The Academy as Business

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Some time ago many university administrators became enamored of the idea of the university as a business. In this model, students are customers, faculty are workers, and the universities, like soft drinks, become brands.

There is, of course, a business side to universities-fees, housing, services and so on. This side of the university should, of course, be run like a business. However, it seems to be a mistake to treat the entire university as a business.

One reason is that the student is not simply a customer who is being sold a product and service. Rather, the student is supposed to become part of a learning community and undergo a journey of education. The business model is to get the most money from the customer for the least possible return. This, as might be imagined, seems quite in contrast with what education is supposed to be all about.

A second reason is that adopting the business model seems to lead to adopting the tendency of businesses to focus on the good of the upper management rather than on the good of the employees and the customer. While administration is an important aspect of a university, the trend at many universities has been towards higher salaries for administrators relative to faculty (the people who do the actual teaching) and also an increase in the number of administrators. The impact on the university is similar to what is seen in the business world: those who perform the actual mission are underpaid, those who “administer” are often paid very well, and those who are supposed to be served find that they are getting less for their money. At my university, faculty have been let go, staff members have been fired, salaries of faculty and staff cut, class sizes have been increased, and so on. In contrast, the president has a base salary of $325,000 per year and is guaranteed a bonus of 25-35% of his base salary. For the faculty, the yearly bonus is getting a contact for next year. For the students, this situation means that it is harder to graduate on time because of the difficulty of getting into needed classes. It also means that there are more students per faculty member, which can dilute the education process (for example, my Intro to Philosophy class has 75 students when it is supposed to have 35).

A third reason is that adopting the business model leads to thinking of the university in terms of a profitable brand-presumably on par with a brand of soda or snack chip. This focus can lead to paying less attention to the university as an institution of education and more attention being focused on the commercial aspects. This sort of outlook can lead university officials to sound very much like corporate spokespeople when a problem arises. For example, in response to the tragic death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion in a suspected hazing incident, the president of the university wrote in a response letter that “preserving the image and the FAMU brand is of paramount importance to me.” What is more troubling is that this model also encourages university officials to act in ways intended to preserve the “brand” that can protect people who are doing rather bad things, as seems to be the case at Penn State. To be fair, an institution acting to conceal the misdeeds of its members is not unique to the business world (see, for example, the Catholic Church’s handling of the sex scandals). However, a business style culture does seem to encourage such behavior and the model of the institutional cover up is well grounded in the business world.

A fourth concern is that the university as business approach can be extremely detrimental to the students. The troubling problems with American for-profit colleges are have been a point of serious concern and they are generally seen as being rather predatory rather than pedagogical. While “conventional” colleges and universities have not yet fully embraced the for-profit model, this is clearly a danger.

A fifth concern is that the business approach grants administrators power over the academic aspects of the university. They can determine which classes are offered and who is retained (or fired) by using their control over the funding and other administrative aspects. While this is standard practice in business in which governance is not shared, universities have a practice of shared governance in which the faculty play a role in the governance. To put things a bit simply, the faculty are supposed to handle the academic aspects. This division is sensible, given that faculty are experts in their areas just as administrators are supposed to be experts in their areas. Having the non-academic administrators decide what classes can be offered is on par with assigning the faculty to set up the contracts for the bookstore, cafeteria services and so on.  Undermining shared governance is to erode the academic aspect of the academy in favor of the business aspect-and this cannot bode well for the education of the students.

I do agree that universities should be properly run and that there is clearly a role for the business approach at the academy. However, this should be limited to the aspects of the university that are, in fact, pure business.

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  1. Talking Philosophy | The Academy as Business | - pingback on December 12, 2011 at 4:27 am
  2. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I agree with you that education should not be a business.

    One of the issues in the Chilean student movement (which I’ve written about before in your blog) is the fact that many Chilean universities are businesses, operated for a profit.

    In fact, one American business corporation (the Phoenix Group) has invested in some Chilean institutions of higher learning.

    In order to increase profits, higher education institutions try to enroll as many students as possible, assuring them brilliant futures in the areas which they study.

    As a English teacher, I’ve worked with students who are studying translation in for-proft universities and those universities are simply swindling the students and their parents.

    Many of those students don’t have the least feeling for language and will not be able to earn a living as a translator if they study 250 years.

    A lawyer friend who works at another for-profit university teaching law students remarked that none of her students have the basic reasoning abilities to practice law, but are promoted every year as long as they pay.

    At one for-profit university that I know of, teachers are told to treat students not as students, but as customers, and of course the customer is always right, as long as he or she is making the monthly payments on time.

  3. s. wallerstein (amos)

    It’s called the Apollo Group. They own the University of Phoenix.

    By the way, Mike, I admire your courage in speaking out about your employer. Even if you have tenure, they always find a way to screw people who speak out.

  4. Mike,

    You said “The business model is to get the most money from the customer for the least possible return.” That may be the problem right there. If the business model is to produce a product of value and sell it at a fair market price you would solve a lot of your problems.

  5. “student is not simply a customer who is being sold a product and service. Rather, the student is supposed to become part of a learning community and undergo a journey of education”

    That then is the product.

    The business challenge is how to get the most of that for the least expenditure….

    I learn a lot at university that is applicable in business. I learnt a lot in business that is applicable to university…

    Scream less, learn more. Profit can either go to feed the shareholders, or provide more and better services to whoever is deemed worth supplying them to.

    More and bigger libraries, computing facilities, sought after academics? They all cost money.

  6. This is quite a grim departure from your usual posts. I’m relatively grim myself, so I like it.

    The modern Academy is a fascinating entity. Ideally, it should be a place where we satisfy the intellectual needs of the public, by introducing discipline where there would otherwise be whimsy; but in practice we slide into situations where we are in the business of satisfying their desire for belonging. Ideally, it should be a place of collegial governance, where both halves of the Secretariat (Board of Governors and Senate) treat each other as equals; but increasingly all the leverage is being transferred to the Board, and the Senate becomes a rubber stamp body. Ideally, it should be a place where instructors are judged according to their merits, determined by a balance of qualitative judgments that can be coherently applied; but increasingly, we’re seeing a split between three Academic tracks, the instructor class (who aim to make a positive impact upon students), the research class (who aim to make a positive impact on the literature), and the collegial class (who aim to make a positive impact upon their peers).

    I worry about the impact of administrative influence has upon the disciplines themselves. As Mike pointed out, the administrator’s influence is arguably getting larger, and the autonomy of the professors getting smaller. The use of precarious labor (i.e., contract faculty) has become normalized, decreasing the number of those in the tenure stream, and forcing research agendas to be dictated by the few Dr. Wunderbars who are lucky enough to achieve positions of influence.

    Still, as the administrator’s encroachment upon academic integrity grows more and more, one can always console themselves with the idea that the disciplines have maintained a sense of dignity, an inner citadel of strength that in theory always triumphs over historical adversity. But the defences of this inner citadel depend entirely on the quality of introspection of the tenured class themselves. I’m happy to see some improvements as far as this goes. e.g., before the Philosophical Gourmet, there was the potential for a kind of intolerable aristocracy to professional philosophy; now, with this resource, philosophers have started to force themselves to get a better grasp of what a wider range of their fellow philosophers actually do think about the quality of work being done in their field. But the Gourmet is far from perfect, and I hope to see even more improvements during my lifetime.

  7. “The business model is to get the most money from the customer for the least possible return.
    A second reason is that adopting the business model seems to lead to adopting the tendency of businesses to focus on the good of the upper management rather than on the good of the employees and the customer.”

    I don’t disagree with the overall theme of your post, having seen similar things myself, but the two statements I have quoted above are, in my view, wide of the mark.

    In business only monopolies can ignore the good of the customer (of course, “good” can be perceived in different ways, so a perceived “good” might not be an actual “good” — health scams being a prime example — but that is a different issue). In the real world, any business that ignores the customer does not survive for long.

    I think there is also some benefit to regarding students as “customers”. When I studied at university (quite some time ago), there was some very good teaching but there was also a lot of very, very bad teaching. And there were lecturers who treated students in appalling ways which would not be at all acceptable now (speaking as a lecturer myself).

    “However, a business style culture does seem to encourage such behavior and the model of the institutional cover up is well grounded in the business world.”

    But, as you say and demonstrate, the “cover up” is not unique to the business world. I would argue, in fact, that the “cover up” is well established for all institutions and the worst offenders are government departments.

  8. s.wallerstein,

    Excellent points. As you note, a rather serious concern with the for-profit school is that the purpose is profit rather than education. While private schools need to have the income to stay in existence, their model is still the educational model and (at least in all the schools I am familiar with) academic integrity is important. However, a for-profit school has a rather different function, namely to make money. While the students might initially think that getting passed at a for profit school is great, they will actually be rather ill-prepared for a career and also poorly educated.

  9. s.wallerstein,

    My motivation in being critical of the business model is for the good of the students and the university. Like a (very) lesser Socrates, I think I am obligated to be a bit of a gadfly-at least when doing so is the right thing.

    Socrates’ story had a happy ending, right? 😉

  10. Bill,

    True-a business model based on selling a valuable product at a fair market price would be an improvement over that model. However, even that model would seem to be a problem for education. After all, education is not simply a matter of selling a student a product or service.

  11. Leo Smith,

    On one hand, I get what you mean-that can be seen as being the product. On the other hand, to see this as a product seems to diminish it to the level of a bottle of soda and thus miss something important about education.

    As far as universities go, I do agree that there is a clear business side that should be run as a business. However, the academic side has another distinct mission. To use an analogy, a marriage has a financial side and a non-financial side. The money matters of the family should generally be handled in a business-like manner. However, to then say that the other aspects of a marriage (at least a healthy marriage) are simply business would seem to be a mistake.

  12. Keith,

    Businesses do need to focus on customers, however they do not have to treat customers particularly well to stay in business. Look, for example, at how customers rate many profitable tech companies in terms of customer service and so on. I do agree that a smart business person treats customers well (or at least well enough so that the cost of treating them well is still well below the profits). Businesses generally just need to reach a basic level of treating their customers-and these days this is rather low.

    I used to find some appeal in the customer model. However, I do prefer the student model. After all, I can have obligations to students without them being seem as just customers. A lecturer who is not doing a good job can be seen as not living up to his/her duties rather than just being seen as providing poor customer service.

    I would agree that the government folks are also quite good at cover ups-we should not adopt that model either. 🙂

  13. s. wallerstein (amos)

    One reason why education as a business does not function is the nature of the good involved.

    If I buy an apple from someone who sells apples, when I bite into the apple, I taste whether it is a good apple or a bad one. If it is bad, I might not buy apples again from that apple-seller.

    It’s basically the same process if I buy a pair of jeans, of shoes or a meal in a restaurant.

    However, let’s say someone decides to study translation in a for-profit educational institution.

    That person is only going to be able to reality-test the results of their education many years later when he or she faces the job market and needs to compete with other translators.

    Meanwhile, she or her family will
    pay important sums of money to an institution which promises that they are delivering real translation skills and which may not be doing so.

    She will be guided by teachers, who are in some sense masked salespeople, that is, one of the roles of the teacher is to keep the student studying and paying the yearly tuition. I know that from personal experience at for-profit language schools.

    Thus, the teachers, to defend their own jobs, will give high grades to students who actually should be counselled to study something else if they want to be successful in life, especially in the case of translation where new software is gradually making the job obsolete, except in the case of very fine translation work which few people can do.

    Since university study tends to be seen as a vehicle of upward social mobility, very few families of youth who study many subjects have the cultural skills to be able to evaluate if the for-profit university is really teaching their children, say, foreign languages or legal skills or
    journalism, since the families do not speak foreign language nor are they familiar with the world of the legal profession.

    In fact, for-profit higher education is the perfect swindle.

  14. Benjamin,

    I blame the eggnog for my grimness. 😉

    Like you, I do worry about the increasing imbalance in favor of administrators. I first really noticed this years ago when I was assigned to a committee. During one meeting, an administrator presented the view that faculty should teach standardized courses with the content, book and so on set by the university. A dean pointed out the importance of academic freedom as well as noting that faculty are hired because they are supposed to be experts rather than merely serving up pre-packaged material. The administrator thought this was a bad idea-from her perspective, this was a defective practice that caused no end of problems.

    Professors, especially philosophers, often seem to be ill-equipped to defend against the encroachment. While it is a stereotype, professors are often more interested in their fields than in administration. Also, many of us are rather busy teaching classes, grading, researching and advising and thus have little time to engage in a defensive battle on top of these duties. Of course, we are often now forced into such things and I spend a fair amount of time collecting data, engaging in assessment and defending the very existence of the philosophy & religion unit. Colleagues at other schools also tell me of similar experiences and there is some real concern that we will eventually spend as much time on metrics as we do on education and research.

    Philosophers are often especially vulnerable to attacks-after all, we are often painted as useless, ivory-tower dwellers who contribute nothing of worth. Interestingly, the latest obsession with critical thinking has provided an excellent means of defense-provided that we are willing to take up that shield.

  15. Jim,

    That’s good-like everyone, I’m all for a happy ending. I assume I get to ride a horse off into the sunset (since I am an American).

  16. Certainly, critical thinking is at the front lines. It’s a practical skill, and everybody needs it.

    The most peculiar feature of the critical thinking courses that I’m involved in is that we emphasize an appreciation for work being done in social psychology. Philosophers need to be able to articulate folly in terms of social and cognitive biases — that is, how we reason badly. Telling someone that they’re falling prey to a structural bias is much easier to explain than telling them that they’re affirming the consequent, even in cases where this just amounts to the same damn thing.

    But what particular critical thinking skills do people really want to learn? I think what people gravitate towards the idea of critical thinking under fire. They want to know what it looks like when you have to think fast, but also think sensibly. Along those lines, it’s an effective exercise to have alumni who work in highly skilled non-academic careers come in to explain the benefits of critical thinking in their lives.

  17. Mike: I ran two businesses.

    People were always saying I was obsessed with money. I wasn’t. However without a profit both businesses and circa 70 employees would have not been there,

    Many small businesses and family businesses are not about the money. BUT without making a profit – or not making a loss – they cease to exist.

    I imagine that most people here have not run businesses, nor actually been required to make a profit at anything.

    At which point an academic snobbishness creeps in and one can lump anyone who does, in with large listed corporates whose only raison d’etre is the profits they bring shareholders.

    The corner shop, the man selling newspapers..the shoeshine boy. These are all businesses. Even a busker or a beggar or a drug dealer is in business.

    Business is at its heart doing something you are good at, in return for someone else doing for you what they are good at.

