Category Archives: ontology

Time and the Limits of Science

Measurement takes time; measurement is a process.  So the measurement of time immediately yields this theoretical issue:

Since measurement takes time, our ability to break time into ever smaller pieces will always be proportional to the method of measurement used.  The faster our measurement device that measures time, the more divisible time will be.  Insofar as there are limits to how fast a measurement process can occur (relativistic or other), there will be limits on the lengths of time we can measure. From this perspective, time is discontinuous: there will be a point at which we can no longer split time into smaller pieces.

From a different perspective, time must be continuous: we can start our measurement of time whenever.  Since there are no restrictions on when our measurement may begin, each and every instant must be just as good as every other instant, hence time is continuous.

So which is it: Is time continuous or discontinuous?

Or is the question badly formed? The discontinuity argument is based upon the ideas of measurement and relativity.  The latter argument, for continuity, is based upon what might be considered a fact of modal reality.  Perhaps the two arguments are not talking about the same thing.

I can’t give an end-all be-all answer to the questions of time, but here is my opinion:   Time is continuous, but when we start to do scientific activities, time can and will only be able to be measured discretely.  Therefore the two arguments are not using one word to describe two different phenomena.

The question then becomes how doing science limits what we can observe.

This might sound like an extremely unlikely situation, but consider the case of organized sports.  When playing a sport or game you are bound, restricted, to following certain rules.  However, by following these rules, you and the other players can demonstrate skills and abilities that you otherwise would not have been able to observe:  Lots of people may be in shape, but only a small fraction of those people are professional athletes.  Those athlete demonstrate their superior physical and mental prowess by performing on the game field by being restricted by the official rules.

Getting back to science, does it now seem so unlikely that we restrict ourselves in certain ways in order to accomplish other tasks?  For time to be scientifically useful, we need to have some sort process that has a fixed point from which to start counting from, and a unit to count.  Then we can compare an unknown process to this known process, and we have done so with much success.

This comparison could not have occurred without the introduction of an arbitrary fixed point and unit of measurement: by restricting our concept of time to these particular processes we enable ourselves to perform scientific research.  Research is not possible if we use the unrestricted modal notion: no comparison can be made because there is no inter-modal process to compare a worldly (intra-modal) phenomenon to.  But with the use of fixed points, units and processes, we also become subject to relativistic limitations.  It seems like a very small price to pay considering the success of science.

To sum up: time is subject to modal considerations, which gives it special properties such as being continuous.  Once we start to do science, though, we restrict ourselves to the non-modal aspects of time, which allows us to use it as a tool in scientific research.  This also makes time appear to have different properties, but upon closer study, these properties are artifacts of the measurement process and not time itself.

Posted in measurement, ontology, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science, time. Tagged with , , , .

Deriving Philosophy of Science

Two posts ago I claimed that

The goal of science is, therefore, to separate the settled from the anomalous.

So what is the settled?  What is the anomalous?  How are they separated?

If we take these concepts to be fundamental then we are unable to analyze the concepts of settled, anomalous and separation scientifically: if they are at the bottom of all science, then everything within science depends upon them.

How then to understand?

At the bottom of it all is our ability to understand. We learn and we understand.  With this comes the ability to determine what we believe we understand and what we do not:  For certain things we have reasons that explain those phenomena and for other things we will not have reasons nor explanations.

These abilities are not based in science; they are metaphysical and logical.  Claiming that you cannot understand (in general) is paradoxical.  If you claim to not understand what it is to understand, then you must understand what it is not to understand.  But if you understand what it is not to understand, then you must know what it is to understand not understanding.  So you must understand what it to understand. But then you are denying being able to understand…  Hence it is nonsensical to deny understanding understanding.

Therefore we get understanding, not understanding and the difference on non-scientific grounds.   Insofar as reasons and explanations are part of understanding, we get them too.

How do we understand what is settled and what is anomalous?

Again paradox:

If you claim that it is not settled what it means to be settled then you must have known what it is to be not settled, that is, it is settled what it is to be not settled.  Then you must know what it is to be settled, i.e. it is settled.  But then you claim that it is not settled… Therefore you cannot claim that what it means for something to be settled is not settled.

