood or metal.

But you're talking about ordinary language, where "substance" has come to mean something fairly different from what it means in A-T philosophy--in ordinary language the word "substance" is pretty much synonymous with "material", so most people wouldn't say an animal or a person is a "substance", either. I think the closest ordinary-language equivalent to the A-T notion of a substantial form would be along the lines of "object" (though that has connotations of being inanimate) or "thing" (living or nonliving) or "unit" or "whole"...you could also elaborate by explaining to people that you're looking for the most common-sensical way of dividing up the world into distinctly-named "things", and that would come close to the common-sense intuitions behind "substantial forms". In this case I think most people would say it's common-sensical to think of a table as a single "thing", not merely a collection of parts.

I image that yes, God could create a world like that, one full of false fronts

Why would it be a "false front" for a table to be a substantial form? Like I said, I think this is actually closer in spirit to the common-sense intuitions behind the notion of a substantial form as a single unified "thing". Also, I'm curious how you would answer the question I was asking Ben Dunlap about whether any naturally-occurring inorganic "things" can be substantial forms, like rocks or chunks of ice or planets...

It simply means they seem to be there but aren't really — like "virtual reality", that has the appearance of some real thing even though it isn't.

So is this just a general feature of any apparent "parts" of a substantial form (so that organs or cells in a living organism would also be "virtual"), or is there some particular characteristic of particles that makes them more "virtual" than other parts? And are you reading Dr. Feser this way because you have come across this use of "virtual" elsewhere in A-T literature (if so can you think of a reference I could look at?) or are you inferring his meaning from context?

The Big Kowalski said...

As far as I know, Aquinas calls artifacts accidental wholes and not substantial wholes. In general, Aristotle didn't really devote much effort to the subject of artifacts and it is arguable that he only saw organisms as true substances. In fact, aside from analogies, A. is notoriously silent about the nature of artifacts.

So I'd say: tables are closer to heaps than substances. But again, tables area teleological in nature. That is, what makes a table a table is the use of the thing not the thing itself. But then, this finality is not an inherent finality but the intent of the user. Unlike living things, which are possessed with inherent finality, artifacts are created with a finality in mind which influences the ordered actions of the artist that decide what form an object will take to be best tailored towards an end, but it's rather magical thinking to say that wood goes through some kind of transubstantiation when *poof* it becomes a table when a moment ago it was not.

And all of this doesn't even touch the species problem. When does a table stop being a table? I'd argue: when it ceases to be usable as a table, but of course, that's a very tricky claim. Is a flat rock a table? Bob uses it as a table; John uses it as a dry place to pitch a tent. Where is the normative aspect of the table? Not the table. We're objectifying our own prejudices and desires and giving them ontic status.

I think philosophers should perhaps actually walk through the process of crafting a table from scratch without any guidance or help and then come back to the problem. It will help destroy the cultural archetype that to them appears like common sense. This archetype is no doubt the product of mass production and a detachment from the means of production: we go to the store and we see a label "table on an object and we see 10 highly similar things and a neat little section of the store devoted to "tables", making the species "table" so convenient. "Don't look at the edge cases that disprove my theory." The worst argument a philosopher can make is appear to popular opinion. "Pffft, of course tables exist! How dare you deny the consensus of the herd!" Through frankly, is he herd really that attached to the idea of tables? Sure, you can call certain arrangements "tables". And sure, they exist. But stop giving it substantial status. It may rationalize language, make the world more abundant with objects with first class metaphysical status, make objects seem less absurd by poofing purpose into them and giving them a reason for being, but it's not neccesarily the truth. Man and the animals are substances who appropriate material for their ends. These tools and artifacts conform to their wills. Tools are thus like artificial limbs, used to realize the ends that their bodies cannot.

Mr. Green said...

JesseM: But you're talking about ordinary language, where "substance" has come to mean something fairly different from what it means in A-T philosophy--in ordinary language the word "substance" is pretty much synonymous with "material", so most people wouldn't say an animal or a person is a "substance", either.

But ordinary language is a clue to common-sense as I mean it, and of course has a historical connection. That people distinguish animals and people from each other and from non-living substances is another hint that common-sense is pointing towards Aristotelianesque metaphysics.

In this case I think most people would say it's common-sensical to think of a table as a single "thing", not merely a collection of parts.

And under A-T, a table is a single thing — it's just a single artifact and not a single substance. Tables are still quite real, they are just a different kind of real thing. It has unity extrinsically instead of intrinsically, but it still has it. (Of course it is at the same time a collection of parts, too.)

Why would it be a "false front" for a table to be a substantial form?

Because it doesn't seem like one! Of course, if we were in a different universe our common-sense might be different too — if our common-sense told us that these substantial tables were indeed substances (in the appropriate sense), then that would be fine.

Also, I'm curious how you would answer the question I was asking Ben Dunlap about whether any naturally-occurring inorganic "things" can be substantial forms, like rocks or chunks of ice or planets...

They can be, and everything is basically either a substance itself or a "pile" of things that are substances. A planet is a conglomeration of dirt and rocks (and so forth), not a substance itself. And water is considered a substance — I think generally splitting a body of water in two separates one substance into two (or likewise with icecubes), although I'm somewhat tempted to argue that each single molecule of H₂O is the substance (and an icecube, etc., just a pile of them).

So is this just a general feature of any apparent "parts" of a substantial form (so that organs or cells in a living organism would also be "virtual")

Right.

And are you reading Dr. Feser this way because you have come across this use of "virtual" elsewhere in A-T literature (if so can you think of a reference I could look at?) or are you inferring his meaning from context?

"Virtual" is commonly used in A-T to refer to something that has certain powers ("virtues"), so if X has the power to do Y, it can be said to be "virtually Y". You'll find Feser using the term this way in other posts — search for "virtual" in this post and see the couple of paragraphs where he gives an example of virtual or eminent causality.

JesseM said...

That people distinguish animals and people from each other and from non-living substances is another hint that common-sense is pointing towards Aristotelianesque metaphysics.

But I'm not talking about divisions within the category of "things" or unified "objects", I'm just talking about what is a "thing" or "object" in the first place. Would you agree that most people's common sense tells them it's natural to view a table as a single "thing", but that there are plenty of other collections of parts which could in principle be grouped together conceptually but would be generally seen as more unnatural to see as a single "thing"?

And under A-T, a table is a single thing — it's just a single artifact and not a single substance. Tables are still quite real, they are just a different kind of real thing. It has unity extrinsically instead of intrinsically, but it still has it. (Of course it is at the same time a collection of parts, too.)

Is an "extrinsic" unity just dependent on it being viewed as a unity by humans? If so then it seems like you'd be back to the case where any arbitrary collection of objects, say a number of unconnected wood planks in different locations, could be defined by someone to be an "object" and they'd be no more objectively wrong than a person defining the table as an "object". I suppose you could argue that a collection of planks doesn't ordinary have any use-value so it wouldn't normally qualify as an "artifact", but you could always invent a use, for example a pair of spies might use the arrangement of some planks at prearranged locations to send hidden messages to one another. Is there some objective metaphysical truth about what has "extrinsic unity" or what is an "artifact", so that all of humanity might agree on the answer in some case yet be objectively mistaken?

Because it doesn't seem like one! Of course, if we were in a different universe our common-sense might be different too — if our common-sense told us that these substantial tables were indeed substances (in the appropriate sense), then that would be fine.

"Substantial form" is a technical philosophical term that isn't part of most people's common sense, so can you "translate" this supposed common-sense intuition into layman's terms? My argument before was that "substantial form" is basically a philosophical elaboration of the common-sense notion that the some collections of parts are naturally viewed as a single unified "thing" while others aren't, that's why it seems to me like it'd be more in line with common sense for a table to be a substantial form, but if you have some alternate common sense layman's translation of "substantial form", I'd like to hear it.

JesseM said...

(continued from previous comment)

A planet is a conglomeration of dirt and rocks (and so forth), not a substance itself.

But a planet or moon would seem to most people like a single unified "thing" in the way that a list of distinct asteroids at different random locations in space does not--does A-T support this common-sense intuition? Is a planet some sort of "extrinsic unity" too, even if it's not an artifact?

"Virtual" is commonly used in A-T to refer to something that has certain powers ("virtues"), so if X has the power to do Y, it can be said to be "virtually Y". You'll find Feser using the term this way in other posts — search for "virtual" in this post and see the couple of paragraphs where he gives an example of virtual or eminent causality.

Thanks. I'm still not entirely clear on what it means to refer to parts such as organs or particles as themselves being "virtual", rather than saying a particular effect Y is "virtually" in the cause. Are you talking about the idea that if a part like an organ or a single particle is removed from a substantial form like a person, and no longer can be viewed as a partial substantial form on its own (which in the case of an organ seems to mean that it's dead and can't be reattached), than the appearance in the world of a new bit of matter not part of a substantial form (such as a dead organ) is the effect, and was only virtually present in the original substantial form which is the cause?