    Money is used as a time independent representation of the balance of activity.

    There is absolutely no reason why education could or should not be run along business lines and it would benefit enormously from business disciplines.

    Paid for education has been sought after for many years, for good reasons too. The parents liked the product they were buying. THEY got the choice as to what their children received, it was not dictated by the states indoctrination system.

    Personally I far prefer not for profit colleges, and state grants to those deemed worth it, so they may be spent where they will, or indeed augmented..but that doesn’t mean that a good education can be bought for cash irrespective of ability.

    Nor does it mean that only curricula leading to maximal earnings of the graduates are all that will result: That erroneous assumption is based on the principle that all anyone cares about is money.

    In fact that really is the point. This concern over for-profit schools/academies is really a concern that after all, left to their own devices without the State to watch over them, the great unwashed are all just grubby little money grabbers who cant be trusted to raise their snouts above the trough down which the gravy train runs?

    Or is it that the protesters know that is what they already are, and are concerned that in a free market they simply are not able to compete on quality?


    Really MOST of the concerns voiced in the original article boil down to one thing; Don’t let accountants run anything. Its well known that bean counters destroy industries if they do!. But that is down to the individual status of the organization. Whether its ‘for profit’ or ‘not for profit’.

    If people would take the trouble to learn enough accountancy and general business theory themselves then they could HIRE accountants and bean counters and direct them as needed.. I did. The result is we were an ENGINEERING company that also managed to make a profit, rather than a profitable company that happened to do engineering.

    That is down to the CEO and making sure you owe as little money as possible. Radical concept. Don’t borrow money. I never did. Result is freedom of operation.

    Once again you have to contrast a private business with a listed one: In a listed one the CEO is an employee: his natural instinct is to preserve his position by making a profit and pay himself as much as possible. In a private business the CEO IS the shareholder.

    In a listed business the temptation is to borrow money to acquire a bigger empire so the employee at the top can pay himself lots of dosh. So a risky highly leveraged model results. Think banksters.

    But it doesn’t have to be like that. Its not the capitalism per se that produces that, its a particular context – that of listing of companies, and corporate structures and legal frameworks that lead directly to that. You don’t need to list and you don’t need to draw up the company charters in that way.

    Those readers outside the UK may be interested to read this link

    as an example of how a for-profit organization nevertheless manages to steer those profits towards its employees, in this case.

    It would be as easy to set up organisations whose declared legal purpose is to send its profits towards its pupils in whatever way deemed relevant.

    The key to this is to keep the thing run by academics for the purposes of education, avoid shareholders like the plague unless they are in it for the same purpose, and avoid debt as well, as far as possible, but at least debt is only concerned with being repaid and seldom has the power to sack the CEO.

    That means the people you become responsible to, for the success of the business, are its customers alone. And they are the people who are paying for what services it offers. IF they then decide that the product is not worth paying for, well, at some level if you are offering a course in the impact of feminism and gay liberation on nuclear power plant design, and no one wants it..sorry. Go flip burgers.

    In the UK at secondary level the most sought after schools are businesses that deliver what is presumably perceived by those that pay, as a quality product.

    The top universities are also businesses. The only difference in reality between those and directly state run or state funded institutions is that the latter have to please the state, whereas the former please the actual parents.

    And the latter therefore become state instruments of political correctness indoctrination, rather than education.

    That of course is easily solved by doing as many other countries do, subsidising the pupil/parent, not the establishment.

    A minor change resisted to the grim death by the Left, as it seems that political indoctrination, not education, is actually the desired product..

    Business is not a dirty word. Greed is.
    Don’t confuse the two.

  18. I would say that perhaps the university should be seen as a community that operates a business. The idea of students as members of a community is all very well when they are not asked to get into debt for attending, as in the 1960s. Nowadays, the teachers in contrast are paid pretty handsomely by some standards. That is a commercial transaction rather than a community. The idea of a community of learning is a valuable one – as found in Francis Bacon for example – but it is wider than the university system.

    I also think there should be a distinction in fees between professional training and liberal education. It is less reasonable to charge fees when the people paying them are not being taught the means to earn the money to repay them, but are acting as scholars making a sacrifice of time and energy for the sake of playing non-remunerative roles in society e.g. as political activists or readers of books.
    [This relates to the UK system, where undergraduate fees are paid for by loans that are added to graduate tax bills.]

  19. If your central point is “horse’s for causes” then I totally agree.

    The main purpose of education, is what should be served (all the time & everytime)- and even in running the business aspects of the educational institutions, education should still be the primary objective.

    I guess the only where you could suggest ommercialising or run things in a business way,maybe how higher education translates research into commercial use.

    Otherwise the empahasis should surely, always be on the faculty. Therefore most of the investments should go to faculties – you would have thought.

  20. Benjamin,

    I do worry that critical thinking has become an academic fad that is used to justify various things and to give themes to conferences. But, if this is the price to be paid to get the folks who control the budgets to take thinking seriously, I suppose it is worth it.

    One concern I do have is that when critical thinking is pushed, there also seems to be a background rejection of “non-critical thinking.” That is, thinking that is more abstract than concrete, more “philosophical” than “practical.” One of my colleagues has the view that there is a movement to restore “peasant education” in which students are taught to fill jobs and think within such confines, but are not fully educated as citizens.

  21. Leo,

    In my original post I agreed that universities have a business side that needs to be run like a business. Buildings must be maintained, supplies bought, students registered and so on. These are all legitimate administrative and business tasks. My main concern is with treating the academic aspect of the university as if it were just part of the business and administrative aspects. In fact, it would be amazingly great if the “business side” of any school were run extremely well. That would allow more resources to be used for the main function of the university, namely education. As such, you are right to call me to task for seeming to blast the “business” approach in general. I should have been specific in regards to my concern being with the fact that universities seem to be adopting business models that are bad for the “customers” and “employees”, but often beneficial for the upper management.

    As far as for profit based schools, my concern is not with them making profit. My concern is that they have been, in practice, so horrible that the US congress was forced to hold hearings to address their many failings. If they had proven to be excellent systems of education, I would have applauded them for their success.

    I’m rather against indoctrination. I do cover political philosophy and ethics, but make a point of focusing on teaching the students to think and evaluate, rather than merely to consume a set line. As I tell them in regards to their papers, their grade is based on how well they make their case, not on whether they manage to match what I happen to think or not.

    As I’ve noted, I have no objection to business. My objection is to the adoption of what you might well call “greedy” models of the business world. I do, of course, also object to the “business” aspects of the school infringing unjustly into the academic aspects (or the other way-which seems to happen rather less often).

  22. Stephen,

    Oh, if only my salary (and I ) were handsome. 🙂

    Those are reasonable concerns-should society be spending resources to help fund liberal education or should the focus be placed more on training people to work in specific sorts of jobs (or something else)? In the US we are seeing a major push towards STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) and there is considerable push against the liberal arts on the mistaken grounds that people with liberal arts degrees do not get jobs (they actually do).

  23. The idea of treating students or pupils as customers is surely not a good one. It has been the maxim of some business organisations that the customer is always right, So far as students go this attitude is not in the best interest of the students who are so often plainly wrong. Offend in please, in my opinion the object in education is to educate. Certain firm standards have to be set, the material has to be has to be carefully organised and updated as necessary and moreover presented clearly with a good understanding of the kind of problems which say an undergraduate is likely to face in the light of his/her inexperience and general lack of knowledge. In the final analysis the onus should be fully on the student to achieve the highest grade of which he/she is capable.
    I suppose it is possible to offer this educational process as a product for purchase, which I guess is the case with the fee paying English Public schools. So far as I know they are quite successful as educators, but they do largely attract the offspring of wealthy parents, and the offspring may well have inherited the mental acumen and or abilities of the parent which in its turn led to wealth.
    Cheap and nasty things with little to recommend them other than a very persuading publicity campaign, will often sell very well; “it is easy” sells better than “it is hard” and this certainly must be a danger sign where education is concerned. A lowering of educational standards seems inevitable.
    Mike writes “I have no objection to business. My objection is to the adoption of what you might well call “greedy” models of the business world.” I agree with this, and feel that in the event of a confrontation between “making a good profit” and “offering the best education” the former may well prove more attractive to the mind which is predominately business orientated.
    I note Mike also says “there is considerable push against the liberal arts on the mistaken grounds that people with liberal arts degrees do not get jobs (they actually do).” I agree; surely the liberal arts gives one a very wide choice of career, whereas say a chemist is initially limited to whatever Chemistry alone embraces.

  24. Don:

    The student is not the customer – unless he/she is paying out of his/her pocket.

    The parent is, or the sponsor.

    So far we have three proposals as to who ultimately dictates the nature of the ‘product’

    1/. Government diktat: the state funded academy.

    2/. The academics themselves: Private not or for profit funded academy. Where the academics themselves find the funding.

    3/. The parents or sponsors who pay for the course.

    The ONLY people who benefit from 2/. are the academics.

    Which one would YOU send YOUR child to?

  25. Leo,

    This could be seen as false trilemma-after all, there need not be one sole master of the academy.

    As far as the government goes, since the state does direct funding to schools, then it makes sense that the state (who is supposed to be acting by the will of the people using the peoples’ money) would have a stake in ensuring that the money is not being wasted and that the schools are doing a proper job. This is comparable to other forms of state oversight, such as with the environment. On the minus side, when certain ideologies come to dominate a state, then an ideology can be pushed onto schools (for example, the push in Florida is for state schools to create job fillers for the job creators while the liberal arts are cut).

    As far as the academics go, faculty are supposed to be professionals in their field. To use an analogy, medical decisions would seem to be best made by medical professionals and likewise academic decisions would seem to be best made by academic professionals. Naturally, there should be some oversight to avoid academics from falling into corruption and other such traps. In my own experience, most professors seem to be reasonably concerned with doing what is good for the students.

    The parents or sponsors can get input via the state. However, how would it work to have the parents or sponsors managing the classes? Would you suggest that they simply not send their kids to schools they dislike, that there be a sponsor/parent board that sets class content, or some other system?

  26. Coincidentally, I had a committee meeting today and I brought up a distinction in types of critical thinking. In my state (and the US in general), there is a push for critical thinking as it relates to training job fillers for the job creators. However, there does seem to also be another “mode” of critical thinking that goes beyond merely solving work problems-namely being critical across the board.

    As a professor, I do think I am obligated to correct false beliefs. However, I also have to be very careful to avoid inflicting my mere beliefs on others as the truth. While I do discuss the argument from design in my intro and Modern class, I do not try to get the students to believe that the claim “the universe is designed” is false, if only because I am not sure that the claim is, in fact, false.

    I would agree that the “straw man” Creationism (the sort that says that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, etc) that gets bashed about b y atheists and even put forth by certain believers (thus, perhaps, making it not a straw man in such a context) is a false belief.

  27. I have to agree with Jim: Having spent an entire evening debating with and listening to a Creationist I cam assure you that there is no demonstrable falsehood in the ontology: It merely rests on a different set of assumptions.

    Namely that the King James Bible contains the only truth and is the literal word of god.

    All else is illusion

  28. ..and that is the point about belief. Its beyond false or true.

    False and true are relative to an ontology (if that is the right word). Belief is something that defines the whole ontology itself.

    Even if its the belief that all the world is, is the material stuff that appears to be there. Stuck in the space time boat sailing gaily into the future…

  29. Leo,

    Some specific creationist claims can be disproven. For example, the folks who claim that humans and dinosaurs co-existed have it wrong. Sophisticated design arguments do seem to be consistent with the available evidence, though.

  30. Jijm,

    Skepticism is always an option. However, it is generally not an interesting option. After all, if it is assumed that we cannot know anything and thus anything could be true (or false) then there would seem to be little else to say. In fact, the true skeptic would seem to be one who would simply be silent. 🙂

  31. Returning to Boghossian’s student; She speaks of what her Belief is, her absolute Belief as she states it. My inclination here would be to point out that a belief absolute or not, can be either true or false. This being the case she would be on firmer ground were she to substitute for Belief, the word Faith. This then without disadvantage to her views, distances herself from those who deal in truth and falsity. I think a similar argument can be found in the precepts of Non-Overlapping Magisteria proposed by Stephen Jay Gould.

  32. Jim : I didn’t mean to be obscure. Perhaps an example makes the difference.

    IF you take as the most fundamental truth the literal truth of the Bible THEN it is perfectly possible to create an ontology that is entirely self consistent and logical, places the earth at 5000 years old at which point a miraculous event that ended up in the creation of a universe that APPEARS to be much older, occurred.

    That BELIEF that the truest thing there ever was is the Bible, rather than the evidence of your senses directly, is what separates the creationist from the material realist.

    I am not here to argue either way, beyond noting that material realism is to my mind more functional.

    Because the truth content of either view is unfalsifiable. When we map from experience into a model of the world, we have to do it according to some ruleset. That’s what I mean by creating an ontology – a words and pictures phenomenal story in space and time to describe experience. The creationist’s and the scientist’s ontology are very similar – the key difference is the material realist posits a noumenal suite of natural laws of blind mechanical stupidity behind the phenomena. Whereas the creationist posits the intelligent work of a supernatural intelligence.

    Mutatis mutandis the results are virtually identical. The difference is that one view tends to make everything we do meaningful and purposeful, and under some nice dudes personal supervision – its a cosy framework. And it contains what a creationist called the ‘manual of life’ a a pre prepared moral and ethical framework as evimved by the Scriptures..

    The other is terrifying, utterly implacable and completely oblivious to humanity, and has nothing whatever to say about morality or ethics whatsoever.

    And that scares people.

    Anyway that’s what I meant by ‘all ontologies are faith based etc.’

    Right onto Mike..Yes, its quite true to say that *within* an ontology such as creationism there are true and false beliefs depending on exactly what the primary assumptions are: I would say the true creationist would assert that Satan managed to put the dinosaur bones there to confuse the minds of the less than righteous with false evidence that leads to a denial of god etc etc. The true facts are of course since they are not mentioned in the bible, they never existed other than inanimate rocks in the first place.;-)

    Again that is an unassailable position: You either buy into materialism into creationism, or as in my case, into neither. The views compete, and deny the fundamental precepts on which the other is based, but there is no golden rule to work out which one is in fact ‘true’ because ‘true’ is a statement that has no meaning outside of a given ontology. Hence the need for faith ..that bit the Church HAS got right.

    ..carrying on to your point to Jim, it is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this whole mess that we call philosophy and everything: Namely if we cannot be sure anything is true, what on earth is to be done?