If we assume that not settled and anomalous are identical in meaning (not settled = anomalous; not anomalous = settled) then we have nearly all the concepts we need.

But here comes the hard part: how do we separate the settled from the not settled?

Well, since we already have understanding, this requires doing actual science, as in creating a theory and then  going and seeing if that theory actually makes something that was anomalous no longer so by predicting it accurately.  This isn’t the post for me to get down off my metaphysical cloud, so Good Luck, you’re on your own (for now at least).

Posted in metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, science.

Counter Structural Realism

I’m starting to think that ‘structural’ in ‘structural realism‘ is vacuous.

Before getting to the meaning of structural we have to know what we mean by real.  In this instance we are specifically concerned with science so what we are looking for is the goal of science, i.e. what is scientifically real.  This is a meta-scientific question, and the best I can do here is to quote what Darwin quoted at the start of the Origin of Species:

“The only distinct meaning of the word ‘natural’ is stated, fixed or settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so, i.e., to affect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to affect it for once.”

Butler: Analogy of Revealed Religion

The goal of science is, therefore, to separate the settled from the anomalous.  We do this by crafting a theory and testing its predictions:  Since we have some fixed part of our theory that consistently predicts some phenomenon, there must also be something fixed in nature that is causing the consistent behavior.

This leaves us to consider the meanings of stated, fixed and settled in order to understand ‘natural’ or ‘scientifically real.’  However, for my current interests, all I need to point out is that if everything we must do to call something ‘scientifically real’ is also sufficient for calling something a structure, then structure is doing no work.

Now we have to identify the structures that we are referring to in structural realism: these structures are the mathematical and logical relations that still apply even if other parts of the theory are modified.  Since some mathematical and logical relations can be retained even as the overall theory changes, these structures the ones that structural realists want to save in order to maintain continuity across theory and paradigm.

But what are the settle or fixed parts of a theory?  First and foremost it will be the part that is making the consistently correct predictions, which includes the math and logical relations that determine how to formulate the predictions.  Therefore determining something to be real is to already determine everything that the structural realist was trying to gain by using the concept of structure.  This is to say that calling something real is to already attribute all the properties that we were hoping to gain by calling the thing structural, making the term structural vacuous.

Posted in ontology, philosophy, science.

Truth is… and other short thoughts

Truth is whatever you are willing to wager your sanity on.  This works because sanity is relative to people, so if you are willing to wager your sanity on something, so should other people.

Deontology has a problem because no one can definitively tell you what it is to follow a rule.  So deontologists can’t fault others for appealing to unexplained concepts without undermining their own argument.

Whereas the meanings of particular words may be conventional and subject to historical accident, there are distinctions that the words create that are not conventional.  If logical operators are conventional, but must exist is every possible world (you must define the world using such operators), then conventional loses its meaning: it ceases to be a convention and is instead a necessity of the universe.

The concept of structure in ‘structural realism’ is ontological, causing problems for ontic structural realists.  By calling the theory structural, structural realists are attempting to exploit the concepts associated with ‘structure’ from areas other than philosophy of science.  This means that the term is not being used ontically because the concept of structure is taken to have real properties.  So at every turn ontic structural realists are appealing to an ontological concept.


oh and information aesthetics is back from break! woohoo!

Posted in ethics, language, logic, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, science.

Demise, the Fallen and Annihilation

In Being and Time Heidegger makes a distinction between death and demise: death is the ending of Da-sein, or Being, and demise is physical perishing. I think this is a good distinction and since I break up ontology into 3 sorts of things – commitments, objects & descriptions – I will have three ways to die:

  1. Fallen: the perishing of all commitments of a living person.
  2. Demise: the perishing of physical attributes of a living person (traditional death).
  3. Annihilation: the perishing of all descriptions that a person has made.

Now Heidegger’s use of death was meant to be a fundamental orientation that Da-sein ‘has’ towards its own end (Those are his quotes around has, not mine- see p. 247 of B&T, p. 229 of Stambaugh) and demise was as above. Hence death and demise are somewhat separate because demise is the physical end and death is the way we are oriented to the end of being.

