The riddle of non-existence
The self-assured have no doubts about what exists and what does not exist. Maybe a good place to start looking at this issue is with a list of what does not exist, say, Pegasus and Santa Claus or, more generally, fictional and mythical characters. To this we can add the dead, the past, and the future. Also imaginary things like possible worlds, and maybe numbers.
Remembering Plato’s idea of the Forms as timeless and eternal non-physical objects, Philosophers have referred to all these abstract things as ‘Plato’s beard of non-existence’ because the list of invisible and causally inert abstract objects seems to get longer and longer the more you think about it. Remember, there are some spooky objects in physics too – forces, fields and speculative objects we have never really seen.
The riddle is that the sentence ‘X does not exist’ is that its very statement attributes existence, in some sense, to X.
The hard-nosed minimalist philosophical approach (Russell, Quine) simply denies such entities using clarifying logic like Ǝ (x) (There exists, an x) which manages to eliminate problematic things. Trouble is this can cast out of our world many things that we find extremely useful – in a practical sense we cannot, as it were, expel them from our discourse.
One way around this is to adopt a more easy-going understanding (Meinong) that of ‘x is a non-existent thing’ – which gives us more flexibility to use non-existent things in logic. (Suki Finn 27:00)
‘There are’, and ‘there exist’ maybe applied in different ways – ‘there are three detectives in the novel by Sherlock Holmes’.
Word, object etc
Will metaphysics ever tell us about the nature of reality?
You could be forgiven for concluding that we have no more insight into the nature of reality today than was bequeathed to us by the great philosophers of the classical era and 18th century Enlightenment. But this is to ignore one crucial advantage that we have over all those thinkers and that is Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Since the Enlightenment we have learned that we are more intimately entwined with the fabric of the universe than any of these sages could have imagined. We know, as they did not, that we are made of stardust. More significantly we know that as the living world emerged out of this stardust it did so in harmony with its surroundings. Those living organisms that were not in tune with the universe did not persist. Life is different but not separate from non-life. The living and non-living are continuous – there is an organism-environment continuum.
What this means is that our biology must, literally, embody the very character of the universe, of ‘reality’. Our bodies, thought, and language must have within them the ingredients of our existence in this universe.
But how do we access something so seemingly abstract?
Rather than gazing into the world of ideas we can investigate commonalities that underlie our bodies, thought, and language. Those features that have been engraved into our biology, which are innate, have come to us from the universe. Perhaps we can learn more about the nature of reality from our bodies than from our minds? But we are closest to our inner world, to our self-consciousness, so let’s begin here, with the genetically pre-determined nature of our consciousness and experience.
Philosophical weasel words: reality, truth.
1. How does our grounding of perception and cognition in units of perception and cognition – our construction or interpretation of wholes and parts, relate to the scientific image?
2. What is the ontological relationship between the various scales or perspectives that we recognize: are one or some more basic or fundamental than others?
3. There is a question about causation. When we describe physical systems with different scales, levels, scopes, or complexities using different language we also recognize different objects as being causally connected to one-another. Is causality operating at all scales simultaneously? Is there just one ‘scale’ at which causality operates? Are there difficulties with the notion of causality itself. Is it possible to improve on the hierarchical mataphor of causality operating ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’.
Principle – the appeal of small objects over large ones lies in their apparent explanatory power (epistemology) not their matter (ontology)
We can now combine the derived principles to express a preliminary view on reductionism that takes into account the constraints of our perception, cognition, and mode of communication. This will inform more specific discussion of more specific features of reduction in subsequent articles.
Science attempts to represent (reflect, copy, map, grasp, mirror – choose your metaphor) or explain as best it can, the external world that lies outside our minds – but it can only do this within the limitations of the biologically evolved human mind itself assisted by the technology that has allowed as to overcome, to some extent, our natural biological capacities and limitations. Our experienced world is a world of appearances passed to us through our perception, cognition, and scientific instruments. This does not necessarily entail deception or illusion but it does require interpretation. Any study of the methods and procedures of science must begin by addressing the character of the information processing that goes on our brains, specifically the constraints placed on scientific interpretation imposed by our perception and cognition.