    I might write that up over the holiday – ‘After enlightenment: a practical guide to living with utter uncertainty’ 🙂

    Suffice to say that at least within an ontology the truth content of propositions is evaluable in terms of the rules of that ontology. So one can see false logic and false deduction for what it is and discard it.

    The problem comes when we attempt to relate to the ‘a priori’ postulates of an ontology as ‘true’ or ‘false’ we cant do that – those postulates are defined to be true, not discovered to be true.

    The problem of fairies at the bottom of the garden resolves simply into the definition of what the words mean. If fairies are smallish furry and brown with sharp teeth that live in burrows and take fallen apples, well then I’ve got lots of em!

    The is a counter to this however and that is that ontologies are practical things and they have to work.

    If they do work we can say with some justification that the a priori assumptions on which they are based are at least useful if not more true than the ontologies which don’t work so well.

    Faith in Jesus is not, for example, as effective a way to construct and fly an aircraft as faith in the basic existence of the material world and the natural laws that govern it. Score one for materialism. If you like flying.

    OTOH materialism is useless at giving any meaning or purpose to life whatsoever. Or determining how to tell the difference between good and evil, let alone coming up with pragmatic ways to address the problems of them. Score one for Jesus..;-)

    Which is where the post enlightenment story starts. What ontologies are there that are useful, and for what purpose may they be used, in the sure and certain knowledge that there is no sure and certain knowledge to enable the truth content of any of them to be established?

    That is where I consider the discussion is worth engaging in.

    And where I personally think that modern philosophy has missed the intellectual boat. Its still arguing the details of tired old ontologies long past their sell by date all of which are flawed – though many are still useful. We need new ones. A new religion if you like. Custom designed for the 21st century and one that as Aleister Crowley did, is encapsulated in a book that plainly says on the cover

    “The Book of Lies”.

    To make the point that the Truth, with capitals, is an unattainable thing, although one can discern sometimes a general direction.

  33. Faith is a much better term. If I jump from a springboard into a pool I have faith that it’s water and not concrete. I may have tested it, before I climbed up, but I have no way of really knowing till I jump..

    There’s a phrase from a book I read..’act AS IF something were the case, whilst accepting it may not be.’…as one acts AS IF one will be alive tomorrow never knowing if some random event will render it a false belief.

    I more or less act AS IF the Christian mythology were true, not because I believe it is, but because it is part of the cultural framework I inhabit and mostly people don’t hate you for being more or less nice.(some actually do, which is interesting).

    Which may actually be all Jesus meant anyway.

  34. Leo,

    Are you an old school sophist? If so, that would be awesome.

  35. Well IF you tell me WTF an old school sophist is, I’ll tell you.. 🙂

    Id like to be awesome, but I suspect the reality is a little less…

    I am just a relic from the 1960’s, here to keep the principles of thinking from first principles, instead of received wisdom, alive..

  36. Ben Ginsberg (Johns Hopkins) just released a book on this subject, “The Fall of the Faculty“. I just nabbed it off of the shelf today with this thread in mind.

  37. Re:- Leo Dec 15

    Two points occur to me here. You say “Because the truth content of either view is unfalsifiable.” Surely all scientific statements are by their nature falsifiable. For instance we only need one instance of a dinosaur being found whose remains prove to be present day to know that all Dinosaurs are not extinct. Again Human remains found amongst dinosaur fossils would falsify that the case that these two creatures never existed concurrently. How you would falsify religious beliefs? I do not know because by their very nature they are unfalsifiable.
    The second point concerns your problem with Truth, which I assume you mean what is indisputably the case. This is not an easy problem to solve, if in fact there is a problem at all. Life seems a lot easier if you ditch the search for Truth and consider degrees of probability from the evidence you have. Even The atheist Richard Dawkins states in his book ‘The God delusion’ “God almost certainly does not exist” thus the door is left most minutely ajar hardly worth considering, but there just in case.
    We ask therefore on the evidence before us what is most probably the best explanation.

  38. Don: the point is that religion is NOT scientific: it does not in, its cleanest form, make statements about things that exist within the ontology of Realism, which is the ontology that science ‘discovers’.

    It sort of goes like this.

    “There exists a material world of which we are a part, and yet we stand apart from it in order to objectively analyses it.”

    That’s materialism and science is its product.

    Or consider Shopenhauer..”There exists a thing in itself, and a part of it called Will brings into being a representation of it that is the material world as we know it, but it is not the thing in itself.”

    That’s pretty close to Eastern religion at one sort of level or another.

    Or a fundamentalist Christian POV which might be

    “There exists a timeless eternal being who through His Will cased the material world to come onto being, complete and more or less perfect in a very short space of time a few thousand years ago. Human beings are like little splinters of Him and if they behave according to his instruction manual, they will return to him and all the hassle will stop. And everything will be Much Better.’

    What strikes ME is how CLOSE these are.
    Therefore I see them all as imprecise fumblings in a generally similar direction towards something that is certainly beyond our current understanding, because in the limit, we don’t actually understand it.*

    The difference is in the amount of consciousness and intelligence is placed in whatever lies behind the world of phenomena: materialism
    makes it blind mechanism, Eastern religions or Shopenhauer make it somewhat spiritual and supernatural, but not necessarily having a personality as it were, whereas Christianity goes the whole hog and gives it personality, intention and intelligence: All very HUMAN qualities.

    The point is you cant really prove any of these fundamental propositions WRONG.

    Because they are not observational data: They are ways to *understand the data*, to provide a mental framework within which things can be sorted and CATEGORISED (a la Kant) into a framework of entities, and causal relations, of both quality and quantity.

    Truth in the end is not a can of beans you find, open and gulp down, its a progression towards refining the metaphysical nature of the propositions, and redefining the propositions to be more USEFUL.

    Which is why I see metaphysics as less an exercise in definition or analysis, but more an exercise in creativity: Having thrown all the traditional stuff out of the window, one finds a need to have some ad hoc position, because without position there is no viewpoint, and without a viewpoint there is no view, and without a view, there is no self to reflect that view into. Nor is there an ontology, or any study thereof.

    Which is why I have a view, but I deny any belief in it: I am all too aware it is transient, ad hoc, and simply ‘where I find it best to stand at this minute in time’. If it limits me, I discard it and ‘choose to believe;’ in something else.

    But this is getting a long way from the topic, except insofar as it reflects a general personal inclinations towards pragmatism: If it works, use it, but dont BELIEVE in its precepts to the pint of forgetting why you used it in the first place.

    I,.e here you are perhaps, and academic who is upset because really he wants another top lecturer in – say – critical thinking – and yet the poor man can’t lecture of he’s dressed in rags, cold, hungry and sick. He needs a certain amount of material wealth to fix that, you feel, so you learn about how to leverage money into tangible benefits better, and you learn how to acquire more.

    So far so good, BUT the trap is to then become so involved in fighting the crocodiles you forget the whole point was to drain the swamp, as the saying goes.

    Pursuit of money beyond the original requirements becomes a secondary goal that takes over the whole game.

    Its one pf a lare class of life problems where in oder to achive a final aim, you adopt a stemporay aim, and this may indeeed trap you completely.

    I feel that way very much about conventional religion: Its is a great temporary goal, and it takes you from total ignorance to a sense of something more (as indeed does science) but in the end its limiting: you get obsessed about it, and it no longer illuminates, it imprisons. I think that’s really where Dawkins gets his passion from.. BUT methinks he doth protest too much….

    On you final paragraph, the problem is that the word ‘best’ already carries a weight of value judgement in it.

    I cant say what’s ‘best’ in abstract terms: but I do know when I personally feel better or worse, and my social morality/ethical base is probably no more subtle that to want to be able to pursue that for myself, as long as it really doesn’t affect anyone else too much in a way THEY find ‘bad’.

    At a more confrontational level, I do think that I do make people unhappy deliberately as a puzzle to solve: In a strange way the art of being a complete swine is to work out the inconsistencies in peoples’ world view find their weaknesses, and use them to tie them up in knots, so they thereby may gain strength and insight by developing their points of view. In this sense illogic and hypocrisy are the enemies of every individual creating tensions within the self as one part denies the conclusion of the other.

    So at a personal level that’s not a good thing if you feel, as I do, faintly unhappy around people who are miserable through every fault of their own..they may in fact LIKE being miserable, and that’s OK, they will dismiss me, and I will dismiss them. If they are NOT, then I do the mean thing..

    * what we don’t understand ultimately is the prime cause of any relationship of causality. Causality itself is defined as an infinite chain: But we seem happier with and infinite future, than with an infinite past, ergo we need an explanation for “why anything? why this thing?”

  39. Apologies for the rotten editing above. Been in hospital this morning for some chemo, and its weirded me out a bit.

  40. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Distressed to hear that you’re receiving chemotherapy and I hope that things turn out okay for you.

  41. The old school sophists had the view that truth is subjective (although some limited this to the normative realm) and most said that one should just go along with the views (morality, religion, etc.) of the time.

  42. Benjamin,

    I assume that we will be replaced by robots, just like everyone else. In some ways, this might not be far from the truth-there is a push towards creating packaged classes that can be served up online. Once the packages are created, universities could hire part time people to do whatever grading is not automated and to serves as “teaching assistants” to the package.

  43. Leo,

    Sorry to hear about the chemo. Good luck with the recovery.

  44. OK Mike..that sort of makes sense on the old school sophists.

    I think I would say that all humanly accessible truth is relative, so no hope of an absolutely true statement about the ‘thing in itself’ exists within a model of it.

    And the thing in itself is its own only true statement..even IIRC the quantum, theorists acknowledge that the information content of the universe needs the universe to store it in, ergo all models are reductionist – lossy compressions of what is there in quantum bit terms.

    Even in the real world of normal classical events, its very possible to get tangled up in ridiculous searches for truths and definitions – I read half a book on metaphysics..seems to written by someone who couldn’t think, as a primer for those who were probably going to become marketing executives..anyway ‘the problem of identity: when is a thing not the same thing it was last week (or a millisecond ago)’

    Mindless drivel. In strict terms it never is the same thing for a picosecond. Life is always changing, and all things change, in time. So a snapshot of reality may be separable into distinct entities, but that’s only a freeze frame on the whole movie, before parts get swapped around.

    Is the platinum in my blood at the moment part of me?…only as long as it takes to get the damned stuff out, hopefully having done its dawn patrol on any lurking little alien monster cells it may find!

    I was expecting this book to make the point that this devolves to matter of mere language and definition, and it never did. Then I got depressed and threw the book into a corner of the room in disgust. Then I read Wittgenstein and he said that throwing philosophy books into a corner of the room was in fact the mark of a proper philosopher, so I felt better.

    (Jim: I did start blogging here when I thought the outcome of a Large Lump In An Unmentionable Place might mean I only had a few months to put it down, so please excuse the incoherent rushed style. After chopping the ruddy thing off four weeks ago the news came it that I was lucky, it was statistically both unusual for someone in my age group to have what I had and the prognosis was around 98% or better complete cure. The chance of a relapse needing fairly heavy chemotherapy was 20%, but one ghastly prophylatic bang of chemo had been shown to reduce that chance to 2%. A shot to nothing, I thought – till they shoved in in.

    Think bad acid trip with no redeeming features. Although the Nurses were very pretty. Anyway its levelled off now and I more or less have my ontological set on the same planet.

    Anyway that accounts for the rush (sic!))

    Return From Interrupt:

    I think that what strikes me, looking at philosophy from the outside, is the lack of interdisciplinary knowledge that seems to hamper its development.

    So much of it seems so obvious, if you have sets of tools from other disciplines, in the same way that when I and my top engineer were badgering our brains as to how many tables we needed in a database to present all possible e-mail routing scenarios (don’t ask..everyone needs to earn a crust somehow..), and had it down to three tables of two columns, but couldn’t prove we would never need more, when BrightSpark 1st in Maths from Cambridge wanders up “3×2 matrix innit. You are right” “Provably right?” “can’t be anything else. Has to be what you have”.

    In the same way I as an engineerish sort of scientastic thing with a lot of pragmatic businessish stuff and a penchant for thinking, can look at the Problem of Identity and see that in practical terms in the real world identity itself is only and never can be more than approximately true.

    I am not half the man I used to be..well in my case..even 4 weeks ago..literally!;-)

    I can’t be the same, yet something persists in the eye of the beholder. I remember being a different me 50 years is the ‘real me’?

    Silly question. Is a bit for bit copy of a DVD the same DVD? the same Film? I it loses a chunk of bits due to cosmic rays splatting the disk, is it the same film?

    Rubbish questions! we know exactly what it is, we just have to describe it in MORE DETAIL. My car has a serial number. That makes it more specific than the generic year model and colour and spec.. does..

    I need to record more information to move from the general to the specific, and even more information to record the exact state of the specific, and, in the limit, to snapshot the universe exactly and model it Truthfully (including me) takes a universe sized memory chip. (*or bigger)

    This is the way Vlakto Vidral approaches his view on Knowledge – as information theory, but it arrives in the same place, you can’t model the universe using less than a universe sized computer. Ergo all models are limited in accuracy, scope and applicability.

    Even if we have the algorithms down to a few bytes (natural law descriptions)we haven’t solved the problem of prediction, because Turing’s in-computability, and the starting condition (sensitivity) problem when we integrate what are nice differential equations,we end up with massive uncertainty that a result can be computed at all in finite time, or at the least such uncertainty in prediction due to the sensitivity to starting conditions, that its not even worth trying!

    We have the ‘right answer’ but IT DOESN’T HELP. Viz the butterfly effect.

    And cf ‘The Belling of the Cat (Aesop) for another example of a correct but useless solution.

    Douglas Adams’ answer to ‘life the universe and everything’ was “42” 😉

    What I think is that philosophy needs the other disciplines BADLY and the other disciplines need philosophy BADLY too.

    I haven’t worked my way to the later philosophers yet bar a bit of Popper and Wittgenstein, but it seems to me they have gotten stuck on a narrow rut: logic and definition. My friend who IS a philosopher specialises in the Greeks..’there is no philosophy since Kant really’ he bemoans.’And nobody understands him anyway’

    Morality and ethics seems to be a complete joke – make it up as you go along and as long as its politically correct you get a first..

    Metaphysics is apparently incomprehensible to everyone..and yet its desperately needed by the quantum boys and probably that Dawkins bloke, who seems to have gone off down a blind alley for lack of it. Tut Tut. 2-2 for you Richard. “That which lies beyond science cannot be grasped by science” paraphrasing an old Taoist saying..