My view is that demise is one kind, a subset, of overall metaphysical death. I am less concerned here with the existential questions about death (though these are important) and more concerned with the ontological relationship between demise and other sorts of perishing. What follows is the insight separating overall metaphysical death from the three particular ways of perishing.

I’m using fallen in a (only somewhat) technical sense to mean the loss of all commitments. If you lose all capability to have commitments, then you have fallen, almost as in ‘fallen off the map.’ “Gone” is similar- you may not be physically dead, but if you are gone (e.g. to some foreign place never to return) you are dead to those with whom you had made commitments. Comatose, but without physical symptoms, is another example. You’re body may still live and for all anyone knows your mind may be as sharp as ever, but you are incapable of keeping commitments and are therefore ‘dead to the world’.

Demise is death as is traditionally defined: when you have met your demise your body is destroyed. Of course there may be some afterlife in which you may keep your commitments (think Ghost, the movie) or your descriptions of the world may continue (Plato will live forever through his writings – I wonder if someone, somewhere is discussing Plato at every instant of every day), but you’re physically dead as a doorknob after your demise.

Annihilation is the destruction of a person’s descriptions of the world. Describing things is perhaps the most basic of human accomplishments – we reward babies (and philosophers) handsomely for accurate descriptions – and if this is taken away from a person, then that person will not have even achieved the simplest of human accomplishments. Annihilating someone is making the world forget that he or she is a person: it is to become nameless. Perhaps the way to think of it is as in Kafka‘s Metamorphosis: Gregor is changed into a vermin/bug that has a working body and (for a while) can fulfill some commitments, but eventually is unable to communicate how his/its world has changed. At this point any future that Gregor had has been annihilated: the thing he became could continue living, but its life would bear no resemblance to what was formerly Gregor. If all evidence of Gregor’s history was erased, even if the thing he turned into still lived, then Gregor would be completely annihilated.

So to completely metaphysically die, you need to be dead (traditional), gone and forgotten.

Posted in Heidegger, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy. Tagged with , , , .

What is philosophy?

The question of what philosophy is always made me squirm. People would ask me what I do, I’d tell them, and then they would ask me what it exactly was that I do. But now I have a answer.

A while back I heard a quote attributed to Russell that went roughly:

Philosophy starts out with propositions that everyone would accept as true, and then ends up with propositions that no one would accept as true.

I thought this made philosophers sound like jerks, but there was something to it: we do end up in weird places for some reason. Here’s why:

Writing philosophy is like writing an instruction manual. You have some act or object or situation that you want to explain because it is hard to use or complicated or dangerous for some reason. So you set out to make a manual for the thing, starting from the most obvious and basic features. Now if you don’t know the thing perfectly, in and out, you end up having bad instructions, regardless of where you started. Then when you try to do something, or understand your object, when you follow the instructions you become hopelessly lost. Both your instructions and whatever the instructions were for are completely inscrutable. But if the instructions are good, then you can do things that were impossible for you to do before hand (program you VCR (or DVR), explain why mathematics is incomplete, that sort of thing). Philosophy is an attempt at writing instruction manuals for confusing things.

This answers the ontological questions of

  1. Whether or not philosophy is true: it is true if it accurately describes the phenomenon it is attempting to explain. However, since many times we are in the position of not knowing the phenomenon in question, philosophy is often of indeterminate truth.
  2. Why philosophy is inherently obscure: who ever reads the manual? (I do by the way)
  3. How best to characterize the strange layouts of philosophical treatises, a la manuals: the beginning is packed with warnings about what is wrong and and dangerous, then basic, most common functions are listed and the interesting and difficult features are buried in jargon somewhere towards the end.
  4. What are thought experiments: Thought experiments are to philosophy as visual aids/examples are to instruction manuals. They are not needed, but when you can connect the instructions to the actual objects you’re working with, everything becomes easier.

I’m sure this is somewhat silly but when someone presses me on what philosophy is, I’m telling them it’s pretty much writing instruction manuals for confusing stuff.

Posted in ontology, philosophy. Tagged with , .

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and a Gift of an Ontological Razor from Me to You!

There is no preferential ontological perspective.  I hope your new year is awesome.

Posted in metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, Relativity. Tagged with .