Tag Archives: metaphysics

On Metaphysical Proficiency

Are you good at metaphysics? How good are you at metaphysics?

When I consider these questions, the only sure thing is that there is no objective measure of metaphysical proficiency. I can’t even imagine standards by which we could judge it. It would be at least as hard to estimate as intelligence, and anyway, I doubt smarts correlates with metaphysical skill. Lots of smart people have said a lot of ridiculous things. I like to think that I’m better than the next guy, because, well, I like to think that. This reminded me of the old highway driving razor:

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac? — George Carlin

I’d amend it to say:

Everyone who is more dogmatic than you is an idiot and everyone who is less dogmatic than you is a maniac.

Perhaps we are the metaphysicians we think we are, but it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more metaphysically charitable.

Posted in metaphysics, philosophy. Tagged with , .

On Charitability

There is no such thing as a private reality.  By private reality I mean any portion of reality that you alone can experience, that no one else could possibly understand.

There is, however, reality that is yet unexperienced and unknown to you.  Others may have experienced it before you, like explorers who have been to a far away place.  If a philosopher is clever, it is possible that she found a way to imbue her words with such an experience.  Since there are no private realities, it is also possible that you may be able to extract those experiences.

The allure of philosophy is then the allure of the unknown, the exotic and unexplored.  To be charitable is to approach philosophy in search of some yet unknown bit of reality.

Under these circumstances it is futile to give specific instructions on how to be charitable; each of us must understand how to prepare ourselves for adventuring beyond the relative comfort of what we know.

If anything, have faith in yourself and do not make assumptions (even charitable ones) about what you are doing.

There is no such thing as a private reality.  By private reality I mean any portion of reality that you alone can experience, that no one else could possibly understand.

There is, however, reality that is yet unexperienced and unknown to you.  Others may have experienced it before you, like explorers who have been to a far away place.  If the philosopher was clever, it is possible that she found a way to imbue her words with that experience.  Since there are no private realities, it is also possible that you may be able to extract those experiences.

The allure of philosophy is then the allure of the unknown, the exotic and unexplored.  To be charitable is to approach a philosophical treatise in search of some yet unknown bit of reality.

Under these circumstances it is futile to give specific instructions on how to be charitable; each of us must understand how to prepare ourselves for adventuring beyond the relative confort of what we know.

If anything, have faith in yourself and do not make assumptions (even ones considered to be charitable) about what you are studying.

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

Of Duckrabbits and Identity

Of late I’ve become increasingly concerned with the meaning of identity.  When we say, ‘x = x,’ we don’t mean that the x on the left is exactly identical to the x on the right because the x on the left is just that, on the left, and the x on the right is on the right, not the left.  Since equality would be useless without having 2 different objects (try to imagine the use of a reflexive identity symbol, i.e., one that for whatever object it is applies to, indicates that the object  is identical with itself), there is something mysterious about the use of identity.

But what is the mystery?  It cannot be anything to do with the subjects being declared identical: these objects are arbitrary to the particular topic being discussed.  For example if I say ‘the morning star = the evening star’ then we are talking about planets, and if I say that ‘3 = y’ then I am talking about numbers.  The identity sign is the same in both, even though the objects being discussed are rather different.

It is easy enough to believe that by paying attention to the different objects being declared identical we can know how to act (some sort of context principle *cringe*).  But this doesn’t address the question specifically: although we can know how to use the identity symbol in specific instances, this tells us nothing about how identity works or what it means.

Take a look at this:

drthumb = drthumb

The picture is the same save for location on the webpage.

———–

But what if we call the one on the left a duck and the one on the right a rabbit: what is different?  The features obviously don’t change, only the way we are seeing (perceiving? apprehending? looking at? interpreting?)  the two images.

(Triple bonus points to anyone who can look at the two pictures at once and see one as a duck and the other as a rabbit. Hint- it is easier for me to do it if I try to see the one on the left as a rabbit and the one on the right as a duck… focus on the mouths.)

In this example, as opposed to the others discussed above, a decision was required to be made – to see one picture one way and the other another way – before the differences even existed.  Now, in the above examples it appeared that there was a difference of knowledge: at one point we didn’t know that the evening star and morning star were one and the same, or that y was equal to 3.  This isn’t the case when looking at identical duckrabbit pictures because there is nothing about the two pictures that is different; the difference is entirely in the mind.