    In short the whole thing is a right buggers muddle as we say here (I don’t know WHY buggers should be more muddled. IMHO they are usually fastidiously neat, but that’s the saying) and everyone is taking this bit of knowledge, of limited and contingent truth, announcing to the world that misapplied entirely beyond its ‘sphere of validity’ they now have access to Universal Truth. And a neat set of Policy Initiatives backed up with a well crafted emotional narrative that shows they are entirely completely right, always have been and therefore have the duty to re-form your intellect and limit your choices to the exact dictates of that morality, logical ontology and political hue that makes them right.

    Out of sheer spite I would write ‘Why Hitler was correct’ just to shake up the mixing bowl – if Norman Spinrad hadn’t done a far more hilarious satire (banned by many people who didn’t actually get the joke) in his ‘The Iron Dream’ (recommended Christmas reading if you have a healthy sense of black humour, but don’t read if you think that laughing at dear old Adolf is inappropriate and an attitude of serious dismay is the only one to take)

    Everywhere I see a problem I see this problem. Wrong tools for the job. You want to run a university without losing money? Learn business. You want to make a huge profit? Don’t go into education.

    It really IS that simple!

    Want to restore health to the Western economy? Stop spending more than you make.

    Want a sustainable future? Stop having so many babies.

    Want growth? forget sustainabilty in the medium term. Nothing grows but by absorbing and destroying something else to get bigger. The Cornucopians are complete dwalls. ‘Unlimited resources’ is applicable only (approximately) to the base of the graph, and we ain’t there any more. Malthus isn’t wrong, we just kicked the can a lot further down a blind alley than anyone thought we could, that’s all.

    So many of the Great Arguments of today are arguments only because people are totally unable to span disciplines, identify if not what is true, but what is FALSE and demonstrably so.

    It’s worse, they lack even the tools to distinguish true from false even INSIDE an ontology!!! Philosophy has failed them and passed them by!

    “Ah you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
    With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
    You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
    You’re very well read, it’s well known
    But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
    do you, Mr. Jones?”

    I could replace ‘Mr Jones’ with just about EVERY current political social and economics ‘world leader’ and feel I did them no disservice. Bib Dylan wrote the ‘Times they are a changin’ what? 42 years ago?

    They are changing again and we need a new toolbox and the design job falls on the philosophers head I am afraid.

    Leaving it up to men whose main claim to fame has been to prove to us beyond all reasonable doubt that ‘Daz washes Whiter than White’, I am afraid Not Good Enough. Unless you are a Klan Man I suppose.

    Or adhering to a social moral and political philosophy that has instead of the bright happy well regulated society it promised lead to endemic corruption social and industrial decay and in the end national and international bankruptcy..I will leave you to fit those words into the political party you most hate and believe me, any will fit it..which doesn’t mean YOUR party is right, it means the whole way of looking at society and politics is probably WRONG in that it doesn’t actually function to guide and inform our decisions to achieve the results that we actually mostly agree we want.

    I means when someone in all seriousness as a desperate last resort says that ‘the fact that 42% of all people polled believe in AGW so therefore its True’..

    Well what percentage of Amerika Really Believes In God?

    Its the ‘Bandar Log’ ontology – “we all say it so it must be true”.

    We had a great discussion of false argument earlier..well worth refining that into a textbook! Circularity, reflexivity, impracticality (cat belling) incomputability, definition my populuar vote (Bandar Log)

    I am surprised these post modern relativists don’t say ‘if we all believe in fairies very hard, one will appear, wave a magic wand, and take us all to the Ball which has an infinite number of Prince Charmings and cinderellas all ready to live happily ever after, as long as we absolutely believe that is really what is happening to us, and we aren’t lying stoned in an alley have our wallets surgically removed’

    OTOH whilst the proponents of a remarkably similar political philosophy constructed of fairy tales did more or less say that and we all DID more or less believe it, the problem is now, that it HAS been disproved..we DID all wake up in the gutter with our pockets picked. Which is a bally old problem for the proponents..never mind “ONE MORE ROUND OF FAITH BASED POLITICS….IF WE ALL BELIEVE IN QE/KEYNES/MARX/MARKET FORCES/DEMOCRACY/CAPITALISM..VERY HARD”…I might get elected long enough to stash a decent sum in on offshore bank account.

    I think the last time anyone actually BELIEVED a politician was Winston Churchill when he said ‘I can only promise blood, sweat and more tears’. With a few thousand tons of high explosive coming down on their heads every night, this was politically astute.

    It didn’t last long tho. As soon as the bombs stopped, back to the dream again..

    Philosophy failed us again. It is too cheap because there IS something wrong with it.

    Come on guys. Crawl out of those ivory towers, the world needs you…and if you have to sully your hands with a bit of business, you can wash the residue away with a bit of ‘soph’ and ‘wittgenstein’ later.

  45. If truth is only what is epistemically accessible to us, then one thing’s for sure — the Heraclitean ‘truth’ that Leo’s talking about ain’t it!

    To make any objective identity claim about a thing must involve the commitment to a belief in the persistence of the thing across time. If ‘picoseconds’ are our idea of a basic metric, one picosecond will never do.

  46. RE Jim Houston 16th Dec
    Re the extinct dinosaur I understand your point, which is why I added the proviso “remains prove to be present day”
    I am not sure I have completely understood Leo. I think he is a bit like say, Kant or Heidegger some good stuff there if one can understand it. So I made a reply in accordance with my own understanding, which could be wide if the mark. Yes one can have a set of coherent unassailable beliefs, but as I have pointed out beliefs can be true of false. So far as False beliefs go I can envisage a deductive argument having a true conclusion based on a false premiss but when it comes to inductive beliefs which are the essence of scientific method I think the situation is rather different. You say “you can put oneself in a position where no evidence could ever could falsify what you say”. If you mean here something akin to Popper’s attack on Pseudoscience then I agree. So far as I remember, without checking, he said of Political belief, and Astrological belief, that it is impossible to demolish the arguments therein, This for the simple reason that when faced with contradicting instances the proponents of the arguments merely shifted their ground such that the contradiction either vanished or was by some means encompassed and made harmless. We surely see such activity in those who have what they claim to be religious beliefs, which I prefer to call Faith.
    You say “Think of truths within ‘universes of discourse’ – truths about Sherlock Holmes – I think, perhaps, Leo thinks all we have are universes of discourse like that. There is no correspondence, there is only coherence. And perhaps utility in models.”
    I have often rambled on about Universes of Discourse here which is a bit of a hobby horse of mine. So I understand exactly what you are saying here about Leo’s philosophy and sympathise with it. Unfortunately I have a tendency when I do not understand something to blame it on the writer’s style, rather than my own dim wits and or ignorance.
    Returning to The Non-overlapping Magisteria I do realise that there problems with all that it stands for. Dawkins does not even grant that Religion has a magisterium. How ever for me the basic idea that there are two entirely different schools of thought that have no overlap or points in common does seem to go some way to explaining the irreconcilability which exists between beliefs based on religion and those based of scientific method. Out of this it is apparent that for a person like myself whose basic philosophy is highly influenced by science there is absolutely no point in pursuing an enquiry with someone whose basic philosophy resides in another magisterium. This does not mean I am spurning certain people I am always willing to listen and discuss.
    What is important is I think the possibility that Religious fundamentalism, Creationism, Intelligent Design, could prove harmful to the human race and for that reason alone some sort of contact should be maintained with those sympathetic to such ideas.

  47. Benjamin. I didn’t really understand the terms you used..

    But does it help if I say that the identity of a thing is in your mind, and is never an accurate description of a phenomenon?

    Isn’t that all the Platonic Ideal stuff..’ideal table in your mind, imperfect table on the grass’

    I.e the Greeks were the first to distinguish clearly – and write it down the difference between a phenomena as a direct experience, and as it was talked about, thought about and stored as a memory.

    It seems to me that MOST of the problems of metaphysics boil down to (still!) failing to make this extremely clear and simple distinction!

    Coming from engineering its much easier to understand that when we – say – take a video of a scene, its
    (a) only part of the information which is available as visible light
    (b) only taken from a single viewpoint
    (c) is only resolvable at a single frame level into as many pixels as the camera is capable of sending.
    (d) its then further compressed often in reference it its neighbouring frames which carry near identical content. In a way that is most suited to ‘what people think they see’ and further information is lost.
    (e) the reconstruction over time is done by mental interpolation into discrete samples. Events COULD happen BETWEEN frames and be totally lost.
    (f) by the time we get to refer to it its ‘that you tube video with a cat falling off a swing’ which is JUST enough information for people with reasonable overlaps in their experience to uniquely identify it.
    (g) Asked to REMEMBER it most people would say ‘oh there’s this ginger cat doing stuff on as swing, and then it falls off’ which is, from the original gigabyte experience of the actual man holding the camera reduced to about a ..and do you notice what appeared to be a fly of genus blah blah crawling across the wall? No. No one does. The point is the cat falling off – that in the end is ‘all the video is about’

    It is never clear when people talk about metaphysics whether they refer to the things or thing in itself, or the representation of it held mentally, or indeed if they even realise the distinction!

    And yet the best metaphysicians..well to me Plato, Kant and Schopenhuer are the ones I know a little about.. are all making this fundamental point, it runs through the whole thread of idealism and ends up in a new form with Kant and Schopenhauer, who marry the ideals of Plato with the reality of Realism – the thing in itself – which arouses the representation.

    So whilst there is correlation between a ‘table experience’ and a real world objective SOURCE of that experience – the reality of the real world object is never denied, as pure idealism does – the actual PERCEPTION is not held to be that real world object, but an IMAGE of it.

    That way of thinking is as a metaphysical proposition. Realism is a metaphysical proposition too, but the Great Mistake is to attempt to study metaphysics from a hard realists perspective. It cant be done. Its nonsense, because metaphysics is beyond that realm, it is the ground on which that realm is drawn. Hence Kant and the idea of transcending the reasonable to glimpse if not the actual thing in itself. but at least the understanding that its there, and isn’t what you necessarily perceive,.

    This idea is easily expressed as a sort of fuzzy set of various things and if there was the ability to upload a diagram, I could draw it..there is real world space, but we never know it directly: Nothing can be said about it beyond the fact of its existence. Its Schopenauers thing in itself.
    There is the world of phenomenal experience which, whilst it relates to the real word is not of the real world, nor is it useful to say it shares the same space, in the same way that the hardware and software on a computer are best regarded as separate for the purposes of easy analysis, noting that in the final analysis they are all part of one thing.

    Inside of experience space, we have perception space, where raw data is organised into entities and phenomena in time matter space using causality as the relationship,and the qualitative and quantitative relations of which are defined by implicit mathematical law.

    Inside that space we have idea space, where we abstrarct and manipulate the elements of the implicit mathematical laws using idealised generalisations to represent the multiple special cases, and the final endpoint of this particular progression is reason itself. Pure logic and so on.

    Metaphysics defines the boundary between experience and perception.

    Transcendental metaphysics is the understanding that the boundary exists and that in some way we create a metaphysical ontology on order that there BE a boundary where experience can be mapped to phenomena.

    If you use that model and accept it as a possible proposition for a hyperphysics view, things get very simple: Bits of philosophy and science go in different parts,, and its clear to see that the rules that work in one part are irrelevant in another part where the entities those rules describe the behaviour of simply do not exist.

    I.e. science cant touch God, because the rules of science apply to elements within a realistic world view and God ain’t in there. God is not a phenomenon in the ‘real world’ . The God concept is part of an alternative metaphysic.

    And you need to go transcendental metaphysics to put the two side by side as see which one you prefer, and why.

    Now that is of course no barrier to refuting the ideas of the simpler folk who see god as actually IN the real world or who believe in literal real angels and demons that are tangible visible and subject to having their DNA samples taken..

    But that is no challenge at all: the real religious mystics are LOTS more interesting to an atheist, because in the end, they are just alternative attempts to describe the same things science does, using alternative ontologies, and both fail to reach the targets. Indeed the targets we mostly agree cant be reached, in some Xeno like way, but we can always get closer…but the price may be loss of the safe cosy world of conventional Faith AND the safe, cosy, if meaningless world of conventional Rational Materialism.

    Science and theology then converge and you get a weird picture of a world which is somewhat dependent for its reality on the person observing it.

    Its called quantum physics, except they haven’t realised it yet 😉

    THAT is the way to solve the problems of metaphysics, by understanding it as creativity not analysis. Analysis of real things is in the perceptual side of the boundary. Analysis of ideas is a freakish exercise.

    BUT there is a connection between all the things we find outside the metaphysical boundary with all the ideas in our toolboxes..well we put them there after we had used them to create a perceptual world, after all.

    There are truths inside the boundary of perception and there is TRUTH one assumes outside it, but its never directly accessible. The transform of The One True Thing into the facts of the phenomenal world IS the metaphysical transformation of ‘the thing in itself to ‘the world as representation’

    BUT we can get a better an closer approximation if we don’t deny the alternative metaphysics, but use them to define new truths..what exists in BOTH metaphysics is probably reliable, what is contradicted, bears more study..

    They are different viewpoints on the same universe after all. I just feel we should not be so partisan and defensive about them.

  48. Hi Leo, I’m pretty sure I understand you. The views you advocate are pretty familiar. From what I can tell, you endorse at least the following two theses:

    1. You’re clearly an anti-realist that is of the constructionist sort.
    2. But you also deny that, strictly speaking, there is any persistence to identity — consistent with your comments above, you would deny that we ever step into the same river twice. That’s why I compared your view to that of Heralitus.

    I think that thesis (1) is partially correct, but exaggerated. On the one hand: yes, Platonism is obviously wrong; as is strong realism, in the Archimedean sense. But the thing is, we don’t need to be Platonists or Archimedeans to be realists. Since these two doctrines are characteristically immodest in the claims they make, we can fix them by reminding ourselves of our fallibility as knowers.

    These Strong Realists seem to be immodest in the following sense: they seem to claim that it is possible for us to know things accurately, precisely, and completely. So let’s be modest by saying that our theories are never accurate, precise, and complete all at once. And here’s the punchline: even when we admit such immodesty, I think it is plausible for us to say that our (appropriately justified) claims are always an accurate description of the phenomenon. For instance, it seems plausible to say that Newtonian mechanics was more or less accurate, even though revisions show us that it was imprecise and incomplete. And the italicized claim I made two sentences ago appears to be contrary to the claim you made above.

    (Caveat: it depends on what you mean by ‘accurate’. In my vernacular, ‘accuracy’ just means, the belief is satisfiable, in the sense that it bears some responsibility to fit the world instead of just our desires (what’s sometimes called the mind-to-world direction of fit). If you mean something else by the term, we may simply have a verbal disagreement.)

    I believe that (2) makes no sense of the things we encounter and the kinds of people we are. We are pattern-recognizers, meaning we can see objects and properties persisting through time. Strictly speaking, something about us demands that, for a thing to exist, it must stay the same across time. It has to be possible for us to step in the same river twice, or else it was never a river at all.

  49. Thanks Ben: Heraclitus? yes seems to be in the same general area.. by noting the same discrepancy between the idealised identity and the actual reality..’the same river’ is a pointer to an experience that is generically similar, but never the same twice.

    I can’t see anyone arguing that anything else would be true..except meta-physicists of incredible lack of perception.

    Jumping straight to the punchline you say:

    “And here’s the punchline: even when we admit such immodesty, I think it is plausible for us to say that our (appropriately justified) claims are always an accurate description of the phenomenon. ”

    Now that may be so. BUT you miss my WHOLE point (as what you call a constructionist idealist), is that the phenomenal world – the ontology of Realism itself -is that construction.

    The descriptions may be accurate with respect to that construction, but the whole construction itself may not be accurate to the thing-in-itself in any way whatsoever.

    So we have three levels of abstraction/construction, or, as I prefer to think, transformational mapping into representation – here.

    The first level is the move from the thing in itself to an individual outlook on a phenomenal material world. That is a subconscious (usually) utterly intuitive process that few people glimpse and even fewer can control or affect.

    Implicit and embedded in that construction is all the science and all the mathematics and all the set theory that we will ever ‘discover’.

    Science and abstract thought are the process of both discovering the implicit rules in that structure and then using discrimination to sort experience into generalised sets or categories, and then name the categories so language may be used to refer to them. This is the development of a further symbolic level of abstraction, not living in the here and now, but an attempt to live in the maybe and will be and even the might have been.

    This is the abstraction of a ‘story’ or a myth..A recounting of experience – even experience that hasn’t happened (yet?) in terms of symbolic reference to abstract categories that evoke a sense of – well not being there, but conceiving that you might have been. In a sense a story is a false memory, it looks and feels like a memory, but the experience came from talk or reading, not from ‘reality’.

    Back to accuracy.

    This whole process is riddled with approximations. And utterly unjustifiable transforms.

    Even at a full blown Realist level the idealised entities of science do not exist in the real world. We don’t have point sources straight lines constant gravity fields etc. etc. One stone falling down a lift shaft in vacuo is never quite the same as another. Many effects overlap and its only when, in Realist terms, one effect (or maybe two) dominate completely that we can accurately calculate behaviour in advance, and indeed engineering is all about selecting those extremely RARE cases where things CAN be calculated simply, and using that to build reliable machines.

    I make this point to show really that as you admit, and we agree, science is with respect to the real world, necessarily approximate, and although it may be a good approximation, it’s not just approximate because the laws it derives are only approximate – as we now believe Newton to be – it’s approximate because it deals with the idealised case, where entities do persist through time, not the real world where everything is happening all at one and it’s all flux and a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a child to choke to death in Bangkok.

    So that is the crux of the ‘entities that persist through time’ debate: in idealised worlds of theory construction entities do persist through time – they are held to do that to make the maths even possible!

    The Big Arrogance is to confuse these idealised theory (I NEARLY typed Faerie) worlds with the world of experience as if they were exact one to one analogues of one another.

    But they aren’t. You can’t construct a theory in Realism that *makes* the world conform to its predictions.You need Magick for that, and Realism wrote that out of the script..

    (I accept that social scientists and politicians and the media still believe that they can however, as well as plenty of the deeply religious, of all persuasions).

    Anyway by understanding this disjunct, between ‘pattern and theory space’ -the world of story and language- and the experience of a phenomenal world, the problem of identity vanishes. All is in the mind bar the raw experience, and if that is generically more or less approximately persistent it is USEFUL (but not TRUE) to treat entities in the real world AS IF they were moderately persistent. It’s a useful idealised APPROXIMATION, not a FACT.

    (I think- diverging somewhat, that people who like STRONG realism or STRONG religion do so out of an inner need for certainty that cannot be derived otherwise, Faith is the tool they use to lock the door in the theory space room.)

    The final thing I want to postulate – and its all postulating really: (when I say a thing IS so, I wish it to be understood as shorthand for ‘consider the idea that this is so, and temporarily adopt a mind set that allows it to be so, in order to glimpse the world the way I do and see if its a more useful box of tools than the ones you already have’) – is that the phenomenal world itself is a theory, and lives in a deeper and richer but still sort of theory space.

    That is the essence of what I think we both mean as ‘constructivist idealism’

    The thing that marks this theory space out from the more familiar theory space are I think two things.

    1/. The process of constructing the phenomenal reality theory is subconscious and subliminal and largely unaffected by what we consciously think or do. It is more, or less, out of our control. If its totally out of our control and we have locked the door with strong realisms key, then nothing I say will be even comprehensible at all.

    2/. If we are blindly groping for intuitive patterns in the phenomenal world, we are totally lost when it comes to patterns in the ‘thing in itself’ All we can do is act somehow according to some principle – any principle – and note that a more or less orderly phenomenal world emerges according to the general principles we have adopted. (At least the experience of the shaman or mystic is along those lines).

    For most people the result is all they ever see, the actual ordering happened without conscious knowledge, as they acquired it through growing up in a social milieu, where the shape of things and the order of things is predefined by the social norms of the day.

    I say this to emphasise that if we look at the world as made this way, its very useful and explains many more things than Strong Realism does. Things about the mind, and behaviour, and human error.

    Because the only way to test a transcendental metaphysical theory – the one we use to construct the phenomena space – is by seeing if its useful and successful.

    (You will note that strong realism cannot have however, the concepts of useful and successful except in relation to some predefined goal.And that’s its big problem: It sets no goals, it as no morality, it merely says that ‘this is the case’ and allows the whole field of purpose, intention and value judgement to be taken over by what amount to little more than charlatans (or as we call them Political and moral philosophers and economists and media executives).
    This is not good, and we are reaping the reward of the in-utility of their ontologies to achieve what was in fact the stated intention for having faith in them in the first place: The greatest good of the greatest number now becomes mass poverty recession starvation and misery. Well done chaps!).

    So I conclude personally that – on its own terms at least – the whole liberal/social/humanist experiment of testing the whole ontology of social and political science has in fact failed. Not because its precepts haven’t been followed, but because its precepts are basically flawed in some way. Its created a disjunct between its theory space and its phenomenal space and we are left howling ‘it wasn’t supposed to happen this way’

    That is we have made it the norm or people to believe in things – for their own good- that have turned out not to have been for their own good after all.

    Strong realism doesn’t help here. It can’t help set those norms, although Dawkins is having a good crack at smashing some of them.

    An example of a better social principle for example might be ‘the greatest good OR the greatest number: Your choice’.

    But I digress: the main two points I wanted to make is that the persistence of entities is held to be true in theory space as a shorthand way of decsribing approximate continuity of experience, but that real entities themselves only exist in phenomenal space, which I hold to be a theory space of a different kind, and not the real world as the ‘thing in itself’, whatever is the case’.

    By adopting this transcendental view of the metaphysics, there is no conflict between the views, they hold true in different spaces for different reasons.

    It is my conviction that we get into muddy waters because we move seamlessly between phenomenal space and theory space without ever noticing that we have or actually realising that different rules apply depending where we are at the time.

  50. Don: I didn’t really read you post earlier, because I was a bit spaced out as I explained.

    On re -reading it I think you have hit the nail right on the head with much better language than I used

    “I think, Leo is talking in the realms of coherence and relativism. Correspondence to facts is not where he is at I think. For him, I think, there is no Absolute Truth – only that which is true within the ‘model’. Think of truths within ‘universes of discourse’ – truths about Sherlock Holmes – I think, perhaps, Leo thinks all we have are universes of discourse like that. There is no correspondence, there is only coherence. And perhaps utility in models.”

    That is extremely accurate. I really like the idea of a ‘universe of discourse’

    But its not strictly true to say I don’t think there is an Ultimate Truth, I only think its at two steps removed from where we are in terms of rational knowledge.

    I think that is the rock on which Pure Idealism can’t explain why we cant think this world away and simply substitute a better one. Whether that’s because we are basically Sinners, or whether there is an order beyond our comprehension, is a moot point: if we can’t control it, it might as well be regarded as external to us, whether or not it actually is.

    So I do hold that there is some sort of Ultimate Truth, at least at the level I operate at these days..there is some organisation that stops us magicking any world that strikes our fancy into existence and living in it.

    BUT it is certainly not accessible directly by Reason. Because of the two steps between it and theory space – where Reason rules, there is no hope of getting to it directly that way.

    Step one is to create that universe, and step two is that universe of discourse. Theory space.

    There is room for considerable error due to progressive simplification and just plain wrong choices in BOTH steps.

    But only when the universe exists as a real objective thing (step 1) do facts emerge and can theory be tested against them in a proper structured way.

    Ergo the whole fact/counter-factual argument resides there.

    In the construction OF the universe of phenomena, we can’t even test that against the truth directly at all. We simply find ourselves here, firstly in a world of raw chaotic experience that gradually as we grow crystallizes into the more or less stable world we know.

    My contention is that the crystallization is a social conditioning, not ultimately real, and the way it is organized is nothing more than the sum total of all the ways of regarding things that have been found – if not to promote life liberty and the pursuit of happiness – at least to maintain the experience long enough to start the next generation..

    It is said that the Northern languages have 40 different words for snow: They need them. Its relevant to their survival. And there must one assumes be different ‘entities’ in their world views corresponding to each of these.

    WE just call it snow (or in the UK, whenever 1/4 inch of it brings the country to a halt ‘the WRONG sort of snow’).

    What I am saying is that there is an Ultimate Truth behind snow, all sorts of it. But what we map into snow, in one of its many forms, may in fact bear no resemblance to snow as we perceive it. In fact going in the other direction, neither does a pressure front drawn on a map with air temperatures and humidity indices..but a good meteorologist can stick a finger on it and say ‘Here there be Snow’ ..

    Ergo I find is useful at this point in time to consider that there is an Ultimate Truth, but its not facts as we know them, Jim. Its more like a compelling pressure for things first to be, and also to be in a certain sort of way…

    That is the underlying truth of the universe that we are aware of, that it seems to be that it is based on a compulsion to exist, and to exist in only one way according to set of rules that are encapsulated and a implicit in its ‘construction’, for want of a better word. This is Schopenehaurs ‘Will’ as near as I can fathom.

    That that then is transformed into a representation of an objective reality is part of the Rule and Compulsion, and I assert that we are the agencies of that transformation, simply because my experience leads me to the conclusion that we can modify it somewhat, but not entirely.

    Facts and truths then emerge out of that transformation but they are not directly connected to the Ultimate, they are one or two steps removed, respectively.

    The anthropic nature of the universe is explained simply in that its built by us, as it were. We adapt to the Greater Will, but our own Lesser Wills shape it to be somewhere they can survive…

    If that sounds horrendously like a God theory, I am sorry. I don’t choose to believe in the Christian god, but my experience compels me to accept there is that which is beyond my experience and beyond my power to affect, and though I don’t build icons to it or in anyway do anything more than acknowledge that Natural Law at some level always exists, its still there..

  51. Leo, yeah, Heraclitus, not Heralitus. Sorry; spelling mistake.

    I suspect most people would agree with your polemic against strong realism. But there are problems.

    The first problem is that you’re attributing reality to subconscious construction, and I don’t think there’s any motivation for that. If we’re going to say that reality is independent of our will (theory-space) but not 100% independent of our mind (phenomenal space), then — why not just say that it’s independent of the mind altogether? Or, more to the point, why is it important that we come down on one side of the issue at all? The fact that knowledge is partially constructed by non-conscious forces, demands that we say that there’s some agent-external force, without forcing us to say exactly what that agent-external force consists in on any particular occasion. It could be the unconscious mind, just as it could be adaptation to the material world.

    Presumably, you would counter that we can slip in and out of theory- and phenomenal- space, in a way that we couldn’t slip between theory-space and the conditioning of the material world. But actually, the history of the human sciences show that we do exactly that. Native New Guineans have adapted their agricultural practices to their terrain and weather in sophisticated ways across the generations — they possess a kind of accumulated know-how that has put Western agriculturalists to shame. But there’s nothing conscious about the way they do it; if asked, they justify their practice according to tradition, not utility. Yet the requirements of living their lives have forced them to be the kinds of people they are, doing the kinds of things they do; it is in some ways more insightful to say that their conduct has evolved or adapted than it is to say that it has been constructed. And that’s the main competition to the constructionist view: for adaptation can be explained in terms of causes alone, without any appeal to representation whatsoever.

    The second problem is that you’ve posed a false dichotomy, between approximation and facticity. It is a fact of the matter that gravity exists, even if that statement is an approximate (imprecise and incomplete) one. You’re asserting that they’re distinct, but have no grounds for doing so. You only have grounds for saying that our idealizations have a better or worse fit with the facts — and it is not clear to me that these are necessarily the same thing.

    The third problem is that you merely assume that Heraclitean view has traction, and that it’s merely obvious that we’re engaged in an artificial practice of carving nature at its joints. But I think we need to cast doubt on that. The ‘no steps in the same river twice’ dogma is the mistake that we ought to be worried about. When we suggest that a phenomenon is constantly perishing each moment and being replaced by replicas, we are making a decision about how to talk about things in the world. The difference is that only an anti-Heraclitean view is actually useful to us. The Heraclitean view is a wheel that does no work; and uselessness is not necessarily a virtue of metaphysics.

    Still, you don’t have to be a Heraclitean in order to hold an anti-realist view. You could concede that the world is broken up into bits, while still insisting that the world is of our making. Both views are broadly constrained by coherence. But then you’ve still got a lot of explaining to do.

    i) You have to explain the persistence of things across time entirely in terms of motivated inference (or entrenchment of beliefs), understood as ‘utility’. In which case, my belief that “The CN Tower is taller than an aardvark” is a product of my dopey Canadian nationalism (or whatever), and not because it’s taller than an aardvark. And — oh man, talk about immodesty!

    ii) You’d have to explain the cautionary sense of truth, understood as the feature of a sentence like: “Your arguments concerning so-and-so satisfy all our contemporary norms and standards, and I can think of nothing to say against your claim, but still, what you say might not be true’”. If you’re right, then we always get to dodge the claim by saying, “Ah, but it is true today according to today’s standards, but not true tomorrow according to new standards”. The thing is, such feints are a kind of self-protection, a kind of self-induced infallibility. That is reckless.

    iii) If you concede (i) and (ii), then it isn’t very hard to infer that our true beliefs are true in part by virtue of the regularities of the world in itself. The existence of an external, material world looks as though it plays at least a part of the best explanation of what we know about our practices of knowing.

  52. Re Benjamin Dec 17th
    You Write
    “Strictly speaking, something about us demands that, for a thing to exist, it must stay the same across time. It has to be possible for us to step in the same river twice, or else it was never a river at all.”

    I cannot think of anything which stays the same across time, if by same you mean the same in all respects, which additionally includes relationship to other objects in the World. Surely the whole of reality is a dynamic system in a constant state of flux. I suppose one could argue that the essence of something persists in space time; but then essence is surely a human construct and opinion about an object, (perhaps this is what you refer to by the expression “something about us”). This seems to me to lead to a discussion concerning vague objects and terms, which is really a whole new ball game.

  53. Surely? Surely why?

    Insofar as we understand it, there is no doubt that reality is a dynamic system. But dynamic systems theory (at least as it is used in cognitive science) takes it as a point of departure that a system has to be characterized in terms of state transitions across time. But this says nothing at all about whether or not a particular part of the state will remain constant in all relevant respects. Really, saying something to the effect that ‘reality is a dynamic system’ is just to restate my point using a more hi-tech vocabulary.

    It is a much different claim to say that reality is in a constant state of flux. And it is not a particularly motivated claim, either, since on the basis of the evidence, it seems just as appropriate to say that whatever is in a constant state of flux is unreal.

    The Heraclitean view might be correct, or might not. But it is not “surely” correct, or obviously correct, or a truism: it is a proposal, and a barely intelligible one if you ever try to put it in practice. So if at the end of the day we decide that it is the case that we nominalist types are shamelessly molesting reality when we put labels on things and make inferences about their relations, one has to come up with a story about why this is a particularly suspicious way of going about your metaphysics, as opposed to other supposedly more innocent methods of description; e.g., when we describe reality in a Heraclitean vein, holistically (i.e., in terms of the relations between relations).

    Without either of those positions, you’re stuck only saying that reality is big undifferentiated undescribable Parmenidean morass (or, what Terry Horgan calls a “blobject”). And, short of nihilism, I can’t think of a stronger offense that one could make against reality than to advocate that position. For this view effectively demands that we reject all the things we really do know in our lives, putting the bulk of the things we actually do know up on the sacrificial altar; and any metaphysic that asks you to discard everything you know for a finicky thought-experiment, if a metaphysic worth holding in suspicion. I think the burden of proof lies on those working with an ambitiously transcendental worldview who would be so ruthless towards facts.

    If that sounds as though I’m talking about consciously knowing essences, then I have given the wrong impression. Knowing the essence of a thing is to know certain facts precisely, accurately, and completely. And I do not think that, with respect to every particular known fact, we know whether or not that fact is a precise, accurate, and complete reflection of the causal order of things. Knowledge of essences requires having an external objective standpoint to look at the world in its entirety — a View from Nowhere, which we obviously don’t have. That said, I do think that a great many of our best justified claims are also claims that are true, and that their truth owes partly to their accuracy in fitting an external world. I think we arrive at this view through inference to the best explanation. We are crafty apes who are in the business of making a coherent world-picture, but not quite imaginative or disciplined enough to generate a universe on our own. You have to infer that some of that coherence comes from harmony with the material world.

  54. Re:-Benjamin Nelson 17th Dec
    Yes I agree; “Surely” was not a good word. Perhaps I should have said something like “I suggest”
    I did not consider the dynamic system I envisaged as related to cognitive science. I was concerned with what might lie outside of of the human mind or any other mind for that matter. Nature as we can never know it, is likely to be is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly. The descriptions we give of the World are purely such that are, in essence, highly driven by the human basic instinct to survive and to understand the information our senses deliver. The result is a Human viewpoint, a construct of the world which suits us. Due to the limitations of our abilities we never get to see the entire process of reality. We get snapshots, human snapshots that is. On the one hand there is Matter in space and time on the other hand there is Mind which perceives and reasons and then foists on to philosophy its results as concrete facts. This has been described as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, something akin to the fallacy of Composition.
    You say:- “But this says nothing at all about whether or not a particular part of the state will remain constant in all relevant respects.” In the dynamic system I envisage no part thereof can remain constant, or stationery if that is what you mean. The whole system is entirely interrelated movements or changes anywhere affect all parts all the time.
    Now whether all this is right or wrong I do not know; but for what it is worth, it is currently my position.
    So if you and I were in Egypt and decided to swim in the river Nile I expect we would agree on the temperature of the water the cleanliness of it and any number of other characteristics of the river and its location. Now if we visit it another time particularly, if we swim at the same spot, you would rightfully think I was insane if I claimed it was not the same river. For all practical purposes it is the same river we would not be able to get through life if similar disagreements were occurring all the time. However if you press me on the point as to whether it really is the same river than I will feel justified in saying it is not, It may be similar or the same in some respects e.g. the name is unchanged and so on. Further to this In Plato’s Cratylus Socrates stated “Heracleitus is supposed to say that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the stream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same water twice.” I think in modern parlance we might say that one never encounters exactly the same set of circumstances, or state of affairs twice.
    The word Same has always bothered me. Does it mean identical, mostly the same, the same for day to day use. Philosophers rarely define it before using it.
    Whilst I have suggested we may be victims of the fallacy of Composition, even if we are we are, as humans we are doing pretty well, not long before we tread on Mars. But we cannot get our heads around concepts like Quantum Theory or Relativity outside of the mathematical expressions thereof, and the problem of consciousness still stands unresolved, unless you claim as some do, there is no problem.

  55. “The first problem is that you’re attributing reality to subconscious construction, and I don’t think there’s any motivation for that.”

    Well I have a motivation to do that, and for good reasons: it can be affected consciously. I agree that all other things being equal, whether you say ‘external’ or ‘subconscious beyond my control’ they are indistinguishable. The point is that if it’s not beyond our control, where is it?

    “Presumably, you would counter that we can slip in and out of theory- and phenomenal- space, in a way that we couldn’t slip between theory-space and the conditioning of the material world. But actually, the history of the human sciences show that we do exactly that. Native New Guineans have adapted their agricultural practices to their terrain and weather in sophisticated ways across the generations — they possess a kind of accumulated know-how that has put Western agriculturalists to shame. But there’s nothing conscious about the way they do it; if asked, they justify their practice according to tradition, not utility. Yet the requirements of living their lives have forced them to be the kinds of people they are, doing the kinds of things they do; it is in some ways more insightful to say that their conduct has evolved or adapted than it is to say that it has been constructed. And that’s the main competition to the constructionist view: for adaptation can be explained in terms of causes alone, without any appeal to representation whatsoever.”

    I don’t really understand what point you are making here: The transition between phenomenal space and theory space happens as soon as we have a concept and/or a word to describe something.
    If you are claiming that Papuans don’t have a theory space cos it ain’t like yours..well….theory space is the moment you can say ‘a banana tree’ without leading someone to it and stuffing the thing in their mouth..
    It doesn’t matter how its justified either, only that its used…its irrelevant whether you don’t eat pig meat because its taboo, or because you know its full of parasites: the important thing is not to eat it.

    Taboos and cultural norms are shorthand encapsulated theories in themselves: in the sense that they are a compression of experience into categories whose description is informationally shorter than the experiences!
    Theories don’t have to be conscious..we are discriminating beings:Categorisation is how we do that and the transition from the undifferentiated to the differentiated nature of phenomenal space consists in categorization and to some extent applying value judgements. The transition to actual theory space comes with language and the ability to manipulate the abstract..and that’s where we get into a muddle, by confusing the abstract with the phenomenal. In fact this is a disease of the intellectually sophisticated: They spend so MUCH time in the abstract they forget that there is a real world out there to which it applies..or is supposed to.

    “The second problem is that you’ve posed a false dichotomy, between approximation and facticity. It is a fact of the matter that gravity exists, even if that statement is an approximate (imprecise and incomplete) one.”

    No, I make no mistake. It is not a fact that gravity exists whatsoever. It is simply a shorthand way of describing a category of common experience in the phenomenal world. Again your strong realism shines through! To you its as a Thing, a Fact, to me it is only a DESCRIPTION…a bit of mathematics that will tell me roughly where my cannon ball will land..encapsulating it as a ‘fact’ is just societal convention, like a taboo…now you hold that there is an entity gravity and that it is exact, – I deny that, there is only a quantitative description that more or less allows prediction of ballistics etc. We cant say ultimately whether its inability to be exact to ten decimal places is down to inaccuracies in the theory, the measurements or something else. true. But we can distinguish between them at a normal trivial level. This is however, a red herring.

    “You’re asserting that they’re distinct, but have no grounds for doing so. You only have grounds for saying that our idealizations have a better or worse fit with the facts — and it is not clear to me that these are necessarily the same thing.”

    I think that boils down to what I see as your confusion between theory and fact. Obviously as I said last post everything I say is a VIEW that you can adopt – temporarily or for longer, in order to glimpse a different ordering of knowledge which may or may not be more useful – in MY view, ‘facts’ are essentially phenomenal data, not generalised intuitions or inductive abstracts derived from the consideration of many cases: Ergo I take the view along with Popper that there is no scientific ‘Fact’ at all. There is only theory that hasn’t been refuted (yet). And theories are not facts.

    In fact I go further and see phenomenal facts themselves as a class of theories.

    “The third problem is that you merely assume that Heraclitean view has traction, and that it’s merely obvious that we’re engaged in an artificial practice of carving nature at its joints. But I think we need to cast doubt on that. The ‘no steps in the same river twice’ dogma is the mistake that we ought to be worried about. When we suggest that a phenomenon is constantly perishing each moment and being replaced by replicas, we are making a decision about how to talk about things in the world. The difference is that only an anti-Heraclitean view is actually useful to us. The Heraclitean view is a wheel that does no work; and uselessness is not necessarily a virtue of metaphysics.”

    I think that is to be honest, unfair. What I am saying is that the phenomenal world is what it is, and OUR VIEW OF IT aligns it along two principles: That everything changes, yet some things change much less than others over time. It is simply how we conceive of an abstraction of the phenomenal world, by noting that some parts persist in similar fashion day after day, and other parts change literally by the second.

    My point is that these considerations are in the abstraction, not in the phenomena itself. Ergo attempting to apply metaphysics to the phenomenal in this way is ..moronic in the extreme! Or sophism.

    “Still, you don’t have to be a Heraclitean in order to hold an anti-realist view. You could concede that the world is broken up into bits, while still insisting that the world is of our making. Both views are broadly constrained by coherence. But then you’ve still got a lot of explaining to do. “

    The world is broken up into bits by US.

    “i) You have to explain the persistence of things across time entirely in terms of motivated inference (or entrenchment of beliefs), understood as ‘utility’. In which case, my belief that “The CN Tower is taller than an aardvark” is a product of my dopey Canadian nationalism (or whatever), and not because it’s taller than an aardvark. And — oh man, talk about immodesty! “

    No I don’t. I said – I have always said – that how a thing appears is a function of what the thing in itself actually is in some unattainable fashion, and how that is first mapped into phenomenal space as an entity and causation set in space time, and secondly into theory space as an abstraction.

    The transformations happening in general in the ‘subconscious’ and the ‘concious’ respectively.
    Persistence is simply a quality that maps an aspect of the thing in itself into a size in time, and height is the same except its along a spatial dimension.

    I never said they didn’t reflect something beyond ourselves, because I am never a Strong Idealist. I merely note that the exact terms we express them in are truly anthropic.

    “ii) You’d have to explain the cautionary sense of truth, understood as the feature of a sentence like: “Your arguments concerning so-and-so satisfy all our contemporary norms and standards, and I can think of nothing to say against your claim, but still, what you say might not be true’”. If you’re right, then we always get to dodge the claim by saying, “Ah, but it is true today according to today’s standards, but not true tomorrow according to new standards”. The thing is, such feints are a kind of self-protection, a kind of self-induced infallibility. That is reckless.”

    No its not., Its pedantically correct. The sun may not rise tomorrow. This is exactly the field of thought that Karl Popper summarises so brilliantly, and it is what marks pseudo science and intellectual posturing from his definition of real science. He takes ‘the sun may not rise tomorrow’ as his starting point and then goes on to show that in general it always has…and that gives it a scientific validity that the arrival of porcine aviators does not. It never makes it certain, nor does it make it a fact BEFORE it happens, though.

    “iii) If you concede (i) and (ii), then it isn’t very hard to infer that our true beliefs are true in part by virtue of the regularities of the world in itself. The existence of an external, material world looks as though it plays at least a part of the best explanation of what we know about our practices of knowing.”

    Well I don’t concede anything really. Although I do concede that some beliefs are more true than others by virtue of some issues they reflect are in fact beyond our power to affect, otherwise it would all be magic!

    It is not, ergo there is more to this than just ‘what people think it is’.

    My beef has been always that one is asked – at least until Kant and Schopenhaur – to come down on the side of ether strong idealism or strong realism.

    If I have contributed anything original at all, I would say it is to point out that neither position is pragmatically optimal – both are flawed, but that they can be resolved by combining the two, and what results is a transcendental metaphysical picture I am trying to convey.

    So don’t set me up as the straw man of strong idealism, because that’s not where I choose to stand.
    Everything we know may well be all in the mind, but that doesn’t mean that everything is all in the mind. Oh no. In fact that’s the whole hinge point of the proposition. We cant know it (rationally) because its NOT in the mind!

    You may say that the proposition is somewhat along these lines:

    The subconscious mind organises teh thing in itself into a coherent representation in which things like entiesr, causality, time space persistence and change can be said to exists, along with ‘facts’..

    The conscious mind abstracts these and forms a new simplified idealised view, in which these vague notions seem to become concrete facts and eternal truth and entities. That’s a mistake.

    The conscious theories and so on that we abstract may reflect an order beyond our comprehension. Or they may equally reflect how we chose to subconsciously order things, or a combination of both.

    This is a huge advantage, because it give space to anthropic elements and subjectivity: A space that realism intrinsically denies except at one infinitesimally small point called ‘the detached observer’

    But no one has explained where this point is 😉

    My point being is at the middle of theory space. BUT what it sees is largely the less detached and rather involved human being.