Cognitive science shows us that our minds unconsciously (innately) structure the world before we begin the process of conscious rational deliberation. Cognition breaks up our understanding into adaptively meaningful cognitive categories (concepts and percepts) as units of representation. To act we do not think about these categories all at once but arrange or classify them into convenient groups depending on our particular interest or concern – our current frame of reference – what we can call our cognitive focus. Our cognitive focus is mostly directed towards our perception, the physical needs of the moment, and tasks of the day. Science, however, focuses on the categories that map the physical world as accurately as possible through the theories, names, properties, definitions, laws and other categories that we use in the scientific enterprise. We use science to assess how well these categories map the external world of noumena.
Then there are the various ambiguities and confusions that can arise through the language we use to share scientific information especially in the use of metaphor, anaphor, and polysemy.
The use of hierarchical language in science today confuses communication by imposing, or at least implying, rank-value to a metaphorical structure: by characterizing reality as a series of interacting layers, some of which are higher or lower than others. It imposes both at least two ways. First, in common usage hierarchies always rank their objects of study. This has been passed on to science which currently values small and simple over large and complex (we speak of fundamental particles). This is an interesting reversal of the perception of the world inherited from antiquity in which humans, in all their complexity, were placed at the top of the ladder of physical objects. Second, hierarchies entail the metaphor of ‘levels’ of various kinds, creating the false impression and mode of explanation that treats these levels as discrete objects in the physical world when they are different expanations of the same physical phenomenon. The point is that whatever significance we give to matter in its various forms, that value is added by our minds, the significance does not lie in the matter itself. Reductionism is therefore about epistemology not ontology. Our use of particular scales of thought does not relate to any intrinsic properties in nature or ontology but to the limits of our cognition in finding cognitive focus. Complexity leads to greater difficulty in prediction.
Usually explanations are most convincing when applied within their own domain or scale but this is not always so, and as science proceeds so boundaries are crossed and this is more likely when the scales are closely related.
Hierarchy is pervasive as a mode of thought as a form of prioritisation, classification, and decision-making. Chomsky with colleagues dissected grammar into hierarchical components, hierarchies in the conveyance of meaning. But is the universe hierarchical? “Language is compositional, it is also holistic: sentences are based on the meanings of words, but the meaning of a word depends on the totality of the sentences in which they appear.” Donaldson
But making decisions without emotion we cannot be motivated to reason, that without emotion we “can’t function at all” because we are not going to know what to want. Emotion prioritises our categories?
In summary ‘levels of organization’ are not objects that exist independently in the world, they are categories of human cognitive convenience: the phenomena they refer to are equally ‘real’ (see the macro-microscope). To provide a scientific explanation of the physical world we approach the limits of our human mental capacity. It seems that we can explain matters that lie within our biological range of cognition, but scientific technology has taken us beyond this range and here we have difficulty. Put simply, we cannot explain large-scale matters in terms of small scales: we cannot explain economic inflation or a football match in terms of molecules and physicochemical processes. This is partly because we do not have the computing capacity, and partly because we do not need it to provide satisfactory answers. We must reframe hierarchical language in terms of scale and inclusiveness.
We have one world and many ways of understanding, describing, and explaining it. Some explanations are a matter of curiosity satisfaction: science claims to give causal relationship.
We can conclude with a major metaphysical assertion to ponder. Today when two players in an international tennis match have differing views on whether the ball hit the line or not, they can refer to ‘Hawkeye’ an electronic recording of the actual events. This tells us what ‘really’ happened. But the universe is not like this.
Principle of Reality – We cannot step outside ourselves to survey the world ‘as it really is’. This would be like a ‘God’s eye view’ or seeing things ‘from the point of view of the universe’. There is no such vantage point. Science can minimize our human perspective on things but it can never achieve total objectivity: for humans that is simply not possible.
If this claim has merit then any talk of reality should immediately be met with a raised eyebrow because talk of reality must entail ‘perspective’, ‘aspect’, or ‘interpretation’. For simplicity this assertion will be referred to from now on as the Principle of Reality.
Subsequent articles on reductionism will consider scientific fundamentalism, the view that ‘physics fixes all the facts’ and the properties and characteristics of the way we divide the world into wholes and parts.
There is a strong sense in which philosophy is taxonomy – the taxonomy of everything – it is the study of the principles and practices by which we categorize the world and our experience of it. It is therefore about what everything has in common, so it is concerned with the subject matter of all disciplines and how they are related … how we ‘know our way around‘, our ‘reflection on the intellectual landscape as a whole‘.
Further, we do not have direct access to the physical world ‘as it actually is’ (noumena), we can only experience it through our mental representations, our interpretations of it (phenomena).
The fact that we can only access the world through our human cognition and perception has spawned many philosophical problems. If this statement is true then perhaps either all I can know is what is in my own mind (solipsism) or what is collectively a product of the minds of humans (idealism). Science, in general, acknowledges that we do not perceive the world directly and completely (naive realism) but that our everyday world is an ‘interpretation’ of what is outside our minds. This may seem to be of little comfort but our cognition and perception are being constantly tested in their interaction with the external world.
Air and water are transparent, that is, they transmit light without appreciable scattering. Humans and other animals take advantage of this characteristic of matter since, using the faculty we call sight, they have evolved to use light as a medium for perceiving the differentiation of matter according to its various properties (qualities).
Though humans are part of the universe and continuous with it, it helps to distinguish between perceptions that are to all intents and purposes intrinsic (essential, inherent, arising from within) and those that are mostly extrinsic (arising from without), while acknowledging that this is a problematic distinction. My height is 175 cm and I possess this property independently of others, other properties, like colour, are my uniquely human take on the world. Philosopher John Locke made a distinction between ideas that resemble their causes, which he called primary qualities – texture, number, size, shape, motion – and secondary qualities, the ideas that do not resemble their causes – these being color, sound, taste, and smell. We can add space and time to the list of secondary qualities.
The two most important features of our perception, those grounding all our experience, are space and time. The scientific image presents us with the fusion concept of spacetime and although in everyday experience we recognize the individual categories space and time this has its analogues in the way they are often conceptually associated as when we spatialize time (‘It took a long time’). Similarly our perception of the temporal flux of the universe is one of abstract continuity, so our segmentation of it into meaningful units of various kinds: minutes, weeks, seasons, events, causes, and effects, are interpreted in terms of spatial change. Whatever the mysterious connection be between space and time its segmentation into discrete temporal units is clearly a division of human convenience. It would seem then that although causes, effects, and events can be circumscribed in terms of spatial change, their temporal boundaries are conveniently added by our minds.
This, for example, permits the scientific study of perception and cognition in other organisms. Though reasons exist in the world independently of humans only humans represent reasons to one-another symbolically
investigation of the external world that lies beyond the common-sense world as experienced using our biologically-given sensory apparatus (the Manifest Image), to a less anthropocentric world view (the Scientific Image) as revealed to us using abstract thought, reason, scientific instruments, and symbolic languages.
This is the genetically determined part of our cognition – innate cognitive faculties which we cannot alter by introspection, they are simply the way we humans experience the world.
This talk of innate ways of experiencing the world might seem to place us in a realm of inner subjectivity, uncertain of what there is outside our minds. This places us in a world of subjectivity, so how can we say anything at all about our innate cognitive categories? We must assume, however, from our survival as a species that natural selection has given us an effective toolbox to deal with the external world. Science, in its turn, has helped us correct many of our more ‘human’ interpretations of reality. How has it done this?