Let me make a suggestion about how to describe the phenomenon of being able to see one image two different ways: the image can be instantiated in two different ways, i.e. it has an associated universe with a population of two.  There are two possible descriptions associated with this image and until we make a decision about how to describe it, the image is like an uninstantiated formula.

Identity, then, is an indication that the two associated objects are things that can be generalized to the same formula.  The picture of the duck and the picture of the rabbit can be called identical because they both have a single general formula (the duckrabbit picture) that can be instantiated into either.  The identity symbol indicates that the two associated objects are two instantiations of the same general thing, be it a number, planet or image (but not objects in space-time because that would be self-contradictory… space-time and instantiation, a topic for another day).

How identity works can now be identified: it is to instantiate and generalize.  Consider the mystery of how we see the duckrabbit one way or the other: no one can tell you how you are able to see the image one way or the other.  However, you are able to instantiate the image in one way and then another, and recognize that both the duck and rabbit are shown by the same image.

Instantiation and generalization are skills and the identity symbol between the two images above indicates that you have to use that skill to generalized both to one formula.  Most of the time it is non-trivial to instantiate or generalize in order to show two things (formulas) to be equal.  In the case of the duckrabbit it is trivial because the work went into the instantiation process (to see the images one way or the other); in the other examples the situation is reversed, such that we had the instantiations but not the general formula.  In all cases, though, only when we can go back and forth between different instantiations and a single generalization do we claim two things identical.

Posted in epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, wittgenstein. Tagged with , , , , .

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 , , , .

Paradox Analysis

Apropos my earlier rant on people who think that paradoxes are meaningless, I figured I ought to take a stab at giving some meaning to paradox. To this end I reformulated a paradox in my terms. I suppose I should called it the Mirror Paradox, though ‘Looking-Glass Paradox’ seems more lyrical and has an historical nod. My apologies to whoever actually came up with this first, though I am sure I haven’t heard it before…

In my room I have a full length mirror. If I look at the man in the mirror and point to him saying, “There I am!” then where am I? If I am the man on the other side of the mirror, then I am not sitting on this side of the mirror. However, the man on the other side of the mirror has just pointed at me and said that he is not on his side of the mirror, but on mine. So I am not on my side, nor is he on his side. But then neither of us are on our side or on our mirror self side.

Now with semantic paradoxes and the like, we don’t have an agreed upon framework for analyzing what is going on in a paradox. Many times it is a paradox that signals that some such theory is unsatisfactory. However, this paradox deals with locations of people, namely me and mirror me, and we do have a general consensus on judging objects’ locations: in physics we determine some object’s location with reference to some previously agreed upon location.

Let us ignore for the moment that mirrors do not actually open up into other dimensions that you could enter if only your reflection didn’t get in the way. All that is important is that we have an exact double of yourself that at the instant you declare that you are where he or she is, that person does the exact same thing.

Declaring your location relative to your reflection is no different than declaring your location relative to anything else. Your reflection simultaneously declaring its location relative you is likewise unproblematic on its own. However, since the two non-identical perspectives are associated with only one person, we have a disconnect between perspectives and the person who holds the perspectives.

This problem of perspective is most telling. In Russell’s Paradox, there is no problem, no obvious contradiction that is, until the question “Is this set self-membered?” has been asked and answered twice. The first time through is arbitrary, let us assume no: Russell’s set is not part of itself. Now we ask, “If it is not self-membered, then is this set not self-membered?” Now we answer yes and have arrived at a contradiction. There is no problem yet, we merely have to revise our assumption: let us assume that Russell’s set is included in itself. Of course, then we ask, “If it is self-memberd, then is this set not self-membered?” and our answer is no: contradiction. At this point the paradox exists, but not before. It required us to look at the one set from two perspectives, one in which it is self-membered and one in which it is not.

The comparison of assumptions and perspectives that is drawn here is a good one. Our perspective, in a different sense, is our background assumptions. When we have contradictory perspectives on a subject we have incompatible background assumptions. The Mirror Paradox pulls our background assumption of location out of the background. We all assume that one perspective is associated with one location, but when you declare that you are someplace else and your reflection does the same, then you end up with two perspectives.