  56. Don, I’d say you’ve hit it on the head. “Sameness” is the big issue: what does it mean for something to be “the same” as another?

    I reject any trivial answers, like “A is A”. Such statements are subjective, merely formal. What we want to know is, what does it mean for one thing to be ‘the same’ as another, in some objective sense? The answer, whatever it is, has to be restricted in one way, and permissive in another. The restriction is that objective identity can’t be merely relative to context, or else it would just be features of a language-game, and hence not objective at all. The permission is that objectivity need not imply value-neutrality — hence, it need not imply taking on a view from nowhere.

    When people think about identity, it is natural to first think about the principle of identity of indiscernables. Two things are the same just in case they both share all the same features. And this sounds just like the Heraclitean view: the river Nile is always self-discernable, so you never step in it twice.

    That sounds like a natural doctrine, but a lot of us don’t actually believe it. Consider the sense-reference distinction. There are plenty of times when two things will only have trivial differences between them: e.g., “Samuel Clemens” and “Mark Twain”. They denote the same guy. And while it is true that we might have beliefs about one that we don’t have about the other (e.g., we might coherently believe that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, while not believing that Samuel Clemens wrote that book), the difference between these two predicates really hasn’t got anything to do with anything independent of our naming practices. And, more importantly, our naming practices don’t seem to interact with any facts of the matter that concern the dead guy.

    Still, Heraclitus’s view might be preserved by slight modification. Two things are, perhaps, only the same just in case they both share all the same properties. When you and I go dipping in the river Nile on two separate occasions, we might observe that the river has a great many different properties: temperature, etc. Then, according to that criterion, we did not step into the same river twice. I might not like that doctrine, but it is surely intelligible. Sometimes the river is hotter than other times. If we like, I admit, we could reform our naming practices to fit: there’s the Hot Nile, which is sometimes replaced by the Cool Nile. I agree that it would not be a useful change, but it would be understandable.

    But how far can we go with that? Picture the river Nile at one picosecond (t^1); now picture it at the next (t^2). Suppose that no change can be discerned, apart from two things: a) the realization that two picoseconds have elapsed, and b) the invisible movement of particles that you cannot detect, interacting in ways we cannot entirely fathom. I put my foot down and say that you can’t have any sense of objective identity without (a); the entire point of discussing the objective identity of a thing is to talk about what persists across time. If we disagree on that, it’s a fundamental disagreement. And I think (b) could defeat my point, if microphysical particles were either causally or pragmatically relevant to the business of what’s going on in the river. By hypothesis, there is no pragmatic difference. And causally, to my knowledge, there are no physical transitions that are consistent with the laws of physics that could occur to make the river change as a corporate body within that amount of time. After all, a picosecond is not even enough time for a water molecule to rotate one measly radian. Even if the sun exploded, it would take more than a picosecond for the change to take effect.

    So what is it, apart from dogmatic prior assurance, that compels us to continue to say that the river Nile is always differing from itself in some discernable way? If nothing, then the Heraclitean view is wrong. You have to be able to step into the same river twice, or else it ain’t a river.

    Leo, I’m glad to hear you’re not a pure idealist, that there is an external world. I got that wrong. But then, you’ve pegged me wrong, too — I am a kind of constructionist or nominalist, so (contrary to your claims) I am not a strong realist.

    Putting aside merely verbal disputes, it seems pretty clear that we disagree about how to talk about the truth of statements as being accurate depictions of facts. When I proposed that the dichotomy between approximation and facticity was false, you replied as follows:

    “It is not a fact that gravity exists whatsoever. It is simply a shorthand way of describing a category of common experience in the phenomenal world. Again your strong realism shines through! To you its as a Thing, a Fact, to me it is only a DESCRIPTION…a bit of mathematics that will tell me roughly where my cannon ball will land..encapsulating it as a ‘fact’ is just societal convention, like a taboo…”

    That’s an admirably clear statement of the kind of strong constructionism that I reject. Two reasons are worth putting special emphasis on. First, to restate my initial point, I reject it because I suspect you have made a false inference from the existence of merely approximately true statements, to the conclusion that those statements are strictly false (in the sense that they are not statements whose truth owes to satisfaction by the facts of what is real). I think that, in principle, these are separate issues.

    Second, this lesson is difficult to apply in practice. You don’t know that any given fact (the fact that gravity exists, for instance) is merely conventional. What you know is that it is a claim, and that this claim is connected to certain regularities which we encounter in our experience. If you believe there is an external world, then while there is a sense in which it is appropriate or permissible to think of ‘gravity’ as a model or theory-laden description, there is also a sense in which it may be possible that you’ve got it right — a possibility that is grounded in our shared belief that there is an external world to talk about.

    Put the two proposals together, and here’s the conclusion you come up with. On its own, you don’t know that some regularity is just a societal convention. I think it is altogether more warranted for us to say that gravity is an adaptive construction.

    The difference between our views comes out most sharply when you talk about Popper. “I take the view along with Popper that there is no scientific ‘Fact’ at all. There is only theory that hasn’t been refuted (yet). And theories are not facts.” Here’s what I concede: it is true that none of our best scientific descriptions are simultaneously accurate, precise, and complete. So if being a fact means being a uniquely specifiable fact set against a background of complete information about all of existence, then I agree with you; we’ve got nothing like that. But that concession should not entail any endorsement of your point of view concerning facts. We only need to suppose that there is a relation between the description of a regularity and the regularities of the world, and that the former might be dependent on the latter. It doesn’t matter whether or not our description of the regularity is precise or approximate; it only matters that it fits the world we experience, on the assumption that the world we experience is substantially tied to the world as it is. Then, it is just as (in)appropriate for us to say that the fact is a fact about the world, as it is to say that it’s the sort of claim we really want to hold on to as a society, or that we really want to hold on to unconsciously. There are no grounds for having a definite opinion.

    The upshot is that we ought to be modest skeptics about the specific. And skepticism is not constructionism.

  57. Re Benjamin:-
    It seems to me that the concept of Identity could be human construct which turns out to be fictional. A thing is only identical with itself; if I remember correctly Wittgenstein said that was to say nothing at all. The concept may have some value in mathematics because we no not permit things to be otherwise e.g. 2=2. Max Black tried to argue that two two separate spheres could be identical in all respects whilst they floated as the only occupants in empty space. Surely they have one circumstance which is not common to both in that they obviously do not occupy the same space. Some time since I read Black’s paper but I think I have it correct and I can’t be bothered to look it out just now.
    Your example concerning the pico-second camera is interesting. Suppose we allowed it to run for exactly one second during which time it focusses on a part of the River Nile which includes the banks, some boats etc. We end up with 10000000000 exposures. We now look at these (assuming we have all the time in the world) from the beginning and find for long stretches nothing seems to have happened Gradually however it dawns on us that minute almost undetectable changes can be seen and these are cumulative such that there is an easily identifiable change between the first and last picture. If a comparison is made between the first and last picture it will be apparent there are detectable differences be they very small. For instance a bird flying overhead will have moved very slightly and the surface of the water will have changed it texture very slightly in so far as peaks and troughs and ripples are concerned. Thus the first picture is not the same as the last and by the same token I am encouraged to argue that the river scene in itself is similarly not the same from one second to the next. I do not think the can be any argument that they are not identical. Again as you have pointed out we come up against what exactly Humans mean when they use the word SAME. As we deal here in lapses of time the magnitude of which is in the same order of that applying to sub atomic particles I am led to wonder if Space- Time is itself Quantised. So far as I know, and I am no expert, this question is still unresolved.
    You are probably familiar with the Philosophy Of Four Dimensionalism, which defends the thesis that the material world is composed of temporal as well as spatial parts. This does give a novel account of persistence over time. However again there are problems, the theory is not fire-proo

  58. Interesting stuff Don.
    Of course I would say that time is as quantized as we want it to be..being something that is ‘all in yer mind’ to start with.

    I find it fascinating to understand how certain qualities are necessary to form a world picture.

    We need persistence in time for stability

    We need non persistence in time for time to have meaning..if nothing changes, it’s always the same time!

    We need laws to get some coherence but we need randomness to create a variety of different patterns.

    We need smooth analogue variables to come to grips with scale and dimension, but we need gritty entity sized chumnks to divde and differentiate.

    It’s all …very …curious..

    ..a further intersting note is struck when you try and tackle the pure maths of the quantum not about quantity, its about QUALITY of functions,…finding mathematics to express a folded surface in 6 dimensions or whatever.

    That of course is what the occult NUMEROLOGISTS were engaged in, assigning QUALITIES to number.

    0=non existence
    4=time etc.. etc..

    (I never went into it deeply, but it was fun to tinker: I saw what they can find a lot of it tangled up in horseshit in the modern Kaballah interpretations, and I am guessing that its of middele eastern origin and forms the basis for the Arabic mathematics that really changed the world later)

    I’ve often pondered ‘how would things be if such and such a quality were not in the world? and one finds that (unsurprisingly), for the world to be to us what it is, we would have had to invent the quality!

    In that sense, for me, arriving at the Realists mental view is the supreme accomplishment of the mediaeval mind: the science is – ahem – merely a matter of picking apart the view from that particular summit.:-)

  59. Don, I think it’s fine to argue that identity is partly a matter of the decisions that the observer makes. There’s no doubt that there’s some degree to which my assertion that “the Nile is the same at time t^1 and t^2” is my decision. (Assuming there are some discernable differences between the two times, and that the differences are both causally and pragmatically relevant. A flying seagull appears to be neither pragmatically nor causally relevant, in the same way that a slight fluctuation in water molecules is not relevant. But the change in waves might be causally relevant, even if it is not pragmatically relevant.) So that seems to rule out the question of whether or not the Nile is real — the Nile being the full-blooded conception of that river, with a fine-grained picture with definite boundaries.

    Interestingly, there’s a sense in which not even Heraclitus believed in what Heraclitus had to say. Part of us wants to say that the river is always different, and part of us that wants to say that nothing can differ with itself. These polarizing intuitions are given expression most clearly in his Fragments when he waxes Parmenidean (Frag. 118): “Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one.” It’s not just the River that’s the same; everything’s the same, all the time.

    Once Heraclitus is done refuting the Heracliteans, one has to ask how we might reconcile these radically different doctrines. He gives some hints: there are true contradictions, and that these true contradictions are just the same as non-contradictions. Frag. 110.: “Into the same rivers we step and do not step. We exist and we do not exist”; Frag. 112.: “Joints are at once a unitary whole and not a unitary whole. To be in agreement is to differ, the concord-ant is the discord-ant. From many things comes oneness, and out of oneness come the many things.” But that’s completely unhelpful, so we should try to do better.

    Though I admit that the Nile is not precisely the same at both moments, I do not believe that differences in precision are relevant to the issue of whether or not it is accurate to say that it is the same river. We want to know if the Nile is an accurate portrayal of some regularity in the material world. It is a separate question as to whether it is precisely the same regularity that we expect, in the sense of being entirely unchanged. When we ask whether or not our portrayal of the world is accurate or inaccurate, we are not asking whether or not it mirrors or corresponds to the material world that is out there. We’re asking whether or not it targets a real structure of some kind that would exist regardless of our conception of it. For example, the regularity that Newton was talking about, and which he called “gravity”, is still out there, regardless of whether or not he had all the same ideas that we did.

    This might be a good way of putting it. There are two senses of “sameness”: precision-sameness (where two things are deemed identical just in case they are indiscernable in their properties), and accuracy-sameness (when two things are deemed identical just in case they target mind-independent patterns). Newton’s claims about gravity are not precisely the same as Einstein’s claims about gravity, but it is accurate to say that they were making claims about the same thing.

  60. The thing is, qualitative identity and numerical identity are deeply intertwined in this discussion. The entire question of diachronic identity arises because we need some substantial qualitative guidance of how to count things in our ontology.

    I think a roughly adequate way of encapsulating Don’s inquiry is by asking, “When does a thing become countable as an individual?” That’s the site of the debate. The caricature of a Heraclitean would say, “it is countable at each new moment”. The Parmenidean would say, “there is only one thing — the universe”. To say that the river is countable, while qualitatively changing, is to beg the question against Heraclitus in caricature. To say that the river is infinitely countable is to beg the question in Heraclitus’s favor.

    The practice of counting is vindicated or condemned depending on the standards we use for discerning sufficient differences. Tacitly, much of the issue involves the conviction that we’ve failed to come up with an objective qualitative standard that will let us go about the business of counting — in other words, there’s no clear way of scoring a “win” in favor of either Parmenides or the caricature of Heraclitus.

    I think that is an unfortunate conclusion, since both of those doctrines are completely wrong. And not because there is no definitive standard, but because there are too many of them. i.e., there is the standard of precision, and that of accuracy, and of completeness. These are qualitative standards that let us go about the business of counting objects in a non-arbitrary way.

  61. Hi Jim, I brought up and criticized the caricature of Heraclitus because it was a position that Leo and Don were arguing for. My other references to the pre-Socratics were for two purposes. First, to show that not even Heraclitus completely believed in the view that Leo was defending. Second, to show that there’s a polar opposite view (that advocated by Parmenides) which has just as much pre-theoretic traction. Like you, I think they’re both in error — they make no sense of the things we know.

    (Incidentally, your reading of what I meant by “‘the river is infinitely countable’ is fine. The phrase ‘the river’ only functions to denote a fictional ensemble, a syndrome.)

    Although I might be advocating what you call a ‘process view’, it depends on what you mean. The first thing that I think of when I think ‘process’ is ‘dialectics’, and I don’t know if I find that useful to ontology. Also, I don’t think what I’m saying is essentially in opposition to the ontology of substances, and I don’t think that what I’m arguing for is “foundational” in any useful sense of that word. But I tend to think of objective identity in terms of ‘patterns’ or ‘regularities’ across time, and this certainly could fit the description of a “structured sequence of successive stages or phases”. And I don’t have a lot of patience for arguments that are motivated by would-be attorneys advocating on behalf of countable particulars, since that just begs the question.

    Contrary to your claims, I don’t think that stipulation solves the puzzle of how to go about doing our ontology. It is certainly a candidate for the solution to a puzzle in applied ontology, of “how we might count particular things precisely?” But it is a red herring when it comes to the puzzle, which is genuine ontology: “does our method of counting have an accurate or objective fit with the world?”

    Contrary to Leo, I argue that the answer to the question is “yes”. I think that the social conventions that are involved in naming practices are only partially relevant to questions in ontology proper. Platitudinously, I think the world is independent of my mind. More controversially, I think an ontology could be mostly socially constructed and slightly materialistic, or mostly materialistic and slightly constructed, but the only way of knowing for sure in any particular case would be to consult information I don’t have any access to.

    That said, I can certainly hazard some guesses on the matter when it comes to particular cases. e.g., it seems appropriate to say that Newton’s conception of gravity accurately and objectively refers to the same thing as Einstein’s, but is not as precise as Einstein’s. But there is no obvious or self-evident way of justifying my opinion, since our experiences and inferences — the things we care about as a culture, and the structures we infer exist in the real world — are deeply intertwined. One might just as reasonably venture the opinion that Newton was referring to something different from Einstein. These are two different ontologies, and if we’re supposed to choose between them arbitrarily, then philosophers should refuse to choose one or the other, except for conversational expediency.

  62. “Newton’s conception of gravity accurately and objectively refers to the same thing as Einstein’s, but is not as precise as Einstein’s.”

    Well no, it doesn’t. Einstein’s gravity is a radically different concept altogether.

    The confusion stems from the feeling that we all have – that gravity actually ‘exists’ ins the same sense that a rock ‘exists’.

    As I said its EASIER and resolves things much more simply if we say that ‘Gravity’==> ‘behaviour of rock’ ==> physical entity in space time==> aspect of something beyond experience.

    Perhaps I was unusually fortunate in having a top class Cambridge Phd physics teacher who took us as a class through the processes and experiments that form our ‘scientific world view’ explaining why people came to the conclusions they did, but never ever in my recollection, ever assigning either objective truth or the word ‘fact’ to any of the entities so hypothecated.

    Perhaps this is a class philosophers should take.

  63. You’ve missed the point. The concepts are obviously different. However, that need not dissuade us from believing that the referent — in this case, a real-world regularity — is different. You are permitted to believe that they are referring to different things, if you want, but your belief is not the only justifiable option.

  64. well you’ve missed my point, which is there is no real world referent in the way you conceive it. There are simply two different descriptions of the same behaviour. Which are indistinguishable in their predictive power outside the cosmic scale or very high energy regimes.

    Your insistence is that gravity is an atemporal thing in itself, or that it refers to some thing in itself as a 1:1 correlation.

    That the idealised universe exists somewhere in terms of Pure Form..My point is that it does so only in your mind. The real world is whatever it is, and all we do is map it with varying degrees of success.

    There is no justification for projecting our maps onto to it and declaring ‘yes, that IS what it IS’

    I concede that’s a fine point, but I think it makes all the difference in the world.

    Its akin to saying a computer is ALMOST EXACTLY like what appears on the screen.

    When we know its utterly and completely different in its physical nature.

  65. Right. So you claim:

    Your insistence is that gravity is an atemporal thing in itself, or that it refers to some thing in itself as a 1:1 correlation… That the idealised universe exists somewhere in terms of Pure Form… My point is that it does so only in your mind. The real world is whatever it is, and all we do is map it with varying degrees of success.

    I can’t tell which, but your view surely involves either: a) a denial that there is a distinction between accuracy and precision, or b) an assertion that we can only know our models are more or less precise, but never on that basis infer anything about whether or not the models explain things accurately. By contrast, I think there is a principled distinction, and that we can know things accurately without having a precise model of it. Copernicus didn’t have a precise model of the solar system, while Ptolemy did; but Copernicus’s model was accurate, while Ptolemy’s was not.

    You do raise one area where I may not have been very clear, re: 1:1 correlations. It depends on what you mean. I certainly do think that there are 1:1 correlations, in the sense that I think that when we talk about E=MC^2, it targets some regularity in the world. (And, goodness..! If your Cambridge physics prof believes in what he does for a living, so does he!) It doesn’t matter whether the E has all the rich connotations of the word “energy”, or that M has all the rich connotations with “mass”; we are permitted to be agnostic about substance. The point is that the regularities are a function of one another in the stated way. (I highly recommend you click that link, as you’ll see that the view has attracted a great deal of sympathy in recent times.)

    But if you mean “1:1 correspondence” — I do not mean to suggest that there is any 1:1 correspondence between our concepts and the world. I think a 1:1 correspondence view would effectively entail both the precision, completeness, and accuracy of a scientific theory. Since we cannot have precision, accuracy, and completeness all at once, we cannot have a 1:1 correspondence view. The regularities are patterns, and hence do not have necessary and sufficient conditions; they are perhaps better characterized in terms of INUS conditions. To make things worse, the most recent cognitive science suggests that our concepts (apart from so-called basic concepts, involving medium-sized useful objects) do not have necessary and sufficient conditions, at least not in the way that philosophers since Plato have assumed they do. So all things considered, it’s pretty remarkable that we get along as well in the world as we do. That should not interfere with the point that we do, in fact, get along with the world.

    Just as an aside — not only do I understand your point, but also, it’s pretty hard not to understand your point. The view you’re advocating has been a commonplace since the 70’s. It’s taught in every intro to philosophy of science class (and some 100 level critical thinking courses): Kuhn, Feyerabend, etc. So while I might think that your doctrine is in error, you’re in the company of luminaries, many of them highly scientifically literate and interesting. And I think we learned a lot from them, even though in my view they were in many important respects quite off base.

  66. Why does all this – and the links – remind me of a committed Christian saying ‘yes, well of COURSE God isn’t a man in a white beard, BUT HE IS STILL THERE’.?

    Strong realism, is it seems, for people who can’t handle Reality.

    Sorry, the arguments are simply indefensible: There is a reason why people who have thought a lot about this end up at some kind of instrumentalist flavour whilst those who stand askance from science, or who feel threatened by the uncertainty of such an approach, defend realism.

    Even the existence of an objective world in itself is not factually proven: It is again another proposition that we adopt to bring us to the point where we have such to analyse.

    That Order exists for us, we cannot deny, but, so to speak, we have no right to claim that the order of the Order that we conjecture, is in any way the order of the Order, that IS.

    Any more than we have the right – say – on listening to a piece of music on a CD by, to take out the plastic, kiss it and say ‘I kissed Vanessa Mae’.

    We can’t even be sure these days that is not all some cunning algorithm in a Japanese computer.

    Sometimes it seems to me that all dogma is the direct response to an inability to deal with uncertainty. Faith replaces reason where reason fails to give certainty.

    The dogmatic denial of the Realists as they beat the same retreat the Theists beat before them, is symptomatic ultimately of the same reason for the same defeat.

    – you can’t know that your dogma is true
    – it’s not necessary for the purposes of science, to assume it *is* true.

    What this means really in social terms is that whilst its relatively OK for the shorthand notions of ‘God’ and ‘Gravity’ to get bandied about as if they were fact and treated as fact by the great unwashed – including many scientists – it ill becomes the bleeding edge investigator into the truth, or conjecturer of new theories, to believe it.

    It is frustrating when trying to touch other minds, to find them simply encapsulated in the cotton wool of somebody else’s arguments, as if discovering arguments and sophistry were the sole and only business of a philosopher, and actually thinking about the subject matter at all, or coming up with a deeply researched opinion from one’s own experience, was not infinitely inferior to a web link to someone else’s.

    All structural realism is saying is – like intelligent design – ‘wow, the stuff that appears to work seems to me to indicate a reasonable explanation is entity X in a noumenal sort of way, so let’s assume we are 99.99% correct here and stop looking’.

    If physicists had done that with Newton, and with the atomic theory of chemistry, we wouldn’t be looking at Schrödinger’s Cheshire cat grinning at us through a quantum soup of strange bosons, and quarks popping like rice crispies in a bowl of probability phase space milk.

    And that is the problem: You seem to assume that I am trying to dislodge what you conceive to be a near certainty and replace it with another proposed near certainty: I am not, the proposition is to emphasise the inherent *uncertainty* of of our propositions, as a way to liberate the conceptual mind from the fetters of the Realists dogma, in order to come up with better ones. Not because they are more true in any absolute sense, but because they more accurately reflect our actual experience, whether it be standing in the checkout queue or peering into a screen at the Large Hadron Collider.

    It’s the same blank wall one comes up with when talking to those of the Faith: They cannot conceive that the wares one peddles are not simply an alternative Faith, they point out correctly that science depends on an assumption of certain realities ‘a priori’ too. Ergo science is ‘just another Faith’

    And the shocking thing is, when it comes to Realism of whatever flavour, I think they claim that, with every justification.

    The evidence is all around you: that the sharp clean clear cut world of accurate divisibility into entity classes connected by perfect causal links, is not in fact how the world works. Its fuzzy, its weighted, its never that clear cut…and it seems its stochastic as well at a deep level.

    That clarity and perfection is an idealised, and maybe an ideal, mental state, and worth pursuing, but it is not the Truth when it is arrived at, merely the ability to form a single point of view – in an infinity of other points of view – with utter clarity.

    In other words, critical thinking and the formation of logically consistent points of view or whatever complex philosophical term you like to use – is not the end of the search: it is in fact merely the first and necessary precondition for a much deeper game, which is seeing what precepts – when then analysed with precision and critical logic – give us the most accurate and useful representation of the Cosmos and ourselves: We can then proceed to test these, and if found reliable utilise them, but they remain at best, only something we intuit as a best fit algorithm to the data we experience: they can never be held to BE the data, or what if anything lies behind it. No Veritas Aeterna here. Move along now.

    It is not pragmatically possible either, to discern between an inaccurate theory and inaccurate measurement of data, either. The distinction is again, intellectual only.

    It is only the insistence on the actual existence of a noumenal world of Form as a real tangible entity, rather than as an abstract mapping of something else, that needs to make such a distinction.

    In the real world its good enough for jazz, as we used to say in the music business. We can play with the tuning..its not the most crucial part of the exercise in playing music. One can spend too much time tuning the piano (and to what pitch, and in what key? “even tempered” is only a global approximation)..and not enough making music…

  67. Okay, but I’m not a strong realist. I admit of fundamental uncertainty, which I characterize in the following sense: we do not (and perhaps cannot ever) have scientific theories that are precise, accurate, and complete. And, returning to the heart of the matter, all of your remarks are characterizable by the curious view that a claim of accuracy necessarily entails precision. I deny that.

    If you deny structural realism, which is a painfully austere doctrine, then it’s not clear to me why you have any basis for thinking that there is any mind-independent world at all.

  68. The INUS conditions are interesting and enlightening. A multiplicity of causes for an effect. So far so good. However the so called effect is nothing more than another cause and so ad Infinitum. Reality, and what I mean by that is what there is outside of my body and consciousness, is defined I think, only as a best guess; a dynamic system of which I, again guessing, am a part.
    I am suggesting that the concepts of cause and effect are no more than a human construct. These are in the nature of mental tools for humans in their endeavour to understand Nature, which is in actuality a continuum with no gaps therein. Thus to speak of cause and effect is to single out two events from what is in fact a continuous series. Such concepts as these do not really belong to the World as it is or should I say as I guess it is? These concepts appear to hold in the World that we say we know, because the mind has put them there to facilitate knowing it and making explanations concerning it.
    I am undecided about Structural realism. Scientific Realism does seem to be a somewhat naïve starter. Instrumentalism for me seems a more fruitful path towards some understanding of what is happening. An example here is that if the LHC detects what we have already called the Higgs boson nobody is actually going to be able to see or touch, hear or smell, anything. The only evidence will be found in the reactions of instruments whose behaviour will be unique, never before observed. This being the case an assumption will be made that something exists outside of the instruments but that can not be a part of the explanation which can only centre around the readings from the instrument. The mysteries of Quantum Theory is another good candidate in this connection.
    So what is out there I do not know; but I am pretty sure that all Human experiences, for instance Heat, Light, Sound etc are not. Does that give us some idea?
    Our belief that there is a mind independent world Is surely confirmed, or at least supported, by the geological record, which indicates what we call Matter, existed long before minds evolved. 🙄

  69. Benjamin S Nelson

    Quite a lot depends on the method you want to apply in doing your metaphysics. A key question is, do you want to explain the large majority of things we know, or do you want to put our beliefs in some deeper perspective by applying a method of (seemingly) unrestricted abstraction?

    I doubt that there is any such deeper perspective. I think that, as a starting point, we have to obey Heraclitus’s sometime advice — to aquaint ourselves with a great many particulars, and see what holds for them. If we do that, then we find that the concepts of cause and effect are essential to explanation. So it’s unlikely that a successful ontology can go forward without them — at least, not so long as we are the people we are, encountering the world as we do.

    That doesn’t mean that the way we represent things is somehow a mirror of the way things in themselves are; surely not. But, intuiting this legitimate point, the constructivist uses this point to make a larger, bolder claim: they say that it is just a massive coincidence that we have these concepts and use them repeatedly and effectively. I think that’s the worst possible explanation of the things we know, and seems almost as if people have gotten lost in the process of using abstraction just for its own sake.

    I don’t think the issue of the continuous and the discrete makes any strong difference to ontology, at least not in the way you’re using it. That is, even if the issue were irresolvable, I don’t that would speak in favor of abstracting cause and effect away from our ontology. It only means that our theories may be fraught with imprecision top to bottom.

    But that’s not to suggest that the constructivist doesn’t have any other ways of defending their position. Neitzsche was the most radical skeptic of cause and effect that I know of, since he (in Beyond Good and Evil) went so far as to deny that the notions of cause in effect had any explanatory value whatsoever. That’s certainly one way to solve the puzzle.

    (I like instrumentalism well enough, and admit that I find something distasteful about structural realism. If structural realism is correct, then it will turn out that Henri Poincare is the true discoverer of Einstein’s famous equation E=MC^2, since Poincare produced an isomophism of that formula in 1900 (five years prior to Einstein). But I think my distaste for that conclusion is epistemic, not ontological.)

    I think that structural realism is (if anything) more austere than instrumentalism. Instrumentalism likes to be prudent about ontology, and modest about the claims about truth. Unfortunately, instrumentalism still involves beliefs about the world (else it would be useless in interacting with the world). It’s just that it keeps all its beliefs tacit, an unwritten law that dares not to speak up, for fear of igniting pointless ontological debates. I sympathize, but only a little.

  70. Re Benjamin 24th Dec:I see little to oppose in what you say. Thanks for the reference to Nietzsche and Cause and effect. I was not aware of that. I will look it up. 😯

  71. My pleasure! Section 21 of BG&E, first chapter (“On the prejudices of philosophers”). “One should use ’cause’ and ‘effect’ only as pure concepts, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and communication — not for explanation.”

  72. Thanks Jim I did miss it; intended to look it up and had forgotten.
    Happy new year

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