We can’t tell before hand whether we can have more than one perspective or a set that is defined by non-self-membership. Therefore, since the problem occurs with the selection of assumptions or perspective, the meaning of paradoxes, semantic or otherwise, is that your fundamental background assumptions are problematic. Sure, each paradox will only pertain to that particular system that it exists in, but for that system it will signal the most important and deep underlying problems.

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A side note: I thought of this while in bed last night and didn’t look at a mirror until this afternoon, even though I do have that full length mirror. Then I actually did point and say “There I am!” It was a bit of a strange experience because for some fraction of time I felt like me and my mirror self were in some sort of vortex with the rest of the world frozen outside. Almost needless to say I was a bit surprised if not shocked- I wasn’t expecting a reaction. When philosophy grabs you, even for an instant, it is spooky. I suggest you try this and see if you have the same reaction if only because I don’t think there are other paradoxes to actually participate in, save becoming a very methodological barber. How often do you get to participate in an experiment that isn’t prefaced by ‘thought’? Between the small mirror in my bathroom and my full length mirror, the full length elicited a better reaction, so use a full length one if you can.

Posted in logic, philosophy, Relativity. Tagged with , , , , , , .

Are Paradoxes Meaningless?

Aaron Cotnoir has suggested that people think that paradoxes are meaningless.  I think they are lucky that they hadn’t suggested that to me unless they wanted to see me freak out.

It was my good fortune to have my first real exposure to the work of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein be from Thomas Ricketts.  I can’t remember verbatim what he said, but this is close:

No one knows how long it took Frege to understand what Russell had written in his letter (Russell’s Paradox), be it a few seconds, a minute, ten minutes or a few hours.  But we do know that at that moment his entire universe collapsed.

Only out of gross ignorance of history can anyone believe that paradoxes are meaningless.  Frege’s project up until Russell came along and spoiled everything was, at least in part, to give a firm foundation for mathematics based solely upon logic.  With just a few laws coupled with his newfound quantification he was able to provide a seemingly consistent theory and then also provide sophisticated philosophy of language to bolster his views.

There was probably a moment when Frege allowed himself to dare to think he’d solved one of the greatest mysteries of the universe.  Not only had he legitimately and demonstrably changed mathematics forever, but the ramifications of his theory were obviously far-reaching into philosophy and science.  Then Russell sent him that letter that struck at the very axioms of his theory.  It was a jugular shot and I can’t see Frege feeling other than like all the blood had been drained from his body.  Everything he had worked for was put in jeopardy.

So if anyone believes that paradoxes are meaningless, I suggest to go read some history.  Paradoxes can destroy. Any theory that comes along and says paradoxes are meaningless, is garbage.

Posted in logic, metaphysics, mind, philosophy. Tagged with , , , , , , , .

On The Scientific View of the World

Many people have a “scientific” view of the world. This means that the world operates according to the laws of science, i.e., there are no mysterious forces that cannot be explained by some combination of physics, biology, psychology, economics etc. It is a mistaken view.

The scientific view of the world can be summarized by this formulation:

S) The world is governed by science if and only if, given a specified way things are at a specific time, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.

If you believe the scientific view then, insofar as it is about the world, the scientific view itself must be a scientific fact.

There two cases:

  1. The scientific view was discovered.
  2. The scientific view was derived from some previously proven scientific statement(s).

Considering the first case we must ask if we have discovered the scientific view. Unfortunately no one has yet found a theory of everything and therefore it hasn’t been discovered.

This leaves discovering the scientific view by taking our individual scientific theories and generalizing them to include everything. The argument is that we have many theories that predict many things and if we only had enough, everything would be determined.

However, our individual scientific theories merely predict what will happen. No individual theory makes the claim that it governs nature, only the statement of the scientific view above makes that claim. For instance take gravity: it says that matter is attracted to itself with a certain amount of force. Nothing about the theory of gravity limits nature to following the theory of gravity. It is likewise for every other theory: each makes a specific prediction but is agnostic on how to interpret this prediction. Science cannot tell us that it is fundamentally controlled by laws.

What is left, the correct interpretation of science, is that science is a method for making continually better predictions about what will happen. As soon as the jump is made to believing that nature is controlled by our predictions, then science has been left behind and the murky philosophical world has been entered. This is not to say that there are mysterious forces that cannot be explained by some combination of physics, biology, psychology, economics etc. (though there are and always will be) but that this belief is not scientific.

Posted in metaphysics, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , .